From the foregoing discussion, it follows that goddesses, who originally embodied the earth in its wholeness and its fertility, became attached to specific parts of the land. The tribes venerated goddesses, sometimes eponymous of their name, who presided over their territory and inhabitants. In other words, the land-goddess became the representative of the sept* and the sovereign patroness of their territory. They were certainly invoked for the fertility of the soil, the maturing of the crops and the growth of the cattle, which ensured the survival and vitality of the tribe. In addition, they must have been prayed to for the protection of the territory against invaders and enemies. In her role of patroness, the land-territorial goddess was endowed with martial attributes and aspects and turned into a war-goddess, who took on different names and forms according to the regions and tribes.

The Irish goddesses Mórrígain and Macha are significant examples of this development. They are goddesses possessing pronounced agrarian features, who are the patronesses of a specific tribe and part of the territory: the Ulaid and Ulster. Their war-like aspect is evidenced by the Irish texts, which describe them as a trio of fierce and dreaded war-goddesses, taking part in battle and revelling in carnage. In her character, the British Brigantia also reflects the complex pattern of the land-tribal-war-goddess. First, it was noted that her name referred to a high place or hill. This indicates that she was originally related to the landscape. Furthermore, her name shows she was the tribal protective goddess of the Brigantes, who were settled in the north of Britain. Finally, a relief* from Birrens (Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland) portrays her as a warrioress holding a spear and a helmet and various inscriptions equated her with Roman goddesses of war, such as Victory and Caelestis. The Gaulish goddess Litavi ‘Earth’ also exemplifies the development of the land-goddess into a war-goddess, since her name is replaced by the Roman goddess of war Bellona in an inscription from Mâlain, where she is venerated with Mars Cicollus.

While Irish mythology offers detailed accounts of the war-goddesses, data evidencing their existence and worship in Gaul and Britain are scattered and fragmentary and thus difficult to interpret. As demonstrated in this chapter, there is however evidence of a cult rendered to martial goddesses. In Britain, two reliefs* picture the goddesses Brigantia and Rigani with offensive weapons. In Gaul, several coins depict divine naked warrioresses frantically running, riding a horse at gallop or driving a cart launched at tremendous speed. They brandish weapons and seem to be charging at the enemy and entering the fray. Moreover, various goddess names refer to protection (Anextlomara), war-like feelings, such as strength (Belisama), fury (Vercana) or courage (Exomana, Noreia). Some achieve the protection of the city (Dunisia, Bibracte, Vesunna), while others ensure victory and triumph over the foe, such as Segeta (‘the Victorious One’), Segomanna (‘Victory Giver’), Boudina/Boudiga (‘Victory’), Camuloriga (‘Queen of the Champions’), Ricoria (‘Liberating Queen’ or ‘Great Warrioress’), Coriotana (‘Mistress of the Troops?’), etc.

In Irish mythology, the war-goddesses do not seem to achieve a military role like the gods. Their influence on the course of the battle is mystical and supernatural. The texts never describe them taking up arms and fighting in the mêlée, but reciting incantations, foretelling slaughter, uttering terrifying cries and casting powerful spells which bring their enemies down. They are thus more to be looked upon as magicians rather than warrioresses in the strict sense of the word. Gallo-British iconography nevertheless offers representations of goddesses armed to the teeth and directly taking part in the conflict. This military aspect is echoed in Irish mythology in the characters of Scáthach (‘Shadow’, ‘Shelter’ or ‘Protective’) and Aífe (‘Pleasant’, ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Radiant’), two terrible warrioresses inhabiting Alba (Scotland), who train the hero Cú Chulainn in the early medieval text Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’].1649 FromScáthach, Cú Chulainn gets his spear, the Gáe Bulga, and learns various martial techniques, notably the salmon leap and the torannchless or ‘thunder feat’.1650 Being indebted to Scáthach for her training, Cú Chulainn accepts to fight her enemy warrioress Aífe and defeats her in single combat. Aífe then becomes his lover and teaches him other warrior’s skills, such as chariot-driving, casting or juggling. She bears him a son, called Connla, whom Cú Chulainn slays in Aided Óenfhir Aife [‘The Death of Aife’s Only Son’].1651 In the imagery of the Gallo-British Celts, war-goddesses were probably close in character to the mythical warrioresses Scáthach and Aífe. In addition, like the Mórrígain, Badb and Macha/Nemain, they must have been invested with supernatural powers and were believed to magically influence the fighting.

For the Celts, war and religion were interelated: the warriors and the course of the battle were in the hands of the deities. The war sanctuaries of Gournay-sur-Aronde (Oise) or Ribemont-sur-Ancre (Somme) clearly illustrate that aspect. Before going into battle, warriors would pray and invoke the powers of the gods. Without their support and protection, they would not go to war. After the battle, they would go back to the sanctuary and deposit their spoils of war to glorify the deity who had given them the force and courage to vanquish. The little knowledge we have of Gallo-British goddesses only allows us to suggest some tentative hypotheses. By analogy with Irish mythology, the representations on coins and reliefs* and the names of some goddesses, it can be assumed that war-goddesses were invoked before a battle took place, so that they would bring their supernatural support to the warriors. Dio Cassius’s account of Bouddica appealing to the strength and protection of the goddess Andrasta (‘the Invicible One’) on the eve of the revolt against the Romans, is evocative of such religious war rites. The war-goddesses were the ones who encouraged and motivated the warriors, gave them the necessary physical and mental strength to overcome the enemy, and led them to victory.

The belief in a crow-shaped goddess, reflected in the character of Badb, who is seen hovering over the battlefield and gnawing the corpses of the dead warriors, was undeniably common to the various Celtic peoples, since two inscriptions from the Continent are dedicated to Cassibodua and Cathubodua (or Athubodua). The association of Cassibodua with Victory clearly points to her war-like character. If the restitution Cathubodua is the correct one, the goddess is identifiable with Badb Catha (‘the Battle Crow’) and identical to her: she is related to war. The cult of a goddess in crow shape must have been a reflection of a custom specific to the Celts, which consisted in abandoning the corpses of the dead warriors on the battlefield to be devoured by birds of prey, because those birds were regarded as sacred animals commuting between the human and supernatural worlds and conveying the souls to the otherworld. This death rite is evidenced by several Classical texts and pre-Roman drawings engraved on stone or vases, notably coming from Celtic Hispania.

The character of some goddesses remains complex and difficult to unravel. In addition to being attributed agrarian, sovereign, protective and war features, Brigantia was given the title of Nymph in an inscription from Brampton (Hadrian’s Wall),1652 which relates her to water and points to her healing aptitudes. Similarly, the goddess Segeta (‘the Victorious One’), who must have been a goddess of war given the significance of her name, is worshipped in relation with curative springs. Her function of healer is evidenced by anatomic ex-votos* deposited in curative water shrines. Water was particularly revered in ancient times and many goddesses seem to have presided over rivers, springs and fountains throughout Gaul, Britain and Ireland.


Scáthach and Aífe are mentioned in Van Hamel, 1933, pp. 47-60.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 140-141 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 7, 181-182, 245, 378-379.


Mackillop, 2004, pp. 102-103.


RIB 2066.