Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
Depictions of Romano-British deities which belonged to specific places – sometimes referred to as genii loci – often depict three figures. Some of these are clearly three women, one of which is younger than the others, and one of them often holds a basket of flowers or fruit.
Muddled thinking in the mid-twentieth century has popularised these as the 'three ages of woman' – maiden, mother and crone. But this is not what these carvings were originally intended to depict. They are known by the Roman name of Deae Matronae – the plural of Dea Matrona or Dea Matres, which mean the 'Great Mother Goddess'. They are similar to the similar to the Fates and Furies of Classical mythology and the Norns of Germanic and Scandinavian lore, all of which are three-fold.
But, although they may have been collectively known as Deae Matronae, they were venerated by their local name. Some of the names that have come down to us are decidedly odd and may always have meant something like 'The Mothers of X', where 'X' is the name of the place. This is very much akin to Catholics referring to 'Our Lady of Y', who is regarded as just one manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can recognise the same universal and local aspects to Artemis who is known by dozens of local epithets: Agrotera ('of the wildland'), Limnatis ('marshy'), Limnaia ('of the marsh'), Heleia ('of the marsh'), Koryphaia ('of the peak'), Kedreatis ('of the cedar trees'), Karyatis ('of the walnut trees'), Kyparissia ('of the cypress trees') or even Aristoboule ('who gives the best advice'). In cities she became Soteira, Eukleia or Philomeirax, names associated with her role as protector of children and adolescents. (Artemis is discussed in more detail in the article on the Queen of the Valley .)
Such names shed some light on the attributes of these Mothers. A fourth-century votive stone found at Bürgel in Germany is inscribed Matronis Alagabiae, so they are literally the 'all-giving mothers'. Similarly several stones from Rövenich in Germany are dedicated to the Matronis Gabiabus, the 'giving mothers'. Intriguingly, this is also the sense of the Old Icelandic goddess-name Gefn, a byname for Freyja, and another goddess Gefjon.
In Gaul the goddess Matrona is similarly the 'great mother'. Plausibly the Welsh mythological figure Modron, the mother of the god Mabon, has the same origins. This suggests that Matrona may similarly have been the mother of Maponos, although there is no firm evidence. In Wales the fairies are still referred to as Y Mamau, 'The Mothers'.
Images of the three-fold Matronae are most common around the Rhine but are also known from Gaul and Britain. Where there are also inscriptions they are usually named as guardians of the locality. Other words describing them are Proximae, Dervonnae and Niskai which, respectively, mean 'kinswomen', 'oak-sprites' and 'water-sprites'.
About forty of the fifty-or-so stone carvings of Matronae from Britain were discovered at Roman military sites, with only the small minority associated with more 'domestic' contexts. The sheer cost of commissioning such sculpture suggests soldiers were their devotees. The dedications of male statues found at forts along Hadrian's Wall reveals that the soldiers – who would probably not have been born or brought up in Britain – were keen to venerate local deities. There is no reason to suppose that the Matronae were not also thought to be depictions of the local female guardians.
So these Romano-British carvings seem to be just one phase of the long duration of the veneration of female tuelary deities, just one of the more enduring aspects of a deep-rooted association between goddesses, the land – especially river valleys – and kinship (see the article on the Queen of the Valley ). We would be over-simplifying by thinking of them merely as 'fertility goddesses' or personifications of 'mother nature' – although those concepts would be part of the wider spectrum of associations. Despite all those more universal associations, clearly the meaning and significance of these goddesses at any one place at any one time would be capable of considerable variation.
The names Deae Matronae and The Mothers have a level of significance which is somewhat lost in modern society. Only a woman with children – a mother – was 'fully' a woman. We can see this clearly in the Classical Greek words parthenoi, nymphe, gyne and gynaikes. Parthenoi is usually translated as 'virgin' but actually signified 'unmarried'. A bride who had yet to have children was a nymphe. Only a married woman with at least one living child – a mother – would be referred to as gyne or gynaikes. Only gynaikes were regarded as 'complete' females.
A hint of this survives in modern culture. 'Married but no children' is still seen as slightly anomalous, although outside the bounds for discussion. T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land parodied this in the line 'What you get married for if you don't want children?'
The distinction into the three phases of adult womanhood for ancient Greeks – unmarried, married, married with children – are not so clearly documented in Germanic societies. But this distinction fits best with the three-fold depictions of the Deae Matronae which have come down to us. Apart from Robert Graves' invention of bride-mother-crone in the 1940s there have been surprisingly few attempts to interpret the iconography of the individuals depicted in Deae Matronae carvings, apart from noting that one is always younger with a hairstyle associated with unmarried girls. My suggestion – and I more than happy to hear from anyone who has any early sources for other interpretations – is that there is no reason why we should not think of them as images of the three 'phases' of idealised womanhood: unmarried, married and married with children. Her devotees would fit one or other – ideally successively – these three categories.
The goddesses of the land
Collective names 'spirits of place', genii loci or dísir – along with the Italian word Lares and the Old English word landwights – all denote tutelary deities. 'Tutelary' is from the Latin tutela, protection, watching' which also gives the Latin word tutelarius, 'a guardian'. The word daemon originally had a similar sense, although this evolved into – literally – more demonic associations.
Not all tutelary deities are female. But the ones associated with specific places or even just individual homes often are. We can see this in the names of rivers such as 'Severn', which is derived from the Celtic name Sabrina. When we read the medieval Irish literature which describes how a king must marry the sovereign of the land we seem to be seeing a final echo of these goddesses. Similarly in medieval Wales kingship is deeply intermingled with sovereignty of the land. Considerable caution is needed however as medieval Irish and Welsh literature only tells us how medieval writers thought, or simply imagined, the past might have been. Their accounts should never be taken at face value as evidence of how the past actually was.
Frankly, other than some rivers and their valleys, we have very few places named after a goddess. And the main exception is exceptional in another respect – the Scandinavian goddess Hel gives her name to, well, Hell – originally a pre-Christian underworld, so not a 'real place' at all…
Spirit of place or seat of power?
The origin of the Irish word Sidhe (also spelt Sith and Sidh but in each case pronounced 'shee') is from Aos si, meaning 'the people of the mounds'. This was originally a collective name for various spirits, old gods and assorted pre-Christian legendary characters – a direct counterpart to the Welsh Tylwyth Teg and Old English landwight). Only in recent centuries has the meaning narrowed to mean 'fairy', or more specifically, 'fairy woman'.
Sidhe as a word seems to go back a very long time as it appears to be cognate with Latin sedes ('seat') and may also be related to Latin sides (usually translated as 'constellation' but having the original sense of 'dwelling of a god'). There is a real sense that it denotes 'spirits of place' – those who by right have a 'seat of power' in that locality.
A different Irish word which sounds the same, sith, means 'peace' may have the same roots. If this sounds unlikely then bear in mind that at one time only the great and the good had formal seats – we might now call them 'thrones' – and to sit in one was to act as a peace-broker for disputes and such like. The Old English word frithstool denotes a seat of sanctuary in a church or cathedral – it literally means 'peace stool' but has the sense of 'seat of protection'. Along the same lines there is an Old English salutation which translates as 'Sit in peace'.
In the early lore specific Sidhe are associated with rivers and fords, hills and mounds, woods and glens, and so on. In the same way that many people use a euphemism such as 'the wee folk', 'the gentry' or such like to avoid naming the fairies, so too the specific names of these Sidhe are not stated in the literature. At best we will see euphemisms or metaphorical monikers – the Arthurian 'Lady of the Lake' is a prime example. As an aside, the Queen of the Fairies never had a name until Shakespeare broke with convention in A Midsummer Night's Dream and dubbed her Titania.
The goddesses of the kin
At the risk of trying to summarise a topic which requires a book-length discussion, the tutelary deities were not simply goddesses of the land. They were also goddesses of the kin. We can still see some of this in modern monarchies – they are kin-based (traditionally the first-born son inherits the kingship); their dominion is a specific tract of land (even if territorial disputes 'go with the patch', so to speak); and as kings they have absolute power but, nevertheless, are expected to wield that power for the benefit of all their subjects.
In traditional societies the dynastic sequence may have been less secure, in that there were often challenges to who could claim to be the rightful king. We might even think of early kings as being much more like warlords – or even gangland leaders – than the more august monarchs of more modern times. And these comparisons are perhaps even more valid when it came to knowing 'whose gang' you were in (or not).
Such kinship and cultural roots were absolutely fundamental to Anglo-Saxon and other early medieval societies. Evidence for this can be found in the use of ge in place-names. The modern forms of these names may hide the evidence but the early forms of Vange, Margaretting, Ingzatestone, Fryerning and Mountnessing (all in Essex); Eastry, Sturry, Lyminge (all in Kent) and the name of Surrey itself all denote a local territory. So too do the Rodings of Essex.
The Old English word ge has its origins in the word gau (once used in both Germanic and Celtic languages of northern Europe) and seems to have a shared origin with the Latin pagus, meaning 'country(side)'.
While we cannot prove that each ge had its own deity there is certainly no reason to believe otherwise. This adds further weight to the suggestion that pagus referred to specific territories, so pagans were the people who worshipped the deities of those regions (as opposed to more 'universal' Classical or Christian gods).
In Ireland there is a complex lore associated with the kin-group, or tuatha, and the surviving Old English literature suggests that the sibb was equally important. Elsewhere (see There is no paganism) I discuss the sense of –ing and –ingham in English place-names. The Old English –ing denotes the 'followers of' a person – people who would also have been thought of as the kith and kin of that person.
The Old English words ge ('territory' or kingdom), cyning ('leader of the people' or king), sibb ('entire kin group' or clan), kin ('close relatives'), and –ing ('followers of' or kith and kin) together form a spectrum of overlapping concepts which are at the core of Anglo-Saxon culture.
We still bandy about the phrase 'kith and kin', although often without knowing the full sense. Kin are the people to you are related to by blood while kith are the people you live among. This phrase makes much more sense if you are a married woman in a patrilocal society, that is a society where the men own and inherit the land. At the time of marriage a woman must leave her own kin and live among a different kin group. Even if she is married to one of the leading males in that kin she will still be regarded as an outsider or interloper – someone whose deepest commitments are to her own kin group, not those of her husband's kin. Even though the leader or 'king' of the kin group would have a duty to protect his 'kith and kin', and the wives may have sisters or cousins also married and living among the same kith, nevertheless sometimes women would find themselves in fairly challenging positions of divided loyalties and being unable to fully trust most members of their kith.
The Old English word for blood relatives and kinsmen was 'sibling'. The original Germanic word seems to have been sibja, literally meaning 'one's own'. In the twentieth century 'sibling' was revived to denotes specifically brothers and sisters, but the original sense was broader and sibb denoted 'kinship, relationship; love, friendship, peace, happiness'. Compounds of sibb include sibsumnes 'peace, concord, brotherly love', sibbian 'bring together, reconcile' and sibbecoss 'kiss of peace'.
Kings and their kin
And, yes, the word 'king' does have a shared origin with 'kin', although it's a distant one. The Old English word for king, cyning, has the almost tautological sense of the 'leader of his followers'.
The ending –ing means 'the followers of' and can be found in place-names such as Mucking, Barking, Dorking, Godalming and many others. The first part of these names is a corruption of the founder's personal name. Similarly a great many place-names ending in '–ingham' mean the 'home of the followers of… ' Thankfully the followers of Effa in what is now Surrey had a home, so the place-name is Effingham. Otherwise to get there from, say, Guildford, one would need to go along the Effing Road…
Back to the guardians
Into that somewhat alien worldview of kith and kin, and the larger community of sibb and the region or ge, you also need to add the role of the tutelary and household spirits, the guardians of the land which the kin group farmed and relied on for their food and wealth, and which – when necessary – they would defend in battle. In modern Europe the nearest counterparts are inner city gangs – but this cultural world seemingly lacks the spiritual dimension which would have provided the foundations for early medieval societies.
In German-speaking northern Europe there are frequent references to the dísir, who are female tutelary spirits specific to neighbourhoods and families. Dísiris plural and the singular – dís – only appears once in the surviving literature (when the goddess Freyja is referred to as 'the dís of the vanir).
Whoever the dísir are, they are never referred to by individual names. This is somewhat odd because usually the natural human tendency is to personalise and individualise deities. Again, we seem to the seeing a reluctance to refer to them by their proper names. However it may simply be that there were so many local names that literary conventions were to refer only to their collective name. This would parallel the analogous situation with India where Mata or Devi ('Mother Goddess') is worshipped in every village, but by a different name in each place.
So much as we can tell the north European dísir correspond to British references to Modra, The Mothers, and the Latin phrase Deae Matronae confirms the barely-missing link.
The clearest evidence we have for veneration of The Mothers in Anglo-Saxon England is from Bede. His history of the English people, written in about 725, famously refers to a pre-Christian seasonal winter custom as Modranech 'the Mother's Night'.
We refer to the same night as Christmas Eve. The focus of attention is now more on the child than the mother but, as a different saying has it, you can't have one without the other.
Christmas – a feast celebrating the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December (or the 6th January in the Orthodox churches) – has its origins in the early fourth century. Suggestions that the church leaders chose this date to 'supersede' a feast to Sol Invictus have been shown to be largely spurious. The church leaders actually chose the winter and summer solstices for the feasts commemorating the births of Jesus and St John the Baptist. This conveniently made the equinoxes the dates of their conception (there is a biblical reference to Mary's conception occurring during the sixth month of John's mother's pregnancy).
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013