This guest article is by the Brittany Garcia, who specializes in classical studies. Please give Brittany a warm welcome and check out her blog at A Classics and Ancient History Blog.
While many characters within George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones resemble historical figures, fans often argue and dissect the parallels, differences, and even the ambiguities between the two. In a previous article I wrote, I argued that Boudicca, the Celtic warrior queen, highly resembled the Targaryen warrior queen, Daenerys. However, the similarities between Ygritte and Boudicca were brought to my attention by a History Behind Game of Thrones reader “abhinav91.” This article seeks to analyze and acknowledge the ambiguities and differences between these two female warriors.
A little background on Boudicca
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Boudicca (sometimes spelt Boudica or Boadicae), she was a Celtic queen of Iceni tribe and renowned for leading an uprising against the Romans in the 60s CE. Although Boudicca lived 150 years before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, she lived behind an equally oppressive, yet figurative wall: a “wall” the Romans enacted in her lifetime (hence this article’s title). Boudicca’s legacy survives through the works of Roman historians, such as Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others. Although these Romans write of her legacy, she is not as demonized as one would imagine. Dio and Tacitus lend the most informative opinion of Boudicca’s actions, appearance, and impact on history.
In regards to Boudicca’s appearance, historians have stated that she was “tall and terrifying in appearance [with] a great mass of red hair.” Boudicca’s possible counterpart in Game of Thrones, Ygritte, is also known for having red hair. She is described as “…short for her age, skinny but well-muscled, with a round face, small hands, a pug nose, crooked white teeth, and blue-grey eyes that are too far apart. Her most distinctive feature was her fiery red hair.” The Wildlings or Free Folk consider red hair to be lucky and very attractive. It is rare among the Free Folk, and those who have it are said “to be kissed by fire.”
In Ancient Rome, red hair was commonly attributed to those of Germanic origins. Therefore, red hair was thought to be more primitive, but it eventually became a sign of beauty, exoticness, and uniqueness. Pliny the Elder even recorded recipes for how Roman women could dye their hair red: “Dying hair red requires a mixture of animal fat and beechwood ashes.” The relation between red hair and exoticism is even seen with Melisandre. However, beyond their red hair, Boudicca and Ygritte would appear to be physically different. Boudicca was tall and terrifying; Ygritte was short and skinny.
Both women are considered warriors by their people and enemies. Boudicca is a known warrior commander who leads her people to an uprising. Her specialty weapon was the Celtic chariot, and it was even commemorated with a huge Thomas Thornycraft statue in London.
Ygritte is not a leader, but rather a loyal spearwife (the term for a female Wildling warrior) in Mance Rayder’s army. Ygritte uses a bow and arrow as her weapon, and not a chariot. That being said, I would argue that while Ygritte is not a leader in the strictest sense, she embodies the female Wilding leader (or representative one) for audiences and readers.
In regards to social status, Boudicca is a queen amongst her people whereas Ygritte is not. There is no class status for the Wildling; they do not “bend the knee.” As Mance Rayder states to Jon Snow, “Free Folk don’t follow names, or little cloth animals sewn on a tunic. They won’t dance for coins, they don’t care how you style yourself or what that chain of office means or who your grandsire was. They follow strength. They follow the man.”
Why They Fight
While their enemies viewed both women as savages or uncivilized individuals fighting against a more “civilized” or “regimented” adversary, the women’s reasons for fighting were completely different. Ygritte remarks to Jon Snow that “They’re not your lands! We’ve been here the whole time! You lot came along and just put up a big Wall and said it was yours!” Ygritte’s reasoning is entirely reminiscent of the age old dilemma — “the Natives vs. the Settlers” — an issue that time and history has seen many times between countless countries. However, Ygritte’s reasons for fighting against the Crows eventually evolve into a personal vendetta between her and Jon Snow.
Boudicca’s reasons for fighting are more complex and personal than those of Ygritte. Boudicca’s husband, King Prasutagus of the Iceni, had attempted to keep peace with the Romans when they invaded. Thereby, he chose to become their ally instead of their subordinates. Eventually, the Romans did not see an alliance as a sufficient relationship. So, King Prasutagus, wanting to avoid bloodshed, bequeathed his land to a local Roman governor in order to appease the Romans from taking his land forcefully. King Prasutagus was under the assumption that his land, wealth, and resource would be divided evenly between his wife, children, and the Roman governor upon his death. However, Prasutagus did not realize that Roman law allowed (at times) inheritance to pass only to the male heir. As a result, the Roman governor inherited everything: King Prasutagus had only two daughters. After Prasutagus died, the Romans mistreated Boudicca and her daughters, although noble, as slaves. They severely flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. The governor confiscated Boudicca’s property and land; simultaneously, Roman money lenders sought to collect Prasutagus’ debts from these battered women.
Boudicca’s reason for vengeance is the mistreatment of her family, herself, and her people. The historian Tacitus recounts one of her battle speeches, which explains Boudicca’s reasons for the uprising:
“She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. …Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.” (Tacitus The Annals Chapter 35)
Boudicca emphasizes her reasons for leading, fighting, and rebelling. Two strong positions she takes are for the revenge of she and her daughter’s abuses and the importance of “public liberty.” The actual Latin word that Tacitus uses is “libertas,” which means “the state or condition of a freeman, a being free, freedom, liberty, freedom from restraint or obligation, free will, Civil freedom, liberty, opp. to slavery.”
Therefore, the “public liberty” that Boudicca is talking about is the direct opposite of slavery. It would then lend itself to assume that Boudicca despises slavery, having been treated as one. This aspect of Boudicca reminds me more of Daenerys Targaryen’s opposition to slavery than Ygritte’s moral stand on the issue: Free Folk were known for taking slaves.
How They Fight
Ygritte and Boudicca came from a brutal people who practiced scorched earth tactics and “left no survivors.” They utilized whatever assets they possessed to win — whether it was a weapon, ambush, or strategy.
When raiding and fighting, the Free Folk (or Wildlings) saw to it that everyone (men, women, and children) was killed. If the Free Folk spared people, they took them as slaves. However, if the Free Folk’s mission was to wipeout a village, no one was spared. They usually took towns by guerilla warfare, force, and fear. The cruelty and harshness Free Folk showed to the northern towns (like Mole’s Town) includes rape, abuse, and even cannibalism. The Mole’s Town raid is depicted in the season 4 episode 8, known as “The Mountain and the Viper.” However, there is a rare moment within this episode where Ygritte spares Gilly and baby Sam.
Roman historians may have grossly exaggerated Celtic and Brittonic fighting and raiding in order to show the difference between civilized and barbarian. But, it is important to consider if there is any truth in their claims. The written accounts portray Boudicca and her battle followers as savage and brutal. Tacitus says that the Celts had no interest in taking or selling prisoners, only in slaughter by gibbet, fire, or cross. They took the heads of their captives and offered them to their goddess of victory. Dio Cassius gives a detailed description of how Boudicca’s followers tortured the Roman noble women: “their breasts were cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so that they seemed to be eating them, then their bodies were skewered lengthwise on sharp stakes.”
Battle Strategy (Wildlings Vs. Castle Black and Boudicca vs. Colchester)
Just as in Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch was oblivious to the Wildling’s alliances and underestimated their united power, so too did the Romans underestimate the Celtic tribes. Around 60 AD, Boudicca united and led several neighboring tribes, who came together their hate and resentment against the Romans. Boudicca obtained 100,000 men, women, and children for her uprising against the Roman cities.
Mance Rayder also unites many tribes and attempts to take The Wall by guerrilla warfare, force, and fire; he states he will make “the biggest fire the North has ever seen.” Mance Rayder delivers this fire and it discourages the already afraid Night’s Watch. The Wildling strategy in taking Castle Black is to throw everything they have against it. It’s not a bad strategy either because the odds are in their favor: 100,000 Wildlings, Giants, and Mammoths vs. 102 Crows.
It is this strategy that, in fact, works for Boudicca and her people but not for the Wildlings. Boudicca was capable of taking the Roman town Colchester by storm, and her people looted, ransacked and torched the city. It is said that if you dig anywhere in Colchester today there is a thick layer of red soot from the time when Boudicca set the city on fire. At the time, it must have been one of “the biggest fires the Romans had ever seen.”
While Jon Snow emphasizes that the enemy cannot win due to the fact that they are undisciplined, he doesn’t realize that not all of the Night’s Watch are trained and disciplined men. Hypothetically, some Roman soldiers might have thought like Jon Snow. If that’s the case, unfortunately for the Romans, they were wrong. Historians estimate that Boudicca and her army killed over 70,000 Romans during her rebellion.
Although Boudicca and Ygritte shared many traits, their fates are quite different. Boudicca succeeded in capturing and destroying many Roman towns; Ygritte failed and died in her first attempt to take Castle Black and the Wall. Ygritte expires in battle because she hesitated to kill Jon Snow, but Boudicca actually committed suicide to escape capture and humiliation. (However, some historians believe that Boudicca simply fell ill and died.)
There is a clear similarity between the two women. George R.R Martin often draws upon strong historic women to inspire and influence his character development. Boudicca appears to be one historic figure that is manifested within Ygritte, Daenerys, and perhaps Arya. Boudicca is an archetypal figure that represents the untamed side of a woman. She is the epitome of the wild, savage, strong, fierce, unrestrained, and independent woman. Her morals are ones that are honorable (fighting for her land, people, family, and against slavery), but are not the norm of other female morals. Although Cersei, Lady Lysa, Catelyn, Brienne, Sansa, Margaery, and other popular Game of Thrones’ characters are strong, they do not channel this same raw energy as Ygritte or even Daenerys does.
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