Brigidine Goddesses of Gaul and Britain
By Gilbride- this essay represents the personal research and opinions of the author and is not an official statement of Clann Bhride
The name Brighid derives from the older Celtic form Briganti which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European root Bhrghnti, meaning “a high place” or any exalted or lofty quality. The name of the Brythonic goddess Brigantia comes from the same root, and the Continental Celts seem to have also worshiped goddesses named Brigindu, (or Brigindona) and the Matres Brigaecae, whose names all contain the same “Brig” root and can all be translated by the word “Exalted.”
After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain, Brigantia was equated with the Roman deity Minerva, as were other Celtic goddesses such as Sulis and Belisama. Academics refer to these goddesses as the “Celtic Minervas,” and the Irish Brighid is often included in the Celtic Minerva family even though she was never directly equated to Minerva because the Romans never conquered Ireland.
Brighid herself is associated with the sun, moon and stars, fire, fresh water, fertility and abundance, healing, knowledge and wisdom, the crafts necessary to society, poetry and justice. The other goddesses of the Celtic Minerva type usually manifest several of these qualities, and there are other goddesses who fall outside of the Celtic Minerva family as such but who still manifest several of the same qualities.
Some members of the Children of Brighid worship these goddesses as manifestations of the same underlying and exalted power. This work is intended as in-depth examination of these lesser-known “Exalted Ones.”
Although every attempt has been made to present accurate information, this should be seen as a work of devotion rather than of scholarship. In matters of interpretation, we must be guided by our own personal relationships with the goddesses in question.
Minerva, Goddess of Gaul
According to Julius Caesar’s commentary on his wars in Gaul:
Among the gods, they most worship Mercury. There are numerous images of him; they declare him to be the inventor of all arts, the guide for every road and journey, and they deem him to have the greatest influence for all money-making and traffic. After him they set Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Of these deities they have almost the same idea as all other nations: Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva supplies the first principles of arts and crafts. Jupiter holds the empire of heaven; Mars controls wars.
Modern pagans frequently dismiss this passage as being completely in error, but in fact the archeological record of Gallo-Roman religion tends to bear out Caesar’s words to some extent. There are more dedications to Mercury than to any other deity, but there are also frequent dedications to Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva- sometimes equated with native Gaulish deities and sometimes not.
A number of Gaulish goddesses tended to resist syncretization. For instance, the goddess Rosmerta must originally have been paired with a Gaulish god (quite possibly Lugus) but after the Roman conquest her consort was always Mercury. For whatever reason, the Gauls under Roman rule seem to have felt perfectly comfortable replacing their own god with Mercury but were unwilling to syncretize Rosmerta to any Roman goddess.
The most likely reason for this is either that the goddesses were so closely tied to the land and territory of their origin that synthesis with a Roman goddess was felt to be impossible, or that many of the Celtic goddesses had unique personality characteristics that could not be mapped onto any Roman goddess.
The Celtic Minerva is largely an exception to this tendency. Belisama is equated to Minerva, but there is only a single surviving inscription to her. Brigantia is equated to Minerva, but also to Juno, Victory and Caelestis- and there are only seven inscriptions to Brigantia. Sulis is equated to Minerva, but there are only thirty-eight or thirty-nine inscriptions to her if we don’t include the curse tablets.
According to the Deo Mercurio website, dedications to Minerva without any Celtic name attached number one hundred and thirty-six in Gaul and thirty-six in Britain. In other words, Minerva on her own was much more popular in Britain than Brigantia was, and nearly as popular as Sulis. Minerva on her own was much more popular in Gaul than Belisama, or any other Celtic goddess except the Matres. (Rosmerta, for instance, has only twenty-eight inscriptions.)1
This implies three things:
1- The worship of Minerva in Gaul must have taken over from the worship of one or more Celtic goddesses such as Belisama or Brigindu, who would presumably have many more surviving dedications if their cults had not been swallowed up by the cult of Minerva.
2- Minerva must have been considered similar enough to the various “Celtic Minervas” to allow for a complete synthesis, allowing Gauls to worship her enthusiastically without feeling the need to give her an additional Celtic name.
3- We can learn something about the unique characteristics of these Celtic goddesses if we examine the ways in which Minerva’s worship in Gaul differed from her worship in Rome.
The Legend of Catumandus
According to a legend recorded by Trogus Pompeius, a Celtic army led by a warrior named Catumandus was besieging the Greek colony of Massilia in 390 BC when he had a dream or vision of a wrathful goddess, ordering him to make peace with the Greeks immediately. He went into the city under a flag of truce and visited their temples, hoping to see the goddess from his dream. At the temple of Minerva (or as the Greeks would have named her, Athena) Catumandus announced that he had found his goddess, made the deity an offering of a golden torc, and made a peace treaty with Massilia2.
Massilia is now the city of Marseilles in southern France, so there was a Greek city in Gaul itself for hundreds of years. This raises the distinct possibility that Athena/Minerva was actually worshiped by Gauls before the Roman conquest. Ancient people do not seem to have been at all shy about borrowing deities from each other. The legend is also reminiscent of Brighid’s role in Irish myth, where she seems to be virtually the only deity who is not “madly fond of war” (as Strabo describes the Celts).
Gaulish depictions of Minerva often depict her as a warrior with a spear and shield, and sometimes include symbols associated with Victoria such as the palm-branch. This combination of Minerva and Victoria is also found in the Birrens image of Brigantia, implying that the Celtic Minerva in general was a warrior goddess. The Deo Mercurio website suggests that the warrior symbolism associated with the Celtic Minerva is often symbolic, referring to her power to conquer disease3.
A Water Goddess
Gaulish dedications to Minerva are sometimes found in association with water deities such as the Celtic goddess Ritona. The goddesses Brigantia and Sulis both have associations with sacred waters- Brigantia with rivers and Sulis with her hot springs. The Deo Mercurio website suggests that the Celtic Minerva in general would have been a water goddess4.
The Gorgon’s Head
Large monuments to Minerva in Gaul are generally classical in style, but small devotional statuary shows a much more abstract style typical of Celtic art. This indicates that the worship of Minerva was enthusiastically taken up by people who were still culturally Celtic and interested in representing the goddess in a Celtic way.
The Birrens image of Brigantia shows her wearing a medallion of the gorgon’s head, while the temple of Sulis features a prominent male gorgon’s head. One of the dedications to Brigantia includes a carving of a snake. Invocations spoken at Imbolc in the Scottish Highlands describe Bride’s holiday as the day when the serpent comes from the hill. Some of these invocations describe a kind of nonaggression pact with the serpent, while others express the intention to throw the serpent into the sea to be swallowed up.
Given all of these references to serpents and serpent monsters in connection with related goddesses, it may be significant that some Gaulish depictions of Minerva overemphasize the gorgon’s head on her breast, sometimes portraying it as being just as large as her own head. The visual effect is as if Minerva has two heads- her own head, and a gorgon head on her chest5. The myth of Medusa may have had a Celtic equivalent, with particularly strong symbolic importance to Celtic worshipers of Minerva.
We know of at least three Celtic Minervas from Britain alone- Brigantia, Senuna and Sulis. We know of at least one more from Gaul- Belisama, who also seems to have been worshiped in Britain. We also know of a Gaulish equivalent to Brigantia named Brigindu or Brigindona.
In all likelihood, there were numerous different Celtic Minervas. Some of them may have been strongly associated with a particular tribe, like Brigantia with the Brigantes. Others might have been known over wide areas and by several peoples, as Belisama seems to have been, so they cannot strictly be considered “local goddesses.”
We have no way of knowing for sure whether the ancient Celts would have considered these goddesses to be distinct entities, the same entity or some fluid combination, but evidence suggests the latter. Brigantia, for instance, was portrayed as being Minerva, Victoria, Juno and Caelestis simultaneously- suggesting a theology in which divine identity was a fluid thing.
Children of Brighid who wish to honor her in a Gaulish form could do so under the names Brigindu, Brigindona, Belisama or even simply Minerva. The ancient Gauls would most likely have been just as flexible.
Summer Bright or Very Powerful?
The goddess Belisama is often described in confident terms as a fire goddess, a summer goddess and a consort of Belenus. All of these associations are basically speculative or in error, as no inscription links Belisama to either Belenus or fire, and her association with the summer depends on an etymology that may be fanciful.
The Nemeton website interprets Belisama as “Summer Bright,” from Proto-Celtic belo or “bright” and samo or “summer.” The site shows a picture of a statue identified as Belisama holding a snake, but the statue actually shows Sirona. Noémie Beck does not mention the existence of any statues of Belisama.
According to Beck, Belisama’s name is more likely to mean “The Very Powerful One,” as the Indo-European root bhel actually refers to force or power rather than brightness or brilliance. Beck also dismisses any link to Belenus as being based on nothing more than the Bel prefix.
So, if most of the publicly-available information about Belisama is unreliable, then what can we say for certain about this goddess?
Belisama is mentioned in a single Latin inscription on a marble altar from Ariège, which has been interpreted to read Minervae Belisamae sacrum Quintus Valerius Montanus ex voto suscepto. This means that a man named Quintus Valerius Montanus erected this altar, sacred to Minerva Belisama, in fulfillment of a vow6.
The only other known inscription to Belisama is in the Gaulish language, inscribed in Greek letters by a man named Segomaros son of Villoneos in dedication of a nemeton. A nemeton was an ancient Celtic religious sanctuary, and can mean anything from a sacred grove to a fenced enclosure of semi-rectangular shape with a small temple building and a few trees as if to symbolize a grove. According to Beck, the name Segomaros means either “Great Strength” or “Great by His Victories.”7
Aside from these two inscriptions, the only known reference to Belisama is the geographer Ptolemy’s map of Britain, which shows the estuary of a river called the Belisama at a location corresponding to the estuary of the Ribble8.
Wisdom and Power
There obviously isn’t much to go on when it comes to Belisama, but there are a few things we can say with some confidence. One is that Belisama couldn’t have been a localized tribal goddess. The Ribble river is in Lancashire, one of her inscriptions was found in Provence and the other was found in the Pyrenees. So, even if Belisama was a minor goddess she was still known across a very large area and by more than one Celtic tribe.
The name “Summer Bright” might be aesthetically appealing and reminiscent of Brighid’s fire associations, but we shouldn’t forget that the word Bri in Gaelic also means power or force or essence. So, if the name Belisama really means “the Very Powerful” it may carry essentially the same meaning as the word Bri.
The fact that Belisama was syncretized with Minerva tells us that she was probably a goddess of wisdom and crafts, and possibly of war as well. Her association with a river connects her with water, and the dedication of a nemeton in her honor connects her with the concept of sacred space.
A Goddess of the Heights
The goddesses Bergusia and Bergonia, known from only a few inscriptions, are included here under the same heading because they both have names that mean “The Hill” or “The Mount.” According to Noémie Beck’s landmark thesis Goddesses in Celtic Religion:
“Bergusia must have originally been a goddess attached to the Heights, Mounts or Mountains, for her name is based on a Celtic root berg(o), bergusia, literally signifying ‘mount’, from an IE root *bherĝh, ‘high’. It is besides interesting to note that the root brig-, ‘high’, ‘eminent’, comprised in the divine names Brigantia, Brigit and Brigindona, comes from the same IE root. They are thus goddesses of the same type and essence.”
There is only one known inscription to the goddess Bergonia. It was found on a height called the Monts de Vaucluse, in an area associated with the Celtic proto-cities known as oppida. The inscription has been interpreted to read Bergoniae Gaius L Calvo votum solvit libens merito, which means that a Roman citizen named Gaius L Calvus put up the inscription in fulfillment of a vow to Bergonia9. Roman citizenship does not necessarily imply Roman ethnicity, as Rome often granted citizenship to important or powerful people in conquered territories. However, where there is no Celtic element in a worshiper’s name, we can assume that he either was a Roman or a highly-Romanized native.
The only known inscription to the goddess Bergusia was found on a bronze vase on Mont-Auxois, and has been interpreted to read Deo Uceti et Bergusiae Remus Primi filius donavit v.s.l.m.,which means that a man named Remus the son of Primus dedicated the vase to the god Ucuetis and the goddess Bergusia in fulfillment of a vow.10
A Goddess of Smithcraft
The vase was discovered in the guild hall of the smiths and metalworkers of Alesia, in an underground room that seems to have served as the guild’s chapel. The name Ucuetis is in larger letters than the name Bergusia, suggesting that Ucuetis was the patron deity of the Alesian smith guild (a fact confirmed by other inscriptions to Ucuetis) and that Bergusia was of lesser importance although still sacred to the smiths. This parallels the Irish situation exactly, in which Goibniu was the patron god of smiths but one of the three Brighids was also a smith goddess.
The Nemeton website interprets Bergusia as bero-gussou or “She Who Brings Force to Bear,” in reference to her smithcraft associations.11 However, this seems more farfetched than Beck’s interpretation of Bergusia as “The Hill” or “The Mount.”
In the centuries prior to the Roman conquest, Celtic tribes all over Europe began to build fortified towns, of which Alesia was one. These towns are called oppida, and the largest were on their way to becoming cities when the Roman conquest occurred.
For any institution such as a guild of metalworkers, the proximity to the tribal ruling class would have made the oppidum an attractive place to set up shop, and the safety of the defensive structures would have been an additional incentive. Many oppida were built on hilltops, and it stands to reason that a goddess of the hilltop might be called Bergusia or Bergonia or by some other related theonym. By a process of association, this goddess could have become associated with the guild halls and important cultural activities centered at the oppida, such as smithcraft.
A Healing Goddess
The goddess Bricta or Brixta12 is not well-known, appearing in only a few inscriptions containing few clues as to her nature or origins. The Gaulish inscriptions were found at the hot-springs and healing sanctuary of Luxeuil, where there were said to have been many stone images scattered among the trees, along with a temple to the god Luxovius and the goddess Bricta.
One inscription has been interpreted as Luxovio et Brixtae Caius Julius Firmanius votum solvit libens merito, which means that a man named Caius Julius Firmanius made the inscription in fulfillment of a vow to Luxovius and Bricta. The name of the dedicator indicates Roman citizenship.
Another inscription, possibly by the same worshiper, has been interpreted as Brixtae Firmanus votum solvit libens merito, which means that a man named Firmanus made the inscription in fulfillment of a vow to Bricta.
Another inscription, interpreted as Lussoio et Brictae, Divixtius Constans, votum solvit libens merito, tells us that a man named Divixtius Constans made the inscription in honor of Lussoius (an alternative spelling of Luxovius) and Bricta, in fulfillment of a vow. According to Beck, this worshiper would have been a native Celt with Roman citizenship, as the name Divixtius is of Celtic origin.13
Some sources list another inscription found at a Roman bath, but according to Beck this inscription is a forgery. According to the Nemeton website, another inscription was found at Blackmoorgate in Derbyshire, England, invoking Bricta along with Hercules, Apollo, the Celtic agricultural god Arvalus and the underworld god Dis Pater.14
At the Luxeuil hotsprings where her temple was located, inscriptions have also been found to Apollo and Sirona. Apollo was generally syncretized with healing gods in Romano-Gaulish religion, so the Apollo invoked at Luxeuil may simply have been Luxovius under another name. If this is the case, then Bricta may have been an aspect or title of Sirona- perhaps a cthonic aspect, as her connection with Dis Pater would suggest. Francine Nicholson also suggested that Bricta was simply a title of Sirona’s in her article “Brighid: What Do We Really Know?”.
There are only two things we can say with some certainty about the goddess Bricta. One is that she was a healing goddess associated with hot springs (and therefore with the mystical power of “fire in water”). Two is that she was associated with (and possibly the consort of) a healing god named Luxovius.
Exalted One, Witch – Or Both?
When it comes to Bricta, the name is where things start to get interesting. There are competing explanations for what the name Bricta means, and at least two of them lead back to Brighid- although in very different ways.
If the name is derived from the word Brig then it must have originally meant “The High One” or “The Exalted One,” just like Brighid. The Nemeton website derives Bricta from Proto-Celtic as brigo-acti-a, “She Who Is Beyond the Summit” or “The Highest.”15
According to Olmsted, the name is derived from the Indo-European root bhrek, and means “The Shining One.” According to Beck, Lambert, Delamarre and Leurat, the most likely derivation is from brixta, the Gaulish word for a magic spell or incantation, or the closely related word brixtom.16
All of the other explanations for Bricta’s name seem more far-fetched by comparison, since there is a considerable difference between bhrek or brigo-acti-a and Bricta, but hardly any difference at all between Bricta and brixta. According to Beck, the most likely explanation of the name Bricta is probably “the witch” or “the magic user.”
The famous Chamalieres curse tablet, one of the longest surviving texts in the Gaulish language,17 refers to brixtía andiron, “the magic of the cthonic powers.” The Larzac magical text, another surviving passage in Gaulish, refers to bnanom brictom, “the magic of women,” and andernados brictom, “cthonic magic.”18
Why would the goddess of a healing shrine carry a name associated with magic and the underworld? In this context it is worth noting that Sulis Minerva, the great goddess of the hot-springs at Bath, was also invoked in curse tablets much like the Chamalieres text. The Chamalieres text is addressed to Maponos, the Gaulish equivalent of the Irish Aengus.
Surviving legends about Aengus and his Welsh equivalent Mabon both involve a period of time in which he was hidden away or imprisoned- in the case of Aengus, underground. If there was a similar myth in which Maponos was hidden away in the underworld, he may have been seen as having the ability to intercede with the cthonic powers. The Romans equated Maponos with Apollo, who as we have seen may also have been syncretized to Luxovius. It may be that Luxovius and Bricta formed a divine pair equivalent to Aengus and Brighid- brother and sister (as in the Irish lore) or lovers (as in the Scottish), with the power to curse as well as heal.
The word brixta refers not only to magic but to a specific type of poetic meter called the brixtu with eight syllables per line. This meter was used for the text of the Chamalieres curse tablet. This eight-syllable brixtu meter, associated with the use of incantations to invoke the magic of the underworld, was the root form of the elaborate syllabic meters used by the Irish fili and the Welsh bards of later centuries. In the Old Irish language, the same meter was known as bricht, which also meant a spell or enchantment.19 All of the Scottish Gaelic ballads about the Fianna warriors are in this meter, and they are sung in a kind of free-form chant well-suited for an incantation.
If we examine all of Bricta’s known or implied associations, then the links with Brighid would seem to be very strong.
1- Bricta and Brighid are both healing goddesses associated with fire and water.
2- Brighid’s brother or lover is Aengus, the Irish version of Maponos. Bricta is associated with Luxovius, a “Celtic Apollo” god like Maponos.
3- Brighid is a goddess of poets. Bricta’s name is associated with the most basic of Celtic poetic meters, used by bards in Gaul, Ireland and Wales.
However, there is another connection that may be even stronger.
Cerridwen, the sorceress from the legend of Taliesin, is usually interpreted by modern pagans as the Welsh goddess of poetry. The medieval Welsh bards certainly treated her as something like their patron goddess, but Hutton has argued that no pre-Christian inscriptions mention a goddess with a similar name and that the medieval bards probably invented Cerridwen themselves.
The derivation of the name Cerridwen is unclear. Sir Ifor Williams interpreted it as “the crooked woman,” but Rachel Bromwich interprets Cerridwen as “the fair loved one.” Could the name have been a euphemism or title for a goddess like Bricta? Cerridwen’s steaming cauldron would make a good match for Bricta’s steaming hot-springs, while Cerridwen’s herbal wisdom matches Bricta’s healing powers and Cerridwen’s status as the muse of the Welsh bards matches Bricta’s association with the bardic metrical forms.
There are also folk traditions from Germany and Austria about a fairy woman or “White Lady” with cthonic, nocturnal and Wild Hunt associations known as Berchta or Perchta. According to Morgan Daimler, Berchta is accompanied by frightening fairy spirits and the ghosts of dead children, but also protects living children while their parents are asleep. Some modern pagans believe that Berchta was originally Bricta.20
The North British goddess Briganti (whom the Romans called Brigantia) is frequently described as being identical to Brighid and just as frequently described as having nothing to do with Brighid, depending on who is doing the describing. According to Beck, an Irish-speaker in ancient times could be expected to drop the unstressed n-sound in Briganti, making the name Brig or Brighde simply the Irish pronunciation of Briganti.21
Historically speaking, St. Brigid of Kildare was a Leinster saint, and Ptolemy tells us that there was a colony of Brigantes resident in Leinster in pre-Christian times. This raises at least the strong possibility that the Brigantes brought the worship of their tribal goddess with them to Ireland and that her cult was based in Leinster, later giving rise to legends of the saint.
However, even if Brighid was originally Briganti, the two goddesses continued to evolve in quite different directions and we shouldn’t think of the Romano-British goddess Brigantia as being identical with Brighid, nor should we expect them to have the same associations or characteristics. It’s hard to tell what characteristics Briganti originally had, because all the inscriptions to this goddess come from the period of Roman rule. However, by examining the seemingly meager evidence closely we can learn a lot more than is apparent at first glance.
The Brigantes were the most powerful tribal grouping in what is now northern England. When the Romans invaded in 47, the Brigantes allied with them in an attempt to safeguard their own independence, but a strong anti-Roman faction in the tribe rebelled and forced the Roman governor to abandon his campaign in Wales to come north and suppress their rebellion.
The pro-Roman faction was led by Queen Cartimandua, who actually handed the resistance leader Caratacus over to the Romans when he sought sanctuary with her. Her husband Venutius must have sympathized with the anti-Roman faction, because he rebelled against her and started a civil war among the Brigantes. Cartimandua married her ex-husband’s armor-bearer Vellocatus and declared him king, but was forced to flee into exile in 69. The Brigantes then waged a prolonged resistance campaign against Roman rule, possibly led by another queen- Tacitus mentions a Brigantian queen who almost defeated the Roman armies.
The Brigantes were not fully conquered until the reign of Antoninus Pius, probably some time in the 140s. This would have been about sixty years before the dedications to Brigantia, but the political situation in north Britain had changed radically by that time. High-ranking members of the Brigantes were granted Roman citizenship, and a Roman emperor came to the Brigantian kingdom to help defend them from raids by the Caledonians. By the time the dedications to Brigantia were made, prominent Brigantes were eager to display their loyalty to Rome and its emperor.
The surviving inscriptions to Brigantia were all created within a fairly short span of time during the reign of Rome’s Severan dynasty in the third century. Seven inscriptions have been found:
1- An inscribed altar found at Adel in the area of Leeds, interpreted as Deae Brigantia donavit Cingetissa. This means “Presented by Cingetissa to the Goddess Brigantia.”22 According to Noemi Beck, the name Cingetissa is of Celtic origin and can be translated as either “the warrior” or “the attacker.” There is a symbol of a snake on one side of the altar.23
2- An inscription from South Shields, interpreted as Deae Brigantiae sacrum Congennicus votum solvit libens merito. This means that the altar is sacred to the Goddess Brigantia, and that it was dedicated by a man named Congennicus in fulfillment of a vow.24 According to Beck, Congennicus is a Celtic name. The altar also includes images of a bird, a jug and a libation bowl or patera.25
3- An inscribed altar from Greetland, interpreted as Deae Victoriae Brigantiae et Numinibus Augustorum T. Aurelius Aurelianus dono dedit pro se et suis et macs…. This means that a man named T. Aurelius Aurelianus set up the altar as a gift on behalf of himself and his family to the Goddess Victory Brigantia and the imperial numen.26
4- An inscribed altar found near Castleford, interpreted as Deae Victoriae Brigantiae aram dedicavit Aurelius Senopianus. This means “Dedicated by Aurelius Senopianus to the Goddess Victory Brigantia.”27
5- An inscribed altar from Northumberland, interpreted as Iovi Aeterno Dolicheno et Caelesti Brigantiae et Saluti C. Iulius Apolinaris centurio legionis vi iussu dei. This means that a centurion of the Sixth Legion named C. Julius Apolinaris erected this altar to Jupiter Eternal Dolichenus, Caelestis Brigantia and Health, by command of a god. The word translated as “health” could possibly mean “safety,” and the initial interpreted as dei or “the god” could be deorum or “the gods.” This altar also has a carving that may be a disk and crescent (a known symbol of Caelestis), a crowned spirit with a cornucopia pouring a libation on an altar stone, a cupid with a sickle and grapes and two faces that might be intended as the sun and moon.28
6- An inscribed carving from Birrens in Dumfriesshire, southern Scotland, interpreted as Brigantiae sacrum Amandus arcitectus ex imperio imp…. This means that the image is sacred to Brigantia and that it was erected by an architect named Amandus, acting under orders. This is the famous carving of Brigantia holding a spear at her side and a globe in her left hand. She wears a medallion of the gorgon’s head.29
7- An inscribed altar interpreted as Deae Nymphae Brigantiae quod voverat pro salute et incolumitate domini nostri invicti imperatoris M. Aurelii Severi Antonini Pii Felicis Augusti totiusque domus divinae eius M. Cocceius Nigrinus procurator Augusti nostri devotissimus numini maiestatique eius votum solvit libens merito. This means that M. Cocceius Nigrinus, an imperial procurator, dedicated the altar to the Nymph Goddess Brigantia in fulfillment of a vow he had made when requesting protection for the “invincible emperor M. Aurelius Severus Antoninus, pious, fortunate and august,” and for the members of his family.30
There is also an inscribed altar from Longwood, interpreted as Deo Breganti et numinibus Augustorum T. Aurelius Quintus dono dedit pecunia et sumptu suo. This means that a man named T. Aurelius Quintus dedicated the altar at his own expense to the god Brigans and the imperial numen.31
Nothing is known about the god Brigans, but given the location it is plausible that Brigans could be a male form of Briganti or a male consort of Briganti.
Finally, there is an inscribed pillar from Auxey, Côte d’Or, France, reading Iccavos Oppianicnos ieuru Brigindon cantalon. According to Beck, this is a Gaulish-language inscription indicating that Iccauos son of Oppianos dedicated the pillar to Brigindona. There are no other identifying details about the nature of this goddess, but the location of the pillar suggests to Beck that Brigindona was the goddess of a nearby high place.32 The inscription could also be read as Brigindoni, which would be the dative form of Brigindu according to Anwyl, so references to Brigindu and Brigindona actually both relate to this one inscription. References to Berecynthia as a form of Brighid also relate to the same inscription, as Anwyl connected the Brigindu mentioned here to the Berecynthia mentioned by Gregory of Tours without giving any evidence for this speculation.33 Whoever Brigindu or Brigindona was, no other inscriptions to her have been found.
These inscriptions may not seem to tell us much, but there is a surprising wealth of detail if we examine them closely. First, we know that the original Celtic or Brythonic form of the name would have been Briganti. Given that the inscriptions are centered in the tribal territory of the Brigantes, it seems clear that Briganti must have been the tutelary deity of this tribe. Some historians of Roman Britain have suggested that the Roman government itself created the goddess Brigantia as a deified abstraction of North Britain. However, the use of a Celtic theonym and the fact that some of the inscriptions were created by people with purely Celtic names make this unlikely. According to Jolliffe, the use of the prefix Dea or “goddess” means that the goddess could not have been of Roman origins, because this prefix is used only for non-Roman goddesses.
However, some of the inscriptions to Brigantia show evidence of a complex and highly syncretistic form of worship, making it difficult to tell what the worship of Briganti might have been like before Roman influence. The two altars set up by worshipers with Celtic names show the least evidence of syncretism, possibly giving us some clues about Briganti’s original nature.
Cingetissa’s altar includes a carving of a snake. As there are no snakes in Ireland, the Irish Brighid has no traditional snake associations. However, the Scottish Bride is strongly associated with snakes, raising the possibility that Scottish lore about Bride may have been influenced by Brythonic lore about Briganti at some distant point in time. (The gorgon head in the Birrens carving may relate to the same symbolism.) Snakes are generally a cthonic symbol and are associated with healing. Cingetissa’s martial name may imply that Briganti was a martial deity, and this role would be expected of a tribal goddess.
The altar set up by Congennicus shows a bird, a jug and a patera or libation bowl. The bird can be taken to mean that Briganti had celestial associations. The jug-and-patera was a generic symbol for religious piety in the Greco-Roman world, and despite the fact that Congennicus had a Celtic name he may have been using the symbol in this generic sense. Alternatively, the symbol may refer to the actual use of the jug and patera in worship. Everyday religious practice in ancient Greece and Rome included a simple ritual in which the worshiper would hold the patera in the outstretched right hand and pour an offering of wine or some other liquid into the patera from a jug held in the left hand.
From these two inscriptions, we can infer that Briganti had cthonic and healing associations, as symbolized by the snake, celestial associations, as symbolized by the bird, and was worshiped via libation, as symbolized by the jug and patera.
Out of the seven known inscriptions to Brigantia, two syncretize her with the Roman goddess Victory. The carving found at Birrens also depicts her with the wings of Victory on her back. So, three out of the seven known references to Brigantia equate her with Victory.
This raises the question- why would Brigantia be equated with a deified abstraction worshiped by Roman soldiers? The answer can be found in the history of the area during the years in which the inscriptions were made.
In 195, Britain’s Roman governor Claudius Albinus rebelled against Septimius Severus and took his legions across the channel into Gaul. He was defeated at the Battle of Lugdunum and his legions were sent back to Britain in greatly weakened condition. Seeing an opportunity, Caledonian tribesmen from north of Hadrian’s Wall began raiding across the border in great numbers.
In 208, Severus landed in Britain with an army of 40,000 men and rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall before invading Caledonia in reprisal for the raids. For the next few years, he waged a costly and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to conquer the Caledonians before dying of illness at York. His son Caracalla, who became the second emperor of the Severan dynasty, was with him on his campaigns into Caledonia but returned to Rome when he died.
The inscriptions to Victory Brigantia have to be understood in the context of these events. The tribal territory of the Brigantes would have been under constant threat from Caledonian raids, and a Brigante warrior of that generation would not have seen the Roman soldiers as an occupying army but as a welcome defense against attackers from the north. Brigantia need not have been a particularly warlike goddess to be invoked as Victory in this context- as the tribal goddess of the Brigantes, she was naturally responsible for their success in battle. Many Brigante auxiliaries must have accompanied the Roman army as it struck north against the Caledonians, and even though the Romans failed to conquer Caledonia they did cause enough damage to discourage raiding for many years.
In the ancient world, worshipers would often vow to set up an altar to a deity if their prayers were answered. The altar would usually include a stock phrase reading “So-and-so set up this altar to deity such-and-such willingly and deservedly in fulfillment of a vow.” From the perspective of a Brigante tribesman of that era, the prayers and offerings to Victory Brigantia were a success. Caledonian raids were curtailed and the lands and homes of the Brigantes were made safe.
According to the Nine Elements of Clann Bhride, our goddess “manifests in warrior form only to defend against open aggression.” The inscriptions to Brigantia as Victory confirm this assertion, as the Brigantes cannot be held responsible for the imperialism of the Romans and were only fighting to defend their own lands from Caledonian attack.
The presence of a Roman emperor in Britain had a direct influence on the culture of the Brigantes and the worship of their goddess Brigantia. To encourage the Brigantes during the campaigns against the Caledonians, the Roman government seems to have actively encouraged the worship of Brigantia and the syncretism of the Celtic goddess with a North African goddess favored by the emperor himself.
This goddess was originally known as Tanit, the mother goddess of the Carthaginians. After the Roman conquest of Carthage, Tanit was worshiped as Juno Caelestis or “Celestial Juno,” but the name of this syncretic deity was almost always shortened to Caelestis. The goddess Caelestis was a virgin mother, equated with Victory and Minerva as well as Juno. She was a sky goddess who rode on the back of a lion wielding a thunderbolt.
Under the name of Caelestis, Tanit continued to be the most important deity of North Africa for centuries, and was still worshiped for a time even after the Roman Empire became primarily Christian. The emperor who originally brought the worship of Caelestis to Rome was none other than Septimius Severus, the same emperor who came to Britain in 208 to help the Brigantes fend off the Caledonians. Severus himself was from North Africa, so his worship of a North African goddess is unremarkable. However, it does explain the remarkable circumstance of a Celtic goddess like Brigantia being equated to a Phoenician goddess like Caelestis.
C. Julius Apolinaris of the Sixth Legion was apparently a worshiper of Jupiter Eternal Dolichenus and Caelestis. Jupiter Eternal Dolichenus was the Roman name for the Syrian Ba’al of Dolichene, god of an initiatory mystery religion popular during this period. The empress herself was a Syrian woman whose family were hereditary priests, so a soldier wishing to demonstrate his loyalty to the imperial family might well have done so by worship of a Syrian Jupiter and the emperor’s favorite North African goddess.
C. Julius Apolinaris seems to have been ill, and to have received a dream instruction from the deities to erect an altar to Jupiter Eternal Dolichenus, Caelestis and Health. The practice of seeking a dream instruction from a deity was called incubatio and was a popular practice at many ancient temples associated with healing deities. When the centurion followed the instructions of the god and erected an altar, he equated Caelestis with the most powerful local goddess in the region in which he was stationed- the goddess Brigantia.
If that was the only reason for the equation of Brigantia and Caelestis, it wouldn’t tell us much. We would probably be justified in inferring that Brigantia had a celestial aspect, or else the equation with Caelestis wouldn’t make much sense, but otherwise the equation of the two could be explained as a matter of convenience.
However, Caelestis was not worshiped merely as a minor local variant on Juno but as a universal Goddess and “queen of heaven.” Worshipers of Caelestis, like worshipers of Isis, interpreted local goddesses as aspects of their own supreme deity.
The carving of Brigantia found at Birrens suggests that the cult of Brigantia merged with that of Caelestis during the Severan campaigns in Britain, probably with strong encouragement from the imperial government. (The architect who put up the carving actually notes that he did so under orders, and the carving was found in the walls of the Roman fort rebuilt for the Severan campaign.)
The inscription on the Birrens carving refers only to the goddess Brigantia and does not equate her with any other deity. However, the symbolism of the carving itself is a complex syncretic mix. Brigantia is portrayed with the wings of Victory, armed and appareled like Minerva, holding the globe of the world in the palm of her left hand. She wears a medallion of the gorgon’s head around her neck, further strengthening the identification with Minerva. Brigantia stands beside an omphaloid stone, a known symbol of North African goddesses such as Caelestis. She wears what has been interpreted as a horned helmet, most likely of Celtic type, and a mural crown. The mural crown probably symbolizes her status as the Sovereignty goddess of the Brigantes, as its usual symbolism in Roman religious art is to indicate the goddess who brings fortune to a particular territory. According to Jolliffe, the only other winged Minerva from the ancient world was found in North Africa and was probably intended as a statue of Caelestis.
The symbolism of this carving is obviously much richer and more complicated than most pagans have realized, and contains a strange mix of Celtic, Roman and North African concepts. Brigantia is portrayed as:
1- a warrior goddess (the Victory symbolism).
2- a virgin culture goddess (the Minerva symbolism).
3- a territorial goddess (the mural crown).
4- a world-ruler and universal goddess (the globe in her hand).
5- a cosmic and celestial goddess (the Caelestis symbolism).
This statue indicates that Brigantia was worshiped as a universal Goddess and ruler of the entire world, not simply as the goddess of the Brigantes. This interpretation of Brigantia may have reflected older Celtic beliefs (the Brigantes may well have seen their own tribal goddess as a world-ruler) or may be solely due to the Severan dynasty’s fascination with Caelestis, and the desire of some members of the Brigante tribe to curry favor with the Roman emperor34.
The dedication by M. Cocceius Nigrinus to the “Nymph Goddess Brigantia” is a little incongruous, as the rather severe image of Brigantia at Birrens hardly brings the word “nymph” to mind. However, the use of the word “nymph” here actually gives us a lot of information about the goddess Brigantia.
According to Beck, a nymph (in the original Greek or Roman context) is generally a beautiful young water goddess, often associated with healing shrines. Nymphs were usually portrayed either naked or only partially clothed, and were often represented in triple form.
After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain, native water goddesses and spirits were often described as nymphs, and many dedications to the nymphs have been found in Celtic areas. They were often syncretized with the Matres, the localized triple mother goddesses worshiped all over Gaul, Britain and Germany. Beck notes that this identification with the Matres was most common in association with healing waters35.
Brigantia, in her original form as Briganti, must have been associated with rivers- otherwise rivers such as the Braint in Anglesey and the Brent in Middlesex would not have been named after her36. The dedication to the Nymph Goddess Brigantia suggests that she was seen as being a beautiful young woman, or at least that she could manifest in such a form, and that she was associated with healing waters.
The dedication by C. Julius Apolinaris of the Sixth Legion was also made in the context of a request for healing. It is likely that the martial imagery associated with Brigantia was often interpreted symbolically, with Brigantia as a warrior against diseases rather than against enemy soldiers. The Celtic Mars was often invoked for healing purposes, so this type of symbolism was well-known in ancient times. In addition, the Scottish Bride is invoked as Bride of the Victories in healing charms using distinctly martial imagery.
Although none of the North British dedications to Brigantia identify her with the Matres or portray her as a triple goddess, the identification of Brigantia as a nymph suggests (in a Celtic context) that we should expect such connections. The existence of a dedication to the Matres Brigaecae from Celtiberia confirms this suggestion, and implies that the Matres Brigaecae were simply a triple form of the same deity.
This dedication was found at Peñalba de Castro, and has been interpreted as Matribus Brigaecis Laelius Phainus votum solvit libens merito, which means that a man named Laelius Phainus “willingly and deservedly” fulfilled the vow he had made to the Matres Brigaecae.
If the Matres Brigaecae were really a triple form of the goddess Briganti, they could be the origin of the three Brighids of Irish lore.
In 2014 (while this article was being written!) a volunteer archeologist discovered the carved head of a goddess from a Romano-British shrine at South Shields, a fragment from a small statue of Brigantia. The statue seems to have been broken up and disposed of around 208 AD, probably because it was in the way of renovations to the Roman fort at this location.
The carving depicts a smiling goddess wearing a crown in the shape of a city wall with battlements, indicating her role as a protective deity. Her face seems to have originally been painted pink, and her lips red. Her hair is wavy and her facial expression looks serene and gentle37.
If we combine all of the evidence we have about Brigantia, a surprisingly complete picture emerges. Brigantia was a goddess of both the sky and the underworld (symbolized by a bird and a snake respectively). She was a goddess of rivers and healing waters who could manifest as a beautiful young woman or as a stern, spear-wielding warrior. She waged war against the spirits of disease, who may have been represented by snake-like monsters. When her people were under attack she protected them and brought them victory in battle. She was both a virgin goddess and a mother, and was probably seen (like Minerva with whom she was equated) as a goddess of wisdom and the arts. She could sometimes manifest in triple form, but could also appear as a universal, cosmic goddess holding the entire world in the palm of her hand.
Coventina was the local but highly-revered goddess of a sacred spring located at Carrowburgh on Hadrian’s Wall. Although she was never directly equated with Minerva in any inscription, a dedication to Minerva has been found at her shrine. This implies that Coventina herself was probably seen as one of the Celtic Minervas.
The dedications to Coventina describe her as “Augusta” or “august,” and “Sancta” or “holy,” two epithets usually reserved for the most important of Roman gods. Most of her dedications were left by Roman soldiers of Celtic or German ethnicity stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. However, the very large number of coins and pieces of jewelry left at the shrine imply that she also had a substantial number of civilian devotees from the local area.
Coventina is depicted in two carvings. In one she is portrayed as a reclining woman holding a waterlily leaf and resting her arm against a pitcher out of which water is flowing. In the other, she is depicted as a triad of nymphs holding goblets. One of her dedications refers to her as a nymph, and all of the imagery associated with her emphasizes her connection with water. Coventina seems to have been a goddess of the local healing well, but one who was credited with great power and high status by those who worshiped her38.
A Gaulish Cow Goddess
Damona is a goddess from ancient Gaul, associated with healing springs at several locations. According to Beck, her name probably means “The Cow Goddess.”39 In Gaelic lore, Brighid is said to be accompanied by a white cow with red ears.
One of the inscriptions to Damona describes her as Damona Matuberginnis. According to Beck, this can mean either “Damona of the Hill of the Bear” or “Damona the Good High One,” depending on whether Matu shuld be read as meaning “bear” or “good.”40
As Damona is associated with cows and healing springs rather than bears and hills, it seems more likely that the second interpretation is correct, and that Damona’s epithet of Matuberginnis means something like “The Good High One” or “The Favorable Exalted One,” connecting her with the Brigidine goddesses41.
A damaged statue of a partially nude woman with wide hips and small breasts was found at Bourbonnes-les-Bains.
A small statue of a goddess wearing a cloak and nursing two infants was found at Chassenay, along with a fragment of a marble arm with a snake wrapped around it.
A statue of a goddess with wavy red hair, a green diadem and a corn headband was found at Alise-Sainte-Reine, holding a snake in her hand to symbolize her healing powers.
These images may or may not represent Damona42.
Damona was associated with different gods at different locations, although they all seem to have been healing gods. At Bourbonnes-les-Bains she was associated with Borvo, the god of the hot springs whose name means “The Bubbling One.” At Chassenay she was associated with Albius, and at Alise-Sainte-Reine with Moritasgus.
The hot-springs at Bourbonnes-les-Bains featured a large complex of public baths and swimming areas, at which eight dedications to Damona and Borvo have been found, along with one dedication to Damona on her own. One of the dedications equates Borvo with Apollo, and one gives Damona the epithet “August Damona.” Several of the dedicators describe themselves as members of the Lingones tribe and one specifies that the dedication is made for the well-being of the dedicator’s daughter.
Damona and Borvo were also worshiped together at Bourbon-Lancy, but the fragmentary nature of the surviving inscriptions makes interpretation difficult except to say that high-ranking members of the Aedui tribe were involved in their worship.
A dedication to Damona at Chassenay pairs her with a god named Albius whose name means “The White One” or “The Brilliant One.” Beck suggests a connection between Albius and the god Vindonnus, whose name has the same meaning.
A dedication to Damona at Alise-Sainte-Reine pairs her with Apollo Moritasgus, whose Celtic epithet either means “The Sea Badger” or “The One Who Seeks the Sea.”
The dedication to Damona Matuberginnis was found at Saintes in the southwestern part of Gaul. It has been interpreted as Jullia Malla Malluronis filia Numinibus Augustorum et deae Damonae Matuberginni ob memoriam Sulpiciae Silvanae, filiae suae, de suo posuit, which means that a woman named Jullia Malla made the dedication in memory of her daughter Sulpicia Silvana to the divine powers and to Damona Matuberginnis. Note that this is the second dedication to Damona on behalf of a daughter43.
At Bourbonnes-les-Bains, worshipers of Damona and Borvo threw rings and other jewelry, two wooden sculptures of human heads and 4700 coins into the waters, along with acorns, fruit pits and nuts in great numbers.
At Chassenay, coins and vases were offered to Damona and Albius, along with a patera or libation bowl showing an image of a ram.
At Alise-Sainte-Reine, worshipers of Damona and Moritasgus left a number of images depicting the body parts they wanted healed.
Vases have also been found near the location of the Saintes inscription44.
The Old One
In 2002, a metal detectorist named Alan Meek stumbled on the Ashwell Treasure Hoard in Hertfordshire. The hoard consisted of 27 precious objects, including pieces of old jewelry, coins, gold and silver plaques containing dedications to a goddess named Senuna and a silver statue of the deity. Further excavations revealed a temple and several other buildings, including what were most likely temple shops and accommodations for pilgrims45.
At some point in the 3rd or 4th century, someone took all of the temple’s treasures and buried them very carefully as if with the intention of retrieving them later once danger had passed.
The dedications to Senuna are in the same form as other ancient dedications, for instance “Servandus Hispani willingly fulfilled his vow.”
Most of the images of Senuna show Minerva’s spear and owl, making it clear that she was a goddess of the Celtic Minerva type. Her silver statue shows a woman with her hair up in a bun, but the facial features have worn away.
It has been suggested that her name may be related to the River Senua, which ancient geography placed in southern Britain. If her name is derived from the reconstructed Proto-Celtic seno or “old,” then her name may mean “the Old One.” Some of the offerings to the goddess seem to bear this out. Not only do worshipers seem to have offered her heirloom jewelry, they also deposited coins that were already centuries out of date and even genuinely ancient weapons and tools from the Bronze Age, as if this goddess preferred the oldest and most treasured items for offerings.
Irish and Scottish lore about the Cailleach always emphasizes her immense age, and even the word cailleach is not a name but a euphemism for a very old lady46. The discovery of the Senuna shrine may be evidence for a Brythonic cult of a similar deity, a version of the Celtic Minerva as an ancient woman47.
According to an article by Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, Senuna may be the same goddess invoked at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges as Sena or “the Old One,” and at Noricum as the Senae, a plural form48. The ancient Roman writer Pomponius Mela described a religious order of nine sworn virgins dedicated to a Gaulish deity on the island of Sena near Brittany. Stempel suggests that these priestesses were in fact devotees of the goddess Sena. Mela describes these priestesses as having a range of occult powers including healing, prophesy and shapeshifting. According to Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, this story may have inspired the legends of the Isle of Avalon49.
The Starry One
The goddess Sirona was never syncretized with Minerva, nor did she have any version of the Brig prefix in her name. Still, there are certain elements in her worship that link her with Brighid or with some of Brighid’s aspects, placing her in the extended family of Brigidine goddesses.
First, Sirona was a healing goddess associated with hot-springs and wells; Brighid has always been associated with healing wells
Second, Sirona is usually depicted with a snake in her hands or twining around her arms; the Scottish Bride is also associated with snakes.
Third, Sirona is sometimes depicted holding a bowl full of eggs; Brighid is closely associated with dairy products of all kinds.
Fourth, Sirona’s name means “The Starry One,”50; Brighid is also associated with the nighttime sky through the custom of making pictures of the sun, the moon and the stars to celebrate Imbolc.
Fifth, Sirona is invoked along with Apollo at the temple of Bricta and Luxovius, implying that Bricta and Sirona may have been connected somehow or that Bricta may have been a title or aspect of Sirona’s.
Dedications to Sirona have been found scattered all over ancient Gaul (and even as far away as Hungary), but the far majority of them were in the territory of the Treveri in what is now northeastern France and western Germany. The Treveri were a somewhat unusual tribe, in that they were unquestionably Celtic-speakers and worshipers of Celtic gods, yet they tended to identify with their Germanic neighbors and to disdain the Gaulish tribes as being soft.
Sirona was usually invoked with Apollo or Apollo Grannus, a healing Apollo of the Celtic type. For instance, one dedication found at Bitburg has been interpreted to read In honorem domus divinae Apollini Granno et Sironae. This means that the dedication was made in honor of the Divine House, Apollo Grannus and Sirona. The temples and shrines dedicated to this divine pair are always or almost always found at healing springs.
Some of the dedications to Sirona spell her name as Đirona or Thirona. This indicates that the first letter in her name was actually pronounced as a Ts or St sound, difficult to express with Roman letters: Tsirona53.
Several carvings and statues of Sirona have survived. The most famous depicts her standing next to Apollo holding a snake in her right hand. She is naked above the waist, and a length of cloth from her skirt is draped elegantly over her left hand. Apollo, who is shown completely naked, holds a plectrum and a cithara.
Another carving of Sirona from La Fontaine des Romains shows her wearing a dress, her hair in the bun typical of classical goddesses.
A bust of Sirona from Sainte-Fontaine shows her with prominent eyes and possibly a necklace, with her long hair hanging down. According to Beck, this was seen at the time as an Egyptian hairstyle.
The statue of Sirona from the temple at Hochscheid shows her wearing a diadem and a dress, with a snake coiled around her right arm and a patera or libation bowl in her left hand, which may contain several eggs. She appears to be pointing at the patera. This statue depicts Sirona as Hygeia54.
According to the Nemeton website, a relief image of Sirona from Vienne-en-Val shows her holding a cornucopia in her left hand and a patera in her right. She appears to be offering the patera to a snake at her feet. The cornucopia indicates that she was a goddess of abundance and prosperity as well as healing.
The Nemeton website also mentions another image of Sirona from Alzey, which shows her with a patera in her right hand and a long scepter in her left, with snakes above her55.
Sirona’s name connects her to the nighttime sky, but nothing in her worship or iconography offers strong support for this association. The bowl of eggs in her hand could possibly be interpreted as a symbol for the stars, and the Nemeton website argues unconvincingly that her diadem is star-shaped. Beck argues that her name could actually mean “The Heifer” rather than “The Starry One,” but it is possible that the name is actually a pun.
According to Dineen’s massive dictionary of colloquial Irish, the phrase Bóthar Bó Finne or “Road of the White Cow” was a traditional term for the Milky Way56. If this goes back to ancient belief, then it could be that a cow goddess is a star goddess and a star goddess is a cow goddess.
In any case, Sirona’s most common symbolic attribute is definitely the snake, and her worship was strongly associated with healing waters.
Brighid’s association with healing incorporates the concept of fire in water, which usually means the sun in water. Perhaps Sirona represents a variation on this concept, based on the reflection of stars in water rather than the sun.
Aquae Sulis: The Waters of Sulis
Although Brigantia is now just as well-known as Sulis, the cult of Sulis was probably much larger and more significant in ancient Britain. There are only seven surviving dedications to Brigantia, but thirty-eight or thirty-nine to Sulis, along with one hundred and thirty curse tablets.
Before the Romans came to Britain, Sulis was the goddess of the hot spring and healing sanctuary at Bath in Somerset. After the Roman conquest, she was syncretized with Minerva, but she still retained her own name as well. Some of the inscriptions refer to Sulis and some to Sulis Minerva, so the Minerva identification never completely took over.
When the Romans arrived, they would have found a Celtic sanctuary sacred to Sulis at the hot-springs near the River Avon. Early worshipers of Sulis seem to have venerated her by leaving votive deposits of coins in the water- exactly like the modern custom of throwing coins into wishing wells57.
The Romans replaced the original sanctuary with a magnificent temple, including a life-sized bronze statue of the goddess (of which only the head now survives). The temple and Roman baths became the center of the Roman town, and a pilgrimage destination for worshipers seeking healing from the goddess. The temple supported a haruspex, a type of Roman priest otherwise unknown in Britain. This might imply that the temple priesthood was highly Romanized except for the fact that Lucius Marcius Memor, a haruspex of the temple, erected a monument to Sulis without even equating her to Minerva58.
Along with coins, devotees also threw a number of libation bowls or patera into the water, many inscribed with the initials DSM or the abbreviation Dea Sul Min meaning “to the goddess Sulis Minerva.” Pieces of jewelry and other items were also left as offerings59.
Images of Minerva frequently include some representation of the Medusa, such as the image of Medusa’s head hanging from Brigantia’s neck in the carving found at Birrens. At the temple to Sulis, the gorgon head is present but is masculine instead of feminine- a round bearded face with snakes growing out of it. Nobody knows why the gorgon head should be portrayed as a man instead of a woman in this one location, but perhaps it relates to some forgotten myth about Sulis from before the Roman conquest60.
Just like Brighid, Sulis appears to have been worshiped by flamekeepers tending a perpetual fire. According to the third century writer Solinus:
“(T)here are many great rivers and hot springs richly adorned for the use of men. Over these springs the Minerva is patron goddess and in her temple the eternal flames never whiten into ash, but when the flame declines it turns into rocky lumps61.”
Dedications to Sulis
The dedications to Sulis are too numerous to analyze every one, but most of them follow the same pattern as the dedications to other deities. For instance, one dedication states that Gaius Curiatius Saturninus, a centurion in the Second Augustan legion, made the dedication to Sulis Minerva and the Imperial numen in fulfillment of a vow. Another states that Priscus son of Toutus, a stonecutter and member of the Carnutes tribe, made the dedication willingly and deservedly in fulfillment of a vow62.
Celtic deities in general were usually seen as having the ability to either curse or heal. Brighid the Poet, for instance, would have been responsible for both praise poetry and satire, and a satire was a type of curse with the power to kill.
Worshipers who called on Sulis for her cursing powers were usually concerned with punishing theft, as in the curse on the Docilianus Tablet. This tablet asks Sulis to inflict death, insomnia and childlessness (presumably not in that order) on the thief of a hooded cloak “whether man or woman, whether slave or free.” The only way for the thief to avoid these looming ills would be to return the stolen item to the temple of Sulis63. Many of the curse tablets specify that the item will be left as an offering to the goddess if recovered successfully.
The words on the curse tablets were often inscribed in reverse order, most likely for magical reasons. For instance, one tablet includes the words uq ihim maibliv tivaloni. This seems like gibberish unless you assume that the words are backwards and missing a few letters, in which case it becomes qui mihi vilbiam involavit, or “whoever has stolen my vilbia.” Scholars have not been able to figure out what a vilbia is, but the person who made the curse tablet was certainly angry about the theft- the rest of the curse tablet is a request to Sulis to turn the thief to liquid64.
A Sun Goddess?
The etymology of the name Sulis cannot be firmly established. According to Beck, it could derive from a Celtic root suli, meaning “sight,” which could possibly derive from an older Celtic or Indo-European word for the sun as a great eye. Medieval Irish and Welsh texts about the Body of Adam do identify the eyes with the sun, so this symbol was known to the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. However, few Celtic scholars seem to be confident about this etymology. It is plausible that hot-springs such as Aquae Sulis would be associated with the concept of fire in water, a central religious symbol of the ancient Celts, and this could in turn have been associated with a myth about the sun sinking down into the waters to warm them. However, Beck suggests that the name may simply relate to the cure of eye ailments, as the find of an oculist’s stamp at the temple would suggest65.
A Triple Goddess?
Some scholars have interpreted the Matres Suleviae as a triple-goddess form of Sulis, but according to Beck the two are unrelated as “Suleviae” is not the plural form of “Sulis.”66 However, there are also dedications to the Sulei, and there is a possibility that this word is related to Sulis.67
10- Invocation of the Exalted Ones
This is a ritual in honor of the Exalted Ones of Gaul and Britain. You can use this ritual to offer worship to any one of the goddesses or to all of them at once. Begin by pouring a libation of clear, cold water and lighting a candle with a prayer to Brighid such as this one:
I will light my candle as Brighid lights it; Her candle is the sun and Her altar the earth. And as this little candle lights my room, may Her great candle light the universe.
Hail to you, oh foster-mother! Your love is a flame. Give me the strength to bear Your tenderness; give me the power to bear Your light. Let my heart become like a perpetual fire tended by the priestesses of all my thoughts.
Hail to you, oh woman-comrade! Hail to you, oh trusted friend! I will share my confidences with You today for I know You will comfort me; I will kindle my heart with Your light until I glow like gold.
The Divine Names
The ritual itself begins with a chant in the language of the ancient Celts68. The use of a dead language in this chant is intentional, as the chant is intended to take you beyond the surface meaning of the words, to their sound and even deeper. You can use this chant for meditation purposes as well.
When you sing this chant, use any simple melody with no time signature. Beginning in front of your altar or facing east, walk slowly and reverently in a sunwise circle as you chant the divine names of the Exalted Ones:
Rough Pronunciation: WEDeeYUmee BELissAMahn, WEDeeYUmee BERGussEEahn, WEDeeYUmee BRIKTahn, WEDeeYUmee BRIGahnTEEN, WEDeeYUmee DAHmoNAN, WEDeeYUmee SENooNAHN, WEDeeYUmee TSEERohNAHN, WEDeeYUmee SULeen.
The meaning of “uediiumi” is “I invoke” or “I pray to.” This word appears in ancient Celtic inscriptions invoking the gods. If you only wish to invoke one of the goddesses, simply repeat her line over and over again instead of chanting all of them.
If you wish to invoke Brigindu or the Matres Brigaecae, who are not included in the chant69, you can use “Uediiumi Brigantin.” If you wish to invoke Coventina, you can use “Uediiumi Coventinan.”
Offering and Incense
To make an offering to one of the Exalted Ones, light a stick of incense and then reverently place the objects to be offered to the deity in the place of offering. Visualize the deity in front of you and respectfully make any request you may have. In very serious cases, you can make a vow to do something in particular for the deity if your request is granted.
If you wish to perform the full ritual, leave all of the offerings and perform all of the visualizations described below. If you wish to invoke only one of the goddesses, perform her offering and visualization without the others.
Suggested Visualization: A woman walking through a sacred grove in high summer.
Suggested Offering: Clear water.
Suggested Visualization: A woman working at a forge.
Suggested Offering: A vase with flowers in it.
Suggested Visualization: A woman singing an incantation over a steaming cauldron or pool.
Suggested Offering: A bowl of herbs.
Suggested Visualization: A shining young woman with a spear in her right hand, holding the world in the palm of her left hand.
Suggested Offering: A libation poured into a small bowl held out in the right hand from a jug held in the left hand.
Visualization and Offering for Brigindu is the same.
Suggested Visualization: A woman with long, wavy red hair, wearing a green diadem and a headband made of woven grain. She nurses two infants at the same time.
Suggested Offering: Grains.
Suggested Visualization: Three seated women holding baskets overflowing with bread and fruit.
Suggested Offering: Bread and fruit.
Suggested Visualization: A wise old woman wearing ancient jewelry.
Suggested Offering: Old coins or antique jewelry.
Suggested Visualization: A woman holding a basket of eggs in her left hand while a snake curls around her right hand. A star shines from her brow.
Suggested Offerings: Eggs.
Suggested Visualization: A woman who shines like the sun, surrounded by the steam from her hot-springs.
Suggested Offering: Coins in water.
Put out the candle, bow reverently, and recite a prayer to Brighid such as this one:
Hail to You, oh shining mother, radiant mother of stars and worlds. Hail to You, oh shining starsmith, radiant forger of worlds and suns. Hail to You, oh shining ocean, oh river of milk and light, oh queen of time.
Oh Brighid of the setting sun, You sleep in the ocean like a bed of flowers; the river of the heavens is the milk of Your cow and the roots of the Tree of Life are like a pillow for Your head.
Sun of the evening, Your steps are proud; the clouds of the heavens are the fields of Your wandering. The stars of the heavens are Your sisters and children; the ocean is Your bed and the world is Your garden.
Oh Brighid of the starlight, may my prayers rise up to You, may they rise like smoke to You, from the offering of my heart. Oh Brighid of the starlight, be ever near to me, so close that I cannot see where You end and I begin.
Guide me, oh Brighid, across the ocean of night, like a star above the deep roaring waters. As you once forged my body in the core of Your star, may the same star now guide me through the darkness.
6Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
7Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
9Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
10Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
12Sometimes given incorrectly as Brixia.
13Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
16Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
17Jones, Dan, Draft Grammar of Gallo-Brittonic
18Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
19Jones, Dan, Draft Grammar of Gallo-Brittonic
21Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
22Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
23Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
24Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
25Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
26Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
27Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
28Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
29Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
30Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
31Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
32Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
33Anwyl, E., Ancient Celtic Goddesses, Celtic Review Volume 3
34Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
35Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
36Jolliffe, Norah, Dea Brigantia, Archaeological Journal, 1942
38Celtic Goddesses – Warriors, Virgins and Mothers; Miranda Green
39Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
40The word matu on its own meant “good,” like the modern Gaelic word math. Berg is “high,” from the same root as the other Brig names. Matu was sometimes used as a euphemism for artos or “bear” on the “speak of the devil” principle.
41Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
42Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
43Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
44Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
46The word actually means “the veiled one,” referring to a nun’s veil, but was used for any very old woman. Therefore, it could not have been her original name in pre-Christian times.
47However, the Cailleach is frequently a horrific entity, and nothing about Senuna implies the same.
48“The Old Celtic Goddess Sena: A New Testimony from Aquitaine” by Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, published in VELEIA, 24-25, 2007-2008
49Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Edited by John T. Koch, page 146
51Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
53Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
54Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
61Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium
65Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
66Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, 2009
68Gaulish or Gallo-Brythonic.
69No one can say for sure whether Brigindu or Brigindona is the correct form, so it is difficult to construct a grammatically-correct chant for this goddess in Gaulish. Matres Brigaecae is also difficult because the name combines Gaulish and Latin elements and does not fit the octosyllabic Gaulish poetic meter used for the chant. For the purpose of this chant, I chose to treat these goddesses as being included in the invocation of Briganti, the original Brythonic version of the divine name Brigantia. Coventina may be substituted for Sulis or Bricta if preferred, as they are all healing spring goddesses. -Gilbride