The Matrons: a pilgrimage in Germany

Naomi Mirkrida
July 17, 2023

It was a sweltering summer day when I and my friend Moniek left for Germany. We would stay in a small house between the hills for two nights and had a weekend to visit the various Matronentemples in the vicinity. For those who don’t know them yet: the Matrons are ancient mother goddesses of Europe. The image of the triple goddess emanates from them (but is probably even older). Hundreds of votive altars to the Matrons have been recovered. By far the most were found in Germany in the triangle between Cologne, Bonn, and Trier. But Matrons have also been found in The Netherlands, and there has been a Matron sanctuary in Nijmegen. Nehalennia is also often counted among the Matrons. Frau Holle is also linked to them. Most votive altars were made between AD 100 and AD 400.

We see the three Matrons sitting on thrones next to each other. In the middle is the younger woman, the Maiden, with her hair draped loosely over her shoulders. To her left is the Mother and to her right is the Grandmother. The Mother and the Grandmother wear a large round hat, referring to the sun and the moon. On their laps, the Matrons carry baskets of offerings: apples, nuts, grapes, and sometimes small animals or loaves of bread. The sides of the votive altars are sometimes richly decorated with trees of life, further offerings, or people making offerings. Dr. Annine van der Meer did extensive research on the Matrons and wrote a good book about it, which I highly recommend: De Drie Dames uit Duitsland. Unfortunately, it is only available in Dutch.

The Matrons have many bynames and honorary names, and so we find many different Matrons who all hold their own position or act as protectors of a large family or profession. One inscription is particularly important to the continental European history of Seidr, and it has been found in the German town of Zülpich. We are talking about the Matrons Saitchamiae, which can be translated as ‘Mothers of Seidr’ or ‘Mothers of Magic’. Most of the Matron stones are in the care of the Landesmuseum in Bonn. But our journey took us to three reconstructed natural sanctuaries instead of the museum. The votive altars we found there are replicas, but that doesn’t make them any less alive. I’ll take you with us on our journey step by step.

Saturday July 15:

Matronenheiligtum “Görresburg”, Unnamed Road, 53947 Nettersheim,Germany

Matrons Aufaniae “Mothers of Abundance”, the “Abundance-Giving Mothers”

After breakfast with hearty yogurt, blueberries, and granola, we set off for the Matronen Sanctuary in Nettersheim. From our cottage in Bad Münstereifel, it takes about 22 minutes by car. The view is beautiful: the little Mitsubishi Colt has to work hard to drive us high into the hills and then down again. We pass fields full of grain and green forests. We arrive at our destination around 10:30 am. There is no one there to be seen except for us. Probably because it rains so hard. The sky is gray and moody and the wind blows hard. I had only brought a woolen cardigan. Fortunately, Moniek was smart enough to bring two large scarves that we can throw over our heads and shoulders against the rain. We park the car against the slope of the hill and look out over an undulating landscape. In the landscape are the remains of six Roman houses. On the information board, we read that these houses are located along an old road that led a long way back into the woods. The road goes straight up the hill and then comes out at the Matrons’ Sanctuary. Women often visited Matron Temples in procession. As we look down the Roman road it is not difficult to envision the women stepping out of the door and joining the procession up to the top of the hill.

We walk up quietly and with a slight tension in our stomach, we see the shrine. The place has something mystical with the rain and the wind. When we get a little closer we are suddenly stared at by a hare. A second follows shortly after.

We approach slowly and get wet with rain. That’s not bad at all.

We approach slowly out of respect and to feel the energy field of the place. Once we locate the boundaries of the energy field we request permission to enter the sanctuary.

A rosehip bush full of colored wishing ribbons waves in the wind in front of the shrine.

A sacrificial bush and a watchman at the same time. You have to pay something to get in.

We are well prepared and bought all kinds of fruits on Friday to give as offerings to the Matrons.

The votive altars are set up on the left side of the temple building. Three next to each other and one just around the corner.

We approach the four altars in silence, ask what offerings are desired, and put them down. The cherries and apples are especially popular.

We immediately notice that sacrifices have been made recently. At all altars, we find flowers, pomegranates, shells, stones and figurines. And even a smudge feather. This gives us a good feeling: the Matrons have not been forgotten, they are seen and visited by more people! To conclude our visit, we both tear a white cotton ribbon. We make a wish and tie our ribbons to the sacrificial bush. As I express my wish, the Matrons speak back clearly and firmly: “Your wish is beautiful, but we know you want to make a wish for yourself. Speak it!” And I did.

After saying thanks again we quickly walk back to the car because it is raining harder and harder. We spent about an hour at the shrine and read some more in Annine van der Meer’s book. Then it’s time to head for the second shrine.

Matronentempel Zingsheim “Vor Hirschberg”, Auf der Heide 304, 53947 Nettersheim, Germany

Matronen Fachinehae “Mothers of Joy/Cheerfulness”

After driving for about 11 minutes, we arrive at an industrial estate. It has stopped raining but the air still feels a little stuffy. We take our bag with offerings from the car, and with staff in hand, we walk up a path. On the left the industrial estate, on the right a forest, and along the path a lot of mugwort. We round the corner and see an open field on the right with an information panel and a small shrine. As we walk to the information board, the sun breaks through.

This temple feels completely different from the one before. The joy is splashing! We can both see people dancing in the field next to the temple and the energy of the place is contagious. We use the same method as before and slowly approach the holy place, but soon we feel the temple inviting us and we start to walk faster. Before we know it we are in the temple and admire the rich offerings for the Matrons.

We give different offerings and are not silent here but feel invited to talk and laugh.

Striking is the many coins that were offered here and Brigid’s cross that someone tied in the sacrificial bush. This shrub is also a rosehip, as with the first shrine. We feel merry and offer gooseberries. My staff rests against the votive stone for a while. After we have walked around the temple building, we tear two new white ribbons from our piece of cotton and tie them in the bush with a wish. This time I give a wish for the place itself, and that choice is gratefully accepted.

We decide to walk a bit further up the forest path behind the information board. A beautiful piece of dense forest! We enjoy it a lot.

Then we follow the small path between the forest and industrial area back to the car. We didn’t see any other people here either. We are glad that the Matronentempel has been preserved, and that the industrial estate has been built next to it instead of on it. Many developments are now underway in this area: a tunnel is being built that runs right under Stonehenge despite major protests and UNESCO’s warnings to place Stonehenge on the list of endangered heritage, and in France, an ancient stone circle has been destroyed for commercial purposes gain. Fortunately, it seems that the woodhenge of Tiel will be restored. We enter the address of our next destination and drive to the village of Eiserfey in less than fifteen minutes. Here we find the Kakushöhle: the cave of the giant Kakus. But the cave of Kakus is also known as the Children’s Cave of Frau Helic. This is where the children came from, from the dark lake at the bottom. Frau Helic is a local name for Frau Holle/Helle.

Zur Kakushöhle, 53894 Mechernich, Germany.

We have to look for the right entrance. Our navigation sends us into the village, but there is no parking space there. We decide to turn around and drive back a bit to a small cafe along the road. Here we can park our car and we also find the starting point of several hiking trails around the cave. The typical cave energy is immediately palpable: the air is cooler here and there is a shadow. We briefly study the menu hanging on the outside of the cafe (we’re starting to get hungry, just like the giant Kakus) and then walk around the cafe in the direction of the cave. Several information boards tell us that Neanderthals have already lived in the cave of Frau Helic and that traces of giant deer, woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, and giant beavers have been found. Celtic tribes and Romans also used the cave and the surrounding area. There is a source in front of the cave, but we are so impressed by the cave that we immediately look for the entrance. The cave was created from limestone, which is specific to this region. The limestone colors are alternately white, brown, red, and black. Ferns grow on the outside of the rock.

The entrance to the cave unmistakably resembles a Vulva. No wonder it was said that children are born from the depths of this cave. The human Vulva was also traditionally seen as a gateway to the underworld, and from the underworld to the middle world. This is also the working area of Vrouw Holle and the Matrons.

I always find it special to enter a cave. I instinctively feel a little tension in my gut: it’s exciting to go into the dark and sink into the earth. In the womb of the Earth Mother. It inspires awe and reverence in me. A slight fear is appropriate here. Moniek and I look around in surprise. The coolness and darkness of Helic’s house cover us like a blanket. We hear the (busy) sounds of other people outside around the cave. I experience this as disturbing for a while, but we just do our thing just like the other visitors, who are clearly here with a different focus than us. Just standing in the cave and walking around is enough to sink into a light trance. We see traces on the rocks that may indicate the course of the water but also traces of habitation. We are touched by the realization that Neanderthals lived and hunted here. We walk several laps through the cave and peer further into the dark. The part that leads deeper into the cave is closed off with an iron fence. Probably too dangerous, or disruptive to the population of bats that now live here. The dark lake has been dry for several years because the source has dried up outside. That’s a pity, but the cave is magical anyway. The energy of Helic is clearly palpable: Hollow as the Dark Grandmother, and lady of winter and all that dies and is reborn. Lady of Healing and Trials. We don’t leave any offerings, it doesn’t feel right because we can damage the stones with that.

We wriggle out of the cave on the other side and suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with a group of young women who are being given a tour. They ask if we want to take a picture and we do. Then we continue our way over steep paths and through the vegetation on top of the cave. The walk takes us slowly back down to the highest point of the cave and then we are back in front of the cafe. We both order a waffle and a cup of herbal tea.

Afterwards, we feel recharged and we set off for the last destination of the day. Again we don’t have to drive long, about fifteen minutes. In Annine van der Meer’s book we read that the three Matron shrines lie on a straight line as the crow flies. We look at our route on Google Maps and see that that is indeed the case! The sanctuaries are probably placed in such a way that they correspond to the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars.

“Matronentempel Eifel/Tempelbezirk Pesch”, Zum Heidentempel, 53902, Nettersheim, Germany

Matrons Vacallinehae “Mothers of the Cow Place” or “Mothers of the Tribe of the Vacalli”

When we arrive in Pesch it starts to rain again. We wrap scarves around our heads and shoulders and take the sacrificial bag, now considerably lighter, with us. The road immediately enters a piece of primeval forest and rises steeply in a spiral path. To the right of the path we see a deep gorge also known as “Devil’s Gorge”. Diagonally above it on the other side of the gorge is a circle of trees. This would be a Hexentanzplatz, a witch dance place. In other words, a meeting place for witches during the Sabbats. You can find this name on several mountains in Germany. The climb is steep and demands a lot from our legs and back. Slightly out of breath we reach the top of Mount Addig. We are immediately impressed by how large the sanctuary is. Here too we see that sacrifices have been made recently. A braided wreath with flowers has been placed on the first Matron stone. The other altars are strewn with fruit, stones and shells and other offerings. The temple on the right is flanked by two votive altars. Life-size Matron statues have stood in the temple building. One of the votive altars was once decorated with red ocher. The images make a great impression on us and we experience them as more penetrating than the altars we saw earlier that day.

Even before we can slowly approach the altars to offer offerings, the Matrons ask us who we are and what the purpose of our visit is. I tell them that we would like to get acquainted and that I teach about ancient forms of rituals and magic. And that I give these old forms a new form in the now. I then receive silent approval and may continue to enter the sanctuary. We divide our last fruit offerings over the two stones at the temple and at the third votive altar that is located in the courtyard next to the temple.

This votive stone has a completely different energy. We are not questioned but simply welcome to enter the sacred ground, just as we are at that moment. The inner garden exudes tranquility. Traces of a tree where oracles were used have been found here. We both catch impressions of young women and girls dressed in white who are being taught the art of Wyrd/Fate here.

Someone has made the Matrons’ eyes red with ochre. It seems a little scary at first, but the energy of the Mothers themselves is very soft in this place.

Just behind the altar is a smaller stone on which various symbols are carved. We discover a serpent and the rune Jera, very appropriate for the Matrons.

There is also a holy spring here, which is opposite the courtyard. The path between the well and the garden is a straight line and is probably also tuned to the movements of the sun and moon.

There is a third building on this site, on the other side of the courtyard. This was a community house of the Vacalli tribe. Rituals were performed here and justice was also administered.

We start to get tired of all the impressions and take a rest on the edge of the temple building. The branches of an oak are hung with a small number of thin ribbons that are hardly noticeable. We decide to change that and we tear off two strips of white cotton for the third time. We take turns tying our ribbons in the tree. No wish this time, just gratitude.

Tired and satisfied we drive back to our cottage in Bad Münstereifel to land again. It was a beautiful day.

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