Celtic Festival Calender: Brigantia, Matres Brigiacae, Bricta/Brixta, Brigindona, Brig & Rome’s Victoria & Bellona

Brigantia, Museum of Brittany

This is part of a series where festivals for Roman deities are matched with the Celtic deities who were associated with the Roman deities. For example, March 1st is the Festival of Mars, and many Celtic Gods were connected with the Protector of Rome. As tribal protectors Themselves, they could have been identified as Mars by the Romans or the Celts.

The Romans weren’t very involved in Celtic religion. After slaughtering the politically powerful Druids (some of whom may have become teachers and philosophers in Rome), the Romans let local cults continue. Southern Gauls already adopted the Greek Gods Apollo and Hermes, and later Gaulish merchants readily brought the cult of Mercury to their towns.

For the sake of convenience, the Romans described other people’s deities as being like their own. In a multicultural society, it made it easier for Romans. However, it appears that Celtic people often had the power to decide which Roman deity was the best fit. As different Celts had different understandings of Roman deities and Celtic deities didn’t fit neatly into x = y, a Celtic God could be called Mars in one region and Mercury in another.

As the Celtic polytheists worked with the new Roman ways, I suspect some used the Roman calendar for their Festivals, especially September 1st, when Jupiter (who was identified as Taranus) was honored as the God of lightning and Juno was celebrated in Her Queen aspect. That’s the same Juno aspect southern Gauls had on their Jupiter columns, with the wheel of Taranus, eagle of Jupiter, lightning of both and a Sovereignty Goddess.

June 3rd is the Festival of the Sabine war Goddess adopted by the Romans named Bellona. Bellona was considered an aspect of the important Roman Goddess Victoria, Whose Festival date, if She had one, is lost. Wikipedia sums Victoria up nicely: “Victoria was a symbol of victory over death and determined who would be successful during war.”

Brigantia was the Goddess of the most powerful tribe (or federation of tribes) in Britain, the Brigantes. There are 7 inscriptions to Brigantia in Britain. Twice She was associated with Victoria in Yorkshire. An inscription calls her “divine nymph” and at Hadrian’s Wall She is described as “heavenly.” A couple of statues of Brigantia, including one in Brittany, have symbols that belong to the Roman Goddess Minerva. Due to Her association with Minvera, you could also honor Brigantia during the Greater Quinquatrus held between March 19 and 23. I had so much information on Sulis for that Festival, I stayed focused on Her.

Bellona was associated with the consort of Mars, and like Mars Her temple was on the outskirts of Rome. There is a theory that Mars is a border God, called on by soldiers defending Rome and farmers as they ritually circle their land. The idea that Mars was an agricultural God is based on a hymn sung to Mars by farmers in an annual ceremony protecting the edge of their lands, and an archaic rite by His Priests that no one understood.

I prefer the border God idea over the agricultural God theory. It fits with other old Indo-European ideas, especially Vedic, and is logical. The God of Rome guards Rome, from its farmers to its military. Mars stops danger before it can arrive. Temples at the edge of a border allow deities who “go wild” to have access to the wilderness. You don’t want war IN your town; you want to be protected before it gets to the town. Next to Bellona’s temple was the columna bellica, the edge of Rome. The temple and the land on which it stood was considered foreign soil. To declare war on a distant land, a Priest (in a rather Odin-like move) threw a javelin towards the enemy’s kingdom. Generals made offerings to Victoria after winning wars.

What happened on Her Festival was probably sacrifices, prayers, and feasts. At a different festival, the Priests of Bellona cut their arms and legs to offer their blood. Nothing like that is mentioned for today. Bellona had temples in France, Germany, Britain, and North Africa.

Brigantia means “the Most High Goddess” and is pronounced “brig-AN-tee-ah”. There are Goddesses with variations of Her name, all of Whom I would probably consider different Goddesses, like the Welsh Braint, the Matres Brigiacae in Peñalbo de Castro, Brigindona, and Bricta/Brixta, to name a few. All could be honored June 3rd even though they were never associated with a Roman deity, much less Victoria specifically.

The root word brigant- means “elevated, high.” The British Brigantes may have been named for being nobility or for living in the mountains. They were the largest tribe (or possibly a federation of tribes) in Britain when the Romans arrived. They controlled northern England, a territory known as Brigantia (today Yorkshire). Their wealth was based on cattle and sheep, and Brigantia may have been associated with that economy. Allies of Rome, they created an important buffer against the tribes in modern Scotland.

Many British nobles welcomed the Romans, thinking that they were gaining powerful allies. Enraged princes who didn’t become kings sought the help of Rome. At the time it seemed like a smart move.

Cartimandua (“sleek pony”) was the Brigantes’ queen when Rome arrived, and two lavish burials of women with chariots suggest that the Brigantes were used to powerful women. Her husband Venutius, king of the Brigantes, was a top military strategist and also loyal to Rome. In 51 CE Cartimandua captured a probable rival named Caratacus, a popular rebel leader against Rome. In exchange for Caratacus, Rome made Cartimandua very wealthy. Her people’s hillfort grew from 17 to 600 acres in 20 years.

Meanwhile, the royal couple went to war against each other in 51 AD and declared a truce 6 years later, after Cartimandua captured Venutius’ family and Rome sent troops to help her. They divorced over a decade later when she took Venutius’ armor-bearer Vellocatus as her lover. In 69 CE the Brigantes rebelled against her and she was taken to an unknown, safe place by Roman soldiers. Venutius ruled the Brigantian kingdom until 74 CE when Roman forces finally defeated him, wanting total control of Britain.

Although loyal and very helpful to Rome Cartimandua was portrayed harshly by the Romans, perhaps because she was everything a Roman woman should not be. Cartimandua obviously was a bold and savvy politician and enjoyed her sexual freedom. She and Boudicca are often used by Pagans and scholars alike as examples of the power held by the Celtic Queens of the Britons, something we don’t read about other Celts.

Ptolemy wrote that there was also a tribe named Brigantes in eastern Ireland, and there may be something to that. The Goddess Brig seems to have been brought to eastern Ireland by a tribe allied with the Brigantes and turned into a Saint. Political shifts that the old Pagan ways didn’t support had occurred and to hold onto their power, the new elites found having a Saint in the new religion was a good way to solidify authority. To combat powerful Ulster with its Saint Patrick, Leinster and sometimes eastern Munster had St Brigit. There was almost definitely a Christian community in Leincester before St Patrick ever arrived; Irish raiders who’d settled in modern Wales long enough to learn the new religion of Rome had returned home. There’s more about this in the post on February 2nd.

The root of Brigantia’s name appears in the names of towns in Portugal, Spain, France, Hungary, England, and Austria, and Strabo wrote that in the Alps lived a Celtic tribe named the Brigantii. The ancient name of Bragança in Trás-os-Montes, Portugal, was Brigantia. Its inhabitants today are still called brigantinos. Two cities in present-day Galicia, A Coruña and Betanzos, were named Brigantia and Brigantium. A prominent Bronze Age meeting-place for British tribes was on the shores of a river in a place called Brentford.

Brentford is connected to “prestige” in modern Welsh, coming from the same root as the Welsh word for King, brenin. Scottish Gaelic brigh and Manx bree translate to “power” while Irish Gaelic bri translates as “energy” and in Welsh, Cornish and Manx bre means “hill.” It’s easy to understand why so many places and Goddesses’ names derive from bri- and bree-.

The most famous Goddess linked to Brigantia is the Gaelic Goddess Brig, and Her incarceration as Saint Brigit/Brid. Brigit’s sacred fire was (and again is) in County Kildare, which is now part of the eastern province Leinster. An old Irish poem calls Brigit the sovereign lady who rules over the Kings of Leinster. The poem, when needing Her protection, calls for Brig, the name of the Goddess in the Mythological Cycle. Brig is sometimes confused with other powerful Goddess of the Tuatha De Danann in the different versions we have of Gaelic mythology.

In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), the Gaels descend from Noah (himself a descendant of Adam) of the Bible. Like the Israelites, they suffer many ordeals, until conquering Spain. Breogán founds the city Brigantia (perhaps A Coruña) and builds a tall tower, from which his son sees Ireland. Many of the Gaels stay in Iberia, but some sail to Ireland and successfully fight off the Tuatha De Danann. As the Lebor Gabála Érenn is our main source for the Mythological Cycle and has different variations, Irish mythology is rather messy. But Breogán’s name and the city he supposedly built again return to bri- and bre-.

Ireland and Iberia were part of an ancient shared culture before and during the Bronze Age, trading metals and other goods along the Atlantic coast, including all of Britain to the farthest Scottish islands, Brittany, France, and possibly Holland and Belgium. Sweden was at one time briefly connected. The Phoenicians became involved by the 9th century BCE. During the 10th century BCE at the latest they’d set up a large port town in Iberia. In the most southwest corner of Portugal a stone tablet was discovered, engraved in a Celtic language using the Phoenician alphabet. It thanks the pan-Celtic God Lug, and dates from 6th century BCE. Our understanding of how the Celtic languages and culture developed is moving quickly away from Hallstatt and looking towards the Atlantic coast.

In the 6th century BCE there was a large power shift in the Mediterranean. The Greeks began competing for the Atlantic coast, as Phoenician ports slowly disappeared, city by city, for several reasons. The Atlantic coast of Portugal and southwest Spain appear to have become part the trade routes of the Mediterranean, while Britain, Ireland, Brittany, and some of the French coast traded amongst themselves. Iberia spoke many different Celtic languages, brought in at separate times. Some near Galicia lived very similar lives as the Pagan Irish, moving twice a year with cattle and building hillforts. The Lebor Gabála Érenn may retain a memory about when those in Spain spoke the same language as the Irish, explaining it in a way that fits with Judeo-Christian mythology.

Selected Bibliography

Alfayé, Silvia, Contexts of Cult in Hispania Celtica, Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, Barrowclough, D.A., & Malone, C. (eds), Oxbow, Oxford (2007)

Cunliffe, Barry, Britain Begins. Oxford University Press (2013)

Cunliffe, Barry, On the Ocean: The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Prehistory to AD 1500. Oxford University Press (2017)

Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press (1997)

de Milio Carrín, Cristobo, The Widower And The Goddess Or The Closed Door: On the connection between northern and southern Celts (March 2011)

Gibson, Catriona and John Koch, Beakers into Bronze: Tracing connections between Iberia and the British Isles 2800-800 BC, CELTIC FROM THE WEST 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, John T. Koch and Barry Cunliffe (eds), Oxbow Books (2013)

Gregory, Lady, Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha De Danann and of the Fianna of Ireland. Public Domain (1905)

Haussler, Ralph, Interpretatatio Indigena: Re-Inventing Local Cults in a Global World, Mediterraneo Antico, xv, 1-2 (2012)

Hughes, Kristoffer, The Book of Celtic Magic: Transformative Teachings from the Cauldron of Awen. Llewellyn Publications (2014)

Lang, Sean, British History for Dummies, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (2011)

Meyer, Kuno trans., Hail Brigit: An Old-Irish Poem on the Hill of Alenn. Dublin: Hodges, Figgs, and Co. (1912)

Mosenkis, Iurii, Possible Sea Peoples activity in the Lebor Gabála Érenn

Nova Roma, http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Roman_religion

Online Index to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of Invasions) based on R.A.S. Macalister’s translations and notes, https://celt.ucc.ie//indexLG.html

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago (1967)

Smyth, Alfred P., Celtic Leinster. Mount Salus Press Ltd. (1982)

Turkilsen, Debbie, An In-depth Analysis of the Lives of Boudica of the Iceni and Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes

Woodard, Roger D., Indo-European sacred space: Vedic and Roman cult. University of Illinois Press (2006)

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