Ataegina: Goddess of the Underworld

In this post, I bring you a deity who was, certainly, one of the most important to the ancient Lusitanians, Vettonians, Celtici and Gallaecians. Her name is Ataegina, a goddess with many functions, but best known as the Lady of the Underworld.

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 Vettonian region, there are 25 inscriptions: 13 in Alcuéscar, 3 in Malpartida de Cáceres, 2 in Salvatierra de Santiago, 2 in Herguijuela, 2 in Toledo, 2 in Santa Ana and 1 in Montánchez. All of these are in modern Extremadura, Spain.

In the ancient Celtici region, there are 9 inscriptions: 8 are in Spanish territory, of which 5 in Mérida and 3 in Badajoz. The other is in Beja, Portugal.

In the ancient Lusitanian region, there is 1 inscription in Garrovillas de Alconétar, Extremadura, Spain, near the border with the Portugal.

In the Gallaecian area there is 1 inscription in A Coruña, Galicia.

This makes a total of 36 inscriptions to this Goddess spread throughout Western Iberia.

Please note that I only counted the inscriptions which seemed certain to me. There are more inscriptions which we are not sure if they are dedicated to Ataegina due to deterioration, or dubious abbreviations (which are common in Latin epigraphy) or because some of them only contain epithets which could correspond to Ataegina or some other Goddess. I will discuss this later in the post. If these were counted, the number of inscriptions to this deity could be over 45.

Keep in mind that this section can be updated as new archaeological finds are made.

DominaAttaecina

Inscription from Bienvenida, Badajoz

Etymology

The theonym appears under various forms: Ataegina, Attaegina, Atecina, Adegine, Adegina, Addagina.

J.L. Vasconcelos made the first and most accepted analysis in regards to her etymology. According to him, the name At(a)egina came from Celtic, having the roots *ate and *gena. The former would come from Proto-Celtic prefix *ati, which is the same as the prefix “re-” in, for instance, Modern English (think of “restart”) and most Romance languages. The root *gena was compared with Latin genitus, past participle of gigno, coming from Proto-Indo-European *ǵenh₁-, meaning “to give birth”.  Thus, At(a)egina would mean, literally, “reborn” or “rebirth”. Vasconcelos also suggested that we could compare it with Latin re-genita, which also means “re-born”[1]. Given that it is applied to a deity, her name could mean “The One (who is) Reborn”.

Another comparison was made to Old Irish adaig, which means “night”. This could be cognate with Latin āter. However, this etymology is considered to be very unlikely[2].

Ataegina: A Goddess with many functions

Conclusions from her etymology

Ataegina can be interpreted as a Goddess of Spring who is reborn every year (presumably, at the Spring Equinox). This would make Ataegina similar to Greek Persephone or Roman Proserpina[1]. She could also be seen as a Goddess of rebirth of the soul and also the deity of the Dawn.

The Dawn Goddess appears in every Indo-European religion: Greek Eos, Roman Aurora, Lithuanian Austrine, Germanic Ostara/Ēostre, etc. These Goddesses were also associated with the festival we know today as Easter, which further connects Ataegina with her rebirth at the Spring Equinox.

But due to the numerous inscriptions to this deity, we can further prove these claims with the epigraphy available to us, rather than looking at the etymology alone.

The interpretatio romana of Ataegina

There are 2 inscriptions which suggest the interpretatio romana of the Goddess Ataegina. One is from Salvatierra de los Barros, Badajoz, and the other is from Mérida. Both mention Dea Ataecina Proserpina. This proves the comparison between Ataegina and Persephone/Proserpina made earlier.

Persephone and Proserpina are the Queens of the Underworld of Greek and Roman mythology, respectively. The abduction myth of these Goddesses symbolizes the change of seasons and how they are tied to Spring and the fertility of the earth. The mother of Persephone is Demeter, while the mother of Proserpina is Ceres. Both are the Goddesses of agriculture, growth and fertility of the earth.

In the myth, Hades/Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, abducts Persephone/Proserpina, as he was in love with her. He brings her to the Underworld so she could become his consort. Demeter/Ceres starts looking for her all over the world in vain. Depending on the version of the myth, the mother of the Goddess either forbids the earth from producing or by neglecting it, the earth stops growing plants. This is an allegory to the coming of winter.

Hermes/Mercury is sent by Zeus/Jupiter to recover the missing goddess from the Underworld. Before Hades/Pluto lets her go, he made her eat pomegranate seeds, since those who eat the food of the dead cannot return to the world of the living. This way, Persephone/Proserpina had to stay 6 months in the Underworld and the rest of the year she could return to the world of the living.

Therefore, Ataegina is, like Proserpina, a Goddess who spends the Spring and Summer months in the world of the living, bringing warmth and field fertility. At the start of Autumn, she symbolically dies, returning to the Underworld, only to be reborn later, bringing Spring again, in an infinite cycle. This further corroborates the meaning of her name.

AtaecinaMarble

Marble statue of Ataegina with a goat, her animal. By Pedro Roque Hidalgo, 2008, Musem of Marble of Vila Viçosa, Portugal. Dimensions: 210x93x72 cm

The epithets of Ataegina and geographical context of her cult

Ataegina is usually mentioned with 3 epithets: Domina, Sancta and Turibri(gae).

Several inscriptions mention only a Dea Domina Sancta, which can or not be dedicated to Ataegina. Again, these have not been counted in the Archaeological Context section, but it’s worth noting that sometimes deities could be invoked only with their epithets, without mentioning their actual name. However, Domina and Sancta are epithets more or less common, so they could be referring to some other deity or, even, a generic Goddess.

The Turibri(gae) epithet is a toponym, which most likely indicates the origin of this Goddess[3]. The name of this place would be Turobriga, which is of Celtic origin, as many Celtic place names end in -briga. It is thought that Turobriga was in today’s Aroche, Spain, but this is still debated among scholars.

In and around the Basilica of Santa Lucía del Trampal, in Alcuéscar, 50 epigraphic monuments were found. Among them were inscriptions to Ataegina, funerary steles and more than 20 epigraphs without text. Some were used as construction material of the Basilica[4].

Santa Lucía is between mountains, containing forests and valleys with ferruginous waters due to the iron veins of the zones, forming ponds and lakes which are still used to wash cattle. Around this area are also many springs. These features make a perfect place for a temple or grove to a chthonic, Spring and agricultural deity who presides over the waters, forests, harvests and funerals[5].

This place was also a meeting point of the Lusitanians, Vettonians and Celtici, the peoples who worshiped Ataegina[5], other than the Gallaecians who lived farther to the North. There are no doubts that this was one of the most important locals of cult to Ataegina, if not the most important.

The funerary steles did not invoke a deity. This is explained by the fact that, since they were already in the grove of Ataegina, it was only necessary to mention the names of the dead. This also applies to the epigraphs without text[4]. With this, we can conclude that Ataegina was indeed a funerary or death deity, which is related to her chthonic functions.

Ancient sources mention a Lucus Feroniae (Grove of Feronia) near Emerita Augusta (Mérida), capital of Roman Lusitania. Scholars have no doubt that this was in reference to the place described above. Feronia was a Sabine or Etruscan deity who had a similar local of cult in Capena, Italy, called Lucus Feroniae. It seems that ancient authors applied interpretatio romana to the Western Iberian grove and gave it the same name[5].

This is an important detail because we can now see that Ataegina was interpreted as 2 different Goddesses: Feronia and Proserpina. We have already discussed her likeness to the latter, so let us analyse how she could be comparable to Feronia.

basilica

Basilica of Santa Lucía del Trampal, Alcuéscar

Feronia is a Goddess of wildlife, health, fertility, abundance and Nature. Taking into account the aspects of the grove of Ataegina mentioned earlier, she shares some of these attributes with Feronia, namely health, Nature and fertility. As already stated, the grove of Feronia in Italy was also very similar to the grove of Ataegina in Iberia.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes that Feronia was called Persephone in Greece[6]. This can, ultimately, suggest a Feronia = Persephone = Proserpina = Ataegina interpretation.

Ataegina or, rather, a Roman adaptation of her could be represented in the first Roman coins from Emerita Augusta.  They depict the aspects of the foundation of this great Roman city: Emperor Augustus, its founder, a priest guiding the foundation yoke, the face of an old man which is most likely a personification of the river Guadiana and feminine heads[7].

This woman could be the patron deity of the city, perhaps a ninfae Emeritensis the same way Feronia was the nymph of Campania[7] as described by Maurus Servius Honoratus[8]. Dionysius of Halicarnassus also mentions Feronia had a diadem[11], and this woman from the coins also appears crowned most of the times. Finally, we have Roman coins from Italy which depict Feronia herself in a very similar way to the deity of the coins of Emerita Augusta[7], as you can see below.

Left: Coins from Emerita Augusta. Right: Coins from Italy depicting Feronia. Click on each image for full resolution.

With this, we can see the similarities between Ataegina, Feronia, Persephone and Proserpina, justifying the interpretation of the grove of Ataegina as a Lucus Feroniae.

A possible Post-Roman Statue of Ataegina

A sculpture was unearthed in Mérida, ancient Emerita Augusta. It was near an ancient temple to Mithra, where cults to chthonic deities related to rebirth and the ancestral life force were present. This statue is, unfortunately, missing its head and hands. It depicts a female sitting on a throne, with flowers by her feet and armrests and serpents by her side, which further indicates a chthonic figure[9]. Serpents can also symbolize rebirth, the ancestors or fertility. The flowers could be a symbol of her Spring aspect. Persephone also had flowers as one her symbols and Feronia was described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus as the “Flower Bearer”[6].

With this, some archaeologists think this is most likely a statue of Ataegina, showing furthermore that her cult was still very present after the Roman Conquest and was adopted in the capital of the newly founded province[9].

The sculpture is today preserved in the National Museum of Roman Art, Mérida, Spain.

Different angles of the statue of Ataegina. Click on each image for full resolution.

Ataegina as a Goddess of Curses and Justice

One of the inscriptions found in Mérida is particularly interesting, for it is highly descriptive of the reason why the person is erecting the inscription. Here’s the text in Latin.

Dea Ataecina Turi/brig(ensis) Proserpina / per tuam maiestatem / te rogo oro obsecro / uti vindices quot mihi / furti factum est quisquis / mihi i(n)mu(n)davit involavit / minusve fecit eas [res] q(uae) i(nfra) s(cripta) s(unt) / tunicas VI[- – – p]aenula / lintea II in[dus]ium cu/ius [- – -] IOM[- – -]M ignoro / IA[- – -]ius / VI

Which can be translated as:

Goddess Ataegina Turibrigensis Proserpina, by your majesty, I ask, pray and beg that you avenge the theft which has been done to me. Whoever has changed, stolen, pilfered from me the objects which are noted below: 6 tunics, 2 linen cloaks, an undergarment (…) [10][11]

This type of inscription is called defixio or tabella defixionis, “curse tablet” in English. It was common in Greco-Roman societies, where people would ask a deity to punish someone else. Here, the person who erected the defixio is asking Ataegina to punish the thief who stole his or her possessions, which seem to be mostly clothes. The list is not complete because the inscription is deteriorated, which also makes the reading more difficult.

So, besides all the attributes of Ataegina discussed until now, could she also be a Goddess who could cast curses on wrongdoers, or perhaps she acted as a deity of justice and public order? Given her chthonic aspect, it seems that curses would fit her better, but the latter interpretation of justice and public order could be plausible as well.

ataecinacurse3

Inscription from Mérida which contains the curse, preserved in the National Museum of Roman Art, Mérida, Spain

The animal of Ataegina

One of the most interesting aspects about some inscriptions to Ataegina is that they have goat carvings. These carvings also have a pole which would fit in holes at the top of the Santa Lucía del Trampal funerary steles[12]. Some goats without inscription have also appeared around the locals of cult to Ataegina, usually made of terracotta or bronze.

We know that cattle would be sacrificed to Proserpina, but we don’t know if it was specifically goats[13]. In Greek Mythology, Hades also has cattle, guarded by Menoetius.

Analogous goat monuments to Ataegina from Malpartida de Cáceres. Click on each image for full resolution.

Ataegina and Saint Eulalia of Mérida

Eulalia was a Christian girl from Emerita Augusta (Mérida), capital of Roman Lusitania. She was born around 290 AD. According to legend, she was martyred in 304 AD as she refused to renounce her Christian faith and for challenging Roman authorities, later becoming a Saint.

After the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, the cult of Saint Eulalia thrived in the same areas where the cult of Ataegina was present, specially in Emerita Augusta. She was extremely popular in early Western Iberian Christian times. With this, some scholars argue the worship of Ataegina continued under the veneration of Saint Eulalia[14][15].

There is also an inscription to Eulalia where she is asked to protect a home from enemies (somewhat akin to Ataegina’s inscription where she is asked to punish a thief) and a monogram used in a funerary context[16] (as we’ve seen before, Ataegina was too associated with funerals). They were both found in Mérida.

It’s not unusual for pagan deities to be continued to be worshiped under a Saint, as we’ve seen with Nabia. This probably also happened with Endovelico. I shall make a post about him very soon.

Monogram and inscription of Eulalia. Click on each image for full resolution.

Final Notes

To conclude, we can see in Ataegina a very important Goddess. It makes sense she was a widely revered deity in ancient times, as the season cycles and, thus, the harvests depended on her.

Her chthonic side is associated with the ruling of the Underworld, perhaps curses, the coming of winter, funerals and death.

When she symbolically comes back to life, she is associated with the coming of Spring (renewal of life), warmth, the dawn, flowers, health, maybe public order or justice and fertility of the soil.

With this, Ataegina seems to have aspects of both the Proto-Indo-European Dawn Goddess, Underworld deities like Persephone or Proserpina and also Feronia.

Earlier I mentioned Endovelico. He was most likely the Lord of the Underworld. Therefore, he could be the consort of Ataegina in the mythology and comparable to Hades or Pluto. I will write about him in the next post.

Ataegina is to be celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which symbolises her rebirth or return to the world of the living, and at the Autumn Equinox, which symbolises her death or temporary descent into the Underworld. This is also a nod to the natural cycle of life/death/rebirth of humans in European Paganism.

ataegina1

Artistic depiction of Ataegina based on the Lady of Baza. Notice the two goats by her side.

References

1. J.L. Vasconcelos, Religiões da Lusitania na parte que principalmente se refere a Portugal, pp. 161-163.

2. Olivares Pedreño, Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica, p. 247.

3. Cristina Lopes, Ataegina Uma Divindade Peninsular, in Arqueologia em Portugal 2017 – Estado da Questão, p. 1186.

4. Maria Paz García-Bellido, Lucus Feroniae Emeritensis, in AEspA, p. 53.

5. Ibidem, p. 55.

6. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book III, 31.1.

7. Maria Paz García-Bellido, op. cit., pp. 68-69.

8. Marcus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Aeneid of Virgil, 8.564.

9. Maria Paz García-Bellido, op. cit., pp. 69-70.

10. Richard L. Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, Magical Practice in the Latin West: Papers from the International Conference held at the University of Zaragoza 30 Sept.-1 Oct. 2005, p. 286.

11. José Calles, Lápida Dedicada a Ataecina, in Lusitânia Romana. Origem de dois povos, p. 278.

12. Cristina Lopes, op. cit., p. 1188.

13. Ibidem, p. 1187.

14. Juan Manuel Abascal, Ataecina, in Religiões da Lusitania. Loquuntur saxa, p. 55.

15. Cristina Lopes, op. cit., p. 1189.

16. Hispania Epigraphica, Monograma de Santa Eulalia.

6 thoughts on “Ataegina: Goddess of the Underworld

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