Dogs And Deities From Nodens To Nehalennia

As scavengers and carrion-eaters, dogs came to be associated with death, in both the classical and Celtic religious traditions. Some of the ritual treatment of dogs (chapter 5) in Gaul and Britain may point to this aspect of their symbolism. The bodies of dogs have repeatedly been discovered, deliberately buried in deep pits and shafts, perhaps as offerings to the underworld. Dogs were used in the hunt (chapter 3) and this may have been the origin of their symbolic link with death. But three beneficial aspects of dog behaviour gave rise to a number of cults which first manifest themselves in Romano-Celtic cult iconography. These three characteristics are fidelity, the guarding instinct and the perceived ability of the dog to heal itself with its saliva.1 The first two relate directly to the animal's relationship with people. The healing facility caused the dog to be adopted as an image by devotees of curative deities in order to render their imagery all the more potent and to remind worshippers of the efficacy of their cults.

Figure 8.1 Romano-British bronze dog, Canterbury, Kent. Paul Jenkins. Healers and hunters

The Burgundian tribe of the Aedui possessed a great many therapeutic sanctuaries, based upon the numerous mineral springs of the region. One of these was at Mavilly (Cote d'Or), an important shrine presided over by the Celtic version of Mars, a peaceful healer in Celtic contexts. The spring-water was apparently considered as helpful in the cure of eye disease, a scourge probably resulting from malnutrition among the Gauls and Britons. The god of Mavilly is depicted on several stone carvings: on one, he is accompanied by a dog and a raven and by a suffering pilgrim, his hands covering his eyes as if he is in great anguish. The shrine of the healer Apollo Belenus at Sainte Sabine, also in Burgundy, yielded several small sculptures of babies, presumably offerings designed to stimulate a cure for afflicted infants: one of these images consists of a child strapped into a cot; it has a dog curled up on its legs.

In Britain, one of the most important curative cult-establishments was situated at Lydney, overlooking the river Severn in Gloucestershire. We know the name of the presiding deity from inscriptions: he was Nodens, a name which is philologically related to that of the Irish god of the Tuatha De Danann, Nuada Argat-lam (Nuada of the Silver Hand), who is described in the Mythological Cycle. The sanctuary at Lydney, built in the third century AD, was clearly supported by a wealthy and enthusiastic clientele: there were impressive buildings here, embellished with mosaics. They included a guest-house or hostel for pilgrims, a set of baths and a long structure which has been interpreted as a dormitory where visitors slept and encountered the healing-god in a vision. That the sanctuary was devoted to a curative cult is demonstrated by the presence of such objects as a votive model arm, dedicated to the god in the hope that the diseased limb would be replaced by a whole one. Interestingly, the model shows evidence of some kind of disease which deformed the fingers. The pilgrims who visited Nodens's shrine also suffered from eye afflictions: physicians specializing in eye problems stamped boxes of ointment with their mark, and some of their stamps have been discovered at Lydney.

The interest of Nodens's sanctuary for us is that, whilst no images of the god himself in anthropomorphic form have been found, no less than nine representations of dogs were present, indicating that this animal was sacred to Nodens. The canine images represent many different types but the most spectacular figure is the bronze statuette of a deerhound (figure 8.2).4 The presence of this hunting-dog is interesting, especially in view of the epigraphic evidence for Nodens, for his name is paired with either Mars (a well-known healer in the Celtic world) or Silvanus, who was the Roman god of wild nature and of the hunt. This apparently enigmatic link between hunting and healing may recur at Nettleton Shrub in Wiltshire, where a sanctuary, very possibly a curative establishment, was set up to Apollo Cunomaglus - a native Celtic soubriquet meaning 'Hound-Lord'.5 The seeming dichotomy between the concepts of hunting and healing may be resolved by a close examination of the Divine Hunt, a theme which, in many cultures, including that described in early Insular legend, embodied ideas of regeneration and immortality by means of the pursuit and killing of prey, and of death. The shedding of blood, in order to give life and food, came to symbolize rebirth and healing/renewal.6

The link between healers, dogs and the cult of Silvanus is reflected in the iconography of the Gaulish hammer-god of Burgundy and the Lower Rhone Valley. In Provence, the hammer-god is often depicted with the leaf-crown and wolfskin cloak of a nature-god and on altars, for instance at Glanum, where n hammers were engraved on altars dedicated to the local version of Silvanus. Both in this region and further north in Burgundy, images of the hammer-god are distinctive in their inclusion of a dog, seated at its master's feet and often gazing up at him (figure

7.3). On an altar at Nîmes, the dog is comparatively large, with long floppy ears, perhaps a hunting-dog; but a relief of the same deity at Monceau near Autun depicts a small animal, a terrier perhaps, or even a lapdog9 The hammer-god's main function seems to have been the promotion of prosperity and abundance: in Burgundy, he was associated especially with wine and the grape harvest. The presence of the dog could indicate that there was a hunting aspect to his cult or it could simply be there as a faithful healer-guardian-companion. But in addition, there may be an association between the hammer-god and healing. A few examples among many will suffice to illustrate the point: an image of a drunken god wielding a hammer comes from a spring site at Cussy, and at Vertault the god of the spring is depicted with two acolytes, one of whom is flanked by hammers. The deities of several Burgundian thermal springs received stone hammers as votive offerings.10

Figure 8.2 Bronze figure of a deer-hound from the third century AD shrine of the healer-god Nodens at Lydney, Gloucestershire.

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