Ilurbeda

A little-known goddess in the world of Iberian deities, partly because the number of surviving altars is small, Ilurbeda appears to have been worshipped in mountains areas of western and northern Iberia. Her exact nature is unclear, but we’re not entirely in the dark – which is an appropriate expression, as will become clear – and there’s enough information to cast the foundations of a modern cult.

1. Information
There are in total nine known altars with votive inscriptions to Ilurbeda, three in Portugal and the rest in Spain (Prósper 2010/2011: 54-5). They were found in mountainous areas, almost all of them in or near mining sites, even inside mine shafts, which is the case of the two pieces from Cova dos Ladrões (Góis, Portugal) (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 50.1). The only exception comes from Terrugem (Sintra, Portugal), though it’s still a mountainous place. And of all the archaeological traces, the most monumental altar is that of Segoyuela de los Cornejos (Salamanca, Spain), with a height of 78 centimetres (or 30.7 inches) and entirely made of white marble (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 50.1).

There are no known epithets or cases of syncretism with other deities, though there is record of a connection to road gods by way of a piece found in Narros del Puerto, in the Spanish province of Ávila, where the letters LV are visible and can be read as Lares Viales thanks to a nearby altar where the name is clearly written (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 159). And in the finding from Terrugem, the expression pro salute can perhaps be read (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 171).

Sites where traces of Ilurbeda’s cult have been found. Map my own.

2. Interpretations
The information on Ilurbeda is thus scarce, leaving etymology and archaeological context as the sole sources of evidence for a discussion on Her nature. Regarding the former, in the past, people stressed the presence of the elements i-, ili- and ilur in Iberian names, leading to the suggestion that the theonym came from a native pre-Roman language, perhaps with a connection to the Basque Ilurberrixo (Encarnação 2015: 202). In some of those analysis, ilur- was given all sorts of meanings, from “thorn” to “dirt” and “city” or “village”, while -beda was believed to come from the Basque bide or “path”, an Iberian word for mountain or a proto-Celtic *bedo, meaning “ditch” or “channel” (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 156-7).

Since the first altars to be discovered were those from Góis, in the 1950s, and it was only decades later that others surfaced, the initial theories on the Ilurbeda presented Her as a local deity (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 153-4), in as much as Blázquez, quite bluntly, described Her as a goddess whose theonym is a placename (Encarnação 2015: 202). Even with the discovery of additional votive inscriptions, which made clear that there was more to Her than just a local status, people still retained the notion of a tutelary deity, largely thanks to the interpretation of ilur- as “city”. As late as 2002, Cardim Ribeiro was still suggesting Ilurbeda was the patron goddess of Ilourbida, a city mentioned by Ptolemy, and that the expansion of Her cult was the result of a migration of its inhabitants (Encarnação 2008: 357). But just a few years later, Maria Hernando Sobrino used the then recent findings in Ávila and approached the topic from the perspective of a connection to the Lares Viales. She proposed that beda means “path” and noted that most of the known altars to Ilurbeda were found close to ancient roads, suggesting She was a goddess of mountainous trails, perhaps the deity that helped in journeys through rough terrain (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 160-4).

Prósper had a different and more recent theory where she rejected a link with Basque and Iberian names, proposing instead that Ilurbeda was the deification of the gold (iluro) mine (bedo) 2010/2011: 56-8 and 62). She also set aside Sobrino’s interpretation, though accepting that *bedo could mean a shepherds’ path, and justified the epigraphic link to the Lares Viales with the transportation of extracted metals, which would call for a double tribute: one to the goddess of the mine, the other to the gods of the roads (Prósper 2010/2011: 56).

Finally, Olivares Pedreño believes Ilurbeda was originally from the modern-day region of Salamanca, given the size of the altar from Segoyuela de los Cornejos, which would make Her a Vettonian goddess. He explained the expansion of Her cult through the migration of Vettonian miners who moved west to work (2002: 50.2 e 58.2; 2007: 149-50).

3. Work hypothesis
It seems safe to assume that Ilurbeda is in some way connected to mountains. That is, at least, the context of every known archaeological trace of Her cult, including the altar from Sintra, which may be the product of a travelling devotee who wanted to honour the goddess near the elevated ground that defines Her. But there is less certainty on which particular aspect of the mountain She was linked to: was it just the inside, especially the mines? Or the outside as well, namely the trails?

As with other Iberian deities, I opt for an inclusive hypothesis where She’s the goddess of mountainous paths, both above and below. Her first sphere of influence are the subterranean passages – the mines, the tunnels, the caves – but even if just by association, She also presides over those on the surface – the goat trails, the roads – which is where Her world meets that of the Lares Viales, with whom She can be coupled. And by the same token, She can also be connected to other deities of mountains and roads, even if only on an ad hoc basis.

4. Ideas for a modern cult
Since mining, just as the usage of roads, isn’t normally seasonal and the terrain is apparently fixed, in that mountains don’t migrate and come back as summer gives way to autumn or winter to spring, picking festive dates for Ilurbeda can be a challenge. Unless of course you happen to live in an area where it snows heavily every year, in which case the seasonal defrosting and the reopening of roads can serve as reasons for annual offerings to Ilurbeda. Or both moments, i.e. when paths are opened and closed. You can also pick secular dates as reference, like the International Mountain Day, which occurs on December 11.

As for symbols, the staff, the lantern and the pickaxe are solid options. And regarding animals, the most obvious choice is the bat for the underground trails and the sheep or goat for surface ones, especially if they’re black, in reference to either the darkened skin of a miner or the absence of natural light within a mine.

Works cited
ENCARNAÇÃO, José d’. 2015. Divindades indígenas sob o domínio romano em Portugal. 2ª edição. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra.

________. 2008. “Octávio Veiga Ferreira – Percursos em Cascais e pela arqueologia clássica” in Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras, number 16. Oeiras: Câmara Municipal de Oeiras, pages 351-362.

HERNANDO SOBRINO, Maria del Rosario. 2005. “A propósito del teónimo Ilurbeda. Hipótesis de trabajo” in Veleia, number 22. Leioa: Universidad del Pais Vasco, pages 153-164.

OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2007. “Hipótesis sobre el culto al dios Cossue en El Bierzo (León): explotaciones mineras y migraciones”, in Palaeohispanica, volume 7. Zaragoça: Institución «Fernando el Católico», pages 143-160.

________. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.

PRÓSPER, Blanca María. 2010/2011. “The Hispano-Celtic divinity ILVRBEDA, gold mining in western Hispania and the syntactic context of Celtiberian arkatobezom ‘Silver Mine’”, in Die Sprache, number 49. Viena: Universidade de Viena, pages 53-83.