Weekly Article #9 – Traces of the Old Pyrenean Gods

Mask of Montserie

(The Mask of Montserie)

Having focussed on the Marian cult of Our Lady of Meritxell last week that spans from the 12th century to the present, let us address the balance by briefly examining some of the Pre-Christian deities that were worshipped along the valleys and woodlands of the Pyrenees. Who were they, and how they were absorbed into/coexisted alongside the later Roman pantheon that arrived via the Roman Empire?

The Gods worshipped in the Pyrenees prior to the arrival of the Romans continued to be venerated for a long time after the region became integrated with the roman empire. The inhabitants mixed their prayers between the traditional Gods and the newly arrived Roman ones, in order to ensure their own protection, a spiritual hedging of bets. The Romans brought their culture, language and Gods to the Pyrenees. The latter could be said to have largely remained relegated to the cities, leaving, with some exceptions, the world of rural local divinities still intact in the more remote Pyrenean valleys. Throughout all Roman territories one of the fundamental (and indeed obligatory) cults was that of the Imperial cult. The Imperial cult was not the deification of the reigning emperor, but rather the joint celebration of both Rome and the emperor. The latter was responsible for a perfect world, personified by Rome, where he reigned while peace existed within the Empire and between gods and men. This allowed the Imperial cult to exist (and be enforced) alongside local pantheons and imported Roman pantheons without being at the exclusion of venerating other divinities.

The contact between the local Pyrenean Gods and the Roman Pantheon brought about a mixing of divinities and a sort of assimilation. Local divinities became hidden or amalgamated with their Roman counterparts under a Latin name. For example, the god ‘Leherennus’ became known as ‘Leherennus Mars’, particularly around the Ardiege commune (Haute-Garonne) where all inscriptions mention Leherennus in connection with Mars. Other gods emerged out of this melting pot, such as ‘Fagus’, a god of Beech trees, known from four inscriptions found in the Haute-Pyrenees where there are numerous beech forests. Interestingly, this area’s language has been described as Proto-Basque rather than Celtic, whereas ‘Fagus’ is the Latin term for Beech, indicating that he was simply renamed under a Latin term rather than his previous no-doubt indigenous epithet.

Sacaze (1885) was convinced in his ‘Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees’ that the Pyrenean being ‘Tantugou’ held a similar role to the forest guardians of Roman myth. In Luchonaisse mythology, Tantugou appears as a tall bearded old man, dressed in a hooded tunic with animal skins, and armed with a club – similar to the Aragonese ‘Silvan’ figure across the border, whose name bears more than a hint of Latin influence. His role is typically to protect crops, flocks, and the secrets of nature, ensuring that no thieves of these things go unpunished. Tantugou is associated with the Gallo-Celtic god Sucellos, himself a bearded pastoral god who roams the land, hooded (de Marliave & Petuze, 1990).

From inscriptions found across the Pyrenees, we know of at least forty-five names of Pyrenean deities that are present in the archaeological record, typically on funerary monuments and, most commonly, votive stone altars. A few, such as ‘Xuban’ (found on an altar near Comminges and Arbas in Gascon territory in an inscription which refers to him as ‘God Xuban’) and ‘Edelat’ (found in a single inscription on a votive altar in Benque, in the Haute-Garonne department, possibly a Latin name for a local god) occur only once. It has been suggested that Xuban may have been associated with a local mountain (de Marliave, 1993). An inscription referring to ‘Dianae et Horolati et Garre deo’ has been found at the foot of the Gar mountain, with ‘Horolati’ possibly referring to an eponymous god of the Ore village, and ‘Garre’ referring to a god of the local Gar mountain (Sacaze, 1885). The village of Saint-Pe-d’Ardat has an inscription ‘Artehe deo’, which forms an interesting picture of the village’s name, which combines both its new patron St Pierre and its former, Arteh, another local god.

At Escugnau, in the Val d’Aran, one can find an inscription which is dedicated to ‘Iluberrixo’, whose name resembles many other Pyrenean deities (‘Iluro’, ‘Ilumber’ etc.) and some Pyrenean Roman towns (Illiberis which became Elne, Eliberis or Elimberris Auscorum which became Auch, etc (Sacaze, 1885)). Does this point towards a broader Pyrenean divinity whose name adapted to local dialects yet fulfilled the same role, sharing the same etymological root? In this vein, we find more frequently represented deities in inscriptions, such as ‘Baicorrix’ (otherwise known as ‘Baigorisco’, ‘Baigorix’ or ‘Buaioris’, and possibly relating to a ‘Behigorri’, an underground Basque spirit or guardian), ‘Ilun’ (again, possibly deriving from a Basque etymological construct relating to the evening, the moon or darkness), and ‘Abellion’ (a deity related to sun worship and assimilated into the cult of Apollo with no less than 8 recorded inscriptions). With regard to the latter, a carved ‘Cross of Beliou’ exists in the valley of Lesponne, and this stone altar is seen to be the most visible vestige of the cult (de Marliave, 1996). Another figure of note in the Pyrenean pantheon seems to be ‘Ageio’ (or ‘Ageion’/’Egeion’), found in the Baronnies valley in the Hautes-Pyrenees. The inscription on his altar references the mountains, suggesting a strong link between the local peaks and his cult (Sacaze, 1885).

The ‘Mask of Montserie’ (see photo) is an excellent high end example of the material culture associated with these Pyrenean gods. Crafted from a single sheet of bronze, this mask found in the sanctuary of Montserie (Hautes-Pyrenees) portrays a bearded male deity. Dating is controversial, ranging from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, and could represent either a votive offering or a standing representation of the divinity in question. At the same site (protohistoric & Gallo-Roman) were found statues of a wild cockerel, a boar, coins and votive stelae, the latter being dedicated to the god ‘Erge’. Dolmens still stand on the site, and allegedly the situation of the site (high altitude with impeccable views) allowed for the observation of the stars (http://montserie.com).

Some deities will no doubt exist to whom the votive altars must wish them to remain anonymous, being dedicated as many are to ‘montibus’ (the mountains) or ‘fontibus’ (springs). Interestingly it seems that latter appears more frequently than the former, possibly influenced by the imported Roman cult of the nymphs, or possibly simply reflecting that age-old impulse to venerate the source of water, that gifts the ability to live.

The diversity in both the names and characters of these divinities can be explained simply by the topography of the Pyrenees, whose valleys are as numerous as they are beautiful, with each peak holding the potential to be both represented by and hosting a divinity. This is not to mention the myriad of forests, streams and springs which may have held sites of hyper-local worship of similarly themed deities which, through linguistic mutations, resulted in such a diverse range of supernatural and divine beings across the Pyrenees. However, it is possible through etymological studies and topographical analysis to discern some commonalities in order to bring together a truly Pyrenean pantheon. That, however, is a task for the future!

Works and websites referenced:

de Marliave, Olivier & Pertuze, Jean-Claude. 1990. Pantheon Pyreneen. Carbonne: Editions Loubatieres.

de Marliave, Olivier. 1993. Dictionnaire de Mythologies Basque et Pyreneenne. Paris: Editions Entente.

de Marliave, Olivier. 1996. Tresor de la Mythologie Pyreneenne. Toulouse: Editions Sud Ouest.

Sacaze, Julien. 1885. Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees: Nomenclature et Distribution. Saint-Gaudens: IMprimerie et Librairie Abadie.

Available to download here: http://tolosana.univ-toulouse.fr/notice/115490175

Tarrats Bou, Francesc. 2010. L’astre Olimp. Els Pirineus a l’Antiguitat: Societat, Economia I Religio. Guia de l’Exposicio (29 de Gener al 16 de Maig de 2010). Tarragon: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarraona.

The official site of the Monterie commune: http://montserie.com

Photograph taken from this address: http://www.tarbes.fr/fichiers_agenda/144358masque_montserie.jpg

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