Noreia: Celtic Goddess or Roman Invention?

The Austrian goddess Noreia, like the British goddess Brigantia, has always been dogged by the suspicion that she was a Roman invention rather than a native deity. They both share their name with a Roman province, and worshippers with Roman or Romanized names made offerings to them.

Goddess of Noreia

So how can we tell if Noreia was a synthetic goddess or a real one? (Some would argue that as long as she received worship it makes no difference; but I’m interested in her origin.) It’s clear that she derives her name from the place where she was worshipped, the Roman province of Noricum in the Eastern Alps.

Julius Caesar refers to Noreia as the capital of the province of Noricum, and Pliny the Elder mentions it as well, but the actual site of the city has been lost to history. It’s assumed to be someplace in southern Austria, but no one really knows for sure.

The Roman interest in Noricum lay in the high-quality steel that could be manufactured there, thanks to its high carbon content. The mines in Carinthia, the southern half of the province, had superior iron ore, and the locals had a steel-making industry going in the fifth century BCE.

Later Noricum became a key Roman ally, who could count on the Romans to defend them. Roman bureaucrats also took over running the mines; two imperial slaves left dedications to Noreia at her shrine.

Celtic or Illyrian?

One theory suggests that the city of Noreia was located where the shrine to the goddess was built, which would seem to make sense. (Her shrine, near Liebenfels at Hochsheid, was built in the 2nd century AD.) The name Noreia, however, adds another layer of ambiguity to the goddess, because scholars can’t agree on whether it’s Celtic or comes from the native Illyrian language.

I haven’t been able to access some of the sources for this discussion, but here is a good summary (link below):

Although Šašel Kos, citing Hedwig Kenner, classifies the name as ‘most likely pre-Celtic’ (the implication being either Illyrian or Venetic), the more recent proposition of de Bernardo Stempel seems better founded, especially in light of new research and the collaborative efforts of F.E.R.C.AN. De Bernardo Stempel suggests Noreia as a detoponym, i.e. a divine name from a place name (in this case, the historical town of ‘Noreia’). She suggests the toponym being itself derived from the ethnonym ‘Norici’ via suffix-replacement of -eia for -ici. He then has ‘Norici’ breaking down as the plural of the Celtic *nor-iko-s (‘the manly’), from IE *noro-, ‘manly, strong’.
(Shane Krusen)

The Evidence

When you come to examine the 15 dedications to Noreia, you notice that unlike Brigantia, none of the dedicators had a local name. All of them have Roman ones, sometimes the full three names of a citizen. Some of them add their titles, procurator, tribune, etc.

This is the main argument against Noreia being a local goddess, but it’s not a fatal one. It may be that unlike in Romanized Yorkshire, the Noricans did not take to Roman monuments and inscriptions, or more likely, that the Romans may have seen honouring a local goddess as a way of flattering local sensibilities.

The latter seems more likely, given that the first known inscription comes from her sanctuary at Hohenstein, a dedication by a slave of the emperor Claudius’. The temple itself was built during the Flavian period, and abandoned in the second century AD.

As you might expect, most of the inscriptions with her name come from Hohenstein (six). Another Austrian inscription comes from Ulrichsberg, although since it mentions the sanctuary to Noreia, it probably came from Hohenstein. Two turned up in Bavaria, at Weihmörting, and the rest come from Celje in Slovenia, and the surrounding area.

The Celje ones show Noriea moving in exalted (Roman) company. She shares the honours with Jupiter Opitmus Maximus and a local goddess called Celeia (the Roman name of the region), whose name means “All Powerful”. (Brigantia shares an inscription with Jupiter Dolichenus, a foreign god syncretized with Jupiter Best and Greatest.) Two other inscriptions from the region pair her with Victory, one as Victoria Augusta and Noreia Regina, and the other invoking Victoria, Noreia, Hercules and Mars.

The Temple at Hohenstein

Noreia’s temple was built at Schloss Hohenstein, a mining district a few hours away from the city of Virunum. It was a Roman-style building, with a podium base, divided into two rooms. Smaller chapels for other deities surrounded the temple, and a small fountain gushed from a stone with a dedication to Noreia Augusta.

The mining industry paid its respects to Noriea, as one of the dedications came from the procurator ferriarum (administrator of the iron mining works):

Isidi Norei(ae) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) / pro salute / Q(uinti) Septuei / Clementis / con(ductoris) fer(rariarum) N(oricarum) P(annoniarum) D(almatarum) / et Ti(beri) Cl(audi) Heraclae / et Cn(aei) Octa(vi) Secundi / pro(curatorum) fer(rariarum) Q(uintus) Septueius / Valens pro(curator) ferr(ariarum) (C.I.L. 3: 4809)

This altar syncretizes Noreia with Isis. This may seems strange, but Isis was also popular with miners, although I’m not sure exactly why. Another fragment of a stone tablet found at Frauenberg may also be a dedication to Isis Noreia, but it’s hard to be sure, and a stone used as an architrave at Ulrichsberg reads (upside-down) “Isis Noreia”. (Scroll up to the top of this section to see it.)

(The emperor Vespasian favoured Isis, probably because he had been posted to Egypt before becoming emperor, so Isis was a politically wise choice for Noreia, just as Brigantia was equated with Minerva and Tanit, the Severan favourites.)

Another altar honours Noreia Augusta, along with a smashed-up one, and a stele, so Noreia could take on different forms even within her own temple. Or perhaps polytheism doesn’t see any problems with having Noreia the August next to Isis Noreia.

A statue of Isis-Tyche-Fortuna found in the baths at Virunum could also be an image of Noreia, especially as she wears local fashions. Another image from Magdalensburg is often identified as an image of Noriea, but there’s no evidence that it’s her, and it’s a pretty generic image, so it could be any goddess.

Noreia-Isis, with cornucopia, from Virunum.

Veica and Celeia

Like many Celtic German goddesses, Noreia sometimes had another goddess for a companion. One inscription, now lost, pairs her with another goddess, Veica. Beck explains:

Interestingly, a lost dedication of unidentified origin mentions a goddess Veica Noriceia: Veicae Noriceiae A. Poblicius D. l. A[—] P. Postumius P. l. Pau(…) coir(averunt). The inscription indicates that the two dedicators had a sanctuary erected in honour of the goddess (coiraverunt). The divine name Veica is most certainly Celtic and can be broken down as *weik-ā, that is ‘the one of the battle’, from an IE root *weik meaning ‘to vanquish’ and denoting “the ideas of both battle and wonder-working” according to M. York – it can be related to Irish fíoch, ‘ferocity’. In view of this etymology, it can be suggested that Veica is a war-goddess embodying and presiding over the fighting.

Her other companion was Celeia, who I mentioned above, a regional goddess. Her name means the “All Powerful” according to Beck, and she appears in an inscription with Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Noreia. As one site suggests:

Noreia appears as a personification of the province, a fact which is particularly manifest in a dedication of a beneficiarius from Celeia in the sequence of the divinities invoked: Jupiter – Noreia – Celeia. Jupiter symbolises the empire, Noreia the province, and Celeia the military station.

Celeia is better-attested than Veica, as she appears in two inscriptions with Jupiter IOM as Celeia Sancta, another with him and Epona as Celeia Augusta, and one on her own.

The pattern of goddesses teamed together suggests a native deity, and her name could cut either way. It would be nice if, like Brigantia, some of those honouring her had Celtic-sounding names, or if her dedications were less official-sounding. (One at Atrans was offered by customs officials.)

You could argue it either way, and we’ll never really know for sure. The one thing we do know is that Noreia was a popular goddess, and whether as Isis-Noreia or Noreia the August or Sacred, her followers were willing to spend the money and invest in a temple to honour her.

At least one reconstructionist group seems to have taken on Noreia as a patron deity, so whatever her status in ancient times, she is still remembered now.

References and Links

Wikipedia entry for Noreia (the place)
Am in Bêthan ‘Norêia’ // On the ‘Noreia’ Question
The Image of indigenous Divinities in Noricum
Cults and Sanctuaries in Noricum
Noemi Beck on Noreia
Sacred Places and Epichoric Gods
Imperial Mines and Quarries
Google Maps Noreia sites
from Ancient Celtic Goddesses (Wikisource)
Noemi Beck on Veica

Image by Paul McGowan from Pixabay.