The Matres of Ancient northern Europe

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The Matres: terracotta relief from Gaulish Vertillium.

The Matres (‘mothers’) and the Matrones (‘matrons’) are ancient Romano-Celtic female deities from the north-west of Europe, especially the Rhineland, popular during the 1st to 5th centuries AD. As Mother Goddess triads their worship originated around 400 BC or earlier. These Matres are believed to be of Indo-Germanic derivation that was borrowed,  rather than initiated, by the Germans. The cult was indigenous to the northern Gauls. These ‘mother-goddesses’ known in Latin as  Matres and Matronae were therefore divinities primarily worshipped in the Germanic and Celtic provinces of the Roman Empire (Robinson, 1911). The cult forms triads of benevolent mother-goddesses, also known as Deae Matres and Matronae, depicted in various stages of womanhood. There are also a number of individual goddess of the matron type in northern Europe but some simple equestrian figures may in fact be representing the British horse goddess Epona, a previous specialised Matrona. For the Celts the pre-Celtic Matrona indicates a derivation from the word for ‘mother’.  The Matronae only in Cis-Alpine Gaul, whereas the Matrae are located mainly around Lyons and in Gallia Narbensis, but the Matres were common in Britain and Gaul. With the Matres it should be recognised that the term ‘mother goddesses’ is often used somewhat loosely. Another group, a fourth type, were the Mairae who were possibly of Celtic origin but most likely synonymous with the Matres and Matronae.

In appearance the Matres are representative of motherhood which is stressed by their being portrayed with symbols of fertility. The Matronae were “…concerned primarily with the ‘female principle in Nature, with maternity and offspring… (Robinson, 1911), and represent as friendly local a role very similar to that of Fortuna and Pomona. Such symbols include cornucopia or ‘horns of plenty’, baskets of bread, fruits, implying the Matres supervised the fruits of the earth, as well as carrying babies and children. In addition to symbols of prosperity, and their sphere of influence, such as fish, sheaves of grain, the motif of womanhood in the triadic Matres shows them dressed in long robes with one breast exposed.

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Matres at Cirencester, holding loaves, apples and corn ears.

The Matres were worshipped as household deities, with a divine role in famine and disease prevention, at shrines, domestic reliefs and sculptures, plaques and inscriptions. Worship of the Matres was a widely distributed phenomenon and cultus amongst the Celts with many inscriptions and sculptures, especially in Roman Britannia, moreover their worship “…does not appear to have belonged to the higher social classes. All the dedicants…are persons of low rank…that it belonged mainly to the humbler people.” (Robinson, 1911). Included in this distribution of dedications in stone were northern Italy, northern Spain, Germania, and Gaul. In Britain and Wales there were the Matres Britanniae, the Deae Matri being at Chester. In Wales the ‘Hill of the Mothers’ was the Y Foel Famau, the “…mother of the gods.” (Hull, 1928). Monuments to them are found in Gaul, Gallia, Narbonensis and Cis-Alpine Gaul. Others are located in Lower Germania with a few found in Spain, Rome and Britain. Women worshipped primarily the Matronae and men the Matres.

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Relief at in London showing the Matres

Many of the triplistic goddesses were regionally specific. Local patronage of these Matrones included the Teverae or Teveri of modern Trier, as well as the Nemausicae of Nimes. Other local associations included those of the Suleviae, Alaferhuiae, Cartovallensiae, Romaneheihae, Domesticae, Comedova, and Vativiae. In addition there are Matres Aufaniae or Matronae Aufaniae, dedicated to the questor of Cologne called Queltius Severus. These Rhineland triads have Celtic and Germanic names such as Matronibus Alagiabus, and the ‘august nurses’ known as the Nurtrices Augustiae, as well as the Glavicae at Glavum in Provence. Many of the known invocations were made by military personnel which suggests an invocation to the success in battle. Many of the votive offerings made at altars of the triplistic ‘mothers’ were in areas of eastern Gaul and Germania occupied by the Roman army from the 1st century AD. This is suggested by the Matres being portrayed with the symbol of healing, the dog.

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The Aufanian Matronae, Gallo-Roman from Nettersheim, Germany.

Triadic or triplistic goddesses are very conspicuous in the Celtic tradition. In Gaul could be found  mother-goddesses called the Matrones who were connected to springs. In Germania there can be seen a connection between the later Germanic disir, valkyries, and the norns. In Ireland there were the three goddesses of war called Badb, Macha (or the Morrigan), and Neman. These were the three princesses Fodhba, Banbha, and Eriu, who gave Ireland its name, and who became the three brigits. The Brigits of the healings arts, poetry, metal working and smith-craft (Meyer, 1906; Hull, 1928). With regard to the practice of religion carvings and inscriptions were made on stones. Such inscriptions were a feature of votive reliefs in areas occupied by the Romans such as Pannonia and southern Gaul. Matres of a triplistic or triune nature are seen as cognate with the Roman Furies, the Greek Fates, as well as the Norns and Weird Sisters of the northern peoples. An association of the Matres with the Fates is however doubtful and there appears little justification in comparing them to the Nymphae.   The ‘Goddess Mothers’, the Matres Ubelnae, were grouped typically into threes thus “…grouping into triads was a distinctive feature in all Celtic goddess names.” (Hull, 1928). It needs to be borne in mind that a cult feature was the worship of a triadic group “…the probable existence of many related forms of worship, and at the same time to restrict the names Matres and Matrones to monuments actually so inscribed or exhibiting the customary figures of the three divinities.” (Robinson, 1911).

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Triple Irish Goddesses, the Tri De Dana, with Goibniu, Creidne, and Luchta.

References and sources consulted

Hastings, J.  (1911).  Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. (1908-1922).  Scribner’s Sons, Edinburgh.

Hull, E.  (1928).  Folklore of the British Isles.  Methuen & Co, Ltd. London.

Mayer, K.  (1906).  The Triads of Ireland.  Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

Robinson,  F. N.  (1911).  Deae Matres.  In: Hastings, J.  volume 4.

 

 

 

 

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