The Temple of Nehalennia at Domburg

“In an island of the ocean stands a sacred and unviolated grove, in which is a consecrated chariot, covered with a veil, which the priest alone is permitted to touch. He becomes conscious of the entrance of the goddess into this secret recess; and with profound veneration attends the vehicle, which is drawn by yoked cows. At this season, all is joy; and every place which the goddess deigns to visit is a scene of festivity. No wars are undertaken; arms are untouched; and every hostile weapon is shut up. Peace abroad and at home are then only known; then only loved; till at length the same priest reconducts the goddess, satiated with mortal intercourse, to her temple. The chariot, with its curtain, and, if we may believe it, the goddess herself, then undergo ablution in a secret lake. This office is performed by slaves, whom the same lake instantly swallows up.”
“Some of the Suevi also perform sacred rites to Isis. What was the cause and origin of this foreign worship, I have not been able to discover; further than that her being represented with the symbol of a galley, seems to indicate an imported religion.”
Tacitus, Germania 40, 9 (98 AD)
This article is a summary of the book by Ada Hondius-Crone, 1955 : The Temple of Nehalennia at Domburg, J.M. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam. It is summarized by me, Maria Kvilhaug [whose comments to the text is found in "My Notes"]

Chapter I: History of the Find, 1647:

Today, the village of Domburg on the Island of Walcheren is separated from the sea only by a narrow ridge of sand dunes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the belt of dunes was much broader, and the fact that a Roman temple lay buried beneath was unsuspected by anyone. At the end of 1646, gales swept the dunes and on January 6th of the next year, erosion by the sea laid bare a large number of altar stones and other objects.

The first record of the find is a letter written about a week after the discovery of the temple.

 [My note: The year of the discovery coincides exactly with the year when the Poetic Edda manuscript was recovered in Iceland after 400 years of oblivion..!].

It was written in Dutch and printed by Jan Van Hilten of Amsterdam:

“Extraordinary Antique Discovery found on the beach at Domburg on Walcheren, in the County Laterdal, at the moment belonging to Sir Ludwigh van Alteren van Iars-veldt, etc. Written at Domburg the 14th of January 1647.

My friend, I cannot refrain from telling you that there has recently been found here a monument of great antiquity. About a fortnight ago some great stones of white limestone appeared on the beach near the sea. They were excavated last week. One, a great square stone, is an altar three feet high and two and a half feet wide. On the lower front are carved in big Roman characters the words: Deo Neptuno Octavius Ammius….Some stones are carved on the upper part. They have a concave niche in which a Goddess is sitting, with a basket of apple-like fruit. On another stone a goddess stands upright larger than the first. On yet another, Neptune is depicted. Neptune also appears on the sides of some of the other stones on which the Goddess is sitting in the niche on the front. On one of the other sides stands Mercury.

On another stone we find the following words: Deae Nehallenniae Summaronius Primanus…on a second: L.Justius Satto and Secundius Moderatus Fratres…on a third: Deae Nehalenniae Sext. Nertomarius Nertonus…on a Fourth: Nehalenniae Fletus Aennalonis pro se et suis

Some coins have been found in the sand around the site, having on one side the heads of the Roman Emperors, on one of them is a castle, which is the coat of arms of Domburg. The characters on some of the stones are in general sound and undamaged. The foundations of a small building 12 feet or so square have been found on the site. The sand around the site is full of tree-stumps so that there seems to have been a wood there.”

Soon enough, there was widespread interest in the finds at Domburg. Letters by different people describing the excavations abound, drawings were made and more altars, figurines and artwork described, such as a mosaic in three colors, black, white and red, showing the robed figure of a woman thought to be the goddess Nehalennia standing by a stormy sea, with a puppy seated next to her.

By the year 1848, forty altars and statues had been preserved from the temple of Walcheren. Later, a few of these have disappeared, and the mosaic described above has only survived as a copy in a black and white drawing.[1]

The dominance of the goddess Nehalennia (28 of the altars are dedicated to her and about a dozen to various other deities) suggests that she was the main object of worship at the Pagan temple.[2]

Chapter II: Site of the Temple

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the south-western part of the Netherlands was intersected by tidal river-channels. A navigable river-mouth, not far from the Nehalennia sanctuary may have given access to the North Sea, and there may have been a nearby sheltered creek used as a harbor. Tree-stumps round the temple mentioned in the 1647 finds suggest that there was a wood surrounding the temple, which would then have been situated within a sacred grove. Knowing that sacred groves were once natural temples, it is possible that the Roman-style temple was raised within a grove that had previously served as the open-air sanctuary of the goddess.

Imported ware from Roman Gaul and Roman coins minted between 69 and 273 AD found on the Walcheren shore indicate that there was a transit of merchandise between the site and Gaul. One of the donors of the Nehalennia altar stones was a pottery trader: “negotiator cretarius Britannicus”.

On thee of the altars is an inscription stating that the altars were given out of gratitude for the safe crossing of merchandise and of persons. Shards of imported Roman pottery from the second and third century AD have been found, as well as amphorae for wine or oil, white vessels with rough bottoms for the preparation of porridge, plates and dishes in great variety of shapes, all showing strong Roman and Gallic cultural elements which influenced the people who used it.

There was a village situated to the north of the temple, and a pavement, a whole street leading between the two, but these had been swallowed by the sea long before the temple was rediscovered. The place was both a religious center and an important station on a maritime trade route. The stone used to raise the temple had been imported from abroad and must have arrived by ship.

The Temple was a typical square Gallo-Roman temple about 12-13 feet square. There was also a round chapel in which different altars stood. Round the walls of the temples were stones on which the goddess Nehalennia was sculptured. Outside the temple was a kind of black soil, where on the south side were four or five pedestals in a row which had later fallen backwards towards the black soil, in which they gradually disappeared under the sand – yet regularly reappeared again at low tide. In 1718, a very low tide revealed a new statue at the end of the row that nobody had seen before, the figure of a woman (goddess).

Roman influence came to an end in Walcheren some time after the yea 300 AD. This was the start of 300 years of inundation, when habitation on the island must have been problematic if not impossible. The population may have left the island entirely. It is not known whether the temple was destroyed or just gradually abandoned as it began to be regularly covered by water. Habitation around Walcheren in this era may have been Anglo-Saxon, as there are finds suggesting this dating back at least to the 7th century AD. The dunes in which the temple were finally buried were formed naturally sometime after 700 AD, leaving the temple invisible until the storms of 1646 uncovered it. By then, a church had long since been raised on the former Pagan site. The Protestant church of Domburg was in fact the place where most of the finds were taken and preserved after the 1647 excavations.[3]

Chapter IV: The Goddess Nehalennia

The meaning of the name Nehalennia is subject to different interpretations. Kern suggested it has an affinity with the Old German verb neiban, which means a to offer a gift as a token of friendliness; thus the name may mean “Frendliche Geberin”[4]

[My note: this would mean “The Benevolent Provider or Giver of Gifts” – this is in accordance with many names of goddesses such as the more south-eastern Rosmerta, “The Great Provider”, who was contemporary with Nehalennia and shown in much the same way, seated on a throne and associated with Mercury, and with the later Freyia whose name Gefion/Gefn means much the same: “The Giver” or “The Provider”].

Detter suggested that the name has to do with the nouns nekus or nekros, Latin nex and necare, connecting her to death (“necare” means “to kill”).[5]

Cannegieter, who lived during the 17th century, suggested that the name was composed of three parts: ne- “New”, hel- “Stream”/”River”, and –ennia, “Goddess”, thus “New River Goddess”.[6]

Twenty-eight altar stones were dedicated to the goddess, often by grateful donors thanking or praying to the goddess for a safe sea-passage, good business, the welfare of their families or for success in general. The statues, however, provide us with more information than the inscriptions.

The Appearance of Nehalennia

We find the goddess in standing posture four times (type A) and seated on a throne nineteen times (type B). Her character shows strong Roman influence. The seated goddess (type B) is dressed in a tunic covered by a cloak, similar to the dress of a typical Matron, both human and divine. The standing goddess has a different dress, draped over a lifted left knee.

The only garment that makes the goddess outstanding is the short cape on top of her cloak, which she always wears whether seated or standing, an original fashion which may have been indigenous on Walcheren. The countless Matron altars found around the continent from the same epoch are never shown with this particular kind of cape, even if they are otherwise very similar to Nehalennia. The cape is scalloped all round and fastened by a round brooch- The brooch has a cross which looks like a sun-wheel and is similar to the brooches that have been found on some statues of the Roman goddess Fortuna (Fate/Fortune). On several examples, the brooch often has two scallops in the front and is fastened by a rectangular buckle. On some of the statues the cape has a more straight form or the statue is too worn to make out the original shape. Most goddesses of this time wear sandals, but Nehalennia wears more solid foot-wear, a kind of boots.

The Throne, Baldachin and Conch

The seated Nehalennia sometimes shares her position on the throne with Jupiter or other deities of high rank. The throne is often covered by a baldachin. The throne with the baldachin is a symbol of divine majesty and cosmic kingship.[7] Nehalennia´s baldachin is shell-shaped and shows her great dignity as a goddess of heaven. The conch is an important symbol of hers which she shares with many Roman deities such as Venus, Fortuna, Juno, Minerva, Epona, Mercury, Apollo and Hercules, and is also frequently shown on tombstones.[8]

The Ship

The ship is a typical feature of the standing Nehalennia, in her capacity of protector of seafarers, She shares the ship and steering oar symbolism with Isis, Hera, Fortuna, Venus Popmeiana, and several local Germanic Matron goddesses of the era.

The attributes of Nehalennia are most similar to goddesses such as Hera of Sele near Paestum, Venus of Pompei and the “Isis Geminiana” of Ostia. These goddesses, all situated on a western shore, are all goddesses of vegetation, life and death. The symbol of the ship becomes comprehensible if we consider the spring festival of the goddess Isis in the harbor of Ostia, where the loading of Isis Geminiana meant the reopening of the shipping season in spring. This was the time when the harbor revived and its rebirth was celebrated with great splendor – after the procession in honor of Isis on the day of the first full moon in March, a ship was blessed and launched unmanned as a sacrifice to the sea. From early Greek times there was a deep relation between the symbol of the ship and the fertility goddess. Rebirth always implies death, and for that reason the ship had to be sacrificed. [9]

[My note: The ship was extremely important in Scandinavian art from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and into the Iron and Viking Age, obviously associated with sacred journeys, processions and symbolical of more than just seafaring itself, probably also with death and the movement between the worlds, as well as the journey of life itself. ]

The Dog

On thirteen of the twenty-one altars with Nehalennia´s statue on it, the dog sits at her side as her faithful companion. He is a kind of greyhound and has a peaceful appearance. She shares the dog with local deities.

It is difficult to decide exactly the significance of Nehalennia´s dog, but the animal´s basic function as a protector and companion is almost certainly established, because of Nehalennia´s function as protector of mariners and travelers. The dog may be connected with the Underworld, as it often is in Greek mythology. It may also be connected to healing, as the dog was a steady companion of the legendary and semi-divine healer Aesculapius, who was brought up by and always accompanied by a dog.[10]

[My note: The dog is a frequent companion to female images in Scandinavia dating back to the Bronze Age. Very often, the female who is accompanied by a dog is larger than other human representations, suggesting divinity or high status. The woman with the dog sometimes partakes in sexual intercourse with a smaller man, suggesting a sort of mystical union or sacred marriage between a man and a supernatural female entity associated with a dog. It could also be a symbol of death, since later Norse mythology clearly associates the dog with Hel (the Hel-hound), and the sexual encounter is often a symbol of the death of a man, who is taken into the embrace of the death goddess. On numerous Iron Age and Viking Age picture stones, a dog accompanies a female figure with a drinking horn, who appears to be observing battle and death behind a sort of screen or line symbolizing the border between life and death.]

Apples, Pears and Pomgranates

Nehalennia´s character as goddess of vegetation is clearly shown by the presence of fruit – aples, pears and perhaps pomegranates, grapes and ears of corn in baskets, dishes, horns and separately, often held in the right hand of the goddess.

The fruit is her most striking attribute and she shares it with the Roman goddess Fortuna [Fate/Fortune], Copia [“Plenty”, a goddess often shown with the cornucopia – the horn of plenty – which was an important symbol to Greek Demeter as well as to the Norse valkyriur and other mead-serving goddesses], Abundantia [“Abundance”], Pomona [“Garden Fruit”], Flora [“Vegetation”] and with local mother-goddesses. The apple is also sacred to Venus, who carries the fruit in her hand. The pear was particular to Hera of Sele, and the Pomegranate (as well as the apple and pear) was sacred to Persephone, goddess of death, the afterlife, and rebirth, and was a gift from her husband Hades, death. It indicated the hidden other side of the goddess sojourning through the Underword in winter.[11]

[My Note: In Norse Mythology, the goddess Idunn is the goddess associated with fruits. These fruits symbolize immortality, or rather the eternal regeneration of youth, which the goddess offers to the Aesir so as to maintain their youth and lives. She is subsequently called “The Glorious Maiden Who Knows the Age-Cure of the Aesir”, “The Seed of Yggdrasill”, and “The Lover of the Aesir”.]

Cornucopia – the Horn of Plenty

Some of the side pieces of the altars show scenes and symbols. On four altars, there are cornucopiae – horns of plenty. In one, the goddess holds the cornucopia – the horn of plenty – in her hand.

[My Note: the Cornucopia is a symbol well known from Viking Age Scandinavia, where it represents the serving of mead in the afterlife.]

In others, the cornucopia is shown three times entwined, once it is combined with a wheel, and in one altar, two horns decorate the backside. Interestingly, the dog is absent in the altars where the cornucopia is present[12].

[My note: Hondius-Crone sees the dog as a symbol of protection and companionship, whereas I see it as connected to Hel and death. The horn would in my opinion represent transcendence of death, the resurrection which happens when the hero/god receives the horn of mead from the goddess in the underworld, as my own studies of mead-lore has shown. In these myths, the dog is often presented as a major obstacle that must be overcome before the hero can receive the drink. Thus it makes sense that the dog, representing death in Hel, is absent when the horn, representing resurrection, is present.]

Goddess of Death, Fate, Fortune, Rebirth, Abundance and Fertility

Combining Nehalennia´s four main attributes, throne, ship, dog and fruit into a scheme, it becomes clear that she can be placed in a long series of goddesses that are both Gallo- Roman and pre-Celtic, who have protective qualities and who are in intimate relation with fertility as well as death and the underworld, having the double character of life and death.

The Goddess of the Sea

As a standing goddess, Nehalennia resembles the Venus/Aphrodite prototype, the unmarried maiden goddess, the goddess of spring and gardens, protector of life, protector of the dead, and strongly associated with rivers, streams, waves, the ocean, and water in general. She belongs to the islands, the harbors and the riverbanks. Like Venus, she was a protector of fertility and welfare.

In Alexandria, Venus was the protector of sailors and in general a goddess of good luck, blessing, victory, love and beauty. Accompanied by Cupids and crowned by Victory, she was seen with a ship and a steering oar, just like Nehalennia. She was a Fortuna-Tyche, goddess of success, wearing a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and a sun-disc. She had a similar function in Pompei. Nehalennia may well have been at Domburg what Venus was at Alexandria and at Pompei and many other Roman ports. [13]

The Enthroned Goddess

The enthroned type originated as the mother of the mountains in Asia Minor, often seated between two animals. The cult of Cybele was introduced in Rome in 204 BC and with the cult her image spread across the Western world. In Gaul and Germany it influenced different forms of indigenous Mother-goddesses. Nehalennia has many features in common with Cybele but not all aspects. As the inscriptions show, Nehalennia was mostly worshipped by men, and she never bears a child on her lap as the other mother-goddesses do.[14]

[My Note: Hondius Crone looks towards the Classical world for explanations, as was common during the 1950s. I think it would be more fruitful to look at Nehalennia and other enthroned goddesses from a more indigenous perspective: the enthroned goddess has much in common with real-life women who performed the function of an oracle, seated on a chair, high-seat or elevated platform. These were priestesses, divining oracles and völur (witches). The immense importance of “seeresses” or sibyls in Celtic and Germanic cultures should be taken into the consideration of a divine sibyl prototype that may have influenced the symbol of the seated goddess, who like these “sibyls” not only divined the future, but also influenced it (so-called “operative divination”. This would also explain the importance of the goddess to males and the lack of child-nursing and birthing functions, since the sibyls were unmarried and meddled in men´s affairs].

The Triple Goddess

One of the altars dedicated by inscription to Nehalennia shows a triad of goddesses. Here, the iconography is the same as in the Rhineland where the mother triad commonly occurs. In Germany there is one altar from Bonn, dedicated to the Matres Aufanie, which shows a striking resemblance to our Nehalennian triad. Both altars have representations of three goddesses seated side by side with baskets of fruits on their laps, on the base both show a scene of sacrifice. It is interesting to note that the three goddesses look identical on the Nehalennian triad, and that the inscription is dedicated to a singular goddess, whereas other triple goddess altars from the same era address the plural. [15]

Other Gods

Other deities appear either with altars of their own, or else flanking, guarding or accompanying Nehalennia. These are Neptune, god of the ocean, Hercules, god of heroes, Jupiter, god of war, and Victor, god of Victory.

Neptune is represented on the side pieces of Nehalennian altars. One of them even shows him twice. In another he is represented next to Jupiter. He usually looks like his Greek predecessor Poseidon, standing with a trident and a dolphin in his hands, in other monuments he is shown standing with his right foot on the prow of a ship. His trident is a symbol of protection for seafarers, merchants and fishermen.[16]

Hercules is usually represented on the Nehalennia altar side pieces or lower parts, appearing in the traditional way standing with lion skin and club, although in one place he is seated on a rock and holding a cup of wine.

Jupiter appears in the niches of Nehalannian altars as well, but there are three altars dedicated to him alone, showing him as a ruler of heaven with his scepter and thunderbolt. In one of the altars dedicated to Nehalennia, he is standing next to Neptune in the niches. This altar has clear solar symbols.[17]


[1] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p. 7-9

[2] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p. 14-15

[3] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p. 11, 14-19

[4] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p. 101

[5] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.101

[6] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.101

[7] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.102

[8] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.102

[9] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.102-103

[10]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p. 103

[11]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.104

[12] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.107

[13] Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.104-105

[14]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.105

[15]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.105

[16]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.106

[17]Hondius-Crone, 1955, p.108-109

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