The porch of an Anglican church might seem like a strange place to find an altar to a pagan goddess. In Lanchester, Co. Durham, however, a stone altar to the goddess Garmangabi coexisted with the established church.
When the stone was carved, and dedicated to the goddess, Lanchester was Longovicium, from the Celtic longo– ship, and Latin vicum “street-settlement”. The modern name comes from a document dated 1196, listing Langecestr, the long Roman fort. The altar itself is from around 238 – 44 CE, but is undated. It reads:
ET N GORDIANI
AVG N PRO
SAL VEX SVEBO
RVM LON GOR VO
TVM SOLVERVNT M
or, spelled out:
et N(umini) Gor[di-]
ani Aug(usti) n(ostri) pr[o]
sal(ute) vex(illationis) Suebo-
rum Lon(govicianorum) Gor(dianae) (vexillarii) vo-
tum solverunt m(erito)
“To the Goddess Garmangabi and the divine spirit of Gordianus our Lord, for the health of the Detachment of Suebi in Gordian’s Lingones, (who) deservedly fulfilled their vow.”
(RIB 1074; altar stone)
(The bits in round brackets indicate abbreviations, while the square brackets indicate damage to the stone, making it difficult to read.) The Suebi were Germans from the right side of the Rhine. Some of them enlisted in the Roman army as auxiliary forces. It’s too bad they don’t explain why they felt the need to thank Garmangabi, but these altars tend to be a bit terse. Perhaps you paid by the letter.
As for the goddess Garmangabi herself, we know very little about her. She may have been a native British deity, or she may have been a Suebian goddess. The Celts and Germans were not so far apart linguistically or culturally; the main thing separating them was a line drawn by the Romans between Gaul and Germania, so even if Garmangabi was an import, there were probably similar goddesses in Britain.
Gefn, Gefjun, and Gebo
Her name is suggestive. The –gabi element connects to the English words gift and give. Several Germanic goddesses have similar names, such as Gefn and Gefjun. Gefn may have been a goddess in her own right, but she is mainly known as a form of Freya, a goddess of fertility and plenty.
Gefjun, on the other hand, has myths of her own, however, including one where she tricks a king into giving her land which she then passes on to the Danes, thus literally giving the land to her followers. (Karlsdottir, dooley) She is also a divine ancestress through her children by Skjöld, the founder of the Danish royal family, which gives her a maternal aspect as well. More on this later.
The idea of the gift appears elsewhere in northern ideology – in the runes. The seventh rune is Gebo, meaning gift.
It is usually interpreted as indicating both exchanges between people, and exchanges of energy with the heavenly realms. It depends whether you read the rune as two lines crossing or two Vs intersecting. We know that the gift, as offering, sacrifice or exchange, was very important to early European society.
Rulers were known as ring-givers, and many other kennings indicate the importance people placed on exchange. Even peace was brokered by marriage between the warring sides, each in effect giving one of their own as a gift to the other, nicely uniting several different meanings of Gebo.
The Germanic words for gift are connected to the Old English word geofon, sea. (North: 222-3) Gefjon in particular is associated with many names of rivers and places near lakes or the sea. The double nature of the sea, which both gives food and drowns men, may have found its answer in the double nature of the goddess. We know that Freya was a goddess both of plenty and death, and we shall see later that Garmangabi and others like her were similarly of dual nature.
Another entire class of goddesses, the Matres, or Mothers, sometimes have names connected to giving: Friagabis (friendly giving) and Alagabiae (all-giving). Garmangabi perhaps means the colossal-giving, in the same vein, while some Germanic Matres are called Gabiae, Givers. (North: 223)
Others have names that clearly relate to the same theme, such as Aufaniae, “generous ancestral mother”. (Simek: 23) There are many inscriptions to the Matres in Britain, especially near the Wall, but the Matres can be found all over Europe, sometimes as local goddesses, but sometimes taking a more general role.
Dedications to them in Britain range all the way from suis matribus, my own mothers (R.I.B 654), to the Matres Ollototae, the Overseas Mothers (R.I.B. 1030). It’s hard not to detect homesickness and a sense of being far away in the latter. The Matres seem to have been genuinely popular, with altars set up by men and women, civilians and soldiers.
The Matres often appear as threes, usually three matronly women holding fruit or grain in their laps, although occasionally you do find one Mater all on her own. In Britain, there are many triple Mothers around Gloucestershire and Hadrian’s Wall, while the single Mothers appear at Cirencester and Caerwent, among other places. (Green, 1997: 155-6)
One at Cirencester holds three apples in her lap, so clearly the triple aspect was important. When there are three goddesses, they appear to be about the same age and status – these are not the Wiccan three of Maiden, Mother and Crone. Sometimes they all carry children, as if to emphasise maternity.
Another aspect of the Matres was their connection with fate. Evans (2005 –7) connects Garmagabis to Indo-European roots *karb-agno- (weaver’s beam) and *gab-yo- (take hold). He infers that she was a goddess like the Greek Clotho, who spun the thread of each person’s fate, or like the Germanic Norns, who wove it. From the Norse poem Lokasenna, we know that Gefjon “knows the fates of men”. (Larrington: 88)
The connection between fate and fertility may be an ancient one. One inscription from Carlisle explicitly connects fate and the mothers: Matres Parcae pro salute Sancta Geminae (R.I.B. 951): “To the Mother Goddesses, the Fates, for the welfare of the Sanctia Gemina”. Another from Skinburness in Cumbria is in rougher shape, but the words Matribu(s) and Par(cis) are intact enough to be read (RIB 881).
A relief, also from Carlisle, shows three Matres holding, respectively, fruit, a flower, and a knife. The knife was connected to the Roman Parcae (Fates) because they cut the thread of life, so we have death-symbolism along with the imagery of plenty and life-giving. (Barnard, 1985: 239) An image of the Matronae Aufaniae near Bonn has one of them holding a distaff, although it’s hard to know if it’s a reference to the Fates or merely part of women’s daily work. (Green, 1997: 146, Karlsdottir: 59)
Perhaps the power of the Matres was best expressed in one relief showing four goddesses. One holds bread and grapes, another a nursing baby, the third an animal, and the fourth a basket of fruit. The animal is probably a dog, which was associated with healing and death. (Barnard: 238) The dog appears in several British reliefs of the Matres, including ones from Cirencester and Ancaster.
Dogs, especially lap dogs, were associated with healing. Among other things, it could be used as a sort of hot-water bottle to ease period pains. (McCormick: 9) Dogs were also carrion eaters, and were often found in burials, which suggests an other- or under-world role.
This has taken us a long way from an inscribed altar in Lanchester. But while inferring a deity’s function and worship from just a name has its hazards, the pattern of the Matres and other giving goddesses seems clear. Garmangabi, whether the colossally-giving, or the weaver of fate, belongs among them.
Barnard, Sylvia, 1985: “The Matres of Roman Britain”, Archaeological Journal, vol. 142.
Collingwood, R.G. and R.P. Wright, 1965-83: The Roman inscriptions of Britain. 1, Inscriptions on stone, Clarendon, Oxford.
Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis, 1993: The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe, Routledge, London; New York.
dooley, d. Kate, 2006: The Spindle Hearth: a Sourcebook for Goddess-Centred Living, Yarrow Press, Asheville-Lewisburgh, Virginia, USA.
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McCormick, Finbar, 1991: “The Dog in Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland”, Archaeology Ireland, vol. V, no. 4.
North, Richard, 1997: Heathen gods in Old English literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Paxson, Diana, “The Matronae”, originally published in SageWoman, Fall 1999.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
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