Recall a few posts ago that I quoted some lines from a BBC/SBS episode The Celts
Professor Alice Roberts: The defeat was total. Boudicca’s entire army was wiped out. According to Tacitus only 400 Romans were killed that day compared with 80,000 Celts. The last great Celtic rebellion was over.
Neil Oliver: We’re told Boudicca survived the battle but poisoned herself shortly after, and with her died any hope of another Celtic uprising and an end to Roman rule in Britannia.
Alice Roberts: Boudicca disappeared from history and entered into national mythology, a martyr to the idea of a free Britain.
This time I have highlighted a different section.
I was reminded of Australia’s annual observation of Anzac Day that emerged as something of a repeated national funerary ritual for the defeat at Gallipoli. It became a time, however, when Australians would remind themselves how unique they were in that they celebrated a defeat as the beginning of their “nationhood”. A glance at the Wikipedia article falls on a cluster of quotes:
it has been seen as a key event in forging a sense of national identity.
The Gallipoli campaign was the beginning of true Australian nationhood. . . . the Gallipoli campaign was a defining moment for Australia as a new nation.
This Short History of Australia begins with a blank space on the map and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac.
Anzac Day now belongs to the past and during the war all energy was concentrated on the future but the influence of the Gallipoli Campaign upon the national life of Australia and New Zealand has been far too deep to fade… it was on the 25th of April 1915 that the consciousness of nationhood was born.
The popular belief that the Anzacs, through their spirit, forged Australia’s national character, is still today frequently expressed. For example, in 2006 the Governor-General of Australia, Michael Jeffery gave an address in which he said that although the Anzacs lost the campaign they created a lasting identity for Australia:
We are summoned to recall the battle sacrifices of Australian farmers and tally clerks, teachers and labourers and to commemorate outstanding courage and strength of character in the face of sustained adversity… [The campaign] won for us an enduring sense of national identity based on those iconic traits of mateship, courage, compassion and nous.
The Spirit of the ANZAC continues today in times of hardship such as cyclones, floods and bush fires. At those times Australians come together to rescue one another, to ease suffering, to provide food and shelter, to look after one another, and to let the victims of these disasters know they are not alone.
And the worship of a man who dies but whose death is vindicated by an exaltation to heaven and the salvation of those who identified themselves with him.
In other words, it is not so strange to imagine people latching onto a defeat, a death, to create a myth of martyrdom, of a higher victory or salvation as is sometimes suggested. (I’m thinking, of course, of the claim that the crucifixion of Jesus had to be historical because no-one would make up such a “myth”.)
The Greeks developed the genre of tragedy to dramatize that very characteristic of humanity: an exploration of how the death of a hero can be cathartic, a victory of spirit, and not the nihilistic end it might logically seem to be.
Is there is any national or religious history that lacks a glorious martyr? I just looked up the story of the invented national hero William Tell and see that even his death was tied with efforts to save the life of a child. Is it possible to imagine such a hero dying pointlessly in a mundane accident or comfortably of natural causes? We even see the same mythologizing at the personal level. The unbearable pain of the loss of a child often finds relief in taking up a cause to somehow give meaning or purpose to the child’s death.