Belinos and Assumptions

Etymology:

The etymology of the divine name Belinos is frought with muddy waters. It is a topic in Celtic philology that is surrounded by intense controversy and many misplaced assumptions. When drawing information from less linguistically savvy “dictionaries” of Celtic mythology, it seems that many claim the origin of Belinos from a root *bhel- meaning ‘shine’.[1] This interpretation is incontestably the most widespread, and is fueled by the now somewhat cliché connection of Belinos with Apollo in Roman inscriptions, apparently evidencing his role as a god of light or the sun. Delamarre, an expert in specifically Gaulish linguistics, refutes this interpretation because, least of all, the supposed cognates often cited to help justify it, according to Delamarre, consitently mean ‘white, grey, or pale’, not ‘brilliant’ or ‘luminous’.[2]

Besides the most common etymology mentioned above, there is also de Bernardo Stempel’s suggestion, which she reinforced (as most recent as I could access) in 2013. She claims the origin of Belinos from an IE root *gwélH-e-n meaning ‘spring’.[3] This would suppose his role as a healer,and thefore be supported by association with Apollo. Apparently, according to de Bernardo Stempel with some support among Šašel Kos, this interpretation relating Belinos to water is supported epigraphically.[4]

It has also been claimed that Belinos is derived ultimately from a name for the plant henbane, again supporting His connection with Apollo via the hallucinogenic properties of henabane and a supposed connection with Apollo’s role in divination.[5] However, this theory has found itself in an uphill battle against other more likely etymologies as of late.[6]

Crucial to the understanding of Belinos, though, is also understanding the heavy criticism that these previous etymological analyses have recently begun to face. BM Prosper, in a piece devoted to Belinos, seeks to illustrate these points by drawing attention to the clinical habit of scholars to misappropriately define Belenus as the default form of this theonym instead of Belinos, partially due to a long-standing bias stemming from use of Belenus in Latin primary sources as well as the disproportionate use of Belenus in Latin dedications, in which he is popularly synchronised with Apollo. This seemingly innocent assumption could potentially have long-standing consequences. It leads to misreadings of inscriptions ‘B(-)’ as ‘B(elenus)’, even though they just as easily could have been meant as ‘B(elinus)’. It is also possible that this assumption affected sources such as the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, which are often used for philological studies. In terms of bias, either unconscious or otherwise, Prosper takes issue with, above all else, the apparent cherry-picking of potential etymologies for Belinos to support the already widely-held belief that He is related, either in function or in name or in both, to Apollo. This is apparent in the, however unlikely, etymologization of the theonym as deriving ultimately from either ‘bright’, as is widely incorrectly believed, or from ‘spring’ as per de Bernardo Stempel. Both of these suggestions, the theories’ supporters claim, are supported by Belinos’ supposed assimilation with the Roman god of the sun and of healing. For Prosper, however, these theories are the result of an academic confirmation bias, finding support only amoing Belinos’ connection with Apollo and ignoring certain other linguistic factors. Prosper’s article also takes linguistic issue with several of the aformentioned etymologies. Chief among them is the complicated and unlikely timeline of evolution that de Bernardo Stempel must give in her explanation of *gwélH-e-n to account for all manner of exceptions. Instead, Prosper seems to favor the explanation of Delamarre[7] that the default form of the theonym should be Belinos and that the likely root for Belinos is *bel- or *belo-, meaning something to the tune of ‘strength’ or ‘power’. This interpretation seems to be reinforced by Šašel Kos in her claim that the theonym appears only as Belinos within Noricum and likely spread to popularity from Noricum before becoming Latinized as Belenus.[8][9]

Function:

As far as the function of Belinos is concerned, there are essentially two camps of thought. The older and more common stems, again, from His equivocation with the Roman Apollo. This camp holds that He is a god of light or the sun and of healing. The second is that of Delamarre and Prosper based on the newer etymology of His name: that His traits are “related to strength or violence”.[10] When discussing the etymology of Belinos, these two ideas are inherently opposed, but the same does not necessarily need to be true of His function. The best way to understand this is via analogy with another Celtic deity from a different region: Camulos. Camulos’ name probably means something like ‘the Strong’ or ‘the Powerful’, analogous with the newer etymology of Belinos’ name described above, and fitting with Delamarre’s interpretation of Belinos’ name in full: “le ‘Maitre de la Puissance’” (the ‘Master of Power’).[11] Camulos was a tribal God among the Remi and was notable for his association with war among the Belgae in Britain. However, he was also associated with Mars in interpretatio and it must be noted that Mars did not only serve an exclusively violent role, and in fact the Romans often went to extra effort to differentiate between the Mars associated with military affairs from that of the tribal Mars. J. Lindsay writes, “The Celtic Mars under the Romans is normally a local god, often connected with water and solar cults. He is essentially the protector of a tribal or subtribal group and his warrior-role is only a special aspect of this function.” Lindsay argues that because of rampant intertribal warfare in the neighboring Celtic regions prior to Roman conquest, and the importance that tribal Gods played in these conflicts, the Romans saw bellicose qualities above all else in these deities. He then elaborates that territorial ambitions of local Celtic chiefs likely also contributed to the heightened role of these tribal Gods in warfare and that an end of these ambitions brought on by Roman conquest allowed “the broader social significance of the deities… to reassert itself and absorb new saviour-cult elements”.[12] It is then not irrational to reconcile the likely etymology of Belinos’ name with His traditional Roman interpretation by viewing Him as a Norican tribal God (a view reinforced by accounts that He is the chief God among the Noricans)[13]. Why, then, is Belinos attested as Apollo Belleno and not Mars Belleno? The relative early stability of the Regnum Noricum likely allowed these other non-warfare-related traits of Belinos to prevail early on, before being adopted by the Romans as the guardian of the city Aquileia and becoming associated with Apollo.

In Practice:

In Bessus Noricon, Belinos will still serve the role that He has always traditionally been associated with. He will be a God of light and of healing, as well as a God giving general protection and aid to the Norican people. However, a deeper understanding of the origin of His name and how He came to fill this role allows for a unique perspective on the warlike aspects of Belinos and his association with strength. He will thus serve a role in a Norican athletic cult (Nertobessus), a practice described in detail at Nertobessus.[14]

Interpretatio Romana:

Traditionally Belinos is associated with Apollo, but He may also have functions similar to Mars.

Iconogrpahy:

On Celtic coins, Belinos is often depicted as a youthful or young man, mimicking depictions of Apollo on Roman and Greek coins.[15] This portrayal of Him may also be supported by a potential depiction of Him in the form of a statue from the shrine at Magdalensberg.[16]

Sources

  1. The irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos. – Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions by Blanca María Prósper, 2017, in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 64, Issue 1, p. 286

  2. Dictionnaire de la Langue Gauloise by Xavier Delamarre, 2003, p. 72

  3. Celtic and Other Indigenous Divine Names Found in the Italian Peninsula by Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, 2013, in Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio - Keltische Theonymie, Kulte, Interpretatio, p. 79

  4. Belin by Marjeta Šašel Kos, 2001, in Studia Mythologica Slavica IV, p. 13 & Celtic and Other Indigenous Divine Names Found in the Italian Peninsula by Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, 2013, in Théonymie celtique, cultes, interpretatio - Keltische Theonymie, Kulte, Interpretatio, p. 79

  5. On Henbane and Early European Narcotics by Peter Schrijver, 1999, in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 51, Issue 1, p. 27

  6. The irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos. – Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions by Blanca María Prósper, 2017, in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 64, Issue 1, p. 274

  7. Dictionnaire de la Langue Gauloise by Xavier Delamarre, 2003, p. 72

  8. Belin by Marjeta Šašel Kos, 2001, in Studia Mythologica Slavica IV, p. 10

  9. The irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos. – Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions by Blanca María Prósper, 2017, in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 64, Issue 1, pp. 255–298

  10. The irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos. – Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions by Blanca María Prósper, 2017, in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 64, Issue 1, p. 289

  11. Dictionnaire de la Langue Gauloise by Xavier Delamarre, 2003, p. 72

  12. Camulos and Belenos by Jack Lindsay, 1961, in Latomus, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 731–743

  13. Der Kult der namentlich bezeugten Gottheiten im römerzeitlichen Noricum by Peter Gerhard Scherrer, 1984, pp. 175-187

  14. Nertobessus by Selgowiros Caranticnos, found here

  15. Apollo Belenos on Norican and Tauriscan coins by Tomislav Bilić, 2016, in Arheološki vestnik 67, pp. 381-388

  16. Pre-Roman Divinities of the Eastern Alps and Adriatic by Marjeta Šašel Kos, 1999, p. 27