The goddesss Icovellauna’s cult extended across Gaul from Lorraine to the Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany, both in the valley of the Moselle river. We know her from six inscriptions, five from a holy well at Metz, and one from Trier.
Icovellauna was never Romanized, so we have no Roman equivalent to compare her with. This leaves us without a useful clue as to how her worshippers saw her, and to add to this there are no images of her. Her name is unusual enough, but scroll down to see how difficult scholars have found deciphering it. All we know is that she was associated with water in some way, and may have been a healing goddess.
Water was often a healing element in Celtic thinking, and the temple and well near Metz with their dedications would seem to suggest healing. At the very least, her worshippers were fulfilling vows to the goddess in return for something she did for them, which could cover healing.
However, as Beck points out, healing shrines often have little ex-votos of human figures or body parts that petitioners left as offerings. (Vindonnus‘ shrine had little eyes, while Moritasgus‘ had a wider selection.)
The temple at Metz
The village of Le Sablon, south of Metz in France, held the only temple to Icovellauna. It was centered around a well, with a set of about 50 steps leading down to the water. People left all sorts of offerings in the water, including coins, statuettes, animal bones and fragements of columns.
Archaeologists found five items with Icovellauna’s name inscribed on them, although three of the inscriptions are in fragments. The most significant was a plaque with holes drilled in it so it could be hung on the wall. It was gilded, and read:
Deae Icovellaunae sanctissimo numini, Genialius Satu[r]ninus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
To the highly holy power of the goddess Icovellauna, Genialius Saturninus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly.
(CIL 13, 04294)
Above the plaque, a small hole was cut into the wall, perhaps so the coin found near the plaque. This was one way of leaving an offering to a deity, also found at Rennes and Hiéraple.
Another, fragmentary, tablet in bronze reads (as scholars reconstruct it):
[Deae] Icov(ellaunae maxi)mus Licini(us magister vic)i (?) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito),
To the goddess Icovellauna, Maximus Licinius, Master of the vicus* (?), paid his vow willingly and deservedly.
(CIL 13, 03644)
Above this plaque is another slot for a coin, perhaps the coin found nearby.
Two more dedications were carved in stone, one in a slab and the other a marble block, both reading Deae Icovellaunae, to the goddess Icovellauna. The slab also has a name, Aprillis, presumably the dedicator who paid for it. The last comes from a block of white stone, possibly part of a stone pedestal: Deae Icovellauna. (The last may have been the base of a statue, although no such thing was found at the site.)
A tablet at Trier
In 1891 archaeologists reported they had found a small marble tablet dedicated by yet another grateful worshipper, this time at Trier. It read:
Deae Ico/vel(launae) M(arcus) Pri/mius Alpi/cius v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
To the goddess Icovellaune, Marcus Primius Alpicus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly
(CIL 13, 03644)
The archaeologists noted how unusual it was to engrave and dedicate a small marble tablet; bronze was the usual material for such tablets.
The tablet was found at the temple complex at Altbachtal, among a dozen temples and shrines and a theatre. Most of these were privately dedicated, either by individuals or groups, but the deities honoured there were a mix of local, Roman and Oriental gods and goddesses, unlike the strictly local deities of Metz.
Trier, or Augusta Treverorum, lay on the main Roman road and was probably more cosmopolitan, but the Treveri were also independent-minded enough to rebel several times, so perhaps the people of Metz perferred to support their own deities, too.
Icovellauna’s name is a puzzle for scholars, because what seemed to be the obvious meaning “protectress of health”, is controversial. It would seem obvious that a goddess connected with water should be a healing deity, and that her name should reflect this. The Irish word icc, ‘curing’ or ‘recovery’, Welsh iach and Breton iac’h could be related to ico, which would seem to tie in well.
Another theory links ico to the root *uel-, foresight, related to Irish filid and Welsh gweled, to see. Garret Olmstead sees this as a linkage between Icovellauna and Vellaunos, a healing god in France and England, making Icovellauna “The Healing Seer”. Another theory sees the particle ic– as connected to water. (Icovellauna, Icauna)
Vellaunos, however, probably means “commander”. While some see her as “She who commands water”, others are not convinced, saying that ico– doesn’t connect etymologically to any Celtic words from Britain or Ireland. (Another find at Le Sablon was a statue of Victoria, which would fit with the “commander”.)
Of course, a deity’s name does not always echo their function that precisely. Neither Sulis nor Damona means “spring”, and Divona and Matrona do not mean “river”.
My own theory
The name Icovellauna reminded me of another Germanic goddess: Alauna. She was one of a pair, along with Boudina, whose name means Victory. Her own name has been interpreted as either “wanderer” or “nurturer”, which seems appropriate for a river-goddess. So the combination of healer/nurturer and warrior isn’t strange, but they may have merged in Icovellauna.
They also come from the same part of Germany, along the Moselle, along with another pair of German goddesses, Dea Vercana and Meduna. Vercana would be the warlike one in this case, while Meduna’s name relates to either intoxication or spring.
By now you won’t be entirely surprised to learn that another goddess shared Icovellauna’s shrine: Mogontia. An altar gives us her name, which is related to the the British god Mogons, The Great. (Green: 152) The British god was a particular favourite with soldiers, but in France he appears on an altar with Apollo Grannos, another healing deity. (Another theory makes Mogontia a queen-goddess, which would fit with the name just as well.)
At this distance in time, and with so little to go on, we can’t be certain what the Mediomatrici believed about these two goddesses. But it seems to me that they combined a warlike or protective function with healing, a combination also found in other local gods like Mars Lenus as well as the paired Germanic goddesses.
References and Links
Abel, Charles 1891-1892: “La Dea Icovellauna et la Dea Victoria au Sablon, près Metz”, Mémoires de l’Académie de Metz, 1894: p. 201-209. (Google Books)
Frothingham, A.L. Jr. “Germany” The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts 7: 560-6. (Google Books)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
Mogontia in Arbre Celtique (in French)
For the image at the top, click here.