Belisama · Senuna · Sul
After Mercury, the Gauls worship “Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. They have a similar view of these deities as people of other nations do. [...] Minerva teaches the elements of industry and arts.”
—Julius Cæsar (summarizing Posidonius)
Minerva seems to have held, as Julius Cæsar implies, the first place among the goddesses worshipped by the Gauls. Both her image and her ex votos can be found all over Gaul, executed in either a classical or a more provincial style. I count 136 votive inscriptions in honour of Minerva in Gaul and 36 in Britain (compared with 28 for Rosmerta, for example, in the whole Empire).[2a] Only the Mothers—enjoying enormous popularity in Germania Inferior—could compete with Minerva among the most popular female deities of Gaul.
Minerva was born directly from the head of Jupiter, armed and full-grown. She was also to remain a virgin. The celibacy of Diana might be challenged: there were Actæons and Orions; moreover, Diana, like Juno, was a goddess of fertility and childbirth. Minerva, on the other hand, remained sublimely single, and she was mistress of quite enough strength and trickery to defend herself against an infinity of would-be seductors. (All the same, she was proud of her beauty; she was one of the three contestants at the judgement of Paris.)
Despite her celibacy, Minerva was by no means alone. On the contrary, she was one of the three persons of the Capitoline Triad: along with Jupiter Best and Greatest and Juno the Queen, she guaranteed the stabilitiy of the Roman Empire from their sacred temple on the Capitol. Varro considered Jupiter the creater, Minerva the plan, and Juno the matter of the universe.[4a] The Gauls sometimes invoked all three gods together, most often along the Rhine (which is to say, in the military zone). She was often invoked alongside Mars, Victoria (all three were deities of war), Apollo, Diana (twins with very similar responsibilities), Hercules (whose strength was the natural complement of her strategy), Fortuna and the genius loci.[2b] The inclusion of the genius loci is fairly expected in military inscriptions from the Germanies invoking a plethora of deities at once. A local deity of quite a different kind, however, is to be found alongside Minerva at Crain (Yonne), in the territory of the Senones, where a worshipper made a dedication to Augustus, the goddess Minerva and Rit(ona), a regional goddess who is thought to have presided over fords. This inscription recalls others jointly dedicated to such water deities as Neptune, the god Ocean and the god Rhine, which may indicate the Celtic Minerva’s patronage over certain waters. We shall revisit this question below.
Depictions of the Gaulish Minerva take her classical features as their point of departure. As a war goddess, she has a helmet, spear and shield. On her chest, she bears her father’s ægis, which features the head of Medusa.
Minerva’s tree is the olive, which the goddess was said to have bestowed upon the city of Athens (the Athenians preferred this same tree, with all its uses, to Neptune’s horse). Her animal is the owl—a symbol, then as now, of wisdom. Thanks to her patronage of weaving, the spider is associated with her as well. The stalwart proctectress of Athens, Minerva was to play the same role on the Capitol. The palladium—that sacred image of Pallas that ensured the safety of Troy before Diomedes stole it for the Achæans—was subsequently housed in the Temple of Vesta at Rome. The ceremonial armour worn by Roman emperors also deliberately echoed that of the goddess.[4b]
Some Gaulish representations of Minerva show a strong tendency to abstraction. At right we see, in effect, a goddess with two faces—her ordinary one on her head, the other (borrowed from Medusa...) on her chest. At left there is a depiction that owes much to the image of her brother Mercury.
The industry and arts that Minerva teaches, according to Ovid, include paiting, poetry, teaching, medicine, and in particular the production of cloth (spinning, dyeing and weaving). Some of these domains overlap with those of Apollo or Mercury—but let us not forget that the context here is polytheistic. The gods coexist and work together, without jealousy or discord (despite what the poets sometimes claim). Minerva is identified as the inventor of numbers. The number five is sacred to her; she was worshipped in Rome at a five-day festival, the quinquatria, that began five days after the Ides of March (19–23 March). On the last day of the quinquatria, it was customary to purify horns, which were much used in worship and which Minerva was credited with inventing.[4c]
The palladium and ægis are symbols of power, if not of invincibility. Minerva’s role as bestower of sovereignty can readily be transferred into an image of Minerva as sovereign—at least for the freedman at Lugdunum Convenarum who fulfilled a vow to Mineruae Reginae “to Minerva the queen”. Like so many others, that inscription also invokes the numina of the Augusti, the divine spirits by whom supreme power was expressed. Another inscription makes clear Minerva’s importance for one seuir Augustí at Bourges. A seuir Augustí was a kind of honorary magistrate in charge of the cult of the Augusti in the provinces. One such, the Roman citizen C. Agileius Primus, consecrated in perpetuity a dedication that read Pro salvte Caesarvm et p(opvli) R(omani), Minervae et divae Drvsillae “for the well-being of the Cæsars and of the Roman people, to Minerva and the divine Drusilla” (the latter being the late lamented sister of the emperor Gaius). Here again we find Minerva at the heart of the imperial cult, engaged in supporting the state and its leaders.
The legend of Catumandus shows at once the Gauls’ piety and the good fortune of the Greeks at Massilia (present-day Marseille). Around 390 bce, according to Trogus Pompeius, a Celto-Ligurian force was besieging Massilia. Their leader Catumandus saw in a dream “an angry-looking woman who said she was a goddess and ordered him to make peace with the Massiliots”. Catumandus obtained a cease-fire so that he might enter Massilia and worship their gods. At the temple of Minerva, he immediately recognized the image of the goddess he had seen in his dream. “He congratulated the Massiliots on the outstanding protection the gods afforded them, offered a golden collar to Minerva, and sworn eternal peace with the inhabitants.” Such a myth gives a foundation to the Gauls’ proverbial philhellenism. At the same time, it attests to the prestige of the cult of Minerva, the faith placed in divination through dreams, and even the type of gift (a gold torc) that a generous king might present to the goddess.
Certain modern writers have sought to substitute the name Belisama for that of Minerva in order to restore a Celtic identity to the goddess. One inscription does indeed invoke the goddess Minerva Belisama at Saint-Lizier. Although this is in the territory of the Consoranni, a non-Celtic people (they were Aquitanians whose language seems akin to Basque), the name itself is certainly Celtic, for we also find it in the Gaulish langauge in the form Βηλησαμα (Bêlêsama) at Vaison-la-Romaine. This is indeed a precious snippet of information, considering the relative rarity of Gaulish texts; it places Bêlêsama among the limited number of indubitable Celtic deities. The name Belisama has been interpreted to mean “most powerful”; it is to be linked with numerous place-names and river-names, including the Blima in the département of the Tarn, and also a river in Great Britain that can probably be identified as the Ribble. (The Ædui also worshipped a god Belisamarus—he may have no connection with Minerva, but then again perhaps he does.) Still, two inscriptions are not so very much to go on. They certainly do not justify statements along the lines of “the Celtic goddess Belisama, whom Cæsar calls Minerva...”, and it is only to be expected that the Gaulish proto-Minerva went by different names in other regions. This is still more the case, given that other ‘Celtic’ names of Minerva are also attested. While that of Arnalia at Villey-sur-Tille was probably supplied by a modern forger, Great Britain has turned up two avatars of Minerva of definite authenticity, Sul and Senuna.
The cult of Minerva in Great Britain was of singular importance. The city of Aquæ Sulis (present-day Bath) rejoices in its hot spring, dedicated to Sul (or Sulis) Minerva, whose temple was richly endowed with offerings left by a multitude of pilgrims. Here we find her again in the role of a warrior-healer who battles against disease, much like Lenus Mars or Mars Loucetius among the Treveri. In fact, a Treveran citizen at Bath fulfilled his vow dedicating an altar to Loucetius Mars and Nemetona at the very sanctuary of Sul Minerva. Other circumstances invite comparison with Apollo: healing, hot springs, and even a name Sul that has sometimes been translated as ‘sun’.... As unusual as this local cult was, its importance is beyond doubt; it courted syncretism just as it welcomed a diversity of pilgrims.
A dig in 2002 brought to light another British goddess, named Senuna (with variants such as Senna, Senua, etc.), worshipped in Hertfordshire and sharing such attributes of Minerva as the owl, the spear and the shield.
We must dispute the identification of the Gaulish Minerva with the Irish Brigit. While their roles partly overlapped, another identification is indicated by the epigraphic evidence. The name Brigit corresponds to the British Brigantia, who, however, is identified with Victoria rather than with Minerva.
The Gaulish Minerva is well represented across the country. She reveals a special affinity for waters (as witnessed by the hot springs at Bath, the Ribble, the Blima, and co-dedications with water deities). The name Belisama, which one inscription bestows on her, is to be translated as “most powerful”, which confirms her role as guarantor of sovereign strength. She was closely linked to the imperial cult and was also one of the three persons in the Capitoline Triad.
Minerva is described as the goddess of wisdom, of war, and of crafts. The reality is more simple and more profound. The goddess presides over the savoir-faire that springs from critical reason. Ulysses was Minerva’s protégé precisely to the extent that he incarnated the usefulness of ruses and strategems. Underlying all of Minerva’s roles is the finesse and intelligence that allows her to manage affairs well. It is in this capacity that Minerva “teaches the elements of arts and industry”; it was through her that generals led their campaigns to a successful conclusion; and through her as well that supreme magistrates made good use of their sovereignty.
Post hunc Apollinem et Martem et Iouem et Mineruam. De his eandem fere, quam reliquae gentes, habent opinionem: ... Mineruam operum atque artificiorum initia tradere....