Nemetona / Nemiþôna

Written by Āgiknos

Meaning of Name: From the Proto-Indo-European *nemos, or ‘sacrifice, worship’, ‘clearing’ (De Vann 2008); associated with the Latin / Greek nemus / νεμος ‘grove, clearing’ (Matasović 2009, p. 288); Old Celtic nemeton, νεμητον ‘sanctuary, sacred grove’; to Celtic / Romano-Celtic Nemetona, or ‘Goddess of the Sacred Grove’ (Green 1996, p. 474; Delamarre 2003; Kilpatrick 2013). Lurker (2004, p. 134) offers the variant of ‘She who is revered in the shrine’. 

Cassanâ (2021), offers the following from her proto-Germanic reconstruction: *nemet- ~ *nemiþa meaning ‘sacred grove, sanctuary’ (via Koch 2020, p. 141) and *-aNemiþôna meaning ‘She of the sanctuaries’; another option (via Kroonen 2013) *Nemiþôna from *nemaną, *-iþő and *-a, meaning ‘She of taking/accepting’.

The root *nemos is often conflated with Proto-Indo-European *nem- ‘seize, take’ (cf. Greek goddess Nemesis) → *nemeton to the Irish Neman, leading to a proposed link between Nemetona and the Irish war goddess Nemhain ‘Goddess of Battle Frenzy(?)’; however, Nemhain and Nemetona are not related etymologically (Calder n.d.).

Pronunciation: neh-meh-TAWN-ah or alternatively neh-meh-TONE-ah

Function: Classical writers would have us think the Celts and Germanic peoples did not worship indoors, rather outdoors in sacred groves called nemeta (Monaghan 2004, 354). However, with mounting archeological evidence to support, it is apparent that built shrines, perhaps in these groves, were quite common. Examples of these structures include the rectangular cella and circular temenos (Cunliffe 2014). Through the etymology of the Romano-Celtic word nemeton, scholars find evidence pointing to groves of trees being places of religious significance from late antiquity at least (Cusack 2011, p. 19), but it stands to reason that these sites have been important in some capacity for far longer. In her work The Sacred Tree, Cusack (2011) recounts Tacitus’ description of 1st-century CE Germanic tribes and their interest in divination and communication with the gods. Further, he describes the tribe’s use of trees as oracles and the overarching belief that the groves were the residence of the gods (pp. 91-92). Cusack further details that these nemetons, presided over by the Druidic class, were holy sites and used for ritual education and sacrifice. In fact, the Romans considered these groves important enough to completely destroy them in order to conquer the rebellious populations more effectively (2011, pg. 65). A stark example of this occured in 61 CE. Suetonius Paulinus utterly destroyed the nemetā and the Druidic cult near modern day Anglesey (Erskine 2010, pg. 64) during the campaigns to subjugate British tribes.

Owing to their religious significance, the presence of a tutelary god or goddess at these nemetā is fitting. In his work Pharsalia, Lucan (Graves 1956, ed. & trans.) detailed a nemeton encountered by Roman soldiers outside of modern-day Marseilles (the ancient Greek colony of Massilia) in southern Gaul. He wrote the following:

‘…Nobody dared enter this grove except the priest; and then even he kept out at midday, and between dawn and dusk – for fear that the gods might be abroad at such hours…’

It is in this fear, respect and reverence that we can sense the presence of Nemetona in the realm of sacred spaces: a tutelary goddess who maintained the sanctity of the tribes’ holy sites. This idea is a theme repeated in other places and religions. In ancient Greece, cities had tutelary deities that were recognized representatives and protectors of the population, the Hellenic goddess Athene and city of Athens being one such example (Kleiotnos n.d.). Even Abrahamic religion recounts divine beings known as cherubim guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and interestingly, the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24 NIV). 

It is entirely possible that the tutelary role of Nemetona did not apply strictly to nemeta. As a continental deity, Nemetona interestingly is also attested on an inscription found in Great Britain. Peregrinus, a civis Trever (citizen of the Treveri), dedicated a votive altar (RIB 140) to Nemetona and Mars Loucetius, found in modern-day Bath. Why the votive altar was erected is unknowable; however, one can imagine that this Peregrinus, travelling far from home, prayed for safe travels from Treveran lands to Aquae Sulis. It can be postulated that this vow fulfillment in the form of a votive altar supports Nemetona’s tutelary role extending beyond just sacred sites. Beck (2017) writes that regional goddesses often took on sovereign roles, which entailed a significant emphasis of protection and defense of the land as well as the safety of its people. Discoveries of lances and other weapons at other votive altars to Nemetona are suggestive of a military role and possible cult, which resonates with her interpretatio as Victoria, although there is no evidence of Nemetona being a war goddess (Calder n.d.). It is all within the realm of reason that Roman auxiliaries offered their weapons to Nemetona, fulfilling vows for their safe service in the legions and adding another layer to Her cult as a protector of individuals.

There is ample evidence of goddesses in Celtic Gaul and Britain bearing ethnonyms, further reinforcing the regional tutelary role of goddesses within tribes. Examples include goddesses such as Brigantia of the Brigantes, the Matres Treverae of the Treveri, and the Nervinae of the Nervii, among others (Beck 2017). The Nemetes were a tribe that settled along the left bank of the Middle Rhine. Tactitus wrote this tribe was ‘unquestionably Germanic’; however, the location was in regions where Celtic and Germanic tribes were closely intertwined. Even as an attested ‘Germanic’ tribe, the name Nemetes hearkens back to the Celtic *nemeton, as do some of the gods and goddesses worshipped in the region, including Nemetona who was possibly the tribe’s eponymous deity.

Iconography: None known.

Attested Sources: Nemetona is known from five inscriptions on votive altars and one on a bronze tabula. Sources have been found in the following areas: Two altars found in the Altbachtal Sanctuary in Trier, Gallia Belgica (F324 and N12). Altar found at Klein-Winternheim, Germania Superior (CIL XIII 7253). Altar found at Altrip, Germania Superior (CIL XIII 6131). Bronze tabula found Eisenberg, Germania Superior (AE 2007: 1044). Lastly, previously mentioned altar found in Bath, Somerset, Britannia (RIB 140; Beck n.d.). 

Interpretatio Romana: In one votive altar inscription, Nemetona is syncretized with Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. 

Interpretation Belgica: The nemeton, whether an open air grove or enclosed sanctuary, was one of the most sacred places for Celtic and Germanic peoples and vital to their religious practices. The same can be said for hearth and home in this day and age. We want the sanctity of our spaces to remain intact, and this is where one should approach a tutelary deity. Above all, Nemetona is a goddess who protects sacred sites and even entire communities (Calder n.d.). Nemetona would be an excellent deity to offer and give cult to for the safety of our homes, families, and fellow Belgae. Offering to Nemetona when travelling would also be a prudent choice. For the individual that is seeking a protective deity (especially uniformed services personnel), Nemetona would be an excellent choice in giving cult to and venerating. 

Sources


Beck, N. (2017). Goddesses in Celtic Religion: Territorial and War Goddesses. https://brewminate.com/goddesses-in-celtic-religion-territorial-and-war-goddesses/ Retrieved April 02, 2021.

Beck, N. (n.d.) Edited by Hofeneder, A. and de Bernardo Stempel, P. Celtic Divine Names Related to Gaulish and British Population Groups. Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio – Keltische Theonymie, Kulte, Interpretatio. Austrian Academy of Science Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctv8mdn28.7.pdf. Retrieved March 15, 2021.  

Bibleref.com (n.d.) What does Genesis 3:24 mean? Retrieved 3/31/2021 from https://www.bibleref.com/Genesis/3/Genesis-3-24.html 

Calder, R. (2019). Nemetona: Goddess of Sacred Groves or Goddess of War? University of Wales Trinity Saint David. https://repository.uwtsd.ac.uk/995/1/Rebecca%20Calder%20UWTSD%20Nemetona%20poster.pdf. Retrieved March 12, 2021. 

Cassanâ. (Personal communication, March 2021). Discussions on PGmc, specifically Nemetona. 

Cunliffe, B. (2014). Iron Age Britain(digital edition). Loc. 2138. Batsford.

Cusack, C. (2011). The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations. CambridgeScholars Publishing. Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK. 

Delamarre, X. (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Paris: Errance

De Vann, M. (2008). Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. Leiden: Brill.

Erskine, K. (2010). Edited by Pamela O Neil. Just what did a nemeton look like anyway? Celts   in Legend and Reality: Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 9. University of Sydney.    https://www.academia.edu/28860930/Just_what_did_a_nemeton_look_like_anyway_IN_Celts_in_Legend_and_Reality_Edited_by_Pamela_ONeill_2010_61_69. Retrieved April 03, 2021. 

Green, J. M. (1996). The Celtic World. New York: Routledge

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Kleitonos. (n.d.).  Tutelary Deities. Hellenic Faith.  https://hellenicfaith.com/tutelary-deities/. Retrieved 04/01/2021.

Koch, J. (2020). Celto-Germanic Later Prehistory and Post Proto-Indo-European in the North and West. Digital Edition: ISBN 978-1-907029-32-5

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Lucan, Pharsalia, ed. and trans. Robert Graves (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1956), Book III, lines 399-453, pp. 78-79.

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Matasović, R. (2009). Etymological dictionary of proto-Celtic. Leiden: Brill.

Monaghan, P. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Facts on File, Inc.

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Tacitus. (2013). The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus: The Oxford Translation Revised, with Notes. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7524/7524-h/7524-h.htm. Retrieved April 01, 2021.