The Brigantian federation stretched over most of northern England, and their queen, Cartimandua, is one of the few female rulers known to history. But the fame of their goddess, Brigantia, comes from a Roman statue.
This sandstone image, with an inscription naming Amandus, an engineer, as the man who ordered it, stands about 90 cm high and 45 cm wide (36″ x 18″). It is now in the National Museum of Scotland, since it was found in Birrens. It once had traces of gilding, but that has worn away long ago. The base of the statue reads:
Brigantiae s(acrum) Amandus arc(h)itectus ex imperio imp(eratum) (fecit)
Sacred to Brigantia: Amandus, the engineer, by command fulfilled the order. (R.I.B. 2091)
While the statue was found in Scotland, it does not necessarily mean Brigantian territory reached that far north. When the Roman emperor Septimius Severus visited Britain, he established his court at York, and many inscriptions to Brigantia date from his visit, suggesting he was promoting the local goddess. The statue may well have been left behind when his army’s foray into Scotland abruptly ended in defeat.
The statue itself is a complex, syncretistic mix of several goddesses’ attributes, including two favoured by Severus and his circle: Dea Caelestis (or Tanit) and Minerva. The stone next to her (on her left) is a symbol of Tanit, while the spear, shield, and helmet all point to Minerva. In addition, the wings point to Nike/Victoria, the mural crown over her helmet points to the protector-goddess Tyche/Fortuna, while the globe she holds is perhaps the oddest part, as it symbolized imperial power.
Victory, Healing, Protection
Apart from the statue, there are six altars with dedications to Brigantia. Two are dedicated simply to the Goddess Brigantia (Dea Brigantia); Cingatissa and Congenniccus, both Celtic-sounding names, were responsible for one each. Two are dedicated to Victoria Brigantia, one from the Roman fort at Castleford and the other from Greetland, both in Yorkshire. These may well be the feminine equivalents of the Celtic deities paired with Mars. (Joliffe: 40)
The last two are more diverse, as one is to Brigantia the nymph, while the other is to Brigantia Caelestis. The first, from around Brampton, near Hadrian’s Wall, expresses a wish for the welfare of Caracalla, one of Severus’ two sons. Caracalla had notoriously poor health, and visited many healing shrines. He didn’t make it Brampton, but presumably someone wished him well.
The altar to Brigantia Caelestis is the only one she shares with a god: Jupiter Dolichenus. He was usually paired with Juno Regina, but presumably the dedicator preferred the local goddess, or saw them as similar. This follows the Romano-Celtic pattern of Roman god, local goddess.
This altar shows the amount of mixing and matching of deities in the Roman Empire: Jupiter Dolichenus came from Doliche in Turkey, spreading out with the army, while his wife became Juno Regina. Since Tanit, known to the Romans as Dea Caelestis, was also assimilated to Juno Regina, this would seem to be syncretism run riot.
All three goddesses were the protectors of their peoples, which may be the connecting thread. Tanit/Caelestis was the tutelary goddess of the Carthaginians, and Juno Regina was originally the protector goddess of Veii, an Italian city-state swallowed up by the Romans.
There is another, more controversial, inscription that may be a dedication to Brigantia, and chimes in with her more imperial side. R.I.B. 902, from Old Carlisle, was originally read as:
To the Land of the Batavians Ateius Cocceianus, an imperial slave, made this willingly when released from his vow.
but no one was ever really happy about the Batavian part, and it has been rejected, although another interpretation:
To Tutela Brigantia Augusta Titus Aurelius Ateco citizen of Augusta made this willingly when released from his vow.
is not really accepted either. Brigantia Augusta would fit with the globe the statue holds, if the goddess was being taken into the imperial cult as ruler of part of their territory. (The first emperor was Augustus, and the title Augusta/us always indicates the imperial cult.)
Tutela, on the other hand, is easily explained, since a tutelary deity is a protective god/dess, from the Latin tutela, “protection, guardian”. A Burgundian goddess, Boudiga, was also called Tutela on an altar. (Her name means “Victory”, just like Boudicca.)
Protector of the Tribe
Leaving aside the question of the imperial cult and Tutela, Brigantia was obviously the protector-goddess of her people, the Brigantes. Just as Nemetona looked after the Nemetes, or the god Arvenus did the Arveni.
Indeed, a Gaulish god, Teutates, gets his name from his protector-function, since it comes from the Gaulish word teuta, “tribe”. (See the Irish tuath.) The many inscriptions to Teutates in Gaul and Britain suggest it may be a title rather than the name of a specific god, but in any case the function, protector of the people, would be the same. (MacKillop: 404)
Minerva? The B-Complex
Brigantia is often compared to Brigit, but it seems to me both are part of a larger group of goddesses, all of whom have similar names:
- Brigit (Co. Kildare, Ireland)
- Brigindona (Auxey, Fr.)
- Briginnenses (Brignon, Fr.)
- Bricta/Brixta (Luxeuil, Fr.)
- Brigaciea Matres (Penalba de Castro, Spain)
Many of these goddesses were associated with healing waters (Bricta, Briginnenses) while the later saint Brigit had many healing wells. There seems to be a sort of Minerva-type goddess (Julius Caesar mentions a “Minerva” among his list of Celtic deities) who presided over healing waters. Another such goddess, Sulis, fits in here, although her name doesn’t.
In fact, Brigantia on her own is sufficiently complex. She is a protector goddess, who gives victory, a healer, and possibly a celestial goddess as well. (Both her name, with its root brig, “high”, and the association with Caelestis point to this.) She was sufficiently important for the Romans to try to co-opt her.
And we may not be done with her yet. Last year archaeologists found another image that they identified as Brigantia. It is merely a head, but it wears the mural crown too, like the statue from Birrens. It seems to emphasize that Brigantia, first and last, was the goddess who protected her people, and their fortunes.
Sheena McGrath studies Norse and Celtic mythology, and has written five books. The two most recent are Brigantia: Goddess of the North (Lulu) and Njord and Skadi (Avalonia; forthcoming). She lives in northern Canada and enjoys the clear night skies and occasional aurora borealis, inspiring her blog We Are Star Stuff.
Davies, R. W. 1977: “Ateco of Old Carlisle”, Brittania 8: 271-4.
Joliffe, Norah 1941: “Dea Brigantia”, Archaeological Journal 98: 34-61.
Jufer, Nicole, and Thierry Luginbühl, 2001, Les dieux gaulois : répertoire des noms de divinités celtiques connus par l’épigraphie, les textes antiques et la toponymie, Errance, Paris.
MacKillop, James 2004: The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
McGrath, Sheena 2015: Brigantia: Goddess of the North, Lulu Books.