Matrona: Mother Goddess

I have a tic; so many goddesses have been thrown into the “mother” category willy-nilly that I resist any description of a goddess as “mother”. (Also, I have noticed that people who lump goddesses together as “mothers” very often don’t consider the complexity of the title – Lotte Motz’ book The Faces of the Goddess discusses the many meanings of Mother.)

When a goddess’ name means Mother, however, you cannot deny it. It is derived from Mātr-on-ā, “Great Mother”, just like Sirona‘s and Damona‘s names mean the Great Star and the Great Cow. Inscriptions call her Dea Matrona, just to add insult to injury. There’s no way around this – she’s the Mother Goddess.

Matrona: The Marne

The Marne River in France was known in Roman times as the Matrona. Among others, Julius Caesar mentioned it in his Gallic Wars, right at the beginning when he lists the main rivers of Gaul. The Matrona and Sequana (another goddess) were the largest rivers in Gallia Belgica. (The Celts followed the Indo-European practice of naming rivers for goddesses: Sabrina, Danu, Sinann, as well as the ones already mentioned.)

Image of Matrona. Wikimedia

According to one website she gave her name to many other rivers:

La Moder, a tributary of the Zorn in Drusenheim (Bas-Rhin); the Maromme, a tributary of the Seine in the valley of Cailly (Seine-Maritime); La Maronne, a tributary of the Blaise in Brousseval (Haute-Marne); Maronne, a fountain in the parish of Ognes (Aisne); La Marronne, a tributary of the Dordogne (Corrèze); the Mayronnes, a tributary of the Orbieu (Aude); La Meyronne, a tributary of the Argens (Var); the Meyronnes, a spring flowing in the Ubayette (Alpes de Haute Provence); La Meyronne, a tributary of the Desges (Haute-Loire)…

Dea Matrona had a shrine around the spring at the source of the Marne. It was the same sort of complex of baths and a temple as Sirona‘s shrine at Hochscheid. There is a dedication there to the goddess from a man named Successus, who thanks the goddess for fufilling his vow, but none of the offerings and ex-votos you would associate with a healing shrine. This is odd, because the baths suggest healing, but they may have had some other purpose. But we know very little about either Matrona or her shrine.

Modron: the Mabinogion

In the Welsh medieval collection the Mabinogion, the Tale of Culhwch and Olwen involves the rescue of Mabon, son of Modron, who was taken from his mother when he was three nights old. Both Mabon and his mother are peripheral to the main story; Cwhlch has to perform many tasks to win Olwen, rescuing Mabon is only one.

Bean_Nighe-_Washer_at_the_FordNumber 70 of the Welsh Triads names Modron as Urien of Rhedged’s wife, the mother of twins Owein and Morfudd. It names Afallach as her father. He ruled Ynys Afallach, the Isles of Avalon.

In another, more detailed version of the story Modron is a mysterious woman who appears at Rhyd y Cyfarthfa (The Ford of Barking). It gets its name because although Modron is invisible, the dogs gather to bark at this mysterious apparition. In this version Urien of Rheged happens along and unlike other men who shun the place from fear, approaches the mystery woman and has his way with her. The Koch and Carey translation of this story (369) says:

In Denbighshire [in North Wales], there is a parish that is called Llan-verrys, and its there that one will find Ryd-y-gyfarthfa [‘Ford of the Barking’]. And in former times, the dogs from the whole county used to come to that ford to bark, and no one dared to go to see what was the matter until Urien of Rhedged came. And when he came to the bank of the ford, he saw nothing but a young woman washing. And then the dogs ceased their barking. And Urien grabbed hold of the girl, and he had sexual intercourse with her.
And then she said, ‘God’s blessing on the feet that brought you here.’
‘Why?’ said he.
‘Because I was fated to wash here until I get a son by a Christian. And I am the daughter of the king of Annwvyn [the Un-world]. Come here at the end of the year and you will get the boy.’
And so he came and he got the son there and a daughter, none other than Owein son of Urien and Morfyd daughter of Urien. (The Onomastic Tale of Ryd-y-gyfarthfa)

The part about the therapeutic rape is obviously a male fantasy twist. Not only is he doing her a favour by raping her, he’s extremely potent too. Although I suppose that if you’re Modron, you’re probably programmed to conceive.

Images and inscriptions featuring a single Mother (see Matres below) turn up in Caerwent, in Wales, and Cirencester, which is near the Welsh border. The Caerwent one is a statue with ears of grain and fruit, which suggests a fertilty or harvest goddess. (Alternatively, the ear of corn may be a palm leaf, which would link her to Victoria.)

Other, similar, carvings have been found in France and Germany, usually showing a woman with a child, as in the picture above. These, known as dea nutrix or nursing goddesses, were manufactured in potteries in Central Gaul and the Rhineland. These have turned up in Britain, so there was a trade in these figures. Some were found buried with small children, perhaps to comfort and protect them. (Green 1997: 110-2)

The Matres

Three_Goddesses,_Roman_high_relief_sculptureWhile Modron is always one individual, the Matres, as the name suggests, are plural. They usually appear as a trinity, sometimes as a pair. They seem to be assoicated with fecundity and prosperity, as they usually carry baskets of fruit or flowers, or bread or grain, and sometimes a child. I have already touched on them in my post on Garmangabi, as she has many characteristics in common with them. All of them are associated with fertility, abundance, and death. (Sometimes the Matres, like Epona, hold a key, which symbolized entrance to the underworld.)

The cult of the mothers can be found in both Celtic and Germanic areas; clearly the concept strikes a deep chord. The numerous dedications to the Matres of [Insert Place Name] along Hadrian’s Wall testify to both homesickness and the widespread need for a protective, nurturing female deity.

Koch, John T. and John Carey 2003: The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth.

If you like the image at the top, click here.