nemeton

Gaulish: sactuary of trees. Compare with the Irish Nemed husband of Macha (goddess of sovereignty) and naomh (saint, holy).

The sacred groves of the Druids, priests of the Celtic religion. Druids, according to the Roman writers Pliny, Lucan, etc., did not meet in stone temples, or any permanent structure, but met in the woods, in sacred groves of trees. The tree considered most sacred was the oak; to find mistletoe on an oak was cause for much celebration. Lucan refers to a nemeton near modern Marseilles, where in there were simulacra--stone images of the gods (Pharsalia III.412).

There are a number attestations to the word "nemeton" in Roman Britain; there is a shrine to Mars Rigonemetis, "Mars King of the Sacred Grove" in Nettleham, near Lincoln:

DEO MARTI RIGO NEMETI ET NVMINIBVS AVGVSTORVM Q NERAT PROXSIMVS ARCVM DE SVO DONAVIT.

For the god Mars "King of the Sacred Grove" and the divine spirits of the Augusti, Quintus Neratius Proximus (gives this altar) as a gift out of his own (money).

The second is an altar to the goddess Nemetona--personification of the grove--at Bath:
PEREGRINVS SECVNDI FIL CIVIS TREVER LOVCETIO MARTI ET NEMETONA VSLM

Peregrinus, son of Secundus, citizen of the Treveri, for Loucetius Mars and Nemetona, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

Again, Mars is mentioned in connection to a nemeton (here Nemetona), and he is called loucetius--brilliant. The Treveri, one of whom dedicated this altar, also had an altar to Mars Loucetius and Nemetona at Meinz, while Nemetona appears alone at Eltripp, near Speyer, Germany.

There were also several towns in Britain which contained nemeton in their name: Aquae Arnemetiae "Spa of the Sacred Groves" (Buxton, Derbyshire); Nemetostatio "Outpost of the Sacred Grove" (North Tawton, Devon); and Vernemetum "Sacred Grove of Spring" (Willoughby, Nottinghamshire).

What may be the significance of "Mars" being associated with the nemeton? The Celtic Mars is not only a god of war, but god of protection, agriculture, and likely sovereignty. We have the Irish figure Nemed, who settled Ireland after the desolation of the Partholonians. His wife is one of the three Machas (who are likely all the same goddess), who is the horse goddess of sovereignty. He battled the Fomorians, prefiguring the battles of the Tuatha De Danann against the Formorians, particularly that of Lugh against Bres. As Mars is refered to as "Mars Loucetius" at one altar, it is likely that the name refers back to the culture heros like Lugh and Nemed, who battled the powers of chaos in order to establish the land and regain soveriegnty. Their association with the nemeton is then perhaps that these are the ultmate sacred spots, and so naturally the place to worship the god and goddess of sovereignty.

Today, the term "grove", when used in a religious context, now refers to a group of druids, equivalent to a church, lodge, or coven. It no longer only means "a group of trees," though there is a play on the meaning of "druid" as "one who knows the oak" and the idea of a gathering of druids being like a gathering of holy trees.


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Mary Jones 2003