Icon attribution by Christians, empires and feminists

This psychological model is applied to “Æthelflæd: Lady of the Mercians”, a You tube film by Professor Michael Wood which has sought again to advance this 10th century woman as an icon. Prof. Wood espouses “creative history” and believes that the four million words of Old English that have survived may include biographical details about Æthelflæd in prayer books which have yet to be studied. Historians relying on peer review generally say, reluctantly, that biographies cannot be written for Old English times. It is reasonably clear that after her husband Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflæd was known as “Lady of the Mercians” until her death in 918. It is unclear what roles Æthelflæd and her brother Edward, king of Wessex, took in the building of burhs in Mercia, the raid on Bardney in 909, or the capture of Derby from Danes in 917. While one historian Ian Walker says “the accession of a female ruler in Mercia is one of the most unique [sic] events in early medieval history”, another, Nick Higham, thinks medieval and modern writers have been “so captivated by her that Edward’s reputation has suffered unfairly in comparison”. We will probably never know biographies of Anglo Saxons. The status of an icon is determined by the devotion it attracts and the affirmation generated for the devotees, not the historical facts.

The scope of the current paper is the psychology of attribution by devotees onto a presumed person – an icon. The historical person and the icon are only slightly connected. Religious and political beliefs and the artistic merits of icons are outside the current scope. The psychoanalytic concepts of idealisation, projection and identification will be used to describe the relationship between devotees and the presumed person onto whom they attribute.

In the early Christian church the first object of veneration was Jesus and the later object was Mary, the mother of Jesus. In mediaeval times icons usually referred to visual images, particularly in Eastern Orthodox churches. There was heated debate about whether a visual image should be venerated – iconolatry, or be banned – iconoclasm – or be treated as a symbol of the venerated person. Now the term has come into general use for people who are widely admired, including pop singers, gay spokespersons and women admired by feminists.

Humans have highly developed perception of other people and we can attribute thoughts and feelings on the basis of language, paralinguistic and non-verbal cues. Without the ability to infer the mental processes of others, we would not be able to live in densely-packed urban environments. The musculature of our faces, , unlike those of most other animals, can give clues to a wide range of emotions. The face of a tiger, a sheep or a primate tell us nothing. In a chimp we might notice tooth-baring, but not recognise it as a sign of submission until an ethologist explains it. Our companion animals have evolved some ability to read faces through long cohabitation. Dogs roll on their backs and lower their heads, which we interpret as friendliness, but they can now read our eyes and can raise their brows. A horse may choose to look at us with the right eye if it finds us friendly, and with the left if we are seen as a threat, but it takes long contact with horses for a human to recognise this. The process by which we construct the thoughts of the other is always an attribution: we can misread the face or the tone of voice, and we can be deceived by lies, bluffs and flattery. The word “projection” is not quite a synonym for attribution, as it implies the process is deeply unconscious, whereas an “attribution” can be corrected by new information.

Idealisation is a psychological process that elevates the status and conceals the faults of a historic person. The four Marian dogmas of Catholicism – perpetual virginity, motherhood of god, immaculate conception and assumption into heaven, show very strong idealisation. Mary’s actual words are rather few, in the gospels of Luke and John, the magnificat, the annunciation and two other short utterances. Devotees themselves are also elevated by association with the iconic person. The devout female believer who identifies with Mary removes from herself the negative aspects of sexual intercourse and elevates motherhood to a divine level. Mary the presumed mother of Jesus is believed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians to confer blessings on the devout. This will be discussed as projective identification below.

Apart from idealisation, the other psychoanalytic construct of relevance is projective identification. This combines two Freudian defence mechanisms: projection and identification. The individual projects qualities that are unacceptable to the self onto another person, and vilifies them in the other. This splitting is a particularly bizarre concept in adult thinking, but may be illustrated by cutting of teeth. Parents are familiar with the problem of trying to soothe an infant who is cutting teeth, which is often ineffective as the child pushes the adult away. In the perspective of Melanie Klein, the infant experiences pain in the mouth as being inflicted by a tormenting witch, who must be destroyed so that the kind mother can return. We can also introject projected qualities and believe ourselves to be characterized by them appropriately and justifiably. Adults and older children reluctantly and sadly accept they are mostly good but with some negative aspects. The infant does not yet have a concept of self and other, so can split and project bad feelings in order to keep all the good feelings inside.

The lexicology of εἰκών, eikon, ‘ image’ needs consideration, as early Christian church spoke Greek. It is the opposite of iconoclasm, which meant literal breaking of visual images before its modern metaphorical sense. Both extreme positions, iconolatry and iconoclasm, were rejected in 787 by the Second Council of Nicaea, which decided that holy icons should neither be destroyed, nor be fully worshiped, but should be venerated as only symbolic representations of God, angels, or saints. Islam acquired converts from eastern Christianity and Zoroastrianism and initially adopted icons on coins and art, but came after half a century to ban all depictions of human figures. This has the effect that God can be known only through speech, dictated via Gabriel to the last prophet. God is therefore very remote and powerful and not to be conflated with any human leader, except as a male. An “iconic sign” used to indicate that the form resembles its meaning in some way. For example, “Coca-Cola” used Spencerian script and a distinctive bottle shape, widely recognised throughout the world (Eco, 1975). The word “icon” in the 21st century is applied to anyone with a high approval rating as a singer, entertainer, or TV performer, without characteristic visual images.

Denigration may use the same vocabulary by people outside the circle of devotion. “Madre de dios” and “puta tu madre” are routinely used as expletives for other drivers in Spanish and putin is a very general denigration in French. In Catholic Poland “kurwa” is an all-purpose pejorative with the same meaning. In Quebecois foutre and merde are less offensive than tabarnack ‘tabernacle’, calisse ‘chalice’ and calvaire ‘calvary’. A complaint of blasphemy is unlikely to be sustained in the UK now, though it can carry the death penalty in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Indeed, we have forgotten that “cripes”, “jiminy cricket” and “jeez” were once minced oaths, as “sugar!” is currently. The associations “woman” – “of low worth” – “whore” – “associated with the devil” in slurs are particularly strong in countries that are, or were once, Catholic. Protestant Scandinavia uses slurs associated with a bad divine object – the devil. The Danish swearword diafla ‘devil and Swedish fān ‘devil’, have the same effect as ‘go to hell’ or ‘fuck off’. The lexicography of such pejoratives is analysed in more detail in my paper on slurs . It may be hypothesised for later study that denigration is the psychological pole of devotion.
Feminism has been influential in the naming as icons historical female figures who “succeeded in a male-dominated world”. One such was Rosalind Franklin, who did radiographic research that contributed to the description of DNA, but died in 1958, before the famous Nobel awards in 1962. Numerous university facilities and features of planets have been named after her. However, her sister Jenifer Glynn rejects this heroic status. It could be argued that she was “awkward”, refused to engage in model building and share the intellectual property of King’s College with her supervisor Maurice Wilkins. So, despite the abundance of recent history, iconic status for Franklin is still highly contentious.

The most implausible candidate for iconicity is Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe. As a general who sought battle with a 13:1 superiority and lost catastrophically, she is a nominee for the title of worst military leader in history. Up to 200,000 of her followers were massacred and the area that is now Norfolk remained sparsely populated for decades afterwards. Barnett (Observer, 2 Apr 2023) is enthusiastic for Boudicca as a feminist icon, but doses not consider the Celtic history. Boudicca was no doubt in unfocussed rage about the public rape of her daughters – which was probably the intention of the Roman officer who ordered it. She chose to have a street party the night before the battle and to pose for spectators on a chariot and there is no evidence she had a battle plan.

Having once accepted suzerainty to Rome, the Iceni revolted in AD61and burnt Roman Colchester and London. Boudicca rallied them and conjoined the Trinovantes but not the Cantiaci. Governor Paulinus was caught badly off balance, with several legions in Anglesey, but marched them to confront Boudicca at the Battle of Watling Street. Tacitus says the location was in a “narrow defile with a forest at the rear”, though such protection of the Roman flanks is unconvincing. Watling Street is on level ground all the way from London until it starts to follow the river Dee at Llangollen. Whatever the location, it is improbable that the Iceni could not have encircled the legions if they had planned to. The Iceni probably knew of the flank attack tactics of Armenius at Teotoburg Forest in 9 CE, when three Roman legions were annihilated. Tacitus’ Annals 14.29-39 describe no Iceni formation at all, but says the legions deployment started with a spear attack, infantry in a wedge like column, then cavalry with lances, although equites typically numbered only 250 per legion. The natural formation for poorly-armed and trained infantry would have been as hoplites. The Iceni could have cut more ash poles than there were Romans and practised the schiltron tactic later perfected by other Celts – William Wallace and Swiss pikemen. They could have surrounded the 15,000 legionaries on four sides and simply pushed until the Romans stumbled. Prisoners could have been taken and used in negotiations before the inevitable Roman retaliation.

The painting (Alamy 2BDYCJD) https://www.alamy.com/boudica-leading-rebellion-60-ad-image352800517.html tells it all. The chariot has a single pony which is clashing legs with runners and the blades on its wheels are likely to trip the infantry. There are no reins. Boudicca’s gaze is on some spiritual goal out of picture, away from the Roman shield wall. One daughter follows her mother’s gaze but the other averts her eyes. The image of small chariots dashing around the battlefield is probably historically accurate, but it represents a way of delivering only one spear and making a fast getaway. The infantry would add a few more short spears as they closed, but the shield wall would stop most of them. Then half-naked men with virtually no armour and only daggers would be pressed against the Roman wall by the men behind them. Three legions of elite heavy infantry had only to tramp slowly forward in perfect step, fending off blows with the shield in the left hand until close enough for the gladius in the right hand to stab. The Roman mincing machine would continue to butcher the women and children Boudicca had recklessly trapped against the baggage train.

Britannia is the most ambiguous icon of all. It is thought to come from the Brittonic word Pretanī for Great Britain and was chosen as the name for the Roman province after the conquests of 43CE.  Previously Romans had spoken of the island as Albion, probably meaning ‘white’ as in “cliffs of Dover. Curiously, the Gaels of the north of Ireland would adopt the Latin words Alba and Scotii for their new settlement in Dál Riata and these remain the Celtic words for Scotland and the Scots. Coins issued Hadrian soon after AD61 show Britannia as a beautiful female figure wearing a Corinthian helmet, carrying a trident and a large oval shield. This appears to be based on Minerva, who Romans equated with Greek Athena at this time. Yet Britannia and Boudicca were merged as one icon by both the Roman Empire and the British Empire in Victorian times, despite her revolt against empire (Vannan, 2021).

An appropriation of historical Celts was achieved by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia Regum Britanniae, an Anglo-Norman narrative of Britain starting with Brutus of Troy and finishing with Cadwaladr in the 7th century. Russell (2017) argues that his sources were the oral histories of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes and the king-lists of several post-Roman dynasties.  Despite this, up to 50% of the monarchs, including King Lear and King Arthur, may be fictional. Arthur as an Anglo-Saxon hero is much the best-known. King Ambrosius Aurelianus is the first of five, gaining the victory at Gweith Vadon (‘Battle of Badon’) purportedly fought between Britons and Anglo-Saxons with the most likely date as 496 CE. This figure has some provenance in the writings of Welsh authors in Latin, the Annales Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum. Arviragus is the second, 24% of the source of Arthur according to Russell. He subjugated the Orkneys in the 1st century CE and married Ganhumara (Guinevere).  Constantine the Great, Magnus Maximus and  Cassivellaunus make up the other three fifths. This leaves only the invasions of Iceland and Norway, which seem to be Geoffrey’s own fantasy. Freud used the terms condensation and displacement to describe the formation of dream images.  At the risk of being flippant, Geoffrey’s merging of five historical persons might be described as just such a condensation.

Geoffrey’s Latin text from around 1150 then formed the basis of the Norman French text Roman de Brut by Wace around 1155, and the Old English text of Laghamon Brut some time after 1205. About half of the 16,095 lines in the latter are a greatly expanded version of King Arthur. The popularity of Arthur in the English language is then associated with Sir Thomas Malory’s le morte Darthur, despite its having been written in prison with rather bad French. The attributions by this time concerns knightly valour and honour, cavalry methods and other concerns of the Anglo-Normans.   

Feminists have been very active in creation of icons in recent decades. The Women’s Room suddenly advanced (The Guardian, 2015) a demand for Jane Austen to be depicted on the £10 note, claiming that “she was about to be airbrushed out of history” (Guardian, 2015).  Austen dominates the field of the romantic novel, has an enormous list of TV series, and is the 77th best-known English person. Yet she never married and her heroines apparently do not have sex. The £10 note actually erases all men. Austen as candidate for iconic status abruptly upstaged two other female icons. Queen Elizabeth II was one of the most popular female leaders in the world, but Women’s Room made no reference to her.  They also ignored Frances Teresa Stuart as the model for the icon Britannia of most English currency after 1672. Stuart was famous at the time for refusing to become the mistress of Charles II, which should give her enduring iconic status.

The actual biography of Boudicca was that of a Celt, speaking a language something like Welsh, from what is now Norfolk, loved by the Iceni, but with no military skills. The biography of Æthelflæd is largely unknown. The Britannia icon seems to be a creation of Rome, an update of its own icon Minerva and the Greek icon Athena. There appear to be five historical figures condensed into the Anglo-Norman Arthur icon.  These ideas have been shared in a university of the third age online group called “English: the first 4,000 years” (Conduit, 2023) and continue to be improved by each iteration.     

As vehicles onto whom narcissistic needs can be projected, Boudicca, Britannia, Æthelflæd and Arthur do not need real biography. Their historical credentials are no better than attributions to Mary of perpetual virginity, being the mother of god, immaculate conception and assumption into heaven. Icons are created by the attributions of devotees and can be treated as culture rather than history. 


Bion, W.R. (1961, 1998). Experiences in Groups. Karnac Boks and Routledge paperback. 

Eco, Umberto (1975). A theory of semiotics. ISBN: 9780253202178

Geoffrey of Monmouth (about 1150) Historia regum Britanniae (The history of the kings of Britain).

Russell, Miles (2017). Arthur and the Kings of Britain: the Historical Truth Behind the Myths. Stroud: Amberley.

Vannan, Eleanor M. The Queen of Propaganda: Boudica’s Representation in Empire. The Arbutus Review – 2021 – Vol. 12, No. 1.