The worship of Belinos was wide-spread throughout Gaul (as well as other Celtic areas), but he was especially esteemed in Aquileia and Noricum, the two places where the majority of his inscriptions have been found (Prósper p. 256). His name is also found under the variants Belenus and Belenos. However, by eliminating partial inscriptions of the name since most scholars opted to restore the name on partial inscriptions as Belenos, Prósper shows that the form Belenus appears the most followed by Belinus (with a ratio of 60:40) and the name Belenos appears only on two stone inscriptions (p. 265).
The etymology of the name Belinos is uncertain, but there are two main opinions. The first and traditional interpretation is that the name comes from the PIE root *bhel- meaning “to shine, white,” and would give the name a meaning of “the Shining One” or “the Bright One.” The second interpretation is that the name comes from the Gaulish stem belo- (strong, powerful) and the suffix -nos (lord, master), giving the name the meaning of “Strong Lord” or “Powerful Master.” These two etymologies give two very different pictures of Belinos: the first as a solar deity and the second as a sovereign warrior deity.
Belinos was associated with Apollo in epigraphy as well as in written texts. In the Historia Augusta, we are told:
So when Maximinus found he was besieging Aquileia in vain, he sent envoys to the city. And the people had almost yielded to them, had not Menophilus and his colleague opposed it, saying that the god Belenus had declared through the soothsayers that Maximinus would be conquered. Whence afterwards the soldiers of Maximinus boasted, it is said, that Apollo must have fought against them, and that really victory belonged not to the senate and Maximinus but to the gods.The Two Maximini, 21-22
Like previous scholars in the past, Pròsper notes the probable same etymologies between Belinus and the goddess Belisama but states “there is no proof that Belinus ever had a paredra” (p. 289). One of the possible etymologies for the name Belisama is “the Very Strong One” composed of the Celtic root belo– (strong, powerful) and the superlative suffix –isamos, -ā, -oni. However, like Belinus, her functions are unclear and it can only be stated that the two deities share a Common Celtic root in their names.
Pròsper notes that Belinos is “the protector of the city of Aquileia” and that the soldiers “forced the indigenous divinity, being none other than Apollo himself, to come down in order to repel their attack” (p. 265). Previously, she had shown that in Aquileia, there were 41 inscriptions to Belenus / Belinus, of which Belinus “is never attested as an epiclesis of Apollo” and “there are eight attestations in which BELENO is flanked by the DN [divine name] APOLLINI” (pp. 262-263). Based on the numbers, this would, rather, argue for a case against the association of Belenus with Apollo in Aquileia despite the literary evidence. However, we are, according to Pròsper, dealing with two distinct names of the divinity: the local, Celtic deity Belinos worshipped by the indigenous population and Belenos worshipped by “the officials and high layers of the community” (p. 284). Furthermore, she states that Belenus is a Latinized form of the god’s name which is the second name adopted by Apollo (ibid.). She also dismisses any healing qualities associated with the Celtic Belinos and interprets the name as an adjectival form probably based on the Gaulish stem belo– (strong). However, despite making a strong argument, Pròsper fails to hypothesize on the functions of the Celtic non-Apollo associated Belinos she had just uncovered.
Pròsper stated in her work that “it is not before the 2nd – 3rd C. that we find a significant epithet like BELENO DEFENSORI […] which might be commemorating the events of 238 AD” (p. 284). This implies that the Celtic Belinos didn’t originally serve the function of a “poliad divinity” as portrayed in the attack on Aquileia (Pròsper p. 265). This is possible although it is tempting to interpret Belinos as a Toutatis-type deity. However, there may be an alternative interpretation.
Pròsper mentions the Old Welsh personal name Liuelin and Middle Welsh Llywelyn going back to a compound name meaning *lugu-belinos, which could either mean “strong as Lugus” or is a dvandva with two deities. Olmstead (2019) puts forth the theory that in IE cultures, the control of the Upper Realm was divided into two spheres, corresponding to lightness and darkness, and ruled over by a pair of polar contrasting twins. The first one, who he refers to as Mitra, controls the daytime and the summer half of the year when the solar path is daily lowering in the sky. The second, whom he refers to as Varuna, controls the nighttime and the winter half of the year when the solar path is daily rising in the sky. The Mitra figure is also strongly associated with contracts and the laws of men, while the Varuna figure is associated with oaths along with Truth and Order in the cosmos. In these latter functions, Mitra and Varuna correspond to how Dumezil categorized them in his Indo-European tripartite system.
Olmstead postulates that the Gaulish deity Lugus is the Mitra figure in Gaulish religion, and Esus-Vellaunos is the Varuna figure. Lugus clearly fits into the Mitra role, but Esus-Vellaunos does not. Too little is known about these two deities, who Olmstead had to combine into one deity to try and make his hypothesis work in Gaulish religion. However, what if Belinos is the Varuna figure in Gaulish religion, paired with Lugus just as he is in the dvandha name Liuelin?
The evidence is scanty for this interpretation. In the Aquileia episode in the Historia Augusta, Belenus is placed in a role of prophecy while Apollo is the actual dispenser of war. We are told that “the god Belenus through the soothsayers had responded that Maximus would be conquered” (my translation). Belenus used the haruspices to relate his prophecy, a prophecy that was ignored. A haruspex was a Roman diviner who inspected the entrails of a sacrificial animal. They would often read the entrails before a battle and discern a favorable or unfavorable outcome based on what they saw. The Latin word respondeō (to respond) comes from spondeō meaning “to promise, vow, bind oneself”). The language used for Belenus’ response to the haruspices is reminiscent of taking an oath despite his answer being non-verbal and taking the form of the entrails of a sacrificed animal. As we saw above, the Varuna figure of Olmstead’s interpretation of PIE deities was a god associated with oaths.
Herodian of Antioch relates the same episode in his History of the Roman Empire, saying “auspices reported that the omens favored the townspeople […] oracles, too, revealed to them that their native god promised them victory. They call this god Belis, and worship him with special devotion, identifying him with with Apollo” (VIII.3). Again, language is used implying an oath, promising victory for the people of Aquileia. In Herodian’s passage, the god Belenos now speaks through oracles, probably due to his association with Apollo.
There is also Belinos’ association with water. He is listed in three (possibly four) inscriptions associating him with water. However, there is no pradera listed with him, such as Boruo with Damona or Grannus with Ðirona, to indicate he has healing associations. Furthermore, two of these locations (Monastero and Beligna) do not have thermal springs associated with them. In the third inscription, Belinos is associated with the Nymphs, who don’t have connotations of healing. There are inscriptions when a single deity of healing is named but usually not when they are associated with Apollo. Belinos’ association with the Nymphs can be significant, however. Olmstead (2019) discusses how Varuna is associated with water: “the rivers flow according to his rule,” “he is the lord of the rivers,” he is “the child of the waters,” and “the waters are the wives of [Varuna]. Born of the Waters, he makes his abode within their midst.” It is possible that the Nymphs that Belinos is associated with in this inscription are representative of water. Or they could be lovers of Belinos, a common role of nymphs in Roman mythology especially in relation to Apollo.
As we have seen, the association of Belinos with Apollo actually hinders interpreting the functions of the deity, especially when there is scant evidence available to begin with. Belinos is most often described as “a god of (sun)light, healing powers and a defensor, a protector against hostile attacks” (Kos 2001, p. 11). We have seen that there is no reason to agree with these suppositions. Belinos’ name more than likely means “the Strong Lord” rather than “the Shining One” and one of the reasons he was associated with Apollo was because of the absorption of Belinos by Apollo at Aquileia. While Belinos does appear to be associated with water, he does not exhibit any healing characteristics and he is not paired with a healing goddess. We have also seen how the portrayal of Belinos as a defender or protector occurred after the attack at Aquileia in 238 CE by Maximinis Thrax. We have also seen how Belinos exhibits some characteristics associated with Olmstead’s Varuna figure, who co-rules the Upper Realm and the nighttime aspect of it. The characteristics that Belinos exhibits are associations with vows and water. It is interesting to note a point Olmstead makes, citing another scholar’s statement (Gershevitch): “Váruṇa- as a god of oath watched over the truth in water, Mitrá as a god of contract did the same in fire; Indo-Aryan contracts … are probably for this reason concluded in front of a blazing fire, as oaths were sworn in the presence of water.” While there is no evidence to assume that the Vedic concepts of oaths, water, and Truth are or can be associated with Belinos, it is an interesting and possible association.
Within my own practice, Belinos is an allusive deity. I do not associate him with the sun or any kind of solar functions. Nor do I associate him with the Gaulish Apollo and healing because there is an established type for healing deities, represented by Boruo / Damona and Grannus / Ðirona, and Belinos does not fall into that type. He is an ancient deity and almost primordial in a sense, or at least is associated with primordial powers. In essence, he is associated with the primordial Fire in Water. Although Fire in Water created the cosmos, Belinus is not the Creator himself. He guards over the Fire in Water, which lies underneath the World Tree, nourishing it and making it grow. Out of all the Dēuoi, Belinos was the only one strong enough to withstand such a close presence to the Fire in Water. As the Guardian of the Fire in Water, he is the only one who knows the time when the Fire in Water will overwhelm the world and destroy it, just as it created it.
uepūs uegiūmī enepi
catuāi drun aurinaunon
alietorio aidun in
dubnon. are te dubrus
uiððous eðði exibiððesio
eti nu ueuidas diion
ion aidun in dubron
scocīsiet eti briððāsiet
trīrīgia. po diios sios,
dugiū in lītun pāpon duci
uernos aidous in dubnon.
Words I weave of praise
to Belinos All-seeing.
You guard far-reaching Drus
that is nourished by Fire in
Water. Beside you is the Well
of Wisdom that you drank from
and you know the day
when Fire in Water
will burst and destroy the Three
Worlds. Until that day,
I honor you in every rite
as the guardian of Fire in Water.
Ⓒ Cunolugus Drugaisos. All rights reserved.
MORE ABOUT BELINOS FROM MY POSTS:
Herodian of Antioch (1961). History of the Roman Empire. Translated by Edward C. Echols. Available online: https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/herodian_00_intro.htm
Magie, David – Translator (1921). The Historia Augusta. Available online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html
Olmstead, Garrett (2019). The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans (Revised). Available online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330357347_The_Gods_of_the_Celts_and_the_Indo-Europeans_Revised_2019
Pròsper, Maria Blanca (2017). “The irreducable Gauls used to swear by Belenos. Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions,” Zeitschrift Celtische Philologie. [Available online] https://academia.edu/resource/work/31487552