3) Interpretations of her attributes

Nantosuelta is a complicated figure to understand. In addition to the meaning of her name, which, as we have seen, is still controversial, her attributes are of a complex nature, for they are atypical, puzzling and identifiable only with difficulty. Nantosuelta generally holds a long pole surmounted by an object, which for Espérandieu would be the illustration of a beehive.712 As far as Birkhan is concerned, the house-shaped object would represent a tomb or a simple villa rustica* carried on a pole during processions.713 This object also reminds him of the Welsh wren houses, which have an identical shape. Accordingly, it could the representation of an aviary. Emile Lickenheld and Salomon Reinach’s suggestion is the most probable. They identify the object with a small house or a hut which would reflect the protective role of Nantosuelta for the household and the family.714 She might have procured well-being, chance, wealth and blessing for the members of the family.715 She is thus close in the essence to the Matres Domesticae or to the Proxsumae studied in Chapter 1.

As regards the recurrent symbol of the crow, it can be interpreted in various ways. First of all, it is an acknowledged fact that the crow was both a symbol of war and death for the Celts.716 For instance, this bird occurs on some casks of Celtic warriors, such as the cask from Ciumesti (Romania), dating from the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, surmounted by a bronze raven (Chap. 3 - fig. 6).717 Moreover, the Irish war-goddesses and announcers of death, the Mórrígain (‘Great Queen’) and Badb (‘Crow’), can take the shape of a raven when they fly over the battleground looking for dead warriors’ bodies to devour. Despite the attempt of D’Arbois de Jubainville to etymologically link Nantosuelta to the notion of combat, the goddess does not have any war-like traits in the portrayals. Thus, Anne Ross is incorrect when suggesting that the crow should be understood as a war-symbol characterizing the goddess.718

In ancient civilizations, almost all birds were regarded as divine messengers, belonging to the Otherworld and acting as mediators between the supernatural and the natural worlds.719 This is the reason why the oracle, which was an answer from the gods to the questions of human beings, was generally symbolised by a bird, the species of which varies from one country (or area) to another; birds of prey, such as eagles or ravens, doves and water birds.720 Various studies demonstrated that the crow is the Celtic oracular bird par excellence. This bird is often portrayed accompanying gods and goddesses.721 Such a role is also evidenced by two Classical legendary accounts. Clitophon recounts that the foundation of Lugudunum (Lyons) was dictated by a flight of crows:

‘Near the river Arar (the present-day River Saône) is the Mount Lugdunus, which changed of name for the following reason: Mômoros and Atepomaros, chased out by Sèsêronéos, went to this hill to build up a town, according to the order of an oracle. Ditches for the foundations were being dug when suddenly appeared crows, which, flying here and there, covered the surrounding trees. Mômoros, who was clever with the science of augury, called the new city Lugdunum. For in their language, the crow is called lougos and a high place dounon.722

As for Livy, he relates in his History of Rome a duel between a Gaulish leader and a tribune called Marcus Valerius, whose victory was augured by a crow perched on his head, hence his nickname Corvus (fig. 9):

‘Whilst the Romans were passing their time quietly at the out- posts, a gigantic Gaul in splendid armour advanced towards them, and delivered a challenge through an interpreter to meet any Roman in single combat. There was a young military tribune, named Marcus Valerius, who considered himself no less worthy of that honour than T. Manlius had been. After obtain- ing the consul's permission, he marched, completely armed, into the open ground between the two armies. The human element in the fight was thrown into the shade by the direct interposition of the gods, for just as they were engaging a crow settled all of a sudden on the Roman's helmet with its head towards his antagonist. The tribune gladly accepted this as a divinely-sent augury, and prayed that whether it were god or goddess who had sent the auspicious bird that deity would be gracious to him and help him. Wonderful to relate, not only did the bird keep its place on the helmet, but every time they en- countered it rose on its wings and attacked the Gaul's face and eyes with beak and talon, until, terrified at the sight of so dire a portent and bewildered in eyes and mind alike, he was slain by Valerius. Then, soaring away eastwards, the crow passed out of sight. Hitherto the outposts on both sales had remained quiet, but when the tribune began to despoil his foeman's corpse, the Gauls no longer kept their posts, whilst the Romans ran still more swiftly to help the victor. A furious fight took place round the body as it lay, and not only the maniples at the nearest outposts but the legions pouring out from the camp joined in the fray. The soldiers were exultant at their tribune's victory and at the manifest presence and help of the gods, and as Camillus ordered them into action he pointed to the tribune, conspicuous with his spoils, and said: `Follow his example, soldiers, and lay the Gauls in heaps round their fallen cham- pion!' Gods and man alike took part in the battle, and it was fought out to a finish, unmistakably disastrous to the Gauls, so completely had each army anticipated a result corre- sponding to that of the single combat. Those Gauls who began the fight fought desperately, but the rest of the host who come to help them turned back before they came within range of the missiles. They dispersed amongst the Volscians and over the Falernian district; from thence they made their way to Apulia and the western sea.723
Fig. 9: Stele* from Citta della Pieve evoking the myth of the tribune Marcus Valerius Corvus. Archaeological Museum of Florence. Brunaux, 2004, p. 88, fig. 35.
Fig. 9: Stele* from Citta della Pieve evoking the myth of the tribune Marcus Valerius Corvus. Archaeological Museum of Florence. Brunaux, 2004, p. 88, fig. 35.

In addition, in Irish mythology, the Mórrígain and Badb have sometimes the role of prophetesses.724As regards Germanic and Scandinavian mythology, ravens are the companions of the omniscient gods Wōdan and Óðinn.725 Óðinn’s two crows Hugin (‘Spirit’) and Munnin (‘Memory’) fly all over the world during the day and settle at night on his shoulders to tell him what they have seen and heard; wherefore Óðinn is called Hrafnaguð (‘Raven-God’).726 From this, it can be inferred that Nantosuelta’s crow might have had the role of an oracular divine messenger, reporting the questions, prayers and actions of human beings to her.

Following on from the role of supernatural mediator, the crow also had a funerary dimension, as a conveyor of souls towards the otherworld.727 Nantosuelta’s crow might thus represent the goddess’s ability to accompany the deceased to the supernatural world. Besides, some scholars have interpreted the house symbol appearing at the end of Nantosuelta’s staff as the representation of a funerary ‘house-tomb’.728 Furthermore, the object she sometimes holds in one of her hands might be viewed as a funerary urn or cassolette for incense. It could parallel the olla* of Sucellus, which could contain offerings for the dead.729 All those attributes could thus attest to her connection with death and to her funerary functions.

Another interpretation of Nantosuelta’s aspects can be suggested. If the round object she holds is not a cassolette for incense but a beehive, as suggested by Espérandieu, she might have had a connection with bees and honey.730 Moreover, the three round-shaped objects at her feet on the relief* from Sarrebourg (fig. 6) have been interpreted as honeycombs or honey cakes.731 As will be demonstrated in Chapter 5, honey was a natural product of great importance and sacredness in antiquity. Henry Hubert, who supports that idea, affirms that Nantosuelta is a ‘beehive goddess’, and that her partner, Sucellus, might have been the holder of a sacred beverage of immortality, possibly mead, symbolized by the olla* or cup.732 This theory is interesting, for Sucellus is sometimes portrayed with a barrel, which may be a symbol of brewing.

At any rate, it seems highly likely that Nantosuelta was originally an earth-goddess. Sucellus, with his gobelet and long-shafted mallet, can be compared to the Irish Dagda, whose attributes are a great cauldron and a staff, dispensing death on one side and restoring life on the other.733 According to Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, the name of the Dagda comes from a Celtic dago-Dewios, with dago signifying ‘good’ and Dewios, similar to Indic Dyâus, Latin Deus, Greek Zeus, referring to the ‘sky’.734 In Dagda (‘the Good God’) is therefore the reminiscent figure of the father god or sky-deity of Celtic and Indo-European religions. Being nicknamed Aedh Álainn (‘Fiery Lustrous One’) and Aodh Ruadh Rό-Fheasa (‘The Red Fire (Sun) of Absolute Knowledge’), he was primarily associated with the sun.735 Sucellus and Nantosuelta might originally have been the couple representing the land-goddess mating with the sun/sky deity, for they both represent the forces of nature and of the ground. They were later given domestic and funerary functions, protecting the household and the family in the terrestrial life and accompanying the dead in the afterlife.736


RG 4566, p. 36.


Birkhan, 1999, p. 86. In Roman times, a villa rustica, as opposed to villa urbana ‘urban villa’, was set in the open countryside, often as the hub of a large agricultural estate.


Reinach, 1896, p. 45 ; Lickenheld, 1929, pp. 60-61 ; Green, 2001, pp. 47-48 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 342.


Lickenheld, 1929, pp. 60-61 ; Green, 2001, p. 48 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 342.


Green, 1992a, pp. 69 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 113 ; Green, 1992, pp. 177-181 ; Green, 2001, pp. 26-27, 142-144 ; Ross, 1996, pp. 311-330, 366-368 ; Duval, 1987, pp. 20-21 ; Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969, pp. 85-86.


Duval, 1977, pp. 78, 106 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 548, 522 ; Birkhan, 1999, p. 380, n° 731.


Ross, 1996, p. 313 thinks that Nantosuelta is a ‘raven-goddess’, who is related to war on account of the imagery of the crow.


Guyonvarc’h, 1986, p. 129 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 42 ; Ross, 1996, pp. 302-377.


Benoit, 1970, pp. 66-67. The distribution of the species is conformed to the geography of the country: the crow, which is the prophetic Celtic bird par excellence, is replaced in the marsh areas of the river valleys by the wading bird.


Green, 2001, pp. 26-27, 142-144 ; Cooper, 1978, p. 47 ; Brunaux, 2000, pp. 175-177 ; Grenier, 1945, p. 341 ; Reinach, 1908-1909, p. 457 ; Haggerty-Krapp, 1936, pp. 242ff ; Linckenheld, 1929, pp. 72, 85 gives some examples of goddesses in the company of crows, such as the bronze figure with two ravens in the Museum of Saint-Germain and the stone mother goddess with ravens at Saintes.


Clitophon (Pseudo-Plutarch), a Greek historian, born in Rhodes, considered to be fictitious by some critics. De Fluviis VI, 4 (3rd of 4th c. AD).


See Appendix 1. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 7.26 ; Canon Roberts, 1912. See also Dio Cassius, Roman History, (Zonaras) 7.25 ; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 15.1 ; Appian, Celtica, 10 (fragment).


See Chapter 3.


Wagner, 1970, pp. 22-25 ; Chevallier & Gheerbrant, 1991, pp. 285-286.


Wagner, 1970, pp. 24-25.


Brunaux, 2000, p. 175.


Reinach, 1896, p. 47 ; Linckenheld, 1929, pp. 67-68, 85 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 301.


Linckenheld, 1929, p. 85.


RG 4568, p. 38.


RG 4568, p. 38 ; Reinach, 1986, p. 47.


Hubert, 1912, p. 281 ; Green, 2001, p. 42.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 151-154 ; Green, 1992a, p. 75 ; Mac Cana, 1983, pp. 64-66 ; Olmsted, 1994, pp. 43-47 ; Ross, 1996, pp. 213-214. The great inexhaustible cauldron of the Dagda (coiri an Dagdai), from which “no company ever went away unsatisfied”, is described in Cath Maige Tuired [‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’], see Gray, 1982, pp. 24-25 ; Stokes, 1891a, pp. 58-59. For a physical description of the Dagda and a mention of his staff, which can kill on one side of it and restore life on the other, see Mesca Ulad [‘Intoxication of the Ultonians’], Hennessy, 1884, pp. 32-33: “In his hand was a terrible iron staff, on which were a rough end and a smooth end. His plays and amusements consisted in laying the rough end on the heads of the nine [men], whom he would kill in the space of a moment. He would then lay the smooth end on them, so that he would animate them in the same time.”


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 151 ; Delamarre, 2003, p. 204.


Aodh, earlier Aedh, from Celtic aedos, ‘fire’, found in names of tribes, such as the Aedha and Aedhnai in Ireland, and the Aedui in Gaul, is an ancient appellation for the sun deity ; ruadh, ‘ruddy’ or ‘red-haired’ ; Rό-Fheasa (‘the all-knowing’). In Dagda (‘The Good God’) is also called Ollathair (‘Eochaid the Great Father’) - the name Eochaid is derived from ech, ‘horse’. See Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 17, 19.


Lickenheld, 1929, p. 73.