Roman archeological evidence of Germanic religion

The Germanic auxiliaries serving - and to some extent settling - all over the Empire have left us tantalizing clues as to their religion in the form of votive tablets and altars. The problem is that these were commissioned within Roman culture, so the iconography may have been misrepresented by the sculptors and the names are in Latin. We also have to figure out as best we can from those mangled names whether they are Germanic or something else, particularly Celtic.

One such item is a 3rd-century altar from the ruins of the Temple of Mars at the Roman fort and settlement of Vercovicium (along Hadrian's Wall at Housesteads in Northumberland) whose inscription reads "DEO MARTI THINCSO ET DVABVS ALAISAGIS BEDE ET FIMMILENE ET N AVG GERM CIVES TVIHANTI VSLM" ("to the god Mars Thingsus and the two Alaisagć Beda and Fimmilena and the divine spirit of the Emperor, the Germanic tribesmen from Tuihantis willingly and deservedly fulfill their vow"). The Emperor part - and the abbreviations in that section - illustrate the Roman context. "Mars Thingsus" is an invaluable formulation supporting Týr/Tíw/Ziű's association with the assembly - it even obligingly uses the Germanic word "thing." The two goddesses/spirits are very murky indeed, but there are other inscriptions to them at the same site that equate them to other goddesses, some of whom may be Celtic, and "Beda and Fimmilena" have seemed to some to parallel names found in Frisian sources. So the soldiers are thought to have been Frisians.

We also have about 60 votive plaques to the otherwise unknown goddess Nehalennia, most found on the island of Walcheren, some near Deutz (on the Rhine opposite Cologne). She is almost always shown with marine symbols, sitting on the prow of a ship or holding an oar; several inscriptions thank her for safe passage across the North Sea. Other common pictorial elements are a cornucopia or basket of apples, a scepter, and a dog sitting beside her. Her name has defied etymologizing and some have therefore argued it is Celtic, or pre-Indo-European.

There is also one inscription to Tamfanae or Tanfana, who is mentioned by Tacitus as a goddess of the Cherusci, Chatti and Marsi who had a temple. Grimm was eager to compare her to Nehalennia to reduce the number of goddesses.

It should also be mentioned that since the Romans and to a lesser extent the Greeks were in contact with and writing about Germanic tribes for centuries, there are lots of more or less scattered pieces of written information. For example we know that there was a rebellion against the Romans by the Batavii in 69-70 CE, led by a Romanized chieftain, Gaius Julius Civilis, and that a völva named Veleda correctly predicted the course of the battles. This adds to our evidence that völur were greatly revered by the ancient heathens, and the high number of Roman votive carvings to goddesses (and mentions of goddesses in Tacitus) suggest there was a better balance between known goddesses and gods than in our Scandinavian textual sources.


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