When Julius Caesar first came to the west coast of Iberia in 60 BC he was unsuprised to find a pantheon of more than sixty deities whose identities were not dissimilar to those which he had recorded in the epic records of his military campaigns in Central Europe. Wisely, the policy which he initiated for the Roman occupation by conquest was one of tolerance and eventual assimilation with Classical Religion.
The beliefs and worship of the autochthonic people are thought to have been of an animist and naturalistic nature with holiness attributed to physical features such as the flowing water of rivers and springs, rocky outcrops and grottos while divination by augury of animals including humans took place at altars of stone often located in proximity to the dolmen and menhirs for which ancient Portugal is renowned. None of these places and the divinities associated with them has contemporary written records but inscriptions were often added in later times using mainly the Latin alphabet to attribute the practises which had gone before.
The location, transcription and analysis of these writings has been the painstaking task of detective archaeologists such as Professor Alain Tranoy who has conceived a chronological history of pre-Roman Portugal religion including the importation of deities by the Celts , Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and various tribes of Indo-European stock.
An example of this is the legend of a whale ”of wonderful bigness” which was beached on the coast of Setubal in the year 550 BC and terrified the local people who imagined it to be an Ocean God (perhaps the Greek Poseidon) the appeasement of which was achieved by the sacrifice of a maiden and boy whose bodies vanished with the whale on the rising tide. Such was the importance given to this “manifestation” that sacrifices were repeated annually until the advent of Christianity and were recorded by Roman historians such as Strabo.
Strabo also tells us that Lusitanian warriors were accustomed to slaughter their prisoners after covering them with a coarse blanket and then examining the entrails and flow of blood so that the course of future battles could be augured . The right hands were also amputated to be offered on the altar of Cosus , a deity of war. But such acts have been described in Celtic annals across Europe so may be discounted as a being solely an Iberian practise.
The native deity Nabia took various forms (usually female) and was associated with sacred springs and the valleys and woods through which rivers flowed. It was probably her protection which gave rise to the attribution of the waters of the River Lima as having the power to cause amnesia to whoever immersed in them. Local legend had it that various groups of Celtic immigrants had crossed the Lima into the wilderness of southern Galicea never to be seen again. In 137 BC superstitious soldiers of the Roman army led by the conqueror Decius Junius Brutus hesitated to pass until their leader , brandishing the Legion´s standard, forded the river and threatened decimation of those who refused to follow ! Nabia is often associated with the deity Reo either as a consort or as her male Nemesis but was later identified by the Romans with their goddesses Diana and Victoria.
Another indigenous goddess was Epona who was regarded as the protector of horses, mules and donkeys and is associated with cornucopia, the cultivation of wheat and other fertility symbols. She is often depicted as riding her horses as a guide to souls entering the chthonic after-life. Her devotees were numerous and ranged in location well beyond the Lusitanian lands.
Bandua or Banda was also an ubiquitous deity of indeterminate sex although most of the epithets use the male nominative while the only known depiction on a patera is that of a woman with tall helmet , staff and ears of corn similar to the Roman Fortuna. The masculine name was usually coupled with that of locations such as the vicus and hill-forts which received protection from supernatural forces. Altars apparently dedicated to Banda have been found in the region of Bemposta but the inscriptions are often fragmented or abbreviated which have led to the belief that the name could have been inclusive of other minor figures in the pantheon.
Perhaps the most common name to be found in Lusitanian mythology is that of Endovelicus who specialised in healing as a guardian of good health. He also appears to have been the voice of several oracles and began as a relatively minor god of the underworld who became increasingly popular with both the Celts and the Romans.
Etymological research shows that the region north of the Douro nominated some thirty deities while between that river end the Tagus the diversity was even greater. But, interestingly, there seems to have been a religious frontier at the river Vouga which runs eastward from Aveiro to Mangualde because some divine names are confined to the north and others to the south of these waters which perhaps were guarded by Nabia. To the south of the Tagus (present-day Alentejo and Algarve) only the names of Endovelicus and five obscure minor deities are listed by Tranoy which is possibly due to the cosmopolitan nature of this Tartessian region.
In Part 8 we shall examine the beliefs and superstitions of Roman Portugal post Julius Caesar.