The geographical scope of this study thus consists principally of Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Celt-Iberia, North Italy, Central and Eastern Europe will also be referred to occasionally. Historically, it encompasses a period from about the 8th c. BC, when the first Celts appeared in central Europe, to about the 400 AD, when Ireland became Christianized and Gallo-Roman and Romano-British cultures came to an end. This work does not aim, however, at identifying all the goddesses of the Gallo-Roman and Romano-British peoples. It intends rather to reconstruct, through sources dating from Irish early medieval times and Gallo-Roman/Romano-British times, the goddesses which are specific to the Celts.
The oral tradition of the Celts, the conquest of Gaul and Britain by the Romans and the rare comments of the Classical authors explain why we have so little knowledge of Celtic goddesses; of their character, attributes, functions and place with in systems of religious belief. The scarcity, disparity and indirect character of the sources make the study of the goddesses complex and hazardous. There are dangers in becoming too speculative and going beyond the limits of the material. We have thus tried to collect and analyze the data in the most accurate and objective way possible.
Even though the Irish texts were written down from the 7th c. A.D. by Christian monks, it cannot be denied that they describe some of the ancient cults and deities of the Insular Celts, who undoubtedly had traditions, rites, myths and deities in common with the British and Continental Celts. The similarity which exists between the names of gods or goddesses known from Irish mythology and from dedications discovered in Gaul or Britain is not insignificant and supports this contention. From this, it follows that Irish mythology can sometimes bring the abstruse Gaulish and British Celtic deities to light, explain their personality and clarify some of their functions. This work thus attempts, by gathering, comparing and analysing the various linguistic, literary, epigraphic and iconographical data from Gaul, Ancient Britain and Ireland, to answer the questions ‘Which goddesses did the Celts believe in?’ and ‘Did the Celts from Ireland, Britain and Gaul venerate similar goddesses?’. Despite the spatial and temporal differences in the sources - archaeological and linguistic data from Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times in Gaul and Britain, and early medieval literature in Ireland - is it possible to reconstruct some myths concerning the Celtic goddesses? What were their nature and functions? How were they worshipped and by whom? Were they hierarchically organized within a pantheon? Because of the substantial number of Celtic goddesses and the large scope of this work, it was not possible to deal with all of the goddesses – although most of them have been studied. We have chosen not to deal with goddesses whose cult was certainly more Gallo-Roman than Celtic, and who have formed the subject of extensive work by other researchers, such as the horse-goddess Epona. The cult of Epona, studied notably by Katheryn Linduff, is attested by around 280 figural representations and sixty-seven inscriptions from Romania, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, Italy (Rome), the Rhineland, Gaul, Britain, and Spain; and apart from her name, which can be derived from the Celtic language, the material is of late date and dedicated mostly by soldiers in the Roman army.76
Because of the lack of evidence, the disparity of the sources and, above all, the large number of Celtic goddesses and their complex nature, classifying and organizing the goddesses into ‘categories’ turned out to be a difficult task. The five chapters which follow treat subject areas that intertwine in numerous ways, for Celtic goddesses seem to have a multi-faced character and to have fulfilled functions of a different nature. We have attempted to establish a clear focus for each chapter, yet allowing overlapping where this seemed unavoidable.
Chapter 1 ‘The Mother Goddesses (Matres, Matrae, Matronae)’ analyses the character of the Matres, Matrae and Matronae, who represent the ancestral concept of the earth as a mother goddess sustaining her people through the natural resources emanating from her womb. Their cult is attested by around 700 epigraphic and iconographical devices, dating from Gallo-Roman and Romano-British times, in Britain, northern Spain, Gaul, Germany and Cisalpine Gaul (North Italy). While their generic name matres / matronae seems to be Latin, their epithets are exclusively of Celtic or Germanic origin. The reliefs, which generally represent them in groups of three bearing attributes of sovereignty (diadems, thrones and tunics) and fertility (cornucopiae*, paterae*, fruit, cakes and swaddled babies), are clearly modelled on the Classical figurations of mother goddesses. This chapter discusses and questions the origin of the cult of the Matres, Matrae and Matronae: were they of Roman, Gallo-Roman, Germanic or Celtic origin?
Chapter 2, ‘Nature and Bounty’, concentrates mainly on the concept of the goddess as the embodiment of Nature, exemplified, among others, by goddesses personifying the land, such as Irish Ériu, Macha or Tailtiu, and Gaulish Litavi and Nantosuelta; animals, such as Gaulish Artio and Irish Flidais; trees or forests, such as the Dervonnae, the Eburnicae or Abnoba; and high places (hills and mountains), such as British Brigantia and Irish Brigit, Gaulish Bergusia/Bergonia or Alambrima. This chapter will also question the long-established image of some goddesses, such as Irish Flidais, who is generally understood as a woodland-deer-goddess, or Gaulish Arduinna, who is universally accepted as a woodland-boar-goddess. It also explores the function of the land-goddess as a purveyor of natural riches, which is greatly illustrated by goddesses of bounty, such as the Irish Mór Muman and the Gaulish Rosmerta, Cantismerta and Atesmerta.
Chapter 3, ‘Territorial- and War-Goddesses’, examines the notions of divine sovereignty and protection of the territory and the tribe. Compared to Irish mythology, which tells of a trio of powerful and terrifying goddesses of war, appearing in the shape of a raven, very little material evidencing a cult to protective and martial goddesses in Gaul and Britain has survived. The aim of this chapter is to compare the descriptive elements of the Irish medieval texts to surviving linguistic, literary and archaeological data from Britain and Gaul, so as to recontruct some myths concerning Celtic divine warrioresses.
Chapter 4 ‘Water-Goddesses’ delves into the subject of goddesses related to water, such as river, spring and fountain goddesses. It gathers the literary and archaeological material which provide proof of the existence of such cults and examines the different functions fulfilled by water-goddesses in Ireland, Britain and Gaul.
Finally, chapter 5 ‘Intoxicating Goddesses’ looks into the subject of goddesses linked to drunkenness, ecstasy or trance by purveying ‘intoxicating’ beverages - notably mead - which they personify. It discusses the possibility that such goddesses were the representatives or personifications of specific cults and rites attached to intoxication in Celtic times. The aim of this chapter is thus to collect, analyze and reconstruct the essence and functions of those singular goddesses and examine the nature of their cults, in order to determine the context in which they may have been worshipped and appealed to.
The etymology of her name is explained in Delamarre, 2003, p. 163. The epigraphic references are listed in Jüfer, 2001, pp. 38-39. The iconographical representations are listed by Sterckx, 1986, pp. 19-38 and in LIMC, t. 5.1, pp. 985-999 & t. 5.2, pp. 619-628. A comprehensive study of the goddess’ cult and its origin was published by Linduff, Katheryn, ‘Epona: a Celt among the Romans, in Latomus, 38, 4, 1979, pp. 817-837. Two other articles are worth mentioning: Oaks, Laura, ‘The Goddess Epona: concepts of sovereignty in a changing landscape’, in Henig & King, 1986, pp. 77-83 ; Boucher, Stéphanie, ‘Notes sur Epona’, in Burnand & Lavagne, 1999, pp. 14-22 & plates I-VII.