Nabia: Western Iberian water goddess

Nabia (or Navia) was a goddess worshiped by the Gallaecians, Astures, Vettones and the Lusitanians. Evidence of this goddess can be found all over Western Iberia. While she is most commonly known as a water deity, she has many other important functions, which we are going to discuss in this post.

I thought it’d be fitting to talk about her after analysing the thunder God Reo, as they could be related in the ancient Western Iberian mythology, which is today lost for the most part.

As always, if you want to share your own thoughts, please use the Contact section or write a comment at the end of this post, as I am more than willing to listen to them.

Archaeological context

In the ancient Astur region 2 inscriptions to Nabia were found: 1 was in present day Zamora, while the other was in Folgoso de la Ribera, both in Spain.

The Lusitanian area has 2 inscriptions, both in the Castelo Branco region, Portugal. More precisely, 1 was found in Covilhã and the other in Sertã.

The ancient Vettonian region counts with 4 inscriptions, all of them in Cáceres, Spain.

Finally, ancient Gallaecia has a total of 14 inscriptions: 6 in modern Northern Portugal, of which 2 are in Braga, 2 in Vila Real, 1 in Penafiel and 1 in Porto. The remaining 8 are in modern Galicia, of which 5 in Orense, 2 in Lugo and 1 in A Coruña.

This makes a total of 22 inscriptions spread throughout Western Iberia.

Please note that this section can be updated as new archaeological findings are made.

sertã

Inscription from Sertã

Etymology

Her name appears under 2 forms: Nabia and Navia. In this post, I will refer to her as Nabia since it’s the most common form of her name.

The first proposal of her etymology was made by J.L. Vasconcelos in 1905. He was the first to interpret Nabia as a water goddess, and compared the theonym with Sanskrit navya, meaning “water course”[1].

According to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, nāvyā is an adjective which means “navigable” or “accessible by boat”. As a substantive, it means “navigable river”. It is slightly different from what Vasconcelos wrote, but it’s obviously in the same theme.

This comes from Proto-Indo-European néh₂us, which can mean “the swimming (or floating) one”. The Portuguese word for ship, navio, has ultimately this Proto-Indo-European root as well.

According to a more recent interpretation of Prósper, Nabia would mean “the valley”[2]. Based on this, Alarcão[3] extended it to “Lady of the valley” or “The one from the valley”. He compared Nabia with Gaulish Nantosuelta, as one of the proposed etymologies for the name of the latter is “sun-warmed valley”.

Melena compared Nabia with Spanish nava, which is defined as being a flat terrain between mountains, sometimes swampy. With this, he also related her to valleys[4].

Most scholars seem to agree with these proposals and no one has suggested anything else that is much different from the etymologies above. We shall now analyse Nabia’s functions taking into account her epithets and the geographical context of her inscriptions.

Nabia as a polyfunctional goddess

Due to the diverse epithets and geographical distributions of the cult of Nabia, it’s very safe to say she had many functions and was also a very important goddess to the ancient Western Iberian peoples.

Her inscriptions were found near water, in mountainous places far from population centres, forested areas and near sacred springs/fountains[5].

The Fountain of the Idol

Fonte do Ídolo (Fountain of the Idol) is a very important altar to Nabia. It was found in Braga, Portugal, and has a depiction of what is most likely the goddess herself. It also has an inscription where Tongo Nabiagoi can be read. There were many interpretations as to what this could mean, one of them being that Tongo is related to taking an oath. Thus, Nabia could be a goddess of oaths[6].

Another proposal is that Tongo would simply mean “altar”[6]. Other scholars argued that Tongo would be a theonym and Nabia would be related to him. I personally reject this interpretation, as there are no other mentions of this God in any other inscription to Nabia.

What is certain here is that Nabia was obviously related to water, in this case it was most likely a sacred fountain.

fonte1

The Fountain of the Idol (click for full resolution)

The inscription of Marecos

This is probably one of the most important inscriptions ever found to Nabia as it tells us a lot about this deity and rituals made.

It mentions cows, oxen, lambs and calves being sacrificed to Nabia and Jupiter while also pointing out the date when it was made: April 9. Scholars were able to determine the year, which was 147 AD[7].

Nabia is mentioned twice and has multiple epithets. One line reads O(ptimae) V(irgini) Co(nservatrici) (or Co(rnigera) ), et Nim(phae) Danigom Nabiae Coronae[8].

The Optima epithet could suggest a supreme/celestial function, perhaps, in a way, akin to Juno. The V(irgini) epithet isn’t entirely certain, but if it is correct, then Nabia could be a virgin. The Conservatrix epithet indicates a tutelary function, but if Cornigera is the correct reading, then Nabia could be a horned goddess. We also have, doubtlessly, Nim(phae) Danigom, which means “Nymph of the Danigo”, the people who were sacrificing to her. Finally, we have the epithet Corona, giving her war functions[9].

However, another reading from the same author who suggested the former, would be O(mnia) v(ota) co(nsagro) et nim(bifero) Danigo m(acto) Nabiae Coronae[8]. The first reading was made in 1974 and the second one in 1994. The latter only has the Corona epithet. Jorge de Alarcão, in a more recent analysis (2009), mentions that the first reading was the most likely to be correct[8].

Given her relation with Jupiter, could it be that she was originally related to Reo, possibly being his consort, and the mention to Jupiter shows a certain degree of Romanization? She also seems to be some kind of supreme goddess, so it could be plausible that Nabia was his wife.

nabiafull

Granite statue of Nabia (2017) in San Sadurniño, Galicia, where a “Gallaecian Olympus” is being built (click for full resolution)

The inscription of Guntín

Finally, I will talk about the inscription of Guntín briefly.

The interesting thing here is that this inscription to Nabia (written as Navia) has a crescent moon carving. This sparked all sorts of new suggestions in regards to the functions of this deity.

Tranoy argues that this would give her celestial, chthonic and/or funerary roles[9] (if we consider the “horned” epithet from Marecos, this could make further sense). Melena preferred to relate her with Roman Diana[4], as Nabia is obviously associated with water, forests and is a nymph. This relation comes from the fact that Diana is a goddess of the moon and forests. Jorge de Alarcão also mentioned possible chthonic functions, comparing Nabia with Persephone[8].

Nabia as the Christian Saint Mariña

Recent studies by Rafael Quintía show that Nabia continued to be worshiped under Saint Mariña in Galicia after the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. 108 churches to this Saint exist throughout Galicia. A big part of these churches are located near healing fountains and hills. This saint is seen as a protector of communities and associated to nature’s fertility and water. Legend says she was born in Augas Santas (which means Holy Waters). Inscriptions to Nabia were also found in places where the cult of Mariña was present[12].

According to legend, Mariña was martyred in January 18th, 139 AD. Three fountains were built in the place where she was beheaded.

Quintía goes into further detail about this thesis in his book Mariña: de deusa a santa.

Final Notes

With so many epithets and locals of cult (in towns, mountains, forests, fountains/springs and near bodies of water), we may be in the presence of a Goddess with many aspects or functions. The way I see it (and, to some extent, Olivares Pedreño[10]), she intervenes in the 3 main domains of our world, making her some kind of trifunctional deity:

The celestial, due to her seemingly supreme functions and inscriptions found on mountains. She is possibly the consort of Reo in the ancient Western Iberian mythology, the God of thunder, mountains and the sky. She may also be related with the moon.

The Earth, presiding over water, valleys, forests, protection of communities (by extent, also war) and oaths. This was the aspect of Nabia that was invoked the most.

The underworld. She probably transported the souls of the dead to the afterlife through a river. This would make her a psychopomp. In Indo-European myths, the souls would often go through rivers to reach the afterlife, with the help of a deity or spirit.

nabiaskulls

Another angle from the statue of Nabia. Notice the skulls and a boat bow by her feet, suggesting a psychopomp interpretation from the artist (click for full resolution)

First, we can take a look at the Vedic/Hindu Vaitarna river. This river separates the world of the living from Naraka (the underworld), the domain of Yama. There’s a funeral hymn in the Atharvaveda which says “by fords (tirtháih) they cross the great down-courses (pravátah), the way the sacrificers, the well-doers, go”[11].

Apparently, the Latin word tarentum (tomb) could mean, by derivation, “crossing-place”. It is cognate with tirtháih mentioned above, so the Latin word for “tomb” could have the same connotation of a river being crossed to reach the afterlife like the tirtháih[11].

In Greek mythology, we have the river Styx, which gives access to Hades (i.e underworld). The Greek underworld also has 4 other rivers: Acheron, Lethe, Phlegethon, Cocytus and Oceanus.

In Norse Mythology, the domain of Hel (i.e underworld) contains the river Gjöll, which separates the dead from the living. To cross it, one must go through the bridge Gjallarbrú (literally, Gjöll Bridge).

With this said, it would make perfect sense for Nabia to be a carrier of souls to the afterlife and allow them to reincarnate.

Many places in Western Iberia are most likely named after this goddess, specially rivers. Here are some of them:
Navia, a municipality in Asturias.
River Navia, which runs through Lugo and Asturias.
River Navea, in Orense, Galicia.
Fountain Navia, in Luarcas, Asturias.
River Neiva, in Vila Verde, Portugal.
Castelo do Neiva, a parish in Portugal.
Vale do Neiva, a parish in Portugal.
River Nabão, which runs through Tomar, Portugal.
Tomar was called Nabância by the Romans, and this name derives from Nabia as well.
Navió, a parish in Northern Portugal.

navia

River Navia, Asturias (click for full resolution)

To conclude, Nabia seems to be a very unique deity with several functions. Her earthly aspect could be compared with Diana and Tutela. Her celestial or supreme/sovereign side could be akin to goddesses like Juno or Basque Mari. Her psychopomp aspect could be comparable with Charon or Hermes/Mercury.

We know that in April 9th a feast was held to her. This could perhaps be a good date to celebrate the goddess in modern times. If one wanted to swear an oath before the Gods, Nabia could be invoked as witness and sealer of that oath.

References

1. J.L. Vasconcelos, Religiões da Lusitania na parte que principalmente se refere a Portugal, pp. 253-254.

2. Blanca María Prósper, Lenguas y religiones prerromanas del occidente de la Península Ibérica, p. 194.

3. Jorge de Alarcão, A religião de Lusitanos e Calaicos, in Conimbriga XLVIII, p. 101.

4. José L. Melena, Una ara votiva Romana en el Gaitán, Cáceres, in Revista de Prehistoria, Historia Antigua, Arqueologia y Filologia Clasicas, p. 243.

5. Olivares Pedreño, Celtic Gods of the Iberian Peninsula, in Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies, vol. 6, p. 636.

6. José L. Melena, Una ara votiva Romana en el Gaitán, Cáceres, in Revista de Prehistoria, Historia Antigua, Arqueologia y Filologia Clasicas, p. 242.

7. Francisco Simón, Religion and Religious Practices of the Ancient Celts of the
Iberian Peninsula, in Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies, vol. 6, p. 318.

8. Jorge de Alarcão, A religião de Lusitanos e Calaicos, in Conimbriga XLVIII, p. 102.

9. José Blázquez Martínez, Religiones indígenas en la Hispania romana (addenda et corrigenda), in Gerión 14, pp. 339-340.

10. Olivares Pedreño, Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica, pp. 239-240.

11. M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, p. 389.

12. La Voz de Galicia, Como Nabia se transformou en Mariña.

3 thoughts on “Nabia: Western Iberian water goddess

  1. Pingback: Trebaruna: Lusitanian-Vettonian home Goddess | Herminius Mons

  2. Pingback: Ataegina: Goddess of the Underworld | Herminius Mons

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