Ilurbeda: a mountain goddess

Last September, I presented my first offerings to Arentius and Arentia, a god and goddess who may have been an Iberian equivalent of Mercury and a female counterpart. As I mentioned back then, the goal was to add a new mercurial path to my practices, but also to further connect with native gods from the Iberian Peninsula. Since they were worshipped in at least a partly Latinized fashion for a few centuries, I used my standard Roman rite for a formal ceremony at home. There were no obvious signs of approval, either immediately after or in the following days, but neither was there any show of disapproval. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, since they’re gods whose cults have remained dormant for a long period of time and their native land proper is in the centre of the peninsula, not its westernmost shores. At least judging by the sites where altars to them were found. So I’ll be persisting in the foreseeable future, making at least one yearly offering, should there be any ice to be broken before signs of any sort present themselves.

In an identical spirit of Iberian and mercurial polytheism, another native deity has come to my attention. Her name is Ilurbeda. She was on my short list when I tried to identity the gods of my homeland, which led me to focus instead on Nabia and especially Silvanus, since they hold a greater potential for connecting with the local environment and traditions. But after stumbling upon an academic article from 2005, I again considered Ilurbeda, though the reason has less to do with geography and more with Mercury.

What we know
First, the basics. As with several Iberian deities, the etymology of the goddess’ name is uncertain. According to Maria Hernando Sobrino, the notion that the elements ilur-/iltur are Iberian remains valid, with considerable indications of Basque influence with the sense of “city”, while the possibilities for -beda range from the southern Iberian for “mountain” to the Celtiberian for “silver mine” or “ditch” and again Basque for “path” (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 155-6). This uncertainty on the exact meaning of the name results in doubts on Ilurbeda’s nature and function, since there are no surviving myths or texts that can clarify the matter, making the location of Her altars and the few words they contain the sole additional clues. Fortunately, there is a pattern in that regard, since all of the known pieces were found in mining or mountainous areas: two in Góis (Portugal), three in Salamanca (Spain), two in Ávila (Spain) and one in Sintra (Portugal); there’s also the possibility of an additional one from Zamora (Spain) (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 162).

Sites where known altars to Ilurbeda were found (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 161)

Sites where known altars to Ilurbeda were found (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 161)

What to make of it
This information has led to basically two theories on Ilurbeda’s identity: 1) She was the protective deity of a specific settlement, given the reading of ilu- as “city”; 2) She’s a mountain/mining goddess, as indicated by the context of Her altars. The former would mean She’s a local deity, yet the dispersal of pieces dedicated to Her suggests that Ilurbeda was not attached to a specific urban area and had a supra-local nature. Or at least that appears to have been the case by the time the inscriptions were put to stone. The aforementioned possibility of Basque influence, as suggested by Her name, also reinforces the impression that She was not associated with a particular human group and may actually have at least a partial eastern Iberian origin (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 157; Encarnação 2008: 358). Even the possibility that Her cult was dispersed by migrants who worked in several Iberian mines suggests mobility and if monumentality is anything to go by, then the centre from where Her cult spread may have been the area around Salamanca, given that the altar from Segoyuela de Cornejos was particularly lavish (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 50).

So this leaves the possibility that She’s a mountain goddess. But does She preside solely over its riches and underground tunnels or is there something else? This is where the two altars from Ávila become especially relevant and drew my attention, because one of them contains the letters LV, which have been interpreted as (L)ares (V)iales. And while that reading is not beyond doubt – the same letters can have other meanings – the fact that the same site produced an additional altar where Ilurbeda is not mentioned, but the Lares Viales are and explicitly so, shows that the gods of pathways were honoured on that spot. Which makes a connection with Ilurbeda likely, leading to Maria Hernando Sobrino’s conclusion that Ilurbeda is more than a goddess of mountainous riches: She’s also a deity of mountainous paths (2005: 163).

A modern connection with Mercury Viator?
Now how can a Portuguese polytheist who’s a Mercury devotee and worships the Lares Viales together with the Fleet-Footed resist a deity like Her? You can’t! It’s just too perfect! It resonates fully with what led me to honour Arentius and Arentia and so it is that I’ve decided that Ilurbeda too will be given a place in my practices. There’s actually potential in Her for a lady or queen of the Lares Viales and an Iberian consort of Mercury, which feeds into an idea that I’ve been mentally playing with: a cult of Mercury Viator and His host of Lares Viales, complete with its own symbols, celebrations, philosophy and mysteries. It’s something that’s still very much in an embryonic stage and may never move beyond that, but it is growing on me.

For now, however, I have only to decide when to honour Ilurbeda. Since there’s no surviving reference to an ancient feast, I have to pick a date from scratch using the usual combination of symbolism and practicality, which led me to choose May 7th. It is the date of Rosalia, yes, which in the last couple of years I’ve been associating with the military dead in particular, given that I honour Freyja on May 1st and She’s said to take half the slain (Grímnismál 14). And since I already sacrifice to my ancestors three times per month, plus the early Parentalia, I’m going to transfer my limited Rosalia practices to Freyja’s feast and clear May 7th for Ilurbeda. It is, after all, Mercury’s month (or rather His mother’s), so that seems fitting considering the pairing potential. And while I don’t live in a particularly mountainous place – which is why I abandoned the idea of a local aspect of Ilurbeda – May is a time when large numbers of pilgrims walk through this area towards the Catholic shrine of Fátima. And if they follow the local paths, they’ll have to cross the nearby mountains to the east, which are the highest point in the region. In other words, they’ll have to go through Ilurbeda’s realm. I actually join the pilgrims every now and then, not because I have any interest in Our Lady of Fátima – I don’t – but because I genuinely enjoy doing the roughly 30 kilometres, either on foot or bike. Which is not at all surprising in a Mercury devotee and worshiper of the Lares Viales, I’d argue.

Workd cited
ENCARNAÇÃO, José d’. 2008. “Octávio Veiga Ferreira – Percursos em Cascais e pela arqueologia clássica” in Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras, n. 16. Oeiras: Câmara Municipal de Oeiras, pp. 351-362.
HERNANDO SOBRINO, Maria del Rosario. 2005. “A propósito del teónimo Ilurbeda. Hipótesis de trabajo” in Veleia, n. 22. Leioa: Universidad del Pais Vasco, pp. 153-164.
OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.


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