Aeracura: Goddess of Magic and the Underworld

Aeracura seems to have been a a goddess of the underworld and of prosperity, whose cult centered on southern Germany and the north-west of the Balkans. The Roman god Dis Pater sometimes accomapanies her, in inscriptions, a statue, and magic spells.  She shares her fruitful attributes with the Mothers, and may be a patron of miners.

Like Ritona, she is a well-attested goddess who is less well-known than she should be. There are several reasons why this may be so.

The inscriptions spell her name in several different ways:

Aeraecura at Perugia; Aerecura at Mainz, Xanten, Aquileia and Roşia Montană; Aericura at Sulzbach, Malsch, Eracura in Mautern, Austria, Ercura at Fliehburg, Erecura at Cannstatt, Tongeren and Belley in Aube; Heracura at Stockstadt am Rhein, Herecura at Cannstatt, Freinsheim and Rottenburg am Neckar, where the form Herequra is also found.

which makes her a bit more difficult to look up than others like Rosmerta or Nantosuleta. It’s not clear whether she was a Celtic goddess, a Germanic one, or both. And, unlike some of the Celtic deities whose name announces their function (Matrona, Damona, Cernunnos), Aerecura’s name is difficult to interpret, with no consensus as to what it means.

In general, though, we can say that Aeracura’s worship clusters in southern Germany and the north-west of the Balkans, and we have some idea of how her worshippers saw her from two statues found in Cannstatt. One, above, shows her with a basket of fruit in her lap, and the other is similar, but the top is broken off. (The head is often reattached for pictures, as here.)

Both have inscriptions at the bottom identifying the goddess as Hercura. Wikipedia includes the image above in its page on Eracura, but Beck says it is an unidentifed image from Cannstatt. It could be a single mother-goddess or another image of Aeracura. There was probably a fair bit of overlap between the mothers and the underworld goddess.

During the Roman period, Aeracura took on similarities to Proserpine, the Roman goddess of the underworld, and Dis Pater became her consort. As we will see, there are statues of them together, and they are invoked in several curse tablets.

Name and Attributes

Distribution map of Eracura’s dedications. Wikimedia.

I mentioned that Aeracura’s name can be spelled in many different ways, perhaps because inscriptions with her name are so scattered. As Beck puts it:

She is mentioned in inscriptions from Mainz, Sulzbach, Stockstadt, Monterberg, Xanten, Iversheim, Cannstatt, Mautern, (Germany), Beetgum and Holledorn (the Netherlands), Langres (Haute-Marne), Belley (Ain), Rome, Aquileia and Perugia (Italy), Verespatak (Romania) and Announa (Thibilis) in Numidia (present-day Algeria), which was a Roman province. Scholars sometimes relate her to the god Arecurius, honoured in an inscription from Corbridge (Northumbria, GB): Deo Arecurio. It must however be borne in mind that this inscription is quite uncertain, and it might be a misreading of Mercurio.

Deciphering her name is difficult; after all we don’t even know if it’s Celtic or Germanic in origin. If you assume it’s Celtic, there are two main theories about its meaning. Delmarre interprets it as *Ēri-cūrā, ‘Wind of the West’, but Olmstead reads its as ‘Before the Bread’, from eri– “to go beyond” and *kueru– “grind, mill flour”. However, according to the Wikipedia article:

A name of the form */aireˈkura/ or */(h)eːreˈkura/ appears to underlie the alternations Aeraecura ~ Aerecura ~ Aericura ~ Eracura ~ Ercura ~ Erecura ~ Heracura ~ Herecura ~ Herequra.

György Németh is a bit braver, and asserts that the reconstructed form must be Eracura, based on the most frequent spellings of each syllable. (Németh: 79)1

Beck thinks that Aeracura was a Germanic name, but another theory has it that her name comes from Illyria, on the western half of the Balkan peninsula, and her cult spread from Aquilegia to Germany by way of the Roman army.

Others theories connect her name to the Latin aes, aeris ‘copper, bronze, money, wealth’, era, “mistress”. or the name of the Greek goddess Hera.

Miner’s Goddess

One surprising dedication to Aeracura comes from Roman Dacia, or modern-day Romania. The town of Roșia Montană has been a centre of gold-mining since the Stone Age, so when the Romans conquered the area, they continued that tradition.

The miners and others who lived in the area left dedications to Jupiter and the Nymphs, as well as nature deities like Silvanus and Diana, as well as deities more closely connected to mining, like Volcanus, Janus (passageways), and Neptune (a Romanization of a local god of streams and water, Bindus). The chthonic goddess Tellus Mater gets a mention, as well as Aeracura:

Aerecure Ael(ius) Scen(us) | Bala(—) fil(ius) | u(otum) s(olvit) l(ibenter)
(AE 1990: 841)

Tellus and Aeracura get an inscription each, so we don’t know if they were the object of a wide-spread cult or a more personal devotion, but Tellus was considered an infernal deity, and Aeracura was linked to Proserpine, so it makes sense that they were honoured there. (I’m also reminded of the Gaulish goddess Bergusia, whose partner was the smith-god Ucuetis.)

Aeracura as Prosperine

Altar from Sulzbach with Aeracura and Dis Pater. Source: Beck.

While the Illyrian miners may have seen Aeracura as equivalent to Tellus Mater, in the Carlsruhe area of Germany identified her with the Roman goddess of the underworld: Proserpine or Persephone. We know this from an inscribed statue of her and her consort, the Roman god Dis Pater. (See above)

Aeracura seems to have had bad luck with the heads on her statues, but the inscription identifies the deities for us:

I(n) h(onorem) d(omus) d(ivinae) d(eae) s(anctae) Aericur(ae) et Diti Pat(ri) Veter(ius) Paternus et Adie(ctia) Pater(na)
(CIL XIII 6322)

She has her basket of fruit, while Dis Pater holds something – possibly an unrolled scroll. The statue was discovered in a cave, although it’s not known if the statue was worshipped in the cave or just ended up there.

Another image from Oberseebach in Switzerland shows Dis Pater holding hammer and cup, while his companion holds a cornucopia (MacCulloch: 62) and another from Varhély in Dacia where Aerecura holds a key (Hatt: 240) and a three-headed dog accompanies her companion (Green: 69).

Aeracura may have always been an  underworld goddess, going by the sites of some dedications to her. The Cannstatt statues came from a cemetery, and altars to Aeracura at Rottenburg were found with a funerary stone. (Linckenheld: 48, 63)

Dis Pater – Aeracura have often reminded scholars of Sucellos and Nantosuelta, another pan-national pair of deities, especially since Sucellos may be the “Dis Pater of the Celts” that Julius Caesar mentioned in De Bello Gallico. The consensus seems to be rather that the two couples may have similar functions, guaranteeing prosperity, but with a more chthonic side. (I would add that Sucellos and Nantosuelta seem to me much more about prosperity, while Dis Pater and Aeracura seem more concerned with death and the dead.)

Cursing Tablets (and a Love Spell)

Underworld deities usually look after the souls of the dead and ensure that they are respected by those left behind. The living sometimes have other uses for them, and the infernal deities (or the Greek chthonoi, or Celtic andedion) were invoked in magic spells, another instance of the power of the dead.

These were usually inscribed on lead tablets, then deposited in the earth or water, presumably to carry them to the underworld and its deities. My post on the god Ogmios discussed one such spell, from Bregenz in Austria, which asked Ogmios, Eracura and Dis Pater to bind a rival in love. Aeracura and her consort featured in several such spells, such as the following:

Pluton sive[m] Iov-
em infernum dici opor[no-]
tet Eracura Iuno
inferna acciet ia clerius
infra scribtum e tradite {i}
Manibus.

Pluto, or perhaps I should say Jupiter of the Underworld, Aeracura, Juno of the Underworld, summon now quickly the one inscribed below  and hand him over to the Manes.
(Magical Practice in the Latin West)

This spell comes form Noricum, also Austria, and although some describe it as a love-spell, I’m not so sure. Three others come from Pannonia, two from Budapest and one from Petronell-Carnuntum in Austria.

Both the Budapest spells came from a cemetery, and one of the Budapest spells shows a good knowledge of the Roman concepts of the underworld and its inhabitants:

Dis Pater, Aeracura! Mercurius Cyllenius, I dictate the following names to you, hand them over to the dreadful dogs!
Infernal souls in Tartarus!
Marcus, Marcia, Chariton, Secundus, and whoever may act like an opponent who will bring a curse-in-reply to you.

Mute and Silent goddess!
Just as the infernal souls are mute and silent, so are those who will bring a curse-in-reply to you may be mute and silent.
Three-headed Cerberus, catch the opponents of Bellicus and keep them …
(Barta 2015: 113)

The other Budapest tablet either has two different spells on it, or they are two parts of one spell – it’s hard to tell. The first part, which invokes Dea Eracura and DIs Pater, is on one side, while a spell invoking Mercury, also considered an infernal deity because of his role as psychopomp, on the other. The Eracura spell reads:

Claudia, Flavia, Zosimus ask Aeracura, and Zosimus as for himself requests Dis Pater those names which I am handing over to you: of Titus, Alexander, Candidus, Mama(?), Marcellinus known as Attanius as well, Marcianus, whoever will act like an opponent, whether slave or free, if someone new will act like an opponent, we ask Aeracura and Dis Pater: do concentrate on their names, (too).
(Barta 2017: 52)

The Petronell-Carnutum spell puts Cerebus right up front along with Aerecura and Dis Pater, so this may have been a regional style of spell-binding. Aerecura is being invoked in these spells just as Graeco-Roman ones would invoke Proserpine/Persephone, so it makes sense that other dwellers in Hades such as Cerebus and the Manes would join them. (Dogs accompany Celtic deities so often, too, that the references to Cerebus and other hell-hounds may be a nod to local tradition.)

Hypogeum of Vibia

Aeracura’s cult was certainly wide-spread, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she eventually appeared in Rome itself. And it is fitting that she appears in a painting decorating a complex of tombs.

The hypogeum of Vibia (a hypogeum is a an underground tomb or temple, usually with niches in the walls for individual burials.) was a richly decorated tomb complex, named after a woman named Vibia who was buried there along with her husband, a priest of the god Sabazius.

Vibia’s tomb is actually just a small arched recess cut out of the wall, but the elaborate paintings that decorate it have made it well-known. The first shows Vibia being kidnapped by Dis Pater, in the style of Persephone’s abduction. The second shows her being judged by Aeracura and Dis Pater. (See below)

From the tomb of Vibia.

The other two are scenes of Vibia entering Elysium and then feasting in the afterlife. Why Aeracura instead of Prosperine is unknown, but Rome in the 4th century CE was a rich brew of various polytheisms, and perhaps Vibia favoured the German-Illyrian goddess over the Roman one.

1. The British gods Belatrucadros and Vitris/Veteres have similar problems, with their names spelled in many different ways on altars and other dedications.


References and Links

Barta, Andrea 2015: “Ito Pater, Eracura and the Messenger. A Preliminary Report on a New Curse Tablet from Aquinium,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis: 101-13. (Academia.edu)
Barta, Andrea 2017: “A Letter from the Underworld: A Research Report on the Curse Tablet AQ-2,” Acta Historiae Artium Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 57: 45-56. (Academia.edu)
Beck, Noemi 2009: Goddesses in Celtic Religion, diss. (online version here)
Byros, Graziela M. 2011: Reconstructing Identities in Roman Dacia: the Evidence from Religion, diss. (Academia.edu)
Green, Miranda 1992: Symbol and Image in Celtic Religous Art, Routledge. (Google Books)
Hatt, J-J. 1942: “Les monuments funéraires gallo-romains du Comminges et du Couserans,” Annales du Midi: 169-254. (Persee)
Linckenheld, E. 1929: “Sucellus et Nantosvelta,” Revue de la histoire du religions: 40-92. (JSTOR: paywall)
Németh, György 2016: “Eracura in Pannonia,” in Mensa Rotunida Epigraphica Napocensis, eds. Radu Ardevan and Eugenia Beu-Dachin, Mega Publishing House: 71-80. (Academia.edu)

Wikipedia entry for Eracura
The Unique Goddess page
Noemi Beck on Aericura
Arbre Celtique entries on Aerecura and Hercura (French)
Livius.org entry
Inscriptions mentioning Dis Pater and Aeracura
A modern image of Aeracura
A comparative view of Hercura

For the image of reflections on a cave wall, click here.

6 thoughts on “Aeracura: Goddess of Magic and the Underworld

  1. Pingback: Aeracura: Goddess of the Underworld — We Are Star Stuff | Die Goldene Landschaft

  2. lornasmithers

    Thank you this is fascinating. I had never heard of Aeracura before and did not know she was paired with Dis Pater. This does look like another variant of the Persephone and Hades/Prosperine and Pluto/Gwyn and Creiddylad myth. It seems it is incredibly widespread in Europe.

    I hadn’t come across the curse tablets demanding for persons to be handed over to Aeracura, Dis, and Cerberus and the dogs of the underworld before. This is valuable research and I really appreciate your efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. solsdottir Post author

      I was lucky with the curse tablets, as the translations are from papers published in 2015. I’m glad I came across them as it really fills out the picture of Aeracura.
      I hadn’t thought about Gwyn and Creiddylad, but there does seem to be a pattern of a king and queen of the underworld.
      It’s always the ones I don’t expect to find much about that reward me with something unexpected.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Working-Class Hero: Sucellos | We Are Star Stuff

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