He Who Rules from the Peaks
In the southern Alps in the Canton of Valais, is the Great St Bernard Pass where a hospice stands today. But in ancient days, that mountain pass was home to a sanctuary site dedicated to the Celtic mountain God, Poeninus. Roman historian, Titus Livius, reports that Poenius was worshipped by the Seduni and Veragri tribes but they may have known Him as Peninos. Like many Gaulish Gods, Peninos was adopted into the Gallo-Roman pantheon of that region and became Poeninus. As a mountain God, Peninos is equated with Jupiter and could be linked with the Celtic thunder God Taranis. We’ll cover inscriptions, etymology, comparisons, and divinations to learn more about the God of the Valais Alps.
Temple in the Mountain
Well over 50 bronze tablets were discovered by archaeologists in the ruins of a Roman temple and resthouse a little south of the pass. All these tablets were inscribed and dedicated to Poeninus, or some variation of the name. Other artifacts even point to a sanctuary existing prior to Roman occupation. A bronze statue of Poeninus was also discovered there and depicts the synchronization with the Roman God Jupiter. Many of the inscriptions refer to Poeninus as “Jupiter Poeninus” or “Iupiter Poeninus” or some alternate version of the Gallo-Roman name. The Roman Temple stood in the mountain pass until about 394 AD and possibly was in use until it was looted and destroyed. These looters were even rewarded by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I of the Eastern Roman Empire. These artifacts thankfully survived and are still there today in the Great St Bernard Hospice Museum.
While there is no physical evidence of a Celtic sanctuary to Peninos, it’s still very likely that the Alpine Gauls had a nemeton or some sort of sacred space meant for honoring the mountain God. The La Téne culture of the Gauls probably didn’t have technology for building any kind of structure in rock or hard ground but then again, they most likely intended the nemeton to be out in the open to honor Peninos directly. With no sort of stone carving or monolith it’s all speculative. The Romans could have easily built over the same spot with their temple. The looters who destroyed the Roman temple could also have been the cause of the destruction of any evidence of a Celtic shrine or nemeton. What is known is that both Gaul and Roman alike, revered Poeninus/Peninos.
Each of the bronze tablets were more than likely an offering for safe passage over the Alps. The Great St Bernard Pass was critical to transportation in those times as it was the safest pass but easiest path doesn’t always mean safest. Mountains across many cultures have been seen as sacred and, in some cases, home to the Gods themselves. Since Poeninus was equated with Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, one would be essentially asking a king to cross through His realm safely. Winter would have made the pass near impossible to pass as snow storms still claim lives. The lake at the pass is frozen for roughly 265 days a year and even the summer months can reach harmful lows in temperature with almost 2,400 millimeters or 100 inches of precipitation per year. In modern times, travel is much safer but the pass is closed for the winter so one can imagine how difficult traveling the pass would have been in ancient days.
This part of the Alps and the region itself would be named after Poeninus when the Romans occupied the region. The mountains were named “Alpes Poeninae” or the “Pennine Alps” today. The canton of Valais was named “Vallis Poeninae” as the tribes there were reported to worship Poeninus/Peninos and seemingly they continued up until the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Today, we see many landmarks, cities, and other features that still bear the names of Celtic tribes and Celtic Gods but to have a mountain range and a large section of Switzerland named after one God shows the level of importance Poeninus had to both Gauls and Romans in that area. A valley southeast of the pass and north of Aosta is called “Valpelline” and it’s name still honors Poeninus.
Peninos’s name is firstly rooted in “penn”, which is a Proto-Brythonic word for “head” or “chief/leader” as well as the Gaulish “pennos”. This could suggest that Peninos was the head of an Alpine pantheon prior to Roman synchronization with Jupiter. Penn could also suggest “mountain, mountain range”. England has a mountain range known as the Pennines Mountains. Like the Helvetian Goddess Alpes, Peninos is a representation of how mountains were seen in the ancient perspective. Mountain regions are harsh to live in but provide protection. Armies would have to take certain routes and harsh weather would whittle their numbers. Valleys would receive waterflow from thawing ice making the ground fertile for farming. The mountains would also bear gold and iron for wealth and weapons. Not to mention, again, that living close to the mountains would be living closer to the Gods. There is no way of knowing if Peninos and Alpes were worshipped among other Alpine tribes but since animism was very much present to the Celtic people, and how the Great St Bernard Pass was historically used by travelers, merchants, and armies, it’s easy to believe that Peninos, or a tribal equivalent, was known and worshipped in other areas, as well as Alpes could have been. It’s even possible to see them as consorts and the mother and father of the Dêwoi in Transalpine Gaulish tribes.
Another word “poeni” comes into play. The name is not really interpreted. It is believed that Poeninus, like Apennines and Pennines, means “mountain, mountain range”. The spelling Poen- is due to a (probably mistaken) connection with Hannibal Poenus, the pass where Hannibal crossed the Alps. However, Poeni does come from Welsh meaning “to hurt, to ail, to pain” as well as “to fret, to worry” and “to pester, to plague, to bother, to nag”. Poeni leads us to see that Poeninus is a God that the Romans saw as one who caused much grief and suffering. It also lines up with what was seen with Alpes. Like the mountains themselves, they are great places to live but it can be a harsh life, especially in winter. While Alpes is the earth mother who becomes veiled and cruel in winter months, Poeninus, being the “head”, could be seen as the peak of the mountain. The point where earth and sky meet. Alpes, we established, was a Goddess that was linear. A deity that operated on the boundary between worlds. The same could be said about Poeninus. Since Alpes represents the earth or base of the mountains, where caves could have been seen as portals between our world and the lower world, Antumnos, Poeninus reigns over the peak, the point between our world and the upper world, Albios.
The Swiss Taranis?
With that in mind, it makes all the sense in the world why the Romans saw Poeninus as a Jupiter like figure. Jupiter, and His Greek equivalent Zeus, ruled from atop a mountain. These Gods are best known as Gods of thunder and lightning which very well could be applied to Poeninus as well. Storm Gods are often connected to mountains, and in the Alps, most storms would descend from the mountains which would fall in Poeninus’s domain. Across cultures Gods of thunder and storms typically have a similar disposition,personality, and function within the cosmos. Like storms, Gods like Thor, Perkunas, Perun, Indra, Susano, etc are heroes among the Gods but they are ill tempered and in some stories they represent masculinity to a near toxic level. But with all their faults, thunder Gods are first and foremost protectors of mankind. Their rain brings fertility to farms and their lighting purifies the land. Most importantly, they are all the greatest weapon against chaotic beings like Giants and serpents. Most thunder Gods are symbolized by the eagle which makes sense as eagles are an enemy of snakes in the natural world.
Of all the masters of storms and thunder, one stands and should be carefully looked at. The Gaulish sky God Taranis. His name means “Thunder/Thunderer” and is one of the most well known and almost universally worshipped Dêwoi in Gaul. Taranis is featured on the famous Jupiter Pillar and depicted fighting against a serpentine giant. Peninos and Taranis bear many similarities but they are likely not the same God. There is a chance that, with the Gaulish dialects that likely existed, Taranis became Peninos when His worship crossed the Alps. Both are equated with Jupiter and depicted the same in Gallo-Roman art. The prime difference is that Taranis is seen with His Solar Wheel while the statue at the Great St Bernard Hospice Museum shows Poeninus standing in position, wielding what could have been a staff or maybe a spear or lightning bolt. Another thing to consider is that on top of Gods of thunder being seen in a similar fashion, Roman synchronization tried to narrow down the nearly 300+ Gaulish Gods with their pantheon. Any male God associated with war was seen as Mars for example. Dozens and dozens of Gods are equated and paired with Mercury and the same applies for Jupiter and any God of storms and mountains. Similar doesn’t mean the same, so until evidence is found that links Peninos and Taranis as one and the same, they should be considered their own Gods respectively.
My divination reading for identifying Peninos was very interesting. A lot matched up with what was discussed earlier. My divination system is a three way combination of Wildwood tarot (WWT), Elder Futhark Runes (EF Runes), and Lepontic Rûnâs (LP Rûnâs). The spread I use is for deity identification. Here are the results I saw for Peninos:
#1 Who is Peninos?
WWT: The Blasted Oak
EF Rune: Sowulo
LP Rûnâ: Uros
Meaning: Strength, Vitality, Change (for the better). Hardship and challenge but victory over them. Solar and Storm imagery
#2 1st Aspect of Peninos
WWT: 5 of Stones: Endurance
EF Rune: Fehu (inverted)
LP Rûnâ: Mî
Meaning: Trials, Challenge, Hardship, Testing, Endurance. Gain and reward through hard times. Achievement and Victory through challenges. Storm and Mountain Imagery
#3 2nd Aspect of Peninos
WWT: The Hooded Man
EF Rune: Wunjo
LP Rûnâ: Druith
Meaning: Reward, Wisdom, Clarity, Growth. Overcoming the trials and gaining perspective and insight. Strength through adversity “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. Mountain symbolism.
#4 What does Peninos Reign Over?
WWT: The Forest Lovers
EF Rune: Laguz
LP Rûnâ: Locos
Meaning: Balance and unity between polar opposites (order). Water/Storm symbols. The storm can be chaotic and destructive but the rain also gives life to the land.
#5 What Represents Peninos?
WWT: 10 of Bows: Responsibility
EF Rune: Berkana (inverted)
LP Rûnâ: Alcos
Meaning: Taking responsibility and being forged as a leader to aid your family, tribe, community, etc via challenges and reaping the rewards. Failure only means new opportunities to succeed. Peninos teaches these harsh lessons with the goal of strengthening humanity.
After looking at all of this, in my opinion, Peninos is the chief deity of His pantheon. Ruling over the sky from the mountain peaks like an eagle. As a storm God, Peninos is associated with oak trees which is common among thunder Gods. I see His consort as Alpes who is the epitome of the feminine aspect, Peninos is that of the masculine aspect. Both give blessings in the form of fertile earth and rain from skies. Both give protection with their mountain ranges. During the winter months they are relentless and unforgiving but with purpose. Peninos’s storms are meant to strengthen the resolve of the people. In dark times, leaders are born and forged. It is harsh and sometimes unfair but, in a way, necessary to build strong chiefs and strong tribes. Those who wish to travel the passes through His realm with Peninos’s blessing must give respect and offerings to avoid His anger. Peninos is stern but caring for the human race. His rains and storms give life to the land and purifies it. The snow, wind, rains, thunder, hail, etc may seem like a punishment, and for those who do not respect the mountains and the order of nature it may be just that, but speaking both literally and metaphorically, those who can withstand the storm are often stronger for it. The quiet peace and calm after the winds and rains have stopped offer a moment of solace and silent contemplation. To finally relax and take in the lessons learned from the ordeal. We are hardened and strengthened on the inside so we can rebuild what was lost in the world around us. It’s not about the physical things like temples, buildings, monuments but so long as the people, the tribe, survives the storm, then their culture, their beliefs, their future generations will become strong and secure as the mountains themselves. To be strong, stern, fair, as Peninos.
- Ernst Howald, Ernst Meyer: Roman Switzerland
- Helmut Birkhan: Celts
- Gerold Walser: Studies on Alpine history in ancient times
- Titus Livius: From Urbe Condita XXI
- Aurelius Augustinus: De Civitate Dei