d) Etymology of divine names

The study of the significance of divine names is essential as regards this work, insomuch as it can shed light on the possible nature and functions of the goddesses. While Irish goddess names can be explained by the Irish language, which was written down from the 7th c. AD by Christian monks, Gaulish goddess names reflect a dead language which did not survive the Roman conquest and which nowadays remains largely unknown. A few fragmentary inscriptions engraved on coins, ceramic vessels, stone altars, and bronze or lead plaques, such as the Calendar of Coligny, discovered in 1987 in the département of Ain, the ‘Plomb du Larzac’ found in 1982 in Aveyron, or the ‘Plomb de Chamalières’ excavated in 1971 in Puy-de-Dôme, have nonetheless survived.53 Despite their fragmentary aspect, limited number and difficulty of interpretation, these recent discoveries are significant for the study of the Gaulish language, which have been partly reconstructed through comparative linguistics by Pierre-Yves Lambert in La langue gauloise published in 1994, and by Xavier Delamarre in Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise released in 2003. The Gaulish language is part of the Celtic languages, composed of the Celtiberian, Lepontic, Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton), and Goidelic (Irish, Manx and Scotish) languages, which all belong to the family of the Indo-European languages.54 Comparative linguistics consists in comparing the various Celtic languages which are attested by the 8th-/9th-century literary data and which are still spoken, such as Irish, Welsh and Breton.55

In The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans, published in 1994, Garrett Olmsted has gathered the various works carried out so far on the etymology of the Celtic goddess names of Ireland, Britain and Gaul, but his analyses do not always fall into the province of scientific work, and are sometimes inaccurate and misleading. Recently, various works on Celtic divine names have been published within a programme of research called Fontes Epigraphici Religionis Celticae Antiquae or F.E.R.C.A.N. [‘Epigraphic Sources of the Ancient Celtic Religion’], coordinated by Manfred Hainzmann (University of Graz, Austria).56 The article by Lambert, entitled ‘Les noms des dieux’, published in 2006 in Religions et Histoire, is also worth mentioning. All these works show the limits of etymology, which is not always an exact science and often gives rise to different interpretations. The fact that various etymologies are possible for a particular divine name is problematic regarding the identification of the nature and functions of a goddess. Votive dedications have thus to be studied principally in their archaeological context. When combined with etymology, the study of the place of discovery of the inscription and the votive material can throw light on the essence of the goddesses.


Lambert, 1995, pp. 109-114, 150-173.


The family of Indo-European languages is composed of about ten main languages: Hittite, Indo-Iranian, Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Tocharian, Italic, Hellenic and Germanic. See Lambert, 1995, p. 13.


In Wales: Old Welsh is attested from 800 AD. In Ireland: Ogams (from 350 AD) and Old Irish (from 750 AD). In Brittany: Old Breton (from 800 AD). Old Cornish is attested from 800 AD, but the Cornish language became extinct at the end of the 18th c. The Scottish Gaelic and Manx languages are attested from the 16th c. Manx died out around 1960, while Scottish Gaelicis a living language. See Lambert, 1995, pp. 14-15.


Spickermann & Wiegels, 2005 ; Hainzmann, 2007.