Most of us have heard the romantic story of how a new Celtic goddess, Senuna, was discovered after nearly 2000 years by amateurs with metal detectors. Twenty-six pieces of gold and silver had been deposited in a pool at Ashwell, UK, presumably from a nearby shrine, where they had been been offered to the goddess.
The hoard was hidden outside a semicircular enclosure half-way between the Roman and British settlements. The enclosure may have been a ritual site for feasting and other funeral rituals. Another, square, structure nearby may have been a temple, perhaps to Senuna.
Senuna and Ashwell
You can see the various bits of metal at the British Museum site, or visit the actual Museum if happen to be London. (I saw it just before I moved back to Canada – it was worth the trip.) The first image we had of her was of a woman in a gown, whose head and arms had rotted away, the base inscribed “Senua” so we knew who she was. Other plaques found at the site had images of Minerva on them, so it seemed that Senua was another of the Minervas found across Romano-Celtic territory (Brigantia, Belisama and Boudiga being three others.)
The inscriptions spell her name in several different ways. The base of the statuette reads SENVNE, while the gold plaques have SENVUN and SENVNE and the silver ones SENVNAE and an abbreviated form SE. Another version is SIINAII. Tomlin suggests there may have been two names for the goddess, Sena and Senuna. (Tomlin 2008: 305-15)
Ashwell gets its name from the spring there, suggesting that Senuna could be similar to the most famous “Minerva” of all – Sulis of Bath, whose thermal spring became the focus of a temple and baths complex under the Romans.
Many of the “Minervas” I’ve named are connected to water, especially healing water, so perhaps Senuna was another healing goddess. (Another theory is that she is a river-goddess, since the river Rhee flows through Ashwell, and the Ravenna Cosmography mentions a river Senua in southern Britain, atlhough it doesn’t say where.)
Senuna/Minerva became more complex after another discovery: a statuette combining the attributes of Minerva and Fortuna from nearby Hinxworth. While the two were sometimes paired, there are almost examples of the two goddesses combined in Classical art, so the little statue was a unique find. (See below for an exception to this rule.)
The Hinxworth statuette shows a woman in Roman dress, with helmet and Gorgon breastplate, carrying a cornucopia crooked in her elbow, while her other arm is extended, with a hole in her clenched hand, where the spear she seems to be throwing should go.
The northern British goddess Brigantia combined elements of Minerva and Tyche as well. Like Senuna she was armoured and held a spear, but the mural crown she wore was Tyche’s, while the ball or globe she held was an attribute of Tyche and Fortuna. (You can see her in this slideshow from the National Museum of Scotland.)
These kinds of deity mashups were part of the Classical world. The British Museum has a statue of Isis-Fortuna-Minerva, and if that wasn’t complicated enough for you, images of Athena-Nike-Tyche-Demeter have been found at Delos in Greece. (Burleigh & Jackson: 65)
We’ve already seen that Sulis and Brigantia were equated with Minerva, and both goddesses were associated with healing and water. (In Brigantia’s case one of the altars dedicated to her asks her to protect the emperor’s health, while Sulis’ temple was like a Romano-Celtic Lourdes.)
Fortuna, as her name suggests, was the goddess of chance and fate, and when the Romans honoured her it was for favouring them and their causes. This might explain the dedications to Senuna found at Ashwell – several say the offering was a fulfillment of a vow, so perhaps they saw Senuna as granting them good fortune.
The statuette from Ashwell shows her holding a cornucopia, like the continental Celtic goddess Rosmerta. Given that Rosmerta means “Great Provider” perhaps Senuna was another “giving” goddess.
The name Sena appears on an altar from Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in Roman Aquitania (France) and another from Tiffen in Noricum (Austria) has a plural form, Senabos. Stempel (2007-8) translates this as “the old women”, so Sena would be “the Old”. (There’s also a Spanish god Senaicos, whose name also forms part of personal names like Senacia.)
The name Senuna comes from the same root, *seno, old, plus the suffix –una. The goddess-names Sirona, Damona etc. form a similar pattern, so presuamably Senuna is the Old One. In an age in which most people, and especially most women, died young, surviving to old age would be worthy of respect.
The Deo Mercurio site suggests that the Celtic Minervas were often goddesses of water, and the ritual deposits in a pool and the site’s nearness to the local river bear this out. Perhaps that was the source of Senuna’s abundant provision, and as the river had always been there, so had the ancient goddess, the old one. The Minerva aspect would relate to her defense and protection of the local people.
PS – Stempel also connects Sena with the goddess of the island Sena (the Scillys?) mentioned by Pomponius Mela in his Description of the World (3.48), whose cult sounds remarkably like that of St. Brigid in Gerald of Wales’ book on Ireland (available here):
In the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena
[Sein] belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its oracle, whose
priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine
in number. They call the priestesses Gallizenae and think that
because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up
the seas and the winds by their magic charms, that they turn into
whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among
other peoples, that they know and predict the future, but that it is not
revealed except to sea-voyagers and then only to those traveling to
References and Links
Burleigh, G, 2007, ‘Ashwell, near Baldock’, in ‘Roman Britain in 2006’, Britannia 38: 278-80.
Burleigh, G. and Jackson, R., 2009. An unusual Minerva-Fortuna figurine from Hinxworth, Hertfordshire. The Antiquaries Journal 89: 63-67.
Durham, Emma 2012: “Depicting the gods: metal figurines in Roman Britain”, in Internet Archaeology 31. (Minerva and Senua)
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keith 2015: “The Baldock Bowl: an exceptional prehistoric landscape on the edge of the Chilterns,” in Archaeology in Hertfordshire: Recent Research, ed. Chris Lockyear, University of Hertfordshire Press. (Google Books)
De Bernardo Stempel, Patrizia 2007-8: “The “old” Celtic goddess Sena: a new testimony from Aquitania,” in Veleia 24-25 : 1203-1206 . (pdf link here)
Tomlin, RSO, 2005, ‘Roman Britain in 2004. II. Inscriptions’, Britannia 36: 489.
Yeates, S. “Senuna, goddess of the river Rhee or Henney,” in Cambridge Antiquarian Society 65. (pdf here)
British Museum article on the Ashwell Treasure
Portable Antiquities Scheme pages on the Ashwell Hoard and the Minerva-Fortuna statuette.
Treasure Annual Report 2002, put out by the Dept. of Culture, Media and Sport, for a truly detailed report of the Ashwell finds. (p. 38ff)
River Rhee – an ancient sacred river (blog article)
North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society on Senuna
Pamphlet on Ashwell, with map (pdf here)
Ashwell Museum’s page on Senuna
Portable Antiquities article on the Ashwell finds
The Exalted Ones, an article by Clann Bhride
Goddess Senua, by the Family of Lugh
The moorhen and her chicks at the top can be found here.