Nehalennia is known from more than 160 votive altars, which were almost all discovered in the Dutch province of Zeeland. (Two altars were discovered in Cologne, the capital of Germania Inferior.) All of them can be dated to the second and early third centuries CE. Most pieces show a young female figure, sitting on a throne in an apse between two columns, holding a basket of apples on her lap. Nearly always, there is a wolf dog at her side. In some cases, the fruit basket is replaced by something that looks like loaves of bread; in other cases, we can see the woman standing next to a ship or a prow.
Several inscriptions inform us that the votive altar was placed to show gratitude for a safe passage across the North Sea, and we may assume that other altars were dedicated for the same reason. (Of course, this does not mean that all pieces were erected after a safe passage.) An example of a typical inscription:
To the goddess Nehalennia,
on account of goods duly kept safe,
Marcus Secundinius Silvanus,
trader in pottery with Britain,
fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly.
We happen to know that this Secundinius lived in Cologne, where several other inscriptions were found, all testifying to the existence of a wholesale trade in ceramics.
The Dutch altars were discovered at two places: in 1647 near Domburg on the island of Walcheren, and between 1970 and 1974 in sea north of Colijnsplaat (Noord-Beveland). Because of a fire in 1848, only three pieces remain of the Domburg group (in the Zeeuws museum in Middelburg and the Koninklijke musea voor kunst en geschiedenis in Brussels). The Colijnsplaat group contains 122 altars, which are now in Leiden.
It may seem strange that the Colijnsplaat altars were discovered in the sea, but it must be noted that the Zeeland archipelago did not exist in the Roman age. In those days, the river Scheldt had its estuary north of Colijnsplaat, and modern archaeologists assume that the altars at Domburg and Colijnsplaat were part of two sanctuaries. Colijnsplaat was known as Ganuenta.
Only two altars can be dated exactly. The oldest mentions the consuls Lucius Marius Maximus Perpetuus Aurelianus and Lucius Roscius Aelianus Paculius Salvius Julianus (223 CE); the other was made during the consulate of Marcus Nummius Senecio Albinus and Marcus Laelius Maximus Aemilianus, four years later.
Only a part of the cult can be reconstructed. During a tempest, the goddess was invoked by sailors, who promised her a votive altar when she would save them. After the rescue, the captain bought an expensive piece of imported natural stone (the Low Countries have no stone quarries), ordered a mason to cut out the prescribed formula and erected the monument near the sanctuary.
It looks as if the sailors made some sort of bargain with the goddess ('I give this to you if you give that to me', or, in juridical Latin, do ut des), but that is too easy a conclusion. Because the votive stones are our only evidence, we simply do not know if and what kind of sacrifices were prescribed, whether processions were necessary, what sort of behavior was expected from the saved. We do not and cannot know what these altars meant in the whole of cultic practices. (If you find 160 statues of the Virgin Mary, you do not know anything about Catholicism.)
The interpretation of the reliefs is extremely difficult, but one thing is almost certain. Since the woman is depicted in an apse, a place that was normally reserved to the gods, we may assume that she is the goddess (and not a priestess or a mermaid). However, it is not possible to establish whether she protects or tramples the ship near her foot, and we are therefore left with the question whether she caused the tempest or its silencing. (The fact that the sculptors depicted ships not wrecks suggests the latter, but we cannot force this argument.) The meaning of the fruits is a mystery too: are we to think of the 'apple country' Avalon that is known from Celtic sources as some sort of heaven, or is it a reference to the transience of life? And what to think of the dog? Is it a protective animal, or is it one of the threatening 'dogs of the sea' mentioned in the description of the North Sea by the Roman author Albinovanus Pedo? Again, we do and cannot know.
Perhaps it is possible to make a link to the Matronae or Matres, a group of three female figures - perhaps goddesses, perhaps fairies - that was commonly venerated in the Rhineland. An even closer parallel is the iconography of the death goddess Herecura, whose cult spread from the Adriatic Sea to Germania Superior. Representations of these deities resemble Nehalennia, but on the other hand: a similar image is not a similar goddess (cf. Saint George and Saint Demetrius, who are iconographically identical but completely different saints). It is also tempting to link the votive altars from Zeeland to a remark by the Roman author Tacitusnote[Tacitus, Germania 9.] that a part of the Germanic tribe of the Suebians venerated a goddess like Isis, who was depicted with a ship's prow. However, the inhabitants of ancient Zeeland, whomever they may have been, were no Suebians.
Perhaps the etymology of the name Nehalennia may help us a bit more: *ne ("near") + *halen ("sea") + *ja ("she who is..."). In other words, "She who is near the sea". The problem is that all three elements are reconstructed.
One remarkable aspect is that the texts are written in Latin, on stones that had to be imported. The native population, however, appears to have spoken a native, pre-Celtic and pre-Germanic language that had become germanized. It is possible that they had learned themselves Latin; it is also possible that she was worshipped by non-natives; and it is possible that Nehallenia's devotees were natives who, for this occasion, wanted to make a good impression and used Latin.
The cult of Nehalennia came to an end in the third century, when the sea destroyed the sanctuary.
- P. de Bernardo Stempel, “Nehalen(n)ia, das Salz und das Meer,” in: Anzeiger der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 139 (2004), 181–193.
- A. Hondius-Crone, The temple of Nehalennia at Domburg, 1955 Amsterdam
- Jona Lendering & Arjen Bosman, De rand van het Rijk. De Romeinen en de Lage Landen (2010 Amsterdam)
- L.P. Louwe Kooymans, Deae Nehalenniae. Gids bij de tentoonstelling, 1971 Leiden
- P. Stuart and J.E. Bogaers, Nehalennia. Römische Steindenkmäler aus der Oosterschelde bei Colijnsplaat, 2001 Leiden
Votive altars can be seen in the Zeeuws Museum (in Middelburg, Netherlands) and the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Rapenburg 28 in Leiden, Netherlands). The altars in Cologne were destroyed during the Second World War.