A new look at the Suleviæ

I had wanted to mention this earlier, but a couple of weeks ago I made a major upgrade to the web page on the Suleviæ (first the French page, then the English one). Previously, that page contained little more than my off-the-cuff comments on the Gaulish Polytheism Community page on Facebook, repackaged and made slightly more coherent. In the new version, I’ve gone through all the inscriptions to the Sulviæ that I can get my hands on and analyzed them in considerably greater depth. For example, the new page highlights the role of certain groups of worshippers of the Suleviæ such as the the Equites Singulares Augusti: these are the Emperor’s Own Horseguard, the élite cavalry wing of the prætorian guard, who were based in Rome but retained many signs of their provincial origins (many were recruited from Gaul or the Danubian provinces). Incidentally, this same military unit helped diffuse the cult of Epona outside of Gaul, and were early adopters of the cult of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus.

There are still aspects of the cult of the Suleviæ that the page does not explore, or does not explore in depth. There are no depictions of the Suleviæ that I’ve been able to turn up, but I’d at least like to get a photo of an altar to them eventually.

However, I stand by most of my original conclusions from the earlier version of the page. The Suleviæ provide one of the clearer examples of ‘personal religion’ from the Gaulish provinces, not unlike the Roman cults of the Lares or of individuals’ junones and genii—but the Suleviæ are plainly of Celtic origin. They are also feminine; they are associated with, though I certainly argue not identical to, the Matronæ or Mother-goddesses; yet their influence embraces both men and women, and can extend not just over personal matters but to high affairs of state. I consider them to ‘govern’ the destinies of mortals (though an alternate interpretation might perhaps relate them back to the goddesses of sovereignty famous from Insular Celtic mythology). Regardless of who your patron god might be, I suspect that everybody is under the guardianship of a Sulevia, and it can hardly hurt to contact her and do her the homage of pious gifts and prayers.


About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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8 Responses to A new look at the Suleviæ

  1. I’ve read your article on the Suleviae, Minerva, and Vulcānus — okay, I’ll be honest, I scoured your whole website — and I’d like to know your opinion on a matter I just can’t find a solution for.
    What do you think regarding hearth deities in pre-roman and gallo-roman Gaul? I’ve looked for a Vesta [insert gallic theonym] in so many books, and yet it seems that the Gauls just didn’t have an exact cognate.
    As you pointed out, goddesses we would usually equate with the irish Brigit, due to etymology, don’t really seem to fit with the whole hearth motif, since Belisamā and Brigantiā were syncretised with Minerva and/or Victōria. However, there are traces that indicate that there was a pairing Vulcānus + Vesta, at Motte du Ciar [Lajoye 2008: 77], which reminds me of the pairing Ucuetis + Bergūsiā.
    Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that the Suleviae (along with the Mothers) were of vital importance in the home and for families and communities, I’m not sure if the hearth would’ve been under their responsibility, according to the available iconography and epigraphy… unless you wrote ‘foyer’ as meaning ‘home’, instead of ‘fireplace’, and I’m interpreting your text incorrectly.

    I apologise if this isn’t the best place to ask you questions. 🙂

    • DeoMercurio says:

      Hi there Condeuie! This is a great place to ask questions. 🙂 I’m pleased to hear you were scouring the website — that’s what it’s there for. 🙂
      I think you’re right to think that pre-Roman Gauls didn’t have an exact equivalent of Vesta, and even in the Gallo-Roman period, Vesta kept a surprisingly low profile in Gaul. Your point about the Vulcan and Vesta pairing at La Motte du Ciar is extremely interesting — particularly given that Alesia is not that far away from there. Since Bergusia is a goddess with quite a localized cultus, it would make sense that (if she were identified with Vesta), Vesta might be similarly localized. Ucuetis and Bergusia might logically be identified with Vulcan and Vesta, respectively. It’s a strong hypothesis, though I’m not sure whether there’s any direct evidence for that. (Are there depictions of Ucuetis and/or Bergusia, I wonder?)
      Although I primarily meant ‘foyer’ in the sense of ‘household’, I was actually taking advantage of the word’s ambiguity in French. To me, the Suleviæ seem like the nearest analogue to the Roman cult of Lares, with which Vesta was intimately connected (at least in Italy). If potentially there is a single great Sulevia, who is the leader of the myriad domestic Suleviæ (as I believe the Gauls conceptualized Silvanus as a great god leading the Silvani of the household, the mountains, etc.), then I would say the great Sulevia is perhaps the widespread Gallic deity most closely resembling Vesta.
      But then, as you say, there are also Matronæ, some of whom may be more closely related to the hearth than others.
      Finally, Rosmerta has strong connections (at least for me) with domestic prosperity and abundance, including food. Her tie-in with the kitchen and hearth is certainly less direct than Vesta’s, but also important in its way.
      Perhaps the Gauls just never developed as strong a sense of the sanctity of the family fireplace as the Romans did. Some domestic offerings (food, libations) might have been exposed to the open air, others buried, and others burnt — so maybe the hearth as such didn’t seem so uniquely and specially sacred. I’m just guessing here, however. If that’s right, then perhaps no single deity was thought of as having the hearth as their responsibility: as a place of fire it might belong to Vulcan, as part of the home to the household gods, as the place for cooking to Rosmerta (and/or the Matronæ?), etc.

      • How curious, I hadn’t noticed that Alesia was near La Motte du Ciar… Whilst it would make sense that Bergūsiā was seen by the population as especially similar to Vesta, they certainly kept it to themselves, since neither Ucuetis nor his companion were identified with any roman deity. Some authors mention that there is a representation of a couple that was found near the cellar where scraps of were left as offerings, but I’m not sure if I’ve found it myself. If you search both their theonyms on Google Images, you’ll find this picture on Twitter: https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/378800000399871694/78feec014894924ffa5b39a91397879e.jpeg
        There’s no context, so it’s hard to know whether it’s a real ancient statue or a modern one, or even if it’s Ucuetis and Bergūsiā, since there’s no dedication inscribed. Judging by its surroundings, I’m inclined to say it’s authentic. The goddess looks like she could be one of the Mothers, now that I think about it.

        There’s this one votive altar (http://polytheist.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/matronae2004.jpg), found at Bonn, that depicts a sacrificial scene to the Mothers. Three people gather around an āra, and seem to be leaving their offerings in what I presume would be a lit fire; one of them, who appears to be a woman, bears a flower or a branch of wheat, perhaps intending to sacrifice it to the Mothers.
        I’m beginning to wonder if Brigit is yet another fusion of deities — I don’t know if you’ve read some of my articles, but I’ve seen hints that some gaelic gods seem to be equivalent to at least two of our gods, like Dagda being similar to both Taranus and Sucellos — since she is quite like Minerva and Vesta, but nothing quite like her is found elsewhere in the other regions inhabited by the Celtic peoples. In fact, if you look at Brigit from a purely gallic or gallo-roman point of view, you’d think that the Mātronās would be the best fit, instead of Belisamā or the british Brigantiā. The natural motifs of the Mātronās also seem to fit with Brigit’s: trees (oak, for one), springs, and snakes.

        Perhaps we need to have slightly different notions of fire, as you pointed out, kind of like the profane/inactive fire and the holy/deified fire, which Mallory [1997: 202-203] theorises.

      • DeoMercurio says:

        Thanks for tracking down that image (and giving the necessary caveats!). Is it just me, or does the god not look like he is holding an olla à la Sucellos as well? Extremely interesting regarding the altar at Bonn…
        I admit I’ve mostly read your writings on ritual, not on theology; you’re certainly right that Gaulish deities can have multiple ‘equivalents’ or identificands in other pantheons. In addition to your points on the Dagda and Brigit, both Esus (according to the scholiast on Lucan) and Jovantucarus (according to inscriptions from the Treveran region) could be identified with Mars or Mercury, depending on the context. My idea is that this shows the inherent flexibility of a syncretism in which the deities do not lose their original identities even as they are in intimate relation with other deities.
        I see just what you mean about a Brigit/Matronæ comparison; at the same time, curiously, Brigit is not an obviously maternal deity….
        On an unrelated note, may the blessings of Ancamna be upon you! I celebrate her on the 5th of January (and at other times as it comes up!). 🙂

      • Indeed, he does look quite similar. I’d say that the similarity is more in the physical domain instead of in the attribute(s); the cauldron does remind me of Sucellos’ olla, but I find the lack of a hammer a bit suspicious.
        I really like that interpretation, and the way you used the examples of Esus and Iou̯antucarus to explain it! It does make sense that Gallic and Roman religions weren’t exact parallels of each other, so the interpretations naturally had to be different, since there was no consensus based on the outsiders’ [the Romans] religious views. This matter can be seen as similar to the words or sentences whose complete meaning is lost in translation. And then, of course, there are the deities that weren’t subjected to syncretism probably because they were seen as being quite different from any others known to Rome, like Cernunnos.
        I’m beginning to see that we can’t depend too much on the Irish paradigms, especially because they postdate the Iron Age. Have you ever noticed that a Brigit-like figure is also missing from Welsh medieval literature? We have Rhiannon as Sovereignty, Mabon and Pryderi as Youth, Gofannon as a smith, Gwydion as a sort of shapeshifter and hermit… but no keeper of the hearth, no mistress of the home.
        This is becoming quite a problem. 😛

        Thank you! She’s one of the goddesses I have yet to include in my practices, since I already worship her husband, Lēnus.

      • DeoMercurio says:

        That (i.e. that we can’t depend too much on the Irish paradigms) was the conclusion I came to as well. I love Irish mythology, and Welsh mythology as well, and for quite a while I tried to fit them into what we knew of Gaulish religion. For the most part, I abandoned that attempt once I started looking closer and closer at the sources from Gaul. There’s lots of evidence for Gallo-Roman syncretism, but I’ve found the Gallo-Irish or Gallo-Welsh connections to be, not the rich ancestral Common Celtic core I expected, but all too often insubstantial will-o’-the-wisps. One problem I had when dealing with the mediæval Celtic texts was that the stories I found most beautiful or compelling were often the latest versions—full of literary flair and mythistorical embellishment, but presumably farthest from the Iron Age originals.

        Talking of Vesta and/or Brigit, you could always worship either or both of them, if you feel called to, even if separately from your Gaulish practices. Worshipping Vesta in a Roman manner, and Celtic deities in a Gaulish manner, seems to me agreeably complementary. I’ve been known to raise a drinking horn of mead in honour of Odin from time to time—though not in the context of Gallo-Roman ritual…

        Isn’t Lenus terrific? He’s one of my favourite gods I’ve developed a relationship as a result of exploring the pantheon of the Treveri.

      • I’ve been getting that feeling, too. Sure, we can salvage some details among the confusing and ambiguous insular sources, but there’s like a wall of centuries social and religious changes that it becomes almost unwise to depend entirely on those late myths. That’s why I’ve also taken the habit of looking outside of the “celtic box”, in hopes of trying to find motifs that seem to fit with what we find in Gaul. Not that we’ll ever know everything, but at least it can serve as a foundation for new myths.
        I have been thinking about including Vesta, although I still have quite a bit of reading and thinking to do, about it. My main idea is that fire, by itself, might have been considered as a ‘thing’ or an ‘element’ rather than a deity. Still, it would be somewhat intrinsic to some of the gods, like we’ve discussed.
        Back when I started, I used be quite opposite to gallo-syncretism, but that angst has long passed. I am, in fact, quite thankful and intrigued by it, even if I don’t partake in it [yet].

        Curiously, I used to worship Odin, though via his Gothic name, Wōdans! Like you, I honoured him according to [loose] germanic principles 🙂

        I haven’t had much contact with him, but judging from the few “meetings” we’ve had, he seems to be quite affable! And now that you mention him… do you think elections would be a good time to honour him? I know that modern democracies are substantially different from what existed in Antiquity, but I do know the Gauls held elections to appoint a grand magistrate.

      • DeoMercurio says:

        That’s an interesting question — deities and elections. As a left-winger, I tend to look towards deities of the ‘menu peuple’ around election time: Sucellus Silvanus, maybe Hercules Saxsanus, Diana Abnoba, or the like… But if we’re looking at the good conduct of the electoral process as a whole, yes, I’d feel like either a Mercury/Lug/Woden-like deity or a Jupiter/Taranus-like one would make sense (depending on the cultural tradition we’re dealing with). Alternatively, one might invoke a hero or diuus/diua closely involved with good governance, whether ancient (such as the divine Augustus or Antoninus Pius) or modern (such as Lincoln, Pedro II, or Mandela). (As a history buff, I tend to focus a lot on heroes, historical and legendary.)

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