Sucellos was a god of Eastern Gaul and the Rhineland. Images of him from the Roman period show a mature man dressed in a tunic, with a pot (olla) in one hand and a large hammer in the other. He sometimes has a barrel at his feet, and occasionally a dog accompanies him. The goddess Nantosuelta occasionally appears beside him. His name means “The Good Striker”.
He is often referred to as the Hammer-God, and evidence from ancient times suggests that the Gauls also regarded his mallet or hammer as a symbol of the god, like Thor’s hammer or Hercules’ club. (Haussler: 33) While the better-off left images of Sucellos at healing shrines, or inscribed altars, the poorer suppliants had his hammer cut into the altars they left as thank-offerings.
Whether his hammer was intended as a weapon like those Thor and Hercules wielded, or was a tool, such as those used by coopers, masons, butchers or fence-makers is not clear. (Although one image of him shows a nail tucked into his belt, so maybe it was just a hammer.)1
The long handle on his hammer/mallet suggests a cooper or fence-maker, but it may be that the artists wanted either to emphasize the hammer or use the handle to balance their statuettes.
Many inscriptions to Silvanus (a Roman god equated with Sucellos) have been found in mines and quarries, which makes him both a god of the earth’s wealth, and a patron of the working class and slaves. Sucellos, the Good Striker, may also have been a smith-god, which would explain the hammer. In addition, altars with hammers cut into them at various healing shrines suggest that Sucellos was also a healing god.
Nine inscriptions attest to his cult in continental Europe, mainly from trading centres on rivers. One comes from Sarrebourg on the Saar, two from Malain and one from Vienne in eastern central France, and two from Switzerland, one from Yverdon-le-Bains and another at Augst. (The last two were near major trade routes, Augst on the Rhine, and Yverdon-le-Bains in the area between the Rhone and Rhine.)
Similarly, Metz, the site of another find, lies at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers, and Worms is on the upper Rhine.
There are outliers: one inscription to Deo Sucello comes from Dacia, and a silver finger ring inscribed to Deo Svcelo also comes from York in England. (RIB II: 3/2422.21) There has been a debate about whether Sucellos is a British deity or whether some Continental devotee brought the ring to Britain with them.
An image of a god with a long-handled hammer, accompanied by a goddess holding a bowl of apples, found in East Stoke, may well be another instance of Sucellos and his consort Nantosuelta in Britain. (Green: 158) If so, that would be further evidence of a British cult of the god and goddess.
Sucellos often appears alone, but he also pairs up with the goddess Nantosuelta, whose name probably means “Winding River”. You can identify her by the little house on a pole, like a birdhouse, that she holds. It’s not clear if it was meant to be a dovecote, or if it’s meant to show her as goddess of the house.
Considering that she sometimes has a beehive or honeycombs, it seems likely that they indicate dinner; people ate doves regularly, like chicken, even into modern times.
Other images show Sucellos and a goddess with a basket or bowl of fruit, and Noemi Beck disputes their identification with Nantosuelta, saying they could be any goddess. She thinks they represent some local goddess of the land. However, Miranda Green thinks there’s nothing about them that doesn’t suggest Nantosuelta, since fruit, doves and honey are all food.
While Sucellos dresses like a working man, Nantosuelta wears a gown and occasionally a crown, linking her to Juno. Other Gaulish goddesses, including Rosmerta and the queenly Rigana, as well as the British Brigantia, used Juno’s iconography, so we have to assume that Nantosuelta was seen as an equally important goddess.
Haussler suggests that Sucellos was identified with Volcanus in part because Volcanos/Hephaistos was paired with Aphrodite, since divine couples were so important to the Celts. (Häussler: 153)
When Nantosuelta appears alone, she often has one or more ravens with her, suggesting that the domestic goddess might also have a darker side.
While Sucellos is dominant in the Loire region and up to the Rhine, other hammer-gods appear in the southern part of France, usually called Silvanus. As Silvanus was a Roman god, he must have had a name that is now lost. If he was Sucellos, why do no traces of his own name survive?
There are two dedication to Sucellos Silvanus, one from Worms in Germany and the other from Mehadia in Romania, a bit far-flung from each other and from Silvanus’ region, just to make the whole thing a bit more mysterious. (The Romanian dedicaton probably points to one of Sucellos’ other roles, as a healing god. Many of the altars inscribed with hammers were left at healing sites, presumably as thank-yous to him.)
Many images of Silvanus in Gallia Narbonensis show him with Sucellos’ mallet and pot, instead of his pine branch and falx, or sickle. However, one image from Aigues-Mortes (near the mouth of the Rhone) shows him with both falx and mallet, a Romano-Gallic crossover. (Dorcey: 57) He was a popular deity, and only Mercury, Mars and Jupiter had more dedications than him, although many of these reflect his popularity with the army, rather than the local population.
Silvanus was a god of uncultivated land and forests, hunting, agriculture, and boundaries. While he was a popular god, with over 1 100 inscriptions, many shrines, and many art works including statues and carved gemstones, he had very little official cult, with no state holiday or temple. (Adkins and Adkins: 204) His cult was informal, with ordinary, working people making their own, unofficial offerings to the god.
One attribute Sucellos and Silvanus shared was their dog, while the fruits associated with the forest-god could substitute for Sucellos’s pot and barrel as symbols of food and abundance. The Gaulish god was more modest than the Roman, however. While Silvanus is normally naked, Sucellos always wears a tunic.
My own theory is that the hammer-god took on different meanings in different places. In wine-growing regions, his hammer may well have reminded people of the cooper’s mallet, while among farming people it would be the hammer used for knocking in fence-posts.
Silvanus, as the god of uncultivated land outside the boundaries, would be a perfect fit for that purpose. Oddly, dedications to Silvanus turn up around mines in Germany, whether because he was associated with Sucellos there, or because the mines tended to be in wild places is unclear.
According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls traced their ancestry to the god Dis Pater. He was using the name of a Roman god, perhaps to indicate the nature of the Gaulish one to a Roman audience, leaving scholars and others to wonder which god exactly he meant.
Cernunnos is one candidate for the ancestral deity, being a god of wealth and perhaps the underworld, but Sucellos, who also represents abundance and has a dog (Cerberus?) accompanying him, is another. In fact, two German images of Sucellos show him with the three-headed dog and a raven, a death-symbol in both Celtic and Germanic thought.
He may well have been an ancestral god, the way that the Irish Dagda was. It seems unlikely that the Gauls thought of him as a god of death, however. He seems more focused on abundance and protection. (Another divine couple, Dis Pater and Aeracura, whose worship extended through Germany, Switzerland and the Balkans, were much more focused on the dead, with altars in cemeteries and caves.)
“Dis Pater” did carry a hammer in the Roman Games, when two slaves dressed as Mercury and Dis Pater carted off the dead bodies from the gladitorial matches. “Mercury” burned them with his red-hot caduceus to see if they were dead or shamming, then “Dis Pater” claimed them for his own.
One thing we can see from all this is that the hammer-symbol could mean a great many things, from divine protection, to a humble tool of various trades to a badge of office. It is hard to say if all the hammer-gods who crop up across the Celtic world are Sucellos, but Sucellos certainly had a widespread, and popular, cult, as healer, protector and god of abundance.
1. It also points up a difference between Sucellos and Thor, whose hammer Mjollnir was famous for its short handle.↩
References and Links
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins 1996: Dictionary of Roman Religion, OUP.
Dorcey, Peter F. 1992: The Cult of Silvanus: a Study in Roman Folk Religion, Brill. (Google Books)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
Green, Miranda 1989: Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge. (Questia)
Heichelheim, F.M. and J.E. Houseman 1948: “Sucellus and Nantosuelta in Medieval Celtic Mythology,” L’Antiquite Classique 17: 305-16. (Persée)
Häussler, Ralph 2012: “Interpretatio Indigena: Re-inventing Local Cults in a Global World,”
Mediterraneo Antico 15: 143-174. (Academica.edu)
Linckenheld, E. 1929: “Sucellus et Nantosvelta,” Revue de la histoire du religions: 40-92. (JSTOR: paywall)
Poitrenaud, Gérald 2014: “Sucellos – ou le Frappeur Fecondant,” chapter from Cycle et Metamorphoses du dieu cerf Lucerios, Toulouse: 198-204. (Academica.edu)
Reinach, Saloman 1896: “Sucellus et Nantosvelta,” Revue Celtique XVII: 45-59. (Internet Archive)
Ross, Anne 1992: Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Constable and Sons.