In January 1647, a storm demolished several dunes in Domburg, the Netherlands. Several monuments were laid bare. In the centuries to come, many more of these artefacts would become unburied, including altars, statues and the ruins of a temple. All in all, in the region of Domburg and the Colijnsplaat,from the 17th century up until now, hundreds of altars, several statues, and two temples have been found that are dedicated to Nehalennia. This region was an important harbor around 200 CE, and this is a key point to the goddess Nehalennia.
Nehalennia is regarded as a guardian of travelers and sailors. Apart from that, she probably had other functions and associations, and was probably a mother goddess. Or at least, her altars, such as the one above, look remarkably like the many images of Matronae or Matres (mothers) that have been found in Northwest Europe. These goddesses are often seen as a way to depict mothergodesses who were probably connected to specific tribes or places. Nehalennia’s name is not found anywhere else, but in this area she was obviously a major deity. Most of what we know of her, we have learned by researching her altars.
An altar was made as a sign of thanks to the goddess, when a particular voyage or sale had gone well. The material of the altars, limestone and sandstone, comes from the area of the Maas-Moselle area, a couple of hundred kilometres from the coast, to the east. The material was probably quite costly. The altars all contain of a depiction of Nehelannia, and a written dedication. Many names have been written down in the dedications to Nehelannia. From these, researchers have found that most commisioners were merchants and seamen who came from the area of Cologne and Trier. An example of an alter text is: To the goddess Nehalennia M(arcus) Exgingius Agricola, citizen of Trier, merchant of salt in Cologne, has held his promise, glady and with reason.
Nehalennia herself is usually depicted in the same manner. She is seated within the architecture of a Roman temple, in Roman garments. Her attribute mainly consist of a fruitbowl and dogs.
The name Nehalennia is probably German and could mean ‘leader’, ‘stearwoman’, ‘the one who comes closer/across’. However, since many who sacrificed to her had Celtic names, there are also those who see the name Nehalennia as Celtic.
I myself think that there may also be an underworld connotation in the part ‘Nehal-‘ or ‘-hal-‘,(then again, I’m not a linguist, so please correct me if I’m wrong here). I think the idea of Nehalennia as an underworld goddess is strengthened by the fact that her attributes consist of fruits (fertility) and dogs (guardians of the underworld).
Clerinx, Herman. Kelten en de Lage Landen. Leuven: Davidsfonds. 2005. (Second print.)
Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden