Divona: the Divine

Imagine living in a world in which clean drinking water could not be taken for granted. Even now, in many parts of the world, people have to walk miles to get it, and in the Western World we aren’t immune from boil orders and other disruptions.

So it isn’t surprising that many peoples had a deity of fresh, drinkable water. The Romans had the god Fons, among others, from whom we get the word fountain, and the Celts in what is now Bordeaux showed their sense of priorites by worshipping a goddess of clear, drinkable water. Her name was Divona, the Divine One.

She was important enough that her cult city, modern-day Cahors, was named for her, Divona Cardurocorum, Divona of the Cardurci. The name means something like “the angry people,” and they specialized in manufacturing linen.

Her spring was famous in Roman times, and archaeologists recovered a huge haul of coins and some jewels from it in 1989. In the 4th century, the water ran from taps into a marble basin, and was considered healing water, remarkably pure. The city’s website says that it is now the Fontaine des Chartreux (Carthusians).

We have no direct epigraphic evidence of Divona’s cult, except for one damaged altar reading […]onae, which you could interpret as “Divona” but could be just as easily dedicated to Sirona, also worshipped in the Bordeaux area.

During the 4th century, the Gaulish poet Ausonius (tutor to the emperor Gratian) wrote a geographical poem which mentions his hometown of Burdigala, and the fountain-goddess:

30 Hail, fountain of source unknown, 3 holy,
gracious, unfailing, crystal-clear, azure, deep, mur-
murous, shady, and unsullied ! Hail, guardian deity
of our city, of whom we may drink health-giving
draughts, named by the Celts Divona, 4 a fountain
added to the roll divine ! Not Aponus in taste, not
Nemausus 5 in azure sheen is more clear, nor
Timavus’ 6 sea-like flood more brimming-full.

Divona must have been a patron goddess of Burdigala as well as Cahors. (Thanks to Deo Mercurio, by the way, for correcting me – I originally had Cahors as Ausonius’ hometown, and as DM points out, that makes two cities associated with Divona.)

The name Divona means simply “Divine”, and may actually be a title, like that of the god Teutates, “of the tribe”. Divona comes from the Gaulish word deuos, divinity. Olmstead thinks that her name indicates her importance. She was, simply, the Goddess. (360)

Another complex of river-names centered around the goddess Matrona, whose name, Great Mother, may well be another title. The –ona suffix in both names is a feminine version of the –on in say, Maponus, and may be a way of making a word into a name.

Other places named for her include Divonne in Ain, Dionne in the Cote-de-Or, and Dions in Gard. There are also many other rivers whose name comes from the same root word, “divine”, although this does not imply a connection with the same goddess:

Other river names, based on deva and divona, are numinous names clearly reminiscent of the sanctity and divinisation of rivers in ancient times. They are derived from an old IE root *deivo, *deiva, ‘divine’, which gave the forms devos in Gaulish, dia in Old Irish, duy in Old Cornish and duiu, duw, dwy in Welsh. The word divona is a derived form of deva and must have originally designated a ‘sacred spring’.

Many river names in Britain, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Gaul, Belgium and Spain stem from the ancient form deva, ‘divine’, ‘goddess’… Other river- or spring-names are derived from an ancient divona, ‘divine (spring)’. In Britain, the River Devon, a tributary of the River Trent (Nottinghamshire), and in France, the brook Devon which flows in Mayenne, are reminiscent of such an appellation.

The rivers Dee in Ireland and Scotland, the Devon in England, Dwyfach in Wales, and the many Dieue and Dive rivers or tributaries in France, as well as others in Spain and Belgium, all have names related to the word “divine”.

We know that across the whole Celtic world the cult of healing water was common; even if they didn’t consider each river to be the property of Divona, they certainly considered fresh, good water to be a gift of the divine.

PS – Odd things search engines throw up: there is a font called Divona, which you can download for free.

Olmstead, Garrett 1994: The gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans (Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Kulturwissenschaft), Verlag des Instituts fur Sprachwissenschaft der Universitat Innsbruck.

Image of the Cauldron Linn in Devon from Wikimedia.


8 thoughts on “Divona: the Divine

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  2. DeoMercurio

    Excellent summary! I just stumbled across this blog, and I’ll be sure to investigate it in greater depth. 🙂 One thing: Ausonius was from Burdigala, not Cahors (not that these are far away from each other); the portion of the poem cited is about Burdigala, which Ausonius also calls his “patria” in the Mosella. So that’s another city of which Divona would have been patron!

    Oh, actually one other thing: Celtnet is probably wrong to say that “divona” means “sacred well” in Cornish. I know some Cornish, and that’s not likely to be a Cornish word (if it were, it would have to have a different etymology from our goddess’s name…).


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