Belief in a goddess embodying the earth is widely illustrated in Irish mythology and Gallo-British archaeology. The Irish accounts tell of divine ancestresses personifying the island, the fields or the ground, such as Ériu, Banba, Fótla, Tailtiu, Macha, the Mórrígain or Danu, who possess pronounced agrarian features and whose body shapes the landscape. In Gallo-British and Celt-Iberian epigraphy, a certain number of goddess names or epithets refer directly to the land or to peculiar natural elements, such as animals, trees or mounts: Litavi (‘Earth’), Nantosuelta (‘Winding Brook’ or ‘Meadows’?), Artio (‘Bear’), Matres Eburnicae (‘Yew Mother Goddesses’), Duilliae (‘Leaves’), Bergusia, Bergonia (‘Hill’), Arduinna (‘High One’), etc. This suggests that Nature was worshipped as a divine entity by the Celts and that every single natural element was deified. Animal and plant species were sacred because they were part of a system maintaining and ensuring the survival of the human race. Animals were hunted or bred for food, while fruit, vegetables and plants were easily picked up and prized as food. Hill-tops and mountains seem to have been particularly revered. Their majesty, mystery, impressive size and potency in the landscape certainly inspired a feeling of smallness and admiration. Hills and mountains were often chosen as a place of ritual observance or habitation where fortified cities or sanctuaries were built.
It is evident that the earth was mainly presided over by female deities, whose main function was to provide food and nurture the peoples. Such a role is exemplified by Irish Mór Muman of Munster (‘the Nurturer’) and Danu/Anu/Ana, the ancestress and mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Gaulish Rosmerta, Cantismerta and Atesmerta, whose names signify ‘Great Providers’. It is significant that a certain number of dedicators paying homage to those land-goddesses on the Continent were of Celtic stock and not Roman citizens yet. It proves that, despite the influence of Roman religion after the conquest, local people did not renounce their culture and religious beliefs and went on praying to, worshipping and honouring their ancient deities. It is conspicuous that the goddesses presiding over the ground and its riches, such as Rosmerta, Atesmerta, Cantismerta and Nantosuelta, were mainly honoured in the north, north-east and centre-east of Gaul. The possibility of a worship dedicated to them in other parts of Gaul is not to be dismissed, insomuch as the potentiality of further archaeological discoveries is considerable and undeniable.
The earth-goddesses must have intervened in various aspects of life and been honoured in different ways according to social rank. Their role as providers of fertility indisputably relates them to the rural community, which was in charge of working the soil and breeding cattle. Their cult must have been based on the cycle of the seasons, settling on the agrarian calendar and varying from sowing time to harvest time. Irish medieval literature is reminiscent of four important Celtic agrarian feasts which punctuated the pastoral year.
Samain (standard spelling Samhain), on October 31st, marked the starting point of a new year and the renewal of the seasons, symbolized in mythology by the coupling of the sky god with the land-goddess.1220 Cath Maige Tuired relates that the Dagda mated with the Mórrígain at the Ford of the river Uinsinn (Co. Sligo) at Samhain,1221 while the Metrical Dindshenchas describes his tryst with the river-goddess Bóinn on that very night.1222 This concept has its reflection in the Gaulish divine couples of Litavi and Cicolluis, Rosmerta and Mercurius, Nantosuelta and Sucellus, etc. Metaphorically speaking, the seed of the god and the fecundity of the goddess ensure the abundance and richness of the forthcoming crops which will guarantee the preservation of the vitality of the tribe and the survival of the community. Imbolc, on February 1st, was in the patronage of the goddess Brigit and marked the beginning of the lactation of ewes.1223 It was a ceremony of purification as the cold period drew to a close and a celebration of cattle breeders, farmers and shepherd boys. It was later Christianized as Saint Brigid’s Day. Beltaine, on May 1st, announced the beginning of the summer, open-pasturing harvest and cattle-raising.1224 Various rites of fertility were held, such as the lighting of huge fires or the driving of the livestock between two bonfires. Finally, the feast of Lughnasad, held on August 1st, celebrated abundance, the ripening of fruit and the maturing of grain.1225 It announced the end of the summer and the storage of the crops.
Óenach Tailten, the fair held in honour of Tailtiu during the whole month of August, clearly glorifies the fertility of the ground ensured by the earth-goddess.1226 Similarly, Irish mythology mentions a feast called Óenach Macha celebrating prosperity ensuing from the goddess Macha. Significantly, the graffiti discovered in Lezoux might refer to a feast held in honour of the purveyor of riches Rosmerta. It is highly likely thus that those various goddesses of fertility presided over specific times of the agrarian year. In The City of God, the 4th-century Christian historian Saint Augustine, speaking of the ancient Roman pagan rites, describes that the fertility of the land was not in the hands of a single goddess. The period of sowing was patronized by the goddess Seia, the period of growth was presided over by Segetia – which is etymologically related to the Gaulish Segeta - and harvest time and storage was supervised by the goddess Tutilina.1227
This reference has its correspondence in the feasts of Imbolc, which was the period of sowing, Beltaine, which was the time of the growth of the crops and Lughnasad, which was harvest time and the beginning of storage. It is very probable thus that several goddesses were respectively associated with those times of the pastoral year. The lack of sources in Gaul does not allow us to determine precisely which earth-goddesses presided over sowing, growing and harvesting. In view of Lambert’s etymologies, the only possible suggestion is that Cantismerta might have represented the whole sowing-growth period, since her name refers to “the general and continuous distribution in space and time”, while Rosmerta might have presided over harvest time and storage, for her name indicates an “achieved and definitive distribution”.1228
In Irish mythology, it is significant that goddesses, such as Flidais, Brigit or the Mórrígain, are associated with cattle or cows. The Irish river-goddess Bóinn, from Celtic *Bouvinda (‘the Cow White Goddess’), the Gaulish spring-goddess Damona (‘Cow’) and possibly the British river-goddess Verbeia (‘Cow’) have names which indicate that they were worshipped in bovine shape. This illustrates the importance of breeding animals in ancient times. In addition to the crops, goddesses of fertility protected the growth and well-being of cattle.
From this, it can be induced that the earth-goddesses were invoked throughout the year by the pastoral community in various rites and customs. They certainly had a protective role in the everyday life of the farmers at work as well as at home. Nantosuelta’s house-pole emblem for instance points to a significant domestic cult. The offering wells found in the Iron Age sanctuaries, filled in with food and carcasses of domestic and breeding animals, also provide evidence of a cult rendered to chthonian* and agrarian deities. In this case, the cult was surrounded by sacredness and taboos* and left in the hands of the servers of religion, who were allowed to enter the sacred part of the enclosure to make contact with the deities.
Other functions may have been fulfilled by the ground goddesses according to the contexts and places. The fact that inscriptions to Rosmerta and Atesmerta were unearthed near sacred springs must indicate they could preside over curing and be prayed to for benevolence. Furthermore, they may have been sometimes endowed with a funerary role. Nantosuelta’s crow attribute could be interpreted as a symbol of death and would thus typify the goddess’s funerary dimension. As for Rosmerta, it is not insignificant that inscriptions to her were discovered in tombs or on necropolises. She might have watched over the deceased, accompanied them in their voyage to the otherworld and ensured their sustenance in the afterlife. Finally, the land-goddess clearly achieved a role of sovereign. The royal aspect is exemplified by Ériu, Banba and Fótla, the trio of land-queen-goddesses, who are married to the three Kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In addition to embodying and protecting the bear, the Gaulish goddesses Artio (‘Bear’) and Andarta (‘Great Bear’) must have symbolized royal powers and functions. As for theMórrígain, who was originally a land-goddess before being turned into a war-goddess, she bears a name which denotes sovereignty, for it literally means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom-Queen’. The sovereign role held by the land-goddess involves protection of the territory and of the tribe. Gallo-British epigraphy and Irish mythology are reminiscent of goddesses patronizing a specific part of the territory and presiding over a particular sept*. In their role of protectress, they were then invested with martial attributes and functions and turned into powerful and dreaded war-goddesses.
Le Roux, 1961, pp. 485-506 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1995a, Chapter 1 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1991, pp. 167-168 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 377-378 ; Green, 1992a, pp. 185-186 ; De Vries, 1963, pp. 237-238 ; Mac Cana, 1983, pp. 127-128. As regards folklore and customs attached to this feast, see among others Danaher, 1972 ; McNeill, Marian, Hallowe’en: Its Origin, Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition, Edinburgh, 1970.
Gray, 1982, pp. 44-45, § 84.
Gwynn, 1913, pp. 36-37, l. 25-40.
Guyonvarc’h, 1995a, pp. 83-96 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1991, p. 168 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 270 ; Sjoestedt, 2000, p. 53 ; Green, 1992a, p. 125 ; Vendryes, 1924, pp. 241-244. For details on Saint Brigit Day’s, see Danaher, 1972 ; Ó Catháin, Séamas, The Festival of Saint Brigit, Dublin, 1995 ; Bray, Dorothy, ‘The Image of Saint Brigit in the Early Irish Churches’, in EC, 24, 1987, pp. 209-215.
Guyonvarc’h, 1995a, pp. 99-111 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1991, p. 168 ; Binchy, 1958, pp. 113-138 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 39 ; Green, 1992a, pp. 42 ; De Vries, 1963, pp. 334-335 ; Ross, 1996, p. 83. For information on the folklore and customs attached to this feast, see Rhys, 1901, pp. 308-310.
Guyonvarc’h, 1995a, pp. 131-146 ; Guyonvarc’h, 1991, p. 168 ; Green, 1992a, p. 136 ; Sjoestedt, 2000, p. 30 ; Makillop, 2004, pp. 309-310 ; De Vries, 1963, pp. 58, 163, 236 ; McNeill, 1962 ; Rhys, 1901, p. 312.
Guyonvarc’h, 1995a, pp. 114-130 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 395-396 ; McNeill, 1962, pp. 311-338 ; Binchy, 1958, pp. 113-138 ; Westropp, 1920, pp. 109-141 ; Nally, 1922.
Bettenson & Evans, 2003, pp. 144, 166. The text is given in Chapter 3 in the section on Segeta.
Lambert, 1987, p. 529.