Category Archives: History

Prophetesses vs. the Roman Empire


Statue of Veleda, Jardin de Luxembourg. Credit: Chatsam.

Julius Caesar wrote in Gallic War that the Germanic tribes allied under Ariovistus followed the divinations of their matrons when deciding whether or not to fight: “among the Germans it was the custom for their matrons to pronounce from lots and divination, whether it were expedient that the battle should be engaged in or not” (Gallic War 1.50).

Tacitus, writing centuries later, described the role of Germanic women in inciting bravery and the importance of prophetesses:

They also carry with them into battle certain figures and images taken from their sacred groves. And what most stimulates their courage is, that their squadrons or battalions, instead of being formed by chance or by a fortuitous gathering, are composed of families and clans. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants. They are to every man the most sacred witnesses of his bravery—they are his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother and wife, who shrink not from counting or even demanding them and who administer both food and encouragement to the combatants.

Tradition says that armies already wavering and giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women […] They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers. In Vespasian’s days we saw Veleda, long regarded by many as a divinity. In former times, too, they venerated Aurinia, and many other women, but not with servile flatteries, or with sham deification. (Tacitus Germania 7-8)

Providing a concrete example for his generalization in Germania, Tacitus reports in Histories that the Batavian warlord Julius Civilis, who led a revolt against the Romans in 69 CE, fought a victorious battle with “his own mother and sisters, and the wives and children of all his men” encouraging him from behind:

Civilis, surrounding himself with the standards of the captured cohorts, to keep their recent honours before the eyes of his own men, and to terrify the enemy by the remembrance of defeat, now directed his own mother and sisters, and the wives and children of all his men, to stand in the rear, where they might encourage to victory, or shame defeat. The war-song of the men, and the shrill cries of the women, rose from the whole line. (Tacitus Histories 4.18)

These types of practices were found not only among the Germanic peoples, but also among the Britons. In Boudica’s revolt of 60 CE, the Britons brought their wives to the battlefield “to witness the victory:”

The army of the Britons, with its masses of infantry and cavalry, was confidently exulting, a vaster host than ever had assembled, and so fierce in spirit that they actually brought with them, to witness the victory, their wives riding in waggons, which they had placed on the extreme border of the plain. (Tacitus Annals 14.34)

Furthermore, Boudica launched her revolt in 60 CE, while the Romans were busy fighting Druids and torch-wielding women on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey):

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. (Tacitus Annals 14.30)


The aforementioned Veleda prophesied the revolt of Julius Civilis, and after his initial victory, Civilis sent her a captured Roman officer as a gift:

Munius Lupercus, legate of one of the legions, was sent along with other gifts to Veleda, a maiden of the tribe of the Bructeri, who possessed extensive dominion; for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germans and the destruction of the legions. (Tacitus Histories 4.61)

Veleda is said to have “dwelt in a lofty tower, and one of her relatives chosen for the purpose conveyed, like the messenger of a divinity, the questions and the answers” (ibid 4.65). On another occasion, Germanic rebels gave her a captured praetorian trireme as a present (ibid. 5.22).

Michael Enright, in Lady with a Mead Cup, lists other prophetesses allied with warlords or warbands:

Cassius Dio mentions another warlord/prophetess pair when he says that Ganna, successor to Veleda, accompanied Masyos, king of the Semnones, to Rome […] and Suetonius says that Vitellius kept a woman of the Chatti whom he trusted as an oracle. Another piece of evidence for such pairing has been found in, of all places the island of Elephantine near the southern border of Egypt. Written on an ostrakon in second century Greek occurs the name of Baloubourg (recte Waluburg), a sibyl of the Semnones, who is unlikely to have landed in those climes unless she accompanied a band of auxiliary troops of her people. (64)

Enright’s theory that warlord-prophetesses is an ancient pairing in Germanic (and Gaulish) cultures may provide an additional layer of explanation to Spartacus’s ability to lead a combined army of Thracians, Gauls, and Germans in his revolt of 71 BCE:

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him. (Plutarch Life of Crassus 8.3)

Matronae Veteranehae


Credit: RLMB

This is a fragment of an altar to the Matronae Veteranehae, the Matrons of Veterans. It comes from the area around Embken and Wollersheim, which are neighborhoods of modern-day Nideggen, Germany. Various inscriptions have been found in the area, probably all from the same sanctuary. It dates from 150-200 C.E.

This partial inscription reads:


Which probably is short for: Mat[ronis] / Veter[anehis] / L[ucius] Sev[erinus] / Tac[itus?] –/—-, “To the Matronae Veteranehae, Lucius Severinus Tacitus–/—-”

The end of the inscription may have been a formula such as VSLM (votum solvit libens merito, “fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly” or DD (donum dedit, “gave this gift”).

In The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland, Alex Garman writes:

“Veteranehae” derives from the Latin veterani which means retired soldiers. The name and the location of the site suggest that some of the surrounding farms were owned or managed by retired Roman soldiers. The inscriptions […] do not record any ranks or positions held. (55)

The Iceni, Boudica and Andraste


The Iceni were a Brythonic tribe living in what is now Norfolk. They voluntarily allied with the Romans when Claudius invaded in 43 CE, but revolted in 47 against the pro-praetor’s attempt to disarm them.¹ A colony of veterans was stationed at Camolodunum to dissuade further revolts. The coins of the Iceni included depictions of horses and wheels and flowers.


Iceni gold stater, c. 15 BCE-20 CE. Credit: Numisantica.

Though defeated in 47, the Iceni remained nominally independent under King Prasutagus. When Prasutagus died in 60, he named both the Roman Emperor Nero and his two daughters as his heirs. His wife, Boudica, was whipped, and his daughters were raped.² According to Tacitus, it was the veterans settled at Camolodunum who were particularly responsible for committing outrages against the Iceni:

For these new settlers in the colony of Camulodunum drove people out of their houses, ejected them from their farms, called them captives and slaves, and the lawlessness of the veterans was encouraged by the soldiers, who lived a similar life and hoped for similar license.

Furthermore, Roman moneylenders, including Seneca the Younger, demanded repayment of loans from the Iceni.³ Meanwhile, the Roman governor was busy campaigning against rebel Druids on the island of Mona (modern Anglesey).4 Queen Boudica led the Iceni and many other British tribes in revolt against the Romans.

Cassius Dio, writing well over a hundred years later, describes Boudica as being exceptionally tall, having a fierce glare, harsh voice, red-brown hair to her hips, a large golden necklace around her neck, a multi-colored tunic covered by a heavy cloak fastened by a broach, armed with a spear and riding a chariot.5


He attributes a speech to her wherein she declares, “let us show them [the Romans] that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” According to his account, she then released a hare from her cloak as a form of divination similar to Etruscan augury, it ran in an auspicious direction, and she then prayed to the goddess Andraste “for victory, preservation of life, and liberty.” He also names “Andate” as the Iceni equivalent of the Roman Victoria, and alleges human sacrifice in Her sacred grove.6

At Camolodunum, Boudica’s first target, the statue of Victoria fell down and turned Her back towards the enemy as if fleeing. “Women excited to frenzy prophesied impending desturction,” the ocean was seen to be blood-red, a submerged town was seen in the Thames, the theater was filled with the wailing of spirits and the Senate was haunted by a disembodied voice laughing and speaking in a foreign language.7 Archaeological evidence suggests that when Boudica’s rebels sacked Camolodunum, whatever buildings they could not burn, they methodically leveled to the ground.8 Boudica next defeated the Ninth Legion, then proceeded to attack Londinium and Verulamium.9 Archaeologists have found layers of charred rubble in London dating to Boudica’s revolt.10

The Roman governor withdrew from Mona, gathered 10,000 troops, and fought a pitched battle against the British rebels, who brought their families in wagons to the edge of the battlefield.11 When the battle turned against the Britons, the wagons impeded their retreat, and they were slaughtered: Tacitus claims that 80,000 Britons were killed on that day.12 Boudica died, either through committing suicide with poison13 or because of illness.14 In the entire uprising, Tacitus claims that 70,000 Romans and allied Britons were killed,15 while Cassius Dio claims 80,000.16


  1. Tacitus, Annals 12.31.
  2. Ibid. 14.31.
  3. Cassius Dio, Roman History 62.2.
  4. Tacitus 14.30.
  5. Cassius Dio 62.2.
  6. Ibid. 62.5-6.
  7. Tacitus 14.32, many of the omens also repeated in Cassius Dio 62.1
  8. Jason Burke, “Dig uncovers Boudicca’s brutal streak.”
  9. Tacitus 14.32-3.
  10. Museum of London.
  11. Tacitus 14.34.
  12. Ibid. 14.37.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Cassius Dio 62.12.
  15. Tacitus 14.33.
  16. Cassius Dio 62.1.

Matres Ollototae and/or Transmarinae


The Matres Ollototae are attested to from inscriptions from Roman Britain. The epithet comes from Brythonic ollo-, ‘all’ and teuta, touta, ‘tribe,’ or in other words “Mothers of All the Tribes.” Unlike most of the inscriptions to the Matres in Britian, at least one inscription was found at a non-military site (Heronbridge, Cheshire).


Another inscription, made by one Pomponius Donatus at Roman Fort Binchester in Durham County, links the epithet Ollotate to the epithet Transmarinae with the word sive, meaning “or.”

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) et Matribus Ollototis sive Tramarinis Pomponius Donatus, b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis) pro salute sua et suorum v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Iupiter, Best and Greatest, and to the Mother Goddesses of All the Peoples, or Overseas, Pomponius Donatus, beneficiaries of the governor, for the welfare of himself and his household willingly fulfilled his vow’

The epithet Transmarinae is also found at Lowther, Plumpton Wall (Cumbria), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Tyne and Wear) and Risingham (Northunmberland). Transmarinus/a/um can mean either “beyond the sea” or “coming from beyond the sea.” But if They can hear prayers from across the sea, then They have in fact crossed the sea Themselves, making a combination of both meanings likely in my eyes. Perhaps, like the Chinese goddess Mazu (“Mother Ancestor”), who is a protectress of sailors and fishermen who has not one but two temples in San Francisco Chinatown, They may also have been seen as facilitating safe passage across the sea.


Jin Xiang Ma statue of Mazu, Lugang Mazu Temple, Taiwan.

At York, an inscription was dedicated to the “African, Italian and Gaulish Mothers,” and at Winchester, one was dedicated to the “Italian, German, Gaulish and British Mothers.” These are clearly in the same vein as the inscriptions to the Matres Ollototae and the Matres Transmarinae.

Eostre as an Eastern Kentish Goddess?

Eastry in April

Eastry, Kent. April 2011. Credit: Nick Smith.

Last month was the Anglo-Saxon Hredmonath, Hreda’s month according to Bede’s De Temporum Ratione. Now, we are in Eosturmonath, Eostre’s month. River Devora has recently written about Hreda and Eostre at, including about Hreda’s possible associations with the Gothic tribes.

If Hreda has potential etymological links to the Goths, what of Eostre? In Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Philip Shaw argues that she may have been a goddess closely linked to the Anglo-Saxons of Eastry, Kent.

Of Eosturmonath and Eostre, Bede writes:

Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretetur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant; consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

Eosturmonath, which now is translated Paschal month, had its name from a goddess of theirs called Eostre, and they celebrated festivals for her in that month, by whose name they now call Paschal season; calling the joys of the new festival by the customary name of the ancient observance.

Though Eostre’s name is related to the modern English word “east,” Shaw casts significant doubts on Jacob Grimm’s popular 1882 hypothesis of a pan-Germanic dawn goddess *Ostara/Eástre, citing “lack of evidence for uses of ‘east’ and its relatives and derivates as words for ‘dawn’ or ‘Spring’ in the Germanic languages” (61).

Instead, Shaw theorizes a close relationship between the goddess Eostre and the place-name Eastry in Kent. He focuses on the hypothetical Old English word *ēastor and the presence of the vowel /o/ in the second syllable, something shared by both Eostre’s name and the place-name Eastry, but not by place-names derived from the adjective ēastra (59-60).


Early forms of “Eastry” demonstrating /o/ as the original vowel of the second syllable include Eastrgena (788 CE); Eastrege, Eostorege, Eosterege, Eosterge (811); Eastorege (805-832) and Eastræge (825-832). Eastry’s antiquity as a place-name is reinforced by the *gē element, meaning “district,” which became obsolete early on in Old English (67).

Eastry appears to have been the name of one of the four regions forming the original center of the Kentish kingdom. Sturry and Lyminge are also Eastern Kentish place-names with the *gē element, and early Anglo-Saxon burials have been found at all three sites. Eastry was a royal estate, and the site of an early Anglo-Saxon church, and it has been theorized that Eastry, Sturry and Lyminge were all early royal capitals of the kingdom of Kent.

Sturry and Lyminge have been linked to the terms Burhwaraweald and Limenwaraweald, place-names implying the group-names *Burhwara (“inhabitants of the burh [Canterbury]”) and *Limenwara (“inhabitants of the area of the river Lympne”). By analogy, Shaw suggests that the inhabitants of Eastry may have been known as the *Ēastorwara (“inhabitants of the eastern area”). Though there is no clear evidence of even such a group’s existence, Shaw theorizes based upon parallels with tribal Matronae epithets that Eostre may have been linked to this hypothetical sub-tribal grouping (67).

Bede’s Sources

Shaw notes that “Bede’s <eo> spelling of Eostre is likely to reflect his use of a written source from outside his own locality — but it does not allow us to pin down the origins of this source with any precision” (65). Nonetheless, there is evidence that Bede received sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica from Kent, making it possible that he had relied upon similar sources in the earlier De Temporum Ratione.


There is some doubt raised for Bede’s use of Kentish source by the appearance of the month-name rugern in the laws of Wihtræd of Kent (690-725 CE), which is not found in Bede, but Shaw considers it “quite possible that rugern represents a western Kentish usage, whereas Eostre, if Bede received his month-list form Canterbury, would be an eastern Kentish form” (66). Eastry, of course, is also in eastern Kent, as shown by the map above.

Importance of Geographical/Social Relationship

Because of the prominence of Grimm’s theory that Eostre was a dawn goddess and Helm’s theory that she was Spring goddess as well as the popularity of “function models” of polytheism in general, Shaw advocates for wariness around function models and argues that in the case of Eostre, “the etymological connections of her name suggest that her worshipers saw her geographical and social relationship with them as more central than any functions she may have had” (71). Such an approach also downplays the need to find pan-Germanic parallels by focusing on the importance of local and tribal deities…which ironically was something shared by different Germanic-speaking groups (and many non-Germanic-speaking peoples as well).

The Wild Hunt: 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising

My latest article for The Wild Hunt is now up. It’s an interview with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Morpheus Ravenna about the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, Cú Chulainn, “the Irish heroic ethos” and more.


Philip Shaw

In 725, the Northumbrian monk Bede (also known as the Venerable Bede) wrote De Temporum Ratione, “On the Reckoning of Time.” In Chapter 15, “De Mensibus Anglorum,” he discussed the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

In his 2011 book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Philip A. Shaw comments on Bede’s reliability:

Some of Bede’s etymologies are evidently correct, such as his interpretation of vveodmonath as “mensis zizamiorum” (“month of weeds”). Others are very problematic, such as solmonath: there is no clear evidence for an Old English word *sol meaning “cake,” and there has therefore been considerable debate as to Bede’s exact meaning and the state of his knowledge of pre-Christian offerings.¹

According to Bede, the month of March was called Hredmonath by the Anglo-Saxons.

The version edited by Charles W. Shaw in 1943 gives the Latin as: “a dea illorum Hreda, cui in illo sacrficabant, nominatur.” In English, Faith Wallis gives the translation: Hredmonath “is named for their goddess Hre[d]a, to whom they sacrificed at this time.”²

In his chapter on Hreda, Shaw analyzes possible etymological connections between the name of the goddess and the Old English words hrēod (reed), hrēða (goatskin), hrēðe (fierce), hrēðan (to rejoice)/hrēð (victory, glory), and hræd/hræð/hrēð (quick). Shaw rejects all of these possibilities on linguistic grounds except for hræd/hræð/hrēð (quick), commenting that “since hræd is more plausible than the other potential relatives identified above, we should keep it in mind, despite the difficulties that remain with such an interpretation.”³

Shaw then proceeds to examine “hreð as a personal name element,” observing that “the sequence <hreð> occurs as a prototheme in a number of Old English personal names.”4

In this section, he concludes:

The personal names and the month-name evidence seem, then, to suggest two possible relatives for Hreda. One is the adjective hræð ‘quick,’ which also appears as a name element.” The other option is “the possibility of a name element *hræð, related to the Old Norse personal element hreið-. The etymological origins of this name are uncertain. It is difficult, however, to decide which of these elements is involved, since they are liable to be spelt in the same way in Old English. Nonetheless, like Eostre, Hreda appears to have a name that derives from a word that is also used as a personal name element.5

Shaw then looks at the group-name Hreðgotan, applied to the Goths in the Old English poems Widsith and Elene, and compares the name to “the Reiðgotar who appear in stanza 12 of the Eddaic poem Vafþrúðnismál” and “the territorial designation Reiðgotaland, which occurs in a number of Old Norse sagas,” as well as to the “earliest Scandinavian attestation of this group name” — the name “hraiþkutum” or “Hreið-Goths” is part of an inscription on the Rök stone from Östergötland, Sweden.6

Shaw ultimately concludes with thoughts on the implications of Hreda potentially being linked to some sort of ethnonym:

There are at least two plausible etymologies for her name. It is noteworthy, however, that these etymologies both relate to terms used in forming personal names, and in one case to a term employed in group naming as well as personal naming. If Hreda’s name is indeed related to a term employed as an ethnic designation, she, along with Eostre, can be seen as part of a broader pattern of deities and ancestor figures whose names connect with social groupings. Such figures are, not surprisingly, most obvious when they relate to well-known, often large-scale groupings [such as the god Saxnot whose name means “companion of the Saxons,” or Gapt, ancestor of the Goths] […]

Eostre, like the goddesses and matrons of the Romano-Germanic inscriptions, suggests the possibility if many more such deities, operating at smaller social scales—and perhaps success stories like Saxnot and Gapt simply represent the snowballing of such figures attached to small social groups which themselves became larger and more successful.7


Shaw, Philip A. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011.

1. Shaw 50.
2. Ibid. 49.
3. Ibid. 82.
4. Ibid. 84.
5. Ibid. 86.
6. Ibid. 90.
7. Ibid. 96.