Nemorensis Lacus

In this special guest-post, Dr. Kelly A. Kilpatrick from the Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, explains why the name Nemi is so special and how it connects our sacred place with others across the pre-Christian world: 

the-sacred-grove-1366-768 (1)

Grove of trees

The place-name Nemorensis Lacus, the Classical name of Lake Nemi, preserves the Latin term nemus ‘sacred grove’ (nemorensis being a Latin adjective of locality formed from nemus plus the suffix –ensis.). Latin nemus is a cognate of Celtic nemeton (‘sanctuary’ and often interpreted as ‘sacred grove’), an early term used to denote sacred space. The Celtic element nemeton is fascinating because of its long history and widespread distribution, from Hellenistic Asia Minor to contemporary Ireland. The term nemeton is attested in various forms in the Celtic languages (historical and modern):

Gaulish (νεμητον) nemeton/beside nimidas; Old Welsh niuet (nimet/nimed), Middle Welsh nyfed, Old Cornish *neved, Modern Cornish neves, Breton nemet besides niuet/nyuet; Old Irish (n. o-stem) nemed, Modern Irish neimed, and Scots Gaelic neimheadh.

Celtic nemeton is frequently translated as ‘sacred grove’, though as Jane Webster (1995: 448) points out, there is ‘little indication that it principally denoted such sites’. Place-name elements and their interpretations can evolve in different social and political contexts, especially where a term is used in multiple languages over a broad time-span—nemeton being a primary example (Kilpatrick 2010). Nemeton places recorded in ancient sources were locations of pre-Christian worship, whereas by the early medieval period in some parts of Europe pre-existing nemeton sites were Christianised and elsewhere new nemeton place-names were coined with Christian connotations. The remarkable longevity of this element—across languages, cultures and religions—indicates that the concept and spatial symbolism of nemeton must have been highly significant in early Celtic culture, and nemeton appears to have had several meanings in various languages at different stages in history.

Early nemeton place-names include the following: Δρυνέμετον/ Drunemeton/ Drynemeton (near Ankara, Turkey); Nemetacum Atrebatum/Nemetocenna (modern Arras, France); Αὐγουστονέμετον / Augustonemeton / Nemossos (Clermont-Ferrand, France); Nemausus (Nîmes, France); Tasinemeton/ Vernemeton (Klagenfurt, Austria); Rostro Nemavia (near Türkheim, Germany); Noviomagus/ Nemetae (Speyer, Germany); Nεμετόβριγα Nemetobriga/ Nemetobrica (Puebla-de-Trives, Spain).


Ruins from Roman town Nemetacum Atrebatum (Arras, France)

The Ravenna Cosmography records a number of place-names with this element in Roman Britain, most of which are identified with Roman forts, temple sites or springs, including: Nemetobala (Lydney, Gloucestershire), Nemetostatio (Tawton, Devon), Medionemeton (on the Antonine Wall), Aqua Arnemetiae (the Roman springs at Buxton, Derbyshire) and Vernemeton (the Roman settlement at Willoughby, Nottinghamshire). The forms Vernemeton seen above mean ‘great nemeton (sanctuary or sacred site)’, and is more frequently attested from the Late Antique period.


Altar found at Bath, England with inscription to Nemetona and Mars
Photo: © Roman Baths, Bath

There is also evidence of deity-names derived from the term, such as Nemetona, the eponymous goddess of the Nemetes tribe who lived in the region of modern Speyer, Germany. There are a number of inscriptions and dedications to Nemetona that associate her with the Gallo-Roman god Loucetius Mars.  The association with Mars is also paralleled on an altar from Bath, England built by a Treveran named Peregrinus.

Diana Nemorensis, one of the best documented grove goddesses was venerated at Nemorensus Lacus and her cult affords comparison with Romano-Celtic deities worshiped at nemeton sites. At Nemausus was an important sanctuary and sacred healing spring dedicated to the local deity from which it was named, Nemausus (itself a Celto-Ligurian name). Another example is the goddess Arnemetia, preserved in the Romano-British place-name Aqua Arnemetiae: her name means ‘before the sanctuary’. Arnemetia is also commemorated on an altar stone from Navio (modern Brough-on-Noe, Derbyshire), indicating a local cult-site to this goddess.

Classical writings such as De Bello Civili (also known as Pharsalia) composed by the poet Lucan (39-65 AD) and the Historia Romana of Dio Cassius  (c. 150-235 AD) supports the notion that groves were used by the Iron Age Celts for religious practices. The following excerpts from Lucan’s De Bello Civili, for example, describe a nemus in Gaul (near modern Marseille) that was cut down by Caesar’s troops:

There was a grove (nemus) from a bygone age, | never ravaged, | caging within its laced branches | dusky gloom | and icy shadows; | high above, the banished sun.  | Here no rustic Pan holds sway, | no powers of the forest—Silvani or Nymphs—| but, barbarous in its rituals, | a cult of Gods: | altars heaped with hideous gifts, | every tree around them splattered with human gore.

The God’s images, grim and | crudely fashioned, | started forth, rough-hewn, from felled trunks.  | The very earth, | the pallor of heartwood long since rotted | down to powder, left men | thunderstruck.  Divinities | consecrated in common shapes | can never cause fear | like this— | so much does it add to human terror | not to know the Gods we fear!


Reconstruction of the Romano-Celtic temple, Roman town of Caerwent, Wales

Many of the early nemeton-names may have had their origins in grove worship, but with the establishment of Roman political rule, structures characteristic of Roman religion were introduced and adopted across the Empire. Surviving place-names and inscriptions such as altar stones also help us to visualize the evolution of this term, and suggests that nemeton sites adopted certain Roman religious customs. The prefix in the place-name Augustonemeton, for example, indicates that the imperial cult of the Roman Emperor Augustus was established at this site. Since nemeton is retained in the name it is likely to have been a pre-existing nemeton site.


Inscription from Vaison, Valcluse recording the construction of a ‘nemeton’
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

An important inscription was discovered at Vaison, Valcluse, which states that ‘Segomāros of Nemausus built a nemeton to the goddess Belisama’, and this implies the construction of some form of structure known as a nemeton.

Early inscriptions and place-name evidence suggests that the perception of nemeton may have altered within a Roman context, embedding the definitions ‘sanctuary’ and ‘shrine’ in the interpretation (though this certainly does not rule out the possibility that the Celts had pre-existing shrines at these sites). Therefore, the common application of ‘sacred grove’ to describe nemeton place-names, is not so straightforward. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the introduction of Christianity, new attitudes towards nemeton place-names developed.

Read the second part of Dr. Kilpatrick’s guest-post on how the nemeton name persisted into the Christian era. Keep up to date by following this blog or our twitter page.

Citations and Suggested reading:

Dio Cassius, Historia Romana, ed. & trans. E. Cary, Dio’s Roman History (London, 1925).

Green, M., Seeing the Wood for the Trees: the Symbolism of Trees and Wood in Ancient Gaul and Britain (Aberystwyth, 2000)

Green, M., Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers (London, 2005).

Kilpatrick, K. A., ‘A Case-Study of Nemeton Place-Names’, Ollodagos: Actes de la Société

Belge d’Études Celtiques, 25 (2010), pp. 1–113.

Koch, J. T., Celtic Culture (Oxford, 2006).

Lucani, M. Annaei, De Bello Civili, ed. D. R. Shackleton Baily (Stuttgart, 1998).

Richmond, I. A. and O. G. S. Crawford, ‘The British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography’, Archaeologica, 93 (1949), 1-51.

Webster, J., ‘Sanctuaries and Sacred Places,’ in M. Green (ed.), The Celtic World (London, 1995), 445-464.


Always something there to remind me: a short introduction to votives

An essential part of the experience of visiting the ancient Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi was bringing something for the goddess and leaving it behind for her when you left. Known as a ‘votive’, these carefully selected offerings were placed in shrines and temples across the ancient world as a way of communicating with the gods. Dr Emma-Jayne Graham of the Open University* explains the role of votive giving in ancient life:

Giving up an item rendered it sacred or inviolable… These items might be made specifically for the purpose or might be taken from daily life… ranging from a small cake to the building of a monumental temple… A person sought protection, healing or good fortune for either a one-off event (a journey, childbirth, warfare etc.) or as part of the rites of passage (coming of age, marriage, puberty etc.). In order to do this they petitioned the god through prayer, making a vow (votum) that they would acknowledge the support of the god with a gift (ex voto).

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

In the temple at Nemi a base for a statuette was found which the bears the inscription: ‘Aerentia, daughter of Lucius, dedicated [this] sacred offering to Diana in payment of her vow’.

The range of objects left to the goddess at Nemi was vast and they give us an incredible snapshot into the lives of the ancient people who visited the site. Unlike Aerentia, most people did not have their offerings inscribed and so we can never know for certain who they were. However, the particular object that they chose to dedicate can give us some important clues about their lifestyle and what their concern was the day they visited the sanctuary.

Take this unremarkable-looking object, found in the entrance to the temple of Diana.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

It turns out to be a terracotta representation of a goat or sheep’s astragalus, one of the ankle bones. Might the person who dedicated this have been a farmer, thanking Diana for good stock that year? We often find small models of animals in ancient shrines, thought to be dedicated for just that purpose (see the image below). However, this part of the animal’s body was also used in an ancient gambling game known as knucklebones (the ancient version of the game ‘jacks’). This object could therefore have been left by a player of the game in thanks for a successful contest.

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

A more poignant votive found at Nemi is this small terracotta model of a couple with a new baby, dated 300-100BCE. Despite Diana’s strong link with virginity in ancient myth, objects like these show she was also seen as a goddess of fertility and childbirth in antiquity, and were likely left as thanks for a pregnancy or successful birth. This object is one of four examples found at Nemi which were clearly created from the same mould. As at temples today, such as in India, roads around the sanctuary at Nemi may have been lined with sellers providing mass-produced, ready-made offerings like this one which pilgrims could buy and leave at the shrine for Diana.

One common type of offering found at Nemi, and across the ancient world, are the models of human body parts, now known as ‘anatomical votives’. They come in the shape of heads, hands, eyes, ears, legs, feet, and internal organs. A similar practice continues today in Mexican and Italian Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. In the ancient world these are usually associated with healing shrines to gods such as Aesculapius. Their discovery at Nemi suggests that people suffering with medical issues were making the journey there to take advantage of Diana’s more nurturing side.

NCM 1890-1357-8 Anatomical etc. votive offerings [ii]

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

However, as Dr. Graham highlights, interpreting these captivating objects is not straight forward:

‘It is difficult to know whether these were supposed to refer directly to a specific part of the human body that required divine intervention or healing, or whether they made some sort of metaphorical reference… associated with that part of the anatomy. Does a foot, for example, mean that a person was suffering from pain or difficulty walking, or might it refer to a journey or some sort of metaphorical ‘movement’ through the different stages of life?’


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Anatomical votives are now thought to provide important insights into ancient knowledge of, and attitudes to, the body. For example, it is thought that this terracotta object, also found at Nemi, was meant to represent a uterus. Its appearance suggests that ancient people, who were not in the practice of performing autopsies, had only limited idea of what internal organs really looked like.

Catherine Walker of the Wellcome Collection, suggests that ancient votive wombs are a visual representation of observations made from outside the body:

They would have been aware of the function of the organ and could have observed childbirth, so we see that this understanding has been incorporated into the votive as the wavy lines represent contractions. This understanding of the body had implications for the way people practiced medicine’.

However, others have challenged assumptions that these objects suggest a lack of anatomical knowledge in antiquity. Another artefact found at Nemi seems to indicate a more sophisticated understanding of the internal workings of the human body.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

As Dr. Katharina Lorenz of the University of Nottingham explains here, this terracotta model of a woman shows her digestive system intricately carved. It is possible it was brought to the temple by a woman with gastric problems. Furthermore, the hand-carved internal organs suggest that whoever she was had a certain amount of money – enough to spend on customizing her small offering to the goddess. Of course, we will never know for sure.

Jen Grove, researcher, University of Exeter (@jenniferegrove)

Have a look through the objects found at the sanctuary and see if you can guess who might have dedicated them and why. If you had visited the sanctuary, what would you have left? 

You can let us know your ideas in the comments.

And look out for more posts on the votives found at Nemi!

*Dr. Emma-Jayne Graham and Dr. Jane Draycott are currently producing a major new academic volume on the anatomical votive.