Nabia

When people talk about Iberian gods, there’s a limited number of names that come up in the mind of those who’ve read something about it. One of them is Endovélico, another Ataécina. And a third is likely to be Nabia, a goddess seen by many as a watery deity, which is not without historical basis.

1. Information
Judging from the archaeological remains, she was the most popular goddess in the Iberian northwest and the only one with a supra-local importance (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 235.1). There are at least sixteen known votive inscriptions to her, discovered in Galicia, the Spanish province of Caceres and Portugal, especially north of the river Douro (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 234). The spelling of the theonym is stable with the exception of a variation between the letters B and V – so Nabia or Navia – and there are some iconographic elements: the altar discovered in San Mamede de Lousada, in the Galician region of Lugo, had a lunar crescent carved on it (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 233.1); and in the so-called Idol Fountain, in Braga (Portugal), there’s a human figure with what appears to be a horn of plenty and could be a depiction of the goddess (Blázquez Martínez 1998: 259). There’s also record of the epithets Arconunieca, Elaesurraeg[a], Sesmaca and Corona, the latter on the altar from Marecos, which is especially important.

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

Firstly, because it contains a reference to an annual sacrifice and it mentions Nabia twice, one with an epithet and the other without. Also, she appears together with Jupiter and is described as “most excellent virgin and protective nymph of the Danigi”, receiving a cow and an ox, while a lamb was offered to Nabia without an epithet. And in a very rare glimpse into the religious calendar of pre-Christian Iberia, the altar also says when the sacrifice took place: on the fifth day before the Ides of April – i.e. April 9th (Salinas de Frias 2010: 624).

Apart from Jupiter, she may have been linked to two other gods. One of is Coronus, who is known from an altar discovered in Cerzedelo (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 238.1); the other is perhaps Tongo, since the inscription on the Idol Fountain mentions a Tongusnabiacus, which has been interpreted differently by various scholars. The same monument also contains two iconographic elements on the top part of a small aedicule – a bird and maybe a hammer.

The Idol Fountain in Braga (Portugal).

2. Interpretations
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the theonym has been seen as having an aquatic meaning. Leite de Vasconcelos believed as much, suggesting a connection to the Sanskrit navya or “water stream”, which was supported in a letter sent to him by the French academic D’Arbois de Jubainville (1905: 254 and 278). Others proposed a link to the Gaulish naf or “god”, which was rejected by Prósper (2002: 193), as was the notion of a root in *náwyos – sailable or regarding a fleet. Instead, she defended an origin in *nawa or nava, a word that alluded to water courses or water masses adjacent to valleys (Prósper 1997: 142-7). Based on that, Jorge de Alarcão translated Nabia as “lady of the vale” or “she who lives in the valley” (2009: 101).

The possibility of an aquatic nature is reinforced by the Idol Fountain, already obviously connected to water, and coupled by a nearby altar to Nabia (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 222.1) and the aforementioned reference to a Tongusnabiacus. The name can be divided into two elements: tongus, which Leite de Vasconcelos saw as coming from *tongo or “I swear”, whereas he believed nabia simply meant a stream, not a goddess, making Tongusnabiacus the god of the fountain by which people made oaths (1905: 255-6 and 279). Teixeira had a similar idea, though he interpreted it as the monument or altar on which one swore to Nabia, and Cortez suggested a healing deity akin to Asclepius. None of this convinced José d’Encarnação, who argued for a firm connection between Tongus and Nabia as a divine couple and rejected an identification with the Greek god of health. Prósper also refused the idea that the theonym came from *tongo (to swear, oath) and propose instead *teng, which she translates as “wet, humid” (2002: 162). However, she hesitated in reading the element -nabiacus as a reference to the goddess Nabia, since, she argues, the word could be linked to a river with the same name (Blázquez Martínez 2006: 214). That caution was somewhat shared by Jorge de Alarcão, who believed Tongus could have been a local god, while -nabiacus may have indicated his connection to a valley (2009: 87-8 and 101).

This intersects with the question about the goddess’ functions, as the Idol Fountain paves the way for a possible equivalence with Nantosuelta, a Celtic deity who in the Gallo-Roman world was often paired with Sucellus (Green 2011: 89). Jorge de Alarcão suggested as much through etymology, noting the root of the theonym Nabia in the idea of valley and interpreting Nantosuelta as “she of the vale warmed by the sun” (2009: 101), though others proposed “winding river” (Green 2011: 89). In any case, an irregular water course is a natural feature of a mountainous terrain, so the two hypotheses are not necessarily contradictory. And even if she and Nabia are not the same, which was stressed by Alarcão, the Idol Fountain and Tongusnabiacus do raise the possibility of a connection given the presence of a bird and what appears to be a hammer on the upper part of the carved aedicule. Which is significant, because Nantosuelta is usually depicted with ravens and Sucellus with a hammer (Mackillop 2004:342 e 393). It’s true that both symbols can have multiple meanings, as pointed out by Jorge de Alarcão (2009: 101), but the data is nonetheless enticing. Scholars have argued differently on this: Tranoy saw the equivalence of Nabia-Tongus and Nantosuelta-Sucellus as valid, while Rodríguez Colmenero did not and had trouble seeing the figures on the aedicule as a bird and a hammer, whereas Olivares Pedreño agreed with Tranoy (2002: 221-2). Actually, more than agreeing, he took the idea one step further.

If Alarcão saw Nabia as a possible Spring goddess, perhaps even an Iberian Proserpina akin to Nantosuelta, more so considering the date of the sacrifice recorded on the altar from Marecos (2009: 101-2); if Blázquez Martínez considered her a deity of the third Dumézilian function (1998: 254) and others saw in her a chthonic goddess (Encarnação 2015: 242); if Melena presented Nabia as a deity of the hills, woods and valleys and, as such, identifiable with Diana and connectable to the water streams of that sort of landscape (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 233.1), Pedreño went further and suggested a polyfunctional nature.

He starts by noting the variety of places where altars have been discovered, from valleys to isolated summits, from fountains to urban areas, adding to the epithets Sesmaca, perhaps from the castellum Sesm[…], and Arconunieca, which may refer to an inhabited space (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 234.1 e 239.1). Both suggest a local tutelary function, allowing for Nabia’s role to include protection and hence war (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 239). Furthermore, there’s also the connection to Jupiter in the Marecos altar, where the epithet Corona hints at a bond with Coronus, a god known from a votive inscription found on a hill top in Cerzedelos and near an altar to Jupiter. The former god may have therefore been identified with the latter and Nabia could have been seen as the divine partner of both (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 238.1). Yet the altar from Marecos also mentions her as a virgin and protective nymph of the Danigi, so where does that leave us? Is Nabia a celestial goddess akin to Juno or a deity of waters somewhat similar to Diana? Pedreño’s answer is simple: both! A multifunctional entity like Juno herself, who was simultaneously a protector of women and fertility, but also of the State and the army, depending on which aspect or epithet she used. And there are further examples of the sort, like Saraswati, Anahita, Morrigan and Brigit, goddesses whose role cannot be reduced to a single Dumézilian function. Nabia would be an additional case, able to be worshipped either as the partner of a celestial god or a tutelary nymph and in that sense identifiable with either Juno or Diana, since she has traits from both (Olivares Pedreño 2002: 239-244). On that note, you might want to read what I wrote about syncretism when analyzing Bandua.

Now this doesn’t mean that there was more than one Nabia, a possibility at times defended by Leite de Vasconcelos (1905: 279-80), but only that she was worshipped with different functions and hence various aspects depending on the context and needs of the worshipers. Which is equally true for Juno, by the way: as Regina she’s the Queen of the Gods, as Sororia she presides over female puberty and as Curitis she takes on the role of a warrior goddess (Adkins 2000: 116-9).

If indeed there is a fundamental parallel between Nabia-Tongus and Nantosuelta-Sucellus, its origin is yet to be explained, since it could be the product of a common past or the result of the advancement of Celtic culture westwards. Or perhaps from north to south, since Prósper believes that the form Navia is more archaic and therefore the original theonym, suggesting the cult originated in modern-day Galicia before expanding southwards (1997: 145). Melene had a different theory, proposing a beginning in Braga and later expansion along the main Roman roads, a thesis criticized by Prósper and rejected by Olivares Pedreño (2002: 233-4).

3. Work hypothesis
I find it too simplistic to think of Nabia as a river goddess. The variety of places where the known altars were discovered and her link with celestial or sovereign gods suggests there’s more to it, though it doesn’t eliminate a profound connection to water. Etymology, the lunar crescent, the Idol Fountain and the text on the altar from Marecos, where she’s called a virgin and nymph, all of that points towards an aquatic nature. But it’s perhaps more useful to think of Nabia along the lines of the Lady of the Lake from Arthurian legend, who’s simultaneously a watery figure and a giver of sovereign power. In other words, a goddess who cannot be reduced to a mere productive function or a link with prosperity.

As with Bandua and Quangeio, my work hypothesis for Nabia is an inclusive one where I see Her as a deity of the humid element in all its forms: the celestial, which includes rain, fog and mist; the terrestrial aspect and hence a goddess of rivers, lakes and lagoons; and in the chthonic sense, of underground springs and streams. Which makes her a sovereign deity, able to be paired with mountain or sky gods, but also a keeper of water and the prosperity it enables. And at the same time, she’s also a guardian of doors to the underworld, be they rivers and lakes, underground or on the surface. I wouldn’t say she’s identical to Nantosuelta, but they certainly have things in common. And I wouldn’t say Tongus is the same as Sucellus either, if nothing else because the former appears to be more of a local god, though again there may be shared features.

4. Ideas for a modern cult
For Nabia, the obvious festive date is April 9th. However, there’s nothing on why the sacrifice mentioned in the altar from Marecos was performed on that day and ancient religious calendars were normally local or regional. Which means you can choose other dates or go for a midway solution where you keep the day, but change the month. So, for instance, a sacrifice to Nabia on March 9th and another on October 9th, i.e. one at the end of winter and the other after the end of summer, thus marking the approximate end and start of the rainy season. And depending on local life – feasts, customs, climate, wildlife behaviour – you can choose other months.

Regarding animals, Prósper, based on the Idol Fountain, suggests the dove could have been a symbol of Nabia (2002: 166), which may be correct and though the carving is hardly clear. But it’s certainly a possibility, to which I would add the modern option of the egret or the grey heron, since they’re linked to both water and sky. There’s also the raven, via Nantosuelta, or the great cormorant, which retains the dark colour, but has a more aquatic nature. The osprey is another possibility and finally the bear, which is naturally linked to the woodland and mountains and has a strong tradition as a symbol of strength, protection and royalty. Any of these animals can be used to represent Nabia and combined with the lunar crescent, a fountain, a jug of water or an oar and sword, to name a few and obvious symbolic objects.

Following the epigraphic record, you can also award local epithets that tie Nabia to settlements and municipalities, such as Conimbricensis (of Coimbra), Scalabicensis (of Santarém) or Olisiponensis (of Lisbon), coupled with festive dates based on local history, animals and plant life and using corresponding symbols and customs. And in the same spirit of creating a modern cult for an ancient goddess, connecting her with today’s identities and communities and assuming a polyfunctional nature, Nabia can also be given a national epithet like Portugalensis. Under it, she’d be a patron deity of Portugal, though not exclusively, since she may have various national titles or the same epithet can be given to different gods. There’s also the possibility of a domestic Nabia associated with ancestor worship, based on one hand on her chthonic aspect through the waters that lead to the underworld and, on the other, her role as national patron, thus creating a micro-macrocosm dynamic where the home is one’s country and the country is one’s home. And in that sense, Nabia can also be addressed in the case of birth or adoption of new family members – including pets – or, at a national level, the awarding of citizenship to foreign-born inhabitants of the country, which is essentially an adoption at a wider communal level.

Works cited
ADKINS, Lesley e Roy. 2000. Dictionary of Roman Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ALARCÃO, Jorge. 2009. “A religião dos Lusitanos e Calaicos”, in Conimbriga, volume 48. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra, pages 81-121.

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.

________. 1998. “Los cultos sincréticos y su propagación por las ciudades hispanorromanas”, in Los orígenes de la ciudad en el noroeste hispánico. Actas del Congreso Internacional. Lugo: Diputación Provincial, pages 249-275.

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

GREEN, Miranda. 2011. The gods of the Celts. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

LEITE DE VASCONCELOS, José. 1905. Religiões da Lusitânia, volume 2. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional.

MACKILLOP, James. 2004. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

OLIVARES PEDREÑO, Juan Carlos. 2002. Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica. Madrid: Real Academia de Historia; Universidad de Alicante.

PRÓSPER, Blanca Maria. 2002. Lenguas y religiones prerromanas del occidente de la Península Ibérica. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca.

________. 1997. “El nombre de la diosa lusitana Nabia y el problema del betacismo en las lenguas indígenas del occidente Peninsular”, in Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, number 2. Madrid: Universidad Complutense, pages 141-149.

SALINAS DE FRIAS, Manuel. 2010. “Sobre algunas especies animales en el contexto de las religiones prerromanas de Hispania”, in Palaeohispanica, volume 10. Zaragoça: Institución «Fernando el Católico», pages 611-628.

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