Blogging Our Troth, part 7: Nehalennia

Once again, I've got a section of the current working draft of the forthcoming third edition of Our Troth for you. Last week, you got the Saxon god Saxnot; today I have the honor to present the Roman-era goddess of the Rhine delta, Nehalennia. As always, this is a work in progress, and part of the reason I post these in the first place is in hopes of getting feedback—please leave a comment if you have anything to add, suggest, or even complain about. Thanks!



      Take this as an object lesson in how much of our forebears’ knowledge was lost or never written down: No surviving manuscript texts mention the goddess Nehalennia or Nehelennia. However, she was an important goddess to the people of what is now Zeeland in the Netherlands, between at least 180 and 230 CE. The remains of two temples to Nehalennia, including over 300 votive altars, have been found near the mouth of the River Schelde. (A votive altar is not the altar where sacrifices were given; the altar itself is the gift, given in fulfillment of a vow, a permanent visible sign of the favor the goddess has granted.) The first was discovered in 1647, in the village of Domburg on the island of Walcheren, when erosion exposed the base of a temple 12 feet square, with more than 40 votive stones, as well as roof tiles with inscriptions to Nehalennia and other deities. Tree stumps were preserved in the surrounding dunes, suggesting that this temple had stood in a grove. Unfortunately, the stones were not well cared for and suffered extensive damage over the centuries. The surviving fragments are now in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden. (Hondius-Krone, The Temple of Nehalennia, pp. 7-10; Knorr, “Nehalennia,” pp. 12-13). 

Remains of the second temple began to turn up in 1970, when fishermen in the Oosterschelde, a former estuary of the Scheldt River, began bringing up sculptures and building materials in their nets. Divers began recovering more finds, including altars, in 1981. One of these altars mentions that the place where the temple was located was called Ganuenta; little is known about the site, but it appears to have been an important port in Roman times. Finally, three incomplete altars to Nehalennia were found in Cologne (Köln), which probably hosted the workshop where her altars were made. A modern reconstruction of the Ganuenta temple has been built in Colijnsplaat on the island of Noord-Beveland, the nearest town to the site of Ganuenta ( Another reconstructed temple to Nehalennia has been built at the Archeon, an open-air museum of Dutch history in the city of Alphen aan den Rijn (

The meaning of Nehalennia’s name is unclear. Giver her role as a protector of shipping and trade, it could derive from the root *neu- “ship”. Others have seen it as meaning “she who shelters the dead”, with the first syllable meaning “dead” (compare Latin necare, “to kill”), followed by the root *helan, “to hide; to conceal.” Yet another possibility is that her name comes from *nehwa, “near”, and *lennana, “to leave something” but probably with the sense of “to give; to grant”, with the overall sense of “giving or helpful one who draws near.(Much, “Nehalennia,” p. 326; Simek, Dictionary, p. 229)

Like the altars to the Matronae, the altars to Nehalennia depict a mixture of Germanic and Roman symbolism. When seated, Nehalennia is depicted wearing a long tunic covered by a cloak; when standing, she wears a short shoulder cape over her cloak and dress—an accessory not seen in any other deity images from the Roman Rhineland, and evidently deemed important to depict. (Hondius-Crone, The Temple of Nehalennia, p. 102) She is usually depicted seated on a throne or bench, where she may hold a basket or a sheaf of wheat. Two of the altars from Ganuenta show her holding a long staff. Often there is a basket of fruit or ear of grain by her side, and on many altars, a dog resembling a greyhound is sitting at her feet. On top of the altars, apples and pears are often carved in the round (Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 2, pls. 114-116). The side panels of her altars frequently depict stylized fruit trees, foliage, grapevines laden with fruit, or Roman-style cornucopiae (“horns of plenty”) overflowing with fruits and grain ears. Three altars from Domburg (Janssen, De Romeinsche Beelden nos. 8, 18, 26; Hondius-Crone, The Temple of Nehalennia, pls. 1-3) and one from Ganuenta (A57, Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 2, pl. 47) show her standing with her left foot on a ship. Another altar depicts a ship laden with barrels, which she is not standing on (Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 2, pl. 7). One altar shows her between two dolphins (A42; Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 2, pl. 33).

One of the Domburg altars (Janssen, De Romeinsche Beelden, no. 20; Hondius-Crone, The Temple of Nehalennia, pl. 16) and one of the Ganuenta altars (A71; Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 2, pl. 7) shows three goddesses, with the center one smaller than those on the sides. The inscriptions mention only Nehalennia in the singular, but the iconography is much like the Matronae altars, and possibly the cults were similar. (Or possibly the workshop that made both Matronae and Nehalennia altars mixed up a couple of orders.) Other humans or gods are depicted on the sides of some of the altars, most commonly Hercules and Neptune. (Hondius-Crone, pp. 105-106) 

The inscriptions on the altars identify the people who commissioned them and had them set up. Usually they did this in fulfillment of a vow, in exchange for a favor already granted. One altar does include the letters Q.B.; this is probably short for Q.B.F.F., quod bonum faustum felix [sit], “may it end well, favorably, and happily”—implying that in this case the stone was commissioned in hopes of a future favor from the goddess. (Wagenvoort, “Nehalennia and the Souls of the Dead,” pp. 277-278) Carvings on the altars depict offerings to her, which presumably matched actual offerings that she received: fruit, bread, boars’ heads, and sometimes whole animals. (Wagenvoort, p. 284) In fact, one altar bears a carved bread loaf on top: almost identical loaves, known as duivekaters, are still baked in parts of the Netherlands, traditionally at Easter. (Hondius-Crone, The Temple of Nehalennia, pp. 62-63) Some altars show the worshippers themselves; one shows a huntsman with a hare, probably brought as an offering, and another shows a priest and a helper pouring a libation onto an altar. (Hondius-Crone, pp. 107, nos. 16, 21) The worshippers who set up these stones included many traders; the inscriptions mention trade in ceramics, wine, salt, and fish sauce (allec). Some inscriptions specifically thank Nehalennia pro mercibus conservandis, “for keeping wares safe.” Other worshippers included sailors, soldiers, and local officials (Stuart and Bogaers, vol. 1, pp. 34-38).They bore Celtic, Germanic, and Roman names. They came from as far away as Colonia Agrippinensis (Köln) and Augusta Treverorum (Trier) in Germany, and the lands of the Veliocasses (the Seine River valley in northern France), the Sequani (the Saône River valley and Jura Mountains in eastern France), and the Rauraci (the upper Rhine valley near present-day Basel, Switzerland). Roof tiles found near Domburg are stamped with the letters CGPF; this stands for Classis Germanica Pia Fidelis, the Roman naval fleet on the lower Rhine. (Wagenvoort, pp. 276-277) If the tiles come from the temple, the Roman navy may have sponsored the building of the temple in hopes of her protection. 

The dolphins and appearances of Neptune link Nehalennia with the sea, and the inscriptions clearly show that she was often invoked to protect trade, trade goods, and traders. The fruit, plants, and cornucopiae that consistently appear on Nehalennia’s altars strongly suggest that Nehalennia was a goddess who gave fertility and abundance. The dog could be a hunting dog, but it may imply something else: dogs are associated with death and the journey of the dead. (Davidson, Myths and Symbols, p. 57)Some of the altars are decorated with a carving of a curtain or veil; in Roman art this is often seen on graves or other commemorations of the dead. (Wagenvoort, “Nehalennia and the Souls of the Dead,”pp. 279-283) It’s worth mentioning a strange legend recorded by the late Roman historian Procopius around the year 500 CE (History of the Wars VIII.xx.47-55; transl. Dewing, vol. 5, pp. 266-269): the Frankish fishermen and tradesmen on the south shore of the English Channel had the duty of ferrying the souls of the dead. At night, sailors would be summoned by a knock to the beach, where they would find unfamiliar boats, riding low in the water but with no visible cargo. They would sail these boats to the island of Brittia—it’s not quite clear whether this is Great Britain or not—and on landing would hear the names of their invisible passengers called out, after which they would sail their now light boats back home. (Wagenvoort, pp. 273-274) The legend, together with Nehalennia’s emblems of the ship and dog and the veils on some of her altars, suggest that Nehalennia may have guarded and guided the dead on their journey to the afterlife, just as she guarded and guided the shipping of cargoes. The veils on some of the votive stones might commemorate a voyage that ended successfully but with the loss of one or more sailors. (Wagenvoort, p. 283. Not everyone agrees; for a counterargument see Schrier, “Nehalennia Ψυχοπομπος?”)

Tacitus wrote that some of the Suebi sacrificed to Isis, whose cult had been imported (Germania 9; transl. Hutton, pp. 144-145), and some have suggested that he might have meant Nehalennia. (However, the Suebian Isis has also been identified with Zisa; see the section on Zisa below.) There are similarities between Nehalennia and Isis as she was worshipped throughout the Roman world. Statues of Isis have been found throughout the Roman-era Rhineland, from Cologne, where she may have had a sanctuary, as far as Frisia and even Scandinavia. (Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire,pp. 101-102) Isis was a patron of sailors, and one of her great festivals was the Navigium Isidis or “Vessel of Isis,” marking the opening of the sailing season on March 5. This was celebrated in ports all over the Roman Empire with a great parade, climaxing with an image of the dog-headed god Anubis carried before the image of Isis herself. The procession ended at the port, where a brand-new boat was blessed, laden with offerings, and then cut loose and allowed to drift out to sea. (Turcan, pp. 114-116) The combination of dog and ship, together with Tacitus’s information and with discoveries of actual images of Isis in the Roman Rhineland, don’t prove that Nehalennia was Isis, but do hint that the cult of Isis could have influenced the cult of Nehalennia. 

Given Nehalennia’s association with dogs, the appearance of hound’s teeth pierced to be worn as amu­lets in several Anglo-Saxon female graves might suggest that she was known among the Anglo-Saxons (Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism, pp. 110-111). That said, some Dutch heathens think of Nehalennia as the special goddess of the Netherlands. Frigga Aswolf writes: “I believe that Nehelennia is a very ancient Lady, and was already goddess of the Low Lands before the Æsir and Vanir came to these shores. It is my opinion that she has been around since the Low Lands first existed. Her love for her land and everything belonging to it is great. She is always very straight-to-the-point; if she wants something she will make it very clear in a few words! The picture I have of her is that of a well-built woman, with long hair and dressed in robes in blue/green colours.” (“Nehallenia, Lady of the Low Lands,” p. 21)


Aswolf, Frigga. “Nehallenia, Lady of the Low Lands.” Idunna, no.36 (Harvest 1998), pp. 18-21.


Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions.Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1988.


Janssen, L. J. F. De Romeinsche Beelden en Gedenksteenen van Zeeland.Middelburg: Geb. Abrahams, 1845.


Hondius-Crone, Ada. The Temple of Nehalennia at Domburg.Amsterdam: J. M. Meulenhoff, 1955.


Knorr, Birgit. “Nehalennia: Goddess of the Low Lands.” Idunna, no. 113 (Autumn 2017), pp. 11-14.


Much, Rudolf. “Nehalennia.” Zeitschrift für Deutsches Altertum und Deutsche Literatur, vol. 35 (1891), pp. 324-328.


Procopius of Caesarea (H. B. Dewing, transl.) [History of the Wars;Anecdota; Buildings.]7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.


Schrier, O. J. “Nehalennia Ψυχοπομπος?” Mnemosyne, vol. 27, vol. 2 (1974), pp. 152-158.


Simek, Rudolf (Angela Hall, transl.) Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993.


Stuart, P. and J. E. Bogaers. Nehalennia: Römische Steindenkmäler aus der Oosterschelde bei Colijnsplaat.2 vols. Leiden: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, 2001.


Tacitus, Cornelius (M. Hutton and E. H. Warmington, eds.) Dialogus, Agricola, Germania. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.


Turcan, Robert (Antonia Nevill, transl.). The Cults of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.


Wagenvoort, H. “Nehalennia and the Souls of the Dead.” Mnemosyne, vol. 24, no. 3 (1971), pp. 273-292.