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Minerva arming herself. The Gaulish goddess Belisama has been linked to this Roman goddess.

Belisama: Who Was this Beautiful, Powerful, and Popular Gaulish Goddess?

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When the Roman conquerors encountered the world of Gaulish deities and traditions, they tried to understand it in their own religious terms. Seeing a cult of gods and goddesses, they sought to find similarities between Roman and Gaulish deities. They saw in the beauty of the Gaulish goddess Belisama another face – that of their own wise deity, Minerva. However, the significance of Belisama ran far deeper for Gauls than the Roman interpretation.

Minervae Belissimae

Belisama was a Gaulish goddess known as Minervae Belissimae, translating to Belisama Minerva. In mythology, she was a consort of the god Belenus. Her name most probably meant ''the brightest one'' or ''the most powerful''. Researchers believe that her position in the Gaulish pantheon of the deities was continuous, however, most of the information about her has been lost over time. There is a theory about her being a companion of Belenus, the Celtic Sun God (sometimes identified with Apollo), but this comes from uncertain speculation. She was a goddess related to fire, who connects the power of the light of the sun and moon. It is also possible that she was a goddess of the moon itself, but this idea has not been confirmed.

A Gaulish Deity that the Romans Conquered

Each time Romans conquered a new land, they tried to understand the culture of the people they found there. Although the primary idea wasn't converting the local inhabitants to their beliefs, it seems that applying some aspects of their own religion was seen as potentially beneficial. Cultural and religious icons were used to forge links between the different civilizations. Thus, it was a common practice to draw connections between the native deities and mythology taken from Rome to the new lands.

Helmeted Minerva holding a tiny owl. Belisama has been compared to the Roman goddess Minerva.

Helmeted Minerva holding a tiny owl. Belisama has been compared to the Roman goddess Minerva. ( Public Domain )

Belisama was a deity whose attributes were also related to war, bravery, force, and valor. It seems that - apart from the feminine aspects of her as a goddess, she was also worshiped on the battlefields. Her cult was well-known in the territory of modern France, but also in Britain. In France, she is known not only as Belisama but sometimes as Beleymas or Belleme. The number of supposed or confirmed sects of her cult there is convincing enough evidence to conclude that she was one of the more popular deities.

When it comes to finding evidence of her cult in Britain, the situation is a little more complicated. According to the text by the ancient writer Ptolemy, the “Belisama estuary” was located in River Ribble, Lancashire, England. The closeness of her cult to the water begs the question of a possible relationship between the cults of Minerva and another Celtic-Roman deity, Sulis-Minerva (well-known in Britain), and the worshiping of Belisama. However, until now, this relationship has not been well-established.

Identifying the Real Belisama

Belisama only rarely appears in inscriptions. However, there are at least two examples that mention her name. Both were discovered in old Gaulish lands and the value of the short texts carved in the ancient stones is tremendous. Moreover, the two inscriptions have entirely separate origins.

According to a report made by researchers from the University of Lyon in France:

''The first dedication is engraved on an altar in white marble with blue-grey veins, discovered in re-employment* in the bridge of Saint-Lizier (Ariège), which was the main oppidum* of the Consoranni tribe. The inscription associates her with the Roman goddess Minerva: Minervae Belisamae sacrum Q(uintus) Valeriu[s] Montan[us e]x v(oto) [s(uscepto)], ‘Sacred to Minerva Belisama, Quintus Valerius Montanus (offered this monument) in accomplishment of his vow.’'

Photograph of the Saint-Lizier inscription mentioning Belisama.

Photograph of the Saint-Lizier inscription mentioning Belisama. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is thought that the temple dedicated to her cult was in the northern part of the city. It seems that the settlement was frequently disturbed by battle, so Belisama’s help was vital. She may have been responsible for sending inspiration to warriors and aiding them in creating new strategies.

The second inscription gives more of an explanation of Belisama, but still doesn't answer all of the questions about this enigmatic goddess. It was discovered in 1840 in Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse), the chief city of the Vocontii tribe. Similar to other Gaulish cities, they needed the support of a strong deity like Belisama. In this case, the Greek alphabet was used.

''The inscription is of great interest, for it dates from around the 2nd or 1st c. BC and is in the Gaulish language and Greek lettering: σεγομαρος / ουιλλονεος / τοουτιους / ναμαυσατις / ειωρου βηλη- / σαμι σοσιν / νεμητον, ‘Segomaros son of Villū, citizen of Nîmes, offered this sacred enclosure to Belesama’. The name of the dedicator, Segomaros (‘Great Strength’ or ‘Great by his Victories’), and the name of his father, Villoneos, the meaning of which is unknown, are Celtic. Segomaros offers the goddess a nemeton, that is a ‘sacred enclosure’, ‘sacred grove’ or ‘sanctuary’. The nemeton was a sacred place of cult and veneration reserved to a deity, where human beings, apart from the initiates, were not allowed.''

Photograph of the "Segomaros" inscription in honor of Belisama.

Photograph of the "Segomaros" inscription in honor of Belisama. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The inscription at Vaison-la-Romaine is carved on a hollow altar, located in the center of quadrangle lined with trees. Its edges were once marked by a fence, now part of the underground world of the remnants of the ancient site. Researchers who analyzed this inscription claim that there is no doubt that the name Belisama comes from the Celtic culture.

The Puzzle of Gaulish Beliefs

Discovering the real meaning behind the icons of the Gaulish religion and the true roots of the names and stories attached to them by folklore is not easy. A big problem for researchers is due to the language that was used. After many decades of work, they still cannot read some parts of several inscriptions. Thus, only with the advancement of research methods can we expect any new and more revealing information about the mysterious Belisama.

Top image: Minerva arming herself. The Gaulish goddess Belisama has been linked to this Roman goddess. ( Public Domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

John T. Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1-, Volume 2, 2005.

Belisamam, A Gaulish and Brythonic Goddess: Summer Bright, available at:
https://web.archive.org/web/20080321112659/http://Www.Celtnet.Org.Uk:80/gods_b/belisama.html

Minerve - Brigite – Belisama, available at:
http://encyclopedie.arbre-celtique.com/minerve-brigite-belisama-464.htm

Belisama (‘the Most Powerful’?), available at:
http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159190

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