Most of us have heard the romantic story of how a new Celtic goddess, Senuna, was discovered after nearly 2000 years by amateurs with metal detectors. Twenty-six pieces of gold and silver had been deposited in a pool at Ashwell, UK, presumably from a nearby shrine, where they had been been offered to the goddess.
Searching out Minervas always feels like seeing through a scrim; when you look at the Roman goddess, you see her through the Greek and Etruscan influences that went into her making. Looking at the Celtic goddesses who were compared to Minerva, named for her, or depicted in her image, you see through yet another veil, trying to discern the Celtic form under the Roman covering.
Although it’s common in popular books on mythology to describe the Roman goddess Minerva as a simple copy of the Greek goddess Athena, Minerva evolved as a native Italian goddess, influenced by the Etruscan Menvra.
During my research for my post on Medusa and the Gorgon, I constantly ran into the idea that the Gorgon was a faint echo of an early Mycenean sun-goddess, depicted face-front with radiating (snaky) hair. I could see how that idea might arise, but Athena as sun-goddess struck me as a bit of a reach. After all, Athena wears the Gorgon on her breast as a symbol of the triumph of cunning (metis) over elemental powers. (Deacy: 47)
It must be tempting, though, to invert the Greek beliefs that shaped patriarchal culture, with its binary of sun/reason/male vs. night/emotion/female. Especially in the form of its most complicit goddess, Athena, who upheld father-right against the Furies’s desire to avenge a matricide. (Although kicking Bachofen and his followers comes about 150 years too late.) Feminizing the Greek sun, and connecting it to those elemental powers, may feel like sweet revenge.
This is an extremely condensed look at the goddess Brigantia. For a much more detailed study, see my book Brigantia: Goddess of the North.
The Brigantian federation stretched over most of northern England, and their queen, Cartimandua, is one of the few female rulers known to history. But the fame of their goddess, Brigantia, comes from a Roman statue.
The Celtic goddess Belisama comes from the south of France, where two inscriptions, from different areas, suggest that her cult was fairly widespread. One of them is to the goddess herself, while the other calls her Minerva Belisama. The first is signficant, since it shows that her cult was from pre-Roman times.
I have been following the goddess Brigantia for some time now. I remember in 2009 a new inscription dedicated to Brigantia surfaced. (It had been previously mistranslated, but the new R.I.B. changed that.) It had been read as a dedication to the Terra Batavorum, but now it is read as Tutela Brigantia Augusta (Guardian Brigantia Augusta).
Now, however, we have a new image of the goddess, found in South Shields (near Newcastle). She still has traces of pink paint on her face, and red on her lips. So far all that has been found is her head, which is thought to date back to the second century CE (like the other dateable evidence for her cult).
Brigantia as guardian is apparent in both image and inscription, as the little head wears the mural crown, which indicated that a goddess was the protector of a city or territory. The famous image of Brigantia from Scotland also has a mural crown worn outside a Minerva-like helmet.
The new image of Brigantia was found at the old Roman fort of Arbeia, not too far from another altar discovered long ago. It will be exciting if they find the rest of the little image of Brigantia, but as this find and the dramatic find of Senua earlier show, the book on Roman Britain is still being written.