|Matronae from a Romano-Celtic settlement in Gaul|
This post is about the cult of the Matronae (or matres), found throughout Europe from 100-400AD, during the Roman occupation of those lands. About 1100 carved stone altars remain in Eastern Gaul, Northern Italy, Britain and regions of Germany. These deities - themselves remnants of earlier goddess worship - are also found in later forms of pagan worship, especially in Norse concepts such as the Norns, Valkyries and Disir.
Matronae were attributed with concepts of life-giving and abundance. Many of these goddesses were typographical and related to territory, sometimes giving their names to local tribes - the most famous being the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the tribes of Danu, a goddess associated with the land. These concepts may well stem from Neolithic origins. Across Europe venus figures and cave sculptures appear as testaments of an age-old cult. However it is uncertain if this is proof of a singular Great Goddess religion, though Marija Gimbutas would steer us eloquently in that direction. Gimbutas postulated that the emergence, and spread, of a feminine goddess cult was later downgraded by Indo-European tribal incursions, these tribes being viewed as bringing with them patriarchal gods, reflecting their warrior nature, as oppose the more agrarian cultures whose lands they invaded. Gimbutas traces this Earth Mother cult to around 7500BC. Joseph Campbell, writer of a series of important works, tracing elements of comparative religion, came to a similar conclusion. He talked about the 'goddess-with-many-names', a shared concept under various guises. Some archaeologists believe this concept overly simplifies things.
We know that in Celtic society women played an important role, there were warrior queens, such as Medb of Connaught, and Boudicca of the Iceni, to name but a few. In Europe several burial sites from the Hallstatt period have revealed lavish female burials that could be those of either royalty or priestesses. That they were highly respected is evidenced by the type of objects interred with them.
|Three Matronae display their bounty, Gloucestershire.|
In the Romano-Celtic period the Matronae, or Deae Matres, appear at shrines and as votary statues in triadic form. The most distinguishing features of the matronae is their benevolent aspect. They are non-threatening, fully clothed, maternal (but with breasts covered), and they project their meaning via the offerings that they carry, which includes fruit, bread, fish, infants and cornucopia. Across Gaul (which maybe the place of their origin), areas of Germany and Britain these enigmatic and mysterious statues appear. They are not governed by a single name, though much of the symbolism associated with them is similar and confers ideas of fertility, abundance and healing - especially when these shrines are placed near sacred wells. Some are dedicated to single goddesses, such as the shrine of Coventina (a goddess of springs at Carrawburgh, near Hadrian’s wall), are represented by three nymphs. Perhaps in this form we have a clue to the nature of the triplism of the Celtic faith, that the one could be represented in three parts, or three elements. In Ireland Ériu, Fódla and Banbha represent the land. The Machas were an Irish goddess triad linked with war and fertility. Life-giving goddesses may also be coupled with death, and there are a number of warlike goddesses such as the Morrighan (of Irish mythic cycles), and Andraste, a British war goddess. Sometimes these are also seen singly or as part of a shapeshifting triad, encompassing the spectrum of life, death, rebirth and protective symbology. This triplism was very important to the Celts and I’ve touched upon this in my Triskele posts (I intend to elaborate on ‘Triplism’ further in a future post).
|A replica of an altar for the Mothers of Aufania (Matronae Aufaniae), Nettersheim.|
There is some debate as to whether this triple goddess notion is purely ‘Celtic’ or an import. The Matronae appear to be alien to the Roman culture, but there are parallels in Grecian myth,* which also possessed a penchant for the number three. Interestingly there appears to have been a cross-pollination of concepts regarding the Gaulish matronae. A Germanic tribe called the Ubii appear to have adopted this triple-goddess concept and adapted it, in the form of the Matronae Aufaniae. Here the Matronae take on the role of ‘fates’. This is interesting when viewed in light of later Germanic and Scandinavian myths in which the three Norns (essentially Fates) sit around a well at the foot of the World Tree, Yggdrasil.
As I stated in a previous post, I’m at a loss to find a link between the triskele symbol and the mothers. Though triplism was obviously important to the Celts I feel that the triskele symbol reflects a host of concepts. The idea of birth, death and life does fit well with the goddess concept. Though you’d think, in that case, there’d be some symbolic link on the statues, but there just isn’t (correct me if I’m wrong). That being said, the topographical naming of many Matres shrines may point to an overall commonality; that they are indeed goddesses of the earth, and perhaps the same, adopted individually by each tribe, or aspects of a similar deity, or spirit of the tribe/area/locality - and therefore a part of the whole (Campbell's goddess with a thousand names). It is also argued that, due to the lack of written records, the three goddesses portrayed are separate deities, each performing a single function but contributing to a unified cause. There is also a suggestion that repetition strengthens the power of the deity. This idea is problematic: why not carve more than three goddesses to gain maximum power? Why limit yourself to three? Personally I’m not so struck on the latter notion. I’m more inclined to suspect that the matronae were adaptations of earlier concepts involving creator goddesses, perhaps with a common theme. For example the gaelic Cailleach or Welsh Keriden (see The Cauldron).
I think it is obvious that as Christianity spread, evangelists secured credence of their new religion with imagery that was not completely alien to the Celts: imagery that has persisted in many Catholic icons, and that exists by roadsides and paths to this very day in areas of countries such as Italy. It is that of the Holy Mother, with the babe on her knee. Indeed the ready adoption of this imagery, its profusion and power, may, to some extent, have replaced pagan imagery of matronae, yet it retained elements of pagan attitude.
|More matronae, one with infant in swaddling.|
* E.g: the three Gorgons; Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa and the three Fates: Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (drawer of lots), and Atropos (the inevitable).