Sunuxsalis / Sunuxalis

Researched and written by Cassanâ


I would like to thank Bruniâxildis and Viducus Brigantici Filius for their contribution to this article with their insights and help dealing with sources.

Inscriptions: There are eleven inscriptions to Sunuxsalis(1), all from Germania Inferior reaching from the Rhine (Bonn-Neuss) towards the present German-Dutch-Belgian border area (Aachen-Eschweiler). During the Roman empire this area was documented to be inhabited by the Ubii, also known under their Romanised identity of Agrippinenses (Cologne) and their often associated western neighbours, the Sunuci/Sunici, living between the Meuse and Niers rivers (Derks, 2009). Many sources, including Delamarre (2004), Kölligan (2012), Mos Maiorum (2015), Miks, and Spickermann make a connection between Sunuxsalis and the Sunuci/Sunici based on the similarity in name and territory, even concluding she is their tutelary goddess. One could argue that this is the majority view, which will not be endorsed here since there is technically no direct evidence in inscriptions or other sources supporting it, though the linguistic angle will be touched on briefly when discussing the name meaning.

Ten of the eleven inscriptions have been corrected towards reflecting a spelling of “Sunuxali”, withe the remaining one(1J) stating “Sunuxalis”. However seven of these, namely 1A, C, E, F, G, H and I feature a common misspelling of placing an S behind the X, thereby creating the variant “Sunuxsali”. Without going too deeply into linguistics, this -i dative indicates a 3rd declension, yielding a nominative of either Sunux(s)alis or Sunux(s)al. These spellings are used in academic works, however, due to the rarity of Latin, Proto-Celtic and Proto-Germanic words ending in L, combined with the proposed Proto-Germanic meaning of the name presented later in this article, The spellings Sunuxalis and Sunuxsalis will be used, with an admittedly personal preference for Sunuxsalis due to it being the more prevalent variant in the uncorrected inscriptions. This also supports the divergent, poorly inflected inscription(1J) with the spelling Sunuxalis.

Depictions: The Eschweiler inscription(1E) features a depiction of a seated woman in a long gown accompanied by a dog (Spickermann). However the stone has broken in half, and the top part has not been found. The depiction of a seated goddess-like figure with a dog is widely known in the region and beyond, for instance, Aveta in the territory of the Treveri. However, in Bonn an unmarked depiction of a goddess feeding a small dog from a bowl was found at the same site as a statue holding an inscription to Pluto and Proserpina (2A). Based on this, it seems reasonable to ascribe this depiction to Proserpina, however her standard iconography consists of a torch and a sheaf of wheat, not a dog, hence the tentative suggestion that this could be Sunuxsalis instead, and thereby suggesting a potential point of overlap and basis for consequent exploration. The symbolism of dogs within Gallo-Roman religious views having both healing and underworld connections is well attested (Jenkins, 1957). This is made more relevant given that the inscription to Pluto and Proserpina(2A) was dedicated in gratitude for healing blindness. Incidentally, only two inscriptions to Pluto and Proserpina were found in the area, the second one being from Cologne(2B). Bringing this back to inscriptions dedicated to Sunuxsalis, the one from Bonn(1A), which translates as: “to the Goddess Sunuxsalis, Cominia Apra, for the wellbeing of her brother Apuleius Severus and her own, willingly and deservedly fulfils her vow”, and from nearby Remagen(1K): “to the goddess Sunuxsalis, Valerius Bassus, optio of the legio I Minervia Pia Fidelis, for himself and his family willingly and deservedly fulfils his vow”, seem to clearly corroborate a healing, or at the very least a wellbeing aspect. It is also striking that both involve extending their vows to include family. The unmarked depiction holding out a bowl corroberates a nurturing and providing role.

On a related topic, the Hoven inscription(1H) is interesting in terms of its clear dating to 239AD, but also as an indicator of private sanctuary spaces being commissioned for considerable sums, and that Sunuxsalis was important enough to warrant such. It translates as: “to the goddess Sunuxsalis, Probia Iustina, by order of the goddess herself, had a temple newly made for her son Tertinius Iustinus, and completely by her own expense, during the consulship of our lord Gordianus Augustus and Aviola”. On the topic of sanctuaries, Christian Miks describes an Edicula in Niederzier, which is not far, relatively speaking from the location of the above inscription, thereby giving us a potential glimpse into what one could have looked like: “A small rectangular structure with columns, in front of the villa Hambach 488 near Niederzier (Kr. Düren; NRW), can be securely identified as a sanctuary. The (3.5 x 2.1m) shrine (aedicula) lay about 80m from the residence, with its façade facing the southern enclosure wall, 30m away. In the interior, the foundations of the cult image could be identified; although it remains unknown what deity it was dedicated to. Aediculae of this kind represent the smallest form of sanctuary, and when found as isolated buildings, they are usually built on private ground, or as roadside shrines or cemetery chapels.” Going back to the Hoven inscription, a mother setting up a temple for her son, and on the order of Sunuxsalis herself, clearly indicates an intriguing backstory. Furthermore, it fits with the Bonn and Remagen inscriptions(1A & K) in terms of including family or specific familial relations. This begs the question: “what could prompt Cominia Apra to make a vow for herself and her brother, Valerius Bassus for himself and his family, or for Probia Iustina to fund the construction of a temple for her son?”, leading to the first thought being grief as the major thing that can simultaneously affect entire families or, with divine nudging, get a mother to set up a private sanctuary space for her grieving son, or as a private chapel in his memory. This proposes the hypothesis that Sunuxsalis could be called upon for providing support during the grieving process, which although it is not physical pain or injury, it is no less detrimental to one’s wellbeing.

Adding another intriguing angle to our exploration of Sunuxsalis, the Neuss inscription(1J), which translates as: “Claudius Victorinus went to get those to be brought to the goddess Sunuxsalis”, indicates yet more direct communication between Sunuxsalis and her devotees, but also provides more context since It was found in the wall of a Cybeline blood pit; a ritual space designed for taurobolia (bull sacrifices) and the cheaper criobolia (ram sacrifices). These rites were initially performed for the welfare of the emperor (and by extension the empire) or one’s community. From the late 3rd-century onward it became seen as a rite to obtain a personal blessing lasting twenty years. During the rite, a priest or devotee would descend into the pit, which was then covered by a grill-like floor, and on which a bull or ram was sacrificed, its blood spilling down into the pit and over the priest or devotee during his/her devotional activities, thus transferring its life essence and blessing. Similar to dogs being associated with life cycle events, the Taurobbolium has been interpreted as a ritual drama symbolising death and rebirth. Attis, Cybele’s consort, should also be mentioned briefly. He was a Phryrgian god of vegetation whose mythos states he mutilated himself, died and became resurrected, however in the Roman variant the priest or devotee undergoing the taurobolium was often referred to as Attis instead. It was a popular rite in Italia, Hispania, southern Gaul and parts of Africa. This makes the Neuss blood pit stand out as an exception in terms of location, as well as being Sunuxsalis who was asked to bless the devotee rather than Cybele, or symbolised Sunuxsalis, in more overlap with Proserpina, emerging from the underworld rather than Attis being resurrected. Incidentally, in its later iteration the Taurobolium seems to have become symbolic of taking a vow to uphold “pagan” beliefs as it was strictly forbidden by Christianity. At the site, various statuettes of a female figure were found, but in such damaged states to be unusable for providing us with a glimpse of her appearance.

The Kornelimünster inscription(1I) was found on the site of the temple complex known as Varnenum, named after the god Varneno(3). It is thought the temple was built around the start of the 1st-century AD with a vicus forming around it featuring all the amenities necessary for pilgrims, was destroyed by fire in 70AD, and consequently rebuild to feature several sizeable structures. Lapis Calaminaris, the historic name for zinc ore, used for creating brass, was mined nearby, resulting in a lively settlement for artisans and travellers alike (Mos Maiorum, 2015). The only things we know about Varneno are his name, that he is both called a god and a genius, that his temple complex is named after him, and that a Sexviralis Augustorum from Cologne, a by no means insignificant position, dedicated an inscription to him(3B). Personal research into Proto-Germanic interpretations of theonyms has yielded *Warninô “he who fulfils a guarding function” as a likely candidate for explaining the name. Being associated with guarding subterranian wealth, Pluto seems like a fitting and logical choice for a god worth appeasing with a temple complex near prosperous zinc mines.

Name meaning: Delamarre (2004) proposes the Gaulish interpretation of “she who fulfils high dreams” based on a segmentation of *Sūn(o) “dream” uχs(o) “high” ali-. He links the final element to the Matronae Nemetiales from Grenoble, thereby implying a sanctuary function, yet this element seems more supposition than anything. Given that two out of eleven inscriptions mention “on behalf of the goddess” or imply having acted on received orders from her, Delamarre could, at the very least, be correct in ascribing her a possible medium by which Sunuxsalis communicates with her devotees.

NB. Any Proto-Germanic used in subsequent sections is based on Kroonen (2013).

Briefly touching on the ethnonym Sunuci/Sunici, Kölligan (2012) states the most convincing explanation is *Sunu/ikōs “young/little sons”, which works linguistically, but a tribal name based on a diminutive does not seem thematically likely when comparing names of Belgic, Celtic or Germanic groups in the area. Although further discussion on the ethnonym is beyond this article, one of the meanings worked out during personal research resulted in *sunigōs “the true/truthful ones”, which seems more in line thematically and is, at the time of writing, the preferred meaning. Kölligan also mentions Sunuxsalis during his exploration into Germanic personal names in inscriptions as meaning “provider of living space for the Sunuci/Sunici” and “giver of sons/progeny”. The roots provided for the first interpretation would not result in anything beyond “sunuci/Sunici hall”. This is problematic, since one would expect that when including the ethnonym and its attested uncertainty regarding spelling, that this would be reflected in the theonym, which it does not. This is also the major interpretation cited for highlighting Sunuxsalis as their tutelary goddess, but as stated earlier, there is no evidence for it, nor does the interpretation seem contextually workable as a standalone title. The second one would produce *Sunusaljǭ and a probable Latinised form of Sunusalia. this deviates markedly from the attested spellings. Furthermore, the above exploration of attested sources does not corroborate any housing nor progeny function; though the latter could be considered to be included as part of her fertility aspect.

Randomly stumbling across a scan of a book from 1892 by Frédéric Faider, which explores Norse mythology by means of inscriptions from Germania, Gaul and Britain, although being a somewhat iffy proposition at best, nonetheless it suggests various interesting Germanic interpretations of the theonym, including confirming one among numerous personal attempts to decipher the name, this being *Sunwihslaz “sun change”, formed from *sunnǭ “sun” and *wihslaz “change”. Placing this in the singular genitive results in *Sunwihslis, which only requires the WI to contract to U, and an A to be added between the S and L, both alterations are known to occur naturally in Proto-Germanic (*swefnaz “sleep” and *Sufaną “to sleep”), as well as in later Germanic languages (ON víxl, OS and OHG wehsal, OFri wixele, ODu wihsil, etc.), thus arriving at *Sunuhsalis meaning “of sun change”, perhaps best rephrased as: “she of solar transitions”. Pronunciation: Soon-ookh-suhl-is.

Furthermore, this particular interpretation does not only cover all the sounds present in the attested variants, with both XS and X capable of covering the HS combination, but wholly supports the explored connections to Proserpina, and partly those to Cybele. Proserpina, and her main myth of being abducted by Pluto and later forced to reside in the underworld during four months of the year, signified by winter, clearly fits exceptionally well. This would also have relevance to the people of the involved territory as, for example, In Cologne the shortest day of the year is 7 hours and 41 minutes in duration, which affected life much more compared to now. This, and the underworld connection is clearly reflected in Proto-Germanic directional terms; *austeraz “east(ward), dawn-ward”, *sunþeraz “south(ward), sunward”, *westeraz “west(ward), towards staying (overnight)”, and *nurþeraz “north(ward), downward, into the earth”. Faider (1892) interpreted the theonym as an epithet of Baldr’s wife Nanna, who dies of grief after his death and consequently becomes reunited with him in Helheimr; interestingly enough displaying some oblique connections with grief and the underworld.

Libera’s aspects as goddess of fertility, wine and agriculture also has overlap and may offer useful additional information. For example, her and Liber’s feast day, Liberalia, took place on 17 March. Similarly, Cybele, and the Tauro- and Criobolia as a ritual drama symbolizing life and death, with agricultural and wellbeing associations, also fits well. Her feasts of Hilaria (15-25 March), celebrating Attis’s resurrection, may be relevant, however Megalesia (4 April), celebrating the goddess arriving in Rome has more historical than religious significance. It is interesting to note that elements of both Liberalia and Hilaria overlap with Carnival, celebrated over the four days prior to Ash Wednesday, and which is popular in the modern day area. Regardless, all the mentioned Roman feast days centre around the spring equinox, a point of solar transition.

Interpretatio Romana: None in inscriptions, but circumstantial evidence of the unmarked depiction from Bonn, and the pairing with Varneno at Varnenum, may indicate a possible association with Libera/Proserpina, whose iconography of a torch and a sheaf of wheat are relevant as solar and fertility symbols, while the blood pit in Neuss indicates overlaps with Cybele in terms of function, but more with Proserpina’s emergence from the underworld rather than Attis being resurrected.

Interpretatio Belgica: Sunuxsalis is the personification of the turning of the seasons, particularly around the equinoxes and solstices, times when the sun can be said to turn or transition, moving from the light to the dark half of the year or from lengthening to shortening days and vice versa. She moves through the three worlds in an annual cycle; being in the middle world for a brief time around the equinoxes (roughly September-October for autumn and March-April for spring), before travelling onward, into and through the underworld during the dark half of the year (November- February), and into and through the upper world during the light half (May-August). In her nurturing and providing role, She can be called upon for fertility, prosperity, wellbeing and guidance, with a special mention for her function as the provider of support during periods of grieving. Put in more poetic language: “Sunuxsalis, with her canine companion at her side, holds out her bowl to offer wellbeing and prosperity. And with her torch held high, she lights the path out of moments of inner darkness”.

Personal gnosis: When Sunuxsalis enters the underworld after the autumn equinox, she allows animals that will not survive the winter to follow her along the path into the underworld as an act of kindness. I’ve begun to think of this as *sinþą *Sunuhsalīz “the journey of Sunuxsalis”, offering death and mercy during the short two months while she is present in the middle world around the autumn equinox, but conversely offering life and joy when this happens again around the spring equinox.


1. Inscriptions to Sunuxsalis, including place, dating (if known) and EDCS-ID. A.Bonn (EDCS-11202324): Deae Sunux/{s}ali Comini/a Apra pro / salute Apu/lei Severi / fratris et / sua v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
B. cologne (EDCS-74600184): [Deae Sun]uxali [

C. – (EDCS-01200086). -: Deae / Sunux/{s}ali
D. Embken (EDCS-11100137): Dea(e) / [S]unu<x=CS>al<i=L> / Volerius / Pusinnioni(s) / et Quintini / [3]etit
E. Eschweiler (EDCS-11100082): Deae / Sunux{s}ali / Ulpius Huni/cius v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
F. Frenz (EDCS-12800032): Dea[e] / [S]unux[ali] / C(aius) Qu{e}[in]ti[nus

G. Heimbach (EDCS-12800024): De[ae] / Sunux/{s}ali Pro[x]/simeni/a(!) Iusiutin/a(!) v(otum) s(usceptum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
H. Hoven (239AD, EDCS-11100142): Deae Sunux{s}ali / aedem ex ius(s)u N[uminis] / a novo sumptu suo omni pro Tertinio / Iustino filio Probia Iustina fecit domino / nostro Gordiano Aug(usto) et Aviola co(n)s(ulibus)

I. Kornelimünster (151-251AD, EDCS-13500176): [De]ae Sunux{s}al(i) / Luo Cissonis / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
J. Neuss (EDCS-11100640): D(e)ae Sun(u)xalis ferendas fecit Claudius Victorinus K. Remagen (EDCS-11100020): [D]eae / [Sun]uxali / [3] Valeri/[us Ba]ssus optio / [leg(ionis)] I Mi(nerviae) P(iae) F(idelis) / [pro se] et suis / [v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
2. Inscriptions to Pluto and Proserpina, including place, dating (if known) and EDCS- ID.
A. Bonn (151-200AD, EDCS-11202323): Dis Infernis / Plutoni et Proser(pinae) / C(aius) Iul(ius) Agelaus / vet(eranus) leg(ionis) I M(inerviae) P(iae) F(idelis) / pro lumine suo / pro salute sua / et Meletenis v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens)
B. Cologne (101-300AD, EDCS-01200015): Diti / Patri et / [P]roserpin(ae) / sacrum 3. Inscriptions to Varneno, including place, dating (if known) and EDCS-ID.
A. Kornelimunster (151-200AD, EDCS-11201977): G(enio) Varne/ni C(aius) P() S() B. – (161-250AD, EDCS-13500174): Deo Varnenoni / M(arcus) [F]uciss[i]us Secun{d}/dus sexviralis Aug/ustorum c(oloniae) C(laudiae) A(rae) A(grippinensium) / votum solvit

Delamarre, Xavier. 2004. “Sunuxsal.” Studia Celtica no.11. article/view/46264/14665

Derks, A.M.J. 2009. “Ethnic identity in the Roman frontier. The epigraphy of Batavi and other Lower Rhine tribes.” In A.M.J. Derks, & N.G.A. M. Roymans (Eds.): “Ethnic constructs in antiquity. The role of power and tradition.” pp. 239-276. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies; No. 13. Amsterdam University Press.

Faider, Frédéric. 1892. “La mythologie du Nord: Éclairée par des inscriptions Latines en Germanie, en Gaule, et dan la Bretagne.”. Online. lamythologiedun00unkngoog/lamythologiedun00unkngoog_djvu.txt

Jenkins, Frank. 1957. “The Role of the Dog in Romano-Gaulish Religion.” Latomus 16, no. 1: 60-76.

Kölligan, Daniel. 2012. “Germanic Personal Names in Latin Inscriptions: Names of the Germani cisrhenani and the Ubii.” In Meissner, Torsten (Ed). “Personal Names in the Western Roman World.” Studies in Classical and Comparative Onomastics I.

Kroonen, Guus. 2013. “Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic.” BRILL, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Miks, Christian. “Ritual practices and sanctuaries in southern Lower Germany.” Online. GoetterHeiligtuemerNiedergermanien/Heiligtuemer/ HeiligtuemerNiedergermanienEN.htm

Mos Maiorum. 2015. “Antike Stätten: Tempel Varnenum für Sunuxal und Varneno bei Kornelimünster.” Online.

Spickermann, Wolfgang. “Sunuxsalis” In: “Die keltischen Götternamen in den Inschriften der römischen Provinz Germania Inferior: Eine Fallstudie zu Religion im Kontext von Kulturkontakt und Kulturtransfer.” Online, Universität Graz. http://