For Mercury, inventor of the lyre

I beg to place before the world a playlist of songs in honour of the god Mercury. The keynote—struck at the beginning as well as the end—is Gustav Holst’s Hymn of the Travellers, which I’ve had occasion to refer to earlier on this blog; I encourage anybody interested to listen through to the end, because the second rendition by the choir in New Zealand is really worth hearing. Immediately following the Hymn of the Travellers, and for reasons that will doubtless be as immediately obvious, is Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam”. I’ve chosen a bluegrass cover of this song (!) in order to make the lyrics easier to follow, and for the benefit of people who don’t like screaming, growling, and amps (yes, I’m told such folk exist!). And also because it’s awesome. Honestly, I get chills down my spine when I hear the bluegrass version of “Wherever I May Roam” immediately after the Hymn of the Travellers.

Mercury (Reims)

Mercury with money-bag, rooster, and turtle.
From the Musée Saint-Remi in Reims.

Some of these songs have an obvious thematic connection to travel, communication, diplomatic finesse, etc. And flight. I always liked Modest Mouse’s “Float On”, for instance, but thinking about it as a Mercury-themed song just enhances its worth to me so immensely. The songs are written from a variety of perspectives, obviously, which I hope is not too jarring. In some of these songs, “I” is either Mercury or (more likely) a person participating in his genius; in others, like “Like a Rolling Stone”, “you” is someone who fell afoul of Mercury; in some, “I” is a mortal devotee of Mercury, while in others such as “Everytime”, “I” is someone who perhaps like Chione has been loved by Mercury and now left behind. In “Stolen Car”, I picture Beth Orton teaching lessons learned the hard way from engagement with the son of Maia.

In other cases, I’ve favoured instrumental pieces in E-minor—playfully identified in the CBC “Signature Series” as the key of the trickster or handsome rogue. Which, wouldn’t you know it, happens to include some of my long-time favourite orchestral works, including Dvořák’s ‘New World’ symphony (Symphony No. 9) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. The former is additionally of obvious Mercurial significance since (a) it was written by Dvořák while sojourning in a foreign land, (b) its themes are alternately pastoral, fleet-footed, and lofty, (c) the second movement includes the familiar “Going Home” theme, etc., etc. The latter piece—I mean The Lark Ascending—again has a pastoral subject that also features quickness of flight, harmony, solemn majesty, heartbreaking beauty… Mm! Perfect. (E-minor. Just sayin’.)

Now, my own plan for this playlist is that I will be able to put on my headphones and listen to it at work. However, I encourage anybody else to give it a listen if you find yourself similarly at liberty and curious. (Ah, at liberty and curious! How Mercurial.)

As I’m a native English speaker and listen to way more English-language music than that in other tongues, English songs predominate; however, I’m pleased to say that there are also pieces in French, German, Portuguese, the Auvergnat dialect of (dit-on) Occitan (je vous remercie, M. Canteloube !), and ancient Greek, as well as one memorable song—one of my favourite folk metal tracks—that is in Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Lithuanian, and Latvian (if I haven’t omitted any!).

This playlist has a bit of a funny origin story. Having heard about the 31 days of devotion initiative promoted by Galina Krasskova, and its variation by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus consisting of a week of devotions for different deities (including Hermes and Lug Mac Ethlenn, inter some very fine alia!), I thought to myself, “Maybe I can jump on this bandwagon in a modest way. I’ll start with one deity, work my way through the questions as I can, and then add maybe one or two additional deities if I can make time.”

So that first deity in question was Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus, and you can see my post on the subject here. For some reason I struggled to think of music that would appeal specifically to IOMD. By contrast, where to begin with music for Mercury? I just started coming up with one piece after another. I also mean to record some audio tracks of my own—including readings of Orphic and Homeric hymns—and burn them, with some of this music, to a disc to listen to on my commute. But that’s a work in progress yet!

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Rejoice! Rejoice greatly!

Perhaps one might be in a jubilant mood anyway from yesterday, having celebrated the dies natalis with the holy goddess Diana … and perhaps the Ides would in any case have brought out a certain jovial spirit … or else the celebration of Lychnapsia might have lightened one’s spirits … but now the news from Syria, of all places, brings even more reason for rejoicing. Namely, as of August 12, the holy city of Hierapolis Bambyce is free!

Now a mainly Arab city of some 75,000 people, this city has retained its millennia-old name (anciently MNBG, presumably Manbig- or Manbug-) with only minor fluctuations. Its Syriac name in ancient times was Mabog, while the Greeks called it Bambyce, and today in Arabic it is Manbij. The news therefore making the rounds is that Manbij has been liberated from Daesh (may they be cursed on earth and by the gods of heaven and by the gods below) by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led coalition of multi-ethnic, post-nationalist fighters who have driven Daesh out of its strongholds all across northern Syria. The BBC showed some wonderful scenes of local people coming out onto the street to celebrate, publicly cutting off their beards, burning their niqabs, and hugging their liberators.*

It is not beyond the scope of this blog to make some mention of the reasons why a Gallo-Roman polytheist should feel particularly gratified at the liberation of this Syrian holy city. Hierapolis Bambyce was the great sanctuary of the Dea Suria or Syrian goddess—generally so called in Latin, but otherwise known as Atargatis and/or Hera, among other names. Lucian of Samosata devotes a whole treatise to her cult at Hierapolis and elsewhere, which is miraculously extant.


The god and goddess of Hierapolis Bambyce (respectively Hadad and Atar‘athe in Aramaic, or Zeus and Hera in Greek) on a 3rd-century CE coin of Hierapolis.
(From the 1913 translation of Lucian of Samosata’s De Dea Syria by Herbert Strong and John Garstang, p. 70)

Here is an extract from Lucian, giving a hint of Hierapolis’ importance in the 2nd century CE:

10. Of all these temples, and they are numerous indeed, none seems to me greater than those found in the sacred city; no shrine seems to me more holy, no region more hallowed. They possess some splendid masterpieces, some venerable offerings, many rare sights, many striking statues, and the gods make their presence felt in no doubtful way. The statues sweat, and move, and utter oracles, and a shout has often been raised when the temple was closed; it has been heard by many. […] Nowhere among mankind are so many festivals and sacred assemblies instituted as among them.
[ . . . ]
13. But a further story is told by the men of Hierapolis, and a wonderful one it is; they say that in their country a mighty chasm appeared which received all the water, and that Deukalion on this occurrence reared altars and founded a temple to Juno above this chasm. I have actually seen this chasm; it lies beneath the temple and is of very small dimensions. […] They maintain that their tale is proved by the following occurrence; twice in every year the water comes from the sea to the temple. This water is brought by the priests; but besides them, all Syria and Arabia and many from beyond the Euphrates go down to the sea; one and all bring its water which they first pour out in the temple; then this water passes down into the chasm which, small though it be, holds a vast quantity of water.
(Lucian of Samosata’s De Dea Syria, paragraphs 10 and 13. From the 1913 translation by Herbert Strong and John Garstang, pp. 49, 51-52)

The cult of the Dea Suria was taken to the West by Roman soldiers, including Syrian auxiliaries stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. There is also some reason for thinking that the Dea Suria was at least sometimes syncretized with the consort of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus, who like her was a Syrian goddess known in Greek as Hera. Among the places where the worship of the Dolichene couple found a home was Moguntiacum (Mainz), then a legionary stronghold at Gaul’s easternmost extremity, as well as neighbouring encampments of the limes germanicus.

Hail to you, Dea Suria! Long may your city and your people be free!
* All things being equal, I am rather a fan of beards than otherwise; I refer scoffers to Musonius Rufus and the emperor Julian. In this case, however, all things are emphatically not equal!

In addition to this, I should also say a word or two about my observances about the Ides of August. I focused my observances on Diana—whose dies natalis it is, according to the Philocalian calendar of 354 CE (if memory serves)—on Apollo, on Hercules, and on their father Jupiter. This year I had a separate ceremony for Hercules some hours before the other, more elaborate, one. I offered him a libation of Murphy’s Stout, which seemed to go down well, along with prayers and words of praise along the lines you might expect. I tend to highlight Hercules’ role as saxsanus or ‘Hercules of the Rocks’ for his miraculous deliverance while driving the cattle of Geryon; Hercules as culture hero in Gaul; and Hercules the trailblazer to immortality, as depicted on the Igel Column. I also poured out some of the beer onto the ground as an offering to Hercules-as-hero, and myself drank to him as an ancestor of the Celts and Gauls. Somehow this was the first time it occurred to me that Hercules might be honoured as god, as hero, and as ancestor all at once…!

I hadn’t really thought of Diana as a beer-drinker, but the Hercules offering seemed to work so nicely that I later offered her libations of Fat Squirrel brown ale from the New Glarus brewery. This seemed a potation appropriate to the hunt. I also offered her incense, an offering of holy water from the lake of the manitou (wrongly called Devil’s Lake) also in Wisconsin, a reading of a hymn, and such. I also made my customary monthly offerings to Jupiter.

Finally, I’m currently midway through observing the decamnoctiaci Granni, to conclude with the dedication of the altar to Apollo Grannus on August 18. Each night I’ve been lighting a tealight and offering various prayers and invocations in honour of Grannus. So far so good. The final night, I intend to make some more substantial offerings in addition to the candle. So on the Ides I included this as a component of the larger ritual (recalling that there is also an altar dedicated to Jupiter, Apollo, and Diana from Gaul on this date).

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O Kalends, my Kalends!

This time last year, I presented a ritual at Olympia, Washington, in honour of Rome and Augustus on the occasion of the Kalends of August. I’d like to reiterate my thanks to the organizers of Many Gods West last year, to all those who attended, and especially to Kirk Thomas, who served so admirably as our sacerdos Romae et Augusti. I sincerely hope the circumstances will permit the holding of a similar ritual in the future. The Kalends of August is perhaps the single most important date in the Gallo-Roman religious calendar, if for no other reason than that we know a fair bit about that date and its significance. At an altar dedicated by the great Drusus and co-nascent with his son, the divine Claudius, representatives of the sixty peoples of the three Gaulish provinces would gather at Condate (now the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood of Lyon) to compete for the honour of being elected as priest of Rome and Augustus. Under that priest’s guidance, there would be games and sacrifices as well as speech-making and an opportunity to petition the Roman authorities for redress of grievances. There is also a widely entertained theory (although personally I find the evidence for it unsatisfactory) that this Kalends of August event perpetuated an earlier Celtic ritual of Lugnasad dedicated presumably to Lugus at Lugdunum or its environs. In any case, here is an occasion of the first importance in both sanctity and social significance, the commemoration of which does honour to our Gaulish ancestors* as well, of course, as the deities in question: the goddess Rome, the divine Augustus, and their allies.

Augustus (polychrome)

Praise to you, divine Augustus! Through you we live, through you we navigate, through you our freedom and fortunes we enjoy.
(Augustus of Prima Porta. I have modified the colours of this polychrome reconstruction of the statue’s appearance from the Vatican Museums. Original photo by Sailko, CC-BY-SA.)

This year, however, I observed the Kalends of August in a thoroughly modest, private way. I lit a candle for the goddess Rome, burnt incense for the divine Augustus, poured libations for the divine Claudius and for the divine Pertinax, and also—and I should have mentioned this first—offered honeyed cakes for Juno, for the Kalends of each month is sacred to her. I read an extract from Virgil, chanted many an io triumphe! in Augustus’ honour, and might also have played Camille Saint-Saëns’ wonderful unpublished symphony Urbs Roma, but for some reason I forgot it this year. (Respighi’s Pines of Rome doesn’t work quite as well, for some reason, in my experience. I’m also quite attached to Karl Jenkins’ Palladio in this connection, but that musical choice requires a bit more exegesis!)

And all of this is perfectly good, but I couldn’t help feeling pretty wistful when I thought about last year’s gathering at Olympia—the wonderful camaraderie—the chance to meet or reconnect with people of such intellectual and spiritual depth—the working together to advance the work of the gods while respecting the diversity of our traditions to such a marvellous extent.

I really ought to have published an explanation earlier for why I had not applied to present a similar ritual at Many Gods West again this year, but the simple reason is that the 2016 conference is being held a week later, which means that we’re not talking about the Kalends of August but rather the Nones (namely tomorrow, Friday, which incidentally is also the dies natalis of Salus). Unfortunately, a Kalends ritual can’t really be held after the Kalends—in a pinch, perhaps, you could have one beforehand, in anticipation of the actual date, but even here one would be taking a serious liberty.

Crucially, the later date means that I wasn’t free to get away from work, as there’s a conflict with a conference which my boss attends, in consequence of which I’m needed to stay behind in the journal office. I was incredibly sad that I wouldn’t be able to go to Many Gods West this year, and I send my greetings and good wishes to all those who will. This may be part of the reason I haven’t posted about Many Gods West 2016: I didn’t fully want to admit to myself and the world that I couldn’t go!

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus warns of under-the-hood goings-on in the lead-up this year’s event that are likely to result in miasmic contamination, and no doubt e is right. Left to my own devices, I’d probably have risked it, trying to take all due ritual precautions but inevitably being vulnerable to mischance through some carelessness or oversight of my own—so perhaps it is, after all, providential that the choice is out of my hands this year.

For another reason, too, it’s better that I conserve my money for now, and that is that I’m planning a trip to Ireland next year. While my German ancestors hailed from the area around Trier,† that Gallo-Roman city par excellence,‡ I also have a fair deal of Irish ancestry. Actually, after World War I, our family was somewhat in denial about our German heritage, and played up our Irish roots instead. Anyway, my Irish forebears hailed from several areas of Ulster now on or near the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic (neither of which, as political entities, existed when my ancestors left Ireland). As a result, if I’m to visit South Armagh and the Cooley Peninsula, the Inishowen Peninsula and Tyrone—as I’ve been wishing to for many years—I’d much rather not have to be troubled by continual hassle along the border. The Brexit vote, therefore, elicited in me the almost immediate resolution to visit Ireland before the UK is officially out of the EU so that I can experience Ireland the way it is now, ahead of what must likely be a harsher and more effectual Partition than there has been at any time since the 1970s—a renewed Partition that, by the way, the people of Ireland, north and south, neither wanted nor consented to.

In the meantime, mark your calendars for two particularly important upcoming dates: the Nemoralia on August 13 (the Ides), which is the dies natalis of Diana but also a hugely polyvalent holy day; and the decamnoctiacis Granni or ten nights of Grannus, which I suggest might be observed in the lead-up to the dedication of an altar of Apollo Grannus on August 18 at Altiaia.

And of course, for those heading to Many Gods West, my heartfelt blessings; may the gods favour you, and may all ill be averted.
* Whether of blood or of spirit.
† Trier, by the way, has just named a Syrian refugee, Ninorta Bahno, as its Wine Queen for the year. I love this.
‡ The very name of Trier in antiquity—Augusta Treverorum—honours Augustus.

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Tales of Ritona

The four tales below in no way represent historically attested, ‘canonical’ mythology of Ritona, which unfortunately does not exist. I offer it to the world as ‘fan fiction’, as it were, concerning a number of deities—notably Ritona and Minerva—who are anything but fictitious.

The voyage of Trebeta

[NB: I ran a bit long with this first tale. If you want to skip ahead to the bit with Ritona, you can read the rest of this paragraph and then move straight to the next section. If you want to read the whole story of the voyage of Trebeta without spoilers, you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. THE ARGUMENT: Trebeta flees Assyria with a party of exiles. Diana and Silvanus help him ascend the whole length of the Danube, while an Assyrian punitive expedition led by Onnecles, a favourite of Minerva, pursues them.]


A Renaissance-era depiction of Trebeta, son of Ninus, the Assyrian exile who was said to have founded Trier.
(From a public domain scan)

In the days of old, the great lord Trebeta, son of Ninus, had nine daughters and nine sons, each with nine times nine retainers, while Trebeta himself had twelve men to attend his chariot, twelve women to attend his horses, twelve boys to serve him meat, twelve girls to serve him drink, twelve old people to sing him songs, twelve young people to dance for him, twelve strong people to bear his shield, twelve dexterous people to carry his sword and spears, twelve swift people to bear messages for him, twelve witty people to converse with him, twelve wise people to counsel him, and twelve pious people to intercede between himself and the gods. And all these, with their own families and hangers-on, made up the tribe of Trebeta, which wandered from the East, fleeing from Semiramis after she had wed the agèd Ninus and taken over the government of Assyria.

Now Semiramis was anxious to cut Trebeta off, lest he make contact with some great foreign king and recruit an army and try to retake Assyria. She therefore sent forth her son Onnecles, son of the general Onnes, who had been her husband before Ninus. Semiramis fitted Onnecles out with three thousand cavalry, three thousand archers, and three hundred ships, so that whether Trebeta went by land or by sea, Onnecles should always be able to catch up with the exiles. Before he departed, Onnecles sacrificed a hecatomb to Minerva, whom he loved above all other deities, pledging to build her a mighty temple in Assyria if he returned with his mission fulfilled.

But Trebeta was ever a friend of Diana, and when he came to edges of the Asian land, with Onnecles’ men close pursuing him, Trebeta consecrated to Diana a great gift of gold and incense, of boars and sheep, of aurochs and deer, and with his own hands sacrificed to her a lion, an antelope, and a python, begging her to forestall his enemies and let him get away safely from their clutches, with all his party.

Diana heard him, and, as Trebeta was encouraging his party in building rafts and scows, the goddess caused immense numbers of wolves to encircle the Assyrian cavalry, howling and baying. The horses bolted and scattered, and Onnecles wasted many days reassembling his party, during which time Trebeta embarked from Asia and made his way safe through Thrace to Scythia. In a dream, Minerva showed Onnecles the way Trebeta had gone, and Onnecles assembled his fleet. But Neptune, who was then smarting over his dispute with Minerva over who should be the patron of Athens, scattered the Assyrian fleet in a great storm—and, for good measure, caused an earthquake that again caused the horses to panic and stampede.

At last Onnecles managed to cross the sea, but Trebeta’s party was now deep in the Scythian land. There they came upon the immense river Danuvius—virtually a freshwater sea that rolled with slow and stately grace across the wide plains of Scythia. As they arrived, Trebeta’s party was at first perplexed as to what to do. They halted for a while and made drink offerings to the deities of the place. Trebeta then drank a draught of water from the Danube, and at once was overcome by sleep and retired to his litter. There, in a dream, Diana appeared to him.

“Lordly Trebeta,” she told him, “you have come to a friendly place, for Danuvius is my son: this river is born from my own mountains, and when you come to its headwaters you shall reach my own country and know me by my true name. No harm shall come to you as long as you remain on the wide rolling waters of the Danube. The river-god himself will shield you, as will I and my dear friend Silvanus, who reigns over these shores. If ever enemies assail you, you need only call on any of us, and hordes of friendly oreads, silvani, and naiads will come to your defence.”

Trebeta awoke and relayed this welcome news to his nine daughters and nine sons and to all his party. They rejoiced thereat and made gifts to Diana, Silvanus, and the god Danube. Then they set about preparing light river-craft for their voyage: barques and coracles and skiffs on which they might sail the rolling river to its source.

Minerva, for her part, had guided Onnecles swiftly overland. They spotted Trebeta’s party at their work, singing and making merry as though their dangers were far behind. At Minerva’s suggestion, Onnecles prepared an assault that would drive Trebeta’s forces against the river. His troops fanned out to encircle the exiles’ camp; he divided them in two wings. On his right, a party of archers would make a demonstration to the east as a cavalry force fanned out as though to take Trebeta from the south. Meanwhile on his left, the largest party of cavalry would be in place to hit Trebeta hard from the west, where the remainder of the archers would be stationed in reserve.

Trebeta’s doughty daughter Beda, while lending her hand to cutting some wood for boats, a little to the east of camp, first saw the Assyrian archers’ arrows fly. “Help us, O Silvanus!” she cried out.

The immortals heard her. Not one of the Assyrian arrows hit their mark; meanwhile, from out the forest, sprang dozens and hundreds of bold silvani. Their broad and kindly faces now dark with anger, the silvani swept against the Assyrians, wielding sickles and clubs, and drove them back in confusion.

The pincer movement of the Assyrian cavalry met with no more success. In the south, Aresax, son of Trebeta, heard the enemy’s hooves approaching and cried out, “Diana, save us!” Then oreads sprang forth in immense numbers, shrieking wildly and hurling rocks. The horses were dismayed, their riders were distraught, and all scattered. In the west, Caruca, daughter of Trebeta, guarding the boats on the Danube, raised the alarm, and called out, “Danuvius, we need you!” The placid waters of the Danube then churned and flooded; naiads, snapping like adders, hurled their tridents, and the eddies sucked the left wing of Onnecles’ forces into the river, where they were swept out to sea.

Onnecles himself was in the left wing, bravely leading his cavalry from the front. Near he came to drowning, as he and most of his command were swept into the river, but Minerva saved him, setting him on dry land where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. Now he reassembled what he could of his great expedition. Some few of his left wing, like him, survived the flood; messengers he sent to his fleet and to what he could reorganize of his right wing. On Minerva’s guidance, he reassembled the remnant of his forces north of the Danube. “You must make haste,” she told him, taking the form and voice of an aide-de-camp, who he later learned had drowned. “Go overland as fast as you can and cut Trebeta off in the mountains of Abnoba.”

Onnecles’ force was now depleted, though his command could still match the exiles warrior for warrior with more besides. The ships ferrying his right wing from one bank of the Danube to the other were sometimes swept far out to sea when Neptune spotted them; but just as often, Minerva was there to thwart him and see the troops across. Presently, however, the remnant of Onnecles’ force was tearing over the plains and steppes and through the mountain passes, parallel to the Danube.

Trebeta’s force moved at its leisure, glad of the respite and happy to know they were nearing a land that Diana promised would be friendly to them. Fish they pulled up in abundance from the Danube; game they found in plenty on either bank. At last they reached a place where the Danube—now only a stream—flowed swiftly out of a great ridge of forest. “What place is this?” they asked a wandering huntsman, who was one of the few people they had seen.

“These mountains are Abnoba,” the huntsman answered, “and so is the goddess to whom they belong.”

Trebeta’s party then rejoiced to learn the true name of Diana. They made sacrifices and celebrated a great feast, and, leaving their boats behind, spoke of settling forever in the forested land of Abnoba. A day or two’s exploration, however, was sufficient to show them that the soil there was not propitious for settled agriculture, and the terrain was too rough for laying out a city. These civilized exiles from Assyria were not prepared to revert entirely to a life of hunting and fishing. Therefore they wandered through the mountains of Abnoba, looking for some inviting valley where they might found a city.

Presently they spied the wide, green valley of the Rhine, and their hearts swelled. Now at last they felt they had reached a place they might settle at last. Aresax, Trebeta’s son, vowed he would never live in a permanent home that was not in sight of this river.

Here, however, they descended the mountains, and were out of Diana’s protection. Onnecles’ scouts at once detected them—for Onnecles had battled hostile bands of nomads, raided villages, climbed mountains, and force-marched his men through marshes to beat Trebeta’s exiles to the Rhine. With Minerva’s inspiration, Onnecles now rallied his tough Assyrians for a battle where victory would at last secure their passage home.

Ritona on the Rhine

Trebeta, after his established custom, had offered sacrifices to the gods of the place where he had come. He sacrificed as well to Diana Abnoba and Silvanus, and to Rhenus Pater, the venerable Father Rhine whose name was yet unknown to him but whose river watered this pleasant country.

For the third time, Onnecles drew up his forces, backing the exiles against a body of water. The sea had welcomed them, the Danube had saved them, but, Onnecles vowed, the exiles would never cross the Rhine while he still drew breath. Minerva herself appeared amidst the Assyrian ranks, beating her spear against her shield, her ægis flashing, her hair flowing from beneath her crested helm.

Trebeta’s courage failed him. He fell to his knees before the wrath of Minerva, visible to him then with his waking eyes, and could do no more than beg her for mercy.

But the nine daughters and nine sons of Trebeta remained undaunted. The brave Beda called in a loud voice for the gods of that place to come to their aid, if Diana and Silvanus were powerless to help them, and declared that she would fight with her last breath to defend the exiles. Contius and Teucoria, a son and daughter of Trebeta, swore that any deity who came to rescue them, they themselves and their descendants would venerate as saviours. Bingia and Aresax, another daughter and son of Trebeta, devoted themselves forever to the god of that immense river flowing behind them.

The immortals heard them. Father Rhine raised his great horned head from the surface and cried out, “Desist, great Minerva! These people have vowed themselves to me. Call off this great attack.”

Diana and Silvanus raised their voices likewise, imploring Minerva to call off Onnecles’ forces. But the great goddess felt the quarry was fairly caught, and would not heed them.

Then splendid Ritona, finder of ways, appeared upon the opposite bank of the river, hearkening to the words of Diana, Silvanus, and Father Rhine. She beheld great Minerva in her glistening armour, beautiful and terrible. She heard the cries of those who had called on the gods of that place, those exiles still ignorant of the names of gods to whom they vowed themselves. She heeded Contius and Teucoria, and strode to the bank of the river, her spear in her hand.

“Hail to you, Minerva!” she cried. “This battle need not be. Only let the exiles cross this river, and they shall be our people—no trouble to the Assyrians forevermore.”

“What deity are you to challenge me at the moment of my victory?” cried Minerva. “Over dusty plains and bruising hills, I have pursued these exiles. I have pinned them against the river, and here I shall prevail!”

“There you may prevail,” answered Ritona, “but not if they cross to this bank. I am Ritona Pritona, daughter of Epona and sister of Nemetona. I delight in the valley of the winding Moselle and the slopes of the high Hunsrück. All the land I hereabout I own, along with my sister and her great husband Mars Loucetius, who will be by my side in an instant if need be to defend our rights.”

Minerva sighed. The wise strategist perceived that there was no need to escalate this little conflict into a great war between the gods. “I agree to your terms, Ritona, daughter of Epona,” she answered. “If these exiles can cross the immense Rhine, even as they are, with no ships, and make it to the further shore, they will be under your protection, they and their progeny. But if, as seems more likely, we can cut them down on this bank, the triumph is mine.”

On these terms the battle was joined. The Assyrian archers launched a volley. Brave Aresax and the prostrated Trebeta were wounded at once. But Ritona directed the exiles to retire at once into the reeds upon the river-bank, where the archers could get no shot at them.

Onnecles directed his cavalry now to swoop down upon the exiles. As they approached the water’s edge, the deep, queer, echoing sound of bitterns roared out all around them like a thousand angry cattle. The horses were startled and would not enter the water. Cavalrymen charging from the rear could not rein in their mounts in time and crashed into their comrades, adding to the confusion.

Meanwhile, the exiles were slowly, delicately picking their way across the river, their feet finding a ford in the cold currents with the aid of Ritona. Some paused, the water up to their elbows, to shoot at their pursuers and cover the retreat of the rest. As the party stepped through the cold waters of the Rhine, it presently became clear that they would be over their heads—and not all of them could swim. The Assyrian cavalry now had dismounted, reformed their ranks, and begun their pursuit of the exiles into the river. Worse still, the archers could now see their targets as the exiles emerged from the reeds into the deeper water.

With a quick and decided step, Ritona now descended into the water. “Father Rhine!” she called. “Rally your forces!” A few strides brought Ritona across the river to the beleaguered party. The first was Contius, pulling his wounded father Trebeta through the current. Ritona now took the form of an otter, which grabbed hold of Trebeta and pulled him swiftly across the stream. Behind him Contius swam, not wanting to lose touch of his father to this unknown creature. One of Contius’ nine attendants, though he could not swim, grabbed hold of Contius’ tunic and was pulled along, then the next attendant in the same way, followed by the next—and presently the immense company of exiles was being towed across the river by the divine otter. From all along the river and the nearby marshes, bitterns flew, converging over Ritona’s party. Their long beaks plucked arrows out the air and saved many a fleeing exile, while some even advanced to peck at and harry the archers on the shore. And now Father Rhine appeared at the head of a host of tritons, mounted on a herd of fearless water-swine. These swept in to cover the exiles’ flanks, their tusks goring the dismounted Assyrian cavalry while the tritons assailed the soldiers with nets and harpoons.

Now Onnecles saw victory slipping away from him. In desperation he rallied a band of Assyrians left on the shore and, heedless of his vow that the exiles would not cross the Rhine while still he lived, he drew his sword and plunged, splashing, into the water. There he met the doughty Beda. She was in the reeds not far from the water’s edge, heading up the rearguard and directing the last few exile bowmen who were covering her people’s retreat. The bronze of their swords clanged, echoing out across the water, as proud Beda met him blow for blow. Onnecles took a great swipe with his sword, which Beda did not parry but ducked. Onnecles’ sword met only air; he stumbled in the water, losing his balance, and Beda rose up and thrust her sword straight through his neck, and his life breath ceased. At that very instant the wounded Trebeta reached the land on the opposite shore.

The exiles’ losses were heavy. Of the twelve old people to sing Trebeta songs, nine had perished. Of the twelve men to attend his horses, ten had perished. Of the twelve dexterous people to carry his sword and spears, all had perished, fighting for their lord. Trebeta would survive, but his wound would plague him until at last he died and was buried with great honour upon the Petrisberg. Aresax lived only long enough to expire on reaching the left bank of the Rhine. There he was interred in a great mound by the river bank, and so found his permanent home in sight of the river. His family and attendants all called themselves Aresaces and pledged that they and their descendants would remain there by the bank. The Assyrians seized all the exiles’ wealth and baggage that had been left upon the shore. Minerva, seeing her champion Onnecles meet his death in the river Rhine, abandoned the cause of the Assyrian expedition and turned her attention to matters in Britain, Armorica, and Marseille. Leaderless, the remaining Assyrians split into roving bands, some turning south, some turning east, few returning home.

The children of Trebeta dispersed somewhat across their new country, reaching the Hunsrück, the Moselle, and the Eifel. They laid out farms and villas, and Trebeta would found not one, but several towns; in after years his tribe would mingle with the descendants of Celtus, son of Hercules, and the descendants of Mannus, and become the nation of Treveri.

The wooing of Minerva

Now Ritona, having seen Minerva and driven her away, began to feel desperate longing for her. No other deity, hero, or mortal could compare to Minerva in Ritona’s eyes for bravery or beauty, for skill or daring. Ritona lost her appetite for ambrosia; she sat alone by the banks of the rivers, staring blankly at their undulating surface, and not answering when any of the river-nymphs spoke to her. At last, Ritona went to Venus, who was then cruising on the river Seine amidst naiads and tritons, and confessed her secret.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” concluded Ritona at last. “If you could make me male, little as I wish to be, perhaps then I could woo Minerva—though I hardly know how so great a deity might love a little one like me. To her belong Athens, Cyrrhestica, and Marseille, and she is enthroned on Olympus, while I am only a part-owner of a few patches of Gaul. And even if you would do this for me, I despair on thinking how to repay you.”

Venus answered, “Ritona, your case is not desperate! Even as you are, Minerva will love you. As to making you male, you should get that thought out of your mind. For you must know that Minerva has forsworn forever the touch of a masculine member, and, even when she does love you, you must never penetrate her person lest she in some way violate her vow.”

“Then how can I hope to please her?” said Ritona.

“Oh dear!” said Venus, “the possibilities are too many to enumerate. I’ll lend you some lascivious literature that will suggest some things to start with. Then your own ingenuity will inform you. In the meantime, you know, it is my particular delight to make deities and mortals love who have previously forsworn such passion. You need not repay me, except in swoons of satisfaction.”

Ritona took some heart at this, though she still would not yet trust to hope. While Venus rifled through her pleasure-ship’s wide-ranging library of erotic fiction, looking for appropriate recommendations, her intrepid son Cupid took wing, seeking Minerva through all of her usual haunts. He found her at last overseeing the troop movements of a small war-party of Ligurians. Then Cupid, plucking an abandoned shield from the field, hid behind it till, coming close within range of Minerva, he hit her smartly in the small of the back with one of his infamous darts.

At once, Minerva found the battle less absorbing. How tedious were these loathsome Ligurians! Would they never learn the elements of strategy, instruct them though she might? How much more pleasing, altogether, were the quick manœuvres and deft undertakings of that Gaulish goddess she had just left! Though they had been, for a while, on opposite sides, yet Minerva now reflected on the boldness of Ritona’s steps, the gracefulness of all her movements, the resolution in her speech, the flash of her bright eyes, the wild flow of her hair, the neat turn of her wrists and ankles, the glorious curves of her waist and hips, the enticing bounce of her bust…. Truly, thought Minerva, her time would be better spent along the Moselle, where people were not such clods as these, and where like-minded deities were to be met with.

An anxious Ligurian war-chief called out to Minerva in a loud voice. Minerva absent-mindedly drifted in the direction of the sound, knocking the chief off his feet and causing him to crash into the legs of several opposing warriors, who all collided in a heap, interrupting the rout that was threatening the chief’s war party. Without pausing to observe the effects of this on the battle, Minerva, abstracted, flitted away from the battlefield and headed north.

“Godspeed, Minerva!” cried Cupid, winking at her from behind a Ligurian shield.

Minerva waved vaguely at him, not pausing to wonder what Cupid might be doing there. She had other things on her mind. Would Ritona hate her after their last fierce encounter? she asked herself desperately.

Meanwhile, Ritona had read, wide-eyed, a good number of the stories Venus had lent her, and was beginning to formulate some ideas of how to seduce the warlike Minerva. She still trembled at the thought of actually encountering her again, particularly after she had so cruelly thwarted her.

However, before Ritona had a chance to put any of her stratagems into action, she found Minerva right before her as she was taking a favourite walk along the Sarre. “Oh!” said she, much embarrassed.

Minerva, who was not expecting to run into her quite so soon either, was equally thrown: “Oh!” she replied, “It’s you!”

Ritona took a deep breath, keenly aware of how much Minerva must resent her victory, and said, “Welcome to this little part of the world again.”

They paused awkwardly at the remembrance this invoked.

“You were very brave,” they both said, nearly in unison, followed by blushes, and then, “Thank you,” again almost in unison.

What could follow such a comical reunion but laughter? And from laughter, where else might the conversation tend but to allusions, then to confessions, and finally to a furtive inquiry of whether there might be a convenient cave or something nearby?

The conception of Alauna

Notwithstanding Ritona’s initial misgivings, she and Minerva were soon, as may be easily imagined, adepts at the art of pleasing each other. Night after night they would elicit sighs and howls from one another, in turn or both together. Minerva made free to explore the whole of Ritona’s divine body, but the latter, heeding Venus’ advice, took care not to penetrate her partner’s to any depth. But often their sacred seed was mingled on their loins, and this, among deities, is not a blessing often bestowed in vain. In time, Ritona was greatly surprised to find an interruption to her monthly cycle and a certain difficulty in keeping her nectar and ambrosia down.

Mercury, happening to be strolling along the banks of the Moselle one day, came across Ritona and greeted her, adding, “I declare, Ritona, from the brilliance of your skin, there’s a secret you’re harbouring within you. Shall I tell everyone what it is?”

“Great Mercury, fleet of foot!” Ritona began to exclaim.

“Well, so have you been dallying with some athletic young fisherman, or has one of the satyrs caught your fancy? Or have you secretly wed one of the river-gods or a great burly silvanus?”

Ritona shuddered, and said, “No indeed, no one like that could tempt me, I assure you.”

Mercury continued, “You haven’t been seduced by my father, I hope? Not that I am ever sorry to have a new sibling, but their advent is rarely easy.”

Ritona answered, “Oh, Mercury, I have so little idea what has happened—and still less what I can possibly do now!”

In a more serious tone, Mercury told her, “Now, Ritona, do not be alarmed. Indeed, I am quite aware of what has happened—for you cannot suppose me to be in ignorance of what goes on in my own country! You are pregnant by my sister Minerva, and I congratulate you! I never quite expected my sister to become a father—yet, now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have been surprised. You—and this new deity—are welcome to the family.”

Ritona flushed red, but flung her arms around Mercury in a grateful embrace, exclaiming, “Thank you, kindest of brothers! But what now am I to do?”

Mercury struck one of his best oratorical poses, and declared, “Yours is one of the more remarkable transitions to motherhood. You will therefore join the Matronæ, and always have a place with them in their hallowed precinct at the Altbachtal—yet your unique history will set you apart. Your daughter will be venerated as a goddess in these parts. Why don’t you give her a pretty, elegant name—something like Alauna? And she will achieve deeds of great fame. She will be fostered with Diana and exceed all at the hunt, save only my sharp-shooting sister herself. She will wander far and wide, striking the mountain-tops with her stave, and wherever the stave strikes the earth, there will spring up new streams that will take her name. (This is another reason why you should pick a nice-sounding name like the one I suggested.) And when she has tired of celibacy, her husband will be Vorio the vaulter, whose various victories and genderfluidity will earn him (or her) the ambiguously gendered name Boudina. And their three daughters will be the Matronæ Boudunneihæ, who will seek new victories in a land farther down the winding Rhine. You and Minerva will be venerated here always, although it is fair to predict that the flawed memory of mortals will cause many lapses; still, the Muses and nymphs will always be your friends and will sing your praises to all those who would listen.”

With this Mercury ceased, and Ritona again hugged him fraternally. Mercury took advantage of this situation to take flight, setting Ritona down in the Altbachtal so that she could become better acquainted with her sister Matronæ. He then flew back to Minerva to take the liberty of teasing her in turn.
These tales are © 2016 Viducus Brigantici filius. If you’d like to reuse or rework them, I’d love to hear about your plans! Please let me know in the comments section or in a private email.

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Behold Ritona

Here is the image I prepared as a modern interpretation of the ancient goddess Ritona, who is known from Augusta Treverorum (Trier) and other places in Gaul. This image brings together many of the elements historically attested from Ritona’s iconography, as well as certain innovations of my own.


A new depiction of Ritona.
(Viducus Brigantici filius, 2016, CC-BY-SA 3.0. This work is derivative of this photo by Wikimedia user Tsui (CC-BY-SA 3.0), this photo © 2011 by Giovanni Dall’Orto, this photo by Wikimedia user MPF (CC-BY-SA 3.0), this photo by Wolfgang Sauber (CC-BY-SA 3.0), this drawing by Wikimedia user Poznaniak (CC-BY-SA 3.0), and this painting by Cornelis and Paul de Vos.)

Only one sculpture of Ritona exists (see this post as well). It is highly fragmentary; it shows little more than her feet and the bottom of her dress, but it is enough to show that she was depicted seated—not unlike the many Mother Goddesses of the Rhineland—and clothed. I therefore chose a depiction of a clothed, seated allegorical figure to stand, in this image, for Ritona. The allegory is that of Strength (Stärke) from Pompeo Marchesi’s memorial to Emperor Francis I of Austria (II of the Holy Roman Empire) at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Admittedly, this reactionary sovereign was hardly the most exemplary figure; still, there is much to admire in the four large bronze sculptures representing Friede (Peace), Glaube (Faith), Stärke (Strength), and Gerechtigkeit (Justice). (A fifth bronze figure placed high in the centre depicts Francis himself.)

To my mind, Stärke is quite appropriate for representing Ritona, since the latter’s association with fording naturally suggests fortitude and strength in the face of obstacles. Marchesi’s Stärke wears a corona ciuica or crown of oak leaves, which has certain Augustan connotations that fit nicely with the votive statue from Crain, inscribed AVG · SACR · DEA · MINER[V] / ET · RIT · APRIL · ITALI… ‘To Augustus, (this item) sacred to the goddess Minerva and Ritona (was offered by) Aprilis (son of?) Italus…’ (CIL XIII: 2892). Other inscriptions to Ritona also invoke the numina of the Augusti (AE 1989: 547) or the honour of the divine house (Finke 30; AE 1959: 76). For a local deity whom some might take for a simple water-nymph, these are unusually intense associations with the imperial cult. The original sculpture of Stärke has her grasping a Herculean-style club in her right hand, but since that club is invisible in the photo I was working from, I took the liberty of equipping her instead with a spear. This references Ritona’s association with Minerva, as does the Medusa head that I added to her shield (in lieu of Marchesi’s lion). The epigraphic evidence, as well as the geography of Ritona’s temple in the Altbachtal in Trier, hints at close connections between Ritona and a number of deities: Minerva, Venus, Mercury, the Mother-Goddesses, Diana, Fortuna, and the unfortunately little-known Vorio. Of these, the connections with Minerva are the most numerous. Both, as we have seen, are invoked in the same inscription in Crain; we have more than one statuette of Minerva in Ritona’s sector of the Altbachtal sanctuary.

Among the votive offerings found at Ritona’s Altbachtal temple was the carved outline of a pair of feet. There are many possible interpretations of such a gift. I’ll mention a few, ordered from the most mundane to the most airy-fairy. This might be a token of thanks to Ritona (1) for healing an injury to the feet; (2) for granting safe passage over a ford or other difficult path; (3) for more figuratively helping a person ‘find their way’; (4) for ‘standing by’ a person during a time of need; (5) for ‘withstanding’ some literal or figurative current; or (6) for crossing between realms, boundaries, modes of being, or ways of doing things. No doubt there are other possible interpretations besides—and, on the other hand, these need not be mutually exclusive (although the particular dedicant presumably had one foremost in mind when leaving the gift). As a nod to some of these possibilities, I’ve placed two footprint-shaped clouds in the sky to Ritona’s right.

Since we understand Ritona’s name to mean the ‘great ford’ (or the ‘ford goddess’), it seems proper to place her image before a river. The background therefore shows the Moselle at Trier; in the distance can be seen the ridge on which the Lenus Mars temple is located. This is a photo I took in 2007 from the Roman bridge at Trier—the bridge located on the site of an ancient ford. Ritona would be sitting somewhere on the right bank of the Moselle, which is the same bank that the Altbachtal sanctuary is on (although the latter is farther inland than this photo would imply). None of my photos of the Altbach itself would quite fit. Ritona wears a dress of wampum-coloured purple, as in my earlier vision of her.

At Ritona’s feet I have placed two emblems: a cornucopia (attested among the votive gifts from the Altbachtal temple) and, somewhat larger than life-sized, a bittern walking through the reeds near a wetland. The bittern is not historically attested as an emblem of Ritona; however, as a bird known for wading through the shallows—and with some intriguing associations in legend and folklore—I think its inclusion is defensible. As for the cornucopia, it reinforces Ritona’s connections with the Matronæ and of course betokens the goddess’s providential abundance.

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In search of Ritona

I want to say a few words about the goddess Ritona, who has been on my mind a lot in the past few months. By some measures, she must rank as one of the most major ‘minor’ deities from northeastern Gaul. Her cult is attested from a number of places; at least two temples are known to have been dedicated to her (in the Altbachtal and at Montaren-et-Saint-Médiers); her worshippers included civic authorities and Roman citizens in addition to peregrines and freed people. Furthermore, of the only 7 inscriptions to her that I can find, 4 associate her with the imperial house or with the numina of Augustus. Her four certain places of worship were Trier (Augusta Treuerorum), Pachten (Vicus Contiomagus in present-day Saarland), Crain (in the territory of the Senones in present-day Burgundy), Montaren-et-Saint-Médiers (near Uzès in the Languedoc region of southern France), which represent three different Gallic nations (Treveri, Senones, and Volcæ Arecomici). And yet Ritona remains in many ways an enigma. Much about her is not known; meanwhile, her name, understood to mean ‘the ford-goddess’ or ‘the great ford’, has led some to mistake her for a simple water-nymph. (By which I mean no disparagement to water-nymphs!)

Now, I’m a visual person, and I like to have visible simulacra of deities to focus my mind on them. The physical depictions of Ritona, however, are scanty. There are a number of ex-votos, but really only one sculpture plainly and overtly setting out to depict her—or more accurately to depict Pritona, for the inscription uses this archaic variant of her name.


Monument dedicated to the goddess Pritona by the townspeople of Contiomagus (Pachten). (Photo by Wikimedia user LoKiLeCh, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, as you can see, this sculpture is only a fragment. It does depict Pritona’s feet (possibly a providential survival…) and enough of her legs and so on to show that she was dressed and seated in a way reminiscent of the Mother-Goddesses of the region. (The Treveran Mothers are typically depicted singly, rather than in threes.)

At one point when I was meditating, I had a sort of vision of Ritona. The goddess was seated on a throne rising from the midst of a stream. Her brown hair and her dusky, wampum-coloured dress were flowing like the water of the stream, and she held a cornucopia on her lap. There was also something about her that irresistibly recalled Venus, although none of her attributes specifically pointed to this.

After this, I was seized with a desire to have Ritona depicted as vividly as I had seen her in this vision. I’m not much of an artist myself; but should I hire an artist to paint, or digitally generate, such a picture? Should I even hire a model myself to photograph? I did a bit of guerrilla divination on the subject. To my disappointment, the response to the question of whether I should commission an image of Ritona was that, no, it was better to hold off on that. I was also not to depict her as enthroned over a river.

Now, any time you receive these sorts of discouraging answers, the tendency is to grumble a bit and say, “But this was such a good idea! Honestly, this would be great.” Or at least that’s my tendency! But observe the providential workings of the gods. Because of these rebuffs, I asked further questions, dug deeply, and learned more. And as things turned out, I was not to commission an image of Ritona but to put one together myself.

So among my follow-up questions were whether I should consider certain animals as related to Ritona’s divine estate. Regarding two, I got clear affirmatives: the otter and the bittern. I learned that I might regard Ritona as analogous to Venus; as a companion of Minerva; and as not so much one of the Matronæ as a pregnant, expectant Matrona to be. I might also picture her as a warrior goddess and a healer. (These are functions that typically go together in Gaul: think about the ways we speak of “battling cancer” or “being a fighter” in medical contexts.) I also asked whether I would do well to study the archæological records from the Altbachtal; the answer was, go ahead if you want to—you’ll be led astray but come right in the end. (Such vivid answers you get through astragalomancy!)

With these points in mind, I started scouring Pinterest and Wikimedia Commons and various art websites, looking for elements that visually recalled what I felt to be like Ritona. At first, I hadn’t given up on the idea of eventually commissioning my own artwork, but I figured to myself that I should see what was to see en attendant. As a result, I spent a great deal more time reflecting on Ritona, evaluating this element or that painting on its general worthiness as a Ritona depiction, than I otherwise would have done: and this naturally yielded in me a far greater Ritona consciousness, as it were, than the alternative. I am still in love with one painting I found on Pinterest—but it depicts the Slavic goddess Živa (a distant relation?) and I can’t find any information on the artist. No chance of reusing it, except privately of course.

I’m still not quite sure where I might have gone astray in researching the Altbachtal itself, although it’s true the dusty, sprawling archæological records (Erich Gose and Reinhard Schindler (c. 1972), Der gallo-römische Tempelbezirk im Altbachtal zu Trier) are not exactly the quintessence of religious inspiration. Still, the geography of Ritona’s temple in the Altbachtal is not without significance. Her temple is in a little cluster set somewhat apart from the main group, at the eastern (highest) end of the sanctuary, although the open area between these clusters would fill in over the centuries. (This is now the area just across the street—the Spitzmühle—from Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium.) In any case, Ritona’s temple complex (buildings 5, 5a, and 6 in Gose 1972) was close by the Vorio column, shrines to Epona, the Bull-God (conventionally Tarvos Trigaranus, although I believe his three cranes are not in evidence here), Mother-Goddesses, Mercury, Aveta, and Fortuna, and to an impressive temple that I’m guessing might possibly have been dedicated to Mars and Nemetona (this is building 1 and later building 2). None of this is conclusive of anything, but it does make me wonder whether there is a closer relationship between Ritona and Vorio, for example. I have some ideas on this subject—but more on them when I get them written up!

In the meantime, the Ritona temple area yielded some intriguing votive remains: a terracotta of Diana, three statuettes of Matronæ, two of Minerva, one of Venus, one of Fortuna, and two unidentified male busts. To these may be added a votive tablet on which the outline of a pair of human feet is carved. I’ll talk more of these elements in my next post, where I unveil the image I put together of Ritona.

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(Orlando) Help

Antinoüs, aid us in our affliction.

Antinoüs as Osiris

Antinoüs as Osiris, from Hadrian’s Villa, now housed in the Louvre.
(My colourized version of this image by DS, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

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