The Celtic god Maponos had followers on both sides of the Channel: he was also one of the most commonly invoked gods along Hadrian’s Wall. He was no war-god, however, but a youthful deity, a musician and hunter. In the Roman era he was often called Apollo Maponos, linking him to another god of youth and youths.
The name Maponos comes from Gaulish mapos, a young boy, or son. The –onos suffix makes it a title, just like Cernunnos, so Maponos would mean “Great Son” or “Great Youth”. In Welsh, Cornish and Breton mapos becomes mab, while in Old Irish it becomes macc. Clearly Maponos’ youth was meant to be his most important characteristic.
Maponos is a well-documented god; he appears in a curse tablet from Gaul, and there are five altars dedicated to him from Roman Britain (all from Hadrian’s Wall or the surrounding area).
RIG L-100 (Chamalières) – a curse tablet
The inscription reads: Before the powers of the infernal gods, I invoke Maponos Arveriatis; be quick and spin with magic those below! (Mees: Loc. 416)
The rest of the tablet’s text is a list of the persons who should be “spun” and the final section is more spell-binding. It’s interesting because it mentions Lugus, another Celtic god: “by Lugus I prepare them” repeated three times. (Or alternatively, “I prepare them for committing,” following the many curses that use the formula I commit/hand over to bind their victims to the judgement of an invoked deity.)
Scholars have tried to imagine a connection between Lugus and Maponos, to explain why they’re both invoked here. The explanation could be quite esoteric, or as simple as both of them being popular local gods.
Maponos’ title, Arveriatis, could mean “provider”, or else he was god of the Celtic Arverni. (In that case it should really read Arveniatis, but it may be that the name was spelled more than one way.)
As well as the curse tablet, we have several examples of Maponus being used as a personal name:
CIL 13, 05924 – name of an actor
Maponus / histrio RO Caba/lus decessit ann(orum) XXX
CIL 13, 10010 1262: – potter’s mark, probably his name
OP MAPONI and another, simply MAPONI, with the M and A joined in a ligature.
These are not the only personal names connected to Maponos: Mapodia, Mapillus, and Maponius also come from the root word mapos.
As I noted above, the British inscriptions mainly come from altars dedicated to Maponos, all by high-ranking Romans. (Or Romanized Britons.) The sole exception is a piece of girl’s jewelery, suggesting a more personal connection to the young god.
Corbridge (RIB 1120-2)
To Apollo Maponus, Quintus Terentius Firmus, son of Quintus, of the Oufentine voting-tribe, from Saena, prefect of the camp of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis, gave and dedicated this.
To Apollo Maponus, Calpurnius …, tribune, dedicated this.
To the god Maponus Apollo, Publius Aelius …, centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.
The altar with the second inscription (1121) also had two reliefs carved into it: on the left, Apollo with his lyre, and on the right, Diana with her bow. (CIL VII: 147)
Hadrian’s Wall (unknown location) (2063)
To the god Maponus and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germans Durio and Ramio and Trupo and Lurio willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.
To the holy god Apollo Maponus for the welfare of our Lord (the Emperor) and of Gordian’s Own Unit of Sarmatian cavalry of Bremetennacum Aelius Antoninus, centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix, from Melitene, acting-commander and prefect, fulfilled his vow willingly, deservedly. Dedicated 31 August in the consulship of the Emperor Our Lord Gordian for the second time and of Ponpeianus.
This inscription has an interesting history: the altar stone was later built into a wall, then removed when someone noticed the writing and decided to record it. As you might imagine, the stone was not in great shape by then, but the inscription was mostly still there, and there were carvings on two sides. The third side, which probably also had some sort of image carved on it, had lost its surface and then was dressed by a chisel for use in the wall.
The right side of the altar had a relief of Apollo, nude but wearing a Phyrgian cap, with a quiver on his back but no bow. He is leaning on a lyre standing on a square stone. On the back are two women, one fully draped and the other seemingly half-naked. The clothed one hands the other some sort of object, whIch RIB describes as a box but looks like a football to me.
Both may be wearing the mural crown, and RIB interprets the scene as “personifications of the Regio Bremetennacensis and Britannia Inferior, respectively.” There may have been a relief of Diana/Artemis on the other side, but if so it’s lost forever. (Watkins: 131) Richmond, however, suggests the two females were Leto and Artemis, Apollo’s mother and sister. (Ross discusses this altar as part of her analysis of Maponos as a northern god in Pagan Celtic Britain.)
To the god Apollo Gaius … of the [Second] Cohort of Nervians … .
An altar found at Whitley Castle in Northumberland and dedicated to Apollo (RIB 1198) may also depict Maponos: three of the sides show Apollo with his lyre, the sun-god Sol, and Mithra, while the fourth shows a bearded man holding a cup and about to pour a libation to a standing figure. The figure wears a tunic and cloak thrown over the shoulders, and holds a staff or sceptre in one hand. Nothing indicates his identity. (Wright: 37) However, Wright and others have concluded that it must be Maponos, since he was so closely linked to Apollo.
The altar was found in situ, and seems to have been part of a shrine built over a spring. The altar itself was on stone piles, and the spring’s water flowed over the paved floor. (Went and Ainsworth: 116) You can see the images if you follow the link to this pdf.
This is more personal and touching find, from a silver necklace with engraving on crescent-shaped pendant. it was found in the civic settlement west of the fort, and probably belonged to a young girl. (Wilson, Wright and Hassall: 291)
This one will appear in volume three of the Roman Inscriptions of Britian, but as far as I can find out, it was part of an altar found in Milner Beck south of a Roman villa, and it read: D(EO) APOLLINI ET NUM…
Presumably Apollo in this case equals Maponos, since they were often conflated. Maponos and the Divinity of the Emperor (numen imperii) appear together in the inscription above, 2063. The Imperial Numen did appear with local deities; another altar from Greetland links the numen with Brigantia. (Wilson and Wright: 221 n. 8)
It seems that the new volume will bring another couple of inscriptions to Maponos, but we will find out in the summer of 2019.
The Ravenna Cosmography, a list of all the towns and road-stations in the Roman Empire, was compiled in the 7th century CE by an Italian monk. Among the places listed is one Locus Maponi, now known as Lochmaben, in Scotland. (Fitzpatrick-Matthews: 75) It may have been a tribal meeting-place, near the Roman fort. The Clockmabenstane was on a farm near Gretna. (The name Lochmaben comes from the name of the stone, which may in turn derive from Maponos.)
Maporiton, in the west of Scotland, may also derive its name from Maponos, along with rito or ford, making it Maponos’ ford. (And speaking of deities with -onos suffixes, there is a goddess Ritona, goddess of the ford.)
Apollo was a complex god, and his many different facets led to his being linked with many Celtic gods. He was a healer, and the Celts seem to have linked light and healing, so Grannos, Borvo and Vindonnos were assimilated to him.
Maponos doesn’t seem to have been a healing god, but like Apollo he was a young god, although the Celtic god doesn’t have a powerful father behind him. Both the Greeks and Romans saw him as a god of young men, just as his sister looked after young girls and unmarried women, and images of Apollo stress his beauty and youth (no beard).
Both images of Apollo I mentioned above show him with a lyre, as Apollo Citharoedus. Given the importance of harps and harpers in Celtic culture, you can see how Apollo the Lyre-Player would appeal. We don’t know if Maponos was a harper as well, but it seems likely.
Irish and Welsh Mythology
Maponos is often assimilated to Mabon, a character in the Welsh medieval epic the Mabinogion. Mabon son of Modron seems to suggest Maponos and the goddess Matrona, although we don’t even know that they were ever connected, and whether Mabon was ever a god is an open question.
The Irish Angus mac Og, son of the Dagda and Boand, is also often linked to Maponos, being the son of a powerful god, and a god celebrated for his youth and beauty. It may well be that all three are similar sorts of deities, but it seems unlikely that they’re directly linked, as they’re so far apart in space and time.
References and Links
Birley, Eric 1952-3 “Maponos: the Epigraphic Evidence,” Transactions and Journal of Proceedings of the Dumfries and Galloway Antiqarian Society 31: 30-42. (Archive here)
Birley, Robin 1973: “Vindolanda – Chesterholm 1969-1972. Some important material from the vicus,” Archaeologia Aeliana 5/1: 111-122. (Archive Page)
Gierek, Bozena 2014: “Variety of Celtic Magical Texts,” Polish Journal of the Arts and Culture 9: 57-74. (pdf available)
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keith “Britannia in the Ravenna Cosmography: a Reassement” (academia.edu)
Mees, Bernard 2009: Celtic Curses, Boydell Press. (Kindle Edition)
Richmond and Crawford 1949: “The British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography,” Archaeolgica 93: 1-50. (Cambridge: paywall)
Watkins, William Thompson 1883: Roman Lancashire:or, a description of Roman remains in the county Palatine of Lancaster, self-published. (Arachne)
Went, David and Stewart Ainsworth 2013: “Whitley Castle, Northumberland: an Analytical Survey of the Fort and its Setting,” Britannia 44: 93-143. (JSTOR: paywall)
Wilson, D.R., Wright R.P. and M.W.C. Hassell 1971: “Roman Britain in 1970,” Britannia 2: 242-3-4. (JSTOR: paywall)
Wright, R.P. 1943: “The Whitley Castle Altar to Apollo,” The Journal of Roman Studies 33 (1&2): 36-8. (JSTOR: paywall)
The image at the top is of Hadrian’s Wall.