A mountain stream / Photo by Dilshad Roshan, Wikimedia Commons
By Dr. Noémie Beck / 12.04.2009
Professor of Irish Studies
This is devoted to goddesses linked to water, such as rivers, springs, fountains, lakes, etc. Water has always been regarded as a particular sacred element of the landscape, worshipped for its life-giving and generative force. Archaeology reveals that peoples increasingly settled along rivers and nearby lakes or bogs in the Bronze and Iron Ages.1653 The supply of water was a necessary and essential condition for the survival of the community, the irrigation of the crops and the raising of cattle. Water also had curative virtues which could soothe and heal, and was an important means of transport facilitating cultural and trading contacts. This explains why water was held in high respect and became revered as a divine entity. While promoting life and fertility, water was also recognised as a capricious and dangerous natural phenomenon, which could instantly destroy habitations, flood crops and drown livestock. In addition to being worshipped for its beneficial dimension, water must therefore have been the subject of veneration to calm its wrath and to be granted clemency. The numinous aspect of water also arose from the mystery of its origin: springs miraculously gushed forth from the ground. This inexplicable emanation of water would have been interpreted as a gift from the gods. It was certainly regarded as originating from the divine world, part of which was believed to be situated under the surface of the earth, as Irish mythology gives us to understand.1654 Many legends indeed recount that the Otherworld could be reached through water.1655 The sea, a lake, a spring or a river was seen as a threshold or gateway to the divine world, water delimiting the boundary between the natural and the supernatural world.
I will first briefly analyze the archaeological, hydronymic* and literary data evidencing a worship rendered to waters in ancient times and illustrating the belief in a divine entity residing in water. The second part will be devoted to river-goddesses, who are generally eponymous of the river they embody, analyze their functions and study the various religious cults attached to them. The belief in a goddess embodying the river is illustrated in Irish myth by legends recounting the drowning of divine ladies in rivers, who, from that moment on, inhabit, personify and protect the river bearing their name. Such is the case of Bóinn, the goddess of the River Boyne, Sionann, the goddess of the River Shannon, Eithne, the goddess of the River Inny, and Érne the goddess of the River Érne. In Gaul and Britain, epigraphy proves that the chief rivers were also deified: the River Seine was personified by the goddess Sequana, the River Saône by the goddess Souconna, the River Yonne by the goddess Icauni, the River Marne by the goddess Matrona and the River Wharfe by the goddess Verbeia. Did those Irish and Gallo-British river-goddesses fulfil the same functions? Were they similar in essence? How were they worshipped and by whom? I will finally deal with the widespread tradition of healing spring and fountain-goddesses evidenced by archaeological discoveries in Gaul and Britain. Local fountain-goddesses, such as Acionna, Icovellauna, Coventina, Sianna/Stanna and Mogontia, whose curative character is not always certain, and salutary spring-goddesses, such as Damona, Sirona, Sulis, Bormana and Bricta, will be studied from a linguistic, epigraphic, iconographical and religious standpoint.
The Divination of Water
Before considering in detail the various river-goddesses honoured in Irish and Gallo-British tradition, this part explores the concept of water as a divine entity in Celtic times. Archaeological, hydronomic and literary data evidence such a belief. The numerous hoards of objects discovered in rivers, lakes and bogs from the Bronze Age onwards are clearly to be understood as votive offerings belonging to a whole complex of rites aiming at honouring the deities residing in those watery places. In Gaul, Britain and Ireland, the divinisation of water is besides attested by the significant number of rivers, springs and fountains bearing names, such as deva, divona and banna, meaning ‘divine’ or ‘goddess’. Finally, Irish mythology recalls the faith in a goddess inhabiting and protecting the waters. A very old text, dating from the beginning of the 7th century, describes the waves of the sea as the locks of a goddess, while other texts tell of subaquatic realms inhabited by beautiful divine ladies or recount how a maiden is transformed into the waters after being drowned. This pattern – as already mentioned – is well-known in Irish medieval literature and particularly applied to river-goddesses.
The Deposition of Votive Offerings in Watery Places
A certain number of studies have demonstrated that the deposition of artefacts in ‘wet places’ – sites linked to water – was a particularly widespread custom in the Bronze and Iron Ages.1656 Aidan O’Sullivan, speaking of Ireland and Britain, explains that ages can be differentiated with regard to the evolution of the practice.1657 In the Middle Bronze Age, it was mainly weapons and tools, such as dirks, rapiers and axes, which were deposited in rivers. From the Late Bronze Age, the ritual phenomenon developed considerably: hoards of weapons, tools, personal ornaments and musical instruments were placed in watery places. In the Iron Age, the deposition of swords, spearheads, spear-butts, jewels, bronze cauldron and horse trappings predominated.
What emerges from the comprehensive analysis of Richard Bradley in the Passage of Arms is that the deposition of weaponry and personal ornaments in rivers, lakes and bogs is not meaningless and insignificant.1658 The large number of artefacts constently deposited in specific areas of rivers, lakes and bogs, from the Bronze Age onwards, throughout Ireland, Britain and Gaul, shows that those items were not accidentally dropped or lost. Bradley draws the conclusion that those deposits were votive offerings, which were part of religious rites fulfilled in honour of deities inhabiting the waters; a theory with which O’Sullivan, Eogan, Herity, Green among others have concurred.1659 This is all the more probable as many of the metal materials had been previously damaged or destroyed before being deposited. Destroying the weapons before offering them to the gods is a practice known from Prehistoric and especially Celtic times.1660 The war sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde (Somme) is a good example of this ‘rite of passage’ aiming at honouring the gods by offering them unusable weapons.1661
Examples of such deposits of offerings in lakes, bogs and rivers are multiple. In 1942, a hoard of 150 objects, dated 2nd c. BC to 1st c. AD, consisting of weapons, shields, tools, cauldrons and chariot-fittings, was dredged from Llyn Cerrig Bach, a small lake situated in the north-west of the island of Anglesey (Wales).1662 In Scotland, no less than fifty-three Late Bronze Age weapons were recovered from Duddingston Loch in 1778.1663 In Ireland, collections of metal materials, dating from the Late Bronze Age, were found in Lough Érne (Co. Fermanagh), Lough Gur (Co. Limerick) and Mooghaun Lough (Co. Clare).1664 Similarly, on the Continent, a large assemblage of weaponry, jewellery, tools and perishable organic materials, dating from the 3rd c. BC onwards, was retrieved from Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.1665 In Duchcov (Czech Republic), a huge 4th-century BC bronze cauldron containing about 2,500 La Tène jewels was discovered in a thermal spring called Obří pramen, ‘The Giant’s Spring’.1666 The archaeological discoveries of hoards in lakes are evidence in support of the accounts of the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Justinus, who relate that the Volcae Tectosages had flung a huge treasure composed of silver and gold into the Lake of Toulouse to appease the gods’ wrath.1667 It is said that the Roman consul Quintus Servilius Caepio, who seized and plundered the city in 106 AD and fished up the gold in the sacred lake, was doomed to a tragic end. In The Geography, Strabo recounts the testimony of the Greek philosopher Poseidonius:
‘And it is further said that the Tectosages shared in the expedition to Delphi; and even the treasures that were found among them in the city of Tolosa by Caepio, a general of the Romans, were, it is said, a part of the valuables that were taken from Delphi, although the people, in trying to consecrate them and propitiate the god, added thereto out of their personal properties, and it was on account of having laid hands on them that Caepio ended his life in misfortunes — for he was cast out by his native land as a temple-robber, and he left behind as his heirs female children only, who, as it turned out, became prostitutes, as Timagenes has said, and therefore perished in disgrace. However, the account of Poseidonius is more plausible: for he says that the treasure that was found in Tolosa amounted to about fifteen thousand talents (part of it in sacred lakes), unwrought, that is, merely gold and silver bullion […] But, as has been said both by Poseidonius and several others, since the country was rich in gold, and also belonged to people who were god-fearing and not extravagant in their ways of living, it came to have treasures in many places in Celtica; but it was the lakes, most of all, that afforded the treasures their inviolability, into which the people let down heavy masses of silver or even of gold.1668 ’
As for Justin, he relates the same story about the treasure deposited in the Lake of Toulouse:
‘The Tectosagi, on returning to their old settlements about Toulouse, were seized with a pestilential distemper, and did not recover from it, until, being warned by the admonitions of their soothsayers, they threw the gold and silver, which they had got in war and sacrilege, into the lake of Toulouse; all which treasure, a hundred and ten thousand pounds of silver, and fifteen hundred thousand pounds of gold, Caepio, the Roman consul, a long time after, carried away with him. But this sacrilegious act subsequently proved a cause of rain to Caepio and his army. The rising of the Cimbrian war, too, seemed to pursue the Romans as if to avenge the removal of that devoted treasure.1669 ’
The authenticity or otherwise of this story and the actual nature of the gold of Toulouse is not the point here.1670 The interesting thing is that this account evidences the sacred quality of lakes and exemplifies the tradition of depositing hoards and treasures in water to propitiate the gods.
In Ireland, many discoveries of this type have been made in bogs. In the course of the 18th and 19th c., at least sixty-three types of swords, spearheads, gold bowls and gold dress-fasteners, dated 900-600 BC, were discovered in the Bog of Cullen (Co. Tipperary).1671 From the Bog of Dowris (Co. Offaly), an impressive 7th-century BC hoard of swords, chapes, spearheads, socketed axeheads, knives and gouges, razors, buckets, cauldrons and horns, was dredged (fig. 1).1672 As for the bog site at Lisnacrogher (Co. Antrim), it revealed an important range of personal ornaments and weapons.1673 Finds of great interest are the Bronze and Iron Age anthropomorphic* wooden figures, possibly representing a deity, respectively dug up at the Bog of Ralaghan (Co. Cavan) (fig. 2),1674 in Lagore Lake (Co. Meath)1675 and on trackways in Cloncreen Bog at Ballykilleen1676, at Kilberg (Co. Offaly)1677 and at Corlea (Co. Longford).1678
Fig. 1: Seventh-century hoard, composed of weaponry, cauldrons, horns, axes, gouges, razors, etc, dredged from the Bog of Dowris in Co. Offaly (Ireland). In the National Museum of Ireland. O’Sullivan, 2007, p. 184, pl. IX.
Fig. 2: Anthropomorphic* figure in yew-wood, dating from the Middle Bronze Age, discovered in a bog at Ralaghan, in Co. Cavan (Ireland). O’Sullivan, 2007, p. 187, fig. 8.
The deposition of votive offerings is attested in rivers too. Archaeological discoveries have shown that hoards were generally dropped at specific areas, such as fords. The only difference between river and lake/bog deposits is, as O’Sullivan explains, that “weaponry is dominant in rivers, while ceremonial items (cauldron, horns, gold) tend to be mostly found in bogs”.1679 In Gaul, a significant number of Late Bronze Age swords were discovered in the River Loire,1680 and numerous 2nd-Iron Age spearheads and swords were recovered from the River Saône, more specifically at fords.1681 From the River Thames in Britain, spearheads, swords, pieces of armour and defensive weapons have been dredged since the 19th c. These include the two Wandsworth shield bosses, dating to the 3rd c.-1st c. BC, the 1st-century BC horned helmet (chapter 3, fig. 24) and the bronze shield inlaid with enamel, dated to the beginning of the 1stc. AD (fig. 3).1682 Similarly, in Ireland, swords, dirks and rapiers, dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages, were found in the beds of the River Shannon, the River Bann, the River Barrow and the River Érne at particular places.1683
Fig. 3: Bronze shield inlaid with enamel (0.775m), dating from the beginning of the 1st c. AD, discovered in the river Thames at Battersea (Middlesex). In the British Museum, London. Duval, 1977, p. 215, n°223.
The deposition of votive offerings in water in Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times is particularly attested at the sources of rivers, thermal springs and fountains. Such offerings to the gods, generally known as ex-votos for this period, are of different types. They can be in wood, stone, bronze, gold, iron or in sheet metal1684 and may consist of representations of the pilgrims themselves, swaddled babies and protective deities. For instance, Venus Anadyomene* or Mother Goddesses; personal ornaments such as fibulas*, brooches, rings, bracelets and hairpins; coins; potteries; epigraphic altars and anatomic ex-votos* i.e. images of painful or deceased body parts, such as legs, breasts, eyes, arms, heads, feet and internal organs.1685 Such ex-votos have been discovered in great quantity at the Sources-de-la-Seine (Côte d’Or), Chamalières (Puy-de-Dôme), Bourbonnes-les-Bains (Haute-Marne), Luxeuil-les-Bains (Haute-Saône) in France and at Bath (Somerset, GB), etc. Healing springs were generally in the hands of a specific deity, whose name could be identified when dedications were discovered on the site. The Sources-de-la-Seine was presided over by the goddess Sequana, Bath by Sulis, Luxeuil by Brixta and Luxovius, while the ‘Source des Roches’ in Chamalières – where numerous coins, potteries and thousands of ex-votos in wood testifying to a curative cult were unearthed – was apparently under the patronage of the god Maponos, invoked in a magical text in the Gallo-Latin language.1686
In Gallo-Roman times, archaeology thus evidences how sites linked to water were worshipped. Pilgrims came to springs to have their pains soothed and prayed to the deity inhabiting the healing waters. It is interesting to note that the religious rites would have involved two stages. Sick pilgrims must have first come to the site to invoke and ‘sign a contract’ with the deity. A gift was generally made to the deity with the aim of earning its benevolence. The anatomic ex-votos* were probably deposited on the first visit to the shrine. In leaving a representation of the deceased body part in the hand of the deity, the pilgrim was thought to journey back without pain or illness. Such votive offerings can be called ‘ex-dono’.1687 They are different in nature from ex-votos, insomuch as ex-votos were offered once the vow had been fulfilled. To thank the deity, pilgrims would go back to the place of devotion and offer another gift to the deity: a jewel, coins, a vase or a dedication ending with the abbreviated votive formula VSLM, i.e. v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), i.e. ‘(the dedicator) paid his or her vow willingly and deservedly’.1688 This phrase indicates that the vow had been granted and expresses the sincere gratitude of the dedicator. Votive offerings were thus either propitiatory or testimonies of gratitude, though it is not always possible to determine whether the offering was made before or after receiving divine grace. What is clear, however, is that in Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times, springs, rivers and fountains were believed to be the dwellings of gods and goddesses, who personified the water and exercised their curative and salutary virtues over the people.
People deliberately cast metalwork into water as a gift to the supernatural powers, probably to earn their benevolence and gratitude. This would mean that waters were believed to be personified and inhabited by divine entities, and this idea is confirmed by the meaning of certain hydronyms*, which directly refer to the preternatural character of the river or spring.
Numinous Rivers or Springs: Deva, Divonna, Banna
Alfred Dauzat explains that most ancient river names are mere ‘generic names’ describing the appearance, nature and quality of the river, such as the ‘slow water’, the ‘black, green, white or red water’, the ‘slow or fast-flowing water’, or of the surroundings through which it flows, such as the ‘water of the woods’, ‘stream of the mount’, ‘torrent of the cliff’, etc.1689 In Gaul, the name of the River Doubs, which rises in Mouthe (Doubs) and joins the River Saône at Verdun-sur-le-Doubs (Saône-et-Loire), was anciently called Dubis (‘the Black (Water)’), derived from a Celtic word dubnos meaning ‘deep, black’.1690 The River Thève, which flows through Seine-et-Marne, Oise and Val d’Oise, originally bore a Celtic name Tava signifying ‘the Tranquil or Quite One’, from a Celtic root tavo– < tauso-, ‘tranquil, quite’.1691 As for the Glanis, a non-identified river flowing in the Ardennes, it is derived from a Celtic root glano– meaning ‘pure, bright’.1692 In Ireland, the name of the two rivers an Abhainn Mhór in Ulster (erroneously anglicized as the Blackriver and the Blackwater) signifies ‘Great River’, while the name of the river an Abhainn Dubh in Co. Cavan (Ulster) means ‘Black River’, and the name of the river an Uinsinn (the Unshin) in Connacht meant ‘the River of the Ash Tree’.1693 These names are thus descriptive and involve no particular religious tradition.
Other river names, based on deva and divona, are numinous names clearly reminiscent of the sanctity and divinisation of rivers in ancient times. They are derived from an old IE root *deivo, *deiva, ‘divine’, which gave the forms devos in Gaulish, dia in Old Irish, duy in Old Cornish and duiu, duw, dwy in Welsh.1694 The word divona is a derived form of deva and must have originally designated a ‘sacred spring’.1695
Many river names in Britain, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Gaul, Belgium and Spain stem from the ancient form deva, ‘divine’, ‘goddess’. Such is the case of the Irish River Dee, which flows into the Irish Sea, north of Annagassan (Co. Louth); of the British River Dee, which flows into the Irish Sea in Cheshire (fig. 4: n° 3); and of the Welsh rivers Afon Dwyfawr (‘Big Dee’) and Afon Dwyfach (‘Small Dee’) which unite below the village of Llan Ystumdwy in the Lleyn Peninsula (Gwynedd) (fig. 4: n°4, 5 and 6). In Scotland, two rivers Dee are recorded: the one which flows into the Irish Sea in Kirkcudbright (Dumfries and Galloway) and the one which joins the North Sea at Aberdeen (Aberdeenshire) (fig. 4: n°1 and 2).1696 In Gaul, there is important evidence of ‘deva’ rivers: La Dieue, a tributary of the River Meuse in Dieue (Meuse); La Dive, a tributary of the River Thouet in Saint-Just-sur-Dive (Maine et Loire); La Dive, a tributary of the River Vienne in Salles-en-Toulon (Vienne); La Dive, a tributary of the River Bouleur in Voulon (Vienne); La Dive, a tributary of the River Orne in Peray (Sarthe); La Dives, which flows into the English Channel in Dives-sur-Mer (Calvados); La Dives, a tributary of the River Oise (Oise); La Die, a tributary of the River Drac (Isère); La Divatte, a tributary of the River Loire in La Varenne (Maine et Loire); La Divette, a tributary of the River Dives in Cabourg (Calvados); La Divette, which flows into the English Channel at Cherbourg (Manche); La Diosaz, a tributary of the River Arve in Servoz (Haute-Savoie), etc.1697 In the North West of Spain, two coastal rivers, called la Deba – situated to the west of Saint-Sebastian – and la Deva – flowing west of Santander – are also ‘divine’ rivers.1698 In Belgium, there are also occurrences of the name, such as the River Dievenbeke in Ingelmunster, the ancient River Dieve in Rotselaar (now the name of a fief) and the River Dieversdelle in Uccle-lez-Bruxelles (today’s Diesdelle).1699
Fig. 4: Map showing the distribution of the river names derived from Deva (‘goddess’) in Scotland, Britain and Wales: 1. Dee; 2. Dee; 3. Dee (Dent); 4. Dee; 5. Afon Dwyfawr; 6. Afon Dwyfach. Rivet & Smith, 1979, p. 336, fig. 29.
Other river- or spring-names are derived from an ancient divona, ‘divine (spring)’.1700 In Britain, the River Devon, a tributary of the River Trent (Nottinghamshire), and in France, the brook Devon which flows in Mayenne, are reminiscent of such an appellation. Springs sometimes transmitted their name to the cities where they were located. For instance, the town of Cahors (Lot) was called Doueona in the 2nd c. by Ptolemy and Divona in the 4th c. on the Table de Peutinger.1701 This name originally designated the famous Gallo-Roman ‘Fontaine des Chartreux’ in Cahors, situated at the entrance of the capital city of the Cadurci.1702Similarly, Divonne-les-Bains (Ain) got its name from the spring Divonne, famous for its curative virtues, which gushes forth in the city.
Divonna is not attested as a goddess by votive inscriptions. Nonetheless, an obscure text of magical character, dating to the 3rd or 4th c. AD, engraved on the face A of a lead plaque and found in 1887 in a well of a Gallo-Roman villa in Rom (Deux-Sèvres), might be addressed to the goddess.1703 It was found together with fifteen other anepigraphic lead plaques. The origin and meaning of this text remains contested and obscure, because of the uncertainty of the language (Gaulish? Latin? Greek? Pictish?), the identification of the letters and the segmentation of the text. Lambert, in La langue gauloise and RIG II, sums up the various erroneous, fanciful and imaginary readings, transcriptions and translations which have been proposed.1704 The text given hereafter is from RIG II; but no relevant translation has been proposed yet:
estiheiontcaticato (or caticno?)
cnasedemtiticato (or titicno?)
sosio pura sosio
According to Lambert, the theories of Egger Rudolf and Otto Haas, who believe it to be a defixio* written against enemies, are unconvincing.1705 Edward Nicholson claims the text is in Pictish and suggests it is a litany addressed to a spring-goddess to prevent her from drying up, while John Rhŷs thinks that the authors of the magic formula are a married couple, Atanto and Atanta, who begged the goddess Divona to give them a child.1706 The significance of this tablet-inscription remains then quite enigmatic. It seems nonetheless probable that this magical message is addressed to the goddess Dibona (=Divonna).
The poet Ausonius, in his 4th-century AD De claris Urbibus, who sings the beauty and purety of the Fountain of Bordeaux, reported that it was presided over in Celtic times by a goddess called Divona, whose name meant ‘divine’:
‘Salve, fons ignote ortu sacer, alme, perennis,
vitree, glauce, profunde, sonore, illimis, opace
salve, urbis Genius, medico potabilis haustu
Divona Celtarum lingua, fons addite divis.
Hello, fountain the spring of which is unknown, holy fountain, beneficial, inexhaustible, crystalline, azure, deep, murmuring, limpid, shaded; Hello, Genius of the town, who pours us a salutary drink, Divona, which means divine fountain in the language of the Celts. 1707 ’
In the time of Ausonius, the fountain apparently flowed out from twelve taps into a basin in marble, but today the spring is no longer visible and its location is uncertain.1708 Robert Etienne has suggested it was situated at Saint-Christoly.1709 There is no archaeological evidence proving the worship of the goddess Divona in Bordeaux, apart from an altar bearing the inscription […]onae, which Jullian reconstructed as [Div]onae, but it could also be [Sir]onae, who is mentioned in other inscriptions from Bordeaux.1710
An altar discovered in 1849 on the oppidum* of Laudun, situated near Bagnols-sur-Cèze (Gard), bears the following inscription: Diiona, which could be read either Deona or Divona.1711 This would be the ancient name of the stream L’Andiole, called La Vionnein the 18th c., which rises in the commune of Saint-Marcel-de-Carreiret (Gard) and flows into the river Cèze at the Moulin Bez, in the commune of Sabran (Gard).1712 The inscription could thus be a proof of the cult of the goddess Divona.
Finally, in Ireland, it is interesting to note that the names of several rivers are derived from the Old Irish Bandea or Bandae and Modern Irish Bandia, composed of ban (‘woman’) and dia (‘deity’), that is ‘the Goddess’. These include the River Bann (an Bhanna) in Ulster, the River Bann (an Bhanna) in Co. Wicklow, the River Banna (an Bhanna) in North Antrim and the River Bandon (an Bhanda) at Kinsale in Co. Cork.1713 The construction Bandae, being a compound, replaced the earlier Celtic form Deva in the early Old Irish period.
All those deva, divonna, banna names, generally given to rivers and springs in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, clearly evidence that water was regarded as sacred in ancient times and deified as a goddess inhabiting its bed; the concept being significantly attested in Irish mythology.
The Lady in the Water in Irish Tradition
The belief in underwater realms inhabited by beautiful divine maidens is widespread in Irish tradition. Tír fó Thuinn (‘Land-Under-Waves’) is reached by diving into the waters of the sea, a well, a lake or a river, which mark out the frontier between the natural and supernatural worlds.1714 For instance, the king of Fódhla (i.e. Ireland), Ruadh son of Ríghdonn, goes to the subaquatic Tír na mBan (‘Land of Women’), a paradisiacal island inhabited by gorgeous women and concealed under the waves between Ireland and Lochlann – a place which is uncertainly located, possibly corresponding to Scandinavia.1715 This underwater island is also visited by Máel Dúin and Bran on their respective voyages to the otherworld recounted in the 8th-century Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin [‘The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat’] and in the 7th-century Imram Bran [‘The Voyage of Bran’].1716 A text called Aided Chlainne Tuirenn [‘The Tragic Stories of the Children of Tuireann’] tells that Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba, the three sons of Tuireann, were asked by Lugh Lámfhota to retrieve the magic cooking-spit from Inis Fionnchuire (‘the Island of Fianchaire’), situated underneath Muir Torraín, between Ireland and Britain, where three times fifty beautiful women dwelled.1717
The belief in a divine woman in the waves is illustrated by an archaic poem, dating from the very beginning of the 7th c. AD, which describes the waves as the hair of a goddess, who can be identified with the Mórrígain. The verse, sung by the well-known Irish poet Ninníne,1718 tells of the drowning of Conaing, son of Aedán Mac Gabráin, King of Alba,1719 by a divine fair-haired woman inhabiting the waters (In bean rola a mong find). It occurs in the third fragment of the early 7th-century Annals of Tigernach (489-766 AD)1720 and in The Chronicum Scotorum, dated AD 622.1721 As for The Annals of Ulster, dated 621, it only gives the first stanza, the verses of which are very corrupt.1722 It is important to point out that The Annals of Inisfallen, dated 615,1723 and The Annals of the Four Masters, dated 617,1724 do not refer to the poem. They only mention the battle of Cenn Delgten, wherein fell two sons of Libren, son of Illann Mac Cerbaill. Hereafter is the poem of The Annals of Tigernach, translated by Whitley Stokes:
‘Conaing mac Aedaín maic Gabrain dimersus est. Bí Nindine eices cecinit:
Tonda mara morglan[a],
[is] grian rodatoicsetar (rodotoicsitur),
ina churach flescach fann (fleachadh find)
for Conaing concoirsetar (cond coseatar).
In bean rola a mong find
in[a] churach fri Conaing,
ised ro tibhi a gen
indiu (andiu) fri bili Tortan.
Conaing, son of Aedán, son of Gabrán, was drowned. It was Ninníne the poet sang:
The waves of the sea, great and clear,
and the sun followed him,
into his weak wicker-boat,
together they were flung at Conaing.
The woman threw her white mane
into his boat at Conaing,
that is what caused her to smile today at the Tree of Tortu.1725 ’
In The Celtic Realms, Milles Dillon and Nora Chadwick propose another translation, which is more a creative interpretation of the original text than a literal translation:
‘The deep clear depths of the sea and the sand on the sea-bed have covered them. They have hurled themselves over Conaing in his frail little curach. The woman has flung her white mane against Conaing in his curach. Hateful is the laugh which she laughs today. 1726 ’
The fair hair of the goddess drowning Conaing stands for the waves of the sea, because mong, which means ‘hair’, ‘mane’, ‘locks’, was also used as a metaphor to designate crested waves in Old Irish literature.1727 This reference indicates that the goddess is the personification of the sea, which she inhabits. The Tree of Tortu (Bile Tortan), mentioned at the end of the poem, was the ancient tree standing in the land of the Uí Tortan sept* in Ardbraccan, near Navan, in County Meath (see Chapter 2).1728 Significantly, the same fair-haired female figure resurfaces in an 11th-century poem of the Metrical Dindshenchas, entitled Bile Tortan, which describes the collapse of that tree. She is portrayed with fair curly hair laughing heartily at the death of the tree:
‘Ultán Tige Túa. In ben roscaíl a moing find
roscaíl mór cuarán come-grind:
is cass conatbi a gen
iar fuirmed Bili Tortan.
Ultan of Tech Tua. The woman who loosed their fair locks,
many a trim sandal hath she loosed:
gleefully she laughed
at the felling of Tortu’s Tree. 1729 ’
Edward Gwynn explains that the fall of the Tree of Tortu implies the death of some king, possibly Ailill Molt, who was slain in the battle of Ocha in 482 AD – lines 49-72 of the poem are indeed suggestive of such an idea.1730 This preternatural female figure, who laughs at the death of Tortu’s Tree in the 7th-century poem in The Annals of Tigernach and the poem of Bile Tortan, clearly points to the Mórrígain.1731 This goddess is described in Irish texts hovering over the battlefield screaming and laughing at bloodshed – such as in the 9th-century poem, entitled Reicne Fothaid Canainne [‘The recitation of Fothadh Canainne’], which alludes to her mane and her awful laugh:
‘[…] dreman inathor dīmar, nodusnigh an Mórríoghan. Donārlaith do bil ōige, isī cotanasōide, is mōr do fodboibh nigius, dremhan an caisgen tibhes. Rolā a moing dar a hais […]
[…] horrible are the huge entrails which the Mórrígain washes. She has come to us from the edge of a pillar (?), ‘tis she who has egged us on; many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful laugh she laughs. She has flung her mane over her back […]1732 ’
As regards the theme of the loosing of the sandal referred to in the poem of Bile Tortan, Gwynn argues that it is certainly “preparatory to washing the bodies of the dead”; a role which is fulfilled by the Mórrígain in Reicne Fothaid Canainne [‘The recitation of Fothadh Canainne’].1733
It is interesting to note that the Mórrígain is said to be ‘fair-haired’ (mong find) in the poem of The Annals of Tigernach and in the poem Bile Tortan. It relates her to another supernatural lady known as Mongfhind (‘Bright-Maned’) in Irish literature.1734 Even though Mongfhind is presented as a mortal woman in certain sources, it is clear that she was originally a goddess. She appears in the legends as the nurse and teacher of young warriors, such as Diarmait ua Duibne and Gíona mac Lugha, two leading heroes of the Fianna band, and Mac Lughach, the grandson of Fionn mac Cumhaill.1735 In an 11th-century legend, Mongfhind is portrayed as the stepmother of the king Niall Naoi-Ghiallach. She tried to usurp the throne for her sons by tricking him, but she fell into her own trap and eventually drank the poisonous drink she had prepared for Niall. She died at Samhain, which is why she is now remembered as the patroness of this festival.1736 The Mórrígain is likely to have been an emanation of the primary land-goddess Mongfhind, who must originally have been connected to water and sacred knowledge, since her name, composed of mong and find, metaphorically refers to ‘crested waves’ and to ‘brilliance’ or ‘wisdom’. This is a double aspect which seems to be typical of river-goddesses, for instance the river-goddess Bóinn, whose name derives from an old *Bóu-vinda, ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’.1737
The idea of a goddess residing in water is particularly well represented in Irish mythology. A pattern emerges from the various legends: that of the drowning of a divine lady in the sea or the waters of a lake or river. After that tragic event, the goddess dissolves in the waters and merges with it: she becomes the sea, the river or the lake where she perished and gives her name to it. In addition to the faired-hair Mórrígain, whose hair shapes the sea, a legend recounts how the goddess Clidna, later Clidna (‘the Territorial One’), was drowned at Cúan Dor (the Bay of Glandore), in Co. Cork. Since then, she has inhabited the wave which broke over that beach, called after her: Tonn Chlíona, that is ‘the Wave of (the goddess) Clíona’.1738 This wave was one of the three great waves, with Tonn Rudraige (‘Rudraige’s Wave’) at Dundrum (Co. Down) and Tonn Tuaig (‘Tuag’s Wave’) at Inber Glas, sitatued near the mouth of the river Bann (Co. Derry), which jeopardized the life of Irish people in ancient times.1739
There are two versions of this legend, probably dating from the 10th or 11th c., in the Metrical Dindshenchas. The first poem is entitled Tond Clidna I and describes her elopement with Ciabhán from Tír Tairngire (‘the Land of Promise’). After landing at Trá Théite (the shore at Glandore), Ciabhán went hunting and Clidna remained in the boat. A great wave then rose over the shore and drowned the lady, who has been dwelling in this particular area of the sea since then:
‘Clidna chend-fhind, búan a bét, ‘con tuind-se tánic a héc; damna d’a máthair beith marb inní dia tarla in sen-ainm.
Dia ndernad in t-óenach the ac lucht tíre tairngire, is é thuc in mnái tre cheilg, Ciabán mac Echach imdeirg.
Rígan ind óenaig thall tra, ingen dar’ chomainm Clidna, tar in ler lethan longach tuc leis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Rofhácaib hí forsin tuind, luid uaithi echtra n-étruimm, d’iarraid selga, monur mass, luid roime fon fhid fholt-chass.
Tánic in tond tara éis, do Chiabán nírbo deg-shéis; mór gním, ba dimda linne, bádud Clidna cend-fhinde.
Tond dúine Téite na tríath, issé a hainm roime in bar n-íath nocorbáided ‘mon tuind tra ben diarbo chomainm Clidna.
Lecht Téite ‘sin tráig-se thúaid; rogáet immese a mór-shlúaig; lecht Clidna ‘sin tráig-se thess, fri Síd Duirn Buide anairdess.
Fliuchthar folt in Duirn Buide i tondaib in trom-thuile: cid dimda do neoch fuil ann, is sí Clidna nosbáidenn.
Ildathach is a dá macc, robáitea in triur ac tochmarc; is mairg roadair don luing náchasanaig ar óen-tuind.
Cóica long lótar tar sál, teglach tige Manannán; nocharb í ‘n chongaib cen gá: robáitea ar thondaib Clidna.
Clidna Cendfind, lasting her exploit, at this wave came her death; cause for her mother to die was the matter whence arose the ancient name.
When the gathering was held yonder; by the people of the Land of Promise, ’twas he carried off the woman by deceit — Ciaban son of Eochu Imderg.
The queen of the gathering yonder in sooth, the maiden whose name was Clidna, Ciaban the curly-haired bore with him, over the wide ship-ridden sea.
He left her on the wave, he went from her on a giddy venture, to seek a chase, — fair deed! he went forward under the tangled wood.
The wave came after he was gone: to Ciaban it was no lucky sound: a great event, — we grieved thereat — was the drowning of Clidna Cendfind.
The Wave of Dun Teite of the chiefs, that was its name before in your land, till there was drowned in the wave in sooth a woman whose name was Clidna.
The grave of Teite and her strand are northward; she was slain amid her great host: the grave of Clidna and her strand are southward, south-east of Dorn Buide’s Mound.
The locks of Dorn Buide are wetted in the waves of the mighty flood: though it cause displeasure, it is Clidna that it drowns.
Ildathach and his two sons were drowned all three on their wooing: woe to them that stuck to the ship, that protected them not against a single wave!
Fifty ships went over sea, the folk of the household of Manannan; That was no band without spears: they were drowned in the waves of Clidna.1740 ’
The second poem, entitled Tond Clidna II, explains that Ciabhán sailed to Mag Meall (‘Pleasant Plain’), where he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of King Genann. He absconded with her on his small craft. A terrible storm then burst out and a huge wave drowned Clidna at Trá Théite:
‘Genann mac Triúin, torum ndil, ba hé tríath in tíre-sin; ó rogab fonn flatha fáe, ba cáime dia chlaind Clidnae.
Brígda in bedg, bresta in forrach, doluid Ciabán cass-mongach, dia ránic Mag medrach Mell tar drong ndegrach na dílenn.
Iar techt i tír, tólaib gal, conid ann roarlastar trí cóicta gol, erctha raind, im Chlidna ingin Genainn.
Trí cóicta túath fil ‘sin raind; gíall cach túaithe il-láim Genaind; dofil sund ingin cach ríg ‘m irla ingine ind ard-ríg.
“I n-anmaim Dé tíag-sa dó; biur-sa lium in ingin-so: is sí doróega cen locht, Clidna chend-fhind chness-étrocht.”
Cechaing céim ina churach, fáchaid in tír trén-brugach, conid iarsin Síd nEna; guilsetar na hingena.
Tuir ocus túatha in maige dosfúartha fon golgaire: línsat airer na trága, d’imfhastud na gabála.
Atbert Genann — garg a gráin: “Cia fuaitges i n-athgabáil,” atbert-som tar ler longach, bertis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Atbert Genann, ósin t-shlúag: “Maith, a Chlidna chaindel-grúad: ind inbaid ticfa do lá, cía mod arafesur-sa.”
“Bíd th’aire frissin lá atbél: atbiur frit, bid é mo scél, ticfa tond tennfas trilis, corua tar th’adba it inis.”
Conid iarsin, trúag in dál, doluid Clidna la Ciabán; dirgset in seól, sóeb in sess, timchell hÉrenn aniardess.
Esnad na gáithe gairge, ocus anfad na fairrge dosrat fri grian, síd nad lac, i n-inbiur Trága Tellat.
Mogenar do Chlidna cháid, ó doluid issin éc-dáil, issin airm rochlóechlói deinn co fil a hainm ós hÉrinn.
Ní sochtmar anocht in tracht, Tond Chlidna cid aréracht: benaid béim fri Banba mbind iar sáeth ingine Genainn.
Genann son of Tren, — pleasant […]! – he was chief of this land; since he got the kingly seat under him, the fairest of his children was Clidna.
Vigorous the dash, spirited the onset, wherewith came the curly-haired Ciaban, when he reached cheerful Mag Mell over the fierce concourse of ocean.
After coming to the land, with brave deeds in plenty, it is there he uttered thrice fifty cries, that fill a verse, for Clidna daughter of Genann.
Thrice fifty tribes are there to the province; a hostage for every tribe in Genann’s hands; hither comes a daughter of every king, to tend the tresses of the high-king’s daughter.
“In the name of God, I will go thither, I will bear off with me this maiden: she it is that I have chosen, the faultless Clidna Cendfind, radiant of skin.”
He stepped forward into his boat, he leaves the land of strong keeps, so that thereafter it was called Sid nEna; the maidens lamented.
The lords and the folk of the plain were left behind lamenting; they filled the tract by the shore to arrest the rape.
Said Genann — fierce his hate: “who seizes the pledge?” — said he across the ship-ridden sea, they should carry off curly-haired Ciaban!
Said Genann, over the host: “‘Tis well, O Clidna, with cheeks aflame! some time shall come thy day in such wise as I shall declare.
“Keep watch for the day of my death! I tell thee — this shall be my message! there shall come a wave whose crest shall sparkle, and shall whelm thy home in thine island.”
So thereupon — woe for the tryst! Clidna went her way with Ciaban; they hoisted sail — unstable the craft — round Erin from the south-west.
Roar of the rude wind and storm of the sea carried them on the sand — a mound of strength — in the estuary of Traig Tellat.
Hail to chaste Clidna, since she went to the tryst with death, at the place where she changed hue, so that her name is known over Erin.
Not silent to-night the strand, if the Wave of Clidna have arisen: it striketh a blow against resounding Banba after the woe of Genann’s daughter.1741 ’
The same story with minor variants appears in the later Bodleian Dinnshenchas 1742 and in the 12th-century text Acallamh na Senónach [‘The Colloquy with the Ancients’].1743 It is interesting to note that Clidna, like Sionann and Bóinn, was linked both to water and wisdom. In medieval tradition, she is indeed believed to give inspiration to poets.1744
The legend of the drowning of Clidna in the sea can be paralleled to the story of Eba, related in a poem called Traig Eba, contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas. The two stories indeed have the exact same pattern. Eba, the leech-woman accompanying Cessair in her journey to Ireland, was drowned under the waves when she was sleeping on a stretch of the coast of Co. Sligo, which now bears her name, Traig Eba:
‘Traigh Eaba, cidh diatá? Ní ansa. Día tanic Cesair ingen Betha mic Naoí lucht curaigh co h-Erinn. Tainic Eaba in ban-líaidh léi, cho rocodail isin trácht, co robáidh in tonn iarom. Conidh de raiter Rind Eaba & Traigh Eaba dona h-inadhaibh sin osin ille.
Traig Eba, whence the name? Not hard to say. When Cesair daughter of Bith son of Noah came with a boat’s crew to Erin, Eba the leech-woman came with her. She fell asleep on the strand, and the waves drowned her. Hence these places were called Rind Eba and Traig Eba from that time forth.1745 ’
From this, it follows that water was believed to be the residence of goddesses in Celtic times. The sacredness, divinisation and worship of the sea, rivers, lakes, springs and bogs is attested by the wide-ranging and far-reaching tradition of the deposition of votive offerings in sites linked to water in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, from the Bronze Age to the Gallo-Roman period. It testifies to an important cult devoted to water deities. Numerous rivers, springs and fountains are besides called ‘divine’ or ‘goddess’ in those countries. Finally, Irish legends and poems depict underwater divine realms and tell of goddesses embodying the waves of the sea. As will be detailed in the following sections, particular individual goddesses personifying specific sites are known from Celtic times. Irish medieval literature and Gallo-British epigraphy have revealed many different names of goddesses of rivers, fountains and springs, who appear to have been venerated locally in some cases or on a larger scale in others.
The cult of river-goddesses is widely attested in Ireland, Britain and Gaul by ancient literary texts, epigraphic devices and votive offerings discovered at places of worship where the goddesses used to be honoured. River deification is not limited to female figures: important river gods are known from inscriptions discovered in Gaul and Germany, such as Rhenos, the god personifying the Rhine, or Danuvios, the god of the Danube.1746 Nevertheless, river-goddesses predominate, certainly because rivers were regarded as mothers fertilizing the fields and nurturing the peoples. In Ireland, the tradition of river-goddesses is well-attested. The chief rivers of Ireland were deified: the Odras as the goddess Odras, the Boyne as the goddess Bóinn, the Shanonn as the goddess Sionann, the Inny as the goddess Eithne and the Érne as the goddess Érne. Their respective legends hinge on a similar theme, which is that of the drowning of the lady in the river. In Gaul and Britain appears the same concept of a goddess bearing the name of the river and personifying its waters: Sequana presides over the Seine, Matrona over the Marne, Souconna over the Saône, Icauni over the Yonne and Verbeia over the Wharfe. Their worship in Gallo-Roman times is evidenced by inscriptions, water sanctuaries and votive offerings, generally unearthed at the sources of the rivers. There is no doubt about their Celticity: their names, even though their origins sometimes remain obscure, are unmistakably Celtic.
Irish River Goddesses: Drowning and Wisdom
The River Boyne: Bóinn and the River Shannon: Sionann
The River Boyne, called an Bhóinn in Irish, Bóand in Old Irish (genitive Bóindeo, Bóinde, dative Bóind),1747 has its source at Newberry Hall, near Carbury (Co. Kildare), flows through Co. Meath and empties into the Irish Sea at Drogheda (Co. Louth) (fig. 5). In Irish tradition, the river is personified by its eponymous goddess Bóinn. The earliest reference is given in the 2nd-century AD by Ptolemy, who calls the river Buvinda, the original form of which would have been *Bóu-vinda according to O’Rahilly.1748 *Bóu-vinda is a ‘co-ordinate’ or ‘co-referential’ compound, composed of bó, ‘cow’ and *vindā, a word denoting whiteness, brightness and wisdom; hence Bóinn, ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’.1749
Her name points to her bovine shape, which relates her to the Gaulish spring-goddess Damona (‘Cow Goddess’) and possibly to the British river-goddess Verbeia (‘She of the Cattle’?).1750 Her name is also contained in the name of the healing spring-goddess Borvoboendoa, mentioned in a complex inscription from Utrecht (Germany): [Deo(?) (H)erc]oul(eo) Macusa(n)o Baldruo Lobbo(no) sol(uerunt) decur(iones) Vabusoae deo Lobbo(no) Boruoboendoae uo(ta) s(oluerunt) a(nimo) l(i)b(entes).1751 Gutenbrunner, Delamarre and Olmsted propose to split up her name as *Borvo–bō-vinduā, with borvo, ‘to boil’ and the compounding form bō-vinduā, identical to the name of the river-goddess Bóinn.1752 Borvoboendoa might therefore be ‘the Seething White Cow’ and is undeniably a healing spring-goddess envisaged in the form of a cow. The cow-shape motif seems therefore to characterize water-goddesses. Ó hÓgáin points out that the image of the cow is often used as a metaphor for river-goddesses in the Vedic Rig Veda, because the flow of the river is compared to the milk of cows, both of which gave mystical knowledge to seers:
‘[…] the streams of the river being synonymous with the milk flowing from her shape as otherworld-cow. Just as the irrigating waters of the rivers make the countryside productive, so does the divine liquid give mystical inspiration to the Vedic poets.1753 ’
Bóinn’s name also refers to the notion of enlightenment possessed by seers, druids and poets, personified by the archetypal hero-seer Fionn mac Cumhaill, whose tradition is intermingled with the cult of the River Boyne.1754 The earliest form of his name Find is derived from the same root *vind-, ‘wisdom’.1755 Moreover, a 9th or 10th-century legend relates how he met the seer Finnéigeas cooking the ‘salmon of knowledge’ on the bank of the River Boyne and how he acquired absolute knowledge by burning his thumb on the fish and then thrusting it into his mouth.1756 From that time on, Fionn mac Cumhaill would put his thumb into his mouth each time he needed to foresee an event.
The concept of the river giving access to wisdom is widely illustrated in the legends of Bóinn and Sionann, which have the exact same pattern: the drowning of the maiden in the river. As it will be demonstrated, the two stories of Sionann are a copy of the two legends of Bóinn, recounted in the Metrical Dindshenchas.
The first legend of Bóinn, entitled Boand I, was written by Cuán ua Locháin, an Irish poet who died in 1024. The poem relates that Nechtan, the husband of Bóinn, had a dangerous bewitched well in his homestead. Although access to the well was reserved for Nechtan and his cupbearers, Bóinn one day decided to challenge its powers, but soon after she had approached it, the fountain rose and blemished parts of her body. She then ran towards the sea, pursued by the water of the well, and perished, drowned under the waves of the newly formed river, to which she gave her name:
‘Síd Nechtain sund forsin t-shléib, lecht mic Labrada lán-géir, assa silenn in sruth slán dianid ainm Bóand bith-lán.
Cóic anmand déc, demne drend, forsin t-shruth-sin adrímem, otá Síd Nechtain asmaig co roshaig pardus Adaim.
Segais a hainm issin t-shíd ria cantain duit in cach thír: Sruth Segsa a hainm otá-sin co Lind Mochúi in chlérig.
Otá Topur Mochúi chóir co cocrích Midi mag-móir Rig mná Nuadat ‘s a Colptha a dá ainm ána imarda.
Otá cocrích Midi maiss corrici in fairgi fondglaiss Mór-Chuing Argait gairther di, ocus Smir Find Fedlimthi.
Trethnach-Tond ósin immach connici Cúalnge cráibach. Sruth Findchuill ó Chúalnge chrúaid co Loch n-Echach Abrat-rúaid.
Banna ó Loch Echach cen ail, Drumchla Dílenn co h-Albain; Lunnand hí i n-Albain cen ail nó is Turrann iarna tucsain.
Sabrann dar tír Saxan slán, Tibir i ráith na Román, Sruth n-Iordanen iarsain sair, ocus Sruth n-Eufrait adbail.
Sruth Tigir i pardus búan, fota sair síst fri himlúad: ó phardus darís ille co srothaib na síde-se.
Bóand a h-ainm coitchend cain otá in síd co fairge fraig: mebur lim aní diatá usce mná mic Labrada.
Nechtain mac Labrada laind, diarbo ben Bóand, bágaimm, topur diamair bói ‘na dún, assa maided cech mí-rún.
Ní fhail nodécced dia lár nach maided a dá rosc rán: dia ngluased do chlí nó deis, ní thargad úad cen athis.
Aire níslaimed nech de acht Nechtain ‘s a deogbaire: it é a n-anmand, fri gním nglan, Flesc is Lam ocus Luäm.
Fecht and dolluid Bóand bán — dosfuargaib a dímus n-án — cosin topur cen tarta d’ airigud a chumachta.
Immar rothimchill fo thrí in topur co n-étuachli, maidit teora tonna de dia tánic aided Bóinne.
Rosiacht cach tond díb ria chuit, romillset in mnái mbláth-buic: tond ria cois, tond ria súil sláin, tres tond brisid a leth-láim.
Rethis co fairgi, ferr de, d’ imgabáil a hathise, ar nách acced nech a cned: furri féin a himathber.
Cach conair dolluid in ben moslúi in t-usce úar imgel: ón t-shíd co fairgi nách fand, conid di gairthir Bóand.
Bóand do bruinni ar mbrúich braiss máthair Oengussa oll-maiss, mac ruc don Dagda, miad nglé, dar cend fir na síde-se. S.
Nó Bóand bó ocus find do chomrac in dá ríg-lind, in t-usce a sléib Guaire glé ocus sruth na síde-se. S.
Dabilla ainm in chon chóir robói oc mnái Nechtain nár-móir, messán Bóinne co mblaid luid ina diaid dia torchair.
Rosróen sruth in mara immach corrici na cairge clach, co ndernsat dá gabait de, conid úad rohainmnigthe.
Atát i n-airthiur Breg mbrass in dí chloich ‘sin loch lind-glass; Cnoc Dabilla ósin ille di choin bic na síde-se. S.
Síd Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Bóand ever-full.
Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Síd Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam.
Segais was her name in the Síd to be sung by thee in every land: River of Segais is her name from that point to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
From the well of righteous Mochua to the bounds of Meath’s wide plain, the Arm of Nuadu’s Wife and her Leg are the two noble and exalted names.
From the bounds of goodly Meath till she reaches the sea’s green floor she is called the Great Silver Yoke and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
Stormy Wave from thence onward unto branchy Cualnge; River of the White Hazel from stern Cualnge to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.
Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh: Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland: Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland — or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.
Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons, Tiber in the Romans’ keep: River Jordan thereafter in the east and vast River Euphrates.
River Tigris in enduring paradise, long is she in the east, a time of wandering from paradise back again hither to the streams of this Síd.
Bóand is her general pleasant name from the Síd to the sea-wall; I remember the cause whence is named the water of the wife of Labraid’s son.
Nechtan son of bold Labraid whose wife was Bóand, I aver; a secret well there was in his stead, from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
There was none that would look to its bottom but his two bright eyes would burst: if he should move to left or right, he would not come from it without blemish.
Therefore none of them dared approach it save Nechtan and his cup-bearers: — these are their names, famed for brilliant deed, Flesc and Lam and Luam.
Hither came on a day white Bóand (her noble pride uplifted her), to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power.
As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly, three waves burst from it, whence came the death of Bóand.
They came each wave of them against a limb, they disfigured the soft-blooming woman; a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye, the third wave shatters one hand.
She rushed to the sea (it was better for her) to escape her blemish, so that none might see her mutilation; on herself fell her reproach.
Every way the woman went the cold white water followed from the Síd to the sea (not weak it was), so that thence it is called Bóand.
Bóand from the bosom of our mighty river-bank, was mother of great and goodly Oengus, the son she bore to the Dagda — bright honour! in spite of the man of this Síd.
Or, Bóand is Bó and Find from the meeting of the two royal streams, the water from bright Sliab Guaire and the river of the Síds here.
Dabilla, the name of the faithful dog who belonged to the wife of Nechtan, great and noble, the lap-dog of Bóand the famous, which went after her when she perished.
The sea-current swept it away, as far as the stony crags; and they made two portions of it, so that they were named therefrom.
They stand to the east of broad Breg, the two stones in the blue waters of the lough: Cnoc Dabilla is so called from that day to this from the little dog of the Síd.1757 ’
This poem is identical to an in-tale* of Compert Con Culainn [‘The Conception of Cú Culainn’], entitled Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’], in which Cú Chulainn relates his journey to Eimhear. He gives her onomastic* details and tells her the story of the River Boyne.1758 Those two texts are particularly interesting, for parts of the river are described as body-parts of the goddess: a portion of the river is her forearm and her calf, while another is her neck and another her marrow. This clearly illustrates the belief in a goddess embodying the river: her body is the river. As Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’] was continually revised from the 8th c. to the 10th c., it is clear that the stratum of the legend predates the 10th c. Cuán ua Locháin must have had access to this earlier text and quoted the story again.
The second poem of the Dindshenchas, entitled Boand II, is addressed to Maoilsheachlainn mac Domnaill, the Uí Néill High King of Ireland from 980, who was ousted from the kingship in 1002 by Brian Bóramha, the leader of the Dál gCais sept*.1759 The poem was composed before the death of Maoilsheachlainn mac Domnaill in 1022. The story is slightly different from the first poem. It recounts that Bóinn, the wife of Nechtan, met the Dagda at her brother’s house and bore him a son, called Oengus, nine months later. To cleanse herself of her betrayal and guilt, she decided to bathe in the well of Nechtan. Waves then burst from the enchanted spring and drowned her. The poem is the following:
‘A Máilshechlainn mic Domnaill do chlainn ingine Comgaill, adcós duit, a máil Mide, senchas Bóinde báin-gile.
Bóand, bendacht forsin sruth roordaig Críst co cóem-chruth, conid hí ó glenn do glenn sruth Eorthanan na Hérenn.
Find Life, Find Gaileóin gairb, do chomóentaid dá chomainm, dia comrac atá Mag Find, Find lúath Life ocus Mífind.
Oén Find díb-sin, beres búaid, sech tóeb Temrach anairthúaid: ann comrecat ‘con chommar ocus Bóand bán-bronnat.
Bó Gúairi sech Tailtin tair siles tre Loch Munremair: Bó Gúairi ainm na haba ria ráiter in mór-Banna.
Mar atá Ordan is an, ó’ ráiter sruth Eorthanan, in Bóand bó ocus find, do chomrac in dá ríg-lind.
Tánic Bóand ann andes ben Nechtain cosin cairdes co tech Elcmairi na n-ech, fer dobered mór ndeg-breth.
IS ann dorala in Dagda i tig Elcmairi amra: rogab for guide na mná: rodusasáit re hóen-lá.
IS ann fastaitís in ngréin co cend nói mís, mór in scél, ic gorad in rafheóir ráin i cléithi in aeóir imláin.
And asbert in ben abus “Comrac rit, bad é m’ óen-gus”: “Is bad Oengus ainm in meicc” asbert Dagda tre daigbeirt.
Luid Bóand ó thig co tric dús dá tairsed in tiprait: derb lé docheiled a col da soised ló a fothrucod.
A thrí deogbaire in drúad, Flesc ocus Lesc ocus Lúam, Nechtain mac Námat dorat do chomét a chóem-thiprat.
Doruacht chucu Bóand mín dochum na tiprat iar fír: ércid tairsi in tobar tenn, corosbáid hí cen forcenn.
Dogabad uirre in cach trácht nách soised inber na mbárc ic Máelmórda, mét ratha, ic mac maisech Murchada.
Dorónad trócaire Dé for leith Chuind don chomairle, coréló in aidchi déin daill chucut, a Máil féil Sechlaind.
O Maelsechlainn son of Domnall of the family of Comgall’s daughter! I will tell thee, O prince of Meath! the tale of white bright Bóand.
Bóand — a blessing on the stream did Christ fair of form ordain; so she from glen to glen is the river Jordan of Erin.
Find Life, Find of the fierce Gaileon, from the union of two names, from their meeting is Mag Find named: — swift Find Life and Mifind.
One of the two Finds, that wins victory, flows past Tara from the north-east: there at the Confluence it meets with white-bellied Bóand.
Bó Guairi which flows eastward through Loch Munremair past Tailtiu, Bó Guairi is the name of the river which is called great Banna.
As there is ordan and an from which the river Jordan is called, so Bóand is bó and find from the meeting of the two royal waters.
Thither from the south came Bóand wife of Nechtan to the love-tryst to the house of Elcmaire, lord of horses, a man that gave many a good judgment.
Thither came by chance the Dagda into the house of famous Elcmaire: he fell to importuning the woman: he brought her to the birth in a single day.
It was then they made the sun stand still to the end of nine months — strange the tale — warming the noble fine grass in the roof of the perfect firmament.
Then said the woman here: “Union with thee, that were my one desire!” And Oengus shall be the boy’s name,” said the Dagda, in noble wise.
Bóand went from the house in haste to see if she could reach the well: she was sure of hiding her guilt if she could attain to bathe in it.
The druid’s three cup-bearers Flesc, and Lesc, and Luam, Nechtan mac Namat set to watch his fair well.
To them came gentle Bóand toward the well in sooth: the strong fountain rose over her, and drowned her finally.1760 ’
Fig. 5: An Bhóinn, the River Boyne at Trim, in Co. Meath, deified as the goddess Bóinnin Celtic times.
The River Shannon, an tSionainn in Modern Irish, rises at Tiltinbane in the Cuilcagh Mountain (Co. Cavan) and flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the Shannon Estuary. In the 2nd c. AD, Ptolemy gave the name Sēnu to the river, which O’Rahilly reads Senā and translates ‘the Ancient (Goddess)’.1761 It is based on Old Irish sen, ‘old’, ‘ancient’.1762 As Ó hÓgáin explains, the original name of the river must have been Senunā, a word meaning ‘the Old Honoured One’.1763 It was written Sinann and Sinand in Old Irish, and Sionann in Classical (i.e. Late Medieval) Irish.
In ancient times, the River Shannon was personified as a goddess. In an 8th-century text, preserved in the manuscript known as the Book of Armagh, describing St Patrick and his company crossing the Shannon, the river is indeed given the name of Bandea, that is ‘Goddess’:
‘[…] et uenierunt per alueum fluminis Sinnae, qui dicitur Bandea.
[…] and they came by the River Shannon, which is called Bandea.1764 ’
Moreover, a legend relates how the divine lady Sionann became and gave her name to the river after being drowned in its waters. The Metrical Dindshenchas gives two similar versions of the story. The first poem, entitled Sinann I, probably dates from the late 10th c. and traces the origin of the Shannon to the Well of Segais in the Land of Promise, which is actually the source of the River Boyne. It recounts that Sionann, the daughter of Lodan Luchair-glan of the Tuatha Dé Danann, went to see the well, where the mystical nuts of hazel trees inspiring poets fell. She was seriously wounded by the water and drowned in the stream flowing from the fountain. Her name was then given to the river:
‘Sáer-ainm Sinna saigid dún, dáig rolaimid a lom-thúr: nirb imfhann a gním ‘s a gleó dia mbói Sinann co slán-beó.
Rop ingen rogasta ríam Sinann sholasta shír-fhíal, co fúair cach ndodáil nduthain ingen Lodáin laech-luchair.
Hi tír tarngire co túi, ná geib anbthine imchrúi, fúair in suthain-blaid rosmill ingen Luchair-glain lúaidimm.
Tipra nad meirb fon muir mass for seilb Chondlai, ba comdass, feib adrímem ria rélad, luid Sinann dia sír-fhégad.
Topur co mbara búaine ar ur aba indúaire, feib arsluinnet a clotha, asmbruinnet secht prím-shrotha.
Immas na Segsa so dait co febsa fond fhír-thiprait: ós topur na tond tréorach fail coll n-écsi n-ilcheólach.
Síltair sopur na Segsa for topur na trén-chennsa, ó thuitit cnói Crínmoind cain fora ríg-broind réil roglain.
In óen-fhecht n-a tuile thrumm turchat uile don chóem-chrund, duille ocus bláth ocus mess, do chách uile ní hamdess.
Is amlaid-sin, cen góe nglé, tuitit n-a róe dorise for topur sográid Segsa fo chomdáil, fo chomfhebsa.
Tecait co húais, ra gním nglé, secht srotha, búais cen búaidre, dorís isin topur the dianid cocur ceól-éicse.
Adrímem in uide n-úag dia luid Sinann co sóer-lúad co lind mná Féile fuinid cona gléire glan-foruid.
Ní thesta máin bad maith linn for in saír sin ná saílfinn, acht immas sóis co srethaib, ba gním nóis dia núa-bethaid.
Rotheich in topur, toirm nglé, tria chocur na ceól-éicse, re Sinainn, rothadaill túaid, cor-riacht in n-abainn n-indúair.
Rolen sruthair na Segsa ben Luchair na lán-gensa cor-riacht huru na haba co fúair mudu is mór-mada.
Andsin robáided in breiss, is rothráiged fo throm-greiss: cid marb in ben co mbruth baidb rolen dia sruth a sáer-ainm. S.
Desin fri déine ndile lind mná Féile fír-gile: fail cech óen-airm, cúairt n-assa, sáer-ainm súairc na Sinna-sa. S.
The noble name of Sinann, search it out for us, since ye venture to lay bare its origin: not paltry was the action and the struggle whereby the name of Sinann became immortal.
Sinann, radiant, ever-generous, was once a maiden right active till she met all earthly misfortune, the daughter of Lodan from heroic Luchar.
In the still Land of Promise, that no storm of bloodshed mars, the deathless maid gained the fame that was her undoing, the daughter of bright Luchar, whom I celebrate.
A spring (not sluggish) under the pleasant sea in the domain of Condla (it was fitting, as we recount in telling the tale): — to gaze upon it went Sinann.
A well with flow unfailing is by the edge of a chilly river (as men celebrate its fame), whence spring seven main streams.
Here thou findest the magic lore of Segais with excellence, under the fresh spring: over the well of the mighty waters stands the poets’ music-haunted hazel.
The spray of the Segais is sprinkled on the well of the strong gentle lady, when the nuts of fair Crinmond fall on its royal bosom bright and pure.
Together in plenteous foison shoot forth all at once from the goodly tree leaf and flower and fruit; to everyone it is not unlovely.
In this wise, clear without falsehood, they fall afterwards in their season upon the honoured well of Segais at the like hour, with like excellence.
Nobly they come, with bright activity, seven streams, in an untroubled gush, back into the well yonder, whence rises a murmur of musical lore.
Let us recount the entire journey whereon went Sinann of noble repute to Lind Mna Feile in the west with the choicest of her splendid abode.
There lacks no desirable gift that I could not fancy as belonging to that noble lady save magic lore in its sequences: — it was a new practice for her fresh life.
The well fled back (clear fame through the murmur of its musical lore!) before Sinann, who visited it in the north, and reached the chilly river.
The woman of Luchar of full chastity followed the stream of Segais till she reached the river’s brink and met destruction and utter frustration.
There the comely lady was drowned and perished under heavy injury; though the woman of warlike ardour is dead, her noble name clave to her river.
Hence with zealous affection is called the Pool of the pure-white modest woman. In every place (an easy visit) is known the noble pleasant name of this Sinann. 1765 ’
The second poem, entitled Sinann II, must date from the early 11th c., since it is attributed to Cuán ua Locháin, the author of Boand I. It explains that the River Shannon had its source at Connla’s well, around which nine crimson hazel trees of wisdom grew. Their magical nuts used to fall in the waters of the well and engender mystical bubbles. Sionann, spellbound by the bubbles, went into the river with the aim of catching them and drowned:
‘Sinann, cá hadbar diatá, inneósad cen immargá: atbér cen snaidm co solus a hainm is a bunadus.
Innisfed do chách uile bunad Sinna srib-glaine: ní chél in dag-blad diatá: atbér adbar a hanma.
Tipra Chonnlai, ba mór muirn, bói fon aibeis eochar-guirm: sé srotha, nárb inann blad, eisti, Sinann in sechtmad.
Nói cuill Chrimaill, ind fhir glic, dochuiret tall fon tiprait: atát le doilbi smachta fo cheó doirchi dráidechta.
I n-óen-fhecht, amail nách gnáth, fhásas a nduille ‘s a mbláth: ingnad ciarsad sóer-búaid sin ‘s a mbeith i n-óen-úair abaig.
In úair is abaig in cnúas tuitit ‘sin tiprait anúas: thís immarlethat ar lár, co nosethat na bratán.
Do shúg na cnó, ní dáil diss, dogníat na bolca immaiss; tecait anall cach úaire dar na srothaib srib-úaine.
Bói ingen, ba buide barr, thall a túathaib dé Danann, Sinann gasta co ngné glain ingen Lodain luchair-glain.
Smuainis ind ingen adaig, in bind bél-derg banamail, co mbói da hindus cach mblad, acht in t-immus a óenar.
Lá da tánic cosin sruth ind ingen, ba cóem a cruth, co facca, nochor dál diss, na bolca áilli immaiss.
Téit ind ingen, toisc úaille, ‘na ndiaid ‘sin sruth srib-úaine: báiter hí da toisc anall; conid úaidi atá Sinann. S.
Dénum aile, mad áil lib, uáim ar in Sinainn srib-gil, cé bethir lim ‘ca légud, ní ferr hé ‘ná in cét-dénum.
Lind mná féile, ba fír dam, ainm na linde ‘nar ‘báided: is é a dír maras dise, más fír é fri indise.
Dénum aile, is mebair lemm, rochúala cách co coitchenn; Cú Núadat, ba mór maise, robáite ‘sin chrúad-glaise.
Nó combad Sinann co becht Sín Morainn, tre eterchert: nó sí in moirenn, aidble gním: áille Sinann ‘ná cach sín.
Sinann — the reason why it is so named, I will declare without deception: I will report clearly without perplexity its name and its origin.
I will declare to each and all the origin of bright-streaming Sinann: I will not hide the source of its renown, I will report the reason of its name.
Connla’s well, loud was its sound, was beneath the blue-skirted ocean: six streams, unequal in fame, rise from it, the seventh was Sinann.
The nine hazels of Crimall the sage drop their fruits yonder under the well: they stand by the power of magic spells under a darksome mist of wizardry.
Together grow, in unwonted fashion, their leaves and their flowers: — a wonder is this, though a noble quality, and a wonder their ripening all in a moment.
From the juice of the nuts (no paltry matter) are formed the mystic bubbles; thence come momently the bubbles down the green-flowing streams.
There was a maiden yellow-haired yonder, sprung of the Tuatha De Danann, the sprightly Sinann, bright of face, daughter of Lodan Luchair-glan.
One night the maiden bethought her, — the sweet-voiced red-lipped maiden — that every sort of fame was at her command save the mystic art alone.
The maiden, — fair was her form, — came on a day to the river and saw — it was no paltry matter — the lovely mystic bubbles.
The maiden goes on a lamentable venture after them into the green-flowing river: she is drowned yonder through her venture; so from her is Sinann named.
Another version if ye so desire ye may get from me concerning white-flowing Sinann; though it is to be read in my verse, it is no better than the first version.
Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly), is the name of the pool where she was drowned: this is its proper title inherited from her if that be the true tale to tell.1766 ’
It is noticeable that the legends of Bóinn and Sionann have the same motif. As the story of Bóinn is older and as Cuán ua Locháin is the author of both Boinn I and Sinann II, it seems clear that the legend of Sionann is a derivative of the legend of Bóinn. Both those legends mention the well of Nechtan, situated at the source of the River Boyne, where hazel trees with nuts giving mystical powers are situated. Patrick Ford, in an article entitled ‘The Well of Nechtan and ‘La Gloire Lumineuse’’, explains that the imbas forosna or ‘wisdom that illuminates’ – which was sought after by Irish poets and characterized poetic arts – was believed to be contained in those nuts.1767 In falling into the well, the nuts would imbue the river with all-encompassing knowledge: the source of wisdom thus resided in the body of water. It is interesting to note that an early Irish text, entitled Togail Bruidne Da Derga [‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’], composed around the 8th or 9th c., specifies that on the river Bush (in Co. Antrim) and the River Boyne could be found imbas, i.e. mystical inspiration and great wisdom:
‘[…] 7 imbas for Búais 7 Boind i medón in mís mithemon cacha blíadna […]
[…] and imbas on the Bush and the Boyne when the Boyne in the middle of the month of June each year […]1768 ’
Moreover, as mentioned above, Fionn mac Cumhaill obtains his imbas forosna by burning his thumb on the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, fished in the River Boyne, the ancient name of which *Bóuvinda directly refers to the notion of mystical illumination. When the lady Bóinn decides to challenge the Well of Nechtan in trying to drink water from it or bathe into it, it is certainly to gain access to the absolute seer-knowledge contained in its waters rather than out of mere curiosity. Maud Joynt explains that “the original legend perhaps foreshadowed the dangers which await those who seek the higher wisdom”, because absolute knowledge was believed to be perilous when not handled correctly and was not understandable to anybody: it was reserved for a select few.1769 From this, it follows that the rivers in Ireland, such as the Boyne or the Shanonn, were envisaged as divine figures to whom were attributed the gift of poetical inspiration, mystical wisdom and all-encompassing knowledge.
Today, the source of the River Boyne, situated in Newberry (Co. Kildare), is still worshipped by the local population: it is a holy well, called ‘Trinity Well’, where people gather to perform various religious and secular activities on Trinity Sunday.1770 The pattern generally consists of reciting the rosary and taking a drink of water from the well, which is followed by music, games and dancing. The well is believed to preserve health all the year round and bring good luck, and local people particularly stress that its water contains a cure for eye-problems and even blindness.1771 An oral legend recorded in the Schools’ Manuscript Collection,1772 1938, is particularly interesting, for it recounts that the origin of Trinity Well is pagan and was attributed to a pagan queen called Boyne or Bóinne, wife of King Cairbre – holy wells are generally attributed to a patron Saint. This legend relates that Bóinne was drowned under the waters of the well after making trial of the bewitched well:
‘Trinity Well is of pagan origin. The River Boyne rises in Trinity Well, it is said that the name Boyne or Bóinne was also the name of a pagan queen who lived in a palace that stood on the site of the present Newberry Hall. Cairbre was the king’s name and he would not allow anyone but himself and his three cupbearers to get water from the well. Bóinne went in spite of all warnings to the well, it overflowed and carried her on its water to the sea.1773 ’
This folklore account is the same as the early medieval legend recounting the origin of the River Boyne and its deification. This illustrates the long-lasting tradition of the legend of the goddess Bóinn, and the Christian holy well situated at the source of the river proves that the waters of the river are still regarded as sacred.
The River Inny: Eithne
The motif of the divine lady drowned in the river is found again in the story of the goddess Eithne, whose name is eponymous of the two rivers called Inny, an Eithne in Irish. The major one flows from Lough Sheelan and joins the River Shannon at Lough Ree in the centre of Ireland (Co. Westmeath and Longford) and the smaller one flows in the peninsula of Iveragh (Co. Kerry).1774 Eithne’s name is derived from the Irish word ét, ‘envy’ and means ‘She who causes Envy’.1775 A legend, contained in an early text in Old Irish, entitled Ferchuitred Medba, recounts that Eithnewas drowned in the stream of Bearramhain while she was pregnant by the mythical King Conchobhar mac Neasa.1776 Their son Furbaidhe was cut from her womb and the river was called after her:
‘7 Eithne ingen Echach Fedlig, ben aili don Concobur cetna, mathair Forbaidi mic Concubuir 7 is aire atbertha Forbaidi dhe .i. a forbud .i. a gerrad do roinduib (sic) a broinn a mathar iarna bathad a nGlais Berramain frissa raiter Eithne indíu 7 is uaithi sloindter ind aband .i. Eithni.
And Eithne, the daughter of Eochaid Feidhleach, another wife of the same Conchobhar, the mother of Furbaidhe son of Conchobhar. And the reason why he was called Furbaidhe i.e. he was hacked i.e. he was cut with spear-heads from the womb of his mother after she was drowned in the stream of Bearramhain, which is called today the Eithne, and it is from her that the river is named, i.e. Eithne.1777 ’
The same tale is related in Cath Boinde [‘The Battle of Boind’], dating from the early 10th c.,1778 and in the c. 13th-century Cóir Anmann.1779 Another poem, entitled Carn Furbaide [‘The Carn of Furbaide’], contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas, offers a slightly different story. It tells that Eithne was the wife of Conchobhar and Lugaid drowned her while she was expecting Furbaidhe in a river which now bears her name:
‘Atá sund Carn uí Chathbath fors’rimred arm imathlam, lechtán láechda laích col-lí, fertán fráechda Furbaidi.
Furbaide Fer Benn, ba brass, mac do Chonchobar chomdass: Ethne a máthair, moltait raind, siur do Meidb is do Chlothrainn.
Luid Ethne sin cóiced cain co m-báe h-i fail Chonchobair: dia m-bátar and immalle de dorónad Furbaide.
Iarsin mostic Ethne anair dia h-assait i Cruachan-maig: dolluid Lugaid ara cend co bun síd-maige Silend.
Sáeb-écht doróni Lugaid for mnaí Conchobair chubaid: tuc am-mac tria tóeb immach iarna bádud balc-thorrach.
Is uaithi ainmnichther de ind abann dian ainm Eithne, ó mnaí, ní scél cleithe cruind, atá Eithne arin abaind. […]
Here stands the Carn of Cathbad’s grandson against whom a nimble weapon was wielded; Furbaide’s heath-clad grave, martial monument of a glorious soldier.
Huge was Furbaide, surnamed Fer Benn, son to comely Conchobar: Ethne, whom verses extol, was his mother, the sister of Medb and Clothru.
Ethne came to the pleasant province and made her home with Conchobar: when they lived together there Furbaide was begotten by him.
Presently Ethne journeys from the east to be delivered in Mag Cruachan: Lugaid came to meet her at the fairy plain of Bun Silenn.
Lugaid committed a foul crime upon shapely Conchobar’s wife: he drew her son forth from her side after drowning her in ripe pregnancy.
[From her is named thenceforth the river that is called Ethne; from the woman—’tis no grudging secret—the river bears the name of Ethne.] […]1780 ’
Even though Eithne is not represented as a river-goddess in Irish mythology, like Bóinn or Sionann, in this legend clearly lies the pattern of the lady who, after being drowned, becomes the river. The divine lady is eponymous of the river she embodies.
The River Érne / Lough Érne: Érne
This motif is also found in the legend of the goddess Érne, related in a poem of the Metrical Dindshenchas entitled Loch Érne. It recounts that the lady Érne was the chief of a peaceful group of maidens in Ráth Cruachan, who took fright at the sight of the terrible Cruachu Olcai. They then ran into Lough Érne and were drowned under its waters:
‘Loch nÉrne, ard a oscur, ba lind garg cen glan-fostud, diar’ thadbain a thescul túaid i fescur fhagmair find-lúain. […]
Andsin romemaid in loch fosin fedain, ronúar-chroth: isin chrích, ra glé-raind glúair, bi mbátar Éraind arm-rúaid.
Desin atá in gairm co ngail, ainm locha Erne adbail, cía robáided and iarsain Erne áilgen imchubaid.
Érne chaid cen chuird cnedaig ingen Buirg báin búredaig ba sárgad sáir-thrín in son bán-mac Máinchin maic Mochon.
Érne nóisech cen nemain ba tóisech for ingenaib hi Ráith Crúachan na reb réid; nirb úathad ben ‘ca bith-réir.
Aicci nobítis ria mess min-sheóit Medba na mór-thress, a cír a criol cen chlód cona diol do derg-ór.
Co tánic hi Cruachain cais Olcai co n-úath-blaid amnais, cor’ chroith a ulcha ar in slóg in garb-fher doith daiger-mór.
Roscaindre fo Chrúaich Cera na baindre, na hingena, taidbsin a chrotha fo chair, gairbsin a gotha glóraig.
Rotbeich Érne, ilur mban, fo loch Erne, nách inglan, cor’ dáil tairsiu a thuile thúaid, corosbáid uile i n-óen-úair.
Cía bad úadaib, is breth chert fiad na slúagaib, ni sóeb-recht, is tairm dar trocha rothairg ainm locha Erne imaird. Loch.
A rí, rop fedil fír dam fáilte demin dom dídnad, for nim co mbúadaib rombé, a fhir túargaib loch nÉrne.
Loch Érne — high its leap! was a turbulent pool, without bright tranquillity, when first it showed its troubled waters in the north, on a radiant evening in harvest. […]
Then the lake burst forth under the array, till it quaked with cold, in the country, with its pure bright portion, where dwelt the red-armed Erainn.
Hence comes the valiant title, the name of vast Loch Érne; though afterwards there was drowned there the gentle comely Érne.
The chaste Érne, who knew no art of wounding, the daughter of loud-shouting Borg Bán (the warrior was an overmatch for a powerful third) the white-skinned son of Mainchín son of Mochu.
The noble Érne, devoid of martial spirit, was chief among the maidens in Rath Cruachan, home of lightsome sports: women not a few obeyed her will.
To her belonged, to judge of them, the trinkets of Medb, famed for combats, her comb, her casket unsurpassed, with her fillet of red gold.
There came to thick-wooded Cruachu Olcai with grim and dreadful fame, and he shook his beard at the host, the sullen and fiery savage.
The young women and maidens scattered throughout Cruach Cera at the apparition of his grisly shape and the roughness of his brawling voice.
Érne fled, with a troop of women, under Loch Érne, that is never dull, and over them poured its flood northward and drowned them all together.
Though it may be from them — ’tis a sure judgment in presence of the hosts, and no dubious right, — it is an imperishable title that it has achieved, even the name of noble Loch Érne. O King, may I have, safe and certain, a sure welcome to comfort me! may I find it in glorious Heaven, O thou that didst raise up Loch Érne!1781 ’
Érne gave her name to the River Érne, an Éirne in modern Irish, which flows from Beaghy Lough (Co. Cavan), through Lough Gowna, Lough Oughter and Lough Érne (Co. Longford, Cavan, and Fermanagh) and into the Atlantic Ocean near Ballyshannon (Co. Donegal).1782
The River Odras
The River Odras, in modern Irish Odhras, must correspond to the today’s River Boyle, an Bhúill in Irish, flowing from Lough Garra, through the village of Boyle and into Lough Key (Co. Roscommon). It was personified by its eponymous goddess.1783 A poem, entitled Odras, in the Metrical Dindshenchas, explains that Odras was the wife of the lord of cattle and a milkmaid. She was transformed into a stream by the Mórrígain, because she had refused to let one of her cows mate with the bull of the Mórrígain. One day, when Odras was asleep, the Mórrígain came and stole the cow, which aroused Odras’s wrath. A fierce battle between the two ladies ensued and the Mórrígain, who was more powerful, turned Odras into a river which then bore her name. The poem is the following:
‘Odras, úais ind ingen, fris’ indlem laíd lúaidme, Odornatan airme meic Laidne meic Lúaidre.
Ban-briugaid ba brígach in gnímach glan gúasach, céile cáem co cruthacht do Buchatt balcc búasach.
Bóaire cáid Cormaic co roblait in Buchatt, dúiscid búar co m-blaitne cach maitne for muchacht.
Fechtus luid dia ésse a ben glésse gasta, Odras rúad co romét, do chomét búar m-blasta.
Moch dia m-boí ‘na codlud Odras groc-dub gnóach, dosrocht ben in Dagda, ba samla día sóach.
Tuc léi tarb in tnúthach, in rígan garb gnáthach, baí i Líathmuine láthach, in fíachaire fáthach.
Dairis boin in búaball, tarb túamann ‘nar taídenn, ó Themraig tric táraill co Slemnaib Fraích Oírenn.
Slemon ainm in tairb-sin, dremon in dóel donn-sin: a ainm, mer cen mebsain, ‘sed rolen in fonn-sin.
Luid co Crúachain cróda iarsind úath-blaid ágda in Mórrígan mórda, ba slóg-dírmach sámda.
Luid Odras ‘na h-iarn-gait, iarmairt nárbu ada, ‘s a gilla dúr dorthain, torchair i Cúil Chada.
Cada ainm a gilla rofinna mór fíche: ruc Odras, úair áithe, for lurg a búair bíthe.
Iarsin, d’ éis a gilla, luid in ben gléis glanda co Síd Crúachan cumma, co fríth úath-blad alla.
Roléic cotlud chuicce in groc-dub cen glicce i nDaire úar Fhálgud dia fúair sárgud sicce.
Dosruacht ina tathum, trúag tachur for tulaig, in Mórrígan úathmar a h-úaim Chrúachan cubaid.
Rochan fuirre ind agda tria luinde cen logda cach bricht dían, ba dalbda, fri Slíab mBadbgna m-brogda.
Legais in ben brígach fri Segais, sreb súanach, mar cach linn cen líg-blad: nísbaí brígrad búadach.
Don tshruthán fháen fhoglas is ainm sáer co soblas, luid ón mnaí thrúaig thadaill cosin abainn Odras.
Odras, noble the lady for whom we furbish the lay that we indite, the daughter of Odornatan […] son of Laidne son of Luaidir.
A lady of land was she, and mighty, deedful, radiant, danger-loving, the fair and shapely spouse of stout Buchat, lord of cattle.
Keeper of kine to worshipful Cormac was Buchat, man of might: he roused the lusty herd betimes each morning.
His trim alert wife Odras, fierce and tall, followed him one day to watch the sweet-fleshed cattle.
As busy dark-wrinkled Odras was sleeping in the early morning the Dagda’s wife found her: in this wise came the shape-shifting goddess:
The envious queen fierce of mood, the cunning raven-caller, brought off with her the bull that lived in miry Liathmuine.
The bull covered a cow, the paddock bull in our herd: he hied him in haste from Temair to the levels of the Moor of Oiriu.
Slemon was that bull’s name: wild was that brown savage, a mettlesome unmastered beast: his name clave to that lowland.
There came to blood-stained Cruachu, according to the weird and terrible tale, the mighty Mórrígain, whose pleasure was in mustered hosts.
Odras came to despoil her by arms, to an issue that was not lawful, with her stark ill-fated henchman, who fell at Cuil Cada.
Cada was her gillie’s name—many a fight he knew; Odras brought him, in a bitter hour, on the track of her herd of heifers.
Afterward, when her henchman was gone, the lady came, in shining trim, to Síd Cruachan likewise, and a weird event befell yonder.
Imprudently the dark-wrinkled one let sleep come over her in cold Daire Falgud, where she met mortal outrage.
The horrid Mórrígain out of the cave of Cruachu, her fit abode, came upon her slumbering: alas, the combat on the hill!
The owner of kine chanted over her, with fierceness unabating, toward huge Sliab Bodbgna every spell of power: she was full of guile.
The forceful woman melted away toward Segais in a sleepy stream, like a pool void of lustre: she lost her victorious powers.
Odras is the sweet-sounding noble name of the sluggish pallid streamlet: it passed from the lady—luckless visitant—to the river Odras.1784 ’
Here the pattern is different from the legends of Bóinn, Sionann, Eithne and Érne, since Odras is not drowned in the river, but the concept is identical. The river and the goddess are as one: the goddess is the personification of the river.
Gallo-British River-Goddesses: Mothers and Healers
The River Seine: Sequana
Sequana is the name given by Julius Caesar in De Bello Gallico (Book I, 1) to the River Seine, which rises at the Sources-de-la-Seine, on the plateau of Langres, about thirty kilometres to the north-west of Dijon (Côte d’Or), and flows in the Paris Basin and on into the English Channel, near Le Havre (Seine-Maritime).1785 With the River Marne (Matrona), it marked the frontier between the Belgae and the Gauls:
‘Gallia est omnis divisainpartestres, quarum unam incoluntBelgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum linguaCeltae, nostraGalliappellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequanadividit.
All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae.’
Four campaigns of excavations, carried out at the Sources-de-la-Seine, revealed the existence of a huge Gallo-Roman water sanctuary, notably composed of a temple, rooms and baths, nine inscriptions to the Dea Sequana, a bronze statue representing the goddess standing on a boat with a duck-headed prow, a stone statue of a seated goddess and a considerable amount of votive offerings: 391 ex-votos in stone, 256 in metal and 278 in wood.1786 Some of the votive offerings are images of the pilgrims themselves, while others are representations of body parts, such as legs, hands, breasts, pelvises, etc. These discoveries revealed that Sequana was the eponymous goddess of the River Seine and that her cult was prominent in Gallo-Roman times.
The campaigns of excavations
The first excavations, carried out by Henri Baudot from 1836 to 1842 at the bottom of the cliff, revealed a series of rooms, a huge entrance and a building where a stone water pipe, fed by an underground spring, used to flow.1787 From 1926 to 1939, Henri Corot successively undertook nine campaigns of excavations, during which he uncovered a vast trapezoid-shaped esplanade and an ellipsoidal basin (4.50mx3m), crossed by a pipe, harnessing a second spring.1788 From 1948 to 1953, Roland Martin and Gabriel Grémaud excavated a fanum*, composed of a five-metre squared cella*, enclosed by a gallery, and a huge yard (15mx10m), with a spring in its middle, surrounded by a mosaic-floored portico. According to Martin, this building and its sacred pool must have been the main place of devotion of the shrine.1789 Finally, Deyts, who undertook to clean up the site from 1963 to 1967, discovered about 300 wooden statues underneath the concrete floor of the trapezoid esplanade unearthed by Corot.1790 This discovery was of great significance, for very little material of this kind had been found until then. The marshy area where the wooden carvings were found had rendered the preservation of those statuettes possible; water and peat had kept the wood intact.1791
Etymology of her name
The meaning of Sequana’s name remains obscure and uncertain. It is however undeniably Celtic. Edmond Jung and Garrett Olmsted propose to derive her name from an IE root *sik w – or seiku- meaning ‘to drip’, ‘to pour’ or ‘to flow’, ‘to stream’.1792 Sequana (*seik-ow-an-a) might therefore be a descriptive name meaning ‘the river which is slowly flowing out’ or ‘the one which is dripping’. It may refer to the small rate of flow on the upper course of the River Seine. As noted above, river names were very often descriptive of the nature and quality of the water, that is whether the stream was fast or slow, green or black, bubbling or quite, etc.
Her name is similar to the name of the tribe of the Sequani, who lived in the present-day region of Franche Comté, in the area of Besançon.1793 Lambert suggests that their name is geographical and signifies ‘the people of the River Seine’, which would indicate that the sept* originally inhabited the lower basin of the River Seine.1794 Bernard Sergent adds that it must have had a religious dimension and referred to the sacredness of the waters of the Seine. The ethnonym* Sequani would therefore mean ‘Those (who are the worshippers) of Sequana’.1795
The goddess Sequana is mentioned in nine dedications, engraved on various objects, such as altars, a stele* depicting a pilgrim, a gold ring, a jar, a leg in stone and a plaque in bronze representing breasts.1796 When the votive formula dea is used, it indicates that the inscription dates from the second half of the 2nd c. AD or the 3rd c. AD.1797
The celebrated bronze statue of Sequana, dated 1st c. AD, was discovered together with the bronze statue of a faun in a riff of the cliff overhanging the site by Corot in 1933.1825 These statues may have been hidden there in a time of insecurity, possibly when the first Barbarian invasions swept the area in 275 AD.1826
The representation of the goddess is very classical: she wears a diadem, a chiton* and a pallium* (fig. 12).1827The only element which is of indigenous character is the boat on which she stands. Its peculiarity resides in its stern which is in the form of a duck tail and in its prow which is in the shape of a duck head, holding a round fruit, a pearl, a cake or pellet in its beak.1828 Similar images of ducks with a cake or a pellet in their beak have been found at Ashby-de-la-Launde (Lincolnshire), Rotherly Down (Wiltshire) and at the Iron Age hillfort of Milber Down (Devon), where the duck is represented swimming, for the water-line is drawn along its body (fig. 13).1829 Terracotta figurines of ducks in skiffs were also discovered in Vichy (Allier) and Pourçain-sur-Besbre (Allier) in funerary tombs of children.1830 In the representation of Sequana, the duck obviously symbolizes the water of the river.1831 Deyts argues that this statue must have been offered by merchants, traders or boatmen, who wanted to honour the protectress and benefactress of water-borne trade on the River Seine.1832 This would suggest that the cult of Sequana was not related to healing only but also to commerce and waterways. She may have simultaneously presided over sick pilgrims and tradesmen.
Fig. 12: Statue in bronze of Sequana standing on a boat with a duck-headed prow (Sources-de-la-Seine). H. 0.615m and weight: 7.560 kg. In the Musée Archéologique de Dijon. Deyts, 1985, p. 8.
Fig. 13: Bronze duck with the demarcation of the water-line along its body, holding a pellet or a cake in its beak, discovered in the Iron Age Milber Down Fort (Devon). Green, 2004, plate 15, fig. 2.
The 1st-century AD statue in limestone, found by Baudot in 1832, representing a goddess seated in a chair and wearing a pleated tunic, might also be a representation of the goddess Sequana, for it was found in the room facing the first sacred spring (see fig. 22).1833 Moreover, the sitting position is a mark of pre-eminence generally reserved for deities. This room might thus have been a small temple or canopy* where pilgrims could come, collect their thoughts and pray to the goddess. The head and arms of the statue are now missing (fig. 14).
Fig. 14: Stone statue discovered in 1832 by Baudot at the Sources-de-la-Seine, representing a seated draped goddess: Sequana? Deyts, 1994, pl. 58, n°2.
Votive Offerings and Sanctuary
Apart from the ex-voto bearing a dedication to the goddess Sequana and the two statues, many other votive offerings were unearthed on the site, such as coins, personal offerings (rings, fibulas*, bracelets, necklaces or hairpins), reliefs* portraying swaddled babies or pilgrims and anatomic ex-votos* representing various parts of the body (legs, arms, breasts, pelvises, internal organs, etc). The series of swaddled infants (fig. 15) and full-sized male or female characters amounts to fifty-five images in stone and fifty in wood.1834 They are representations of the pilgrims who came to the sanctuary to honour and pray to Sequana for their vows to be fulfilled. The reliefs* generally portray them wearing the bardocucullus* (fig. 16), or holding symbolical offerings, such as a piece of fruit, a dog, a rabbit, fowl or a purse, in their hands (fig. 17).1835Some of them are also pictured with a ‘straps-and-medallion’ motif on chest and back, a garment which might have been a kind of talisman specifically worn for the pilgrimage to the sacred site (fig. 17).1836
Fig. 15: Representation in stone of a wrapped baby. (Sources-de-la-Seine). Source: Musée archéologique de Dijon.
Fig. 16: Statues in wood discovered at the Sources-de-la-Seine, representing pilgrims wearing the Gaulish bardocucullus*. Source: Musée archéologique de Dijon
Fig. 17: Pilgrims holding an apple (left) and a dog (right). The pilgrim on the left wears the straps-and-medallion on chest and back (Sources-de-la-Seine). Source: Musée archéologique de Dijon.
The impressive series of anatomic ex-votos*, consisting of 319 pieces in stone, 247 in bronze and 253 in wood, proves that Sequana was worshipped as a healer.1837 People would come to the shrine and deposit a representation of the body part which was sore or diseased for Sequana to cure it. Sequana was not specialized in curing particular ailments, since all the parts of the human body are represented: heads and busts (127 in stone, 80 in wood, 5 in terracotta); torsos, trunks, pelvises (39 in stone, 120 in bronze, 13 in wood); legs and feet (100 in stone, 4 in bronze, 45 in wood) (fig. 20); arms and hands (43 in stone, 11 in wood) (fig. 20), eyes (119 plaques in bronze) (fig. 18) and internal organs (4 in bronze, 53 in wood) (fig. 19). Sculpted faces with half-closed eyes may be representations of blind people, while distorted legs, arms or feet may point to particular disabilities.1838 As for the internal organs, such as pharynxes, larynxes, lungs, open or closed ribcages, intestines and kidneys, they are ‘stylized’ representations which do not accurately reproduce the internal human body. Gaulish people actually had little knowledge of the shape and functions of the internal organs, because they did not dissect human beings.1839
Fig. 18: Metal sheet representing eyes from the Sources-de-la-Seine. Source: Musée Archéologique de Dijon.
The impersonality and similarity in the 119 bronze plaques picturing eyes and the ninety-one representing pelvises tend to indicate that the ex-votos were mass-produced and sold on the site. Very few anatomic ex-votos* indeed bear a name, apart from the bronze plaque with eyes signed by a Celtic woman Matta(fig. 21)1840 and the plaque with breasts offered bySinuella (fig. 8). They were probably made by artisans who used local materials, such as the oolitic limestone of the surrounding cliffs and the oak growing on the plateau, which were easy to extract and shape.1841 Their workshops were certainly situated inside the sanctuary so that the pilgrims could buy their offerings on the spot.
It is interesting to note that about 2,000 bone fragments belonging to around 193 domestic and wild animals, such as oxes, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, dogs, chickens, stags, boars, foxes and hares, were also discovered by Deyts in the marshy area of the sanctuary.1842 Wild animals are on the other hand very little represented. Pig and the sheep predominate among the domestic animals. This evidences that animals were sacrificed and that religious rites aiming at honouring the goddess must have been held on the site.
Fig. 19: Anatomic ex-votos* in wood representing internal organs: a rib cage (left) and lungs (right) from the Sources-de-la-Seine. Source: Musée Archéologique de Dijon.
Fig. 20: Anatomic ex-votos*: an arm in wood (left) and a leg in stone (right) (Sources-de-la-Seine). Source: Musée Archéologique de Dijon.
Fig. 21: Bronze plaque representing eyes offered by a Celtic woman named Matta, discovered at the Sources-de-la-Seine. Source: Musée Archéologique de Dijon.
Although the waters of the River Seine had no mineral or therapeutic virtues, these anatomic ex-votos* prove that Sequana was a salutary goddess who was prayed to and worshipped for her healing powers.1843 Deyts, who proposes a reconstitution of the sanctuary in Gallo-Roman times (fig. 22), explains that sick pilgrims would come to the sanctuary, perform ablutions* in one of the sacred springs and stop at the temple – the fanum* discovered by Martin – to pray to the goddess for help.1844 They would buy an image of their diseased body part in a stall situated in the enclosure of the sanctuary and offer it to the goddess while making a vow of recovery. The ex-votos may have been heaped up onto shelves or placed on the floor in the gallery of the temple, under the portico or maybe in the open air. From the layout of the sanctuary, Deyts infers that there may have been an incubation portico, that is a place where the sick people would spend the night in order to encounter the deity in their dreams and thus recover more quickly.1845
The priests, who were regarded as intermediaries between the gods and the pilgrims, would interpret the dreams, treat the sick people, and offer them advice and remedies in the name of Sequana. The tradition of incubation is not originally Celtic and was certainly brought from ancient Greece, where it was particularly in use, such as at the 6th-century BC sanctuary of Epidaurus, situated in the north-east of Pennopolese, which was one of the most famous healing centres of Greece dedicated to the god-physician Asclepius.1846 After the whole ritual of ablutions*, prayers and deposit of ex-votos, the pilgrims would later come back to the sanctuary and bring various kinds of offerings to thank the goddess for accomplishing their vows. Dedications to Sequana bearing the votive formula v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘(the dedicator) paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ indeed indicates that vows had been granted by the goddess.
The sanctuary, which dates from the 1st c. AD, is Gallo-Roman. Coins discovered on the site prove that it was still in use in the 4th c. AD.1847 Yet, it is clear that the goddess and the place of worship predate Gallo-Roman times, since Sequana’s name is Celic. Moreover, a significant number of the dedicators are peregrines bearing Celtic names, such as Sinuella, daughter of Vectius, and Dagolitus, the sculptor. Others are peregrines bearing Latin names but their father’s names are Celtic: Lucius, son of Nertecomaros and Mariola, daughter of Maiumilus or Mattuus. The fact that the father chose a Latin name for his son or daughter shows his desire to become Romanized. Nonetheless, despite his Romanization, the dedicator honours a Celtic deity, which proves his attachment to his original roots and cults. Similarly, Clementia Montiola, who bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens, must be of Celtic origin, since her second name is Gaulish. As for Rufus and Hilaricus, they definitely have Latin names, but their unique names indicate that they are not Roman citizens. Accordingly, all of them, except for Flavia Favilla, are peregrines of Celtic origin in the process of Romanization. Furthermore, it can be noted that none of the dedicators held official functions in Roman Gaul. From this, it follows that the sanctuary was mostly frequented by local people in Gallo-Roman times and that it must originally have been an indigenous place of devotion.
There is no hagiographical tradition concerning the site of the Sources-de-la-Seine, although many stories tell of attempts of saints to overthrow and replace the indigenous gods, religious practices and traditions. It is nonetheless worth noting that a powerful abbey dedicated to Saint Seine or Sequanus was established in 534 AD ten kilometres south of the pagan sanctuary of Sequana, which was partly destroyed at the end of the 3rd c. AD during the Germanic invasions.1848 Legends recount that Sequanus’s donkey made a spring to spout up. From that time on, the saint became worshipped in periods of drought. Until the 18th c, pilgrims came to the source to attend mass and traditionally throw goblets of water.1849
A part of the site was bought by the city of Paris in 1864 and transformed into a park, where visitors may now come and throw coins into the sacred spring. In the fifties, an artificial grotto was erected near the ancient sanctuary to receive a modern stone statue of the goddess Sequana sculpted by François Jouffroy.1850 Sequana is represented as a Classical nymph, wearing leaves in her hair and a cloth around her hips and holding fruit in her hands (fig. 23).
Fig. 22: Reconstruction of the Gallo-Roman sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Sequana at the Sources-de-la-Seine with the sacred spring at its centre. Deyts, 1994, pp. 6-7.
1. fanum* (temple building) 2. portico surrounding the main spring 3. canopy* 4. possible emplacement of a cult statue of Sequana 5. ancillary buildings of unknown functions 6. oval basin containing sacred water 7. processional way 8. buildings, possibly shops, situated at the entrance of the sanctuary (I to IV are the different terraces).
Fig. 23: Modern statue of the Nymph of the River Seine by the Sculptor Jouffroy, situated in an artificial grotto, near the ancient Gallo-Roman sanctuary of the Sources-de-la-Seine dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sequana. Deyts, 1985, p. 9.
The River Marne: Matrona
The River Marne, which rises on the plateau of Langres at Balesme-sur-Marne (Marne) and joins the River Seine at Charenton-le-Pont (Val-de-Marne), was anciently called Matrona, as Caesar in De Bello Gallico (Book I, 1) mentions.1851
Epigraphy and Sanctuary
An inscription engraved on an altar in grey limestone, probably dating from the 2nd c. AD, was discovered in Balesmes-sur-Marne (Haute-Marne) in July 1831 by a farmer. It is dedicated to the goddess Matrona, the personification of the River Marne. The inscription reads: Successus Natalis l(ibertus) maceriem caementiciam circa hoc templum de sua pecunia Matronae ex voto suscepto v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘Successus, freed from Natalis, had this outer wall in rubble stones built around this temple at his own expense in honour of Matrona, after making a vow, and paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 24).1852 The dedicator Successus is a freed slave who bears a Latin name. His old master, Natalis, also has a Latin name and is a peregrine*, since he bears the unique name. This inscription is highly interesting, for it mentions a sanctuary erected in honour of the goddess Matrona. The dedicator offers the outer wall surrounding the temple in gratitude for the accomplishment of a vow.
Thirty years earlier, in May 1805, ruins of Gallo-Roman buildings had been found in a field located in a place known as ‘La Marnotte’, five kilometres south-east of Langres, near Balesmes-sur-Marne (Haute-Marne). Excavations carried out by Mr. Devaraigne at the spring of the river revealed no less than twelve rooms, some of which were equipped with hot baths, fragments of paintings in fresco, fragments of marble from the surrounding rocks, a pipe engraved with the initials of the founder of the baths TI. CL. ATT. F. and a dozen copper coins with the effigy of Titus (79 -81 AD) and Nero (54-68 AD).1853 This indicates that the sanctuary was certainly erected at the beginning of the 1st c. AD. The temple to Matrona, mentioned in the inscription, must have been part of those buildings.1854
Matrona’s name is undeniably Celtic. Matrona is derived from the Gaulish mātīr, ‘mother’, cognate with Old Irish máthair, ‘mother’, gen. máthar, which all come from Indo-European *mātēr signifying ‘mother’.1855 Matrona (‘Divine Mother’) is the singular form of Matronae (‘Mother Goddesses’), honoured in multiple inscriptions from the Rhineland and Cisalpine Gaul.
Fig. 24: Dedication to the goddess Matrona found in a field near the spring of the River Marne (Haute-Marne). Source: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Langres.
The ‘Mother-River’ Goddess
What were the functions of the goddess Matrona, embodiment of the River Marne? First and foremost, her name points to her maternal function. The river is envisaged as a mother who nurtures her people, for it had a significant life-giving and nourishing character insomuch as its waters were full of fishes, irrigated and fertilized the soil, ensuring thus the growth of crops, which in turn provided food for the cattle and the people living on its banks. The tradition of ‘mother-rivers’ was important in Gaul, since many river-names in France are derived from matra, matrona, ‘mother’, such as La Moder, a tributary of the Zorn in Drusenheim (Bas-Rhin); the Maromme, a tributary of the Seine in the valley of Cailly (Seine-Maritime); La Maronne, a tributary of the Blaise in Brousseval (Haute-Marne); Maronne, a fountain in the parish of Ognes (Aisne); La Marronne, a tributary of the Dordogne (Corrèze); the Mayronnes, a tributary of the Orbieu (Aude); La Meyronne, a tributary of the Argens (Var); the Meyronnes, a spring flowing in the Ubayette (Alpes de Haute Provence); La Meyronne, a tributary of the Desges (Haute-Loire), etc.1856 The cult of the river as a mother is not specifically a Celtic tradition. It is indeed found in many other mythologies of the world. Without going into details here, Adolphe Pictet specifies that rivers are called mâtaras, ‘mothers’ in the Vedic glossary Naighantu, matarô, ‘mothers’ or matarô ģitayô, ‘living mothers’ in the Iranian collection of sacred texts Avesta, and are given the epithet of mâtrǐtamâs – the superlative form of mâtar – ‘the mothers par excellence’ in the Vedic mystical text Rigvêda.1857
The fact that the goddess Matrona had a sanctuary, composed of a complex of baths and a temple, built in her honour at the spring of the River Marne tends to indicate that she was also regarded as a goddess possessing salutary virtues. Apart from the baths, there is as yet no archaeological evidence of a curative cult rendered to Matrona. Unlike the sanctuary of the Sources-de-la-Seine, where a healing cult to the goddess Sequana is clearly evidenced, archaeologists have not found any representations of pilgrims or anatomic ex-votos* at the shrine of Matrona. Neither does the dedication offered by Successus provide proof of such a cult. Even though Successus thanks the goddess for granting his vow, nothing indicates that it is a vow of recovery. It would have been so if the inscription had been engraved on an anatomic ex-voto*, such as the ones found at the Source-de-la-Seine, inscribed on a leg in stone or on a metal sheet representing breasts (see above). Nonetheless, the waters of the River Marne were certainly envisaged as beneficial and salutary, since a complex of baths was erected at its source. The ruins of the Gallo-Roman buildings and the mention of a temple dedicated to Matrona by Succellus prove that pilgrims came to pray to the goddess Matrona and to take the waters of her river. As the site has not been entirely excavated, new investigations could provide further evidence of her cult.1858
The Tomb-Boat in the River: Funerary Dimension
As mentioned above, the river simultaneously symbolizes life and death. The mother-river is the one who gives birth and maintains people alive thanks to her waters, but she is also the one who takes life back when she decides to flood inhabitants, crops and livestock: human beings metaphorically return to her womb, representing thus the eternal cycle of renewal. This concept is illustrated by various proto-historical ‘coffin-pirogues’ found in the bed of some rivers. Those tomb-boats, called Todtenbaum, i.e. ‘Tree of Death’ by Joseph Xavier Boniface Saintine, a 19th-century philosopher, consisted of a hollowed tree trunk serving as a boat where the corpse of the deceased was placed before abandoning it to the river’s current.1859
Saintine reports the discovery of tree trunks containing the remains of human beings in 1560 in the Zuyder Zee, an inlet of the North Sea in the north-west of the Netherlands, but he does not give his references. This practice is proved by several examples of ‘tomb-boats’ discovered in Gaul. The most illustrious instance is the boat-tree found during repair works in the canal connecting the Marne to the Rhine at Chatenay-Mâcheron (Haute-Marne), a place situated 5 kilometres from Balesmes-sur-Marne, where the river rises.1860 The monoxylic pirogue* is 5-metre long and carved out in an oak trunk (fig. 25 and 26). It is composed of two parts: a lid and a hollowed part which contained a human skeleton and three weapons, which are an iron sword in an ornamented scabbard, an iron spear and an iron dagger with a bronze handle representing a human head, called ‘anthropoid dagger’. This wooden vessel, dating to the 3rd-1st century BC, was therefore used as a sarcophagus. The weapons tend to prove that the deceased was an honoured prince or warrior. Three similar pirogues, probably dating from the Late Bronze Age or La Tène period, containing skeletons wearing copper rings, and another one enclosing a human skull and two thighbones, were discovered in 1780-1781 and 1787 on the bed of the River Orne, at Mondeville (Calvados), and in Caen, near the bridge of Vaucelles (Calvados).1861 In Le Havre (Seine-Maritime), between 1788 and 1800, a thirteen-metre long monoxylic pirogue* containing human remains was found in the ornamental lake of La Barre during repair works.1862 Finally, a four-metre long hollowed oak tree containing a whole skeleton was dredged from the bed of the River Saône at Montseugny (Haute-Saône).1863 Apart from the coffin-pirogue from Chatenay-Mâcheron (Haute-Marne), now housed in the Musée des Antiquités Nationales (Saint-Germain-en-Laye), the other ones were unfortunately left in open-air when discovered and crumbled into dust a few weeks later.
Those boat-sarcophagi point to a funerary rite which consisted of returning the deceased to the bosom of the ‘mother-river’ who would ensure his rebirth in the afterlife. As Gaston Bachelard, a renowned French philosopher of the first half of the 20th c., explains, the river and the tree are two powerful maternal symbols; the combination of the two elements thus enhances the funerary dimension:
‘Water, substance of life, is also the substance of death for ambivalent reverie. In order to interpret the Todtenbaum, the Death Tree, accurately, we must keep in mind with Carl Gustav Jung, that “the tree is, above all, a maternal symbol”; since water is also a maternal symbol, a strange image of the encasing of seeds may be grasped in the image of the Todtenbaum. By placing the dead person in the interior of a tree and entrusting the tree to the breast of the waters, one doubles the maternal powers; the myth of the doubly, Jung tells us, because we imagine that “the dead person is given back to his mother to be borne again.” Death in water will be, for this reverie, the most maternal of deaths. The desire of man, says Jung in another place, “is that somber waters of death may become the waters of life, that death and its cold embrace may be the maternal bosom […]”.1864 ’
This funerary practice is redolent of the belief in the voyage to the Beyond: the boat symbolically brings the deceased to the otherworld, which was believed to be situated under the waters of rivers and lakes.
This tradition, which goes back to prehistory, is practiced among certain present-day peoples, such as the Toradja of central Sulawesi (Indonesia), who called it a bangka (‘boat’) or jomu (‘covering’),1865 and the Jivaro Achuar and Canelos of Ecuadoran Amazonia.1866 Speaking of the ‘tomb-boat’ funerary custom of the Canelos, Raphael Karsten explains that they believed “the deceased […] ought to make his last journey in a canoe”.1867 This ancient belief has survived in the folklore of the west of France. Paul Sébillot reports that in the swamps of the province of Poitou,1868 a mysterious boat covered with a white sheet resembling a pall, called niole blanche (‘white skiff’), or la niole de l’angoisse (‘the skiff of anguish’), was believed to appear in the canals of the marshes.1869 It was steered by a ghost called the tousseux jaune(‘the yellow coughing one’), who would bring death to any person catching sight of him. The death-boat is a particularly recurrent theme in the oral tradition of the coast of Brittany. Sébillot, relating a legend recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius in the 6th c., describes boats loaded with souls of deceased people seen at night crossing the sea:
‘The legend of the boat of the dead was one of the first to be formulated on our shores; it no doubt existed here well before the Roman conquest, and in the sixth century, Procopius reported it in these terms: The fishermen and other inhabitants of Gaul who are across from the island of Britannia are entrusted with passing souls over to it and are thus exempt from paying tribute. In the middle of the night, they hear a knocking at their door; they get up and find strange boats along the shore in which they can see no one but which, nevertheless, seem so loaded down that they are about to sink and their gunwales scarcely a thumb’s width above the water. An hour suffices for the crossing, although with their own boats they have difficulty making it in a whole night.1870 ’
The motif of the death boat is also found in the folklore of Ireland. There are traditions in many coastal parts of Ireland concerning phantom ships or boats seen at sea.1871 They can be seen before some sea-disaster, as if they have come to take away the people who are destined to be drowned. Also they can be seen after a shipwreck, in which case they are definitely taking away the souls of the drowned people. These phantom vessels are sometimes lit up. Ó hÓgáin relates that in the Irish-speaking parishes of An Rinn and An Seana-Phobal, on the coast near Dungarvan in County Waterford, in the south of Ireland, people talk of a phantom ship called Bád na Soilse, literally ‘the Boat of Lights’, which is much feared.1872
Those discoveries thus prove that the river-goddess, in addition to her virtues of fertility and healing, must have had a funerary function. As a mother, she protected her people both in life and in the afterlife, and ensured their voyage to the otherworld.
Fig. 25: ‘Coffin-pirogue’, dating from the 3rd-1st century BC (La Tène II), discovered in Chatenay-Mâcheron (Haute-Marne) (Source: Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye).
Fig. 26: Right: Drawing of the ‘coffin-pirogue’ found in Chatenay-Mâcheron (Haute-Marne) with the skeleton and weapons. Left: drawing of the ‘anthropoid’ iron dagger. Reinach, 1917, p. 225, fig. 252.
The River Saône: Souconna
The River Saône, which has its source in Vioémnil, at the foot of the Monts Faucilles (Vosges), and flows into the river Rhône in Lyons (Rhône), had two different names in ancient times: Arar and Souconna.1873 Greek and Latin authors, such as Pliny, Silius Italicus, Seneca, Tacitus, Caesar, etc., refer to the River Saône as a calm river which they call Arar, Araris and Araros.1874 The name Souconna appears in a 1st-century AD votive inscription dedicated to the goddess of the River Saône. Around 360 AD, Ammianus Marcellinus, one of the last Roman historians of Antiquity, reports that “the Arar is called Sauconna” (Ararim quem Sauconnam adpellant).1875 It can be noticed that in the 4th c. AD, the form Souconna had changed into Sauconna. The name then evolved into Saogonna or Sagonna in the 7th c., Saone in the 12th c., Soone in the 14th c. and Sone in the 15th c and gave the present-day name of the River Saône.1876
The meaning of Souconna remains obscure. According to Olmsted, Souconna is derived from an IE root *sūk– signifying ‘juice, sap, moisture, rain’, ‘to suck’ and means ‘the Suckler’, ‘the Flowing One’, but this etymology* remains conjectural and uncertain.1877 Evidence of her cult was found in two different places: on the bank of the River Saône, in Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire), and near the spring of the brook of the Sagonin, in the village of Sagonne (Cher).
The inscription from Châlon-sur-Saône is engraved on a pedestal in limestone, probably dating to the end of the 1st c. AD, found in 1912, in re-employment* in the 3rd or 4th-century wall of the city.1878 The inscription is the following: Aug(usto) sac(rum) deae Souconnae oppidani Cabilonnenses p(onendum) c(urauerunt), ‘Sacred to Augustus, to the goddess Souconna, the inhabitants (oppidani) of Chalon took care to build (this monument)’ (fig. 27).1879 This dedication is offered by the inhabitants of the Gaulish oppidum* of Chalon-sur-Saône, called Cabilonnum.1880 Chalon-sur-Saône was probably the second chief oppidum* of the tribe of the Aedui after Bibracte (see Chapter 3).1881 As the inscribed pedestal was originally associated with a statue representing the goddess, it was assumed that before being re-employed in the wall of the city, it belonged to a temple. Excavations carried out in 1852 at a nearby place known as Châtelet, which revealed various architectural fragments, led some scholars to think that a temple dedicated to Souconna had been erected there, but there is actually no cogent evidence supporting such a hypothesis.1882
Fig. 27: Inscription to the goddess Souconna discovered in Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire) in 1912 (H. 1.30m). Source: Musée Denon, Chalon-sur-Saône.
A second inscription dedicated to the goddess Souconna was found in 1899 at a place known as ‘Les Maisons Neuves’, in the village of Sagonne (Cher), near the place where the brook called the Sagonin has its source.1883 The inscription is engraved on a small pedestal in stone, where only the naked feet of the goddess remain: [N]um(ini) Aug(usti) D(eae) Souco[nae Di]vixtus Silani f(ilius), ‘To the divine power of Augustus, to the goddess Soucona, Divixtus, son of Silanus (offered this)’ (fig. 28).1884 The dedicator Divixtus and his father Silanus have Gaulish names – Divixtus means ‘to avenge’, ‘to punish’.1885 Furthermore, they bear the unique name, which means that they are not Roman citizens but peregrines. This tends to prove that the cult of the goddess Souconna was prior to the Roman invasion. It is interesting to note that Soucona, Saucona and Sagona are variants of the same name, which would explain why the goddess Souconna was honoured in the village of Sagonne, near the brook of the Sagonin.1886 As the dedication was discovered near the source of the brook, it can be assumed that Souconna was the personification and protectress of the spring. At this place, archaeologists also unearthed a bronze Gaulish coin, with a curly head on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse, five small bronze coins with the effigies of Tetricus (271-273 AD), Constantinus I (306-337 AD), Valentinienus I and his brother Valens (364-378), fragments of sculpted stones, statues and several hands and arms, which might point to a healing cult, but this remains hypothetical, since the objects are now lost.1887
Fig. 28: Inscription to the goddess Souconna engraved on a small pedestal where only the feet of the goddess remain, discovered near the spring of the Sagonin in Sagonne (Cher) (H. 0.08m, W. 0.27m). Source: Musée du Berry, Bourges (Cher).
A relief* discovered near Seurre (Côte d’Or) might be a figuration of Souconna (fig. 29).1888 The goddess is represented standing with a diadem and a pleated tunic falling under her right breast. A small boat, an upside-down urn with water flowing from it, and a trident, are situated at her feet on the right-hand side. On account of those attributes, which symbolize water, the goddess is clearly the personification of a river. As Seurre is situated on the bank of the River Saône, Claude Bourgeois thinks she is its embodiment.1889 It is not possible to affirm that this relief* is definitely a portrayal of Souconna, since it is not combined with an inscription identifying the goddess. Espérandieu suggests that she might have been the tutelary goddess of Seurre, personifying and protecting the city.1890
Fig. 29: Anepigraphic relief* representing a river-goddess discovered in Seurre (Côte d’Or): Souconna? Source: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Beaune (Number D.59.1.4).
The River Yonne: Icauni
The ancient name of the River Yonne, which rises on Mont Préneley (Nièvre) and meets the River Seine at Montereau-Fault-Yonne (Seine-et-Marne), was revealed by a 2nd-century AD inscription dedicated to the goddess Icauni, discovered in Auxerre (Yonne). The name of the river then evolved to Ingauna in the 6th c., Iona in the 9th c., Ycauna in the 12th c. and Iuna / Yconiae in the 13th c.1891
The inscription, which is now lost, was engraved on a square altar. It was discovered in 1721 in re-employment* in the ancient wall of the city Auxerre (Yonne).1892The inscription reads: Aug(usto) sacr(um) deae Icauni T(itus) Tetricius African(us) d(e) s(uo) d(edit) d(edicavit), ‘Sacred to Augustus, to the goddess Icauni, Titus Tetricus Africanus dedicated and offered (this stele*) at his own expense’. The dedicator bears Latin names and the tria nomina of Roman citizens. In 1723, Abbot Jean Lebeuf reported that a relief* representing a woman lying down had been seen by former neighbours near the place where the inscription was inlaid, but the drawing no longer existed at the time of the discovery of the dedication.1893 As reclining naked women are commonplace representations of river-goddesses, this relief* may have been a figuration of the goddess Icauni.
The significance of the name of Icauni is unknown. Jullian explains that it may be based on a Gaulish root *ico, possibly similar to Latin aquae, meaning ‘water’, ‘river’.1894 Icauni could then be etymologically related to the goddess Icovellauna, venerated in Metz (see infra). There is besides an Istrian goddess of springs and fountains named Ica or Ika, attested near Fianona and Lovran (Croatia).1895Following this etymology*, Lacroix proposes to break down her name as *(s)ic-auna, i.e. ‘The One who gives Water’ and argues that Delamarre’s etymology* *(s)(p)ico- designating the ‘green woodpecker’ is highly unlikely.1896 According to him, the radical *(s)ic– is to be related to the radical sec– forming the name of Sequana (*Sec-u-ana) and the radical souc-, a possible variant of suk-, found in the name of Souconna.1897 Icauni would have originally designated the spring gushing from the earth rather than the flowing water of the river.1898
Excavations carried out from 1980 to 1984 at the spring of the River Yonne, at Glux, in Morvant (Nièvre), revealed the ruins of two Gallo-Roman temples, situated about a hundred metres from the three springs of the river.1899 The archaeologists did not find any pipes channelling the waters of the river into the buildings, but the proximity of the monuments with the springs undeniably proves that they were erected in relation with it. Pieces of broken Gaulish vases and fifteen Gaulish coins, such as a coin in silver of the Aedui, were found within a radius of one kilometre. This provides evidence that Celtic people already frequented this place of devotion before the Roman invasion. It is likely that the Gallo-Roman monument was built over an ancient Celtic place of worship, marked out by an offering well or by a wooden fence. In view of the sanctuaries of the goddess Sequana unearthed at the Sources-de-la Seine and of Matrona at the spring of the River Marne, it is tempting to think that this shrine was dedicated to the goddess of the River Yonne, whose existence is attested by the inscription from Auxerre. The waters of the River Yonne were perhaps believed to have medicinal virtues like those of the River Seine and attracted pilgrims in need of care, but no archaeological evidence, such as votive inscriptions, anatomic ex-votos* or other offerings, currently supports that theory.1900
Fig. 30: Analytical map of the inscriptions dedicated to the Gaulish River-Goddesses and the sanctuaries discovered at the springs of the rivers (Source: N. Beck).
The River Wharfe: Verbeia
The goddess Verbeia is mentioned in a single inscription engraved on an altar, discovered before 1600 at a place known as Stubham Lodge, near Ilkley (Yorkshire, GB). On the right side of the stone is drawn a patera* and on the left side a guttus*. The inscription reads: Verbeiae sacrum Clodius Fronto praef(ectus) coh(ortis) II Lingon(um), ‘Sacred to Verbeia Clodius Fronto, prefect* of the second Cohort of Lingonians (set this up)’ (fig. 31).1901 The dedicator bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens and is prefect* (praefectus) of Cohort* II, called Lingonum, attested by other inscriptions from Ilkley and Moresby and by a Hadrianic decree.1902 Clodius Fronto pays homage to the goddess Verbeia, who is generally understood as being the personification of the river Wharfe, on which Ilkley is situated.1903
Heinrich Wagner and Anne Ross propose to relate her name to the Old Irish root ferb, ‘cattle’ and translate her name as ‘She of the Cattle’, which would link her to the Irish river-goddess Bóinn, whose name signifies ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’, and to the Gaulish spring-goddess Damona, the ‘Cow (Goddess)’.1904 This etymology* remains conjectural.
A relief* of a goddess wearing a long, pleated sleeveless tunic and holding a snake in each hand, discovered in re-employment* in the parish church of Ilkey, could be a representation of Verbeia (fig. 31).1905 As Ross and Green point out, the snake image might point to a water cult.1906 It must nonetheless be borne in mind that there is a wide range of complex symbolism attached to this animal, which was represented in various contexts and accounted for diverse aspects. It was notably an emblem of the otherworld, death, medicine and fertility.1907 Consequently, it is impossible to determine whether the relief* is a figuration of the goddess Verbeia.
Fig. 31: Left: Facsimile of the altar dedicated to Verbeia discovered in Ilkley (Yorkshire, GB). Now in the Gardens of the Seminary of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, at Middleton Lodge, in Ilkley. Rinaldi Tufi, 1983, plate 9, n°30 and RIB 635. Right: Relief* representing a goddess holding two snakes in her hands found in Ilkley: Verbeia? Now in the Parish Church of Ilkley. Rinaldi Tufi, 1983, pl. 9, n°31.
We have seen that the worship of river-goddesses in Celtic and Gallo-Roman times is widely attested in the epigraphy of Gaul and Britain, and in the ancient literature of Ireland. The fact that the goddess is eponymous of the river proves that she was envisaged as the personification of the river. The pattern of the lady drowned in the river, found in the legends of Bóinn, Sionann, Eithne and Érne, is evocative of that ancient belief. The early legend of Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’], which depicts the River Boyne as the body of the goddess Bóinn, is also illustrative of this river-goddess complex. While the Irish medieval texts indicate that Irish river-goddesses incarnated wisdom and were believed to bestow mystical knowledge on the ones who drank their waters, archaeology evidences that Gaulish river-goddesses were worshipped as healers, who brought relief to pilgrims through their salutary waters. In Gaul, moreover, the healing function was not only attributed to goddesses of rivers. Many wells, fountains and springs were worshipped and put under the patronage of goddesses, who seem to have also fulfilled that role in view of the archaeological context or the curative properties of the waters.
Gaulish and British Healing Spring-Goddesses
Archaeological evidence from Gaul and Britain proves that the worship of water was not limited to river-goddesses: many a fountain and healing spring was embodied and presided over by a goddess. While some goddesses protected specific fountains, wells or springs – such as Acionna, whose cult is attested at the Fontain l’Etuvée in Loiret, Mogontia and Icovellauna at the spring of Le Sablon in Moselle, Coventina at the well of Carrawburgh in Northumbria, Bricta at the thermal springs of Luxeuil-les-Bains (Haute-Saône) and Stanna / Sianna at the healing spring of Mont-Dore (Puy-de-Dôme) – others, such as Damona and Sirona, were worshipped on a larger scale by various peoples and in different parts of Gaul. What were the functions of those fountain and spring-goddesses? How were they revered and by whom? The first part will deal with goddesses presiding over local fountains or wells, which do not seem to have had any particular mineral or therapeutic virtues in ancient times, and the second part will analyse goddesses whose cult is attached to thermal waters.
Acionna and the Fountain l’Etuvée (Loiret)
The goddess Acionna is known from an inscription discovered in 1823, thirty-five-metres deep in a well, called the ‘Fontaine l’Etuvée’, situated at a place known as the ‘Clos de la Belle-Croix’, 2.5 kms from Orléans (Loiret), in the territory of the tribe of the Carnutes.1908 The inscription, engraved on a quadrangular block, reads: Aug(ustae) Acionnae sacrum, Capillius Illiomari f(ilius) portic[u]m cum suis ornamentis, v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘Sacred to the August Acionna, Capillius, son of Illiomarus, (offered) this portico with its ornaments and paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 32).1909
Fig. 32: Dedication to Acionna discovered at the Fontaine l’Etuvée, near Orléans (Loiret). The stele* was housed in the Musée Historique et Archéologique de l’Orléanais in Orléans, but disappeared and is now lost. A cast of the inscription was taken in 1979 from a lithograph drawn by Jollois and is now in the same museum. Debal, 1996, p. 62.
According to Jean-Baptiste Jollois, the stele* must date from the 1st c AD.1910 The two tenons* on the two sides of the stone indicate that the stele* was hung up or embedded in a wall.1911 It was a common tradition to hang up inscribed stones or bronze plaques on the wall of a temple or of a well in Gallo-Roman times to pay homage to a deity. This inscription mentions that the dedicator had a portico built in recognition of the fulfilment of a vow. The portico might have been part of a religious edifice erected in honour of Acionna, but no archaeological data provide evidence of such a monument in the area. The dedicator Capilliushas a Roman name, but is not a Roman citizen, since he bears the unique name. As for his father, he has a Gaulish name: Illiomarus, which is composed of illio– (?) and marus, ‘great’ – also known in the form Ibliomarus.1912 The fact that the Celt Illiomarus chose a Latin name for his son reflects his wish to become Romanized. In paying homage to a Celtic goddess, Capillius however shows his attachment to his indigenous roots and cults.1913
The ‘Fountain l’Etuvée’, commonly called ‘de Lestuvée’, ‘de l’Estuif’ or ‘de l’Estuivée’, from Old French etui(f) and English stew, signifying ‘fish-tank’, supplied all the thermal and swimming establishments of Orléans with water until the18th c., when it dried up, probably after being deliberately obstructed.1914 In 1823, Jollois decided to excavate the spring, because its profuse waters could be harnessed to supply the network of public fountains of Orléans.1915 As the spring of l’Etuvée was the result of the rains falling on the thickly-wooded plateau of Fleury, it is highly likely that the spring was copious in ancient times – forests are the main cause of the formation of fountains. The first excavations brought to light a big quadrilateral basin, a small duct harnessing the spring and a well 3.5m in depth, constructed with pieces of timber, where many Roman remains were discovered, such as fragments of tiles and pottery, a cinerary urn, clay bowls and dishes, a small flint axe, a bronze hook and the inscribed stone to Acionna.1916 From 1971 to 1989, the excavations were resumed and two square basins, one of which was surrounded by a wall, were discovered.1917
Acionna’s name is known from two other fragments found in re-employment* in the Roman wall of the city of Cenabum(Orléans) and in an ancient wall situated at the corner of the streets of the Ecrevisse and of the Hôtelleries. The two fragments being very damaged, their reconstitution is uncertain. The first one reads: [Aug. Aci]onn(a)e [ … e]t Epade[textorigi . . . ], ‘Sacred to Augustus and to Acionna […] and Epadetextorix (?)’.1918 The co-ordinating conjunction et indicates that the inscription was offered by two dedicators. Léon Dumuys reconstituted the name of the second dedicator as Epađetextorix, in view of an inscription from Néris-les-Bains (Allier) which mentions this name.1919 Delamarre proposes to break it down as *Epađ-atexto-rigi, with epađ similar to epo-, ‘horse’, atexto, possibly ‘belongings’ and rigi, ‘king’, that is ‘the king who possesses horses (?)’.1920 As for Robert Mowat, he suggests to translate his name as ‘protective lord of horses’, with epo– ‘horse’ and actetorix ‘protective chief’.1921 Since Epađetextorix bears the unique name, he is a Celtic peregrine*. The second fragment is uncertainly dedicated to the goddess: [Acionna]e sacrum, ‘Sacred to Acionna (?)’.1922
As regards Acionna’s name, it is undeniably Celtic, but its significance remains obscure. According to Delamarre, it is based on a root aci-, the meaning of which is unknown.1923 Olmsted advances that it might come from a Celtic root acio– signifying ‘water’, derived from the IE *akuio-, but Delamarre and Lambert do not list that term.1924 Even though this etymology* is dubious, it seems clear that Acionna is a goddess associated with water; since it is possible to establish a connection between her name and several names of rivers flowing near Orléans. The River Essone, which has its source in the north of the forest of Orléans and meets the River Seine at Corbeil-Essone (Essonne), was called Exona or Axonia in the 6th c. and Essiona in 1113.1925 Another river called The Esse or Stream of the Esse, which rises in the forest of Orléans and flows into the River Bionne, may be also related to the goddess name Acionna.1926 Finally, the Aisne, which rises in Sommainse (Meuse) and joins the River Oise at Compiègne (Oise), was called Axona in the 1st c. BC, Axuenna in the 3rd c., Axina in 650 and Axna in 824.1927
These various discoveries show that the fountain of L’Etuvée was worshipped in Gallo-Roman times and that it was presided over by the Celtic goddess Acionna. It is impossible to determine whether the waters of the well were believed to have medicinal properties and whether Acionna was revered as a healer, since anatomic ex-votos* evidencing such a cult were not found on the site. The phrase V.S.L.M. does not imply the fulfilment of a vow of recovery either. Moreover, the waters do not have any mineral or thermal virtues today.1928 Acionna is probably best understood as a local water-goddess, since the three inscriptions were found in and around Orléans, and since her name has survived in two rivers rising in the forest of Orléans: the Essonne and the Esse. The fact that her name can be connected to the River Aisne, situated to the north-east of Paris, might nonetheless indicate a wider cult. Acionna being honoured by dedicators of Celtic origin, such as Capillius, son of Illiomarus, and Epađetextorix, her cult was pre-Roman. It also shows that the Gaulish traditions, beliefs and deities remained still vividly alive in people’s minds for some time after the Roman conquest.
Icovellauna and the Spring of Le Sablon (Moselle)
The goddess name Icovellauna is known from two inscriptions and three fragments of inscriptions discovered in Le Sablon, a village situated to the south of Metz (Moselle), in the territory of the Mediomatrici, and from a dedication found in Trier (Germany), in the territory of the Treveri. The oppidum* of the Mediomatrici, called Divodurum Mediomatricorum (‘the divine citadel of the Mediomatrici’), was situated in Metz on a hill called ‘Le Haut de Sainte Croix’, at the confluence of the River Seille and the River Moselle.1929 Various indigenous deities were venerated around Metz,1930 such as Mogontia, the horse-goddess Epona,1931 Rosmerta,1932 Sucellus and Nantosuelta1933 and Mother Goddesses.1934
The inscriptions and the Nympheum*
The five inscriptions to the goddess Icovellauna were discovered in an underground octagonal well, six metres in diameter, dating from the Gallo-Roman period, excavated between 1879 and 1882 in the sand-quarry of Le Sablon (fig. 33).1935 About fifty stairs went down to a spring, contained in a polygonal basin situated in the middle of the edifice.1936 Hundreds of votive offerings, such as coins, statuettes, animal bones and fragments of columns, were discovered in the rubble of the well.
The first inscription is engraved on a bronze plaque with two holes in the top left- and right-hand corners, which served to hang the plaque on the wall of the well, and leave it as an ex-voto for the goddess. It seems that it was originally gilded, but copper oxide almost entirely covered the plaque when it was discovered. The inscription is the following: Deae Icovellaunae sanctissimo numini, Genialius Satu[r]ninus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the highly holy power of the goddess Icovellauna, Genialius Saturninus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.1937 A hole, in which a coin could fit, is situated directly above the inscription. It might have been the coin at the effigy of Constantine (beginning of the 4th c. AD) found near to the bronze plaque.1938 This space for fitting a coin or a medal is called ‘case monétaire’ or ‘écrin à médailles’. Examples of this type are the famous patera* in gold from Rennes or ‘the plaque of Hiéraple’ dedicated to the god Visucius.1939 The use of the votive formula dea proves that the inscription dates from the second half of the 2nd c. AD or the beginning of the 3rd c. AD.1940 The dedicator has Latin names and bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens. The phrase v.s.l.m. indicates that Genialius Saturninus is grateful to the goddess Icovellana for answering his vow and the expression sanctissimo numini attestshis profound respect.
Fig. 33: The underground part of the fanum* of Le Sablon with its octagonal basin dedicated to the goddess Icovellauna. Lacroix, 2007, p. 56.
The second inscription is very similar to the first, for it is engraved on a fragment of a bronze tablet, which also has two holes at each top corner and a ‘case monétaire’, which might have been fitted with the coin at the effigy of Crispus (beginning of the 4th c. AD) found near the dedication. The reconstitution of the inscription, which is damaged on the left side, remains tentative: [Deae] Icov(ellaunae maxi)mus Licini(us magister vic)i (?) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the goddess Icovellauna, Maximus Licinius, Master of the vicus* (?), paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.1941 Charles Abel suggests that Maximus and Licinus are the names of two different Mediomatrici citizens, but it is more likely that they are the duo nomina of a single dedicator.1942Maximus Licinius was thus a Roman citizen and might have been in charge of governing and administering the vicus*.
Three other fragments of dedications were discovered in the nympheum*. The first one is engraved on a slab: [Deae Ic]ovellau[ae Ap]rili[s], ‘To the Goddess Icovellauna Aprilis […]’;1943 the second is engraved on a block in white stone, which seems to have belonged to a square pedestal: D[eae] Icov[ellaunae], ‘To the goddess Icovellauna’;1944 and the third one is inscribed on a piece of white marble: Deae I[covellaunae], ‘To the goddess Icovellauna’.1945
Finally, a dedication engraved on a stone was discovered in 1891 in Trier, in the territory of the Treveri, who neighboured the Mediomatrici. The inscription reads: Deae Icovel(aunae) M(arcus) Primius Alpicus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the goddess Icovellaune, Marcus Primius Alpicus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.1946 The dedicator has Latin names and bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens. He offers this stele* in recognition of the fulfilment of his vow.
The dedications prove that the spring of Le Sablon was under the patronage of the goddess Icovellauna, who probably healed people through the restorative qualities of her waters. This cannot however be ascertained with certainty, since anatomic ex-votos* evidencing such a cult were not found in or nearby the well. Icovellauna’s cult was certainly quite important in the area, since a worshipper, probably a member of the Mediomatrici, honoured her in Trier. This inscription also suggests that Icovellauna was not only a local goddess protecting the spring of Le Sablon but a goddess presiding over waters in general.
Etymology of Her Name
Icovellauna’s name has been the subject of some controversy. Without explaining their etymology*, Anwyl proposes ‘protectress of health’ and Maurice Toussaint ‘good water’.1947 As for Sterckx, he relates the first element of her name ico to Irish icc, ‘act of curing’ or ‘recovery’, Welsh iach and Breton iac’h, ‘healthy’, derived from the IE root *iēkko –, an expressive expansion of *iēk – ‘to heal’. From this, he suggests to translate Icovellauna as ‘the One who improves Health’, but this etymology* does not take into account the second element of her name.1948 Olmsted agrees with Sterckx as regards the meaning of ico, and adds that vellauno comes from the basic root *uel-, ‘foresight’, which gave Irish fili, ‘seer’ and Welsh gweled, ‘to see’.1949 According to him, Icovellauna, who is etymologically related to the Celtic god Vellaunos, venerated with Mercurius in Hières-sur-Amby (Isère) and on his own in Caerwent (Wales),1950 would mean ‘the Healing Seer’. Lambert and Delamarre have however demonstrated that vellaunos means ‘chief’, ‘commander’.1951 As far as Jullian and Lacroix are concerned, the root ic-, also found in the name of the goddess Icauna, designates ‘water’.1952 Lacroix thus believes that Icovellauna is composed of ico-, ‘water’ and vellaunos, ‘commander’ and means ‘the One who commands Water’.1953 Delamarre, however, insists that the meaning of the word ico– remains obscure, for it cannot be related to any insular Celtic words.1954
The significations of ‘water’ or ‘healing’ for ico– are therefore highly unlikely and the attempts of scholars to link her name to the notion of water and cure, because of her association with the spring of La Sablon, are without substance. The meaning of vellauna tends to prove that she originally had military and war-like functions, but nothing in the goddess’s worship seems to support that idea. Like Segeta, whose name means ‘Victory’ and who is honoured in healing water contexts, Icovellauna might have been a goddess attached to protection and war in origin. This hypothesis, however, remains conjectural for lack of evidence.
Mogontia (Le Sablon?)
The goddess Mogontia is known from a single inscription engraved on a small quadrangular altar in white stone, found in 1880 in the sand quarry of Mey, situated about 100 metres to the west of the octogonal well of Le Sablon dedicated to goddess Icovellauna, in the territory of the Mediomatrici.1955 The altar was discovered among tiles, remains of the roof of an ancient public lavatory, vermiculated bricks, fragments of plaques, remains of the pavement of a temple, fragments of black and white marble and a winged statue representing the Roman goddess Victory.1956 The inscription is very well preserved and must date from the time of Titus Aelius Antoninus Pius, which is to say from the middle of the 2nd c. AD. The inscription reads: Deae Mogontiae Julius Pa[t]ernus tabellarius ex voto, ‘To the goddess Mogontia, Julius Paternus, tabellarius, offered (this)’ (fig. 34).1957 On the altar, above the inscription, there is an oblong cavity (24 cm x 8cm) with round tips, in which an undetermined object was apparently fixed by three tenons* – the holes can still be seen.
The dedicator Julius Paternus bears Latin names. He is a tabellarius, that is a messenger or bearer of letters.1958 The tabellarii were generally men from a very modest background, such as slaves or emancipated slaves, who held a public or private position. The public tabellarii were hired by the tax department, either to work for the postal service – since its reorganization by Augustus – or in the service of some public offices, while the private tabellarii were servants, working for the emperors or particular people. Contrary to the private messengers, the public messengers generally bore a qualification indicating their specific role and position. As Julius Paternus does not have a particular qualification, he certainly belonged to the private class of the tabellarii and was the messenger of some private individual. It is worth noting that the name Paternus appears again on one of the stairs of the sacred well of Le Sablon presided over by Icovellauna – his name was roughly engraved, probably with a knife.1959 Thus, Paternus was undeniably a faithful pilgrim coming regularly to the religious shrine of Le Sablon to venerate and pray to the local goddesses.
Fig. 34: Altar dedicated to the goddess Mogontia, discovered in the area of Le Sablon (Metz). In the Museum of Metz. CAG, 57.2, Metz, 2005, p. 311, fig. 288.
Olmsted proposes that Mongotia is based on a Celtic element mogu-, mogo-, a byform* of magu-, steming from the IE *magho-, signifying ‘boy’ or ‘youth’.1960 Accordingly, Mongotia would mean ‘the Youthful’. She has some analogies with the names of certain British and Gaulish gods.1961 In Britain, she is etymologically related to the godMongoti venerated at Old Penrith, Plumpton Wall (Cumbria),1962 the god Mongoti Vitiris honoured at Netherby, Longtown (Cumbria),1963 the god Mogunti worshipped at Chesterholm (Northumbria) and at Old Penrith (Cumbria),1964 the god Mogonitus or Mogunus mentioned in inscriptions from Risingham (Northumbria),1965 and the god Moguntibus known from a dedication from High Rochester (Northumbria).1966 In Gaul, she may be etymologically cognate with the god Apollo Grannus Mogounus honoured in Horburg, near Colmar (Alsace),1967 the god Mogounus revered in Ronchers (Meuse),1968 and the god Mounus, who is mentioned in dedications from Beugnâtre (Pas-de-Calais) and Lezoux (Puy-de-Dôme) and from Risingham.1969 Being recorded in northern Britain and in the centre, east and north of Gaul, the cult of the god Mogons, whose name has a wide variety of spellings, was clearly widespread. This convinces some commentators that Mogons was a title applied to several deities rather than the signifier of a single god.1970 Scarcely anything is known about his possible attributes. As he is associated with Apollo Granus in one inscription, he might have been a healing god, but this remains to be proved. The god cannot thus shed light on the possible functions and character of the goddess Mogontia.
Mogontia is also cognate with the Mogontiones, who are honoured in a dedication engraved on a quadrangular stone found in Agonès (Hérault), now used as a base of a cross in the Church of Saint-Saturnin. The inscription is the following: [Matris? M]ogontionibus Ocrac[ius] Fronto Ocraci f(ilius) posuit, ‘To the Mogontiones Ocracius Fronto son of Ocracius erected (this monument)’.1971 The dedicator’s father is a peregrine* with a Celtic name. According to Delamarre, Ocracius may be broken down as *Au-crac and mean ‘Spotless’.1972 The dedicator bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens. It is interesting to note that his gentilice* is the name of his father, while his cognomen* Fronto is Latin. In keeping the name of his father and in paying homage to Celtic goddesses, the dedicator shows that despite his Romanization he is still attached to his ancient cults and beliefs.
The place of discovery of the inscription and the dedication itself do not bring any significant information on the character of the goddess Mogontia. It is therefore difficult to determine what her functions were in ancient times. As the inscribed stone was unearthed near to the water shrine of Le Sablon, it is possible that both Icovellauna and Mongotia were worshipped at this spring. Mongotia could therefore have been a goddess of salutary waters. Her name signifying ‘youth’ might be evocative of such a cult, since waters were believed to be regenerative and to conserve youth and life, as the archetypal ‘Fountain of Youth’ illustrates. As for Jullian, Holder, Bourgeois and Olmsted, Mongotia would have been the eponymous goddess of the city of Mogontiacum, later called Mogontia (the present-day Mayence, in Germany), which is located about 200 kms from Metz.1973 This is a possiblity, for some goddesses were indeed the personification and patroness of important cities, e.g. Bibracte, the eponymous goddess of the capital of the Aedui (Mont Beuvray, in Saône-et-Loire), or Tutela Vesunna, the eponymous goddess of the city of the Pertrocorii (Périgueux, in Dordogne).
Coventina’s Well at Carrawburgh (Northumbria)
Coventina is a goddess known by twelve inscriptions unearthed in a well excavated from 1876 by John Clayton to the west of Carrawburgh Fort, near Hadrian’s Wall (Northumbria), in Britain (fig. 35).1974 To the south-east of the well were unearthed a Mithraeum* and a Nympheum*.1975 Lindsay Allason-Jones has given a comprehensive study of the well and its contents.1976 Coventina remains an enigmatic goddess. Various etymologies have been proposed for her name, but it remains difficult to determine its significance and whether it is Celtic or not. Alfred Rivet and Colin Smith linked Coventina to Latin cum, ‘with’ and vent, ‘market’ or ‘sale’, and demonstrated that it was not derived from the Indo-European language and could not be related to any Celtic derivations.1977At the end of the 19th c., Dr. Wake Smart proposed to relate it to the Welsh word gover signifying ‘a rivulet’ or ‘a head of rivulet’, while Dr. Hoopell assumed it was based on cov, ‘memory’ or cofen, ‘memorial’, and concluded that the reservoir was a cenotaph*. This theory however clearly does not suit the nature and structure of the shrine.1978 Charles Roach Smith then supposed the name was composed of convenio, ‘a coming-together’ and tina, which refered to the River Tyne quoted by Ptolemy.1979 According to him, Coventina’s name would refer to the confluence of the north and south rivers, but Allason-Jones rightly points out that it is located some distance away from Carrawburgh.1980 Hylton Dyer Longstaffe, taking up Smith’s idea, added that the first part of her name was composed of two parts con and went, which could refer to the stream Con and the River Went, which flow in Yorkshire.1981 In his view, Coventina was the name of three goddesses: con-went-tina, pictured as three Nymphs on a relief* discovered in the well (fig. 38); a theory which has no basis in the archaeological evidence. Finally, Norah Joliffe suggests that Coventina could be a goddess of a conventus, that is a community of German soldiers implanted at the Fort, but Allason-Jones argues that that is rather unlikely.1982 Allason-Jones concludes that the significance of Coventina’s name is undeterminable, but is undeniably Celtic.
Fig. 35: Discovery and excavations of Coventina’s Well at Carrawburgh in 1876 by John Clayton. Watercolour by F. Mossman, 1878. Clayton, 1880, plate I.
Coventina’s shrine consists of a large rectangular stone enclosure with a west door, in the centre of which is situated a rectangular reservoir, receiving the waters of several springs (fig. 36). The springs do not have particular medicinal properties and the votive offerings discovered in the reservoir do not point to a healing cult: anatomic ex-votos*, similar to those found at the Sources-de-la-Seine, have not been found. The various offerings are composed of inscriptions honouring the goddess; sculptures; jewellery such as brooches (10), finger-rings (14), hairpins (2), bracelets (5) and glass beads; animal bones; lead; leather and other objects. These clearly evidence that the waters were worshipped and placed under the patronage of Coventina.1983 The 16,000 coins fished up in the well prove that the shrine was visited from 128-130 AD until 378-388 AD.1984
Fig. 36: Ground plan of the temple of Coventina at Carrawburgh (Northumbria). Allason-Jones & McKay, 1985, p. 94, pl. IV.
The inscriptions to Coventina are twelve in number. They are all listed and studied by Allason-Jones in her catalogue of sculpted stone and inscriptions.1985 One of them is particularly interesting, for it is combined with a representation of the goddess: Deae Couuentinae T(itus) D(…) Cosconianus Pr(aefectus) Coh(ortis) I Bat(auorum) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the goddess Covventina, Titus D(…) Cosconianus, prefect* of the First Cohort of Batavians, willingly and deservedly (fulfilled his vow)’ (fig. 37).1986 The dedicator bears Latin names and is a prefect*, that is a commander of the Cohors I Batavorum equitata, which came from Germany and was stationed at Carrawburgh in the 3rd c. AD.1987Coventina is pictured half-naked with a cloth around her hips, holding a leaf in her right hand and lying on an upside down urn from which water flows.1988 The position, the garment and the water-pitcher are typical attributes of water-goddesses and nymphs. This representation is very similar to the relief* discovered at the springs of Allègre-les-Fumades (Gard) in Gaul,1989 and to the other relief* discovered in the well, representing three Nymphs holding vases and pouring water from overturned pitchers (fig. 38).1990 Those Nymphs might be a figuration of Coventina in triple form but, as the stone is anepigraphic, it cannot be stated with certainty. It is more likely that the relief represents the Nymphs of Carrawburgh, who had a shrine dedicated to them near Coventina’s Well.
Fig. 37: Altar dedicated to Coventinawith a relief* representing the goddess as a nymph. Allason-Jones, 1996, p.100; fig. 8.1.
Fig. 38: Tree nymphs of Coventina’s Well holding vases of water and pouring out streams of water: Conventina in tripled form? Allason-Jones, 1996, p. 111, fig. 8.2.
Out of the twelve inscriptions, Coventina is given the title of deae ten times, nymphae twice and sanctae once. This proves that she was a water-goddess presiding over the springs of Carrawburgh and that she was held in high respect by the population who came to visit the shrine and pray to her. Seven of the dedicators are Roman soldiers bearing Latin names: one is a decurio*;1991 two are prefects* of the First Cohort* of Batavians;1992 one is in the First Cohort* of Cubernians, which came from the Lower Rhineland and was garrisoned at Newcastle in the 3rd c.;1993 one is an optio* of the First Cohort* of Frixiavones;1994 and one is a soldier in an undetermined Cohort*.1995 As for Aurelius Crotus, who declares himself as a German, he bears Latin names and the duo nomina of Roman citizens.1996Two dedicators specify that they are German people,1997 and four dedicators are peregrines in view of their unique name: Vincentius bears a Latin name,1998 Madutus a German name,1999 and Vinomathus (?) and Bellicus have Celtic names.2000 It seems thus that Coventina was particularly celebrated by Roman soldiers, some of whom were of Germanic origin. The peregrines are far less represented and very few bear Celtic names.
On account of her name and of her devotees, Coventina’s Celtic character is therefore questionable. Given the various votive offerings discovered in the well, it remains clear, however, that she was a goddess presiding over the springs of this locality. Allason-Jones, referring to two inscriptions unearthed in Spain, in Os Curvenos2001 and Santa Cruz de Loyo,2002 and a dedication discovered in France, in Narbonne (Aude),2003 believes that Coventina was worshipped on a larger scale.2004 However, it must be borne in mind that those inscriptions are obscure and the relation with British Coventina doubtful.
Damona (‘Cow Goddess’)
The goddess Damona is known from sixteen inscriptions. She is partnered with the god of the healing springs Borvo (‘the Bubbling one’) in nine inscriptions from Bourbonnes-les-Bains (Haute-Marne) and in four dedications from Bourbon-Lancy (Saône-et-Loire). In Chassenay, near Aignay-le-Duc (Côte d’Or), she is coupled with the god Albius, while in Alise-Sainte-Reine (Côte d’Or), she is associated with the god Moritasgus. Finally, she is honoured on her own and given the epithet Matuberginni in an inscription from Saintes (Charente-Maritime).
The name Damona is based on a Celtic word damos meaning ‘ox’, ‘cow’ or ‘stag’, cognate with Old Irish dam, ‘ox’, ‘cow’, ‘stag’, Welsh dafad, ‘sheep’, ‘ewe’ and Breton dañvad, ‘sheep’.2005 Damona is therefore ‘the Cow Goddess’ or ‘the Divine Cow’, which indicates she was worshipped in bovine shape in ancient times. This relates her to the goddess Borvoboendoa honoured in Utrecht (Germany),2006 whose name can be broken down as *Borvo-bō-vinduā, that is ‘the Seething White Cow’,2007 and related to the Irish river-goddess Bóinn, whose name was originally *Bou-vindā, that is the ‘Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’.2008 As explained above, the cow-shaped motif seems to have been specific to water-goddesses, for in ancient times the cow was used as a metaphor for the river; its streams symbolizing the milk flowing from the goddess in the shape of a supernatural cow.2009
Eight inscriptions dedicated to the divine couple Damona and Borvo and one inscription to Damona were discovered at Bourbonnes-les-Bains (Haute-Marne), a famous spa town in the valley of the River Borne, the healing spring of which gushes forth at 66° and is recommended for rheumatology and respiratory problems.2010 Bourbonnes-les-Bains, which was named Borbona in 846, was undeniably named after the god Borvo.2011Excavations carried out from the beginning of the 18th c. to the end of the 19th c. and in 1977-1978 revealed the ruins of a huge complex of baths and swimming-pools erected at the site of the spring; a huge hypostyle* room of rectangular shape, divided in three parts by two rows of five columns each, which was interpreted as a temple by M.-F. Rigaud; and a cesspool called the ‘Roman Well’, where some of the inscriptions to Damona and Borvo were discovered, as well as votive offerings, such as rings, fibulas*, two wooden heads, thousands of nuts, acorns and fruit stones, along with 4,700 coins in bronze, silver and gold, forty-six of which were Gaulish silver coins.2012This evidences that the healing spring was already known and used at the end of the 1st c. BC. Clearly, Borvo and Damona were the protectors and embodiment of the waters of Bourbonnes-les-Bains, which brought relief to sick pilgrims. The story which tells that, in 612 AD, Thierry II, King of Burgundy, built a fortification on the site of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to the divine couple, is apparently a complete fabrication from the pen of Docteur Chevallier in 1772.2013 It is true that Aimoin, a monk from Sully-sur-Loire (Loiret), writing in the second part of the 10th c., did tell of this wall called ‘Vernona Castrum’, which Thierry II erected to protect his realm against his brother Theodebert II, but at no point did he indicate that this fortification was erected on top of a temple dedicated to Borvo and Damona. The existence of a temple at the location of the ancient medieval castle rests therefore on weak presumptions.
Two inscriptions and two fragments of inscriptions dedicated to the divine couple Borvo/Bormo and Damona were discovered in the territory of the Aedui, in the spa town of Bourbon-Lancy, the name of which undoubtedly derives from the name of the healing god – it probably corresponds to ‘Aquae Bormonis’ mentioned on the 4th-century Table de Peutinger.2040 Bourbon-Lancy is nowadays a renowned water-cure centre, which uses five springs ranging from 48° to 60° for rheumatology and phlebology treatment.2041 Excavations undertaken at the end of the 16th c. and of the 17th c. revealed the ruins of an ancient thermal establishment, composed of basins and baths in white and grey marble, apparently adorned by statues in white marble and supplied by a spring gushing forth from the rock.2042 Fragments of mosaics, potteries, statues, terracotta figurines, columns and coins from Caesar’s and Augustus’s times were unearthed on the site. This proves that the curative spring was already known and used in Gallo-Roman times. Apart from the four dedications, no images of the couple or ruins of a temple erected in their honour have been discovered.
The first inscription is engraved on a fragment of stone, broken at the bottom. Abbot Courtépée, who was a celebrated eighteenth-century historian of Burgundy, saw it in 1774 at the Church of Saint-Nazaire, where it was used as a doorstep.2043 The exact place and date of discovery are unknown. The stele* is now housed in the Musée Rolin at Autun (Saône-et-Loire). It reads: Borvoni et Damonae, T(itus) Severius Modestus…[om]nib[us] h[o]n[oribus et] off[iciis], ‘To Borvo and to Damona, Titus Severius Modestus […] (who fulfilled) all the honours and all the municipal offices(?)’.2044 The dedicator bears Latin names and the tria nomina of Roman citizens.
The second inscription, engraved on a stone, probably dating from the 1st c. AD, was found in 1792 in the foundations of Bourbon-Lancy castle. It was then embedded in one of the walls of the yard of the thermal establishment, and is now in the Musée Rolin at Autun. It reads: C(aius) Julius Eporedirigis f(ilius) Magnus, pro L(ucio) Julio Caleno filio, Bormoni et Damonae, vot(um) sol(vit), ‘To Bormo and to Damona, Caius Julius Magnus, son of Eporedirix, for his son Lucius Julius Calenus, paid his vow off’.2045 Bormo is a variant of the god name Borvo. The dedicator Caius Julius Magnus bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens and Latin names, while his father is a peregrine* with a Celtic name: Eporedirix is composed of eporedo-, eporedia, ‘horseman’, ‘cavalry’ and rix, ‘king’ and means ‘king of horsemen’.2046The dedicator thanks the divine couple for accomplishing a vow he had previously made in the name of his son Lucius Julius Calenus, who bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens. Allmer draws attention to the fact that Eporedirix was the name of an Aedui chief at the time of the War of the Gauls.2047 As it was common to keep the name of one’s ancestors, it is likely that this inscription was dedicated by one of the descendants of the Aedui chief. Honoré Greppo adds that “the son of Magnus could be Julius Calenus, a tribune who, according to Tacitus, belonged by birth to the city of the Aedui, and who was in a legion which had followed the party of Vitellius.”2048
A very damaged fragment was found in 1835 and embedded in the wall of the thermal establishment. The Carte Archéologique de la Gaule, Saône-et-Loire, proposes the following reconstitution: Pr]aest(antissimis) sac[rum — ba]silica u[etustate collaps(?) — deo(?) Bo]rvoni et [Damonae].2049 A fourth fragment in white marble, now housed in the Musée Rolin, in Autun, could read: [Praestanti]ssimis Nu[minibus] Deo Bor[voni et Damonae?], ‘According to the divine higher wills, to the god Borvo and to Damona (?)’.2050 Finally, excavations carried out in 1912 on the site of the ancient Church of Saint-Martin, revealed important foundations dating from Gallo-Roman times, furniture, various objects and a fragment of inscription dedicated to Borvo and Damona. Archaeologists assume that the edifice was a temple erected in honour of the divine couple. The reading of the inscription is difficult and unsure: [Borvoni et Da]monae [—]scent Bo[—]p sibi ab[——] Sua do[rix——s]omnolen[tus—]rans.2051 About five metres from the ancient church was unearthed a Roman well of twenty metres in depth, where different objects – such as an iron head of spear, fragments of a vase and a bucket – were discovered. It is likely that Borvo and Damona were worshipped in connection with that fountain.
Chassenay (Côte d’Or)
In 1896, an inscription, composed of dotted letters and engraved at the top of the belly of a golden bronze vase, was found forty-one-foot deep in a well at Chassenay, a village located near Aignay-le-Duc (Côte d’Or). It reads: Aug(usto) sacr(um) deo Albio et Damonae Sext(us) Mart(ius) Cociliani f(ilius) ex jussu ejus [v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘Sacred to Augustus, to the god Albius and to Damona, Sextus Martius, son of Cocilianus, at his (the god’s) order, willingly offers (this object) for accomplishing his vow’.2052 The dedicator bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens and Latin names, while his father is a peregrine* with a Latin name.
In this dedication, Damona is partnered with the god Albius, who is known by this single inscription: his character and functions are thus undetermined. Albius’s name is derived from a Celtic root alb– signifying ‘white’, ‘celestial’.2053 The significance of his name relates him to the indigenous healing god Vindonnus – associated with Apollo in various inscriptions from Essarois (Côte d’Or) – whose name comes from the Gaulish vindo, ‘white’ and vindonos, ‘fair’.2054 Another healing god with a Latin name, Candidus, mentioned with Borvo in an inscription from Entrains-sur-Nohain (Nièvre),2055 also has a name denoting brightness. As Vindonnus and Candidus are gods related to brightness and curative springs, it is probable that Albius’s worship was attached to healing waters. This idea is supported by his association with Damona, the goddess presiding over salutary springs.
It might be possible that the waters of the well had some curative virtues or were regarded as sacred in ancient times.2056 This is highly likely, since, in addition to the inscribed bronze vase, many ancient objects were discovered in the well: various vases of different sizes, the bottom part of two small columns; several bronze dishes; Roman coins extending from Nero (1st c. AD) to Gratianus (4th c. AD);2057 a vase in bronze on which the signature of its bronzier appears;2058 a large heavy patera*, the handle of which is decorated with a ram’s head; a statuette of a mother goddess wearing a heavy cloak and giving her breast to two nurslings; and pieces of a statue in marble, which has a snake coiled up around an arm, representing Hygia or Esculape.2059 In all likelihood, these objects come from a small temple, possibly erected in honour of the couple in the area of Chassenay. This remains nonetheless a hypothesis, since no archaeological evidence proves the existence of such a small place of devotion.
Damona and Albius may have been the deities presiding over the waters of this fountain or possibly over thermal waters in the area. The renowned thermal spring of Maizières, situated five kilometres from the village of Chassenay, might have been protected by the couple. A bronze statuette representing a character seated on a rock, as well as coins and potteries discovered on the site, prove that the spring was already known and used in Gallo-Roman times, but there is no evidence attesting to the worship of the couple on this site.2060
Alise-Sainte-Reine (Côte d’Or)
In Alise-Sainte-Reine, Damona is partnered with the god Moristasgus in an inscription discovered by Joël Le Gall in 1962 during excavations in the cemetery of Saint-Père situated on Mont-Auxois.2061 The dedication is engraved on the corner of a big cornice or on the pedestal of a statue: Deo Apollini Moritasgo [et] Damonae P(ublius) Pontius Apolli[naris], ‘To the god Apollo Moritasgus and to Damona, Publius Pontis Apollinaris (had this monument erected)’ (fig. 46).2062 The dedicator bears Latin names and is a Roman citizen.
Moritasgus is known from three other inscriptions discovered at a water sanctuary excavated at the eastern part of Mont-Auxois, above a cross called the ‘Croix-Saint-Charles’.2063 Olmsted relates the first part of his name to a root *mori– meaning ‘sea’ and the second part tasgo– to an Indo-European root *sāg– signifying ‘to tend toward’, ‘to seek’.2064 According to him, Moritasgus would thus be ‘the One approaching the Sea’ or ‘the Sea-Seeking One’. As for Delamarre, he suggests that his name is composed of Gaulish mori, ‘sea’ and tasgos, ‘badger’ and means ‘Badger of the Sea’.2065 The source sanctuary dedicated to Moritasgus was composed of a hexagonal temple, surrounded by a portico, where votive offerings, such as coins and wheels in bronze of different sizes, were discovered; two small square and hexagonal chapels; a basin in wood; a small swimming-pool; and important thermal buildings, consisting of two primitive rooms with heated and cold swimming-pools, two other rooms and a huge portico, which were erected on top of previous Gaulish installations.2066 The sacred waters were harnessed by a network of pipes supplying all the buildings of the sanctuary. The belief in the healing power of the local waters is attested by the numerous anatomic ex-votos* representing heads, legs, busts, breasts, fingers, male and female genital organs, eyes and swaddled children. The waters have no therapeutic properties today, but analyses carried out in 1899 revealed that they had medicinal virtues in ancient times.2067
Fig. 46: Dedication to Apollo Moritasgus and Damona discovered on Mont-Auxois, Alésia (Côte d’Or). In the Musée d’Alise-Sainte-Reine. Le Gall, 1980, p. 159.
In the small 2nd-century AD square chapel of Moristasgus’s sanctuary, the head and the left hand of a female statue in white limestone were discovered in a central square basin, which was supplied by a spring.2068 The head is framed by abundant and wavy hair and is retained by a headband made of ears of corn, symbolizing fertility, while the hand holds a snake, a possible emblem of healing through water.2069 Originally, the statue was polychromous: the body was painted in white, the hair in red, the diadem in green and the ears of corn in yellow. In view of the inscription to Moritasgus and Damona, Le Gall assumes that the statue is a figuration of Damona and that the chapel was dedicated to her. No archaeological evidence has been uncovered so far to support this theory: the inscription was not discovered in the chapel and the statue is anepigraphic.
In the south-west of Gaul, Damona is venerated on her own in an inscription, engraved on a triangular slab broken in three pieces, found in 1918 on a hill at a place known as ‘La Garenne’, in Saintes (Charente). The dedication is the following: Jullia Malla Malluronis fil(ia) Numinibus Augustorum et deae Damonae Matuberginni ob memoriam Sulpiciae Silvanae, filiae suae, de suo posuit, ‘To the divine powers of Augustus and to the goddess Damona Matuberginnis, Julia Malla, daughter of Malluro, had (this monument) erected in the memory of her daughter Sulpicia Silvana’ (fig. 47).2070 Various objects from Gallo-Roman times, such as fragments of vases, roughly-hewed stones and a millstone, were discovered in the area. This could indicate that a small temple or shrine was erected on the hill, but this remains unconfirmed.
Fig. 47: Inscription to Damona Matuberginnis discovered in Saintes (Charente). In the Musée de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. ILA-S 108.
The dedicator’s father is a peregrine* with a Celtic name, while Julia Malla bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens. Her first name Julia is Latin, but her second name Malla is clearly Celtic. It is based on the same theme mallos, probably meaning ‘slow’, ‘lazy’, as her father’s name Malluro.2071 Julia Malla prays to the goddess Damona for the memory of her daughter Sulpicia Silvana, who has two Latin names. She might have had a monument erected in honour of Damona, such as an altar or a temple, but no archaeological evidence has been discovered in the area. This inscription is interesting, for it illustrates the complete Romanization of a Celtic family in three generations.
Damona is given the epithet Matuberginnis, the significance of which can be interpreted in various ways. In the 19th c., Antoine Héron de Villefosse suggested that it was a localizing epithet designating the place where the goddess Damona was honoured.2072 Matuberginis may be composed of Celtic matu-, ‘bear’ and of Celtic bergo –, ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’. Accordingly, the place of devotion to Damona would have been called ‘the Hill of the Bear’. As we’ve seen, matu– can also signify ‘good’ or ‘favourable’, for it was used as a circumlocution or a flattering epithet not to offend a potentially dangerous animal.2073 Olmsted thus proposes that Matuberginnis is a descriptive epithet qualifying the goddess as ‘the Good or Favourable High One’.2074 This root is found in other epithets of deities, such as Diana Mattiaca and Apollo Matuacus or Matuicus.2075
As Damona is attached to curative springs in the centre of Gaul, it is likely that she was related to a spring or a fountain in the area. Jules Lhomme, who investigated the place in 1918, did not find any springs, but he did discover a well supplied with a subterranean spring.2076 No archaeological discoveries yet provide evidence of a cult rendered to Damona at this well.
From all of this, it follows that Damona was a goddess venerated in relation to curative springs. She is indeed honoured in several famous spa towns, such as Bourbonnes-les-Bains and Bourbon-Lancy, the hot springs of which were already used in antiquity. In Chassenay and Alise-Sainte-Reine, she presided over waters which were held in high respect and probably worshipped for their medicinal virtues. Moreover, she is coupled with Gaulish gods of salutary waters, such as Borvo or Bormo, the renowned god of hot waters; Moritasgus, who personified the mineral waters of Mont-Auxois; and Albius, who might have been a protector of healing waters too. Being associated with different partners, Damona is a polyandrous* goddess. The two inscriptions from Bourbonnes-les-Bains and Saintes prove the independence of her cult: she was not the mere doublet of a healing god.
The sixteen inscriptions dedicated to her attest to the importance of her cult, seemingly concentrated in the north-east and centre of Gaul. The dedication from Saintes, situated in the south-west of Gaul, shows, however, that Damona was also worshipped elsewhere.
The archaeological context of water sanctuaries is Gallo-Roman, but Damona’s name is Celtic, which proves that her cult is pre-Roman. The bovine shape illustrated by her name is a proof of its antiquity, since the cow is the animal metaphor of the river-goddesses in ancient Sanskrit literature.2077
From the study of the inscriptions, it emerges that Damona was often honoured by women. Out of fourteen inscriptions, seven are offered by women, such as Sextilia (n°3), Verrea Verilla (n°4), Maturia Rustica (n°6), Julia Tiberia Corisilla (n°7), Aemilia (n°8), Claudia Mossia (n°9) in Bourbonnes-les-Bains and Julia Malla in Saintes. This shows that women played an important part in local cults and devotions. Eleven inscriptions are offered by Roman citizens who intentionally specify that they are of Celtic origin. Some of them, such as Caius Ia…nius Romanus (n°1), Caius Daminius Ferox (n°2), Verrea Verillia (n°4) and Julia Tiberia Corisilla (n°7), declare that they are from the tribe of the Lingones. Others, such as Verrea Verilla (n°4), Claudia Mossia (n°9) or Julia Malla (Saintes), kept Celtic names despite their Romanization. Some dedicators have fathers who are peregrines bearing Celtic names, such as Caius Julius Magnus, son of Eporedirix, in Bourbon-Lancy. This provides evidence of their indigenous origin. Finally, some are in the process of Romanization, such as Fronto (n°5), Aemilia (n°8) and Sextilia (n°3), for they bear a Latin name but do not have the Roman citizenship. Therefore, it appears that Damona was mainly honoured by Romanized people of Celtic origin, who were still profoundly attached to their ancient cults and beliefs after the Roman conquest.
Bormana (‘the Bubbling One’)
The goddess Bormana is known from two inscriptions discovered in Aix-en-Diois (Die), where she is partnered with Bormanus, and in Saint-Vulbaz (Ain), where she is honoured on her own. Bormana is obviously the feminine form of Bormanus, which is a variant of Bormo/Borvo. Other divine couples bearing the same name are known, such as Visucius and Visucia. Bormana can be therefore understood as a doublet of the healing god. In view of her name, which derives from Gaulish borvo or bormo, ‘hot spring’ and means ‘the Bubbler’ or ‘the Boiler’,Bormana is the literal personification of hot springs.2078
The inscription found in Saint-Vulbaz, anciently Saint-Bourbaz, situated near Belley (Ain), is engraved on two fragments of an altar, which are respectively housed in the rural museum of the village and embedded in the wall of a mill at nearby Convers.2079 The exact place of discovery of this stone is unknown. It was unearthed somewhere near the source of the stream La Bormane, the name of which is reminiscent of the cult of Bormana. The name of the goddess also survived in the ancient name of the locality Saint-Bourbaz, which derives from a Gaulish *borṷā possibly designating a ‘muddy spring’.2080 The inscription reads: Bormonae Aug(ustae) sacr(um) Caprii A[t]ratinus, […] S]abinian[us] d(e) s(uo) d(onaverunt), ‘Sacred to Augustus and to Bormana, Caprius Atratinus […] (and) Caprius Sabinianus offered (this monument) at their own expense’.2081 The inscription is offered by two dedicators who bear Latin names and are Roman citizens, for they bear the duo nomina. The waters of Saint-Vulbaz are profuse, clear and fresh but are not known to have thermal virtues.2082 The Gallo-Roman remains discovered in the area tend to prove that the waters were known and used in Gallo-Roman times. These include a genius holding a cornucopia*, statues of Diana, Minerva and Asklepius – the Greco-Roman god of medicine – and many coins dating from the beginning of the Empire to Julien l’Apostat (1st c. BC-4th c. AD),.2083
The second inscription, engraved on a small altar, was discovered at the beginning of the 19th c. at a place known as ‘L’Oche’, in the cemetery of Aix-en-Diois (Drôme), sixty metres from a place known as ‘Fontanelles’, where a mineral spring gushes forth.2084 Remains of a Gallo-Roman thermal establishment were unearthed in the area. Aix-en-Diois is besidesa village which is famous for its saline waters. The inscription is the following: Borman[o] et Borman[ae]. P(ublius) Saprin[ius] Eusebes votum solvit libens merito, ‘To Bormanus and to Bormana, Publius Saprinius Eusebes paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2085 The dedicator, who bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens, thanks the divine couple for answering a vow he had previously made. It is now housed in the Musée Municipal de Die. It is clear that Bormanus and Bormana were revered in relation to the saline waters of Aix-en-Diois, which were believed to relieve pilgrims from their pains.
Stanna / Sianna (?)
The goddess Stanna is attested by an inscription composed of five fragments discovered in the buildings of the ‘Vieilles Casernes’ in Périgueux (Dordogne), in the territory of the Petrocorii, where she is partnered with the god Telo (fig. 48). Thanks to the comparison of the various fragments, the suggested restoration is certain, except for the end of the first line and the beginning of the second line: Deo Telo et deae Stannae, solo A(uli) Pomp(eii) Antiqui, Per…ius, Silvani fil(ius) Bassus, c(urator) c(ivium) r(omanorum), consaeptum omne circa templum et basilicas duas, cum ceteris ornamentis ac munimentis, dat, ‘To the god Telo and to the goddess Stanna, Per[…]ius Bassus, son of Silvanus, curator of the Roman citizens, offers, at his own expense, this entire wall erected around their temple on the land of Aulus Pompeius Antiquus, and these two basilicas with the other embellishments and accessories’.2086 This inscription is of great interest, for it mentions the existence of a temple dedicated to Telo and Stanna. The dedicator Per[…]rius Bassus is a Roman citizen and holds official functions. He is a curator, which means he had been appointed by the emperor to manage and supervise the finances of the city. He offers a wall, two basilicas, ornaments and accessories extending and embellishing the sanctuary, which is built on the property of the Roman citizen Aulus Pompeius Antiquus. This wall and basilicas may correspond to the Gallo-Roman remains excavated in the surroundings of the ‘Tour de Vésone’, which was the temple dedicated to Tutella Vesunna, the eponymous goddess of the city (see Chapter 3).2087 The re-use* of the stone does not allow us to identify the origin of the inscription. The archaeological context and the possible functions of Telo and Stanna in Périgueux remain thus undeterminable.
The god Telo is known from another inscription discovered in Périgueux.2088Telo and Stanna seem thus to be topical* or local deities. Telo’s name nowadays survives in the name of a village situated 3 kms from Périgueux, called Le Toulon, which takes its name from a nearby spring gushing forth from an abyss. This spring was anciently named ‘Fountaine de Toulon’ and is known today as ‘Fontaine du Cluseau’ or ‘Fontaine de l’Abîme’.2089 Telo must have been originally a deity presiding over water. This is probably the reason why rivers and towns situated near a stream or a spring bear that name. According to Paul Aebischer, rivers and places named Toulon or Touron are derived from the same root as the name of the god. Those names are quite common in the toponymy* of the south of Gaul, from the Var to the Landes and from the Aude to the Périgord, where they are particularly numerous. In Dordogne, thirty-one springs, streams and places called Touron are recorded, such as the spring of the Touron, which gushes forth from a rock near the village of Font-Roquesuch, the spring of the Touron, in Saint-Sulpice-d’Eymet, and the fountain of the Touron in the village of Rouffignac.2090 In the area of Le Thonolet and Martigues (Bouches-du-Rhône), Bargème and Callians (Var) and Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes), many rivers, fountains and springs are called Touloun, Touroun, Touron, e.g. the spring of Thoulon in Martigues; the stream Toulon, a tributary of the River Touloubre in the département of the Bouches-du-Rhône; and the stream Toulou, a tributary of the River Braune in the département of Gard.2091
Fig. 48: The five fragments of the inscription dedicated to Telo and Stanna found in Périgueux (Dordogne). Picture n°5 is the fragment on which the words Deae Stannae are engraved. Source: Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord.
The meaning of Stanna’s name remains obscure. Anwyl proposes to relate it to a root sta– meaning ‘to stand’; hence Stanna, ‘the Standing or Abiding one’.2092 There is a Gaulish root sto-, derived from the IE *-sth2-o-, signifying ‘who stands’, but Delamarre does not seem to believe that Stanna is etymologically related.2093 As for Marie Durand-Lefebvre, she assumes that stanna is cognate with the Anglo-Saxon stan, Dutch steen, Icelandic stein, Danish and Swedish stenn, German stein, Gothic stains, Russian stiena and Greek στια or στιον, i.e. ‘the rock’.2094 Stanna would thus refer to the rock where the spring emanates and would have originally been the goddess embodying the mountain. Unlike the name of her partner, Stanna does not survive in the local idiom.2095 Her association with the water-god Telo in Périgueux, however, would indicate that she was a spring-goddess.
As regards the dedication engraved on an altar in white marble discovered in 1824 in the middle of the ruins of the Gallo-Roman baths excavated on the Mont-Dore (Puy-de-Dôme), in the territory of the Arverni, it is difficult to determine whether this stone is dedicated to the god Siannus or to the goddess Sianna, for the end of the name is missing. The inscription reads: Julia Severa Siann[ae] / Siann[us] v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Sianna or Siannus, Julia Severa paid her vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 49).2096 The dedicator is a woman, who bears Latin names and the duo nomina of Roman citizens. She thanks the deity for accomplishing a vow she had previously made. Because the inscription begins with the name of the dedicator, which was particularly in use in the 1st c. AD, the inscription must date from this time.2097 Most of the scholars, such as Jullian, Renel, Holder, Jüfer, Olmsted and Delamarre, are inclined to think that this inscription is dedicated to Siannus, because this god is known from another inscription discovered in Lyons (Rhône),2098 where he is linked to Apollo, who replaced many native healing water gods in Gallo-Roman times.2099 As the inscription was unearthed on the site of an ancient thermal establishment, it is likely that the healing god Siannus presided over the salutary springs of Mont-Dore. And yet, Vaillat and Rémy point out that the inscription was certainly dedicated to a goddess, since the sculpture of a draped and standing woman, holding an unidentified object in her left hand, was originally represented in bas-relief* right above the inscription.2100 Sianna may in fact be a variant of Stanna and refer to the same goddess, for the letters I and T, being very similar in shape, can be easily confused.2101 Before the last inscription was discovered, the goddess Bricta/Brixta in Luxeuil was for instance miscalled Bricia or Brixia, because the T was misread as an I.2102 Moreover, Périgueux is situated about 200 kms from Mont-Dore, which is not far away. Contrary to what Vaillat maintains, it is thus highly likely that Sianna and Stanna are the very same divine figure.2103
Fig. 49: Inscription to Sianna discovered on Mont-Dore (Puy-de-Dôme). The emplacement of an ancient statue representing a standing draped woman (the goddess?) is still visible. In the Musée Bargoin at Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) (N° inv. 64.321.1). ILA-A, n°43, p. 116.
Sianna might have been the goddess protecting the waters of Mont-Dore, which were known and used in Gallo-Roman times, as proven by excavations carried out on the site in 1825. When Michel Bertrand started to build a thermal establishment in 1817, he discovered the remains of huge Gallo-Roman baths, preceded by a yard surrounded by columns and composed of two spacious galleries and rooms, where the baths and swimming-pools were supplied with the waters of several hot springs, harnessed by lead pipes.2104 A rectangular temple with six columns, known as a ‘Pantheon’, composed of a first portico giving access to a cella* followed by a smaller portico, was also discovered.2105 The remains of decorations and ornaments testify that it was a religious edifice, very certainly erected in honour of the deity of the place.
The worship of the salutary waters of Mont-Dore may go back to Celtic times, for a very well-preserved quadrangular swimming-pool (4m long and 1.50m deep), made of fir-tree trunks – the bark of which had been stripped off – was excavated under the Gallo-Roman building and a thick layer of hard rock.2106 The archaeologists also found a fir-tree trunk (15cm thick and 5m long), hollowed out in the middle, harnessing the thermo-mineral spring called ‘Boyer’ to the wooden swimming-pool, which could contain up to fifteen people.2107 No other archaeological data have provided evidence of the cult of the goddess Sianna, apart from a lost sculpted socle which had a woman with a vestal costume surrounded by seven genii. Durand-Lefebvre suggests that the woman could be the representation of the main spring, and the seven genii the embodiment of the seven secondary springs. 2108 The genii are indeed often associated with mother goddesses and water on iconographical devices, but this theory remains conjectural.2109
On account of her association with the god Telo, who was certainly attached to water, and the inscription to Sianna discovered in the Gallo-Roman thermal building of Mont-Dore, it can be suggested that Stanna/Sianna was a goddess presiding over salutary waters in south-central Gaul in ancient times.
Bricta (‘the One who Exercises Magic?’)
The goddess Bricta or Brixta2110 is honoured with the god Luxovius in three inscriptions from Luxeuil-les-Bains (Haute-Saône), anciently called Luxovium, where warm springs (about 24°), heavily mineralised hot springs (40°), and ferruginous waters emanate.2111 As excavations carried out on the site prove, the beneficial properties of the waters of Luxeuil-les-Bains were already known and exploited in Gallo-Roman times. They are nowadays renowned for the treatment of venous and gynaecological problems.2112
The god Luxovius gave his name to the city of Luxeuil and, with Bricta, presided over its curative springs.2113 His name is said to derive from *leuk meaning ‘light’ – probably forming the name of the Irish god Lugh as well; hence his possible association with both light and water symbolism.2114 As regards the name of the goddess, it is important to point out that its correct spelling is Bricta or Brixta, and not Brixia or Bricia: the 18th-century archaeologists misread the T as an I.2115 Pierre Wuillemier explains that the alternation between ct and xt in Bricta or Brixta is consonant with the Gaulish language, for those groups of letters were phonetically identical.2116 Similarly, the names Divixta and Divicta are the same.2117 The suffix – ta, found in other goddess names, such as Nantosuelta, Rosmerta and Segeta, indicates Bricta is a noun of action.
Holder sees a connection between Bricta/Brixta and the name of the River Breuchin, which waters Luxeuil, for it is called Brusca or Brisca in the Life of Saint Columbanus.2118 The River Breuchin gave its name to two villages, situated on its banks: Breuches and Breuchotte, which are respectively situated four and eight kilometres from Luxeuil. Bricta might thus have been originally the personification of the River Breuchin and have been later attached to the salutary waters of Luxeuil.2119
As regards the significance of her name, Olmsted suggests that it derives from the IE root *bhrēk- meaning ‘to shine’; hence Bricta, ‘the Shining One’,2120 but the etymology* advanced by Lambert, Delamarre and Leurat is far more convincing.2121 According to them, Brixta/Bricta is to be related to the Gaulish word brixtom/brictom or brixta signifying ‘magic’, ‘enchantment’, ‘charm’ or ‘spell’. The word brixta appears on line 3 of a twelve-line magical formula addressed to the god Maponos, inscribed on a lead tablet discovered in 1971 at a place known as the ‘Sources des Roches’ in Chamalières (Puy-de-Dôme): brixtía andiron, that is ‘by the magic power of the infernal (deities)’.2122 It also repeatedly appears in the forms brictom and brictas in a magical text engraved on the two faces of a lead tablet called ‘Plomb du Larzac’, discovered in 1983 on the necropolis of Hodpitalet-du-Larzac (Aveyron), e.g. on face 1a, line 1: in sinde se bnanom brictom, i.e. ‘the magic of the women’, and line 9: andernados brictom, i.e. ‘the magic of the underworld’.2123 Gaulish brixta must be cognate with the Old Irish bricht, ‘bewitchment’, Middle Welsh lled-frith, ‘charm’ and Old Breton brith, ‘magic’, all derived from an old IE theme *bhregh– meaning ‘to declare ceremoniously’.2124 As Bricta ends with a suffix of action, *bhrgh-tá > *briktá > brixtá would denote ‘magical activity’ and Bricta might be ‘the woman who exercises magic’, that is the ‘magician’ or the ‘witch’.2125
Until the end of the 18th c., Luxovius and Bricta were known only by a lost inscription, reproduced in an 8th- or 9th-century manuscript of the Abbey of Luxeuil, entitled Homilia SS. Patrum in Evangelia quattuor.2126 This inscription was discovered again together with a second dedication, coins and potteries, during excavations carried out in 1777 around the present-day yard of the thermal establishment. The stone was not linked at once to the inscription mentioned in the manuscript, which is why they used to be understood as two different inscriptions. The now lost dedication, probably dating from the 3rd c. AD, reads: Luxovio et Brixtae C(aius) Jul(ius) Firmanius v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Luxovius and Brixta, Caius Julius Firmanius paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2127 The dedicator is a Roman citizen, for he bears the tria nomina. The votive formula v.s.l.m. indicates he is grateful to the divine couple for granting his vow.
The second inscription, now housed in the ‘Château de Filain’, is the following: [Lus]soio et Brictae, Divixtius Constans, v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Luxovius and to Bricta, Divixtius Constans paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 50).2128 The dedicator bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens, but his gentilice* Divixtius is a typical Celtic name, based on divic-, ‘to avenge’.2129 In keeping a Celtic name, the dedicator shows that, despite his Romanization, he remains attached to his indigenous origins. In this inscription, the name of the god is spelt Lussoius instead of Luxovius, which is not surprising, as the letters x and ss were interchangeable in the Roman epigraphy.2130
Fig. 50: Inscription to Lussoius and Bricta discovered around the present-day yard of the thermal establishment of Luxeuil. Lerat, 1950, plate XVIII, fig. b.
The last stone inscription, probably dating to the 1st c. AD, composed of four fragments, was fortuitously found in 1938 during earthworks undertaken to the west of the thermal establishment, where it can be seen nowadays. It reads: Brixtae Firmanus [v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens)] m(erito), ‘To Brixta, Firmanus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 51).2131 The dedicator Firmanus is certainly the same person who dedicated the first inscription. He may thus have been a pilgrim returning to the water sanctuary at Luxovium.
Fig. 51: Dedication to Brixta offered by Firmanus discovered in the thermal establishment of Luxeuil. Lerat, 1950, plate XVIII.
It should be pointed out that the inscription mentioning a temple erected in honour of the goddess Brixia in the reign of Caesar Augustus and the consulate of Tiberius and Cneius Calpurnius Pison, found in 1781 near the Roman baths, is an ‘inscription falsae’, that is a fake inscription made by a forger: Divæ auxiliari Brixiæ, regnante Cæsare Augusto, consulibus Tiberio et Pisone dedicatum templum.2132 It was discovered with a statue of a ‘Cavalier à l’anguipède’ type, representing a Gaulish Jupiter holding a cart-wheel in his left hand and riding a horse trampling on a human head.2133 The meaning of this representation is still obscure, but it definitively has a connection to the worship of water and the sun.2134
Thermal baths and Votive offerings
The ancient name of Luxeuil-les-Bains is neither mentioned in the Classical texts nor in the 4th-century Carte de Peutinger, but in The Life of Saint Columbanus, written in the 7th c. by the Italian monk Jonas de Bobbio who describes the foundation of the monastery of Luxeuil (Luxovium) by Saint Colombanus around 590.2135 He refers briefly to the worship of the hot springs by the local pagan people, who offered ex-votos in stone to the deities of the place and performed rites and ceremonies in the nearby wood:
‘Cum iam multorum monachorum societate densaretur, coepit cogitare, ut potioris loci in eodem heremo quereret, quo monasterium construxisset, invenitque castrum firmissimo munimine olim fuisse cultum, a supradicto loco distans plus minus octo millibus, quem prisca tempora Luxovium nuncupabant: ibique aquae calidae cultu eximio constructae habebantur. Ibi imaginum lapidearum densitas vicina saltus densabat, quas cultu miserabili rituque profano vetusta paganorum tempora honorabant, quibusque execrabiles ceremonias litabant; solae ibi ferae ac bestiae, ursorum, bubalorum, luporum multitudo frequentabant.2136
As he was already hemmed in by the presence of many monks, he began to consider whether he might discover a suitable place in the same wilderness where he might found a monastery, and he discovered a fortress which had once been protected by the strongest of fortifications, approximately eight miles from the aforementioned place. Earlier times had called it Luxovium. There hot baths [lit. waters] had been built with considerable care; there a large number of stone images filled the neighbouring woodland: these, ancient pagan times had honoured with miserable ritual and profane rites, and for them they performed execrable ceremonies; the place was frequented only by wild animals and beasts, a multitude of bears, wolves and buffalo.2137 ’
This description is significant, for it coincides with the discovery of the stone inscriptions dedicated to Luxovius and Bricta and the Gallo-Roman thermal establishment, excavated from 1775 to 1785, and from 1857 to 1858.2138 The Gallo-Roman building, situated on the site of the present baths, was composed of more than five vaulted rooms, cobbled with alabaster and adorned with mosaics, containing baths, basins and surrounded by galleries with porticos. A network of piping, including aqueducts in stone and hollowed oak trunks serving as channels for harnessing the spring water inside the establishment, was also discovered. Nearby the ferruginous springs, Félix Bourquelot unearthed remains of columns, which could indicate proof of the existence of a small temple dedicated to Luxovius and Bricta in this area.2139 It is besides interesting to note that, in the 19th c., the ferruginous springs were called ‘Springs of the Temple’.
In addition to Luxovius and Bricta, Apollo and Sirona, the renowned divine couple of healing springs, were also honoured in Luxeuil, since an inscription dedicated to them engraved on an altar in white marble sculpted on three sides comes from the site.2140 Various votive offerings evidencing the worship of protective deities of the local springs have been discovered. In 1932, three wooden kegs containing about 20,000 coins in copper and silver, dating from 320 AD to 335 AD, were unearthed (fig. 52).2141 In 1865, a hundred statues in oak, representing rough heads, busts and full-scale characters, and an anatomic ex-voto* in the shape of a leg, were discovered in a layer of black earth at the spring of the ‘Pré-Martin’, situated 150 metres north of the thermal establishment.2142 Except for nine of them, the rest crumbled into dust on contact with air when they were discovered.2143 Despite the roughness and distortion of the statues, it is noticeable that some of the characters wear the bardocucullus* and the Celtic torque* around their neck (fig. 53 and 54). Those statues probably date from the end of the 1st c. BC or the beginning of the 1st c. AD, for a coin from the time of Augustus was found in the same layer of earth.2144 These votive offerings are similar to those found at the ‘Fontaine Segrain’ in Monthay-en-Auxois (Côte d’Or), at the sanctuary of the Sources-de-la-Seine (Côte d’Or), Essarois (Côte d’Or), Bourbonnes-les-Bains (Haute-Marne), Saint-Honoré-les-Bains (Nièvre), Saint-Amand-les-Eaux (Nord), Montbouy (Loiret), Chamalières (Puy-de-Dôme), etc.2145 They attest of a cult rendered to curative water deities. They indeed represent the pilgrims who came to the sanctuary of Luxeuil-les-Bains to soothe their pains in taking the salutary waters and praying to the healing deities: Bricta and Luxovius. The ex-votos were offered to earn divine benevolence, to obtain the recovery of a sick person or to express one’s gratitude after being granted a vow.
Fig. 52: Drawing of the three wooden kegs containing about 20,000 coins in copper and silver (320 AD – 335 AD), discovered at the spring of Pré-Martin, in Luxeuil. Richard, 1991, p. 53.
Fig. 53: Drawings of the wodden statues representing pilgrims wearing the hooded bardocucullus* found at the spring of the Pré-Martin in Luxeuil. Deyts, 1983, plate XC.
Fig. 54: Head in wood (wearing the Celtic torque*) from the spring of the Pré-Martin, in Luxeuil. In the Musée de Besançon (Doubs). Richard, 1991, p. 16, fig. 9.
Fig. 55: Analytical map of the cult of fountain- and spring-goddesses: Acionna (purple), Icovellauna and Mogontia (light green), Bricta (yellow), Damona (red), principally attested in the centre-east of Gaul, Bormana (blue), in the south-east of Gaul, and Stanna/Sianna (dark green), in the south-west and centre of Gaul (Source: N. Beck).
Sirona (‘the Heifer’ or ‘the Star’)
The goddess Sirona is known from thirty inscriptions discovered in Gaul (see below), Germany (Mainz, Alzey, Augsbourg, Gross-Bottwar, Ihn, Ihn-Niedaltorf, Mühlburg, S. Avaud and Baumburg),2146 Switzerland (Augst),2147 Italy (Rome),2148 Austria (Vienna),2149 and Romania (Bretea).2150 She is sometimes partnered with the Celtic god of healing springs Apollo Grannus, such as in Bitburg (Germany), in the territory of the Treveri; in Baumburg (Germany), in Noricum*; and in Rome (Italy).2151 His epithet is generally related to IE *gwher –, ‘warm’, ‘hot’ and attested as meaning ‘sun (god)’ or ‘(god of) thermal waters’,2152 but Lambert, Delamarre and Sergent consider this etymology* dubious and suggest rather that it should be linked to the Old Irish grend, ‘beard’ or ‘hair’ and the Old Welsh grann, ‘chin’, ‘beard’ or ‘hair’, derived from the IE root *ĝher(s)-, ‘to bristle’.2153 Grannus would thus be the ‘Bearded or Haired One’. Jürgen Zeidler, who has studied the various etymologies advanced for Grannus, concludes that the god is never represented with a beard in the iconography and that his name may be connected with IE *ĝher-, ‘shine’, ‘gleam’.2154 Sirona is also coupled with the Gallo-Roman Apollo, who usually replaced Celtic gods presiding over curative waters, such as in Großbootwar (Germany), Nierstein (Germany), Luxeuil (Haute-Saône), Mâlain (Côte d’Or) and Tranqueville-Graux (Vosges).2155 Finally, Sirona is sometimes honoured on her own, such as in Corseul (Côtes d’Armor), Bordeaux (Gironde), Sainte-Fontaine (Moselle), Trier, Mühlburg, Mainz and Wiesbaden (Germany). This proves that she was not a mere partner of Apollo (Grannus) and that she had her proper cult. The sites linked to the dedications tend to prove that she was mostly worshipped in relation to thermal waters, springs or fountains. A bronze group from Mâlain also represents her as Hygeia, the Roman goddess of health and medicine. A full study of the thirty inscriptions honouring her is beyond the scope of this research; thus only the epigraphic and iconographical devices from Gaul will be studied.
In the inscriptions, her name is generally written Sirona, but in Mâlain (Côte d’Or) it is spelt with TH (Thirona) and in Trier, Ihn and St-Avaud (Germany) with a crossed D (Ðirona). TH and Đ account for the sounds ts, ds or st in the Celtic language.2156 Her name is thus to be read [tsi:rona] or [sti:rona]. As regards the meaning of her name, which remains uncertain, three etymologies have been suggested. Stokes, De Vries, Lambert and Delamarre derive it from an Old Celtic root *ster– meaning ‘star’, which gave in Gaulish stir-, sir-, đir-, in Old Irish ser, in Welsh ser and in Breton ster, sterenn.2157 Sirona would thus signify and personify the ‘Star’. Yet, apart from being partnered with the sun god Apollo, she is never represented with stellar symbols or images in the iconography. Being generally worshipped in the context of healing waters, Lacroix proposes to relate her name to an IE radical *sti– designating ‘an accumulation of water’ or ‘a concentration of drops’, which he compares to Latin stilla, ‘drop’ and stiria, ‘frozen drop’, and to Breton ster, ‘river’, ‘basin’ or ‘washtub’.2158 As for Olmsted, he argues that Sirona may have been venerated in heifer shape, for her name can be derived from an IE root *ster– meaning ‘barren cow’.2159 Sirona (‘the Heifer’) would thus fall into the same category of water-goddesses in cow shape as the Irish river-goddess Bóinn (‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’), the British river-goddess Verbeia (‘She of the Cattle’?), and the Gaulish spring-goddesses Damona (‘the Cow (Goddess)’) and Borvoboendoa (‘the Seething White Cow’) we considered above.
Inscriptions and Places of worship
Sirona was particularly worshipped in the north-east of Gaul, as inscriptions discovered in the départements of Moselle (1), Meurthe-et-Moselle (1), Vosges (1), Haute-Saône (1) and Côte d’Or (1) illustrate. Dedications to her have also been discovered in Germany, in the territory of the Treveri, notably in Trier (1), Mainz (1), Bitburg (1), Nietaltdorf (1) and Hochscheid (1), where a shrine linked to a spring was excavated. Her cult was probably extended to the whole of Gaul, since a dedication comes from the département of Cher, in the centre of Gaul, another from Côtes d’Armor, in the north-west of Gaul, and a last one from Gironde, in the south-west of Gaul.
In the Treveran territory, the close relationship between Sirona and curative waters stands out. In Bitburg, a dedication in two fragments reading In h(onorem) d(omus) d(ivinae) Apollin[i Granno] et Siro[nae], ‘In Honour of the Divine House, to Apollo Grannus and Sirona’, was discovered in 1824 near a perennial spring.2160 The formula in h.d.d. indicates the inscription is from the 3rd c. AD.2161 The most significant example is the water sanctuary of Hochscheid, where representations of Apollo and Sirona and dedications to them were discovered. Hochscheid is situated between Mainz and Trier, where an inscription was also found: D(e)ae Sirona[e] L(ucius) Lugnius, ‘To the goddess Sirona Lucius Lugnius’.2162 The dedicator is a Roman citizen, for he bears the duo nomina, but his cognomen* Lugnius is Celtic: it seems to be based on lugu-, found in the name of the Celtic god Lugus.2163 The shrine at Hochscheid, probably dating from the 2nd c. AD, was composed of a portico surrounding a square cella*, where the waters of the nearby spring were collected in a small central basin (fig. 56).2164 The temple was apparently built over an enclosure in wood predating Roman times.2165 The inscription to the divine couple is engraved on an altar: Deo Apollini et Sancte Sirone R. C. Pro Con[…], ‘To the god Apollo and to Sacred Sirona R. C. Pro con (?) […]’.2166 In the sanctuary were discovered various votive terracotta figurines picturing an Apollo with a lyre, a Silvanus, a Minerva, a Venus, a Diana, a Fortuna with a patera*, and seated single mother goddesses with a diadem, a baby or an animal.2167 A statue of Classical type, representing a standing goddess wearing a dress and a diadem and holding a patera* in her left hand, was also unearthed (fig. 57).2168 The snake curled around her right forearm relates her to the bronze group from Mâlain: Sirona is depicted with the features of Hygeia, the Roman goddess of healing. The water sanctuary and the representation of the goddess clearly prove that Apollo and Sirona were associated with the spring gushing forth near the shrine and its possible curative virtues.
Fig. 56: Drawing of the water sanctuary of Hochscheid (Germany) dedicated to Apollo and Sirona. The spring is harnessed inside a small basin situated in the middle of a cella* surrounded by a portico. Dehn, 1941, p. 108, fig. 2.
Fig. 57: Statue of Sirona with patera* and snake from Hochscheid (Germany). In Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier. Dehn, 1941, plate 14.
In the territory of the Mediomatrici, an inscription to Sirona, probably dating from the 2nd c. AD, engraved under a schematized representation of the goddess, was discovered in 1751 on the bank of a pond in Sainte-Fontaine, near Saint-Avold (Moselle), where a sacred spring used to flow (fig. 58).2169 The stele* was destroyed in the 1870 fire at Strasbourg Library, but casts are housed in the museums of Metz, Nancy, Epinal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Orléans. The dedication is the following: Deae Đironae Maior Magiati filius v.s.l.m., ‘To the goddess Sirona Maior son of Magiatus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2170 The dedicator and his father are peregrines bearing Celtic names. Maior may be based on the same root magio-, ‘big’ as his father’s name Magiatus – but Maior can be envisaged as a Latin name too.2171 The goddess is pictured with bulging eyes and wears her hair loose in Egyptian style. The two circles around her neck may represent a necklace or the collar of her dress.2172 The seventeen fragments of lapidary monuments and dedications unearthed in the area – such as the statue of a naked man; a head of a young beardless man; an inscription to the god Apollo; and a headless and footless statue of a draped goddess holding a snake in her left hand, possibly representing Hygeia or Sirona – may indicate evidence of a place of devotion to Sirona and Apollo. However, the foundations of a potential temple dedicated to the divine couple have never been excavated.2173
Fig. 58: Bust of Sirona combined with an inscription honouring her, discovered at Sainte-Fontaine (Moselle). Robert, 1879, p. 136.
In the territory of the Leuci, a 2nd-century inscription, engraved on a stele* broken on the left, dedicated to Sirona and Apollo was discovered in 1823 at a place known as ‘La Fontaine des Romains’, 300 metres to the south-east of the village of Tranqueville-Graux (Vosges). It reads: Apollini et Sironae Biturix Iulli f(ilius) d(onavit), ‘To Apollo and Sirona, Biturix, son of Jullus offered (this altar)’.2174 The dedicator and his father are peregrines and bear Gaulish names. Iullus is known from an inscription discovered in Reims,2175 while Biturix, composed of bitu-, ‘world’ and rix, ‘king’, is a typical Celtic name meaning ‘King of the World’.2176 On the right hand-side of the inscription, a bust of Sirona appears in a niche (fig. 59). Her representation is classical – she wears a dress and her hair is done into a bun. The bust of Apollo must have originally been carved in another niche, the remains of which appear on the left-hand side of the inscription. Together with the stele* was unearthed a ten-metre basin containing a large amount of Roman coins and a fragment of sculpture representing seven heads, possibly symbolizing the seven days of the week.2177 In view of those discoveries, it is clear that Sirona and Apollo presided over the waters of a fountain which used to flow in this basin. The name of the place ‘La Fontaine des Romains’ is beside indicative of a spring worshipped in Gallo-Roman times.
Fig. 59: Stele* dedicated to Apollo and Sirona from Tranqueville-Graux (Vosges) with a representation of the goddess on the right-hand side. A representation of Apollo must have originally appeared on the left-hand side but the stone is now broken. In the Musée d’Epinal (Vosges). RG 4828.
In the territory of the Sequani, a dedication to Apollo and Sirona engraved on an altar in two fragments was unearthed in 1858 in the garden of the thermal establishment at Luxeuil (Haute-Saône), the healing waters of which were presided over by Luxovius and Bricta in Gallo-Roman times: Apollini et Sironae idem Taurus, ‘To Apollo and Sirona, Taurus the same’ (fig. 60).2178 The dedicator is a peregrine* bearing a Latin name; he is thus in the process of Romanization. The word idem at the end of the inscription indicates that Taurus had already previously made an offering to the gods. Emile Espérandieu and Charles Robert argue that the relief* carved under the inscription is not a snake but a wreath entwined with a ribbon, called a lemniscus*.2179 On the back panel can be seen a representation of Apollo standing naked, possibly holding a plectrum*, with a lyre at his feet, while the lateral panels contain carvings of two gods, both bare-chested; one bearded and one clean-shaven.
Fig. 60: Altar dedicated to Apollo and Sirona discovered in Luxeuil (Haute-Saône). CAG, 70, Haute-Saône, p. 278, fig. 303.
In the territory of the Lingones, a bronze group representing a half-naked goddess holding a snake in her right hand and a naked god holding a plectrum* in his right hand and the remains of a three-stringed cithara* in his left hand was discovered in 1977 in a hiding place, built around 280 AD, situated in an out-building adjoining a house, at a place known as ‘Champ Marlot’, in Mâlain (Côte d’Or), 300 metres to the west of a temple excavated in 1969 by Louis Roussel.2180 It was found together with seven other bronze statues, representing a winged Victory, a young Bacchus, a standing Mercury, a lunar deity, a seated Fortuna and a group of Juno and the Genius. On the socle of the bronze group is engraved an inscription which identifies the couple as Apollo and Sirona: THIRONEAPOLLO, ‘Sirona (and) Apollo’ (fig. 61).2181 On account of the snake she holds in her hand, Sirona can be compared to Hygeia, the Roman goddess of health and hygiene, whose main attribute was the snake.2182 Deyts nonetheless points out that Hygeia is never pictured half-naked in the Roman iconography.2183
Fig. 61: Bronze group from Mâlain (Côte d’Or) of a goddess holding a snake and a god, identified as Thirona and Apollo by the inscription engraved on the socle.In Musée archéologique de Dijon. Deyts, 1998, p. 47, n°13.
In the centre of Gaul, in the territory of the Bituriges Cubi, a 2nd-century inscription, honouring Sirona and Apollo, was discovered in 1954 in the wall of a house located at a place known as the ‘Hameau des Bertrands’, in Flavigny (Cher).2184The dedication reads: Aug(usto) Apollini et deae Sironae ussibusque vicanorum Nogiiomagie(n)suim M. Piieionius Rufus, ‘To the August Apollo and to the goddess Sirona, for the benefit of the inhabitants of the vicus* of Negeomagus, M. Pieionius Rufus reverently (erected) this monument’ (fig. 62).2185 The dedicator, who bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens, offered an edifice in honour of the divine couple and for the usage of the inhabitants of a vicus*, the site of which remains undetermined.2186Paul Cravayat, who studied the dedication in 1955, assumed that the worship of Apollo and Sirona was linked to a neighbouring fountain. After investigating the area, he discovered two springs, called ‘Grivin’ and ‘Monconsou’, respectively emanating 1,200 metres and 700 metres to the north of the hamlet.2187 Interestingly, the waters of those springs have some thermal virtues and continue to flow profusely. Moreover, fragments of pottery, Roman coins and stone seats, possibly dating from Gallo-Roman times, were discovered in the 19th c. in the fountain of ‘Monconsou’, which could indicate evidence of a cult devoted to the spring.2188 In 1882, remains of foundations of a building and architectural fragments, notably comprising a piece of a capital, a drum of a column and a hand of a statue, were unearthed about a hundred metres to the north-west of Flavigny.2189 Those remains might have belonged to a religious edifice. Even though those various discoveries are of interest, there is no tangible proof of a temple erected for Apollo and Sirona in the area. Indeed, there is no clear evidence of any kind confirming their worship at the spring of ‘Monconsou’ or ‘Grivin’.
Fig. 62: Stele* dedicated to Apollo and Sirona discovered at ‘Hameau des Bertrands’ in Flavigny (Cher). It is housed in the Château de Fontenay. Cravayat, 1956, p. 319, fig. 136.
In the north-west of Gaul, in Corseul (Côtes-d’Armor), the county town of the civitas* of the tribe of the Coriosolites created by Augustus, an inscription dedicated to the goddess Sirona was discovered in 1834 in re-employment* in the chapel of the Castle of Montafilan: Num(ini) Aug(usti) De(ae) Đirona(e) Cani(a) Magiusa lib(erta) v.s.l.m., ‘To the divine power of Augustus and to the goddess Sirona, Cania Magiusa freed. She paid her vow willingly and deservedly’.2190 The use of the formula dea indicates that the dedication is not prior to the mid-2nd c. AD. The dedicator is a woman and a freed slave, who bears Celtic names: Cania is based on Gaulish cani-, probably meaning ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, and Magiusa derives from magio-, ‘big’, ‘field’.2191 Because of the re-employment* of the stone, it is impossible to determine its origin and, thus, in which context Sirona was worshipped.
In the south-west of Gaul, in Bordeaux (Gironde), an inscription engraved on an altar in hard stone, probably dating from the beginning of the 1st c. AD, discovered in 1756 in re-employment* in the foundations of a hotel, reads: Sironae Adbucietus Toceti fil(ius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Sirona, Abducietus, son of Tocetus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2192 The devotee Adbucietus and his father Tocetus are peregrines bearing Celtic names – Tocetus might come from tucca, tucetta, ‘bottom’ or togi-, ‘oath’.2193 Another altar found in Bordeaux, carved on four panels, might be dedicated to Sirona. Nevertheless, as the beginning of the inscription is unreadable, the name of the goddess ending in […]onae could be dedicated to Divona, whose fountain in Bordeaux was famous in antiquity.2194
From this, it follows that the Celtic goddess Sirona was particularly worshipped in the north-east of Gaul, notably in the Treveran territory, but not confined to it, as the inscriptions from Flavigny (Cher), Corseul (Côte d’Armor) and Bordeaux (Gironde) show (fig. 63). Being partnered with Apollo (Grannus), the god of healing springs, and being revered in connection with curative waters – such as in Luxeuil (Haute-Saône) – or with springs and fountains – such as in Bitburg (Germany), Hochscheid (Germany), Saint-Avold (Moselle), Tranqueville-Graux (Vosges) and possibly Flavigny (Cher) – Sirona appears as a goddess presiding over waters in general – waters with or without curative properties. Outside Gaul, Sirona also protects salutary waters, such as in Nierstein (Germany), where a dedication to her and Apollo was discovered near sulphur springs;2195 and in Wiesbaden (Germany), where an inscription, mentioning the offering of a temple by a Roman curator, was unearthed in the ruins of the Roman thermal establishment.2196 It is interesting to note that in Gaul, she is mostly worshipped by people of Celtic stock. This is significant, for it proves that her cult pre-dated the Roman conquest and that it was still extant among the local population in Gallo-Roman times. Most of them are peregrines bearing Gaulish names, such as Biturix, son of Iullus, in Tranqueville-Graux, Abducietus, son of Tocetus, in Bordeaux and Maior, son of Magiatus, in Saint-Avold. In Luxeuil, Taurus bears a Latin name but is a peregrine*. By invoking a Celtic goddess, he shows that, despite his Romanization, he is still attached to his original cults. Others, such Cania Magiusa in Corseul and Lucius Lugnius in Trier, are Roman citizens who have Celtic names. This proves their desire to display their attachment to their indigenous origins and their profound respect for their ancient deities, whom they continued to honour and to pray to in spite of their Roman citizenship.
Fig. 63: Analytical map of the cult of the goddess Sirona in Gaul (Source: N. Beck).
Because of its life-giving aspect, water has been envisaged as a particularly sacred natural element since time immemorial. The prehistoric and proto-historic deposits of hoards of objects, such as weapons, jewels or coins, in rivers, lakes and bogs, must be understood as votive gifts offered to water-deities with the aim of earning their benevolence and ensuring the fertility of the land. In addition to the tradition of depositing objects in watery places, some rivers, springs and fountains were called deva, divonna and the later Irish banna, that is ‘goddess’, which clearly attest to the sacredness of water and its divinisation. Those hydronyms* prove that rivers, fountains and springs were worshipped as goddesses, who personified and protected the waters. The idea of a lady inhabiting and personifying the water is particularly well illustrated in Irish mythology. Beautiful divine ladies dwell in sumptuous subaquatic otherworldly realms; the wavy hair of the Mórrígain shapes the sea; the River Boyne is described as the body of its eponymous goddess; and maidens, after drowning under the waters, become the river, the lake or the sea they inhabit: Clidna is turned into a wave of the sea, Bóinn into the River Boyne, Sionnan into the River Shannon, Eithne into the River Inny and Érne into the River or Lough Érne.
The tradition of the divine lady embodying the river is attested in Gaul by various archaeological discoveries of great importance. Gallo-Roman inscriptions reveal that the main rivers of France, such as the Seine, the Marne, the Saône and the Yonne, were deified as goddesses bearing their names: Sequana, Matrona, Souconna and Icauni. Interestingly, it seems that it was the spring of the river which was specifically sacralised, for sanctuaries and water edifices were unearthed at the sources of the Seine, the Marne and the Yonne – the source of the Saône has never been excavated. This is not insignificant: springs were primarily revered, for they mysteriously gushed forth from the earth and were directly related to the otherworld. Worship must have later extended to the whole river. The legends of Bóinn and Sionnan are also evocative of the sacredness of the source of the river, which is represented by the mystic Well of Segais.
What were the functions of those water-goddesses? From the study of the Irish texts, it emerges that water was closely related to wisdom, poetry and perceptiveness. The nuts containing the imbas are described falling into the Well of Nechtan and imbuing the river with the much sought-after ‘all-encompassing knowledge’. A sip from the river in June was believed to give access to sacred knowledge and Fionn mac Cumhaill earns his mystical inspiration from the Salmon of Knowledge fished in the Boyne. Similarly, Sionnan is drowned in the river after trying to catch the mystical bubbles. The legends of Bóinn and Sionnan illustrate the fact that the search for wisdom is dangerous and is not within anyone’s reach. By trying to accede to absolute knowlege, one is on the road to ruin.
In Gaul and Britain, water seems to have been worshipped in the context of healing. The wisdom-giving aspect of Irish river-goddesses is not reflected in the character of Gaulish and British water-goddesses, who clearly stand out as healers prayed to for their salutary and beneficial virtues. The most well-known example is the goddess Sequana, who had an important sanctuary and complex of baths built at her source, where pilgrims would come to take the curative waters, invoke the goddess and deposit votive offerings to have their vows granted. As for Sirona and Damona, who were both honoured in relation to thermal springs; the inscriptions prove that their cult transcended frontiers and peoples. Other goddesses seem to have protected specific local springs, wells and fountains, such as Bricta at Luxeuil-les-Bains, Stanna/Sianna at Mont-Dore, Acionna at the Fontaine l’Etuvée, Icovellauna and possibly Mongotia at the nympheum* of Le Sablon and Coventina at the well of Carrawburgh in Britain. While the springs of Luxeuil and Mont-Dore have thermal virtues, the waters of the Fontaine l’Etuvée, Le Sablon and Coventina’s Well do not appear to have any mineral or therapeutic properties. The waters could have lost their curative virtues, either by drying up or by mixing with common waters, but it seems more plausible that it was actually, and more than anything else, the faith in the omnipotent healing power of the goddess which caused the pilgrims to be relieved of their pains. This explains how rivers, the waters of which do not have any salutary properties, were believed to have the capacity to cure, and were worshipped as divine female healers. Gaulish water-goddesses clearly fulfilled a function of regeneration and renewal.
The water-goddess plays the same role as the land-goddess: she ensures the survival of the peoples and the growth of crops and cattle. Like a mother, she gives birth, feeds and maintains her people. The goddess of the River Marne, Matrona, whose name means ‘Mother’, illustrates clearly that function. The life-giving aspect of the water-goddess is counterbalanced by a funerary dimension which is inherent in the mother-water complex: the dead were given back to the bosom of the mother-river to achieve rebirth in the afterlife. In Gaul, various proto-historic ‘coffin-pirogues’ exemplify this aspect. The voyage to the otherworld, metaphorically represented by the boat and the river, was placed in the care of the water-goddess, who, in taking the deceased back into her womb, ensured their renewal in the afterlife.
As for knowing whether it was the goddess who gave her name to the river or the river to the goddess, the Irish sources clearly state that the river was called after the maiden drowned in its waters, while in Gaul, it appears that it is the name of the river which was given to the goddess, for river names merely refer to the quality or nature of the water, like Sequana (‘the Dripping One’). Actually, this question is wrongly framed, for, in the mind of the Celts, the river could not be dissociated from the goddess: the river was a divine entity; the river and the goddess were as one. Consequently, the goddess bore the name of the river like the river bore the name of the goddess.
It is interesting to note that the belief in a divine lady dwelling in the river has survived in the folklore of Ireland and France. A few legends, recorded in the Irish Folklore Collection 2197 and in Sébillot’s Folklore de France,2198 recount that rivers are inhabited by beautiful mermaids to whom are attributed macabre and terrifying deeds. Sébillot relates that, in the département of Gers, river mermaids were seen at night singing and combing their long hair. It was believed that “they sucked the brain and the blood, and ate the heart, the liver and guts” of any poor wretch who would pass by.2199 As mermaids are generally creatures of the sea, their presence in fresh-water is not unsignificant. The character of the river mermaid could be understood as the reminiscence of the ancient cult of the river-goddess. The transformation of the supernatural river ladies into evil and damned souls is due to Christian influence.
While healing spring-goddesses are numerous in Gaul and Britain, they are non-existent in Ireland, except for the fairy lady Áine who had a well called after her, Tobar Áine, in the parish of Lios Áine (Lissan, Co. Derry).2200 The worship of healing springs is reflected in the folk tradition of the Christianized wells called ‘holy wells’, which hold a significant place in the customs and legends of Wales,2201 Cornwall2202 England2203 and Ireland. In Ireland, where about 3,000 wells have been recorded, almost every parish has its own sacred or blessed fountain.2204 The wells are generally placed under the protection of a saint, specialized in the cure of a particular ailment: eyes, toothache, warts, etc. Some are visited on specific days, such as Feast Days or Patron Saint’s Days, and the devotional practices generally consist of reciting Catholic prayers, making ‘rounds’, that is walking around the well clockwise (deiseal) on a fixed beaten path, taking sips from the well, bathing the diseased members and rubbing the afflicted part with a shred of cloth dipped into the water and hung upon a nearby bush or tree.2205 The sick person thus symbolically leaves his or her pain to the well. The appearance of a fish in the well ensures recovery, which somehow echoes the big black and white fish called ‘skolopidos’ of the River Saône, the head of which contained a tiny stone which could cure the quartan fever.2206 Various studies have demonstrated that the Christian tradition of the Holy Wells follows directly from pagan practices and customs.2207 The fountains, wells and springs, originally protected by indigenous deities, were progressively Christianized from Saint Patrick onwards and put under the patronage of different saints renowned for their miracles. Even though Irish mythology does not preserve evidence of healing goddesses presiding over curative springs, that does not necessarily mean that wells, fountains and springs were not worshipped and deified there also in Celtic times.
Murray, 1998, pp. 99-120. Saint Columbanus (c. 543, Leinster, Ireland – 615, Bobbio, Italy) is one of the greatest missionaries who initiated a revival of monastic and lay spirituality on the Continent. Educated in the monastery of Bangor (Co. Down), he left Ireland for France in about 590 with twelve monks and established himself in the Vosges Mountains at Annegray (Haute-Saône). He built the nearby monasteries of Luxovium (c. 590-595) and of Fontaines for his disciples. He was unpopular among the clergy and was indicted before a synod of French bishops in 603 for keeping Easter according to the Celtic usage. A powerful conspiracy was organized against him at the court of King Theodoric II and he was forcibly removed from his monastery in Luxovium in 610. He went then to Switzerland with other monks, where he preached to the Alemanni, a pagan Germanic people. Compelled to leave, he went to Italy and founded the monastery of Bobbio in the Appenines, where he was buried around 612-614. His influence became widespread, and numerous miracles were attributed to him. His writings include poems, letters, sermons, a rule and a penitential.
2136. Vita Columbani, Book I, 10.
2137 Murray, 1998, p. 103.
2138. Greppo, 1846, pp. 127-128 ; Bonnard, 1908, pp. 462-466 ; Roussel, 1924, pp. 39-41 ; Leurat, 1960, p. 101 ; CAG, 70, La Haute-Saône, 2002, pp. 274, 282-287 ; Lacroix, 2007, pp. 84-85.
2139. Bourquelot, 1862, pp. 1-9.
2140. CIL XIII, 5424 ; RG 5317 ; Delacroix, 1867, p. 77.
2141. Richard, 1991, pp. 53-55.
2142. Bonnard, 1908, p. 462 ; Lerat, 1960, pp. 100-101 ; Richard, 1991, pp. 15-17 ; Deyts, 1983, pp. 185-188 ; CAG, 70, La Haute-Saône, 2002, pp. 276-282.
2143. Eight are housed in the Musée de Luxeuil-les-Bains and one is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon.
2144. Lerat, 1960, p. 101.
2145. Green, 1999, pp. 92-100.