Solimara: the Great Sun

Solimara was a sun-goddess, probably a tutelary goddess, from Bourges in central France. The Roman-era town of Solicia or Solimariaca, modern Soulosse-sous-Saint-Élophe, was named after her.

The Evidence

The only inscription to Solimara the goddess is from Bourges, and it mentions her temple and its ornaments, which would suggest that she was important, at least locally:

Solimarae / sacrum / aedem cum suis / ornamentis / Firmana Cobrici / mater / d(e) s(uo) d(edit)

“Consecrated to Solimara, a temple and its ornaments, Firmia, daughter of Caius Obricus, mother, paid for it herself.” (C.I.L. XIII.1195)

That Firmia would give a temple and its ornaments to her goddess implies an organized cult and worship. Green (145) gives other examples of women dedicating temples or temple equipment, and also of women who were priestesses in their own right. (Unlike the wife of the Roman flamen dialis, whose importance came solely from her husband’s job.) Firmia would have had to be well off to be so generous to Solimara’s cult; the “mater” in the inscription may indicate that she was a priestess of Solimara, as well.

Celtic coin in the same style as the Solimara coins.

Celtic coin in the same style as the Solimara coins.

Another inscription mentions a woman named Solimara, presumably named after the goddess.1 There are also coins from the Solimariaca area with the bust of a woman on one side and a galloping horse on the other, inscribed SOLIMA, which suggest that she was an important local goddess, perhaps even the tutelary deity.

The horse may well be associated with Solimara’s cult, as several Irish goddesses with solar and/or sovereignty aspects have the horse as their animals, along with the Gaulish Epona and Welsh Rhiannon/Rigantona.

There is also a dedication to a male form of her name, Solimarus, which suggests that she either had a consort or that the gender of the deity varied.2

Vendryes thinks that Solimara/us follows the pattern of such names made from nouns as Damona and Sirona, with solos, from the Celtic *souli– “sun” as its root (183). Olmstead (362) associates the soli– part with the goddess Sul (with the large shrine complex at Bath) and the Sulivae (France). Anwyl (42) has the “Large-Eyed” for Solimara, which can also tie up with Sul. (If you look up Sul, you will see that a similar nexus centres on her name, which could mean “eye”, “gap” or “sun”.)

The Eye and The Sun

Olmstead seems to be puzzled by the connection made by scholars between the words for “eye” and “sun”, but the thematic similarities seem quite clear: the all-seeing sun is a common mythical theme, the round shape of an eye is often used as a solar symbol, and many Celtic healing shrines have solar associations, whether with Apollo or a goddess like Sul. It may not be proper etymology, but it may well be folk etymology, always a force to reckoned with.

The second part of her name is probably from the same root (maro) as the Irish már and Welsh mawr, “great”. Olmstead sees it as “Great Warmth”, while Arbre Celtique and Deo Mercurio suggest “Of the Great Good View”. The last makes me think of the little Celtic statuettes with enormous eyes, presumably to emphasize their sight, or their ability to heal eye diseases.

Minerva and Healing Water

The connection between the sun and water is not so strange either, since many places where hydrotherapy was practiced were thermal springs; the water blessed by either the heat of the sun in the sky or of fire below. (Or some combination of the two, like the underground aspect of the Hittite sun-goddess Arinniti.) The number of Minerva-type goddesses like Brigit and Sul (and Belisama, in an upcoming post) who combine sun, fire and water makes me think that Solimara could easily have been another one.

Deities like Solimara are a challenge because they show us how incomplete our knowledge of the pre-Chrsitian past is. Her name seems to point to a Brigit/Sul type of goddess, or else a sun-woman like the Irish Grian, whose name means “sun”. The coins seem to indicate a horse-goddess like Áine. It may be that she is an extremely rare type of goddess who combines these solar themes, but usually Celtic sun-goddesses fit into one of these three types.

The place-name evidence indicates that despite our lack of information, Solimara was an important deity to her people, important enough to have a temple and possibly priestesses. There is evidence for many god/desses attached to a place in that part of France, so there may have been a tradition of folllowing a specific deity who protected a place and its people. The all-seeing, or well-seeing goddess looked after her worshippers.

1. There are several other Celtic deities with similar names, all incorporating the sol element: Solimaros, Solia, Solitus, Solita, Solitus Solita, and deo Soli. (Vendrys: 16)
2. I hate leaving out deities that are obscure enough already. The inscription to Solimarus reads: Geminus Solimari filius vestarius hic situs est. (Geminus, son of Solimarus, tailor, lies here. (G.P.: 254)

Anwyl, E. 1906: “Celtic Goddesses”, The Celtic Review III: 9 (Jul. 1906): 26-51. (JSTOR)
A. D. 1842: “Revue de la numismatique, tome III, dir. par MM. Cartier et de la Saussaye”, Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, III: 499-506. (Persée)
Green, Miranda 1995: Celtic Goddesses: Virigns, Warriors, Mothers, British Museum Press.
Longpérier, Adrien de 1873: “Stéle Antique trouvée dans le jardin de la Abbaye de Port-Royal-en-Ville a Paris”, Revue Archaeologique, Nouvelle Série, XXVI (Juillet a Decembre 1873): 259-62. (JSTOR, Internet Archive)
Olmstead, Garrrett 1994: The Gods of the Celts and Indo-Europeans, Verlag des Instituts für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.
Pfister, J. G. 1856-7: “Stray Leaves from a Journal of a Traveller in Search of Ancient Coins”, The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society, XIX (Apr. 1856–Jan. 1857), pp. 85-220, 228. (JSTOR)
Vendryes, Joseph 1956: “Les Inscriptions Gauloise de Banassac-La Canourgue (Lozère)”, Compte Rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 100e année, N. 2, 1956. pp. 169-187. (Persée)

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