Nemetona: Sacred Groves and War-Goddesses

Nemetona, Goddess of the Sacred Grove, had her cult in those dense Germanic forests that the Romans feared so much. Especially after the disaster in 9 CE, when three Roman legions and their auxillaries were ambushed and cut down in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, they preferred open spaces to the forests in which the druids and others worshipped.

The Nemetes, Nemetona’s people, were nowhere near that battle, but they named themselves and their goddess after the nemetons that were a major feature of Celtic worship, as well-known as the marble temples of the Graeco-Roman world.

Other Celtic deities also had names (or titles) that reflected the importance of the nemeton: the goddess Arnemetia (She Who Dwells Over Against the Sacred Grove) and the god Mars Rigonemetis (King of the Sacred Grove, from rigon + nemeton). (Green: 144) All three names suggest the deity owned the grove, and it was a center of their cult, like Belisama.

Sacred Groves and Scared Romans

The word nemeton comes to us from Roman sources, but it is clearly a Celtic word. The Irish equivalent was fid-nemed, Sacred Grove of Trees, from the Senchus Mor, or law-code of early medieval Ireland.

However the Celts felt about them, the Romans clearly found them eerie, as this description from Lucan shows:

no bird nested in the nemeton, nor did any animal lurk nearby; the leaves constantly shivered though no breeze stirred. Altars stood in its midst, and the images of the gods. Every tree was stained with sacrificial blood. the very earth groaned, dead yews revived; unconsumed trees were surrounded with flame, and huge serpents twined round the oaks. The people feared to approach the grove, and even the priest would not walk there at midday or midnight lest he should then meet its divine guardian.

The grove he described was in Massila, modern Marseille. Nemetons were widespread, Going by place-names. Scotland and Devon have many places with Nympton or Nymet in the name, and continental Europe has them all the way from Brittany to Anatolia (Galatia).

The Nemetes

The Nemetes were the main worshippers of Nemetona, just as the Brigantes of northern England had Brigantia as their goddess. Both goddesses’ followers left inscriptions linking them to Victoria. (Two of the seven inscriptions to Brigantia call her Victoria Brigantia; one from Eisenberg is dedicated to Victoria Nemetona.)

Gaulish Mars. Marie-Lan Nguyen, from Wikimedia.
Gaulish Mars. Marie-Lan Nguyen, from Wikimedia.

Unlike Brigantia, however, she pairs up with various forms of Mars. She appears with just Mars, or Mars Loucetios (Bright Light/Lightning).

Mars seems to have been popular in the Rhine area, as we also have Ancamna paired with Mars or Mars Lenus, a healing god. Ancamna was a goddess of the Treveri, whose tribal center was modern-day Trier.

Dedications to Nemetona come from Altrip, near Speyer, and she appears with just Mars at Pfalz, in the following inscription:

Marti et Nemetona v.s.l.m. (Ross 228)

The last four letters are an abbreviation of votum solvit libens merito: “He has fulfilled his vow, willingly, as it should.”

A War-Goddess?

Soeme see in Nemetona’s frequent appearances with Mars a similarity with the ferocious Irish war-goddess Nemain. Her name means something like “Panic” or “Frenzy”, which, as Deo Mercurio notes, would put her at the opposite pole from Victoria, who deals with the peace after a battle. Still, you need to win a battle before you can have victory.

It should be noted that Nemetona also appears with another Roman god, Mercury, at Altrip, in  an instance of divine polyandry. [F 324; N 12] She may have some connection to Nantosuelta, who frequently pairs up with Mercury as well.

nemetona
Possibly an image of Nemetona and Mars.

Nemetona also turns up in Britian; at the great temple complex at Bath. However, the dedication to her is from a man of Galia Treveri, so it may have come from a pilgrim or tourist. It reads:

PEREGRINVS SECVNDI FIL CIVIS TREVER LOVCETIO MARTI ET NEMETONA VSLM (Peregrinus, son of Secundus, a Treveran, to Loucetius Mars and Nemetona willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.)

Ross (246) thinks a relief from Bath (left) showing a seated goddess and horned god may represent Nemetona and Mars Loucetios.

The Celtic name comes from proto-Celtic *louk(k)et-, “bright, shining, flashing”, also “lightning,”. “Light” suggests sky and solar cults, and points to Mars the healer, but “lightning” indicates Mars in his warlike, stormy aspect.

Mars Loucetios was the consort of Nemetona, the grove goddess. He may well have brought a healing or fertility aspect to her cult. Others have pointed to the ancient connection betwen oak trees and lightning: “Beware the oak; it draws the stroke”. This has a scientific basis, as oaks are taller and more full of mositure than other trees. 

Its ability to survive lightning strikes probably contributed to its aura of sacredness. (In many European cultures it is the tree of the thunder-god, so a grove of oaks would be quite suitable for both Nemetona and Loucetios.)

However, elsewhere in Gaul Mars Loucetios was paired with the Roman war-goddess Bellona. She personified force, and was Mars’ sister or wife. If Bellona was a Roman interpretation of Nemetona, she would be more warlike goddess than you would expect. After all, you would expect Nemetona to be associated with Diana, the goddess of wild places, with a sanctuary at Nemi as Diana Nemorensis.

In Irish mythology, there is the god Nemed, who fought the Fomorians and settled Ireland. His name means something like “holy” or “sacred” and while there is no direct connection between his name and the word nemeton, perhaps the grove was his sacred place. These Celtic Mars-gods could be a similar sort of deity.

Perhaps Nemetona too could switch from the priestess-like grove goddess to the provoker of panic and frenzy. We have the Roman account of the druidesses at Mona stirring up the fighters, so Nemetona’s priestesses may have had the same role.


(Image at top from The Sacred Grove)

References:
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins 1996: Dictionary of Roman Religion, OUP.
Green, Miranda 1992: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
MacKillop, James 2004: A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Rankine, David and Sorita D’Este 2005: The Guises of the Morrigan: Irish Goddess of Sex and Battle: Her Myths, Powers and Mysteries, Avalonia Press.
Ross, Anne 1992: Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Constable and Sons.

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