Matrons and Disir:The Heathen Tribal Mothers


By Winifred Hodge

Matron Worship in Germanic Lands

A belief and trust in protective maternal deities seems to have been strong among our Heathen forebears for many centuries, at least as strong as their belief in the Aesir and Vanir more familiar to us today. The earliest written records of these beliefs begin during the first century C.E. and predominate in the lands of the continental Germans. The core areas of the Matron Cult were in ancient Germania, eastern Gaul, and northern Italy, but it reached as far as present day Scotland, Frisia, southern Spain and Rome. More than 1100 votive stones and altars to the "matrons" or mothers have been found to date, over half of which are dedicated to beings with clearly Germanic names; the others are of Celtic origin or are unclear whether Celtic or Germanic. The Germanic folk and the Celts apparently shared this belief, as with a number of other similarities between the beliefs of these peoples.

More than simple votive stones have been found, however: in some areas there were large cult centers, temples and monuments, especially along the Rhine. Some of the largest were in Pesch, Nettersheim, and Bonn. The temples, monuments and votive stones show that the following were important to the worship of the mothers:
-burning bowls of incense
-sacrifices of fruit, fish, and pigs,
-imagery of fruit baskets, plants, trees, babies, children, cloths for wrapping babies, and snakes.
Images of the mothers generally show them in a group of three, though occasionally two or one are found; usually at least one of them holds a basket of fruit, and often a baby is held. Often all of them have clothing and hairstyles or headdressing indicating their matron status, though sometimes the middle figure is shown dressed as a maiden, with her hair loose.

Interestingly, many of the votive stones and monuments were dedicated by Germanic soldiers and sailors, legionaries in the Roman Empire, rather than by women, though frequently the stones were set up on behalf of the soldier's entire family or his clan . Many times, though, it is clear from the inscription that the soldier inscribed it for his own sake, asking the mothers for protection, health and wellbeing, and perhaps luck in battle, or often thanking them for having already provided it. Indeed, many of the monuments and stones were thank offerings for what the mothers had already given, indicating the mothers obvious ability to respond to their believers prayers! Apparently the worshippers made vows to the matrons, to set up a stone for them if the mothers granted their prayers. One inscription says: To Alatievia (the all-divine one), on her own command, from the physician Divos. The worshippers then fulfulled their vows, leaving us their many records of this flourishing faith over the course of four centuries. Since those who set up the stones had learned to write in Latin, as soldiers and sailors of the Roman Empire, the inscriptions are in Latin and the matron names are latinized, even though the folk who set them up were Germanic or Celtic. All of the examples given here are names thought to be of Germanic origin.

The primary functions of the mothers, as shown in the inscriptions, were to help in time of need, to protect, to watch over a family or clan, to help in fertility and childbirth, to heal, and possibly to give protection in battle. In addition, many of the inscriptions appear to be to water goddesses or spirits, who have the name of the river or spring in which they reside. These were perhaps being propitiated by believers seeking safety in traveling on the water, and/or a good harvest of fish. In the case of spirits of springs, folk would have wanted to make sure the spring did not dry up. The names of the mothers are multitudinous; more than 100 different clearly Germanic names have been found to date. Frequently the names are those of clan-mothers or folk-mothers, as can be seen in examples of inscriptions to the Swabian mothers, German mothers, paternal Frisian mothers, and the mothers of the paternal family of Kannanef. Others--goddesses or spirits of places--are named for the river or spring where they live, such as the Renahenae of the Rhine, or for the town or area they watched over, like the Albiahenae matrons of the town of Elvenich. Frequently the mothers are named for their attributes, such as giving and protectiveness (Gabiae, Friagabiae, Alagabiae) or the powerful ones (Afliae). In the case of the Ahueccaniae, the first element of their name is thought to relate to water, and the second element to Anglo-Saxon wiccian: to make magic and to Middle High German wicken: to prophesy, creating a very interesting combination! The Alaferhviae, depicted together with trees, are thought to derive their name from an Old High German word for tree or oak; other matron names also seem to have a linguistic connection with trees/oaks. The Audrinehae probably means the friendly powers of destiny, showing a connection with the Lesser Norns. These are just some examples of name-derivations; there are many more. Quite often the derivations of their names are obscure.

In the general area of the largest cult centers, as many as 360 monuments name the same three sets of matrons: the Aufaniae, Suleviae, and Vacallinehae; in addition are stones which mention only one of the three. The matrons Vacallinehae have at least 130 inscriptions dedicated to them alone, with another 150 fragments that may have been theirs as well. The name Vacallinehae is probably based on a place-name; thus these mothers were probably the protectresses of the folk who lived in that particular area. More than 90 inscriptions to Aufanie have been found, who appears to have been a single goddess rather than a collection of mothers as were the Vacallinehae. Aufanie was often named as "goddess Aufanie" or "holy Aufanie," making her divine status quite clear, while other times she was titled "matron Aufanie." One interpretation of her name, based on a Gothic derivation, is "generous ancestral mother." About 40 inscriptions are dedicated to the Suleviae matrons; these inscriptions have been found scattered all over Europe and tend to be more informative about the matrons than most votive stones are. These inscriptions show that the Suleviae were considered guardians of the private, domestic sphere, guardian spirits of the household.

Probably the most well-known goddess with matron-like functions is Nehalennia, worshipped primarily in the northern continental Germanic regions (Frisia, northern Germany, Holland usw.). About 60 inscriptions and votive altars or stones to her have been found. As depicted on her votive altars, her attributes are a basket of fruit, and frequently a ship or an oar, and a dog. She is thought to have been, in addition to a fertility goddess, a patroness of seafaring (most likely for peaceful purposes such as fishing and trade), and a goddess of the dead. These attributes are common to the Near Eastern goddess Isis as well; it is possible that the references to Germanic worship of Isis by the Roman writer Tacitus could have applied to her. Some scholars also think Nehalennia could be another name for the goddess worshipped as Nerthus by the Angles and other Germanic tribes, whom Tacitus describes as Terra Mater, Earth Mother.

General Conclusions about Matron Worship

The many inscriptions to the matrons, their descriptive names along with images from their stones and temples, allow us to extract several general conclusions out of their great variety of attributes.

1) The matrons and matron-like goddesses were widely worshipped among the Germanic peoples over a period of at least several centuries. My suspicion is that they were worshipped long before we have written records of them, and that the written records only began showing up during the heyday of the Roman Empire with its cadre of fairly literate soldiers and other functionaries of Germanic origin. In other words, I don't think that the widespread worship of matrons, and Latin literacy, just happened to coincide at once; I think the practice of worshipping matron goddesses was around for a long time but did not leave traces until the common folk learned to write inscriptions to them on stone.

2) The matrons had a number of functions, including especially protectiveness, help, and gift-giving (fertility, health, children, wise rede or foreseeing, and other gifts).

3) They were associated with certain natural features, in particular rivers, springs, and trees.

4) Individual towns, regions, tribes, clans, families, and households frequently had their own dedicated matrons.

5) Matrons were worshipped by all sorts of folk: women and men, common folk and leaders, soldiers and civilians; they had a very broad base of worshippers.

6) People seemed to regard the matrons as being very personal, local and close to them. The inscriptions are often addressed to my or our matrons. It seems likely that folk considered the particular matrons they worshipped to belong to them, their family, their native place, rather than seeing them as distant, Olympian figureheads out of the reach of mortals.

7) Folk seemed to put a great deal of trust in the mothers, and judging by the number of thank-offerings for prayers answered, the trust was well-founded.

Hans Schoell in his book Die Drei Ewigen (The Three Eternal Ones) traced the continuation of three German goddesses through the Heathen era and far into the Christian one, appearing later as saints, princesses, or just three sisters. He primarily used the evidence of the many recognizable variants of their names: Ambet, Gwerbet, and Borbet. (There are several matron names that I think could be related as well: Ambiamarcae, Ambiomarcis, Berguinehae, Borvoboendoa.) What is particularly interesting is the very local nature of folks understanding of these goddesses or maidens. Pretty much invariably, the martyrologies, folktales or anecdotal sources specify that Ambet, Gwerbet and Borbet lived right over there, pointing out some local place; are buried here; up there on the hill is where their father the king lived; there is where they were martyred as saints; and so forth--even though sources in distant parts of Germany and Austria said the same things about their localities. The sources seemed unaware that other German folk knew of these feminine beings, and assumed the three maidens belonged to them, were their own. Many of the characteristics and images of Ambet, Gwerbet and Borbet are identical to those of matrons, and so is their local, personal nature. Schoell has done us a great favor tracing them in all their guises through Heathen and Christian times, and has shown how strongly belief and loyalty was held by the folk, in spite of Christianization.

To this evidence may be added the centuries of belief, in the Germanic countries, in well-maidens, river-maidens, wood-wives, and other protective feminine beings associated with the same natural features as the matrons were, though these beings suffered the same process of demonization as all other Heathen holy ones did. I wonder, too, whether the common Christian folklore and folksong theme of the three Marys does not also relate back to the matrons. The three Marys were supposedly Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene, which comprise a trio of two motherly or matronly figures that one imagines with covered heads, and one unmarried, maidenly figure with long, loose hair, as the images of the matrons so often show. According to folklore, the three Marys often appear to people in need of help or wise rede, or occasionally when a death is pending, just as the holy Heathen womanly beings do.

There is another related class of womanly beings in the continental Germanic tradition--namely the idesa, who are linguistically connected with the Scandinavian disir. However, I will (reluctantly!) forego discussion of these interesting women here. It is clear from the historical context that the idesa were generally respected and revered, and played their roles among the tribes, while they were still living women, though presumably after death their souls joined the body of Heathen tribal mothers. The idesa functioned as seeresses, rede-givers, priestesses, sacrificers, magicians (including especially battle-magic), rune-masters, and participated in the leadership of their tribes during their lifetimes, playing very significant roles as such. But they are in rather a different category than the Matrons, who function as spiritual rather than fleshly beings, and thus I will not include the idesa in this present discussion. However, in my personal practice, I will note that I include famous idesa such as Veleda and others in my own devotions to the tribal Mothers.

Moving North....

The cult of the Matrons, judging by the age of the inscriptions, began to die out among the continental Germans by around the fifth century C.E., presumably due to the growing hold of Christianity in these regions. As it happens, this is also the time when England was first settled by the Heathen Saxons, Angles, Jutes and other tribes, including Frisians and Franks. The early English historian Bede, born in 673 C.E., mentioned in his writings that the still-Heathen Angles celebrated sacrificial feasts at the beginning of the year, at Yuletide, in honour of the Mothers. He wrote "modraniht, id est matrum noctem," namely "modraniht, it is the night of the mothers." It is important to note that both the Anglo-Saxon word "modra-(niht)" and the Latin "matrum" are in the plural, not the singular. Modern Heathens often celebrate this holiday primarily as "Mother Night," conceived of as being the night the year is born, the solstice tide. This is very beautiful imagery, and certainly a most fitting way to celebrate this event. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the Anglian holy tide described by Bede was very clearly the "Night of the Mothers",--what would in Scandinavian countries be called the disablot, Disting, or festival of the disir, the tribal soul-mothers. It is also clear that, since the festival is described as a sacrifice, it was intended primarily for the deceased mothers more than the living ones: the mothers who have gone through and past death to become sources of wisdom and soul-might for their living folk. Thus, while indeed it makes perfect sense to celebrate the solstice with the imagery of Mothernight, and honor today's living mothers, there is no question that the tribal soul-mothers are the ones who should receive highest mindfulness and honor on this holy night.

Simek in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology substantiates this understanding of the meaning of Mothers' Night and draws the linkages between the Anglo-Saxon observances and those conducted on the continent and in Scandinavia:

Thus it corresponds to other Germanic Yule-tide festivals; the idea that it might have been a Celtic festival is largely refuted nowadays. The Modraniht as a Germanic sacrificial festival should be associated with the Matron cult of the West Germanic peoples on the one hand, and to the disablot and Disting already known from medieval Scandinavia on the other hand and is chronologically to be seen as a connecting link between these Germanic forms of cult. (p. 220)

Thus it seems we have a fairly continuous thread with which to follow the Heathen Mothers through historical time, starting in the Germanic countries of the continent at the beginning of the Common Era, leaping to the isle of England just as records began to dry up on the continent, picking up in Scandinavia in later times with the sagas and other references to the disir, and then going underground in the form of folklore once Christianity had taken hold in the Germanic lands.

The Disir of Scandinavia

The Mothers are most familiar to today's Heathens as the disir, our understanding of them coming primarily from the Scandinavian sources. Though the sagas are not considered by scholars as necessarily historically accurate on every point, nevertheless it seems very likely that their references to the disarsalr (disir-halls) and the frequent references to the disablot sacrifices at harvest are historically correct. Note that in Scandinavia, the most common festival of the disir took place at Winternights, during mid-October after the harvest had been gathered and the winter slaughtering was taking place. This is in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Mothernight celebration at Yuletide, with respect to the date, but the characteristics of the festival seem otherwise to have been very similar.

In addition to the disir-halls, stones or piled stone harrows were also dedicated to the disir. One can see the continuity between the Matrons' Roman-era temples, cult-centers, votive stones and altars, with the later disasalr and harrows, even if no inscriptions were usually associated with the Scandinavian establishments. Indeed, six hundred years after the heyday of the continental Matron cult, we find a description in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum of what he called a "shrine of the norns, with images of three seated nymphs" in Scandinavia, that seems closely similar to archeological finds of Matron temples on the continent. (Simek, p.207)

It seems that in later Scandinavian times, the connection between the Mothers and specific places or natural features (rivers, springs, trees) had faded or weakened, though it was not completely absent, while the ancestral connection remained very strong. The one indication I have found that clearly links the disir with the land or features of the land are references to landdisasteinar, or stones of the land-disir (see Simek, p. 186). The land-disir were apparently believed to live in these rocks, and it is not clear (to me, at any rate!) whether they were seen as nature spirits, ancestral spirits, or both together. Nevertheless, this is one more commonality between the Matrons of the continent, who clearly functioned as both nature-spirits and as protective maternal ancestral spirits, and the disir of Scandinavia. Certainly folklore would be a worthwhile route to try to trace more details of the continuity between them.

Besides the close and clear-cut connection with many natural features and regions, another thing lost when the cult of the Matrons went underground on the European continent is the richness of descriptive names for the Matrons found in the hundreds of inscriptions we have. Scandinavian disir are almost never named. Two notable exceptions are Thorgerd and Irpa, very powerful disir of the clan Hladhr in Halogaland, who were fully-trusted by Jarl Hakon. These disir had an elaborate temple of their own and fought beside their kinsmen in battle by appearing in the sky shooting darts of hail from their fingertips. (Njal's Saga 88, Saga of the Jomsvikings, and Skaldskarpamal. See Simek pp. 326-7.) But these two are very much the exception rather than the rule, and the usual pattern seems to have been worship of "the disir" as an undifferentiated group or mass, who also appeared as anonymous individual disir in dreams to give warnings or sometimes threats to kinsfolk. They are recognised as disir, but not named as individuals or as groups, in contrast to the continental Matrons.

Scandinavian lore, then, shows that the strongest feature of the disir is their ancestral connection to their families and folk, and they seem to have played a very strong role in everyday life and faith of the folk, as they did earlier in history as well. It is my subjective impression (I have not yet tried to count the references!) that there are more frequent references, direct and indirect, to disablotar than there are to blotar for any of the Æsir or Vanir, in the Scandinavian literature. Disir helped in childbirth, gave rede and warnings to their kin, protected them, brought luck, aided them in battle, and gave strength to the family line:

"...the idises act, not only as shapers of the family line, but as embodiments and transmitters of its orlog and the whole spiritual complex associated with it. A family, or aett, which is mighty of soul will have mighty idises who look upon its bairns with a kindly mood and give the best of gifts; but if the heritage carries an ill orlog, the idises will bring that down upon the children of the line." (Gundarsson, p. 108)

The sagas also show the dark side, where the ill will of the family's disir bodes death for a family member, a sign that his luck is at an end. Sometimes the association of the disir with their kinsman's death seems related to the idises anger or their wish for a sacrifice, or a serious loss of luck, whereas in other instances it seems they simply appear in order to invite their kinsman home with them. (I refer to men in these sentences because I am not familiar with anything in the sagas that show whether the disir treat their kinswomen in the same way, or differently.) This darker side of the mothers is not apparent from what I know of the continental matrons, though indeed one would not expect to find votive offerings to the dark side of the mothers, so perhaps it was there but we do not have records of it. On the other hand, it is also possible that the authors of the sagas exaggerated the darker side of the disir in order to heighten the drama of their stories.

An interesting twist to the dark and light aspects of the disir show up in a few tales where their is a struggle or contest between light and dark disir over one of their kinsmen, which is interpreted as a struggle between the kin's ancient Heathen disir and the newer Christian disir who are coming into being as their kinfolk's faith is converted. The Heathen disir, the dark ones, win and gain the death of their kinsman because the strength of the new disir is as yet too weak to compete with them. One interpreter of events describes the cause of Thidrandi s death this way:

"I expect that your disir which have followed this old faith have now learned of this changing of customs (Christianity) and that they shall be forsaken by their kin. Now they must not have wanted to have no share from you before they part from you and they must have this (Thidrandi) as their part. But the better disir must have wanted to help him and were not able to do so as things stood." (Cf. the discussion pp. 218-219 in Our Troth. This event is described in Kristni Thattr, Olaf's Saga Tryggvasonar, in the Flateyjarbok.)

Clearly, a Christian slant is being placed on these events, and possibly the whole occurrence was made up or reinterpreted for purposes of dramatic storytelling and Christian propaganda. But the overall sense that Heathen disir would be disturbed and hostile over the coming of the new faith was surely an accurate one. They were losing their link to their kin and surely this more than anything else would bring out their dark side.

Heathen Idises Today

My own experience with the idises has shown me that they do indeed have a passionate attachment to folk of their own blood and will hunt us down through the coils of time and space in order to keep or renew the bonds of relationship. When offspring of their own blood move toward Heathenism again, this seems to act as a clarion call to the ancient Heathen idises of our lines, and they will hone in on us with all the might of their beings. I have noticed that they are especially interested in and intent on Heathen weddings and childbearing, not surprisingly since the familyline depends on these activities.

We can expect the idises to bring with them the same gifts they always have: help in time of need, wise rede and foresight, protection, luck, fruitfulness, and motherly care. In addition, they carry the ancient orlays of our family lines; as I see these orlays, they are tangled, snarled and raveled by the changing troths and beliefs of the generations. The idises long to smooth out the raveled ends of our kin orlays and reknit them to folk of firm Heathen troth and thews.

In keeping with the principles of our faith, the mothers expect to give gifts and receive them in return; our failure to accept their gifts and our failure to return gifts are equally offensive to them. They do indeed have dark sides, and they have bee n living in the dark, underground, for a long time. It is time for us to bring them out again into the light and warmth of our family hearths, reknitting our bonds and troth with them, giving them back the honor of their own names, accepting them as our ancient kin and as our link not only to the might and main of our family lines but also to the magic and power of nature that the earth-rooted Heathen mothers once mediated for us.

This Yuletide, light a candle and set a place at your table for your idises on Mothernight (December 20th). If you have enough chairs, designate one of them as theirs for the feast, and perhaps drape it with a decorative cloth. Welcome them hospitably to your table and your hearth! Set their place with your best tableware and leave out a dish of good food and drink throughout the night for their feasting. Among the kinds of food they like are porridge with milk, or a milk pudding or cream soup, and for drink, ale, cider or mead. They also like fruit, and smoked fish (you can buy small tins of smoked herring at your supermarket). The next day, leftover food should go to the family pets or be set out for the wild creatures; the drink should be poured on your outdoor harrow or at the roots of a tree. (Don't forget, also, to set out such a feast for all your departed kinfolk, sometime during Yuletide.) You could also tie up small gifts for them and hang them on your Yule Tree. As their gift to you in return, ask your idises to make themselves known to you and stand by you during the coming year, that you may face the demands of the world with the might and wisdom of your kin at your back.

Hael and Glad Yule to our elder idis-kin, and to all their offspring who celebrate once again the depth and warmth of a true Heathen Yuletide!

Revised 03/28/98


The Ring of Troth, Our Troth, 1993
Schoell, Hans Cristoph, Die Drei Ewigen: Eine Untersuchung ueber Germanischen Bauernglauben, Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Jena, 1936.
Simek, Rudolf, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D.S. Brewer, 1993.


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