How the new Wall gods came to be: the case of the Veteres
When and how do gods come in to existence?This is a fascinating question, and common sense might suggest that disruptive, yet creative, processes like the Roman conquest and the mass movement of incomers into Britain might actually bring new gods into being. Surprisingly little attention has been given to this possibility: the tendency among Romano-Celtic scholars is to assume that the local gods we see for the first time in the Roman period had always been there, just hidden from view. There are some intriguing deities on Hadrian’s Wall. Some might have been ‘born’ or ‘re-born’ when incomers from foreign lands, trying to make sense of their new situation, created brand new ‘gods of place’. The enigmatic Veteres are possible candidates here. 61 altars to a god called Veteris (or to gods called the Veteres) have been found in Britain, with the great majority coming from the wall zone, including 13 from Carvoran and 11 from Vindolanda. None of these altars depict the god, so we have no idea what he (or they) looked like. But several factors – including the vacillation between singular and plural – suggest that the Veteres were new gods, taking form gradually in the Roman period. A second clue is the number of spellings of the name Veteres. Among the many versions are vitiribus, hveteribus, hvitiribus (all pl.) and vetiri, vetri, viteri, vitire, vitiri, votri, hvveter, hveteri, hvitiri, vheteri (sing.). It seems, then, that the dedicants – almost all of whom were from the Germanic provinces – were still deciding upon a name, and on how to spell it.
|The altar to Vitiris on the right comes from Carvoran and is inscribed DEO VITIRI MENI DADA VSLM (‘Menius Dada to the God Vitiris willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’): it is one of many examples of a dedication made by an incomer who found himself in the wall zone, wished to identify a ‘god of place’ and – it might be argued – helped to bring that deity into being as a result.||Scan of altar to Veteres from the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne © NU Digital Heritage|
Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier
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