Veleda, the prophetic female voice

This blog is named after a word for prophetic women in some of my ancestral traditions (Celtic and Dutch). Veleda is best known as a revolutionary Bructerian priestess who prophesied and presided over a tribal European insurrection against Roman rule in the years 69-70 CE. (See below) Although Roman writers such as Tacitus reported Veleda as her personal name, it was really a title. The word has unquestioned etymological and cultural links to Gaulish, Irish, and Welsh words for seers, poets, bards, and witches.

Veleda is cognate with the Old Irish title velet or fili, “bard, poet,” the Welsh gweled, “seer,” and the Gaulish uidlua, “sorceress.” Uidlua appears in the longest known Gaulish inscription, a brictom (magical spell) written on a lead sheet found at Larzac. This entire constellation of words comes from an Old Celtic root *wid meaning “to know, see,” which in turn comes from Indo-European *weid-. [Lambert; Dennis King, Celtic Well, 11/30/98; 12/1/98] The same root gives a variety of other Indo-European words having to do with wisdom and seership, including the Russian words vyed’ma, “witch,” and vyedat’, “to see, to know,” as well as the ancient Sanskrit Vedas.

But we have to go back to Uidliua, which appears in a really interesting context. A rare Gaulish inscription on a lead plaque found in an ancient tomb at Larzac, France, refers to a sisterhood of enchantresses who are called Uidliua. The Gaulish text is still imperfectly understood, but linguist Yves Lambert summarizes it as an appeal to the goddess Adsagsona against a group of women who got a witch, Severa Tertionicna, to influence judges in a trial that the supplicant was involved in, asking the goddess to turn back the spell they cast. [Lambert, 172] The first line is interesting: “Send the charm of these women against the names below: this [is] a witch charm bewitching witches,” or in an alternate translation, “of a bewitching witch.” In Gaulish, it reads brictom uidluias uidlu[as] tigontias so.

Lambert derives uidliua, witch, from Old Celtic *uidlmâ [with macron on the a], and ulltimately from the Indo-European root *wid-, “to see, to know.” Within the Celtic realm, Lambert compares this “seeress” name to that of the legendary Irish prophetess Fedelm [167] and he’s not the only one to make this connection. In the spell, the name Uidliua appears in the phrase bnannom bricto, “women’s spell.” This word for “spell” or “charm” appears in another Gaulish inscription as brixtia anderon, “magic of the underworld.” Both forms of this word appear to be related to the name of a goddess of oaths, Bricia or Brixia, known from other inscriptions at Luxeuil. [Lambert, 154, derives these spell-names from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhregh, “to declare solemnly.”]

Another intriguing aspect of the charm appears in the next lines: “O Adsagsona, look twice at Severa Tertionicna, their witch of thread and their witch of writing.” The last nine words are really only two in the original text: lidssatim liciatim. [165] Lambert convincingly explains liciatim as derived from Latin licium, “yarn,” and much less firmly, lidssatim from littera, “writing.” He gives an example from Ovid of a spell executed by using both: writing on lead and tying enchanted yarn around it. The Gaulish charmed lead sheets copy a Greco-Roman tradition of cursing tablets, and they use Latin script. Before romanization, the Gauls had no written tradition.

The liciatim element—the yarn-witch—resonates with a broader, older Celtic (and pan-European) context: the magical valence of spinning and weaving. The Irish seeress Fedelm, after all, holds a weaver’s beam as she prophesies, and this is but one instance of Irish magic with this women’s tool. Pagan European custom is full of countless other instances of magical spinning and weaving. Not only that, but thread-boxes are found among amulets, animal teeth, crystal balls, and other magical gear in early medieval women’s burials, and bishops were constantly inveighing against women’s incantations, omen-reading, and other ritual customs “in their webs.”

Finally, there is the list of a dozen women whose bewitchment is sought in the lead sheet of Larzac, the ones responsible for casting the original spell for which this is the counter-spell: “Let the women named below, spellbound, be for him reduced to powerlessness.” Most of these women are listed as “mother of” or “daughter of” another woman. Lambert finds this use of the matronymic puzzling, since Gaulish society generally named both males and females patrilineally. [168-9]

Michel Lejeune has proposed that we are looking at a sisterhood of witches, a magical society in which “mothers” and “daughters” are not biological but cultic. There are plenty of worldwide examples of senior priestesses and initiators being addressed as “mothers.” Lambert objects, “Why would there be three sorceresses who called themselves ‘mothers’ of another sorceress?” [169] But this would be even more improbable in the case of biological motherhood! I think Lejeune is right, and this is a magical women’s sodality. The only other possibility I see is that we are looking at a pocket of matrilineage (perhaps similar to the custom in Jeanne d’Arc’s village of daughters taking their mother’s surname) in which mothers’ sisters were also addressed as mothers (classificatory kinship, in anthropological parlance).

Roman sources report “female druids” (druidae) in encounters with their colonial armies. Flavius Vopiscus relayed a story about Diocletian’s encounter with one of these women who prophesied his rise to become emperor. Other stories about emperors and druidae were recorded in the 4th century Scriptores Historiae Augustae (

Old Irish literature also speaks of these female seers. [Joyce, ch V] The fáith or ban-fáith was a prophetic woman “expert in super-natural wisdom.” [Chadwick/Dillon, 153] She was also called ban-filid, ban-filé (words that have the same root as uidliua, with the addition of the Irish word “woman”), ban-drui or ban-draoi, “druid-woman.” [Book of Leinster, in Spence, 60-1; Goodrich, 348] The epics say that the ban-drui Bodmall raised Finn MacCumhal “in the wilderness,” while another—named Milucrah, “Hag of the Waters”—used lakewater to change him into an old man. [Spence, 61]

Greek and Roman writers referred to prophetic women among the Celts and Germaniae. Julius Caesar was struck by Gaulish women’s power to determine military strategy: “it was for the matrons to decide when troops should attack and when withdraw.” Caesar also noted that “German custom required that their matrons must declare on the basis of lots and divinations whether or not it was advantageous to give battle…” [Gallic War, I: 50] Tacitus corroborated that German women acted as seers:

They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers. In Vespasian’s days we saw Veleda, long regarded as a divinity. They venerated Aurinia, and many other women…. [Germania, 8]


A pagan priestess led one of the greatest tribal European revolts against Rome. The Batavian Insurrection was a rising of tribes at the mouth of the Rhine. The Romans called them Germaniae, but historians think that they were primarily Celtic. Their popular discontent with imperial rule reached the breaking point in the year 70 CE. Tacitus wrote that the Batavians identified “the women of the Germaniae” as the driving force behind the revolt.

Veleda, a priestess of the Bructerii acted as the tribal oracle in “a lofty tower.” This unmarried woman possessed political and diplomatic authority, and guided battle strategy in conjunction with the chieftain Civilis. “As arbiters between us we will have Civilis and Veleda; under their sanction the treaty will be ratified.” [Tacitus, Historia, 4.65] They mounted the insurrection under the auspices of the tribal religion, whose animal emblems the rebels carried as battle standards. [Historia, 4.22] At a feast “at one of the sacred groves”, Civilis urged the people to resist the oppressions of the Romans, who treated the tribes as slaves and forced them into military service. The Batavians shouted their agreement, and the decision to resist was taken by acclamation. Tacitus tells us that they consecrated it “with barbarous rites and the national forms of oath.” [Historia, 4.14-17]

The Batavians prepared to battle the Roman legions, sending envoys to other tribes, urging them to join the rising: “It is by the blood of the provinces that the provinces are conquered.” All the tribes had reasons to wish for Rome’s overthrow, and some responded quickly. The Frisii and Canninefates attacked a Roman military encampment. The Tungrians soon joined them. Desertions of provincials from the Roman army enabled the insurgent tribes to destroy and capture an entire fleet of imperial ships. Tacitus wrote, “They became very famous throughout Germany as the champions of liberty.”[Historia, 4:17] More tribes came out openly against the empire, moved by Civilis’ reproach that “they falsely gave to a wretched slavery the name of peace…”

A great battle against two Roman legions followed. Women and children backed up the Gallo-German host. Tribesmen of the Ubii and Treveri deserted the Roman ranks and fled, forcing the weakened legions into retreat. Batavians and Canninefates in distant outposts of the Roman army heard of the uprising and  headed home to join the rebellion. Three thousand legionaries set upon them, aided by some Belgian cohorts. The rebels crushed the Roman force and went on to meet up with the army of Civilis.

Excitement spread with word of the rising’s success. Now the Bructerii and other tribes joined the revolt, and Gaul rebelled against taxes and conscription. The rebel army beseiged the principal Roman encampment, carrying “the images of wild beasts, brought out of the woods and sacred groves, under the various forms which each tribe is used to follow in battle.” This shamanic battle magic was practiced over much of northern Europe. The Aestii wore boar masks in honor of the Mother of the Gods, wrote Tacitus, and the protection of the Goddess was their armor. [Germania, 45]

A group of Germani defeated the Romans along the Rhine, and Civilis crushed their Ubii allies. “Meanwhile all Germania was raising the power of Civilis by vast additions of strength…” [Tacitus, 612] The tribes prevailed in other battles, aided by provincial auxiliaries to the legions who deserted en masse. The legions were in disorder; generals could not control their men, who killed some commanders over a disputed emperorship. After a long siege, the starving Roman camp was forced to surrender, and even had to swear allegiance to “the empire of Gaul.”  The Romans marched away in bedraggled retreat. People flocked to the roadsides to watch the unfamiliar spectacle of the conquerors in defeat.

Munius Lupercus, legate of one of the legions, was sent along with other gifts to Veleda, a maiden of the tribe of the Bructerii, who possessed extensive dominion, for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germani and the destruction of the legions. [Historia, 4.60]

The Batavian troops resettled at Augusta Treverorum (later Trèves/Trier). Orders were sent to Colonia Agrippina (Cologne/Köln) to kill the Romans and open up the city, destroying its fortifications. The inhabitants replied that they would open the city but they had intermarried with Romans. They appealed to Veleda and Civilis to set the terms of a treaty, and they concluded an alliance with Colonia. Meanwhile, with new tribes still joining the revolt, the insurgents controlled the country.

More legions were sent up to quell the revolt, and Rome still had allies among the Sequani, Remi and other tribes in Gaul. Then the legions retook Trèves. The army of Civilis almost defeated them, but the Romans rallied and destroyed the rebel camp. The city of Colonia invited the Romans to return and slaughtered many Germani there by getting them drunk, locking them in houses and burning them up. Battles continued: some went to the Romans, some to the tribes. One Celtic offensive almost succeeded in capturing the Roman general, who was lucky enough to be away spending the night with a woman. The Batavians towed his flagship up the river Lupia “as a present to Veleda.” [Historia 5.22]

But in the end the Romans reconquered and plundered Batavia. Only when their allies fell away and succumbed to Roman rule did the Batavians give up their resistance. They said, “The servitude of the whole world cannot be averted by a single nation.”

Legionaries take Germanic people captive, to be sold into slavery

Civilis surrendered and was taken in chains to Rome. The Historia breaks off without word of the fate of the Veleda. She may have been captured and installed at a temple in Ardea, or more likely, executed in Rome, as Statius reported. [Fraser, WQ, 72; Grimm, 356]

A German folk tale remembers Veleda as a goddess or as a “weird-elf” who protected the forests, roaming the land on the lookout for harm done to nature. [Grimm 1318; Goodrich, 350] Veleda also survives among the Dutch as a woman’s name.