Thursday, December 22, 2016

Aspects Of The Goddess: The Matronae

triple goddess
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). 

Mothers of Aufania
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). 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Power to the Horn! The Symbology of the Stag

stag in stone

 Stag Design by the Author - Stone Mad Crafts.

Across Northern Europe the stag was not only hunted but it was also so revered and respected that this magnificent animal became associated with hunting rites and folklore. 

In Celtic realms across the Continent and Britain there exist  carvings depicting an antler-horned humanoid. These have been tentatively linked to a deity named  “Cernunnos”  (translated as The Horned One*). This Horned God appears in various iconography in Europe and must have been associated with the wildwood. In Valcamonica his figure is carved on a rock (along with attendant serpent and torc), dwarfing a human figure at his feet (The Horned God will be the subject of a future post).  However the stag also appears alongside the god and must have been a sacred animal in his worship**. 

cult wagon
The Strettweg cult wagon from 600BC features stags in a ritual reference

This human/stag mix  may have links with the general ‘undercurrent’ of ancient ‘shamanic’ type practices.  In Britain 24 stag skull masks from the mesolithic period (and dated to 9000BC) were unearthed at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Could this be the visualisation of a physical sensation that ritualists involved in ancient spirit-world practices actually experienced? Could it be that the sensation of the extended mind was (and is) still symbolised and expressed visually by antlers?  

star carr
Digital reconstructions of some of the masks found at Star Carr

In fact stags feature predominantly in parts of Valcamonica, where rock carvings date from early bronze-age and iron-age.  Obviously Valcamonica was a site where stags featured as part of the ritual, most likely tied to regional hunting rites.  It could be that the distinction between spirit/shamanic hunting rites and the hunt were blurred. 

Much of the imagery portrays young males in the peak physical fitness, revealing a sense of strength and virility.  Male deer shed their horns every year, and subsequently remove the velvet covering from their growing horns as the weeks progress. Drawing upon observations of the natural world (to which they were bound) symbolic links were surely drawn by these Iron-Age hunters***: ideas of  transition and re-birth also reflecting a seasonal symbology, which would tie in with much of the cyclical beliefs of the Celts and their predecessors.  The link between fighting prowess (males defend their females from other males) and  mating success surely could have been interpreted symbolically.  Certainly some of the carvings, in which the antlers are of an outlandish size,  may be an indication of strength and prowess. However certain Shamanic practitioners in the recent past drew symbolic stags, whose exaggerated horns represented the amount of spirit guides available to the shaman (the more ‘tines’ the more helpers).  

Another significance attached to the antler brings us back round to the Horned God and the association with the natural world, and how these forms could easily converge, i.e. the tree-like antler representing the ‘spirit of the forest’. In this aspect we glimpse the stag’s association with the World Tree, and in Norse myth we find deer that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, nibbling the leaves while their dung add fertiliser to the great tree’s roots.  

sun antlers
One of my photos from Valcamonica
showing the antlered sun symbol.
valcamonica carving
Another of mine from Valcamonica

The visual impact of the antlers was also manipulated in another way. Examples from Valcamonica portray figures and symbols that are a fusion of antler and the sun, indicating the association the stag had with this element. The huns had a legend in which a stag  was depicted with a sun on its forehead and there are designs from the bronze-age in which solar discs are portrayed with antlers. This is another age-old symbolic link. 

Neither is it surprising that the stag possesses  Otherworld symbolism in Celtic literature. There is some evidence to suggest that this same Horned God, mentioned above, may have chthonic properties (I promise I’ll deal with this in a future post).  Indeed the animal was different things to different people; it was associated with various deities, and appears in several Romano-celtic carvings paired with a bull. To me this is the stag’s most enduring imagery:  a symbol of the wild, unrepentant and chaotic nature (whereas, in this context,  the bull represents domestication and agriculture). In this aspect the stag’s imagery persists - right into the medieval period and beyond, always hinting at that which has gone before, as an echo of the past which made us all. And it is no wonder, as anyone  lucky enough to sight a  stag in the wild will know, such a sight  can’t fail to impress and, perhaps, tweak the mythological awe inside us all. 

gundestrup cauldron cernunnos
The horned deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron (Silver repoussé)

*There is some dispute about whether the deity was known by this name.
**This is similar in essence to the Grecian Goddess Artemis to whom the stag is devoted.
 *** The vast majority of the stags and hunt scenes in Valcamonica were carved in the Iron-Age.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Cauldron is Deep

Icelandic manuscript
Odin, in the form of an eagle, steals the Mead of Poetry.
From 18th c. Icelandic manuscript IB 299 4to.

In Welsh myth Ceriden, the hag-goddess*, bears a child called Afagddu (his name means ‘utter darkness). Knowing he would never attract a mate Ceriden mixed herbs of inspiration in her magical cauldron. She tasked wee Gwion with the job of stirring the reeking stew, but he fell into the cauldron by mistake. Thus the laddie gained the powers of poetry and was later known as Taliesin, the great bard. However Ceridwen wasn’t the only one to own such an inspirational cauldron, the Welsh hero Ogyrvran possessed one through which inspiration arose in the form of fey folk. 

Such notions are also reflected in Norse mythology:  The gods created a supreme being called Kvasir, but two dwarves slew him. They poured his blood into two cauldrons and a pot, then sweetened his juice with honey - whoever drank this mead  would become a great poet. Of course it was the god Odin himself who eventually stole this potion for his personal use. 

Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.
Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.

In her book The Well Of Five Streams,  Erynn Laurie discusses an interesting link between cauldrons and poetry. Translating a 7th century Irish poem, “The Cauldron Of Poesy”, Erynn elaborates upon the text's reference to three inner cauldrons, through which poetry is born. 

Apart from being associated with inspiration and poetry the cauldron is also often blessed with rejuvenating properties. The myth of the great replenishing cauldron is not restricted to Northern Europe. It featured in the Greek classic Jason and the Argonauts. The hero's wife, Medea, was a powerful sorceress who rejuvenated Jason’s father, Aeson, by filling a cauldron with a stew of magical herbs. She sacrificed Aeson, slitting his throat, releasing his old blood and then poured her magic potion into his gaping wound. As soon as the potion filled him Aeson was restored and returned to being a young man. Via this method she also rejuvenated a ram after it had been hacked to pieces and placed into the cauldron.

Interestingly in Celtic myth we see parallels of the use of a magical cauldron to restore the dead. Indeed in the Welsh otherworld (Annwn) there existed a cauldron of plenty which was never empty. This might be the same cauldron that the hero, Arthur, stole in one of the many ancient stories relating to his exploits. In the Mabinogion we find the tale in which the Irish king Matholwch used a Magical Cauldron that once belonged to the Welsh giant Llassar Llaesgyfnewid. Matholwch employed the cauldron’s properties against the invading Welsh forces of Brân The Blessed. The dead were heaped into the cauldron to be reanimated! 

One of the panels of the infamous Gundestrup Cauldron portrays a scene that some interpret as the use of a cauldron in such a fashion. Warriors are lined up while a giantess transforms them into horsemen (the horse was a powerful status symbol in those days). Note that they are following a serpent, which is a chthonic symbol; so they may be 'reanimated' for the Otherworld**. 

A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron, 2nd -1st c. BC, Denmark but Celtic themed

These themes of abundance and rejuvenation abound in Celtic myth. Another example is the Irish god, Dagda. He possessed a cauldron that was forever filled with good things (this being one of the mythical four treasures of the Tuatha dé Danaan, which originated in the city of Murias, travelled to Ireland with the Dé Danaan and is also linked with the holy well on the island of Iona -  whose waters were said to rise from the sacred cauldron itself). There was a Cauldron of plenty stored in an Irish cave, Oweynagat. Or the one belonging to the goddess Bláthnat, which the legendary hero, Cúchulainn stole from the Otherworld (along with the goddess and her magical cows).  The Smith God of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, Goibniu, purportedly possessed one that was forever filled with youth-restoring beverage. In Irish myth Cú Roí, (a mythical hero of Munster, or possibly an ancestral god),  kept a huge magical cauldron inside his keep. 

As we'd expect there are parallels in Norse mythology. In Valhalla Eldhrímnir is the name of the sooty cauldron in which the boar Saehrímnir is cooked everyday for the Einherjar. 

Bronze cauldron from Shipton-on-Cherwell.
One of the oldest so far found on British shores and dating to around
the 1st millennia BC. It was discovered in the river bed
and was possibly plunged into the river as a votive offering.

Heroes and gods, goddesses and the land itself possessed cauldrons of abundance and inspiration. We can imagine that the cauldron was probably the focal point of many people’s existence. These large pots, blackened by smoke, would have hung above the fire, around which the family gathered. Ritual cauldrons, such as that found in Gundestrup, Denmark,  were employed in communal gatherings. For ceremonies they were filled with both food and drink. Sometimes the blood of sacrifices may have been poured into them. It is obvious that cauldrons were important to the lives of the people. The pot was a container in which food or herbal brews were prepared, it was a tool of transformation whose presence in the household possibly imparted other qualities than purely functional. It is no wonder that there appear a great many stories of cauldrons whose contents never empty. Surely that would be a dream to many, especially in times of hardship. 

That these stories should overlap is not altogether so weird. Between Norse, Germanic and Celtic tribes there was interaction and with this came the cross-pollination of ideas. There is also some evidence to suggest that some myths come from way, way back, before the Celtic migrations. They are like core myths, mutating as tribes split, migrated, forming new ideas, adapting their mythology to the terrain and the fauna that surrounded them. According to some scholars this powerful notion of  rejuvenating cauldrons transformed in to the later Grail myth in the Medieval  Arthurian tales (themselves the retelling of earlier Celtic stories). 

Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial
Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial, a Celtic site dated to around 530 BC.


Ceriden seems  likely to be the same goddess as the Scots Cailleach (Callech, Caillech, Cailliach, Cailleach, in Ireland she was known as Bhéirre, Birrn, Béarra, Bhear, Beare or Birra)  who also possessed a cauldron of plenty. She was an ancient deity and some scholars believe she is of pre-celtic ancestry. She was primarily a goddess of abundance and fertility, although she is also linked with many landscape myths; in which she was a creator deity. 

Once again we glimpse an idea that could have cross-pollinated between cultures. For in this we perhaps glimpse the essence of the righteous warrior dead fighting in the afterlife. It is not unrealistic to see how this idea evolved into later Norse myths of Valhalla.