The text above is part of an inscription that was carved during the Roman period on a granite altar discovered in Marecos, in the northern Portuguese municipality of Penafiel. In the world of ancient Iberian polytheism, it is an important finding, since it contains a rare piece of information: the date of what appears to have been an official sacrifice on April 9th – the fifth day before the Ides. Also relevant is the double reference to the goddess Nabia, with and without an epithet, with Corona standing for either a territory or a divine function, the latter probably in connection to a male deity who’s known from other inscriptions as Coronus. This too may be an epithet, namely of a syncretised Jupiter with a native god, an interpretation that finds some ground in the Marecos’ altar itself, given that the inscription also mentions offerings to Jupiter.
Judging from the existing archaeological traces, Nabia was the most popular goddess in the north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula, since altars to Her are more numerous and come from a wider area than those of any other known goddesses from the region. They’ve also been found in a variety of places, from isolated mountain tops to urban areas, one of them next to a fountain, thus feeding into the impression that She’s a goddess of the aquatic or at least humid element in its various forms. The interpretation is based on etymological readings of Her name, which normally point to a notion of “valley” or “flow”, and which find echo in several Iberian hydronyms. The river Navia, in Galicia, is a prime example, while the Nabão in Portugal is a popular hypothesis. It should also be noted that an altar dedicated to Nabia found in the Galician region of Lugo contains a carved lunar crescent, the moon being commonly associated with the watery element.
A few years ago, back when I started looking for the gods of my homeland, I added Nabia to my pantheon and subsequently awarded Her a day on my fasti. The obvious choice was April 9th, following the inscription in the Marecos’ altar, but since I already celebrate the anniversary of king John I on the 11th of that month, I decided to apply the principle of monthly-yearly equivalence and thus preserve the day, while pushing back a month to a less crowded period of my religious calendar. Thus March 9th became the date of my annual feast to Nabia.
This is the simple part. Straightforward History and analysis with a practical balance of religious activities and the rest of the daily life. Now comes the odd part, which I’d normally keep to myself, but what the heck! Let’s put it out there!
A few months ago, I realized that there’s an almost perfect chronological symmetry between the historical Fontinalia and the date I’d chosen for the Nabialia, in that the former took place on the 13th of October, the third month before the end of the year, and the latter falls on the 9th day of the third month after the start of the year. This was accidental. I noticed it only when I considered adding a second celebration to Nabia to more or less mark the start and end of the rainy season, since I see Her as not just a lady of the earthly springs, but also the celestial ones. After all, water flows from the sky just as it does from underneath and on the earth. And while this may seem like She’s taking over a role many would normally attribute to Jupiter, remember that He was associated with Her in the inscription from Marecos, that the moon appears to have been one of Her symbols and that several of Nabia’s altars were found on high places. It is therefore safe to say that a celestial aspect is not without historical basis, which is unsurprising considering She was syncretised with at least Diana and possibly Juno.
But even more curious was when I realized that the obvious date for that second celebration was already taken by the anniversary of king Denis I, who was born on 9 October 1261. It’s a happy coincidence, since She was one of the most popular deities in what would later be northern Portugal and He was the man who made Portuguese the nation’s official language, helped create the country’s first university and established its political borders along lines that have remained virtually unchanged since 1297. He was also a prolific writer, which again is curious if you take the notion of flowing waters to the level of an analogy for literary inspiration and fluency. Much like what happens with the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who also started by being a river deity.
This is just a coincidence, but it’s not an isolated one, because April 9th, the day of Nabia’s historically known festival, is in-between two important dates in the life of yet another pivotal Portuguese ruler: John I, a central figure in the political crisis that reaffirmed Portugal’s independence from the neighbouring kingdom of Castile, was born on 11 April 1357 and officially proclaimed king on 6 April 1385. And did I mention that modern-day Portuguese heads of State take office on March 9th?
Like I said, coincidences. And I will not presume that they’re more than that, if nothing else because for every few dates that overlap, there are hundreds that don’t. Things have to happen sometime and occasionally they take place in coincidental days, with no hidden, magical or special meaning whatsoever. And yet… Sometimes, concrete things come out of random ones. Sometimes, life – real, actual breathing life – is born out of random circumstances, when a few elements happen to be in the same place at the same time while many others are not. And out of that coincidental meeting, real things arise.
In this case, a handful of chronological coincidences produced a spark which in turn originated a complex idea: that of Nabia Portugalensis, Nabia with an epithet that makes Her a tutelary goddess of Portugal. It’s not historical, but it is historically inspired. After all, She was the most popular deity in the region where Portuguese language and nationality were born, up north, in the old Gallaecia. It was the southwards movement of the medieval Iberian “reconquista”, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries, that expanded the country all the way to the Algarve and gave it its modern borders. And that process was marked by five rivers whose banks have also housed some of the nation’s main seats of power and culture, from the capital in Lisbon to academic Coimbra and ancestral Porto, which gave the country its name. There’s even an historical precedent for a tutelary female deity, though admissibly a Catholic one: Our Lady of Conception, whose feast day is on December 8th, was crowned queen of Portugal in 1646. But the notion of conception in Her name has a double meaning, in that it can stand for she who conceived (i.e., Jesus’ mother) or she who has the power to conceive, which hints at a goddess of fertility and motherhood. Which is not outside the realm of possibility if you think that the cult of Our Lady of Conception goes all the way back to the final days of the Roman empire and that She’s commonly depicted with a lunar crescent at Her feet.
So again, the idea of Nabia Portugalensis as a tutelary deity of Portugal is not an historical thing! Rather, it is historically inspired and also complex, even eclectic, in the variety of sources from where I’m drawing elements. But that, I reckon, sort of comes naturally for a Portuguese. I mean, before this country was founded, this land was settled by pre-Celts, Celts, maybe Phoenicians and some Greeks, Romans and Germanic tribes, followed by Arabs and north-Africans. The seed of what later became Portugal was only planted in c. 868, long after several Christianization campaigns in the region, so unlike what happens in Scandinavian or Ireland, this is not a country with a well-defined pre-Christian past and identity. It has a prevailing Latin culture, yes, because both those who were here before the Romans and those who came after were Romanized and assimilated. But by virtue of the History of its territory and comparatively late date of creation, this is a nation with a mixed origin and thus likely to produce modern polytheistic practices that will draw from multiple sources, not just one. Or house different traditions that can claim to be native in some way because the cultures they’re derived from called this land home. And yes, that includes Christianity, which has been here for over 1500 years. I’m not going to have a “us versus them” attitude and act as if Christians are a foreign enemy or Christianization happened a decade or century ago and thus has nothing to do with my country’s History and culture. Because it does, it is a part of it. Doesn’t mean that it should have privileges, monopolize public discourse on religion and morality or that the past is to be forgotten, but neither should it amount to a belligerent attitude or a zero-sum game out of an ill-digested historical memory.
In any case, you have to draw inspiration from different sources if you want to breathe new life into a deity and cult of which there are only scant traces and which was last practiced one thousand years ago in a very different context, as part of human communities and identities that have largely disappeared. So this is reviving, giving new life to the old in a new world and in a way that is meaningful in the present time and place. And it is also experimental. I have the idea and now I’m going to work it on a practical level to see if the epithet Portugalensis and tutelary function survive the test of time and divine acknowledgement. Because while the genesis may seem odd and varied, it may hold the potential for something real.