In the olden days, before climate change did away with any semblance of predictability that might have existed in the weather, they used to say that March went in like a lion and went out like a lamb. Here in Chicago, our lion was rather tame and meek this year, while our lamb has been having some teething trouble; still, the adage has held up better this year than it has for many past. Appropriately, perhaps, the month begins with a number of holidays and observances in honour of Mars, while later on is a series in honour of Minerva—two famous deities of war known (perhaps unfairly) for their contrasting styles. Of course, also in the mix are Liberalia and the ‘holy week’ of the Magna Mater, so that might queer the analogy a bit. (Hmm, is that a pun? Is it intended?)
Of Gaulish interest is the inauguration of an altar dedicated in HDD deae Eponae dis Mairabus genio loci ‘in honour of the divine house, to the goddess Epona, the Di Mairae, and the genius loci’ on 18 March of either 250 or 251 CE at Tilena (Til-Châtel in the Côte-d’Or). The dedicant was an official of the Legio XXII Primigenia; Tilena was in the territory of the Lingones. I like to keep this date as an additional holy day for Epona, besides the more famous Eponalia in December—not just because Epona can’t have too many feast days (obviously!) but because my 18 December tends to be busy with all-too-mundane concerns about shopping, travel, and family get-togethers (including a birthday around then). Even making room for Epona in one’s Saturnalia ritual mental space is by no means effortless, at least for me. March 18 is also a convenient occasion for reflecting on Epona’s relationship with other deities, including the genius loci, who is so often invoked alongside her. A goddess closely associated with horses is simultaneously associated with sovereignty (over lands as well as people) as well as movement (including from one land to another). The relationship between Epona and this particular genius loci (wherever that might be) is therefore unique and worth honouring wherever one encounters them both. I’ve mentioned sovereignty, and the recurrent connection between cavalry and aristocracy is reason enough for me to do so; however, adding the formula in H(onorem) D(omus) D(iuinae) underscores the connection with imperial power, since—common as it was in northeastern Gaul—this formula is certainly not used with every deity or in every situation.
I haven’t done any in-depth study of this inscription from Tilena (CIL XIII: 5622), so I won’t say anything too opinionated about it; however, I wouldn’t automatically assume the Di Mairae to be mother-goddesses (deabus Matribus), since the word dis is masculine plural. If the i in Mairae could be read as t, however, then the reading dis Matrabus might plausibly be compared with another inscription from the same tribal area that is dedicated dis Matribus ‘to the mother-gods (!)’ (CIL XIII: 11577)—in other words, not everybody’s Latin was perfect, even in Antiquity. (And, as Gandalf would say, “that is a comforting thought.”) It would not be surprising, in any case, for the deae Matres to be invoked immediately after Epona. In Rome, the Equites Singulares Augusti (or ‘Emperor’s Own Horse-Guard’) did so routinely—albeit in the context of long inscriptions invoking a number of other deities as well.
I also wanted to add some reflections about the recent liberation of Palmyra from Daesh—even if ‘liberation’ may perhaps be a relative term under the circumstances. As of 27 March, the ten-month nightmare of Daesh occupation of that holy city has ended. The agents of the so-called caliphate have demolished the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, defiled countless precious relics of Palmyra, and even beheaded the 81-year-old archæologist Khalid al-Asaad who sought to protect them. For these and for their other crimes, the curses of heaven and earth (including my own) have long rained down on Daesh. I sincerely wish that the pain and heartache suffered by the people of Syria and Iraq (not to mention Libya, France, Belgium, and so many other lands) may be visited on the perpetrators of these acts of defilement, rape, torture, murder, displacement, and enslavement, both in time and in eternity, and may the avenging furies allow them neither comfort nor respite till retribution is exacted from them in full. Ominously, the accursed forces of Daesh seem to have taken with them most of the Palmyrene civilian population—heaven knows what dire fate awaits those unfortunate people.
Now, however, one may begin to take stock and eventually restore what has been lost, to the extent possible. The Syrian government already has promised to rebuild both the temple of Bel and that of Baalshamin. If they do, it will be a great service to both the gods and the people of Syria, even if those defiled sacred places can never be the same. The reality is that the core territory hitherto controlled by Daesh is crumbling on all sides. In Iraq, the Peshmerga have advanced from the northeast, Iraqi government forces and their allies from the southeast, rolling back the godless slavers from sacred Shingal, Ramadi, Baiji, and Tikrit. In Syria, the YPG has wrested all of the northeast from Daesh control while beating them back from Kobani—this in spite of violent obstructionism on the part of Turkey. The liberation of Mosul and Raqqa are only a matter of time—may Mars and Minerva hasten the hour. This is the context for the tragic attacks in Brussels on 22 March (another violation of the soil of ancient Gaul) as well as Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Baghdad. As Daesh loses control on the ground, its agents fan out to try to change the narrative and impress upon the world its continued capacity for wanton cruelty.
Finally, the news from Pakistan is even more grimly deplorable than that from Belgium. To attack children and their mothers at a playground—the primary target of the murderous attack in Lahore claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar—simply beggars the imagination of senseless violence. May the Mothers and the other deities of comfort and compassion give some solace to those who suffer. Pax Nemesis, may you spare the world such woeful misfortunes; restore justice to us; let no such acts be effected or contemplated with impunity; inaugurate, I pray, a new era of tranquillity and equitable development for this long-suffering world.