Chapter 4


This chapter is devoted to goddesses linked to water, such as rivers, springs, fountains, lakes, etc. Water has always been regarded as a particular sacred element of the landscape, worshipped for its life-giving and generative force. Archaeology reveals that peoples increasingly settled along rivers and nearby lakes or bogs in the Bronze and Iron Ages.1653 The supply of water was a necessary and essential condition for the survival of the community, the irrigation of the crops and the raising of cattle. Water also had curative virtues which could soothe and heal, and was an important means of transport facilitating cultural and trading contacts. This explains why water was held in high respect and became revered as a divine entity. While promoting life and fertility, water was also recognised as a capricious and dangerous natural phenomenon, which could instantly destroy habitations, flood crops and drown livestock. In addition to being worshipped for its beneficial dimension, water must therefore have been the subject of veneration to calm its wrath and to be granted clemency. The numinous aspect of water also arose from the mystery of its origin: springs miraculously gushed forth from the ground. This inexplicable emanation of water would have been interpreted as a gift from the gods. It was certainly regarded as originating from the divine world, part of which was believed to be situated under the surface of the earth, as Irish mythology gives us to understand.1654 Many legends indeed recount that the Otherworld could be reached through water.1655 The sea, a lake, a spring or a river was seen as a threshold or gateway to the divine world, water delimiting the boundary between the natural and the supernatural world.

The first part of this chapter will briefly analyze the archaeological, hydronymic* and literary data evidencing a worship rendered to waters in ancient times and illustrating the belief in a divine entity residing in water. The second part will be devoted to river-goddesses, who are generally eponymous of the river they embody, analyze their functions and study the various religious cults attached to them. The belief in a goddess embodying the river is illustrated in Irish myth by legends recounting the drowning of divine ladies in rivers, who, from that moment on, inhabit, personify and protect the river bearing their name. Such is the case of Bóinn, the goddess of the River Boyne, Sionann, the goddess of the River Shannon, Eithne, the goddess of the River Inny, and Érne the goddess of the River Érne. In Gaul and Britain, epigraphy proves that the chief rivers were also deified: the River Seine was personified by the goddess Sequana, the River Saône by the goddess Souconna, the River Yonne by the goddess Icauni, the River Marne by the goddess Matrona and the River Wharfe by the goddess Verbeia. Did those Irish and Gallo-British river-goddesses fulfil the same functions? Were they similar in essence? How were they worshipped and by whom? The last part of this chapter will deal with the widespread tradition of healing spring and fountain-goddesses evidenced by archaeological discoveries in Gaul and Britain. Local fountain-goddesses, such as Acionna, Icovellauna, Coventina, Sianna/Stanna and Mogontia, whose curative character is not always certain, and salutary spring-goddesses, such as Damona, Sirona, Sulis, Bormana and Bricta, will be studied from a linguistic, epigraphic, iconographical and religious standpoint.


Cooney & Grogan, 1994, pp. 153-156 ; O’Sullivan, 2007, pp. 161-163.


Löffler, 1983, pp. 82-111 ; Beck, 2003, pp. 76-85


Löffler, 1983, pp. 280-291 ; Beck, 2003, p. 79