Ritona: goddess of the crossing

Ritona is not a well-known goddess, considering that she is attested by six different inscriptions1 from four different parts of modern France and Germany. This means that three different tribes acknowledged her as a power. According to Deo Mercurio “she must rank as one of the most major ‘minor’ deities from northeastern Gaul.”

Her name means goddess of the ford, suggesting that she was a protector of travellers. Both forms, Pritona and Ritona, come from the Celtic root word *ritu-, meaning ford or bridge, going back to an Indo-European root. (It also appears in place-names like Anderitum and Ritumagos, the Celtic equivalents of Oxford, which began as a cattle crossing.2)

Ritona’s Statue – what’s left of it

It seems appropriate that the only image we have of her only shows her feet. (As you can see from the picture, the rest has broken off.)

Broken image of Ritona, from Patchen, although the inscription is intact. Wikimedia.

The inscription mentions not only Ritona (called Pritona here), but the divine house (of the Emperor), although Moreau (130) says that the word “divinia” indicates a lower-rank divinity, like a water-nymph or goddess of a spring or river:

[In] (h)o(norem) d(omus) [d(ivinae)] / [d(e)a]e Pritonae […]/ninae sive Ca[…]/on(a)e pro salute / [v]ikanorum Conti/omaglensium(!) Ter/tinius Modestus […]EC[…]
(AE 1959: 76)

This mystery might be solved if the stone dates from the same time as an altar to the British goddess Brigantia, which invokes her as a nymph and was put up for the health and safety of the imperial house of Septimus Severans. His son Caracalla suffered from ill-health, and made offerings to any deity who might help him.

Brigantia was much more than a nymph, but this might represent a Roman understanding of the Celtic belief in the healing power of water, so that any goddess associated with water might be labelled a nymph. (The cult of the nymphs is an interesting and complex subject; see Jennifer Larson’s book for more.) The Roman river-gods were not major deities, but the Celts seem to have taken a different view.

What little is left of Ritona’s image looks a lot like the ones of the mother-goddesses, a very popular cult in this region. In other places the matres or matronae appeared in threes, but in these parts they were often alone. Ritona looks as if she is sitting, with a small dog beside her. The Dutch goddess Nehellenia also sits with her dog; another traveller’s protector, also connected to the mothers.

The Temple at Trier

Augusta Treverorum, as the Romans called Trier, was a cross-roads, lying between Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium and France. The river Moselle runs through it, so it was a trade and transportation hub. Trier was one of the largest Roman cities, with about 75 000 people living in it.

The Treveri followed many deities, some Romanized and some not. Divine couples like Mercury and Rosmerta, Lenus Mars and Ancamna, and Sucellos and Nantosuelta were popular, alongside mother-goddesses like the Suleviae and Xulsigiae. But they also had other, less well-known deities like Boudina, Intarabus, Inciona and Veraudunus.

The city boasted several temple complexes, including the Altbachtal site, which had a theatre and at least a dozen temples and shrines. Ritona had a temple there, and several inscriptions record the gratitude of her followers:

Numini[bus] / Aug(ustorum) Rito/[nae] sive ex iu[ssu Pr]/itioni[ae(?) 3] / Rasius [3] / [3] lib[er]/[t]us v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
(AE 1989, 00547)

Dea(e) Ritona(e) / Pritona(e) / Arbusius / C[
(AE 1928, 00185)

[In honorem] d(omus) d(ivinae) / [deae] Riton(a)e / [aedem et] aram / [orname]ntis et do/[nis omn]ibus ve/[tustat]e co(n)su/[matis] restutu/[erunt] Catirius / [3]us et Cari/[sius Me]morialis / [
(AE 1928, 00186)

The first inscription, presumably from an altar set up in fulfillment of a vow, mentions the numina of the Augustan house, and the third mentions the honour of the Augustans, heady company for a goddess. (Once again, Brigantia also kept company with the emperor’s numina. And we will see below that both she and Ritona could be interpreted as Minerva-like goddesses.)

I like the second inscription, which covers its bases by using both names, calling her Ritona Pritona. Whoever commissioned it must have been aware that her name could be spelled either way.

The temple complex also included a column dedicated to Vorio, and shrines to Epona (next to Ritona), a bull-god (possibly Tarvos Trigaranos), Mother-Goddesses, Mercury, Aveta, and Fortuna. Archaeologists found some terracotta remains nearby Ritona’s temple, including votives to Diana, the Matronae, Minerva, Venus and Fortuna. One intriguing find was a marble slab with two feet cut into it; a thank-offering for a safe journey.


Funeral stele from Crain, showing a bearded man with a libation cup and another item. Wikimedia.

Votive from Crain

Ritona had grateful worshippers elsewhere; at Crain, in north-central France, archaeologists found a funeral stele of a man making an offering to Minerva and Ritona, going by the inscription underneath the image:

Aug(usto) sacr(um) dea(e) Miner[v(ae)] / [3] Rit(onae?) April(is) Tami <f=i>(ilius?) / [</f=i>
(CIL 13: 2892)

Notice the imperial connection again. Ritona is being assimilated to Minerva here, suggesting her dedicant saw her as something more than a goddess of a crossing. Minerva, unlike Mercury took little interest in travellers, but in Gaul and Britain she was linked with goddesses of healing water (Sulis and Senuna), and protection.

Her cult would seem to have been more widespread than she’s usually given credit for, especially considering that another inscription with her name appeared in the South of France.

Another temple to Ritona

Montaren-et-Saint-Mediers is near Uzês in the south of France (Gallia Narbonensis in Roman times). It’s just up the road from Montpellier, and about as far from Trier as you can get. But once again, someone made a dedication to Ritona, in fulfillment of their vow. The actual inscription was part of the wall of a medieval tower, repurposed in post-Roman times:

L(ucius) Gellius / Sentronis f(ilius) / Ritonae aede(m) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
(CAG-30-03, p 463)

They may have been very grateful, since some have interpreted aede as meaning that Sentronis built a temple to Ritona rather than just comssioning an inscribed stone.

If so, it hasn’t survived, but it’s still an open question how the cult of Ritona made it way to the south of France? Did a very dedicated follower relocate?3 Or was her cult far more widespread than we generally acknowledge?

1. To put this in perspective, most of the deities we know from Celtic Europe have one or two.
2. Delmarre, however, thinks that Ritona’s name comes from the word for race-course. (Haeussler: 341) Considering that one of her temples was near a temple to Epona, it would be tempting to connect them.
3. Other finds in Montaren include a dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and a statue of a male figure, perhaps the Greatest and Best himself. Could Ritona’s follower be a very grateful Roman?

References and Links:

Dočkalová Lenka and Václav Blažek 2011: “On Indo-European Roads,” The Journal of Indo-European Studies 39 (3 & 4): 299-341. (pdf here)
Moreau, Jacques 1957-9: “Une inscription inédite de Pachten (Sarre),” Bulletin de la Societé Nationale des Antiquaires de France: 126-133. (Persée)
Pailler, Jean-Marie 2013: “Mères, Fils et confréries à l’écoute de la Source : témoignages antiques et approche par la toponymie, l’archéologie et l’épigraphie gauloises,” AFEAF: 317-37. (academia.edu)
Scheid, John 1995: “Les temples de l’Altbachtal àTreves : un ” sanctuaire national ” ?” Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz, 6: 227-243. (Persée)

In Search of Ritona
Treverian Pantheon
 More on the Treverian pantheon
*Rito- as a Celtic word
Ritona and other obscure goddesses (in French)

If you like the image at the top, click here.

4 thoughts on “Ritona: goddess of the crossing

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