Sirona – another syncretic guise of the Celtic ‘Great Goddess’

Sirona was another mask worn by the Roman-era Celtic (ie – Atlantic) ‘Great Goddess’. We know of her name because of epigraphic evidence found associated with statues of her image, often at 2ndC CE religious sites associated with springs of water. Her name ought properly be written tSirona (as would be the  case in modern Irish) as the initial vowel sound of her name is the celtic languages’ dentalised ‘s’, pronounced something like ‘ts-‘ and because of this the name was sometimes written Đirona or Thirona.

The most significant areas of her cult stretched from the east of France, and eastward to the waters of the upper Danube in southern Germany, Austria and Hungary. She seems to have been affiliated with hot springs, and was consequently found linked to a solar male god such as Apollo-Borvo or Apollo-Grannus, and both were associated with healing. The name of Sirona is found as far west as Brittany (Amorica) but has not yet been found in Britain – the Britons named their syncretic deity at the great springs in Bath Sulis-Minerva.

Because of the ages-old association of mineral-rich hot springs with healing, Sirona’s imagery borrows from the Apollonian family of Greek gods and goddesses, in particular that of Hygeia, daughter of Apollo’s medical son Aesculapias. The syncretic-era statues of Sirona often show her twined with a snake after the manner of her Greek counterpart. Remember, the Celtic peoples of Europe were not late-comers to Greek philosophical, religious and cultural influence: they had at least 600 years of exposure to Greek religion before the era of their conquest and assimilation by the Romans. The Romans also relied upon Greek religious philosophy to underpin their own version of it, and Apollo was perhaps the most influential of Greek gods.

 

The Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

Modern replica of the Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

The iconography of Sirona tended to depict her as a young woman wearing a long gown (sometimes she was half-naked) with a diadem on her head. A snake was often coiled around her right arm, and she sometimes held a patera containing three eggs in her other hand. The snake in the Hochscheid example appears to be either guarding or interested in eating the eggs, and the combination of these two together is redolent of the ‘Orphic Egg’ of the ancient Thracian/Greek mysteries. Other features of her imagery indicate further references to the chthonic mystery cults, including ears of corn, associated with Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Linguistic aspects of Sirona’s name:

It has been speculated based upon linguistic evidence that Sirona was a ‘star’ goddess. The ancient Transalpine Gaulish word for ‘star’ was ‘sirom‘, related to the Latin word ‘Sidus‘ (from which we get the word ‘Sidereal’). For the Greeks the word was ‘Aster’. The initial ‘tS’ sound of Sirona was a metathesis to ‘sT-‘. ‘Sirona’ could therefore have derived from ‘Sterona’. To derive the Greek ‘Asteria’ (the name of Hecate’s Titaness mother), the word is preceded by the Celtic ‘definite article’ (‘the’), which was pronounced ‘a’, giving ‘Asteria’ or ‘Asterona’. The diadem on the head of the Hochscheid statue is usually cited as support for this theory of naming. However, modern Gaelic orthography may have preserved some early Celtic language conventions: In particular the ‘tS’ and ‘sT’ metathesis. This makes us, by necessity, examine another word which may relate to the name of Sirona, and has been linked to Bridget – Ireland’s goddess of smithcraft: This is the Gaelic word ‘tSaoir’, which means ‘craftsman’ or ‘smith’, and which is demonstrated in Gaelic family names such as ‘MacTeer’ or ‘Teare’, and the Irish mythological name of the ‘Gobban tSaor’. These, of course, relate to Bridget ‘Goddess of Smithcraft’… So ‘Sirona’ might have nothing to do with stars and more to do with the mysteries of nature’s secret re-forging, as suggested by her snake and eggs and veneration at sacred springs.  

 

Nehalennia – the ‘Cailleach’ of Zeeland?

In 1645, storms ravaging Domberg in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland uncovered the remains of a significant Roman-era temple sacred to the hitherto unknown goddesss Nehalennia, whose name and image was inscribed on multiple dedicatory altar-stelae. The temple is believed to have served traders at a port who would have had commerce with Gaul and Britain, and also contained dedications to Neptune, Mercury, Hercules and Jupiter, although those to the goddess were by far the most numerous. Her image depicts her wearing a tunic, shoulder mantle and cloak. Her feet are booted and she is almost always accompanied by a small, friendly-looking dog. In common with the many German images of the Matres she is usually (but not always) seated and bears a basket, patera or cornucopia loaded with fruit, suggesting she was considered benevolent.

Nehalennia

Nehalennia

 

Although a local goddess, her imagery – like much of that from between the 1st and 4thC CE is obviously culturally Romanised. Her association with fruitfulness and the dog (which appears to be of the Greyhound type) would place her somewhere between the huntress-goddess <Diana-Artemis> and the fertility goddess <Ceres-Demeter>. Her boots and shoulder-mantle render her redolent of the Roman god Mercury, who (as a god of trade, and conductor of souls to the Otherworld) was depicted wearing travelling-wear. Most Roman(ised) goddesses were depicted in sandles. The overall impression is a goddess of fruitfulness, trade and travel – a fact emphasised by a number of images which depict her standing with her foot on the prow of a ship.

Geographic origins of Nehalennia:

One of the question most often asked of her is whether she was of a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ origin. This question itself is somewhat complicated by the issue of if there is actually a cultural distinction to made between either, as this was originally a distinction made by Romans on the basis of (i) language and (ii) conquerability! Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Zeeland lies on the Rhine estuary, and that Nehalennia is known to have been depicted as a triple-goddess making her almost indistinguishable from the more common Roman-Era images of the three Matres found in Germany and France. The Matres or Matronae were typically depicted as seated and bearing pateras and cornucopias as well as sheaves of corn etc. A further shrine with altar stones dedicated to the goddess existed near Colijnsplaat in Zeeland, where a large number of altars and statues were dredged out of the Scheldt, the original Roman settlement of Ganuenta having been lost to the sea. A couple of examples of her shrines were also found as far away as Deutz – now part of Cologne, which was a major Roman civitas on the Rhine in Germania Inferior and therefore on the trade route connecting out to Zeeland and the low countries.

Analysis of the theonym:

The name of the goddess has also attracted quite a lot of speculation. As with many names transcribed and transliterated into Roman inscriptions of this era, a degree of caution is required, as the population using the name would have been largely illiterate, so the inscriptional custom of the name may not have been an accurate interpretation. Once inscribed once, it is likely to have been copied and fixed in this form. As occurs in, for example ‘Andraste’, the ‘Ne-‘ of ‘Nehalennia’ sounds like the definite article (‘the’) of the Celtic languages. In Irish and Scots Gaelic, for example, this might be ‘an’ or ‘na’. Manx is ‘yn’ and ‘ny’ respectively. This leaves us with the suffix ‘-halennia’. The terminal ‘-ia’ is typical of a Romanised goddess (‘Dia’), leaving the word ‘-halenn-‘.  My suggestion is that this is an aspirated from of ‘Callen’ – a name familiar to followers of the ubiquitous Cailleach goddess-name of the Irish and British Isles. Modern Irish ‘Caillín’ means ‘girl’ – the word is evocative of that definitive female garment of ancient times: the veil or mantlea notable feature of Nehalennia’s statuary appearance. The Irish town of Enniskillen – another trading centre on a river – is named after a pagan goddess whose name appears the same as that behind the name ‘Nehalennia’! ‘Halenn’ may therefore also be an aspirated version of the name which could also be written as ‘Cathlin’ or ‘Ceithlin’, and the seated-goddess aspect of her would fit with the Indo-European word ‘cath’, from which that sapient sitting beast, the cat, gets its name… I’d quite like to know just how old the name Colijnsplaat is for that matter – comments welcome as to if ‘Colijn’ is a version of the name of our goddess!

Aside from Celtic considerations of the name, it may also contain the name of a very German divinity, namely ‘Frau Holle’, who answers in almost every way to the description of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’. Also known as Holda, Hulda, Huldra as well as Gode, Perchta, etc, she is a common theme in the mythology of Germany and Scandinavia. This name is also linked to that of the Norse otherworld goddess Hel, and it is worth considering that the German word for what is in English called ‘Hell’ is Hölle. The Frau Holle of folktales is generally depicted as a friendly but potentially spiteful aged matron who might be encountered deep in the woods or living on mountains. Like the Cailleach, she is deemed mythically responsible for weather phenomena such as snow, a creatrix of rivers, herder of wildlife (clouds were sometimes referred to as ‘Frau Holle’s lambs’) etc. Like the Cailleach, she possesses a magical veil or coverlet (an analogy of seasonal fertility if you think about). She – like the Cailleach – has also known to have been associated in tales with dogs. It is possible then, that ‘Nehallennia’ might equally be a version of ‘Holle’ – perhaps a ‘Frau Hallen’? As I have said before, the ‘German’ peoples were ‘Celtic’ anyway…

Nehalennia’s Dog:

The dog has an interesting symbolism in relation to both the Otherworld domain and human utility. Dogs are creatures who have followed human settlement for many an age, and have entered into a domestic relationship which is at times uneasy, as they are potentially dangerous. In fact, wolves – long portrayed as an archetype for man’s fearsome bestial adversaries are simply one end of the spectrum of ‘dog’. Wild dogs are features of the liminal boundaries of human habitations and roadways, and for this reason they have a ‘liminal’ aspect ideal for the portrayal of death and the otherworld. Death is feared, yet death is fruitful. A dog can be ‘man’s best friend’ or his incessant enemy. A dog can help the hunter, but the hunter can also be hunted by the wolf. The dog in mythology represents as essence of the dual nature of technologies – to help or to hinder – and was adopted in ancient Greek mythology as a companion of the <Artemis-Selene-Hekate> hypostasis of the mystery cults. The dog was also a symbol and companion of Apollo’s ‘son’ (or aspect), Aesculapias, god of healing. The dog therefore portrayed hunting (or harvest), death and regeneration. Its place at Nehalennia’s feet, along with baskets of apples on the stealae and statues recovered from the Netherlands seems to suggest that she represented cthonic wealth and was therefore also an otherworld goddess.

 

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

That the sea-voyage to Britain was particularly hazardous on account of weather and its notoriously difficult shorelines no doubt also supports the assertion that Nehalennia was a death-goddess. The pagan mindset with its belief in reincarnation had no problems equating death and fertility, as death was part of nature’s cycle of regeneration. The Greek goddess Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres), seems to have a similar aspect, from which the tale of Hades’ abduction of her ‘daughter’ aspect Persephone/Kore derives. This tale underpinned most of the mythology of the mystery cults of ancient Europe: Eleusis, Samothrace, Orphism and the Dionysian-Sabazian mysteries. In the myths, Demeter is accompanied to the underworld by Hekate. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the approach to Hades.

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task - leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task – leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c) Theoi.com

And finally…

On the subject of the Zeeland shoreline and its importance to trade in ancient (and modern) Europe, it is worth remembering that this is probably the vicinity mentioned by the early Byzantine historian Procopius (6thC CE) where there was a legend of the dead departing by boat for the isle of Brittia.

“They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.”

There can be no doubt that this is a description of a mystical rather than actual voyage to the Atlantic Otherworld, and was based on accounts heard in Constantinople from Low Countries emissaries. I think it just adds a further frisson of interest to the mystery of this otherworld goddess whose shrines dotted the shorelines in ancient times, and were eventually (perhaps fittingly) taken by the sea…