I have a real fondness for little-known gods, gods whose names are known only from a handful of sites, or even those who make a single (known) appearance. There’s no way of knowing just how localized these deities were, how long they enjoyed a cult following, or just how many worshippers they had over the years. But I think that it’s worth paying attention to these deities nonetheless, if you feel called to do so.
When you’re researching gods with little or no literary trail, such as the continental Celtic and Germanic deities, you’re often limited to what has been found in the archaeological record. If you’re lucky there will be statues, votive offerings, and inscriptions with some detail, but sometimes all you’ve got is a name, in which case you may be limited to trying to parse the etymology. None of this is all that easy, and most of it is going to be subject to interpretation.
Here I’m just going to put down a few of my own thoughts on this process and things to keep in mind, in no particular order.
- Most of the inscriptions we know of date from the era of Roman colonization. This places them chronologically, roughly and depending on where you are geographically, between the 1st and 5th century CE.
- Gallo-Roman religion was a thing, and that means that even what little information you are able to glean may differ in unknown respects from what the locals were doing before the Romans came around.
- Inscriptions that predate the Roman era are extremely, extremely rare. There is other archaeological evidence for this era but generally it doesn’t help identify gods.
- Statuary is likely to reflect the Romans as well although it can help identify deity attributes.
- Consider the company they kept. I don’t only mean cases where a god appeared with their consort (i.e. Nantosuelta and Sucellus), but where a group of gods were worshipped at the same site; such as in Etrechy where Carantana, Etiona, Gnatus, Isosa and Hidua were found together.
- Chances are that you will come across more unique female god-names than male. The Romans were more likely to apply the interpretatio romana to male deities than to female, so you have plenty of references to Gaulish Mercuries, Apollos and Marses, who may or may not have their original name attached (i.e. Apollo Grannus).
- Remember to respect the deity’s original land and context–remember where they came from.