Like Belisama, Solimara and Sulis, Sirona’s cult centers on healing water, whether hot springs, baths or wells. Her name, however, means something like “Great Star”, which would make her a star-goddess, rather than a solar one. She is linked to several gods, including the Roman sun-god Apollo, as well as the gods Grannus and Atesmertius.
There is some controversy over whether Apollo was worshipped as a solar deity in her cult, since he often appears as Grannus, or Grannus Mogounus. The title looks like it would tie up with the Irish grian, sun, but in fact the river Grand in the Vosges region of France gave him his title.
Another major shrine to Apollo was Aquae Granni (“waters of Grannus”), at Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle. (Green 1992: 32) This would make him a deity of curative waters, but that doesn’t exclude a solar aspect, as we’ve seen with the Celtic goddesses.
The planet Venus is always close to the sun in the sky, appearing at dawn or dusk, so Sirona may have been the morning or evening star. Venus has been worshipped as a deity in many cultures, all around the world. The sun often has the dawn-star as its child, whether male or female, (West: 227-37) although the two are usually the same gender.
The Romans interpreted Sirona as Hygeia, daughter of the healer-god Asclepius and granddaughter of Apollo, so Sirona would combine healing and stellar aspects. An inscription mentions Sirona alongside Apollo and his sister Diana: the sun, moon and stars. We assume when we see a god and goddess side by side that they are a couple, but there’s no reason they can’t be family instead; three generations in this instance.
While Sirona was most likely associated with the morning star, the site Deo Mercurio does mention some other possibilities, mostly associated with her Roman family:
- Polaris: the navigator’s star, and the pole or nail star around which the others revolve
- Draco: a circumpolar constellation in the shape of a winding dragon. In the image above, Sirona holds a serpent that seems to be smelling or tasting the eggs. The bright cluster at one end of Draco could be the head and eggs.
- Serpens in Ophiuchus: supposedly a snake held by a man (Ophiuchus). Could be Asclepius, with the snake in his hands, as snakes played an important part in his cult.
- Sirius: brightest star in the sky. There are myths about Sirius from all over the world. Worshipped as Sothis by the Egyptians.
Why a Star?
Purely astronomical deities are rare, and tend to have a very basic mythos. Compare Helios or Sol, the Greek and Roman personifications of the sun, with Apollo, who has the sun as a symbol. Sirona looks like another personification, since her name means “Star”. However, that doesn’t explain her cult’s popularity.
I think it’s worth looking a little more closely at the symbolism of the star. A star is light in the darkness. The pole star gives you direction, something to navigate by. Venus, on the other hand, is a promise of light’s return. The star is a symbol of hope, a promise that even when the sun is gone, light is not extinguished. These days, we know that all stars are suns, so the star stands for the promise of light and healing, even when the sun can’t be seen.
The cult of Asclepius involved sleeping overnight at the sanctuary, in hopes that a cure would come in dreams. The snakes that lived in the temple might whisper the cure in the sleeper’s ear. Cast as Asclepius’ daughter, Sirona, as the light in the darkness, might act as a guide to the worried, ill, seeker. Her Roman counterpart, Hygeia/Salus, protected against danger and cured mental as well as physical illness; Sirona could easily have done the same.
Sirona and her consorts work as a partnership: they are the gods of the curative waters, powered by the light of the sun, while she gives hope, the mental part of healing, the promise of a safe passage as the patients emerge from darkness to light.
Green, Miranda 1992: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
West, M. L. Indo-European Myth and Poetry, OUP.
The image at the top comes from Wikimedia.