Sometimes studying mythology leads you into areas of human frailty and vulnerability that bring you very close to the past. Any study of healing deities stirs the emotions, partly because we all know the fear that sickness brings, and because so many of the things they suffered from are unknown to us (at least in the prosperous world).*
The many offerings of ex-votos, often body parts, found at healing shrines testify to the various illnesses of ancient times. These were not always rich offerings, either. At the shrine of Apollo Vindonnus archaeologists found many votives carved from oak wood or stone. Many were of body parts, but others were of hands holding offerings. (You wonder if they somehow stood for the offering itself, or promised one in return for a cure.)
Among the ex-votos found there were bronze strips representing eyes and breasts, as well as wooden ones representing various body parts, often arms, legs or torsos. They often showed the condition which the sufferer wished cured, such as deformed limbs, or closed eyes (to indicate blindness?). The statuettes of infants may be thanks for a successful delivery, or prayers for a sickly child.
His specialty, however, was eyes. Many ex-votos of eyes testify to this, and anyone who opens a magazine or watches TV has seen the ads soliciting money to prevent blindness and eye disease in underdeveloped countries. These would include cataracts, trachoma, glaucoma and problems caused by malnutrion. Even everyday shortsightedness would have been a major problem, although a hard one to cure.
The shrine itself was built at Essarois near Chatillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy, around a spring, source of the local river Cave. It consisted of two buildings, of the Romano-Celtic style called a fanum, with a central square with a gallery around it. Each had a cella, which usually housed an image of the shrine’s deity.
The Celts believed in the curative powers of both water and light, and especially both together. Many Celtic gods and goddesses combine these elements. (Sul and Solimara add to this nexus the “eye” theme: both have names that could refer to the sun or eyes.) Both are important to health, so we know that people were on the right track, even if they didn’t know exactly why these things were good.
The White God
Vindonnus’ name means either “clear light” (Green) or “white, blessed” (Deo Mercurio). We have his name from the two inscriptions found at his shrine. The first was found in two pieces, later reunited:
DEO APOLLINI VINDO!/////////////VRBICI
VS PLACCVS V ///////////M
which Thédenat reconstructed as:
Deo Apollini Vindo[nno] Urbicius Flaccus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).
The pediment of his temple had an inscription to him and the spirit of the spring, with a radiate sun-deity’s head above. Thédenat reconstructed its inscription:
[Deo Apollini Vind]onno et Fontibus…… [P]risci (filius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).
The inscription is to Apollo and the spirit of the spring, with Priscis as the person who “willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow”. (This V. S. L. M. formula appears on altars and other religious items all over the Roman empire, usually written VSLM, to save chiselling and costs.)
Two ex-votos may also have his name, although rather fragmentary in form. One has a definte VIND, but the other merely has ONNO, which may refer to the god, or not.
LIke the names Sirona and Damona, the name Vindonnus has a root noun that expresses a quality of the deity, plus a suffix: in this case the root word is vindo, “white, bright”. It comes from the same root as the Irish words finn and find, as well as Breton gwenn and Welsh gwynn.**
Presumably the name is mean to evoke ideas of light, beauty and sacredness. (My modern mind thinks of detergent commericals; but I suppose in ancient times anything that was pure white and stayed white impressed people.)
Two Romano-Celtic gods
There are two other Gaulish deities who must have been gods like Vindonnus. Their names are Albius and Candidus, both derived from words for “white”.
Albius comes from Celtic alb, “white, celestial”. (Beck) The only known inscription mentioning him comes from Aignay-le-Duc (Côte-d’Or), the same part of France as Vindonnus’ shrine at Essarois. It also mentions Damona, the cow-goddess, popular in this part of Gaul. (She often appeared with Borvo, the god of hot springs, and both paired up with Apollo Moritasgus.)
The inscription was engraved on a bronze vase found in a well, forty-one feet deep:
Aug(usto) sacr(um) deo Albio et Damonae Sext(us) Mart(ius) Cociliani f(ilius) ex jussu ejus [v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘Sacred to Augustus, to the god Albius and to Damona, Sextus Martius, son of Cocilianus, at his (the god’s) order, willingly offers (this object) for accomplishing his vow’ (CIL XIII, 2840)
(trans Naomie Beck)
We know nothing else for certain about Albius, but Damona often appeared with the god of thermal springs, Borvo. Vindonnus and Candidus were associated with healing water as well. Perhaps the well also had curative powers, which accounts for the other valuable objects deposited in the well. There is also a thermal spring at Mazières, five kilometres away, which was a cult site. Unfortuantely, nothing remains to tell us who the shrine honoured.
Aug(usto) sacr(um) deo Borvoni et Candido aerari(i) sub cura Leonis et Marciani ex voto et Marciani ex voto r(eddito?) aerari(i) dona(verunt)?). (C.I.L. 13, 2091) “Bestowed by the coppersmiths, under the orders of Leonis and Marcianus, to the Sacred Augustus, Borvo and Candidus, in fufillment of a vow.”
(my own translation, with help from crwcomposer at reddit/Latin)
Deo Mercurio does not follow the “white” interpretation of Candidus, preferring to read it as “the candid”, linking him to Apollo Virotutis ‘truth’ and calling to mind Apollo’s role as god of oracles. (While his oracles may have been truthful, but they weren’t exactly forthcoming or unambiguous.)
Apollo had a large temple in the area, which held an impressively large statue of the god. He is seated, which is unusual, and is playing the lyre. Despite this, and the dedication to Borvo, there does not seem to be any sort of springs or other healing water in Entrains. The main industries revolved around iron and bronze, which suggests lots of scope for healing deities, however.
*Although if the anti-vaccine crowd have their way, we will soon enjoy them all again.
** I will discuss Finn, Find and Gwyn at length in another post.
Beck, Noemi 2009: Goddesses in Celtic Religion Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul, diss. (available here)
Green, Miranda 1998:”The Celtic Goddess as Healer” in The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green, Routledge: 26-40.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
McCrickard, Janet 1990: The Eclipse of the Sun, Gothic Press.
Thédenat, L’abbé Henry 1888: “Apollo Vindonnus”, Mem. de la Soc. Antiq. de France: 207-19. (pdf available)
Image from the the extremely appropriate blog The Eye Si(gh)t