Mōdraniht (Mothers’ Night) approaches. An Anglo-Saxon Heathen holiday, it focuses on venerating “the Mothers,” a grouping of deities who were worshiped throughout Celto-Romano-Germanic Europe as Matres or Matronae. (The Old English word for Them is Mōdru.) They were very localized deities, named for geographic features, bodies of water, the people They protected, or Their attributes. Depictions of Them show women in triplicate, though other groupings are possible. Always seated, They bear bread, fruits, or horns of plenty, or They are pregnant or nursing children. This iconography suggests associations of fertility, fecundity, prosperity, agriculture, childbirth, and children.
Since I want to practice a Heathen tradition that marries Germanic and Roman beliefs and practices, it seems appropriate for me to start building that tradition with the Matronae. As it turns out, the historical evidence suggests that Roman soldiers brought the cult of the Mothers to ancient Britain; all but two epithets used to name the Mothers are Roman . I’m taking this as a sign that I’m on the right track.
When contemplating what sorts of goddesses may have influence over my local area, I considered the Mothers’ iconography throughout history. I considered significant landmarks, pivotal industries, and the lay of our cities and towns. I like to think that I did not choose three goddesses; instead, Their strong influences in the region revealed Themselves to me. Only once I took a step back from my readings, conversations, and notes did I realize a common theme: water. And so, without further ado, I present the Matres Aestuāria: the Estuary Mothers.
The most important and influential geographical feature in my area is the Chesapeake Bay. Contrary to popular belief, the name does not mean “great shellfish bay”; the word Chesepiooc is most likely Algonquin for “great water,” or it even may have referred to a village at the mouth of the bay itself . But I do not want to address the goddess of the Chesapeake by Her indigenous name. I feel I have no right to do so, as someone benefiting from the colonialism of the native land. Therefore, I decided to use a more poetic byname instead.
Many major and minor tributaries flow into the Chesapeake Bay, contributing to the massive estuary that is the largest in all the United States and third largest in the entire world . The Chesapeake provides livelihood and industry for the central and southern regions of Maryland. It seems appropriate, then, to call Her “Mother of Waters,” or Wætrumōdor in Old English. Her associations are the abundance of the bay: fishing, crabbing, and the fresh water of Her daughter rivers. As a Mother, Her domains also include childbirth, children, women, pregnancy, and midwives. And for added complexity, I attribute prophecy to Her, adapted from the Camenae — the freshwater nymphs — of Roman mythology.
Another major geographical feature of the area — though perhaps less immediately impacting compared to the Chesapeake Bay — is the Atlantic Ocean. The name comes from Latin ātlanticus, which ultimately derives from the name of the Greek titan Atlas. Unsurprisingly, the Anglo-Saxons had a word for the ocean, too: gārseċġ, which, strangely enough, means “spearman.” Combining the Latin origin of the Atlantic Ocean’s name and the Anglo-Saxon imagery pointed me to the Roman god Neptune, who famously carries a trident as one of His symbols and weapons. Of course, since the Matronae are goddesses, I looked further still: to Salacia, His wife. She is a beautiful saltwater nymph, a goddess bedecked in seaweed and pearls. Her name most likely comes from the Latin sal, or “salt,” but can also derive from Latin salāx, “lustful, provocative.”
At this point in my research, I experienced what I can only call a moment of revelation, a “mental ping” of affirmation. So I decided to keep going: I decided calling Her Salacia Ātlantica would be most appropriate for my cult of the Mothers. Then I looked again at the Anglo-Saxon word for ocean, gārseċġ — a decidedly masculine word. Yet the Romans’ martial attitude often gave them reason to arm their goddesses: Juno was called Curitis (“Spear-bearer”) and Moneta (“the Warner”) when attributed to war, and Venus bears the epithet Victrix (“the Victorious”) due to Her syncretism with Aphrodite Areia of Sparta  . Therefore, it seems more than reasonable for Salacia to wield a spear as well, as Salacia Gārwīf (“Spear-wife, Spear-woman”).
Taking all of these traits into account, it seems that Salacia’s domains encompass war (especially in terms of naval warfare), the ocean and all of its bounty, trade and merchants, sexuality and sensuality, queenship, motherhood, and marriage.
Having acknowledged the two bodies of water that influence my area the most, I then looked at a different sort of influence: urbanization. There are two major cities around me and great roads that connect them to everything in between. Traffic is a major aspect of life here, and I feel like there must be a goddess associated with liminality, cities, travel, and industry that can be attributed to its power. I struggled here a bit, unsure of how to start uncovering this deity, until Wōdgār of Sundorwīc suggested I research Nehalennia.
For this, I turned to the blog Senobessus Bolgon, run by Selguiros Carantos Caitacos, and his own study of the goddess. He explores Her possibilities in great detail, so I highly recommend reading through the post. For my purposes, though, it is enough to say that many aspects of Nehalennia are a mystery. Her origin is unclear; She could be either Germanic or Celtic, but since the etymology of Her name is also unknown, we can only guess. She does have distinct iconography — ships and ship parts, a dog at her side, a cornucopia filled with bread and fruit, and a veil or cloak. Those associations alone are enough to convince me She could be the goddess I’m looking for. One problem remains, however: Nehalennia’s primary site of worship was what is now the Netherlands and Belgium, so that does not exactly make Her a local goddess for me.
However, as mentioned earlier, the Romans brought their Matres and Matronae overseas to ancient Britain. When the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians moved into Britain after the Romans left, they brought their own gods with them, too. It is entirely possible the worship of Nehalennia migrated to Britain with the Frisian tribes. Using Selguiros’ suggested etymology, Wōdgār helped me reconstruct a name for the goddess as an Anglo-Saxon deity: *Nifolhele, from Old English nifol, a variant spelling of neowol, “darkness, depth” + helan, “to hide, conceal” using the feminine -e ending. Thus, not only is She associated with industry, urbanization, travel, abundance, trade, and protection, but She also has a liminal, even psychopompic, quality to Her.
A Mōdraniht Prayer
I welcome You, O Mothers, great goddesses who protect and guide us.
You are the mighty tides, drawing the moon along its course, shaping our land with Your strength.
You are the wisdom of the ages, having witnessed the eons of the earth, its people, and their histories.
You are the beauty of sun-kissed waves, of gently waving kelp, of bright coral and gleaming shells.
I welcome You, Wætrumōdor, also called Fleōtcwēn (Bay-Queen), Feorhgiefa (Giver of Life), Wītegestre (Prophetess).
I welcome You, Salacia Ātlantica, also called Gārwīf (Spear-Woman), Meregrot (Pearl), and Sealtbrȳd (Salt-Bride).
I welcome You, Nifolhele, also called Sǣsteorra (Guiding Star), Bātbylda (Ship-Builder), and Burgweard (City-Defender).
I welcome You on Your holiest night in thanks for the past year’s bounty, for we have not wanted. May You look kindly upon us in the coming year. May we continue to enjoy the fruits of Your favor.
May You accept this offering, O Blessed Mothers, which I freely and happily give to You.
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- Beck, “Goddesses in Celtic Religion,” 51.
- Fahrenthold, “Language.”
- Chesapeake Bay Program, “Eight reasons.”
- Burkert, Homo Necans, 80.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.17.5.
- Beck, Noémie. “Goddesses in Celtic Religion.” PhD diss., Université Lumière Lyon 2, Lyon, 2009. Université Lumière Lyon 2 Cyberthèses.
- Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Translated by Peter Bing. Berkeley: University of California, 1983.
- Chesapeake Bay Program. “Eight reasons the Chesapeake Bay is an exceptional estuary.” Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.chesapeakebay.net/news/blog/eight_reasons_the_chesapeake_bay_is_an_exceptional_estuary.
- Fahrenthold, David A. “A Dead Indian Language Is Brought Back to Life.” Washington Post, December 12, 2006. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/11/AR2006121101474.html.
- Lārhūs Fyrnsida. “Mōdru.” Accessed January 6, 2020. https://larhusfyrnsida.com/modru/.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece. Translated by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918.
- Senobessus Bolgon. “Nehalennia/*Neialenniâ.” Accessed January 7, 2020. https://senobessusbolgon.wordpress.com/nehalennia/.
- Shaw, Philip A. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011.
- Wiktionary, various pages.