Blogging Our Troth, part 2

As I wrote last week, I will be posting excerpts from the third edition of Our Troth as I, and others, get them written and edited and ready for comment. Please feel free to offer any feedback you might have—if you know of better sources, take serious issue with something I say (no guarantee I'll go along with you, but I promise at least to hear you out), or just find a typo. The topics may jump around a bit, I fear.

Last week we looked at the founder of organized Odinism in the modern era, A. Rud Mills, and his rather unfortunate and unwelcome politics. Today we jump back to the German Rhineland, 1900 years ago. . . 



The Matronae


Over 1600 inscriptions have been found all over the western Roman Empire, between the first and fifth centuries CE, dedicated to goddesses known as the Matres or Matronae. Despite the fact that the Matronae were worshipped for centuries, with several sizable temples, there is no manuscript evidence for their worship—which is another lesson in how much evidence for Germanic religion did not survive in the literary record.

The center of worship of the Matronae in the Germanic world was the west bank of the Rhine, around the present-day cities of Bonn and Köln (Cologne). In 38 BCE, a Germanic tribe, the Ubii, received permission to cross the Rhine and settle on the western bank, on land which had been depopulated by Julius Caesar’s campaign against the Celtic tribe that had lived there, the Eburones. The Ubii settled in this region, now designated as the Roman province of Germania Inferior, and quickly adopted Roman customs. They may have also adopted customs from the remaining Celtic peoples. Beginning in the first century CE, persons of means honored the Matronae by commissioning votive stones or altars carved in Roman style, often as thanks for a favor they had granted. (We might think of these as more durable versions of the “Thanks to St. Jude” announcements that still adorn newspaper classified advertisements.) Less affluent persons owned or offered up more crudely made clay figurines. The stones to the Matronae are inscribed in Latin, carved with Roman symbols, and show Roman ways of worship. The depiction of deities in threes is well known from Celtic religion, and groups of three female deities called Matresare known from Gaul, Britain, Italy, and eastern Europe. At the same time, the names of the Matronae are derived from both Celtic and Germanic languages; the Matronae are depicted wearing Germanic tribal styles of clothing; and their worshippers bore Roman, Celtic, and Germanic names. The Matronae are thus a fascinating example of syncretism, blending aspects of three different cultures.

The Matronae are depicted as seated women, wearing long dresses, cloaks, and either necklaces with crescent-shaped pendants, or crescent-shaped torcs around the neck. Two of them wear large round headdresses; the third, seated in the center, wears her hair long and flowing, or sometimes has a smaller headdress. The style of dress seems identical with that worn by women of the Ubii, and probably depicts two married women and one unmarried woman. This pattern distinguishes the Matronae of the Rhineland from the more widespread Matres, who are usually depicted as three identical women. A few inscriptions seem to refer to the Matronae as Matres, but these are rare; usually the distinction between Matres and Matronae was observed. While both names mean “mothers”, Matronae is more formal that Matres. Note that the Matronae also do not fit the pattern of “maiden–mother–crone”; the two married Matronae are depicted identically, and neither appears especially elderly.

The Matronae are often depicted with fruit, generally apples and pears. They may also hold loaves of bread, purses of money, or in one instance, linen and a spindle. Unlike depictions of the Matres and other goddesses in northwestern Europe, the Matronae are never shown suckling or holding infants. Vessels of water are sometimes present, and the background behind the Matronae is often a large seashell, another Roman artistic convention. The sides of the altars often depict trees or branches, often with birds or snakes, and sometimes with goats, dogs, or occasionally other animals as well. Sometimes the sides bear the Roman symbol of the cornucopia or “horn of plenty,” holding fruits and ears of grain. On the largest and most richly carved stones, humans are sometimes shown, either sitting behind the Matronae themselves, or on the sides bringing offerings or pouring out libations; these are presumably the sponsors of the votive stones. The symbols on the stones suggest that the Matronae were connected with abundance, wealth, and fertility of the land. Unlike some goddesses known from inscriptions in the same area, they are never depicted as warlike. (Simek, “The Late Roman Iron Age Cult”, pp. 220-221)

We can gain more clues to the Matronae by deciphering their titles. Some Matronae bear names in a Celtic language. Of those whose names can be parsed as Germanic, some are named for a river—such as the Renahenae, “those of the river Rhine”; Ambiorenenses, “those on both sides of the Rhine”; Aumenahenae, “those of the river Aumenau”; Vacallinehae, “those of the river Waal”; and more generally the Vatviae, “those of the water”. This link with rivers is reminiscent of, and may originate in, Celtic mythology, in which individual rivers often have their own goddesses—such as Sequana, worshipped at the source of the Seine River; Souconna, worshipped on the Saône River; Icaunis, known from the Yonne River; or, beyond Gaul, Bóann, the Irish goddess of the River Boyne. 

Some Matronae are linked with places other than rivers, such as the Albiahenae,“those from Elvenich”; the Iulineihiae,“those from Jülich”; the Mahalinehae,“those from Mecheln”; the Austriahenae,“those of the east”; and so on. Other Matronae have names that link them to specific tribes: the Hamavehae share a name with the Chamavi, the Euthungae are related to the Iuthungi, and the Matris Suebis (“mothers of the Suebi”) and Matris Germanis (“mothers of the Germans”) are also known. These might be considered tribal ancestors and protectors. A few Matronae names seem to be derived from personal names, such as the Arvagastiae (“those of Arvagast”); these may be protectors of a particular family line. Still others are addressed by names that relate to their functions—most commonly the function of giving abundance. We find the Gabiae, “givers”; Alagabiae, “all-givers”; Friagabiae; “generous givers”; Alaferhviae, “[givers] of all life”; and Aufaniae, “abundant ones”. Other names include Afliae, “powerful ones”; Gavadiae, “pledge-keepers”; Lubicae, “healers”; and Fachinehae, “happy ones.” A few seem to have something to do with fate and fortune, such as the Audrihenae (possibly related to Norse auðna, “fortune; good luck”, and Gothic aud-, “blessed”), and the Ratheihiae(related to Proto-Germanic *ratha, “wheel”). The Alusneihae may have a name related to alu, a well-known word from bracteates and other inscriptions in the Roman and Migration periods. (Simek, “The Late Roman Iron Age Cult”, pp. 221-223)

The Matronae were popular with soldiers, ranging from common legionaries to commanders. One stone, found at Cologne, was probably dedicated in thanks for a safe return from a very long and distant campaign; it reads “To the Matronae Aufaniae, Caius Iulius Mansuetus, soldier in the dutiful and loyal Legio I Minervia, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow. He was at the Alutus River along the Caucasus Mountains.” His legion had served in the Parthian War of 161–166 CE, in what is now Armenia. (Garman, The Cult of the Matronae, pp. 63-64) Another stone, offered by one M. Albanius Super in the same legion, depicts on its side a Roman soldier forcing a Parthian soldier to kneel. (Philippson, “The Three Matres or Matronae,” p. 78) At least at Cologne, high-ranking civilians also dedicated stones; one of the finest was dedicated to the Matronae Aufaniae by Gaius Candididus Verus, a decurio (city councilman), and another was given by Quintus Vettius Severus, the city quaestor (chief financial officer). Donors often raised votive stones pro se et suis, “for oneself and one’s own.”

At the same time that the worship of the Matronae was coming to an end in Germany, the Angles and Saxons migrated to England—and along with them, some Frisians and Rhineland Franks. It’s possible that they brought the Matronae with them; Bede reports that the first night of Yule is Modraniht, “night of the Mothers”. In the Rhineland itself, local Christian legends grew up about a trio of female saints, who are quite probably the Matronae under a new name. Sometimes they are called the Three Marys; sometimes they are named Faith, Hope, and Charity; and sometimes they are three sisters named Einbede, Warbede, and Willibede, possibly meaning “All-Including Prayer”, “True Prayer”, and “Reasonable Prayer.” (Philippson, “The Three Matres or Matronae,” pp. 78-79) It’s also not impossible that the Matronae Renahenae, the Matronae of the Rhine, might be remembered in the “Rhine maidens” of the Nibelung legend (and, of course, Wagner’s Ring cycle).

Whether to call the Matronae “goddesses” or not is a tricky question that may not have a neat answer. The author’s experience [BW] is that attempts to classify the Holy Powers into neat, tidy pigeonholes can end up as complete muddles. Nor can we be sure whether some or all of the Matronae were “the same” under many different titles, or whether Matronae with different epithets were thought of as separate deities. We can say that some of the Matronae had sizable temples. Seven main temples or centers of worship have been discovered so far; the temple excavated at Pesch had 300 inscriptions dedicated to the Matronae Vacallinehae, while the temple at Morken-Harff had 200 or more in honor of the Matronae Austriahenae. The Matronae Aufaniae, worshipped at Bonn and Nettersheim, can boast 70 dedications; the names of those who made them show that these Matronae were honored by persons of all social ranks and ethnic backgrounds. These Matronae, at least, functioned in the way that we associate with goddesses. (It may be worth noting that those whose names are derived from their functions—the “Givers”, “Pledge-Keepers”, “Healers”, “Abundant Ones,” and so on—seem to correspond with the names and functions of some of Frigg’s handmaidens in Norse myth, such as Gefjon, Vár, Eir, and Fulla.)

Other Matronae may not have functioned as goddesses with a widespread cult. Some bear names that imply that they were linked with specific tribes or families, and these might be more like the family or clan dísir or kynfylgjur of Norse belief. Previous editions of Our Troth listed the Matronae among the dísir, and in many instances this might be an accurate way to think of them.Some modern Heathens have been inspired to honor their own dísir by the Romano-Germanic altars of the Rhineland (see Loucks-Schultz, “Water from the Sacred Spring,” Idunna #55) Still other Matronae are more likely to be spirits of specific places, especially rivers. These might be compared with Norse landvættir, or indeed with the Greek nymphai and the Roman genii loci. Today, it might seem strange to worship the Matronae Renahenae if you are not actually on or near the Rhine River. It would, perhaps, not be so strange for an American Heathen to seek out and try to honor the Matronae Mississippiahenae, or the Matronae Arkansahenae, or the Matronae Potomacahenae, or the Matronae Sacramentahenae, or the Matronae of whatever river nourishes the land where you live.



Garman, Alex G. The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. 


Loucks-Schultz, Fred. “Water from the Sacred Spring: Romano-Germanic Weihaltars.” Idunna, no. 55 (Spring 2003), pp. 4-7.


Philipsson, Ernst Alfred. “The Three Matres or Matronae: An Ancient Cult in the Roman Province of the Lower Rhine.” Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, vol. 53 (1946), pp. 73-79.


Simek, Rudolf. “The Late Roman Iron Age Cult of the Matronaeand Related Germanic Deities.” Weibliche Eliten in der Frühgeschichte: Female Elites in Protohistoric Europe.Dieter Quast, ed. Mainz: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, 2011. Pp. 219-228.




The 'three' aspect in and of itself is a syncretism found in a large portion of Goddess centered worship. It seems only natural that many Germanic tribes would have adopted this belief system whether indigenous or imported by other cultures. Modern Wiccans acknowledge Maid, Mother, Crone as symbolic of seasonal cycles as well as being indicative of the human life cycle as well. All in all, I look forward to reading the updated version of Our Troth.