Nehalennia, Dutch Goddess of the Sea

Nehalennia. She is probably the best known Goddess of the ‘Low Countries’. She is also the Goddess we know most about. (which still isn’t much) She was most probably a Goddess of safe sea travel, a Mothergoddess and sometimes seen as a Goddess of death and rebirth.

In 1645 a large part of the Zeelandse Dunes in Domburg were eroded due to a huge storm. What they found were altarstones or votive stones dedicated to the Goddess Nehalennia. These stones dated back to the second and third century BC. They also find the remains of a Temple. Which suggests that there once was a Temple dedicated to Nehalennia there. Although it is still not known whether this Goddess was Celtic or Germanic, it is known that the Romans in the area worshipped this Goddess. The texts on the votive stones are in Latin. Therefore it is thought that Nehalennia is the name the Romans gave to the Goddess. The stones found in Domburg were displayed in the church, which turned into a sort of museum. However in 1848 lightning struck the church tower, burning it to the ground. Most stones were destroyed.

In 1970 a fisherman at Colijnsplaat in Zeeland noticed four large stones in his fishing net. He decided to take them to shore and showed them to a lot of people. They recognized the name Nehalennia, which was still readable on one of the stones. In the years after this discovery they excavated more of these votive stones, together with pieces of building materials. Suggesting that here too, once a Temple dedicated to the Sea Goddess stood.

To this day they have found over 200 of these votive stones. A large amount of them are exhibited in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden. They have an entire floor dedicated to these beautiful statues. In Colijnsplaat they rebuild the Temple. It opened in 2005 and is a place of education, but you can also make an offering to the Goddess.

There are a few symbols that are common on the votive stones for Nehalennia. Most of them depict a woman clad in robes, either sitting on a throne or standing on a ship. In her lap she has a basket filled with either apples or loaves of bread. Next to her we often find a dog, looking up at the Goddess.
On most of the votive stones found, there are texts. Usually we find a name. Sometimes we also see the place where the person who has offered the stone came from. Sometimes it states that person’s job and the reason for his journey. Followed by an expression of his gratitude towards Nehalennia for a safe journey. The shortref V.S.L.M. is often found. It’s Latin; V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito), which means something like ‘his promise repaid, pleased and with reason’. People from all over the region came to the Temples to pay their respects to Nehelennia and ask for a safe sea voyage. Upon their safe return they would sacrifice the votive stones to her. They would have been painted once, but the paint has been eroded by the waters. Sometimes they find scraps of paint on the surface of the stones. In the Archeon in the Netherlands they have a painted replica of one of the stones.

The symbols on the stones tell us a lot about what kind of Goddess Nehalennia is. In art, a woman sitting on a throne is a woman of great importance. A lot of Goddesses are depicted while sitting on a throne. The ship tells us that she was a Goddess of the Sea and of travel. Apples stand for wisdom as well as abundance and the Mother aspect. The loaves of bread show us that she is the Goddess of the land, as well as the sea. The dog can mean either loyalty, or is a symbol of death. Sometimes Nehalennia is seen as a version of Hel. The dog would then be one of her hounds, guarding the underworld. A dog is also a protector of man, something this Goddess is also. One thing we don’t the symbolism of yet, is her clothing. She is often depicted wearing flowing robes which fall to the floor. However, she also wears a capelet, something that is unique to this Goddess. In no other Roman depictions we find this specific piece of clothing. It was once thought that it was part of Zeeland’s folk costume. Since the Zeeland’s folk costume as we know it didn’t come into view until the 18th century, this has been proven incorrect. Why she wears capelet is a mystery.

I’ve only had the pleasure of working with Nehalennia once, since it was the Matron Goddess of one of our ex-coven members. I do, however, plan on learning more on this truly Dutch Goddess and hope to visit the new Temple one day.

I hope I’ve awakened your interest into the myth and magic of the Low Counties. May Nehalennia bless your travels and your land.

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