Greek Argonaut mythology and its Indo-European themes

The eastern extent of ancient Greece’s mythical imagining must surely lie within the Kingdom of Colchis on the western coast of the Black Sea, now modern Georgia. This was depicted in the famous mythic hero-tale of Jason and the Argonauts, whose most famous literary rendering was in the poem Argonautica of Apollonios of Rhodes from the 3rdC BCE, itself borrowing somewhat from Homer’s Odyssey, and older traditions.

The 'Douris Cup' from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the snake in the sanctuary of Ares ...

The ‘Douris Cup’ from the Vatican museum. Jason is devoured/regurgitated by the serpent in the sanctuary of Ares. The fleece hangs upon a mystical tree in the background … It appears more like the Scandinavian myth of Thor or Beowulf’s serpentine battles than the depiction given by Apollonius’ Argonautica.

“… And they two by the pathway came to the sacred grove, seeking the huge oak tree on which was hung the fleece, like to a cloud that blushes red with the fiery beams of the rising sun. But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful wise; and all round the long banks of the river echoed and the boundless grove. Those heard it who dwelt in the Colchian land very far from Titanian Aea, near the outfall of Lycus, the river which parts from loud-roaring Araxes and blends his sacred stream with Phasis, and they twain flow on together in one and pour their waters into the Caucasian Sea. And through fear young mothers awoke, and round their new-born babes, who were sleeping in their arms, threw their hands in agony, for the small limbs started at that hiss. And as when above a pile of smouldering wood countless eddies of smoke roll up mingled with soot, and one ever springs up quickly after another, rising aloft from beneath in wavering wreaths; so at that time did that monster roll his countless coils covered with hard dry scales. And as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster; and she cried to the queen of the underworld, the night-wanderer, to be propitious to her enterprise. And Aeson’s son followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song; and all around the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down; and far behind through the wood with its many trees were those countless coils stretched out…” Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (3rdC bC) trans. R.C. Seaton.

Colchis and Magic:

Mythical Colchis was the home of King Aeëtes, in some traditions a Greek mortal sired by a Titan and a nymph. His beguiling and magically-skilled daughter, Medea, agrees to help the hero Jason to win the Golden Fleece of the magical ram Chrysomallus, guarded by a fierce dragon who Jason slays. In some of the traditions, the sorceress Circe (also a character from Homer’s Odyssey) is the sister of Aeëtes.

Colchis represented the extent of the Greeks’ nautical explorations in the East, being reached by traversing the Hellespont/Dardanelles into the Black Sea before turning east across the coast of Pontus. Ionian Milesians had formed a colony there c.7thC BC. In mythology, it provided a convenient and familiar far shore on which Greeks might interact with eastern exoticism and magic. The towering Caucasus mountains north of Colchis were the torture-ground of the mysterious Titan, Prometheus, chained to a mountain by Zeus for the crime of stealing fire for humanity. It was a ‘fantasy land’ of giants, dragons, fair magical maidens, and fabulous treasures – the perfect Indo-European mythological setting.

The Argonautica’s story-tradition illustrates that the Greeks considered the ‘Caucasian’ peoples of this region as relatives of the Iranian tribe of the Medes. ‘Medea’, daughter of Aeëtes is portrayed as an ancestress of the West-Iranian Medes, a fact her ‘magical’ inclinations seem an attempt to reinforce. Aeetes’ parents were portrayed in myths (i.e – Odyssey) as the deified sun, Helios, and the Okeanid nymph, Perseis. His brother was Perses, and they were both portrayed as wizard-kings.

Themes of destruction, warfare and violence:

The Titan Perses (‘Destroyer’) was said in Hesiod’s theogony to have wedded Asteria (‘Starry One’) and fathered Hekate (‘the night-wanderer’), whom the Argonaut myths relate as a goddess served by Medea and/or Circe. The ‘Perseid’ names (including that of the other epic hero Perseus) have a convenient linguistic similarity to that of the nations of Persians, whose lands bordered Colchis and Armenia. For Greeks of the (Hellenistic) era of Apollonius of Rhodes, the connection between Persians and destruction would have still been a painful and fairly recent memory of the Greco-Persian Wars. The Caucasus however, is also the scene of the Persian myths of the world’s destructive creation, as I shall go on to examine!

The Scythians of the Caucasus also enjoyed a reputation for warfare (and ferocity), and were something of a historic byword for the practice of war. One must not forget that the Caucasus and Asia Minor was a historic homeland of metalcraft and weapon-crafting, as well as horsemanship. To the mythographers of the Jason legends, it is perhaps unsurprising that the god Ares (in whose grove the fleece resides) is referenced so overtly – after all it was in his sacred fields and precincts that Jason was to fight the magical bronze bulls and defeat the dragon to obtain the fleece. We shouldn’t be surprised either that the smith-god Hephaistos is also linked to the region: it was he who taught the fatal Prometheus the qualities and secrets of fire, and manufactured the fierce bronze bulls of Aeëtes (the Khalkotauroi) with whom Jason is required to yoke and plough the sacred field of Ares, and sow the teeth of the Hydra, creating and army of ‘earthborn men’ who will attack him.

Bulls and the Argonaut myth:

“…And close by garden vines covered with green foliage were in full bloom, lifted high in air. And beneath them ran four fountains, ever-flowing, which Hephaestus had delved out. One was gushing with milk, one with wine, while the third flowed with fragrant oil; and the fourth ran with water, which grew warm at the setting of the Pleiads, and in turn at their rising bubbled forth from the hollow rock, cold as crystal. Such then were the wondrous works that the craftsman-god Hephaestus had fashioned in the palace of Cytaean Aeetes. And he wrought for him bulls with feet of bronze, and their mouths were of bronze, and from them they breathed out a terrible flame of fire; moreover he forged a plough of unbending adamant, all in one piece, in payment of thanks to Helios, who had taken the god up in his chariot when faint from the Phlegraean fight…”

The Bull is a constant motif of Indo-European religious imagery. The ancient Persian creation legend related in the Zoroastrian Bundahisihn, tells that the modern generations of humankind and all plants and animals were created from the body of the Celestial Ox, Goshorun, who dies in the first assault upon creation by the contrary spirit who opposes the omniscient creator-god Ahuramazda/Ormahzd. The Ox in the myth belongs the prototypical ‘first man’ Gayomard who is portrayed as the primal ‘king of the mountains’ (the Caucasus mountains) in some myths and folklore – something of a Hercules-like figure. Aeëtes and his Khalkotauroi in the Argonaut myths certainly appear to offer a model for or of the prototypic Indo-Iranian king.

The connection in Greek myth of the Colchian legends with bulls does not stop here, however. The god Helios, father of Aeetes, is also father of Pasiphae, whose legend depicts her conceiving the Minotaur of Crete (‘Asterion’) by having sexual intercourse with a cosmic white bull. This makes Aeetes and Pasiphae mythological brother and sister, and links the Cretan-Minoan and wider Asia-Minor mythos with its prominent bull-imagery, with the upland ‘middle earth’ of the Caucasus and Colchis.

The other important sacred cow of Greek myth who connects definitely with Argonautic ideas is Io – a priestess of Hera from the Argolid (homeland of Jason) transformed into a cow by Zeus, so that he could mate with her. Jealous Hera sets the titan Argus Panoptes to look over her, but Zeus encourages his son Hermes to kill Argus enabling pregnant Io to escape. In an Argolid tale echoing the Ionian myth of Leto, Hera then sends a gadfly to harass Io so that she must wonder from place to place without rest. She finally gives birth in Egypt to . The theme of sacred cow + watcher/shepherd + pursuit + generation of races of men is strongly reflected in the Bundahishin myth of the Persians, which has its origin-territories set in the Caucasus. This is made more explicit by Aeschylus (4th BCE) whose play Prometheus Bound, includes Io in the plot and has her visiting and conversing with the chained Titan, who prophecies of her wandering and eventual lodging in Egypt.

Prometheus, Hephaistos and Mount Elbrus:

“…As the evil spirit rushed in, the earth shook, and the substance of mountains was created in the earth. First, Mount Alburz arose; afterwards, the other ranges of mountains of the middle of the earth; for as Alburz grew forth all the mountains remained in motion, for they have all grown forth from the root of Alburz…” Bundahishin, Chapter 8.

Mount Elbrus - the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus – the Omphalos of Indo-European myth. Photo: Jialiang Gao

Mount Elbrus (Alburz) is the massive volcanic peak towering over the western Caucasus range to the north of Colchis. In Greek myth, this was the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to have his liver daily torn out. For the Persians, it was the mythical mountain from which all others grew in the creation of the earth. The forge of Hephaistos (where Prometheus learned the secrets of fire) was believed to be either here or in Etna by the Greeks. Again we can see the convergence of aspects of Greek and Indo-Iranian mythology in the ‘Indo-European’ corridor: The nidus of metalworking, smith-gods, creative fire and mountain kings is a mytheme which extended from India to Iron Age Ireland, and continued in the myths of the Scandinavians until they christianised in the middle ages of the ‘Common Era’. Add to this the importance in Indo-European mythology to the birth of fresh water on mountain peaks and its downhill progress to the ocean, and the importance of Colchis and the Caucasus to the Greeks becomes clearer. ‘Olympus’ and the Omphalos of ‘Delphi’ seem like mere Pelasgian transfers of an older Caucasian creation myth, which the Argonautic mythology maintained a distinct connection to…

These considerations also transfer directly into the Irish mythology of the Tain Bo Culainge, which I will go on to discuss in another article…


The epiphany of Bride – Delphic and Eleusinian aspects of the goddess Brigit

See my related articles here and here.

The 1st day of February (the 12th/13th by the old Julian Calendar) in Ireland is marked by two coincident ancient religious festivals – the Gaelic Celtic feast of Imbolc and the feast day if St Brigit (Bride) of Kildare.

It signifies the days when new life starts to become visible in the winter world – the appearance of the first flowers of the new year, the first buds on trees, and the mating and nesting of birds, and the birth of the first lambs of the year.

To the ancient Greeks, this ‘event’ of nature – new life starting push through from the dead soil – was given special significance in the very ancient myth of the maiden (Kore) Persephone who, after being abducted by the god of the dead, Hades, was allowed to make an annual return to stay with her mother – the fertile earth, personified as Demeter (literally meaning ‘mother goddess’). This myth had a central part in the ancient Greek mystery religions, most notably that at Eleusis, near Athens in Attica. It was one of the most fundamental myths of ancient Greek religion, with origins traceable into the Bronze Age.

As a mythic drama celebrating a returning junior fertility goddess, we have few clues that the old Celtic festival of Imbolc (first attested in writing in the 10thC Irish text known as ‘Cormac’s Glossary’) was a goddess festival – there are no references in medieval Irish manuscripts linking a festival named Imbolc to a ‘Persephone’ themed myth. However, the early Irish  Christian church created a festival of their own on this day which was an explicit celebration of a maiden – that of Brigdhe (Bride) or Brigit of Kildare, whose early hagiographic tale begins with her adoption into a christian household as a child where she immediately causes an increase in the family’s food supplies through a number of miracles. This tale echoes the practical medieval (probably much older) practice of re-hiring servants on the first quarter day of the new solar year, when farm work begins again, it having been suspended at Samhain or St Martin’s day by ancient Atlantic European tradition. The period between Samhain and Imbolc was a time of relative ease in the pre-modern empirically-minded subsistence world: harvests had been gathered and stored, animals slaughtered and their meat cured and preserved. There was little need of servants or slaves to manage the heavier manual work and they were alleviated of their duties until the restarting of the Atlantic agricultural cycle, which undertook its first ploughing of fields from the start of the Imbolc quarter. This theme is echoed in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (where slaves feasted with freemen) and at the Greek Summer Kronia (when it was too hot to work) and Winter Dionysia which was held around the same period as the Saturnalia. Nature was the book which gave the instructions!

Of course, we have little evidence that Greek religion directly influenced northern Europe’s Celtic peoples, although every reason to suspect from the galvanising cultural and military explosion of the ‘Belgic’ movement of the Celts into the Balkans and Greek territories from the 4thC BCE that they expressed some notable sympathy with certain Greek myths, and the iconography of the Eleusinian myths (pine trees and ears of corn) appears upon the coins of British kings of the Augustan period. Caesar Augustus was an Eleusinian initiate who fostered many British Celtic nobles at his court in order to acculturate them ahead of further Roman plans at expansion. The Irish did not apparently mint coins, or play much part in the Roman scheme of conquest, except during its christian phase when they rose meteorically in prominence. It appears then, that the ancient legends Irish monks enthusiastically wrote down may have shared a common root with those of the Greeks, lost in the mists of the late stone ages and their mysterious megalithic religious cultures.

Of course, Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. The author of Cormac’s Glossary (10thC) states this, and annotators of one of the surviving manuscripts (version ‘B)’ claimed that all of the Irish pagan goddesses were in fact Brigit, who had a typically celtic triple form. Here we have John O’Donovan’s translation of this:

 “Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

It was a simple step for christians to appropriate her as their most important female saint and ‘holy virgin’ who passed her apprenticeship as a cowherd, dairy maid and household servant. Because of her triple-form she was therefore characterised hailed in the hagiographies as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’. In the continental medieval biblical narrative, the ‘Three Maries’ of the Bible (the ones at the tomb of Jesus) appeared to have subsumed another pagan triplicity – a common theme in the middle ages. Legends attached to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence in the south of France claim these three Maries (Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Mary Salome) landed by boat there. Southern Gaul was, of course, a Celtic province with strong early links to Greek and Roman culture. It was also important in the development and spread of christianity among the Celtic peoples.

Bride and Aine, Persephone and Demeter:

In order to draw a clearer comparison between Bride and Persephone, we need to look at Persephone’s mother: Demeter. Is there evidence of an Irish equivalent?

Demeter represented the fruitful and fertile earth, and her child was therefore an example of her own self-begetting nature, and their legend an expression of the eternal (maternal) tragedy and joy of death an rebirth. As such, she an Persephone are two phases of the same idea, and it is to this concept we must link with the the triune nature by which the Celts conceived their gods. In fact, Demeter and Persephone were actually part of a mythological triplicity, completed by a third feminine goddess, Hekate, who was the sage ‘aid-woman’ who assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. In later Greco-Roman art, she was depicted as ‘Hecate Triformis’ after the style of the Celtic divinities. Scholars have identified the cult of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate (the Eleusinian triad) and Artemis (sister of Apollo the Healer) with religious traditions extending back to the older ‘Potnia Theron’ goddess-character depicted so frequently in the art of the Minoan and Mycenaean ages.

How could this ancient Greek triplicity be considered coterminous with the Irish Iron Age triple-goddess Brigit, as described in Cormac’s Glossary? On the surface, Cormac’s triadic goddess expresses a function of knowledge and wisdom, healing and creative dexterity – a set of values more appropriate to Athena, Artemis and the Muses, and possibly to Aphrodite as wife of Hephaistos.

Brigit the Craftswoman/Woman of Smithcraft:

To make such a connection, we must understand how the ancient Gaels viewed the ‘blacksmith’ or ‘artifex’ archetype: This was essentially as the active process involved in reforging the world of nature – the ‘hidden craftsperson’ behind the ‘seasonal drama’.

Such a character exists in a profusion of forms in Ireland’s post-Christian mythology: As the smith known variously as Chullain/Cuillin/Gullion (an important character of the Ulster Cycle), as the Gobán Saor (an archetypal ancient smith and builder credited with raising many ancient structures, sometimes enjoying a legendary plasticity with the Cailleach Bheara), the high-literary ‘god-character’ Goibniu (smith of the Tuatha De Danann) and the euhemerised saints Gobban of Leighlin, Gobnait and the related St Latiaran of Cullin.

Even though most of these smith-archetypes of Irish Christian-era myth are male, the female is ever in attendance with them. In the case of St Laitiaran of Cullen’s sister saint, Gobnait, there is an explicit link with Brigit – her feast day falls on the 11th of February (Matyrology of Oengus), within a Julian calendar’s throw of the feast of Imbolc. Laitiaran and Gobnait were legendarily associated with a third sister-saint, again completing the ‘Brigitine’ triadic form.

In the famous medieval ‘Mythological Cycle’ tales of Ireland’s god-like ancestors, the male  triad Goibniu, Creidhne and Luchta (the Trí Dé Dána – Three Gods of Craft) are said in the tale Immacallam in dá Thúarad to be sons of Brigit of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and she the daughter of An Dagda. In the tale Tochmarch Etaine the Trí Dé Dána are said to have instead been Dagda, Lugh and Ogma, suggesting these were possibly of an older order, before the Age of metals. Goibniu was a master of blacksmithing, Creidhne a master of jewel-making and Luchta a craftsman in wood or builder (I.e. – a user of metal tools).

Slieve Gullion in County Armagh evokes the name of the smith-king of the Ulster Cycle tales from whom the hero Cuchullain is named. His daughter Tiobhal is described as ‘Princess of the Ocean’ in some late renditions of the myths linking Gullion/Cuillean to the Isle of Man and suggesting a connection with Manannan. At Slieve Gullion, St Brigit’s fosterling and acolyte, St Moninna (a reflex of the name of the Lake Lady of Arthurian legend, Niniane), was said by tradition to have founded the abbey at Kileavy on the slopes of the mountain, during the ‘reign’ of St Patrick. According to legend, she raised a foster-son called Luger, a name reminiscent of that of Lugh. The name ‘Kileavy’ may well be a rendering of the name of the site’s former pagan temple – Kil Aoife, after one of the names of Ireland’s famous ‘Fairy Queens’. Slieve Gullion is famously associated with the legendary folk-character Cailleach Beara, as well as the Lake Lady who turns Fionn into an old man when she bids him dive into the summit lake to find her ring. It was here Cuchullain fought the armies  of the Fairy Queen Medb. Curiously, there are few legends of a ‘male’ Gullion or Cuillain the smith, but more linking the named place to the aquatic otherworld female of Atlantic religious myth.

The healer and the poetess:

Whereas Brigit the Smith can be seen as a forger or re-forger and mystical renewer of life from the death processes of nature, Brigit the Healer fulfils a similar role within the world of the living – renewing from disease and allaying death. The same function is ascribed to the Delphic Greek god Apollo (often known among the ancient Celts as Belenos), brother of the ‘virgin huntress’ goddess Artemis. Artemis was herself not unlike the younger aspect of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – a ‘mistress of animals’ and herds which was appended freely to the qualities of St Brigit of Kildare. Artemis has been likened to a ‘wild’ version of the ‘agricultural’ triad of Demeter-Persephone-Hekate and in some regards can be seen as a female likeness of Dionysus.

In the Delphic myth, Apollo symbolically conquered death and decay with the mystical act of slaying Python, from whose rotting corpse arose the inspiring fumes of prophecy and the fertility of the dead. Both he and his son Asclepius (the name implying the ancient onomatopoeic Indo-European word for ‘snake’) were the Greek divinities most often associated with the semantic field of the active healing arts and prophecy. Apollo was also strongly associated with the Muses – Greek goddesses of poetic inspiration, and it can be seen that there is an apparent similitude to the semantic fields of the Brigitine Triad mentioned in Cormac, in the form Brigit, Goddess of Poets. Of course, this represents a closer similarity in many ways to the Delphic religion of Apollo than the Eleusinian religion of Demeter and Persephone, although the Irish system shows evidence of links to both.

Artemis, Diana and Ireland’s Aine:

The Roman equivalent to ancient Artemis was Diana, whose name appears to be a composite of ‘Dea’ and ‘Anna’, meaning ‘Goddess of the Year’. Another Roman goddess possibly linked to her was ‘Anna Perenna’ and the Demeter-like ‘Dea Dia’, worshipped at Rome’s agricultural festival of Ambarvalia, in honour of Ceres. She was considered part of a ‘virgin triad’ of goddesses along with Minerva (Athena) and Vesta (Hestia). The name Diana has, as I have previously discussed, distinct etymological similarities with an Irish goddess: Áine (‘Awnya’) attested in both folklore and medieval written mythology, making her a figure of considerable interest to those studying ancient Irish paganism.

The name ‘Áine’ has connotations of the Irish word for ‘circle’: ain. The goddess was associated with the seasons and agriculture, and to the moon and the tides associated with them, and thus somehow to the mystical Gaelic ‘otherworld cycle’ linked to mountains, spring wells, lakes, rivers and the oceans. Apart from her similarity to the Roman Diana (whose cult was centred at Lake Nemi and supervised by the Rex Nemorensis – a priest taken from slave stock, probably Gaulish) she also was also a Gaelic fulfilment of the idea of Demeter/Ceres: The seasonal repetition of the fertility cycle. Just as Persephone was an aspect of Demeter, this makes the likelihood of Brigit relating to Áine in the same way quite high. Another aspect of Áine worth mentioning is her traditional role as a ‘sovereignty goddess’, from whom certain clans claimed ancestry – the Eoghanacht Aine, for instance: Such claims are based upon the link between the nurturing fertile land and the people – held to have been united at a far unspecifiable point in ancient history. Just like the Nile fed Egypt, the Irish (and indeed Celtic) concepts linking goddess and fertility revolved around springs and rivers, whose branching and snaking nature reflected the growth of plants. The etymology of the name of the river Shannon contains words for ‘Ancient’ and the goddess’ name – Seann Aine.

The Gaelic ‘goddesses’ of the pagan age were triform – one identity hid a multiplicity of names and aspects. The Gaels (and no doubt the wider body of Atlantic European Celtic peoples) were essentially duotheists, worshipping a male and female entity who can be identified through careful exegesis and critical appraisal of folklore, archaeology, literature and tradition, and from the names of places and land features.


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.




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)

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

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…