Nemeton Page

Ancient Iron-age Sacred Groves

the Welsh/Gaelic word for a grove of trees was llannerch, from which interestingly, the Welsh/Gaelic word llann 'church' is derived. Another word, perhaps reserved for their most sacred groves, was nemeton. The Irish equivalent for nemeton, and obviously linguisticly related, is fid-nemed 'Sacred Grove of Trees', which occurs in the Senchus Mor, an ancient code of Irish law.

Lucan refers to a Nemeton near the ancient Greek colony of Massilia, now Marseilles en Provence in South France, wherein were several simulacra or 'graven images of the gods' (Pharsalia III.412). The only 'concrete' mention of a British nemeton occurs on an altar to Mars Rigonemetis, or 'Mars, the King of the Sacred Grove', from Nettleham near Lincoln (RIB 245.b), the text of which is reproduced below:

Shrines of the Druids

"When we turn to open sanctuaries or sacral enclosures we encounter a complex and most intriguing series of sites. These must belong to the same early religious tradition that in Greece gave rise to the concept of the temenos, literally a 'cut' or share of land, here apportioned to the god, a 'consecrated and enclosed area surrounding the god's altar, which was the centre of worship and the only indispensable cult structure', and in the Roman world the same idea expressed in the original sense of the words fanum and templum. "There is a Gallo-Brittonic word nemeton which is used for a shrine or sanctuary in a sense that implies a sacred grove or clearing in a wood. The word is cognate with the Latin nemus, the primary sense of which (like that of lucus) is not so much a wood as a wood with a clearing in it, or the clearing itself within a grove. The most famous nemus was that of Diana at Aricia, where

The priest who slew the slayer
And shall himself be slain

held, uneasily, the title of Rex Nemorensis. Strabo records the name of the meeting-place of the council of the Galatians in Asia Minor as Drunemeton, the sacred oak-grove, and Fortunatus writes in the sixth century A.D. of a place Vernemet[on] 'which in the Gaulish language means the great shrine' (using here the word fanum). Many nemeton place-names existed in the Iron-age world, from Medionemeton in Southern Scotland, Vernemeton itself between Lincoln and Leicester and in Gaul, Nemetodurum, the modern Nanterre, to Nemetobriga in Spain. Aquae Arnemetiae, the modern Buxton, appears to show how the thermal springs there were associated with a sacred grove. In the eighth century 'forest sanctuaries which they call nimidae' are listed as heathen abominations, and in the eleventh, a Breton 'wood called Nemet' is recorded. The word and the idea came through into Old Irish as nemed, a sanctuary, and fidnemed, a forest shrine or sacred grove."
Extract from The Druids by Stuart Piggott, (p.62 ff.)

Altar to Mars Rigonemetis from Lincoln

DEO MARTI RIGO NEMETI ET NVMINIBVS AVGVSTORVM Q NERAT PROXSIMVS ARCVM DE SVO DONAVIT
"For the god Mars Rigonemetis¹ and the divine spirits of the Augusti,² Quintus Neratius Proximus (dedicated this altar) as a gift out of his own coffers."

(RIB 245.b; JRS lii (1962), 192, no. 8)
  1. Literally, 'Mars, King of the Sacred Grove'. The title is purely native in origin; from the Welsh/Gaelic words rigon 'king', and nemeton 'sacred grove'.
  2. Evidently there were two (or more) Caesars at the time the dedication was made.

Nemetona - 'Goddess of the Sacred Grove'

This Iron-age deity is recorded on only a few altars throughout europe. The only existing altar in Britain dedicated to this goddess is from Aquae Sulis; Bath, Avon:

Altar to Nemetona and Mars Loucetius from Bath

PEREGRINVS SECVNDI FIL CIVIS TREVER LOVCETIO MARTI ET NEMETONA VSLM
"Peregrinus, son of Secundus, citizen of the Treveri,¹ for Loucetius Mars and Nemetona, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."

(RIB 140; altarstone)
  1. An ancient Gaulish tribe centred on Augusta Treverorum, modern Trier on the Moselle, in the Rheinland-Pfalz region of West Germany.

Mars Loucetius ('Brilliant Mars') and Nemetona occur together also on an altar from Mainz in Germany. Another example of a 'marriage' are altars to Mercury and Rosmerta ('The Good Purveyor'), in both these cases (and many others) the male partner is Roman with a native suffix, while their female counterpart is of wholly Native origin. Nemetona is also recorded separately on an altar from Eltripp, near Speyer (or Spire, or Spier) in West Germany.

British "Nemeton" Groves

Lindum; Lincoln, Lincolnshire - vide RIB 245b supra.
Aquae Sulis; Bath, Avon - vide RIB 140 supra.
Aquae Arnemetiae; Buxton, Derbyshire - "The Spa-Town of the Sacred Groves."
Nemetostatio; North Tawton, Devon - "The Outpost of the Sacred Groves."
Vernemetum; Willoughby, Nottinghamshire - "The Sacred Grove of Spring."
Medionemeton; "The Central Grove", perhaps referring to Barr Hill or Croy Hill on the Antonine Wall in Strathclyde (Ravenna Cosmography; R&C#196).

European "Nemeton" Names

Augustonemeton; Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of Central France, on the northern edge of the Massif Central in the ancient lands of the Arverni, a tribe of the Roman province of Aquitania.
Drunemeton; A grove of sacred oak trees named by Strabo as the meeting-place of the Galatian tribes of Asia Minor. The name is easily translated 'The Sacred Grove of the Druids'. The site is thought to lie near Ancyra in central Turkey.
Nemausus; Nîmes in the western Languedoc near the mouth of the Rhone; in the ancient territories of the Arecomici tribe of southern Gallia Narbonensis.
Nemetacum or Nemetocerna Atrebatum; Arras in the Artois region of Northern France; the ancient capital of the Gaulish Atrebates tribe. Mentioned in Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, where it is named Nemetocenna (viii.46, 52).
Nemetobriga Nemetatarum; a city of the Bracaraugustanus district of Hispania Tarraconensis, the largest town in the territories of the Nemetatae, a minor-tribe mentioned by Ptolemy. Now Val de Nebro in Northern Spain.
Nemetodurum; Nanterre in the Vallée de la Seine, north-west of Paris.
Nemetes; a people of Germania Superior who inhabited the upper Rhine valley. Their principal city was known as Noviomagus Germanis Superioris, less frequently referred to as Noviomagus Nemetum; nowadays Speyer near Heidelberg in West Germany. Julius Caesar twice mentions the tribe in his Gallic Wars (i.51, vi.25).
Nemossus; Nemours on the Plaine de la Beauce, south-west of Paris.
Vernemetum; Vernantes on the Loire, in the Anjou region of Western France; in the lands of the Armorican tribe, the Andecavi.

Other 'Grovey' RBO Stuff

Druids * Sacred Groves * British Groves * MONA / Ynys-Môn


The main references used during the construction of this page were: The Druids by T.D. Kendrick (the definitive work on the subject), the excellent map on page 37 of Druids by Anne Ross, The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green, Lempriere's Classical Dictionary by John Lempriere, Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity by Nicholas G.L. Hammond and the indispensable Roman Britain by Peter Salway.