Rosmerta II: fate, fertility and sovereignty

In my first post on Rosmerta, I focused on her as a goddess in her own right. This time around, I want to examine the ideas put forth in Michael Enright’s thesis Lady with a mead-cup, which argues that the cult of Rosmerta and Mercury was the basis for the later cult of Odin and various prophetic, mead-serving goddesses (and others) associated with him.

Rosmerta’s cult was strongly associated with the Roman god Mercury – they often appear together in art and inscriptions, and they sometimes share attributes – including the caduceus that was Mercury’s special attribute.

Relief of Mercury, photo by Michal Maňas. Wikimedia.

Relief of Mercury, photo by Michal Maňas. Wikimedia.

We know from Julius Caesar and Tacitus that “Mercury” was the foremost god of the Celts, and that he was important in the Germanic territories. Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology has 12 entries, over three pages, for various Mercuries found in Germanic territory or areas with both Celts and Germans.

Enright does not see Odin as an Indo-European god, unlike the Norse sky-god Tyr, whose name goes back to an IE root word meaning “sky”. (The origin of Odin is controversial – some see him as an original Indo-European god, while others argue that he was a Germanic war and death god whose cult spread into Scandinavia.)

Enright argues that the Germanic Mercury eventually evolved into Odin. This suggests Rosmerta evolved into Frigg, since Rosmerta and Mercury appeared together so often, and are usually described as each other’s consorts.

This change did not take place in a vacuum – Enright argues that during this time in the Germanic territories the old system of tribal warfare was being changed to small, mobile warbands loyal to a single, charismatic leader. (Think of the vikings.) Enright argues the combination of war-god and prophetic goddess was a product of the times.

The Cult of Rosmerta

Rosmerta’s cult, according to Enright, changed alongside her consort’s. Part of Enright’s argument is that in addition to the cult of the German Mercury, exceptional warriors such as the rebel general Civilis were inspirations for the new cult of Odin.

640px-Mercurius_Rosmerta_HistMusPfalz_3513Civilis was accompanied by the influential prophetess Veleda, whom Enright sees as influencing the cult of Rosmerta in the Germanic territories. She and others like her fulfilled a dual role in the new warband society: the prophetess who legitimated the leader, and his hostess, giving out drink to his followers and conducting quiet diplomacy on the leader’s behalf. (See the book Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens for more on women’s roles in Early Medieval society.) *

Rosmerta’s cult shifted along with Mercury’s, from a tribal one to one fitted to the new warbands and warrior-kings. Also, the Germans seem to have viewed prophecy as a mainly feminine attribute, while the Celts (at least the Welsh and Irish ones) don’t seem to have shared that view.

Perhaps as Rosmerta’s cult was absorbed into the Germanic context, it was shaped by their ideas about women and their abilities. After all, the Rhineland was an area where Romans, Celts and Germans mingled – it would not be surprising for new ideas about deities and religion to have arisen there.

Rosmerta and Mercury were linked a very tribal cult, the Matres. They were usually known by the name of the place or people they protected, the Matres Germanis, for example. (The Mates Castrorum, or Mothers of the Camp, could be seen as a middle term in this equation.)

Their powers included fruitfulness and protection, as well as the underworld aspect often associated with fertility cults. Rosmerta, with her bucket and ladle, seems to carry on the fruitfulness, while her key suggests the underworld. Enright argues that Rosmerta’s bucket, ladle and strainer suggest that she too was a provider of ritual drink. (Similar items have been found in the graves of high-status women.)

Her name, too, harks back to the mother-goddesses, if we read it as “Great Provider”. The Celtic scholar Vendreys, however, read it as “Great Prophetess”, which links her to Veleda and others. Furthermore, the interpretatio romana for Rosmerta was often Fortuna, the goddess of fortune – what could be more appropriate for a goddess who knew the future?

He looks into works such as Beowulf where we find the image of a queen or other high-born woman serving drinks to her husband’s followers. This ritual cemented the hierarchy of men (husband first, best warrior next, etc.) and allowed the queen to conduct a little quiet diplomacy of her own. Also, she might well be moved to prophecy while she doing her rounds, as women in the sagas do sometimes. (A mere touch could sometimes bring forth insight.)

Frigg, Saga and Gunnlod

From these queens we move to Norse mythology proper, where the once unified image of the goddess who serves mead and knows the future seems to have splintered. At Odin’s court the valkyries bring mead to the warriors, while Odin’s queen, Frigg, knows the future but does not speak of it. (Although she acts on her knowledge on several occasions.)

73176_html_m208e7e74On the other hand, Odin shares mead with Saga, who knows the past and discusses it with him, and he steals the mead of poetry from the giantess Gunnlod, who was guarding it. (Kvilhaug has a lot to say about Gunnlod – links below.) Saga cannot be said to be prophetic in any way, and if the story of Gunnlod shows us anything, it’s Odin’s habit of cutting out the middleman, perhaps a throwback to his days as the Mercury worshipped by traders.

Enright says he sees Rosmerta as a goddess of “fertility, fate, or both” (240), and to my mind this brings her close to Frigg, who “knows fate” (Lokasenna) and in two different stories is connected to birth. Frigg’s role as queen of heaven comes in here as well.

We have seven inscriptions to Mercury Rex, and one to either Rosmerta and Rigana, or else Rosmerta the Queen. This and her mead-serving role have suggested the goddess of sovereignty from Celtic mythology, who shared her mead and her person with the rightful king. Rosmerta the Queen would have stood along her consort as the ruling goddess of the warband, and later the kingdom.

* I was thinking, on reading this over, that it is Frigg who tries to make peace between Loki and Odin in Lokasenna, the Eddic poem in which Loki insults all the deities. Her attempt fails, but of course Loki wants it to fail. Still, it is interesting that they fall out over the question of “fate”, which apparently both Frigg and Gefjun can see, and Odin claims to know it as well. Loki’s fate is the unspoken issue behind the whole poem, and it ends with him meeting it.


Enright’s own thesis (Scribd) and also available on Amazon
Kvilhaug’s “Maiden and the Mead-Cup” (pdf of thesis) and Amazon
The Basics on Rosmerta (blog post)
A Celtic take on prophetic goddesses and Veleda


Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
McKinnell, John, 1986-9: “Motivation in Lokasenna”, Saga-Book of the Viking Society XXII: 234-62.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

For the image at the top, click here.


3 thoughts on “Rosmerta II: fate, fertility and sovereignty

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