There are twenty-four known inscriptions to Ataécina with spelling variations (Attaegina, Adegina, Adecina, etc.). There are also five solely with the epithet Turobrigensi or Turibrigensi, six featuring only the titles Dea Sancta and Domina, as well as the theonym Proserpina, and one from El Gordo (Spain), but whose text is hard to read. In full, this amounts to thirty-six pieces, of which only two were found outside modern-day Spain – one in Portugal and another in the Italian island of Sardinia. The rest comes from the Spanish provinces of Badajoz, Caceres and Toledo (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 248). However, not every scholar accepts all of those inscriptions as being dedicated to Ataécina, like Juan Abascal, who notes that the titles deus/dea, sanctus/sancta and domina, far from being exclusive, were awarded to a wide set of deities, some of which may have been worshipped in the same areas as Ataécina or in the surrounding regions (2002: 53).
If one sets aside the pieces of dubious addressee, there are still twenty-nine left, which remains a high number in the Iberian context. In three of them – those from Cárdenas, Mérida and Salvatierra de Barros – there’s a clear identification with Proserpina and one of those inscriptions may actually be a devotio, whereby someone asked for vengeance and in returned sacrificed – him/herself or others – to the underworld (Monteiro Teixeira 2014: 47). Also significant is how often the epithet Turibrigensi was used, featuring in a total of twenty-five inscriptions. And judging from the distribution of the epigraphic evidence, Ataécina’s cult was centred on the area between the rivers Tagus and Guadiana, which was part of the Roman province of Lusitania, though not necessarily of the pre-Roman territory with the same name.
Finally, archaeological findings also reveal a connection between the goddess and the goat, given that two inscriptions are accompanied by metal depictions of that animal (Leite de Vasconcelos 1905: 168-70).
Due to the historical equation with Proserpina, the frequent if not consensual opinion among scholars is that Ataécina had an infernal and/or agrarian nature, a common opinion that then reflects itself on the etymological analysis. So, for instance, Leite de Vasconcelos supported the idea that the theonym comes from the Celtic ate-gena, meaning “the reborned” (1905: 161-3), an interpretation that has stuck ever since and is widely reproduced online, though it has been criticized and there are alternative theories. For example, Blázquez sees the etymology proposed by Vasconcelos as unviable and has trouble accepting the notion that the theonym is connected to adaig or “night” (Blázquez Martínez 2006: 224), an Irish word whose earliest record is from the 8th century and is thus of little use to explain a name from an older period (Abascal 2002: 54.1). And Prósper suggested the theonym may come from either the placename *Ataiko or the ethnonym *Ataecini (Monteiro Teixeira 2014: 47), which would essentially mean that Ataécina was an adjective – She of the Ataecini (Blázquez Martínez 2006: 224-5).
The recurring use of the epithet Turibrigensi may actually be hinting at something of the sort, since it means “from Turibriga”, a site whose location is uncertain. It may have been in the eastern part of Roman Lusitania, specifically in the area of Alcuéscar (Caceres, Spain), given the number of inscriptions found there – a total of twelve with either the theonym or just the epithet, plus three of dubious reading. Yet besides a city, Turibriga could also be the name of a rural area where there was a religious site, much like Endovélico’s hill, which was also located outside an urban space (Abascal 2002: 57-8). But wherever it was, Turibriga appears to have been the place from where the cult of Ataécina radiated, thus linking her deeply to it or its inhabitants (Monteiro Teixeira 2014: 48-9). In that sense, note that one of the inscriptions found in the Spanish province of Toledo was made or commissioned by an individual who claimed to be precisely from Turibriga (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 249.1).
As for Ataécina’s equation with Proserpina, Juan Abascal recommends caution, since an assimilation doesn’t have to be full-fledged – it is after all a process, not an instantaneous thing – so there may have been areas where the two cults were kept apart (2002: 53 and 56.2). That’s partly the reason why the author rejects votive inscriptions where only the titles sancta and domina or the theonym Proserpina appear, since they cannot be awarded to Ataécina with certainty. For instance, a piece found in the area of Elvas (Portugal) mentions a Dea Sancta Burrulobrigensis, which may well be a different deity. And furthermore, judging from the archaeological remains, the cults of Proserpina and Ataécina appear to have been predominant in different places, with the latter being more common north of the Guadiana river and the former south of it. There are also hints of a contact area in and around Mérida (Spain), which may have been the place where the two deities were syncretized (Abascal 2002: 56.2).
3. Work hypothesis
Was Ataécina the most important goddess among the Lusitanians? No! It’s true that the number of votive inscriptions is exceptional, even when we set aside the doubtful pieces and are left with only twenty-nine. To give you an idea, there are just eight for Trebaruna, no more than nine to Ilurbeda and sixteen to Nabia. In the Iberian west, only Bandua and Endovélico have numbers as high as Ataécina, leading many to link Her with the latter of those two gods, adding to the geographic proximity of their ancient cult areas. Yet there are problems with that interpretation, starting with the fact that pre-Roman Lusitania was not identical to the Roman province of the same name, and so Endovélico and Ataécina are not easily classified as Lusitanian deities. And while the number of archaeological findings is not to be ignored, it’s not the whole story and we shouldn’t get carried away by it. Instead, we should look at epithets, distribution of altars and votive pieces and then yes, based on that, draw a more solid picture of the status and popularity of a cult.
As far as one can tell, the worship of Ataécina was concentrated in what today are the Spanish provinces of Caceres and Badajoz, with two extensions whose exact nature – if individual or collective – is unknown: one to the east, in the province of Toledo, and one to the south, in the Portuguese district of Beja. And adding to the geographic concentration, there’s the epithet Turibrigensi, which is so frequently used that it’s as if the goddess was inseparable from Turibriga, its inhabitants or those native to the site, wherever they may travel. Ataécina has no other known epithet derived from a placename, unlike other Iberian deities, suggesting She wasn’t a major goddess of the Lusitanians, but a local or at best regional power, tied to a specific community. Bottom line, our modern astonishment at the number of altars and votive inscriptions doesn’t amount to past importance.
Of course, the lack of other local epithets doesn’t preclude a vast cult area. For instance, Apollo Pythios was worshipped not just in Delphi, but recognized under that title throughout ancient Greece, so the same can be argued for Ataécina of Turibriga, though again, her votive inscriptions are concentrated in a particular region. Yet things don’t have to limit themselves to their origin, which makes even more sense today, with the revival of ancient cults whose original communities are long gone or have been subsumed more than a millennium ago. As such, to worship or not to worship Ataécina when you’re not native or an inhabitant of the provinces of Caceres and Badajoz is ultimately up to you and whatever bonds you establish with the goddess.
If you choose to honour Her, I’d say She’s an infernal deity, perhaps linked to vegetation, though without certainties. Proserpina has that connection, but the identification of members of different pantheons is a complex process that invariably requires a level of simplification. A good example is Wodan or Odin, whom Tacitus equates with Mercury (Germania 9), though that doesn’t mean that the latter presided over the terror and carnage of the battlefield. Syncretism is made on the basis of similarities – in Odin/Mercury’s case, trade, trickery and psychopompery – while ignoring the differences that construct an individual identity. Thus, the fact that Ataécina was assimilated with Proserpina doesn’t mean the two had the exact same traits and so what is true for one may not be for both. On the other hand, syncretism also allows for an exchange of characteristics, in which case, if Ataécina did not have a link with vegetation, she could have got it from Proserpina and even if they retained separate cult areas. The fact that the Iberian goddess is associated with the goat, which is strongly linked to rural life, may be hinting at a connection to the agricultural cycle. Here too I’ll leave it up to individual worshippers to decide.
4. Ideas for a modern cult
Depending on which tradition you follow, Ataécina’s infernal character may impose rules and taboos. Roman ritual praxis, for instance, requires nocturnal rites outside one’s home, the predominant use of the left hand and the need for a pit to serve as an altar, though this may not be the case in other forms of polytheism. As for festive dates, I’d suggest sometime between early October and late February, which is the darkest period of the year. If the final days of autumn or more towards the end of winter, that depends on whether or not you choose to award Ataécina a link to plant life or agricultural cycles.
ABASCAL, Juan Manuel. 2002. “Ataecina”, in Religiões da Lusitania. Loquuntur Saxa, coord. José Cardim Ribeiro. Lisboa: Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, pages 53-60.
BLÁZQUEZ MARTÍNEZ, José María. 2006. “Últimas aportaciones a las religiones de Hispania. Teónimos II”, in Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, number 11. Madrid: Universidad Complutense, pages 205-235.
ENCARNAÇÃO, José d’. 2015. Divindades indígenas sob o domínio romano em Portugal. Second edição. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra.
FERNÁNDEZ NIETO, Francisco Javier. 2010. “Encuesta sobre las regulaciones de los luci hispanos”, in Palaeohispanica, volume 10. Zaragoça: Institución «Fernando el Católico», pages 537-550.
LEITE DE VASCONCELOS, José. 1905.Religiões da Lusitânia, volume 2. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional.
MONTEIRO TEIXEIRA, Sílvia. 2014. Cultos e cultuantes no Sul do território actualmente português em época romana (sécs. I a. C. – III d. C.). Masters’ dissertation in Archaeology. Lisboa: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa.
OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.