In my post on a possible birch goddess, I mentioned Dea Vercana. Since this goddess and her companion, Meduna, are so neglected, it seems mean not to pass on what I’ve learned about her.
Unfortunately, that’s not much. While it seems likely that she had a cult, even if only locally, all we know about her comes from the fountain bowl and altar inscribed with her name. The altar also mentions Meduna, who is as little-known as her companion.
The Name “Vercana”
While I was drawn to Vercana because her name might be read as a variant on “berkana”, the name of the B-rune, this interpretation is open to question:
A goddess on two Roman votive inscriptions, one from Bad Bertrich (C.I.L. XIII 7667), the other from Ernstweiler near Zweibrucken, Germany (C.I.L XIII 4511). It is disputable whether the name is Celtic or Germanic; in the latter case it could be connected to the German *werka ‘work’, or else to the name of the b-rune, ON bjarkan (then Vercana for *Berkana). As the birch tree played a role in folk medicine, this interpretation would be semantically most appealing.
As both Simek and the Menim Encylopedia points out, it is not yet settled whether Vercana was Celtic, Germanic, or a hybrid. This makes it difficult to know anything about her based on her name. (The boundary between the two peoples tended to be a fairly fluid one, much to the irritation of the tidy-minded Romans.)
Naomie Beck, who assumes that Vercana is Celtic, gives her name a very different interpretation:
…Vercana is to be derived from Indo-European *uerg– signifying ‘to do, to act, to hasten, to press’, or ‘to be puffed with rage, pride or anger’, which gave Old Breton guerg, ‘efficient’, Old Welsh gwery, ‘active’, Old Irish ferc, ferg, ‘fury’, ‘anger’, ‘rage’ and Modern Irish fearg – it can be paralleled to Latin urgeo, ‘to press (the enemy), ‘to hasten’, ‘to torment’, ‘to push forward’. Vercana would therefore signify ‘Fury’, ‘Rage’ or ‘Wrath’. This etymology*, which is the most likely, would indicate that Vercana is a goddess related to war and combat.
The website Arbe Celtique thinks that Vercana could be related to the Celtic root *vergo, and the title vergobret (“one who makes the decisions”). This could imply that Vercana, like Odin or Athena, was more interested in battle strategy and/or rulership.
The two inscriptions that Simek mentioned come from Germany, and both are connected to water. The first comes from Ernstweiler, a fountain bowl inscribed:
In h(onorem) d(omus) d(ivinae) deae Vercanu isd(em) co(n)s(ulibus) […] pos(uit) […]
‘In honour of the Divine House and of the Goddess Vercana (…?)’ (C.I.L. XIII 4511)
De(a)e Vercan(a)e et Medun(a)e L(ucius) T() Acc(e)ptus vslm
‘To the Goddess Vercana and to Meduna, Lucius T. Acceptus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (C.I.L. XIII: 7667)
The altar to the two goddesses was found in a the ruins of a small Roman building above the town. Since a statuette of Diana was among the finds, it is assumed to be a temple of Diana. (Fischer-Hansen & Poulsen)
Taken together, these suggest that Vercana was a healing goddess. This could take us back to the birch, as it has antiseptic and diuretic properties, and has long been used in folk medicine. (On the other side, war-gods like Mars Lenus also had healing shrines, for obvious reasons.)
However, Vercana points up the difficulty of deciding anything based on a deity’s name alone, especially when we don’t know if that name is Celtic or Germanic. All we know is that she was connected with water, and probably healing.
Her companion, Meduna, is even more obscure. Beck connects her name to the Irish goddess Medb (Intoxication), so she would be a mead-goddess. There are two other British goddesses whose names can be connected to intoxication: Latis in Cumbria, and Braciaca in Derbyshire. Polytheist.com mentions Meduna as a by-name of Epona, which takes us back to the goddess of sovereignty, Medb, and her own horsy associations.
(Maria Kvilhaug, on the other hand, translates it as “spring”, making Meduna a goddess of springtime.)
There is a river Meduna in northern Italy (Cramer), and another in Normandy, now called the Mayenne, but known as Meduna in Roman times. Perhaps Acceptus was from one of those places, and wished to honour his own goddess, or else “Meduna” was the name of several goddesses of water and/or rivers.
The name of the British goddess Latis could mean either ale or bog/pool. (There is also a river Latis in Italy.) While the goddess Braciaca is not associated with water, she is known from an inscription that includes the Roman Mars, so there may be a pattern here. At any rate, it makes sense for a goddess of war and another of intoxication to go together, especially if both had a connection to water as well.
Cramer, Franz 1918: “Vercana und Meduna, die Quellnymphen des Bades Bertrich,” Germania: Anzeiger der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 2(1918): 8-10.
Fischer-Hansen, Tobias, and Birte Poulsen 2009: From Artemis to Diana: The Goddess of Man and Beast, Museum Tusculanum Press.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Gothic Dictionary entry
Maria Kvilhaug on Germanic Goddesses
Berkana/Vercana and why she’s probably not a birch-goddess
Vercana as Celtic (in French)
Polytheist.com on Epona