Friday, October 20, 2006

Saint Ursula

Ursula is a British saint, and her feast day is October 21, though her feast was removed from the general calendar of saints in 1969.
Her extremely unhistorical legend, is that she was a Romano-British princess who, at the request of her father King Donaut of Cornwall, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan Governor of Brittany, and taking along with her 11,000 virginal handmaidens.

A miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, where Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pilgrimage to Rome. She set off with her followers, and somehow persuaded the Pope and the Bishop of Ravenna to join them. When they arrived at Cologne, it was being besieged by the Huns. All the virgins were beheaded in a dreadful massacre. The Huns' leader shot Ursula dead when she refused his hand in marriage.
Ursula and her fellow virgins were buried in Cologne where the Church of St. Ursula is dedicated to her.
While there was a long standing tradition of virgin martyrs in Cologne by the 5th century, this was limited to a small number between two and eleven according to different sources. The number 11,000 was first mentioned in the 9th century. It has been suggested that this came from reading the name "Undecimillia" or "Ximillia" as a number, or reading the abbreviation "XI. M. V." as eleven thousand virgins rather than a more realistic eleven martyred virgins. Another theory however is that the number 11,000 originated in the middle ages, when bones of questionable origin were commonly sold as relics. St. Ursula and her virgins were very popular, so according to theory, people sold so many bones of the Saint and the virgins that people invented the 11,000 virgins as an explanation for the ample supply of bones. These bones were in fact proven to be the remains of people buried in a churchyard which dates back to Roman times.

Today the story of Saint Ursula is overwhelmingly considered to be fiction, for obvious reasons. As a result of this, in 1969 Pope Paul VI suppressed her cult as part of a larger revision of the canon of saints. Interestingly enough, Ursula which means 'bear' in Latin, was also another name for Artemis, (the Great Bitch, Mother of Animals, Mother of Cats), one of whose shrines was, unsurprisingly, at Cologne. The church dedicated to Saint Ursula in Cologne has so many relics that Lord Byron was moved to comment: 'Eleven thousand maidenheads of bone, / the greatest number flesh has ever known.'

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