The title of this page is refering to a deity – a goddess most likely – of whom almost nothing is known, though the little that we know is quite fascinating. There are some folkloric stories about Tanfana going around, which I will skip for now until I’ve researched them a bit further. This article will (for now) focus on the meaning of the deity’s name, which is the only historical trace we really have.
First of all it must be said that Tanfana’s name, like many other names of ancient European deities, appears only once in history. It is Tacitus who, in his Annales, mentions this name. The context is the defeat by the Romans of the Germanic tribe of the Marsi (this is their Latin name). Here is the Roman text, with my English translation (based on the Dutch translation by Ben Bijnsdorp, see sources below):
1.50.3. Delecta longiore via cetera adcelerantur: etenim attulerant exploratores festam eam Germanis noctem ac sollemnibus epulis ludicram. Caecina cum expeditis cohortibus praeire et obstantia silvarum amoliri iubetur: legiones modico intervallo sequuntur.
1.50.3. They chose the longest route and made haste with the rest: because scouts had informed that a feast was celebrated by the Germans that night and they would spend it with an abundance of traditional meals. Caecina was instructed to advance with light-armed cohorts and to eliminate the hindrances in the forests: the legions followed at a slight distance.
1.50.4. Iuvit nox sideribus inlustris, ventumque ad vicos Marsorum et circumdatae stationes stratis etiam tum per cubilia propterque mensas, nullo metu, non antepositis vigiliis: adeo cuncta incuria disiecta erant neque belli timor, ac ne pax quidem nisi languida et soluta inter temulentos.
1.50.4. The night with its glittering starry sky was favourable to them and they arrived at the villages of the Marsi and surrounded them with sentries while the inhabitants were still in bed or at the table, without fear, without advanced watchers: this was how much everything was neglected by carelesness and they harboured no fear for war and even if there was peace, it was a peace of relaxed lethargy among drunks.
1.51.1. Caesar avidas legiones quo latior populatio foret quattuor in cuneos disperit; quinquaginta milium spatium ferro flammisque pervastat. Non sexus, non aetas miserationum attulit: profana simul et sacra et celeberrinum illis gentibus templum quod Tanfanae vocabant solo aequantur. Sine vulnere milites, qui semisomnos, inermos aut palantis ceciderant.
1.51.1. Caesar divided his avid legions into four wedge-shaped formations to ensure a destruction on a grand scale; he destroyed an area of fifty miles by sword and fire. No sex, no age appeased: the profane as well as the sacred, even the by these people much celebrated sanctuary of Tanfana, were demolished. The soldiers, who had slaughtered their victims half-sleeping, unarmed or wandering around, remained woundless.
That’s all we have. Theories and calculations mention that this battle probably took place during a full moon in autumn. This may lead us to a deity associated with the moon and/or the harvest, though this is of course a rather straightforward conclusion based on very little. We can’t even be sure of it’s really a deity we’re talking about, though the fact that the text mentions a sanctuary dedicated to Tanfana makes this a fairly safe bet.
Even the name is a riddle without a satisfactory answer. Tanfana sounds like a female name, and surely the suffix -a usually indicates a female name, but not always. Caligula, Agrippa, anyone? And the most feminine of all godesses is called Venus, when -us is usually assocoiated with male names. So again, that Tanfana is a goddess is really not clear at all. But let’s assume it for the time being, because everyone else does (not a very good reason…).
The eldest interpretation of the name Tanfana that I could find stems from the 18th centruy and is (in my humble opinion) a bit simplistic. The reasoning, posed forward by Engelbert in his 1799 book, was that Tan is Old-German for pine (Dutch: den), and fan would be Teutionic of Gothic for a deity, hence ‘deity of pines’. This was debunked by researchers such as Grimm, but a satisfying alternative hasn’t truly been found. Fana is still often compared with words for deities or, more popularly, fanum, which is Latin for shrine or sanctuary. Still Tan eludes most etymologists. Someone who has put quite some work in reconstructing the name of Tanfana is Olivier van Renswoude, so I’ll let him speak from here (for people who can read Dutch: go and check out Taaldacht, which is a goldmine for fans of etymology and history).
If -an(a) is actually a Germanic suffix, as some people such as Van Renswoude (who bases this idea on Jan de Vries, see sources) think, we come up with *tanf-. What could that mean? According to Carl Mastrander (see Renswoude, sources) this could lead to tafn which is Old Norse for ‘sacrificial animal’.According to Van Renswoude, Tanfana could be a latinization of *Tafnanð, who might then have been a goddess of sacrificial animals.
Another more daring theory, which I also got from Van Renswoude, connects Tanfana to the night sky. According to this theory, Tanfana could etymologically be traced back to *Tanhwanð if you accept that the f might have been a hw (which is not impossible). This word can then be compared to other Germanic words that have all something to do with the night sky – and with heavenly bodies in particular, though not necessarily the moon. It’s a very thin line to draw, but it can be drawn nonetheless.
Van Renswoude poses a third theory in which he suggests that -fana could originally mean ‘spinner’ or ‘weaver’. Tan is harder to interpret, but this could mean something like ‘to tighten’. The name could, with a stretch (heh) of the imagination mean ‘weaver of a thread’. Van Renswoude then connects this thread to the thread of life that is spun by divine goddesses such as Frigg. Again daring conncetion, and also an exciting one.
Bijnsdorp, Ben. “Publii Cornelii Taciti Annales: een structurering van een gedeelte van de latijnse tekst en een nederlandse vertaling door Ben Bijnsdorp” Antieke literaire teksten met een vertaling door Ben Bijnsdorp. http://benbijnsdorp.nl/ann01_46.html Checked on 11 February 2017.
Boris. “De oorsprong van de naam Tanfana.” In: Wiccan Rede. Jaargang 30, no. 1. Lente/Beltane 2009. Zeist: Silver Circle.
Engelberts, E.M. De aloude staat en geschiedenis der Vereenigde Nederlanden, vierde en laatste deel. Amsterdam: Johannes Allart. 1799.
Renswoude, Olivier van. “Bij volle maan gevierd.” On: Taaldacht. 15 June 2011. https://taaldacht.nl/2011/06/15/bij-volle-maan-gevierd/ Checked on 19 February 2017.
Renswoude, Olivier van. “De spinnende godin.” On: Taaldacht. 20 June 2011. https://taaldacht.nl/2011/06/20/de-spinnende-godin/ Checked on 11 March 2017.