Chapter 1
The Matres and Matronae


The Mother Goddess is an entity, whose cult is universal and very ancient, the first female figurations, known from sculptures, reliefs*, rock paintings and engravings, going back to the Palaeolithic period. The figurine, sculpted in reindeer wood, dated c. 32,000 BC, discovered in La Ferrassie, near Les Eyzies (Dordogne, France), which represents a small round abdomen, with no breasts, head, arms and legs, might be one of the oldest female figures.77 The specialists have seen in this statuette a pregnant woman, but the interpretation remains yet very hypothetical.

From that time onwards, female figures seem to have been represented with hypertrophied breast, abdomen and bottom, and atrophied head and limbs, which probably symbolizes the female functions of fertility and fecundity. It is difficult to say if at this time these female depictions were already understood as representations of ‘mother goddesses’, insomuch as we do not know if any kind of ‘religion’ existed in those remote times and if there was anything close to a divine representation of Nature.78 These representations might indeed have been simple depictions glorifying the female functions. And yet, when looking at the Lespugue Venus, which is one of the most famous examples of this type, it is difficult not to see in her a Goddess, embodying the various concepts of fertilizing and bountiful Nature. We have thus chosen to see in those prehistoric statues representations of ‘goddesses’, keeping in mind that theories about their functions and attributes remain very hypothetical and obscure. The Lespugue Venus, dated c. 23,000-21,000 BC, was discovered in 1922 in the Grotte des Rideaux, in Lespugue (Haute-Garonne).79 It is artistically similar to the Venus from Monpazier (Dordogne), dated c. 23,000-21,000 BC.80

Furthermore, some ‘goddesses’ seem to have been intentionally depicted pregnant, for the emphasis is placed on their round and prominent abdomen and their hypertrophied vulva. Such a type can be seen in the engraving from the cave of La Marche, in Lussac-les-Châteaux (Vienne), dated c. 13,000-12,000 BC,81 or in the bas-relief*, dated c. 25,000-20,000 BC, sculpted on a limestone block coming from the 115 metre-long rock shelter of Laussel, showing a ‘Venus holding a horn’.82 Moreover, some graphic symbols, in the shape of chevrons, triangles and semi-circles, having a line or a point in their centre, could be interpreted as symbolic representations of the vulva of the goddess - the line or point possibly indicating the orifice.83

The megalithic culture of the Neolithic period gave birth to statue-menhirs* or drawings of female idols, generally represented with two small circles in relief, standing for the bosom, and a sort of U-shape necklace. Such figurations were particularly found in Britain and in France, notably in the funerary dolmens of Tarn and Gard and in the menhirs* of Aveyron, Tarn and Hérault (fig. 1).84 Two famous examples are the statue-menhir* in granite from Câtel, Guernesey (GB), dated 3,000-2,500 BC,85 and the charcoal drawing painted on the left wall of the antechamber of the hypogeum n°23 of the Razet cemetery, in Coizard (Marne), dated c. 3,000-2,500 BC.86 At this time, it seems that the goddess was sometimes reduced to simple representations of breasts in relief, which can appear on the walls of the gallery tombs, such as in Tressé (Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany, c. 3,000-2,500 BC).87 As for the megalithic tombs, they have sometimes been construed as the symbolic representation of the body of the goddess.88 The entrance would stand for the goddess’s vulva, while the main funerary chamber would symbolize her womb. Marija Gimbutas for instance compares the dolmens with a corridor from Ile-Longue, Larmor-Baden, (Bretagne), and the court cairns from Ballyglass, Co. Mayo, and from Deer Park (Maghezaghannesh) and Creevykeel, Co. Sligo (Ireland), to the body of the Mother Goddess in a standing or sitting position (4th millennium BC).89 The earth is then understood as the maternal womb, where important people were buried for them to be reborn in the otherworld. While this interpretation is interesting, it remains conjectural.

Fig. 1: Statue-menhir* unearthed in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance (Aveyron), representing a goddess with two circles in relief standing for her breasts and a U-shape necklace.
Fig. 1: Statue-menhir* unearthed in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance (Aveyron), representing a goddess with two circles in relief standing for her breasts and a U-shape necklace. RG 1631.

The concept of the ‘Mother Goddess’, embodying the earth and all its products, i.e. forests, plants, animals, rivers and foodstuff, is clearly noticeable in all the ancient mythologies of Indo-European and other origin. Known as Ishtar or Nammou (‘the August Dame’) in Assyrian-Babylonian mythology,90 Indo-European examples are also numerous, such as Gaia, Rhea or Demeter (‘Mother Earth’) in Greek mythology,91 Juno (‘the Young One’) in Roman mythology92 or Freya (‘the Sovereign’) in Norse mythology.93 This kind of Goddess or Terra Mater (‘Earth Mother’) universally represents the grand creative principle, i.e. the land which feeds everything and everybody.94 The Latin word māter is besides reminiscent of the various primary functions of the goddess, since it signifies ‘the source, the origin, the cause’, as well as the ‘mother of men and animals’ and the ‘nurse’. The titles Magna Mater (‘Powerful Mother’) or Mater Deum (‘Mother of the Gods’) are for instance given to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who became one of the most powerful Greek and Roman female deities of fertility.95 She represents the Earth in its primitive state and reigns over the reproduction of animals, plants, gods and human beings. As for the ancient Roman grain-goddess Ceres, who, like Demeter, makes the wheat sprout and grow, she is given the significant designation of mater frugum, i.e. ‘the mother who provides the produce of the earth, such as the cereals, fruit or vegetables’.96

As we will see throughout this chapter and the following one, the ancient concept of a Mother Goddess being at the origin of everything, dispensing terrestrial life and feeding her people, held an important place in the religious conceptions of the Celts. Whereas some names and stories of Land and Mother Goddesses have survived in Irish medieval literature - giving us a certain idea of the primary roles and attributes of those goddesses - the British and Gaulish data are sparse and obscure, for almost nothing remains of the ancient beliefs of the Celts in those countries, on account of their oral lore and of the Roman invasion.

As there is no written literature describing the early British and Gaulish Celtic religions, the only information we possess comes from inscriptions honouring the deities. These inscriptions are precious to the scholar, for it is exclusively through them that the names of the goddesses venerated in Celtic times are known. However, it is important to keep in mind that the dedications date from Gallo-Roman times. The question which must be considered, then, is whether we are dealing with deities of Celtic, Gallo-Roman or Roman origin. Moreover, it is important to separate the goddesses who are definitely Celtic from those who seem to have a Germanic provenance and nature, especially in the areas where the two peoples had considerable contacts, most notably along the Rhine. Only the study of the origin of the goddess names can unravel these thorny questions, since the iconography, which seldom accompanied the epigraphy*, is generally of Classical character. The etymology* of the goddess names is all the more essential in our analysis as it allows us to determine the possible functions of an undetermined goddess. Even though the figurations are mainly of Greco-Roman type, they are to be taken into account, for with the dedications they illustrate the role of the goddesses and sometimes fortunately offer an attribute of indigenous character.

Before going into detail concerning the various Celtic goddesses embodying the land and purveying fertility, we will look into the controversial subject of the Matres and Matronae, literally ‘Mothers’, whose cult was widespread and of great importance in Gallo-Roman times, for more than 700 epigraphic and iconographical devices, honouring or representing them, have been discovered in Britain, northern Spain, Gaul, Germany and Cisalpine Gaul (North Italy).97 Are these ‘Mothers’ to be looked on as part of ancient Celtic belief systems or as the result of the importation of the Roman pantheon? In other words, did the cult of the ‘Mothers’ spring up in Gallo-Roman times, through contact with Roman religion, or was it originally Celtic?


Marshack, 1972, p. 294 and fig. 159, a, b.; Peyrony, 1934, p. 51, fig. 50.


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, p. 11-22.


The Venus of Lespugue is 14.7 centimetre-high. See L’Anthropologie, vol. 32, 1922, p. 365, fig. 2, pl. I to III ; Gimbutas, 2005, plate 7 and p. 189, fig. 252 ; Husain, 2001, p. 10 ; Vialou, 2004, pp. 851-852. There are other representations of the same type in Europe, dating from the Palaeolithic period, such as the figurine representing a goddess with heavy hanging breasts and large hips, discovered in Dolní Věstonice, Moravia, dated c. 24,000 BC. See Marshack, 1972, pp. 304-305 ; Gimbutas, 2005, p. 81, fig. 86. Another example is the figurine in ivory, representing a goddess, whose ample breast is surmounted by a chevron. It was discovered on the site of Kostienki, on the Desna, Ukraine and is dated c. 20,000 BC. See Gimbutas, 2005, p. 63, fig. 49 ; Boyer, 1995, pp. 7-19.


Gimbutas, 2005, p. 131, fig. 169.


Gimbutas, 2005, p. 168, fig. 216, 3 ; Vialou, 2004, p. 898.


This goddess is also known as the ‘Venus from Laussel’. Gimbutas, 2005, p. 168, fig. 216, 1 ; Marshack, 1972, p. 287, 328-329 ; Vialou, 2004, p. 845.


Gimbutas, 2005, pp. 35-47, 265-273 ; Marshack, 1972, pp. 303-308.


De Vries, 1963, p. 125 ; Grenier, 1945, p. 335 ; Green, 2004, pp. 72-73. This is called the culture of the Seine-Oise-Marne (SOM), which developed between 3,400 BC and 2,800 BC in the Paris Basin.


Gimbutas, 2005, p. 70, fig. 69.


De Vries, 1963, p. 125 ; Déchelette, 1924, pp. 585-595 ; Gimbutas, 1995, p. 220, fig. 295 ; Vialou, 2004, p. 1226.


The gallery tomb, known today as ‘Maison des Feins or Maison des Fées’ (‘House of the Fairies’), is precisely situated in the Forest of Mesnil. Feins is a village situated 28 kilometres from Tressé. The excavations were carried out in 1931 by Sir Robert Ludwig Mond and the report was published by his assistant: Collum, Vera Christina Chute, L’Allée couverte de Tressé, Paris, Librairie Ernest Leroux, 1938. For a picture of the gallery tomb, see Gimbutas, 2005, p. 71, fig. 70.


Gimbutas, 2005, pp. 175-185 ; Briard, 1979, pp. 30-35.


Gimbutas, 2005, pp. 176, fig. 231, p. 180, fig. 180.


Assyrian-Babylonian mythology goes back to the 3rd millennium BC Nammou is a Sumerian goddess. She is the primordial deity of the pantheon of Eridou. Ishtar, also called Asherah, is the name of the primordial Great Goddess of the Semite. She is the consort the god El and presides over the fertility of the soil and the fecundity of the cattle. Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 79-81, 84, 730, 772 ; Lévy, Anne-Déborah, ‘Ishtar’, in Dictionnaire des Mythes littéraires, Paris, Ed. du Rocher, 1988, p. 780.


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 120, 696, 827-828, 661-662. Gaia, who embodies the Earth in the process of formation, is the partner of Ouranos, the Sky. They represent the original couple. Rhea, the daughter of Gaia and Ouranos, is the wife of Cronos (‘Time’) and gives birth to all the powerful Greek gods, such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter and Hades. She is the Mother Goddess par excellence. As for Demeter, she is the goddess presiding over wheat and harvest. She ensures its germination and maturity. Ceres was later assimilated to her. For more details about Demeter, see Brill’s, vol. 4, pp. 235-242.


Grant & Hazel, 2002, pp. 195-196 ; Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 250-252, 735-736 ; Daremberg &Saglio, pp. 668-690 ; Brill’s, vol. 6, pp. 1107-1111. Juno, the wife of Jupiter, protects women throughout their life. She bears various epithets according to the roles she plays in the life of women. When she presides over marriage, she is called Juno Jugalis. When she presides over pregnancy, she is Juno Lucina, etc.


Boyer, 1995, p. 120 ; Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 322-323, 694. Freya, daughter of Njord and sister of Freyr, is the goddess of fecundity and vegetation.


Grant & Hazel, 2002, p. 106 ; Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 201-206.


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 201-202, 656 ; on Magna Mater and her cult, see James, 1960, pp. 177-208 ; Brill’s, vol. 8, pp. 458-459.


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 257, 644-645.


Paulys, vol. 14.2, pp. 2213-2249 lists 702 iconographical and epigraphic documents to the Matres, Matronae.