Where goddesses keep watch over the land

“Meine Matronen”
by Sophie Lange.
Translated by Marjorie Harrison Weiss
Catalog of the exhibition „Meine Matronen“
31th Juli to 4th September of 2011.

The Goddesses

In a niche, three female figures sit next to each other on a bench. Columns to the right and the left enclose the niche, a gabled pediment forms its roof. Their erect posture, gives the figures the impression of enthroned majesty. The three seem to form a unit: some things are similar – their Ubi style festive attire, the fruit on their laps and their pensive mood. However, in one important aspect the three differ from each other. The two outer figures are wearing voluminous head coverings, which designate them as married women - matrons. The figure in the middle has not yet taken any vows and wears her hair loose. The triad can be interpreted as daughter, mother and wise elder. But the two outer figures aren’t obviously different in age. They could be, perhaps, the biologic mother and the spiritual mother (patin). The middle figure is younger, girlish, and “prettier” – as one archeologist put it, prettier than the other older matrons. She seems to be the most important one of the group. In a strict sense however, she is not a matron or a mother or the head of a household. On some sculptures, the head of the younger goddess seems to have been worn to a polish, as if many people had stroked it. The fruit on the laps of the female figures attest to their being fertility goddesses. As such, the triad can be seen as symbolizing the natural rhythm of growth, ripening and decay. Their attributes support this association with fertility: pears, apples (pomegranits) and pine cones, that are sometimes arranged in a cornucopia.

The group of three seems to be enveloped in an eery stillness. What are the Matrons trying to communicate to us? Are they trying to speak to us about the omnipotence of mother nature, about the goddesses power to protect heaven and earth, about the full scope of women’s powers, about the past, present and future, about birth, life and death?

Even though nothing about the Matrons is to be found in antique sources, the archaeological finds show how intensively these gallo-roman fertility goddesses were venerated in the area of “Germania Inferior”, the former land of the Eberon and Ubi between Juelich, Eifel, Bonn and Cologne. Here alone, 835 finds document the cult of the Matrons, some as fragments, and some as complete, intact altars.

From the depictions and especially from the inscriptions on the altars themselves, we learn that these ancestral women were venerated as goddesses (deabae). Their name extensions document what they were responsible for. Some were probably responsible for a certain geographic area (as in Vacallinehae-Noethen-Pesch, where the Matronea Vacallinehae may have protected the Vacalli, a clan or tribe found in that area). The Matrons protected this clan or tribe, blessed their land, looked after their people and animals. Sometimes the protecting Matrons were responsible for certain functions, like the Gabiae, the givers. The Aufaniae, that are found largely in Nettersheim, Bonn, and Zuelpich, could be a reference to either a geographic area (Fanja = Fenn, Moor), or a way to draw attention to their status as “the high ones” or “the exalted ones”. Other name extensions attempted to emphasise the Matrons talent at prophecy and put them in the catagory of fates or seeresses, for example as with the Audrinehae (Cologne) – the friendly fates. Certainly the Matrons triad belongs to the widely branching family of antique goddesses which also includes the Greek Moire, the Roman Parzen, the Germanic Norns and the Christianised 3 ‘Beths’ – Einbeth, Warbeth and Wilbeth.

The Temple at Nettersheim

The patrons of altars in Nettersheim were exclusively veteran legionaires, called Beneficiar, who came from a nearby street patrol-point, and were fulfilling a sworn vow to these local goddesses by commissioning a votive altar. At other places, the villagers were expressing their gratitude to the goddesses. The romanized names of these patrons are Celtic and also Germanic in origin and indicate a mixed, multi-cultural population of Roman legionaires, Germanic people and Celts.

The altars in the area between the Rhine and Eifel, were, with few exceptions, produced within a short, well defined, time period from about 160AD to 240AD, as can be descerned from the names of military commanders and Roman consuls. This time span, however, says nothing about how long the cult of the Matrons was actively venerated, which could possibly reach far back into the past and which apparently did extend forward into the Christian era. Recent research suggests that the cult of the Matrons originated in rural areas and then made its way into towns.

Return of the Matrons

In 1891, during road construction on “op der Kuhl” (Steinfelderstraße) in Nettersheim, a Frankish burial ground with countless burial objects was discovered. The graves were enclosed in a border of upright stones, that, at first drew little attention. The side of one grave turned out to be the right half of a votive altar. From the inscription, it could be pieced together, that a Beneficiar (a member of the street patrol) of the 1st Legion Minerva, named Priscinianus had dedicated the altar to the local most sacred (sanctissimis) Matrons in the year 237 for himself and his family. In 1895, the provincial museum (later called Landesmuseum) acquired this inscribed fragment. The find didn’t generate much interest and few scholars had any idea what was meant by the “Matrons” that appeared on a variety of stray finds in Cologne, Bonn, Zuelpich, and Antweiler. Nevertheless, once reawakened, the Matrons soon drew attention to themselves again in Nettersheim.

In 1909 farmers working at a site on a high meadow called Goerresburg struck stone material decorated with letters and humanlike figures. How astonished they must have been to see three women looking happily or perhaps reproachfully back at them from the dark depths of the earth. The two farmers got into a fist fight over who the ‘little antiquity’ belonged to and part of it was destroyed. One of the farmers confessed this unfortunate quarrel to the pastor, who then took an interested look at the pagan thing that had come to light. He immediately notified the museum in Bonn.

In the same year, between the beginning of June and the middle of July, the first excavations were made. Heading the excavation was the head of the provincial museum in Bonn, Dr. Hans Lehner, who also supervised the excavation of the ‘Pagan Temple Pesch’ from 1914-1918, and, from 1928, carried out the archaeological investigations under the Bonn cathedral which brought to light excellently preserved Matrons votive altars. He soon became the Matrons expert of his day.

In Nettersheim, the site of a cultic complex with three small single-room buildings was uncovered. Of particular interest were two stone blocks that, based on the position they were found in, are believed to have been built into the door frames above the two of the entrances, as portals. These stones were inscribed to the Matrones. No others inscriptions or dedications were found. Using these finds, together with sculpted altars and inscribed altars, as well as numerous fragments - belonging to as many as 40 votive altars, it was determined that this cultic complex was dedicated solely to the Matrons Aufanea. Up to that point, it had been generally regarded as unlikely that an entire temple area could have been used for only these local fertility goddesses.

So, in 1909, the discovery of the Matrons Temple site created a sensation among experts. Now for the first time, it became clear that the cult of the Matrons had a far greater importance than had been assumed up to then.

With great care, archeologists drew and recorded the site plan and the individual finds. When that was done, the excavation site was filled in again with earth, as it was felt it should be returned to nature. Overgrowth would be the best form of conservation, the archeologists argued. All the finds were taken to the Landesmuseum in Bonn. In Nettersheim tempers flared. The local Eifel Association complained bitterly that the Nettersheim temple had been plundered. To no avail. In spite of many letters of request, all the finds remained in Bonn where they, still, today, are relegated to a shadow existence in storage facilities. The site was abandoned and bushes and shrubs covered it over. The Matrons were forgotten.

Only in 1976, was the temple on the Goerresburg hill again remembered. As part of a rural improvement program, the cult complex was again cleared and the ‘important elements’ reconstructed. Using the original records as a guide, low flat walls took shape, made of limestone and greywacke to which were added retrieved pieces of original wall. From the three well preserved matron altars, copies were made and set in front of the largest single-room building as a visual aid. The justification for this was: “While this cannot exactly correspond to the placement in antiquity, it will certainly enable observers to better understand the use of the temple as a sacred place.”

In the time since 1977, an ever increasing number of people find their way to this “sacred place”. They are moved, not only by the historical importance of the goddesses temple, but also by the beautiful scenery, the variety of foliage, the openness and charisma of the site, and, ultimately by the allure of the Matrons themselves. They find tranquility and reprieve, there, where goddesses keep watch over the land.