From all of this, it follows that the origin and character of the Matres and Matronae (‘Mother Goddesses’), whose cult was so widespread in Gallo-Roman times as the epigraphy and the iconography show, is a complex issue. Some information has been gathered and analyzed throughout this chapter and several arguments can be put forward regarding this question.

The form of their name seems to be more Latin than Celtic. Yet the word matir existed in Gaulish as the Plomb du Larzac evidence, for instance, proves. We can thus speak of ‘Latinized Celtic’ terms. It is also of great interest to note that three inscriptions in Gallo-Greek language mention a worship to ‘Divine Mother Goddesses’. This is significant, for they are in Gaulish, which is very rare and means they were dedicated by Gaulish devotees. Moreover, they date from the 2nd or 1st c. BC, which is the very beginning of the Roman occupation of the Narbonese region. Therefore, the Celtic people at this time were not yet much influenced by the Roman religion. As for the inscription from Istres, its interest lies in the fact that the dedication to the Mothers was directly engraved on the natural element that they embodied and protected: the rock of the hill of Castellan. We have thus here significant testimonies of earlier and indigenous cults honouring the Mother Goddesses.

Even though Matres and Matronae are Latinized forms, it is clear that most of their epithets are of Germanic or Celtic origin. As a general rule, the term Matronae is associated with Germanic bynames* - this, however, does not indicate that the Matronae were Germanic goddesses- , while Matres and Matrae are combined with Celtic bynames*. Matronae and Matres are equivalent in meaning, but it is at the same time possible to identify very specific and different areas of use. While the Matres are mainly honoured in Britain, in Gaul, especially in the south-east, in North Spain and sometimes in Germany, the Matronae are generally venerated with epithets in the Rhineland and without bynames* in Cisalpine Gaul. At first sight, it seems that an important part of the devotion to the Mother Goddesses is confined to military sites, such as along Hadrian’s or Antonine’s Wall in Britain or along the Rhine in Germany. However, it must be kept in mind that the places of dedications were areas which the Celts had occupied by immigration or conquest. Many of the dedicators also bear Roman names and/or belong to the Roman army. And yet, some of them have typical Celtic names, which is of great importance, for it evidences and reflects the attachment of people of Celtic stock to their ancient deities.

The iconography of the Matres and Matronae is very Classical in type and generally speaking does not have any hint of Celtic peculiarities, except sometimes in the haircut, when the goddesses wear their hair loose without diadems, or in the style of manufacture. The Mothers are indeed represented with the Greco-Roman attributes of fertility, such as cornucopiae*, fruit or paterae*. Neither is the portrayal of the Mother Goddesses in groups of three particularly Celtic, for there are many instances in Greco-Roman mythology of triple goddesses. Divine triplism actually goes back Indo-European times.578 Triadism is nonetheless typical and much stressed in the case of Celtic deities, as evidenced in the Gallo-British images and in Irish and Welsh medieval lores e.g. the three Machas, Brigits, the three goddesses of war, etc.

The fact that in Gallo-Roman times the Matres and Matronae were associated in the inscriptions with Roman goddesses or epithets, such as the Junones, Fatae, Domesticae or Campestres, prove that the Romans needed to identify those goddesses with their own. This epigraphic interpretatio Romana obviously means that the Matres and Matronae were originally not part of the Roman pantheon, but belonged to the Celtic beliefs - otherwise why would the Romans have felt it necessary to parallel them to Roman deities? It is true that the concept of maternity is particularly well illustrated in Greco-Roman mythologies, such as in the character of Juno, and that some goddesses are triplicate, such as the Fatae or the Nymphae, and yet, one can notice that, strictly speaking, there are no triple deities who literally bear the plural basic name of ‘Mothers’. This revered personage is, however, venerated in the singular form and has different attributes and functions. Moreover, if the Junones, Fatae, Nymphae, Campestres, Domesticae have the general beneficial traits of Mother Goddesses, they yet embody particular aspects of nature, destiny or death and possess specific functions, such as war or the protection of women, children and the household. These goddesses are actually ‘derivations’ of the Mother Goddesses, who definitely have a wider agrarian character.

We can gather from all of this that the Matres and Matronae, even though they underwent an important Romanization in Gallo-Roman times, were Celtic or Germanic in origin and their cult probably goes back to Indo-European times. It is nevertheless difficult to determine where the cradle of their cult was: Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul or Germany? Cecil Benett Pascal, who studies the cults of Cisalpine Gaul, tends to believe that the cult of the Mothers originated in Cisalpine Gaul, arguing that the dedicators from this province are from the “local civilian population”, whereas in Germania Inferior they are mostly soldiers.579 And a large number of those soldiers and officers, who undeniably played a significant part in the expansion of the cult of the Mothers, were from Cisalpine Gaul.580 Pascal adds that one of the earliest dated inscriptions to the Mothers (37-41 AD) was found near Lake Maggiore.581

Finally, the Matronae are associated with bynames* in Germany, while in Cisalpine Gaul they are venerated without epithets. This might be the reflection of some earlier stage of worship. Cisalpine Gaul may thus have been the cradle of the cult of the Mothers, but there is no proof that it was imported into the Rhineland.582 Others propose that the cult of the Mothers sprang from the Rhineland, for a certain number of dedicators in Cisalpine Gaul are Equites singulares, from the imperial guard, the members of which were mainly recruited along the Rhine and the Danube.583 Consequently, these are people from Celtic and Germanic areas, who brought the cult of their Mothers with them and, being far from their home, they were anxious to pay homage to their ancestral deities. As for Karl Simrock, he suggests that the Mothers are Germanic in origin, because they were identified with the Norns.584 The worship may equally well have been originally Celtic and then imported to the right bank of the Rhine.585 In other words, the Germanic tribes may have adopted the religion of the Gaulish people and taken up a similar name to designate their own Mother Goddesses.

Some scholars have tried to sketch earlier stages of the cult of the Mother Goddesses, but their theories remain very hypothetical. They would think of a pre-anthropomorphous animistic stage in the cult of the Matres. Rüger suggests that the genuine form of the Mother Goddesses would have been a goat,586 while Heinz Günter Horn and Spickermann propose that it might have been a tree on account of the frequent drawings of trees on the sides of the altars dedicated to the Matronae.587As Ton Derks argues, however, the fact that Mother Goddesses bear a close relation to trees does not mean that they were previously represented as such.588 He assumes “the existence of an (anthropomorphic*) ancestor cult before the beginning of Romanization”, which is very certainly the case, for anthropomorphic* statues of so-called goddesses are known from Prehistoric times.589

According to Alfred Maury, the worship and tradition of the Mother Goddesses endured in folk beliefs after Christianization and survived in the form of supernatural beings, i.e. the fairies, who are sometimes called Bonnes Dames (‘Good Ladies’), Dames Blanches (‘White Women’), Bé Find (‘White Women’), Bean Sí (the anglicized form of which is Banshee, ‘Woman-Fairy’), or Fata (‘Fate’), known from many medieval tales and folklore.590 It is besides noteworthy that the name designating the Welsh fairies, especially in Glamorganshire, is Y Mamau (‘The Mothers’) – the general appellation being y tylwyth teg (‘the fair folk’).591 The phrase bendith y mamau, literally ‘the mothers’ blessings’, is used to avoid fairy kidnapping, tricks and mischiefs. In Wales, the highest point in the Clwydian Mountains (Denbighshire) is named Y Foel Famau (‘the Hill of the Mothers’), where the otherworld community lives.592The Fairies are even sometimes called ‘goddesses’ in legends593 and have inherited some characteristics of ancient goddesses: they are associated with natural elements, such as forests, fountains, hills and have magic, shape-shifting or invisibility powers, which are reminiscent of those of the ancient deities.594 In Ireland, the fairy folk are called , earlier sídh, ‘mount’, and live in hills or tumuli*.595The sídh in early literature was used to designate the otherworld, that is the place where the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann (‘the Tribe of the Goddess Dana’) were believed to dwell.596

Another interesting point concerns the name Fata, which is sometimes used for the fairies, particularly when they are described as three fairies who foretell the future at the birth of a child and offer him presents. This name is the same as the Roman goddesses Fatae. According to MacCulloch, Fata comes from Latin fatum (‘fate’), Middle Latin fatare (‘to enchant’), which gave faer (‘to enchant’) in Old French and a participle participle faé (‘enchanted’) - see the common appellation les dames faés (‘the enchanted ladies’) in romances.597 Old French faerie, later féerie (‘enchantment’ or ‘illusion’), gave Old English faery, Modern fairy, plural fairies. The Fairies are thus to be regarded as the heirs of the Fatae, all the more so as they are associated with birth and fate. In Brittany, the tradition at a birth was to spread a table for them, which echoes the custom of placing a couch for Juno Lucina in Roman times.598 For all these reasons, the tradition of the Fairies might therefore contain distinct echoes of the cult of the Mother Goddesses in general.


Vries, 1963, p. 132 ; Campanile, 1996, pp. 74-77 says that the Mother Goddesses in Indo-European times had three characteristics. They were collective, local and protective. His interpretation is based on the study of Vedic epithets which describe the gods as ‘having several mothers’, i.e. ‘protected and happy’.


Pascal, 1964, p. 117.


Hatt, MDG, II, p. 91.


CIL V, 6641 ; Pascal, 1964, p. 117.


Pascal, 1964, p. 117 ; Haverfield, 1892, pp. 317-318.


Daremberg & Saglio, p. 790.


Simrock, 1869, p. 331.


Anwyl, 1906a, p. 35 ; Daremberg & Saglio, p. 636.


Rüger, 1983, pp. 210-221.


Horn, 1987, pp. 51-52 ; Spickermann, 2002, p.p. 148-149.


Derks, 1998, p. 124 and note 220.


Derks, 1998, pp. 126-127.


See the study of Maury, 1843 ; Castan, 1875, p. 172 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 206 ; Maccullogh, 1911, pp. 45-46, 73 ; Maccullogh, in ERE, 5, 1955, p. 181 ; Macbain, 1885, p. 37. For details about the Fairies, see Maccullogh, in ERE, 5, 1955, pp. 678-689 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 206-212 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 200-202.


Anwyl, 1906a, p. 29 ; Anwyl, in ERE, 4, p. 574 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 40, 417 ; Gwynn, 1930, pp. 51, 236 ; Ross, 2001, pp. 133-136.


Rhys, 1878, p. 39 ; Anwyl, 1906a, p. 29 ; De Vries, 1963, p. 131 ; Vendryes, 1997, p. 47.


Grimm, 1882-1888, p. 1400.


Maccullogh, in ERE, 5, 1955, pp. 681-682.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 206.


Mackillop, 2004, p. 386.


Maccullogh, in ERE, 5, 1955, p. 678.


Maury, 1843, p. 31.