In May 2021, my father found a good book from the 1980s: Roeck and Marquet (1980). “Belgian sagas and legends”. Illustrations by Henri Lievens.
In the chapter “the virgins,” Dymphna came back, who has inspired me writing some short stories (e.g. A Linden Tree in Tongerlo).
This book introduced how the romantic movement exaggerated about the Christianization in the 7th-8th centuries. No, they did not tear down temples or kill sacred trees. The process took many centuries. The mental models of “ordinary people” were not so easily changed. They were Celts. The Church’s stories of holiness did not square with their worldview of witches, night goddesses, giants, talking stones.
The Peregrines realized that the saints they wanted to introduce also had to perform miracles as in the Celtic legends. So Saints here make trees bloom in winter, control the elements of nature….
And just as kings had something sacred about them, these saints often had royal blood.
GETTING TO KNOW AMELBERGA
This book introduced me also to Amelberga. Amelberga of Temse is said to have lived in the 8th century.
She was a virgin, or a maiden. Or someone who didn’t want to define herself by her relationships (working for, daughter of, friend of, mother of…). The beguines in Flanders were also such women who wanted to be more than a relationship in this patriarchal culture.
Amelberga didn’t want to marry a future king, she just wanted to do her thing (namely, pray and usher in a pious life). The king didn’t like that and abused her. Thanks to God, she healed. Then she fled across the Scheldt to Temse. With the help of a sturgeon that God had sent. There are many stories about her. Just as in Celtic stories, local saints often performed miracles that captured the imagination of “ordinary people”. For example, one day the Scheldt colored red. She came and the river spat out this big fish that would serve as a meal for the people for a long time.
vIRGIN PRIESTESSES AND WELLS
I heard about other myths connecting virgin priestesses and wells. And Amelberga fits into that series.
One such Amelberga saga is about a (dried-up) well. A motif you do often hear about are virgins or virgin priestesses linked with wells, springs and rivers. They serve the land. They are stories of “care,” and those “care stories” are going to take center stage this month.
After an avaricious farmer did not want people to use his well, Amelberga took some water from his well and conjured one on common land. Even when there was no water anywhere else, this well provided water.
Inspiration from the indus valley
And in June 2022, I got inspired by a story from the other side of the world, that had a lot of similarities. It was also about a saint, a(n extinct) fish and a (polluted) river.
It makes you wonder…
Listening to this South-Asian scholar, and having some chat with him afterwards, inspired me to write about Amelberga. I had my ecofeminist angle.
hERE IS MY REWILDED RETELLING:
Sturgeons are born upstream on the river. In places with sufficient gravel and clean, fast-flowing water. The young fish gradually sink down the river and spend longer periods in the fresh-salt transition before maturing at sea. It takes at least 10 to 12 years for them to reach spawning maturity and be ready to reproduce. Spawning sturgeons migrate back up the Scheldt during the summer months to provide offspring. Thus, from May to August the migratory movement is mainly upstream from the sea towards the river and sturgeons migrate up the river to spawn. June in particular is an important spawning month. From September to January, the migratory movement is downstream from river to sea. Young sturgeons, born on the river, migrate to the sea to feed and mature.
Now you should know that in the 8th century, a Frankish prince, Charles Martel, pissed in the young waters of the Scheldt and fiercely irritated a certain sturgeon. Current scientists say that fish can only remember something for a few months at most, but this was the 8th century, when animals still spoke. That fish cried out for revenge. The prince laughed at him and stepped away from the water. The fish left for the sea, and so lived there for ten years.
For the transition from fresh to salt water and vice versa, it is crucial for migratory fish to get used to a calm brackish water zone.
Twice a day at high tide (rising tide), seawater mixed with river water flows upstream into the rivers, and at low tide (ebbing tide) everything moves back toward the North Sea. The brackish water reaches as far as Temse. In the brackish water of this freshwater tidal area, sturgeons can acclimatize before continuing their journey towards the river or sea.
In addition to being a transit route for migratory fish such as sturgeon, the freshwater-saline transition fulfills an important role as a nursery and rearing ground for young fish. Newborn sturgeon migrate to brackish water in the spring (March). Young fish sometimes stay in the delta for up to 1 to 2 years, preferably in the fresh-salt transition before continuing their journey toward the sea or river. Precisely, a healthy brackish delta provides enough food for sturgeon and other migratory fish to grow up and become strong before heading out to sea.
Temse and its surroundings is a land of brooks, mud flats and salt marshes. The rivers Durme and Scheldt proved to be a blessing but just as often a curse. Floods were commonplace. The Church and abbeys often acted as protectors against the destructive power of the water, and were only too happy to compare the river rising from its bed to emotional women during their periods. They invested in reclamation of the land with the construction of dikes. Ironically, in a country where men tried to control everything, the people found comfort from the worship of the water saint Amelberga. She had really existed, but she was not a saint. She was just a practical woman who was a good listener and, thanks to her blue blood, also had access to education. She lived in the eighth century. She was raised by her aunt Landrada in the monastery of Munsterbilzen. One day she attracted the attention of Charles Martel, but she was only loyal to one man and that was God. Charles didn’t like that and kept insisting. Every day he visited her in the monastery, but when he had been rejected for the sixth time, he turned furiously to his own quarters and vowed that if she rejected him again, he would simply kidnap her the next day.
Now Amelberga was a woman who could listen well. But not to men, to the rest of nature. Various gossips poured in and warned her. She was a practical woman, packed the essentials and left. Charles discovered her disappearance the next day and gave chase.
So as in many local female saint stories, there was a great flight and a man who couldn’t let go.
When Charles had almost caught up with her at the banks of the Scheldt River, a large sturgeon volunteered to take her across. I don’t have to tell you which sturgeon that was.
Charles looked for a kayak or another boat to give chase, but he made the mistake. He didn’t know the place very well and didn’t know that the Scheldt in Temse was actually the realm of the sea goddess Nehanna. Nehanna was no lover of men who thought they could have it all. The tides pulled him into the North Sea, which devoured him, from tooth to nail.
Amelberga saw all this happening and converted to the Old Faith. Surely that seemed closer to her own world than a distant god in heaven. She devoted her life to the healing and destructive power of water. You could say she was a water priestess. She studied the land and fish and could discover new resources, conveniently. She restored broken river ecosystems. Fortunately, she did not live several centuries later, because then she would probably be burned as a witch. But in the eighth century, they actually respected female power and knowledge, resulting from observations and deep listening.
Over the centuries, her biographers, mostly monks, accidentally forgot that she also left God and called her work that was actually a combination of attentive observation and listening miracles. Because yes, not many people knew how to read the land and ecosystem. The land and the river were deteriorating. As of the 1950s, there were no sturgeons in the Scheldt, because of pollution, overfishing and too many men pissing in the river.
Fortunately, there were many women, and their sons, who began to listen closely to the river again. They protested, did research and found evidence about the negative impact of pollution, whispered in policy makers’ ears, sometimes in a bed, other times in a lobby room.
And the river? The Scheldt became clean again and the sturgeon found their way back to Temse.
- Roeck and Marquet (1980). “Belgian sagas and legends”. Illustrations by Henri Lievens.