Nehalennia and the goddesses

The tribe of the Morini lived in what is now the Netherlands, bordering the North Sea coast. They venerated a local Celtic goddess, Nehalennia, and set up two temples in her honour. She was a divinity of seafarers, and protected merchants and other travellers who regularly risked their lives and their merchandise in the perilous journey across the sea. Nehalennia's cult was a successful one: visitors came to worship from as far away as Besançon and Trier. And it was a wealthy cult: the two shrines to the goddess were embellished with numerous altars and images set up in supplication or in thanksgiving. Nehalennia's two sanctuaries, at Domburg on the island of Walcheren and at Colijnsplaat on the East Scheldte estuary, are both now submerged beneath the North Sea. However, many of her altars have been recovered, and these display a rich and complex iconography which throws some light on the nature and functions of the goddess. Nehalennia is generally depicted seated, with baskets of fruit as emblems of prosperity and often with marine symbols to signify her presidency over the sea. But most distinctive of all the motifs associated with this North Sea deity is the dog. On nearly every surviving stone - and there are more than a hundred - a large, benign, hound-like animal sits patiently by the goddess's feet, facing his mistress (figure 8.3). The dog is seated very close to Nehalennia: sometimes its nose touches her. Its whole mien is that of watchfulness and protection. It appears to be a symbol of the benevolent guardian, at one level of the goddess herself; at another its image is clearly that of a peaceful and friendly protector of humankind, just as Nehalennia is herself a protectress against the vicissitudes of sea travel. So here, the animal both reflects and reinforces the role of the anthropomorphic divinity. The image of the dog served as an immediate semiological message to Nehalennia's devotees, reminding them that worshippers at her shrines enjoyed her patronage and guardianship.11

Many Celtic goddesses, apart from Nehalennia, were depicted with dogs as companions throughout Romano-Celtic Europe: often these deities are of a general mother-goddess type, seated and nursing a small lapdog on their knees. At Trier, a goddess called Aveta was venerated with little clay images of a lady who carried fruit, or swaddled babies or lapdogs; this symbolism is repeated nearby at the rural sanctuary of Dhronecken. Other images in the area consist of clay figurines of a goddess bearing fertility

emblems of corn or bread, and offering fruit to a small dog. This divinity appears to have been local to the tribe of the Treveri, and all the associated symbols imply that here the dog was interchangeable with such fertility motifs as corn and babies, as if the animal itself represented fecundity and abundance. It is equally likely that the beast's role reflected a healing or regenerative aspect of the goddess's function.

Female deities accompanied by dogs are recurrent images in Luxembourg and among the Sequani and Ubii (around Windisch in Switzerland and Köln respectively). Even in Britain the goddess with a lapdog

was worshipped, invoked by the offerings of small figurines at Canterbury and at Dawes Heath, Essex. Other images of mother-goddesses are more like Nehalennia: stone carvings of a divinity with a large animal seated next to her.14

In Britain, depictions of the triple Mothers or Deae Matres include dog imagery: a lively relief from Cirencester (Glos.) portrays the Mothers seated together on a bench, in a relaxed attitude, each accompanied by a small boy. The central goddess nurses a lapdog. On another sculpture, from London, the dog is present as the emblem of one goddess, the two others carrying bread and grapes and a human infant.15 So again, as in the Treveran imagery, the symbolism of the dog is very closely allied to that of fertility and florescence. But perhaps it adds a new dimension to the cult, introducing an element of curative renewal. Since the Mothers did possess an Otherworld dimension,16 it is possible that the dog is present to reflect that particular role, sharing its chthonic symbolism with that of the classical world. We have already seen that, in ritual, dogs may well have had an affinity with the underworld (chapter 5).

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Figure 8.3 Stone relief of Nehalennia with her hound, Colijnsplaat, Netherlands By courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, Netherlands.

Figure 8.4 Stone figure of a pilgrim carrying a pet dog, perhaps symbolic of a votive offering to Sequana, Fontes Sequanae, near Dijon. Paul Jenkins.

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