View Full Version : The Matron Cult [from Simek's “Dictionary of Northern Mythology”]

Thursday, February 16th, 2006, 04:53 PM
from Simek's “Dictionary of Northern Mythology”

The worshipping of matrons (matronae, also matres and matrae) is a phenomenon which, apart from a minor distribution elsewhere, is basically limited ot upper Italy as well as the occupied parts of Germania and eastern Gaul during the Roman Empire. Our sole source of information about the matron cult comes from inscriptions on votive stones and votive altars of which over 1100 are known up to now; of these, over half the matrons bear Germanic names. The Germanic cult of matrons is not limited to the tribal area of the Ubians, who moved to the western bank of the Lower Rhine in 38 A.D., but it is in this area where there are most finds and there are indications of numerous single individual cult centres here. The monuments of the Germanic matron cult were set up by adherents to the cult, in particular by Germanic legionaries in the Roman army, and reach as far as

the borders of the empire in Scotland, Frisia, southern Spain, and also via the imperial guards even to Rome.

It is difficult to ascertain the origins of the matron cult in the Roman religion of imperial times as there is no exactly corresponding counterpart, and the origin more probably comes from Gallic matrons, upon which the other half of the extant monuments to the matron cult fall. Nonetheless, the basis of the specific Lower Rhine form of a matron cult undoubtedly rests on native-Germanic concepts of belief, such as are reflected in important later sources, namely in the belief in the disir, and perhaps also the belief in valkyries. On the other hand, the Germanic - Celtic - Roman mixed culture of the Lower Rhine in the first Century A.D. must be accepted as the catalyst for the creation of the belief in protective mother deities, aided by the influence of literacy through the Roman troops. We have to rely exclusively on a great number of votive inscriptions as sources for our information on the matron cult, as the classical authors are silent about this aspect of Germanic belief. This may be because they saw the cult of the matrons as a religious syncretism, a consideration which would have run contrary especially to Tacitus' intentions in his description of Germanic life and beliefs.

In the cult of the matrons the terms occurring for the mother-deities are, apar from matronae, the terms matres and *matrae (from the Dative matrabus). Since Gutenbrunner's work on matrons attempts have been made to define a distinction between these various descriptions and not to see them as accidental or at most regional variants. Scholars have started working out some factual differences. The geographical

distribution is noteworth: Matronae are to found predominantly in the Lower Rhine and it is the only term found in Upper Italy, whereas in Britain only matres and in Gaul mostly matrae and matres are documented. Furthermore it is interesting to note that the matronae, whose epithets are based on tribal or peoples' names, are on the whole called matres. It is, however, very difficult to ascertain whether the matres should be seen as 'actually mother-deities' and the matronae as 'more generally as goddesses worshipped

by married women', as de Vries suggested.

The temporal limitation of the matron cult can be set as the end of the 1st and 5th centuries A.D. The oldest inscription found comes from Andernach/Germany set up by a sailor in the Roman fleet (CIL XIII, 7681) from the time between 70 and 89 A.D. Although the cult of matrons was borne especially by Germanic soldiers and clerks in Roman service (as well as their families), it is clear from information on the inscriptions, as well as from the - names of the matrons themselves that the 'helper in times of need' aspect and the protective function of the matronae strongly predominated: matribus paternis Kannanef., Matribus [M]arsacis paternis sive maternis, [M]atribus meis [Ger]manis Suebis are names given to the matrons referring directly to their personal relationship to the worshipper. Frequently they are called upon by these pro se et suis ('for himself and his (family)') if there is no direct petition for himself or else for a particular member of his family. Apart from this a few of the matrons have names identifying them as warrior goddesses. The stones and altars which bear the inscriptions are predominantly votive offerings which were set up after the fulfillment of a vow and to this extent do not diverge in their function from Christian votive inscriptions.

The illustrations of the matres and matronae, also found on stones without inscriptions, are frontal depictions of them, almost exclusively in threes, either standing or sitting, with at least one of them having a basket of fruit on her lap. Sometimes the middle one is shown to be a maiden with loosened hair wearing a headband, whereas the headdresses of the other two suggest married women; all could be called matronae. Votive stones and altars are not monuments found singly in many cases, but rather they are grouped together with cult centres and temple buildings, as for example from Pesch, Nettershem and Bonn as well as other places on the Lower Rhine. This link to cult centres can be clearly seen by the fact that half of the approximately 360 monumetns which Gutenbrunner (1936) listed invoke only three names, Aufaniae, Suleviae, and Vacallinehae. Of these, over 60 occurrences of the name Vacallinehae are almost all

documented in Pesch, approximately 70 (in 1936; now nearly 90) recordings for Aufaniae are almost exclusively found in Bonn and Nettersheim. The temple in Pesch was a processional temple with square inner cells, and recent finds have discovered more similar constructions. We know little concerning the actual forms of cult in these temples and cult centres. Apart from the fruit baskets already mentioned on the reliefs of the matrons there are sacrificial scenes, with burning of incense and sacrifice bowls filled with fruit; pigs and fish as sacrificial animals are also represented. Other decorations depicted fruit, plants and trees. Snakes (powers of the underworld, or souls of the dead?) as well as children and nappies are other attributes which indicate not only their general protective function over the family, but also their special function as midwives (a suggestion which is partly supported by the etymologies of some of the names). We have no information from the inscriptions about particular cult times, although the English historian Bede (born 673) tells that the still heathen Angles celebrated sacrifical feasts at the beginning of the year in môdraniht. Id est matrum noctem, that is at Yule-tide. The undoubted connexion between the matron cult and the Anglo-Saxon - môdraniht is not the only link with known Germanic cults of later times. A sacrifice, the - disablót, to the - disir is also said to have taken place in Scandinavia, which, according to the information of the (here very unreliable) Icelandic sagas, took place at vetrnóttum, i.e. at the beginning of winter in mid-October. Philippson has also presumed that the fruit baskets of the matrons point to an autumnal sacrifice; this is, however, unlikely. The Swedish Disthing ('Thing at the time of the disir-festival') is however recorded as having taken place at the beginning of February.

There is an extremely interesting reference to the cult of the Scandinavian matrons in Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danorum VI, 181) which describes a shrine of the Parcae (norns, disir?) as follows: '[Fridlevus] approached the building of the goddesses praying, where, looking into the shrine, he saw three 'nymphs' sitting on the same number of chairs.' The temple with cella and the three seated goddesses remind us of a description

of a matron shrine, as found in archaeological digs. As, however, this report was set down at least 600 years after the heyday of the cult of matrons, any evaluation of the link remains problematic.

The cult monuments to the matrons are similar to those of the worship of individual goddesses, of whom the Frisian Nehalennia is the most significant. Votive altars were also set up to male gods (Hercules, Mars Thingsus).