A Gaulish Goddess: Spririt of the Boat, Goddess of the Vessel

Nehalennia (Nenhellenia) is a Gaulish goddess known from sixty inscriptions found in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (where the vast majority occur). She seems to have beena Celto-Germanic mother goddess, a protectress of sailing vessels and ‘hearth and home’.

Nehalennia is a goddess known from inscriptions found at Deutz in Germany and Domburg and Zierikeeze in the Zealand region of the Netherlands. These inscriptions to the goddess were accompanied with images of the type shown here. Almost 160 similar votive altars bearing the goddess’ image have been found in the Zealand region and two were recently discovered in Cologne, Germany. Most pieces show a young female figure, accompanied by a hound, sitting on a throne in an apse between two columns, holding a basket of apples in her lap. Sometimes the apples are replaced with what seem to be loaves and on occasion (as shown here) the woman’s foot rests on the prow of a Romanesque vessel.

Sixty inscriptions to Nehelennia have been discovered.

The following is associated with her: DEAE NEHELENIE VEGISONIUS MARTINVS CIVE SEQVANVS NAVTA VSLM (To the goddess Nehalennia Vegisonius Martinus, citizen from the land of the Sequani and seaman, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow).

The following is from an altar now kept at the Rijksmuseum in Oudheden, Netherlands: DEAE NEHELENIAE M EXCINCIUS AGRICOLA CIVES TREVERVS NEGOTIATOR SALATIV CA C A A VSLM (To the Nehelenian Goddesses, Marcus Exginggius Agricola from the country of the Treveri, salt merchant to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow).

Another inscription from Zealand reads: DEAE N(e)HALENNIAE OB MERCES RECTE CONSERVATAS M(arcus) SECVND(inius) SILVANVS NEGOTIATOR CRETARIVS BRITANNICIANVS V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito) (To the goddess Nehalennia, on account of goods duly kept safe, Marcus Secundinius Silvanus, trader in Pottery with Britain, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow).

The various inscriptions have been found in Belgium (two inscriptions from Papenborek), Germany (two inscriptions from Cologne) and all the remaining inscriptions come from the Netherlands (with the vast majority from Zierikzee).

Although the debate remains as to whether Nehalennia was a Celtic or a Germanic deity, the inscriptions above can leave us with little doubt that she was worshipped by Celts and for this reason alone it is appropriate to include her in this list of deities.

The inscriptions above also tell us that the votive altar was erected to show gratitude for a safe passage across the North Sea and other altars were probably erected for the same reason (though we cannot assume that this was the sole reason for their construction). The second inscription above is to the ‘Nehelenian Goddesses’, indicating that the invoker considered Nehalennia to be a ‘multiple goddess’. This and the basket of apples she bears would seem to link her with the Romano-Celtic triple-goddesses, the Matres, but this may be a false linkage based solely on her iconography.

Though many scholars have sought to interpret Nehalennia’s name in terms both of Celtic, Latin and Germanic etymologies but no satisfactory origin of the name has, as yet, been put forward. It may be that Nehelennia represents a Zealand goddess venerated by the pre-Celtic peoples there and that her name is either not Indo-European in origin or belongs to an earlier introduction of Indo-European to western Europe. She was later assimilated into the Celtic and then the Germanic pantheons. Thus the point of who ‘owns’ this goddess is moot. The problem with the name being Indo-European is that the only acceptable root in the reconstructed proto-Indo-European lexicon is *nek- (death, to bring) which also gives the reconstructed proto-Celtic *nek-e/o- (to kill). This version of the name seems unacceptable given the goddess’ attributes. Though the meaning ‘to bring’ would make some sense for a goddess of sea-faring. But these etymologies are a stretch. The same goes for derivations from the Latin nex (death), necare (to murder) and navis (ship) or even the Meso-Gothic *nahan (to suffice). There is one other possible derivation from proto-Indo-European coming from the root *neh2u- (boat which also yields the proto-Celtic *nawʒ and the particle *eni (in) with the feminine ending -a. The name could therefore be interpreted as ‘ [spirit] in the boat’ of ‘goddess of the vessel’.

In Romano-Celtic times she was assimilated into the cult of the Matres/Matronae with their fertility function, their function as protectors of ‘hearth and home’ and their function in protecting travellers. This last aspect of Nehalennia’s cult is by far the most interesting and the largest. Many of the shrines dedicated to her were erected by naval traders, probably after survival of a storm which would explain her association with naval vessels. Other aspects of the goddess’ cult are the apples she holds and the dog that almost always accompanies her. The dog as a sacred animal is associated with divination. It is also a creature associated with both hunting and the otherworld. In many cultures apples are the food of the gods and are associated with the otherworld, such as in the Celtic realm of Afallon. It is certainly possible that, in common with other deities associated with transportation, Nehalennia was perceived as a psychopomp possibly transporting the souls of the dead across the waters to the isles of the blessed.

One of the main centres of Nehalennia’s cult seems to have been on the island of Walcheren in the Netherlands where many altars were erected during the second and third centuries CE. The cult of Nehalennia seems to have ceased abruptly during the latter part of the third century when the sea inundated her sanctuary. In August 2005, a replica of the Nehelennia temple near the lost town of Ganuenta was opened in Colijnsplaat.

Many have attempted to link Nehalennia with an Isis-like goddess worshipped by the Germanic tribe of the Suebians, as described by Tacitus (Germania 9) but there is no inscriptional, etymological or iconographic to support this supposition. Moreover, the attributes of Isis are quite different from the attributes of Nehalennia, as based upon her iconography.