Celtic Minerva

Searching out Minervas always feels like seeing through a scrim; when you look at the Roman goddess, you see her through the Greek and Etruscan influences that went into her making. Looking at the Celtic goddesses who were compared to Minerva, named for her, or depicted in her image, you see through yet another veil, trying to discern the Celtic form under the Roman covering.

After the Roman conquest of Gaul, Britain and other Celtic lands, the local god/desses were often blended with the deities the conquerors recognized, so that the thunder-god Taranis took on Jupiter’s characteristics, and the war-god Lenus was surnamed Mars.

This “translation” was not always a smooth process, and we always miss at least one half of the context, since we don’t know what the Gauls, Britons and other Celts made of the Roman deities who were supposedly akin to their own gods and goddesses.

The Romans didn’t suffer from those kinds of doubts, however. Listen to Julius Caesar explaining the Gaulish deities to a Roman audience in his Gallic War:

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular… Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same belief as other nations: that Apollo averts diseases, that Minerva imparts the invention of manufactures, that Jupiter possesses the sovereignty of the heavenly powers; that Mars presides over wars. (De Bello Gallico VI: 16)

While the Gauls had a number of goddesses who were  (No doubt she’s out there, waiting to be found.) However, a number of goddesses who were identified with Minerva exist, to the point where they added her name to theirs, or were depicted in her guise.

Local Goddess, Roman Name

Sulis is probably the best-known of the goddesses identified with Minerva. The temple of Sulis-Minerva at Bath in Britain is still an imposing structure, and in Roman times it was a healing shrine and spa as well as a holy shrine. Out of  39 inscriptions to Sulis found at Bath, 14 are to Sulis Minerva.

Head of Sulis Minerva. Wikimedia.

Long before the Romans came, locals were leaving offerings of coins at the site, which is one of only three hot springs in Britain. (The other two are nearby.) The only surviving image of Sulis is the head of a Roman-style statue, in gilt bronze. It is very similar to many images of Minerva, while the other well-known image from Bath, the Gorgoneion, is syncretistic in style, showing a male face with flowing hair and beard in place of the Gorgon’s snaky locks.

If Sulis had any connection to handicrafts, war, or industry, they seem to have been swallowed up by her healing aspect. Of the goddesses in this post, Sulis, Belisama, Brigantia and Senua are all connected to water, especially healing water, so perhaps Minerva Medica was an important aspect to the Celts.

Belisama is known from two inscriptions in the south of France, one at Vaucluse and one at St-Lizier. Only the second (CIL 13, 00008) calls her Minerva, and its dedicator has a Roman or Romanized name, while the other is a Celt, who mentions his tribe (the Namausenis) and says he dedicated a nemeton to her. (A nemeton could be a grove set aside for worship, or a sacred space among trees, including temples. The word is Celtic, associated with the Nemetes tribe and their goddess, Nemetona.)

Belisama might have given her name to several places in the south of France: Blesmes (Aisne) and Blismes (Nièvre) in France (Jufer and Lughinbuhl: 88), as well as Beleymas (Dordogne), Belême (Orne), and Balesmes (Haute-Marne). (Olmstead: 358)

Her name has been interpreted two different ways. The –isama suffix means “most” or “greatest”, while the bel– has been interpreted as “bright”, but also as “strong”, so that Belisama might be a warrior goddess or sun-goddess.

Minerva Flanatica was the goddess of the city of Flamona, in the Roman province of Dalmatia. Her cult centred on the Istrian peninsula between Italy, Croatia and Slovenia. An altar inscribed

[M]inervae [F]lanaticae [sa]crum […]dius Bassus [ex] v(oto) quot a dea pe[tit] consescutus

was found at Flamona, now called Plomin. Belisama, Sulis, Brigantia and Flanatica are all strongly associated with particular places, so like Minerva (and Athena) they would have been protector-goddesses.

Edennica Sulevia is a more difficult one to untangle, as the only inscription to mention that name is a fragment, and its actual meaning difficult to decipher:

/ Suleviae / Edennicae / Minervae / votum (CIL XII 2974)

The inscription comes from Collais, near Nîmes in France. The Suleviae, like the Matres, were protective mother-goddesses who were popular in northern France, as well as Germany and Britain. Their name may come from words meaning “good rulers/guides” and their cult resembled that of the mother-goddesses.

Edennica may have been a name for a particular group of Suleviae, or just one Sulevia. (Some dedications mention just one goddess.) Alternatively, Edennica may have been a local goddess identified with the Sulveiae. Whether she was invoked alongside Minerva or whether she (they?) were then identified with Minerva will have to remain unknown.

Some scholars think that there may have been a place named Edennica/Idennica or else a river, probably named Eyssène. (Haeussler: 338) Since the other “Minervas” were either protectors of cities or goddesses of water, either would fit.

Just Add a Helmet and Spear… in the image of Minerva

While Sulis and the rest took the name Minerva, other goddesses took on her appearance. The Celts don’t seem to have made images of their deities before the advent of the Romans. After that, many Celtic deities appeared in more-or-less Roman guise.

Of the two below, Senua’s images basically show her as Minerva, with only their inscriptions to distinguish them. The image of Brigantia is far more complex in its iconography, but luckily it too was inscribed with the goddess’ name.

Brigantia was paired with several goddesses in inscriptions, but never Minerva (although two call her Victoria Brigantia). The famous image of her does show her as a Minerva-type goddess, with spear, shield and helmet, however.

The Brigantia statuette. From Pinterest.

This is most likely a reference to Brigantia’s guardianship of the lands of the Brigantes, since Minerva was a protector of Rome (and Athena of Athens), but it could equally be a reference to an overlap of powers. As a protector, Brigantia was a warrior goddess, and we know she was a healer. (Two other inscriptions to Brigantia call her the “nymph” Brigantia, a reference to the spirits of healing waters.)

Both of these were powers of Minerva, who rivalled Apollo as Minerva Medica, and overshadowed the cult of Mars, even taking over his main feast-day.

Senuna, another English goddess, was unknown until a metal detectorist found a cache of offerings to her in Hertfordshire in 2002. One image, somewhat flattened and rotted, shows her in a typical feminine gown with her hair in a bun.

Votive leaf plaques from the Baldock Hoard, now at the British Museum. Photo by Dominic Coyne. (Wikimedia)

However, 12 votive plaques found at the site have what seem to be images of Minerva on them, five with inscriptions to Senuna instead of the Roman goddess. The Ravenna Cosmology mentions a river Senua in Britain, so perhaps Senua, like Belisama, was a river-goddess.

Another tiny statuette of Minerva Fortuna from the same areas is probably also an image of Senuna. One arm is raised as if to throw a spear, while the other cradles a cornucopia, suggesting a giver of abundance or good luck.

Many other statuettes of Minerva have been found in Britain. While most of them are probably exactly what they appear to be, the only reason that we know the statuette of Brigantia and the plaques of Senuna are of Celtic goddesses is because someone went to the trouble of labelling them. (Hutton 213, 240) There may be other native goddesses hiding under the helmet.


References:
Green, Miranda 1995: Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, British Museum Press.
Haeussler, Ralph 2014: “Differences in the epigraphic habit in the rural landscapes of Gallia Narbonensis” in Öffentlichkeit – Monument – Text. XIV Congressus Internationalis Epigraphiae Graeca et Latinae, 27.-31. Augusti MMXII. Akten (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Auctarium, series nova, XIV), ed. by Werner Eck and Peter Funke. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 323-345. (academica.edu)
Hutton, Ronald, 1993, The Pagan Relgions of the British Isles, Blackwell, Oxford.
Jufer, Nicole and Thierry Lughinbuhl 2001: Les dieux gaulois: répertoire des noms de divinités celtiques connus par l’épigraphie, les textes antiques et la toponymie, Editions Errance, University of Virginia.
McGrath, Sheena 2015: Brigantia: Goddess of the North, Lulu Publishing.
Webster, Jane 1995: “‘Interpretatio’: Roman Word Power and the Celtic Gods,” Britannia 26: 153-161. (JSTOR)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s