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Matrons and Disir

Matrons and Disir

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Published by: Odinsvin on Mar 18, 2010
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Matrons and Disir: The Heathen TribalMothers
By: Winifred Hodge
Matron Worship in Germanic Lands
 A belief and trust in protective maternal deities seems to have been strong among ourHeathen forebears for many centuries, at least as strong as their belief in the Aesir andVanir more familiar to us today. The earliest written records of these beliefs begin duringthe first century C.E. and predominate in the lands of the continental Germans. The coreareas of the Matron Cult were in ancient Germania, eastern Gaul, and northern Italy, butit reached as far as present day Scotland, Frisia, southern Spain and Rome. More than1100 votive stones and altars to the "matrons" or mothers have been found to date, overhalf of which are dedicated to beings with clearly Germanic names; the others are of Celtic origin or are unclear whether Celtic or Germanic. The Germanic folk and the Celtsapparently shared this belief, as with a number of other similarities between the beliefs of these peoples.More than simple votive stones have been found, however: in some areas there werelarge cult centers, temples and monuments, especially along the Rhine. Some of thelargest were in Pesch, Nettersheim, and Bonn. The temples, monuments and votive stonesshow that the following were important to the worship of the mothers:-burning bowls of incense-sacrifices of fruit, fish, and pigs,-imagery of fruit baskets, plants, trees, babies, children, cloths for wrapping babies, andsnakes.Images of the mothers generally show them in a group of three, though occasionally twoor one are found; usually at least one of them holds a basket of fruit, and often a baby isheld. Often all of them have clothing and hairstyles or headdressing indicating theirmatron status, though sometimes the middle figure is shown dressed as a maiden, withher hair loose.Interestingly, many of the votive stones and monuments were dedicated by Germanicsoldiers and sailors, legionaries in the Roman Empire, rather than by women, thoughfrequently the stones were set up on behalf of the soldier's entire family or his clan .Many times, though, it is clear from the inscription that the soldier inscribed it for hisown sake, asking the mothers for protection, health and wellbeing, and perhaps luck inbattle, or often thanking them for having already provided it. Indeed, many of themonuments and stones were thank offerings for what the mothers had already given,indicating the mothers obvious ability to respond to their believers prayers! Apparentlythe worshippers made vows to the matrons, to set up a stone for them if the mothersgranted their prayers. One inscription says:
To Alatievia (the all-divine one)
, on her own
command, from the physician Divos. The worshippers then fulfulled their vows, leavingus their many records of this flourishing faith over the course of four centuries. Sincethose who set up the stones had learned to write in Latin, as soldiers and sailors of theRoman Empire, the inscriptions are in Latin and the matron names are latinized, eventhough the folk who set them up were Germanic or Celtic. All of the examples given hereare names thought to be of Germanic origin.The primary functions of the mothers, as shown in the inscriptions, were to help in timeof need, to protect, to watch over a family or clan, to help in fertility and childbirth, toheal, and possibly to give protection in battle. In addition, many of the inscriptions appearto be to water goddesses or spirits, who have the name of the river or spring in whichthey reside. These were perhaps being propitiated by believers seeking safety in travelingon the water, and/or a good harvest of fish. In the case of spirits of springs, folk wouldhave wanted to make sure the spring did not dry up. The names of the mothers aremultitudinous; more than 100 different clearly Germanic names have been found to date.Frequently the names are those of clan-mothers or folk-mothers, as can be seen inexamples of inscriptions to the Swabian mothers, German mothers, paternal Frisianmothers, and the mothers of the paternal family of Kannanef. Others--goddesses or spiritsof places--are named for the river or spring where they live, such as the Renahenae of theRhine, or for the town or area they watched over, like the Albiahenae matrons of the townof Elvenich. Frequently the mothers are named for their attributes, such as giving andprotectiveness (Gabiae, Friagabiae, Alagabiae) or the powerful ones (Afliae). In the caseof the Ahueccaniae, the first element of their name is thought to relate to water, and thesecond element to Anglo-Saxon wiccian: to make magic and to Middle High Germanwicken: to prophesy, creating a very interesting combination! The Alaferhviae, depictedtogether with trees, are thought to derive their name from an Old High German word fortree or oak; other matron names also seem to have a linguistic connection with trees/oaks.The Audrinehae probably means the friendly powers of destiny, showing a connectionwith the Lesser Norns. These are just some examples of name-derivations; there are manymore. Quite often the derivations of their names are obscure.In the general area of the largest cult centers, as many as 360 monuments name the samethree sets of matrons: the Aufaniae, Suleviae, and Vacallinehae; in addition are stoneswhich mention only one of the three. The matrons Vacallinehae have at least 130inscriptions dedicated to them alone, with another 150 fragments that may have beentheirs as well. The name Vacallinehae is probably based on a place-name; thus thesemothers were probably the protectresses of the folk who lived in that particular area.More than 90 inscriptions to Aufanie have been found, who appears to have been a singlegoddess rather than a collection of mothers as were the Vacallinehae. Aufanie was oftennamed as "
goddess Aufanie
" or "
holy Aufanie
," making her divine status quite clear,while other times she was titled "
matron Aufanie
." One interpretation of her name, basedon a Gothic derivation, is "
generous ancestral mother 
." About 40 inscriptions arededicated to the Suleviae matrons; these inscriptions have been found scattered all overEurope and tend to be more informative about the matrons than most votive stones are.These inscriptions show that the Suleviae were considered guardians of the private,domestic sphere, guardian spirits of the household.
Probably the most well-known goddess with matron-like functions is Nehalennia,worshipped primarily in the northern continental Germanic regions (Frisia, northernGermany, Holland usw.). About 60 inscriptions and votive altars or stones to her havebeen found. As depicted on her votive altars, her attributes are a basket of fruit, andfrequently a ship or an oar, and a dog. She is thought to have been, in addition to afertility goddess, a patroness of seafaring (most likely for peaceful purposes such asfishing and trade), and a goddess of the dead. These attributes are common to the NearEastern goddess Isis as well; it is possible that the references to Germanic worship of Isisby the Roman writer Tacitus could have applied to her. Some scholars also think Nehalennia could be another name for the goddess worshipped as Nerthus by the Anglesand other Germanic tribes, whom Tacitus describes as Terra Mater, Earth Mother.
General Conclusions about Matron Worship
 The many inscriptions to the matrons, their descriptive names along with images fromtheir stones and temples, allow us to extract several general conclusions out of their greatvariety of attributes.1) The matrons and matron-like goddesses were widely worshipped among the Germanicpeoples over a period of at least several centuries. My suspicion is that they wereworshipped long before we have written records of them, and that the written recordsonly began showing up during the heyday of the Roman Empire with its cadre of fairlyliterate soldiers and other functionaries of Germanic origin. In other words, I don't think that the widespread worship of matrons, and Latin literacy, just happened to coincide atonce; I think the practice of worshipping matron goddesses was around for a long timebut did not leave traces until the common folk learned to write inscriptions to them onstone.2) The matrons had a number of functions, including especially protectiveness, help, andgift-giving (fertility, health, children, wise rede or foreseeing, and other gifts).3) They were associated with certain natural features, in particular rivers, springs, andtrees.4) Individual towns, regions, tribes, clans, families, and households frequently had theirown dedicated matrons.5) Matrons were worshipped by all sorts of folk: women and men, common folk andleaders, soldiers and civilians; they had a very broad base of worshippers.6) People seemed to regard the matrons as being very personal, local and close to them.The inscriptions are often addressed to my or our matrons. It seems likely that folk considered the particular matrons they worshipped to belong to them, their family, theirnative place, rather than seeing them as distant, Olympian figureheads out of the reach of mortals.

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