The River Trent name and the birthplace of a goddess

November 22, 2022 by Mark Knight

The confluence of the rivers Trent and Tame.  The River Mease is just out of shot to the left. Photo credit: Mark Knight 2022

Our story begins around 5,000 years ago with the creation of the Catholme Ceremonial Complex.  In the early 2000s,  an archaeological team led by Professor Henry Chapman of the University of Birmingham unearthed an incredible series of finds at Catholme.  A ritual landscape based around a series of ceremonial monuments focussed on the confluence of three rivers, the Trent, Tame and Mease was discovered to have existed between about 3,000 BCE and 1,500-1,000 BCE.  The importance and sanctity of this unusual triple confluence was of utmost significance to our forebears, and starting in the late Neolithic, these monuments may have stood in the landscape for well over 1,500 years and influenced the building and placement of later Bronze Age burial mounds and other landscape features such as the one we’re investigating across the river from Croxall at the NMA.  This ceremonial complex was of very great importance and national significance, despite there being nothing visible above ground now.

It is well established that the prehistoric peoples of Britain believed that rivers were a representation of the feminine divine and that each river had its own goddess, or more correctly, that the river was a manifestation of the goddess herself and pondering this caused me to start thinking about our own River Trent.  The pre-Christian people of Britain believed in genius loci or the spirit of place; trees, springs, mountains, rivers – all were represented by a spirit or a god or goddess.

In that respect they align with many of the world’s indigenous religions.  Indigenous peoples often describe and understand the world in very different terms to those of the Western world, sometimes in radically disparate and seemingly incongruous ways.  Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro describes these radically different worldviews as ‘perspectival multinaturalism’, suggesting that the world is ‘inhabited by different sorts of subjects or persons, human and non-human’, which all act in the world but with a variety of sensory apparatus and implying a unity of nature and a multiplicity of cultures and multinatural worlds with a diverse corporeality and variety of perspectives.  In this worldview therefore, a tree or a river, or a rock, mountain or forest might have individual physiognomies (described by some indigenous cultures as ‘earth beings’) that may be apprehended by a human individual and understood as identifying the entity’s character and personality.  So too for all rivers, and in the past the River Trent was no exception, being believed to be represented by a specific ‘earth being’, or goddess.  Work by etymologists over the years reveals that the name of the goddess was Trisentona, shortened over the millennia to Trent.  Efforts in the past to understand the meaning of the name resulted in translations such as ‘Trespasser’, ‘Flooding One’, or more tortuously, ‘the Great Feminine Thoroughfare’.

More recently, Professor Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarra has identified a new derivation of the name meaning.  Whilst acknowledging the river as a manifestation of the goddess, he offers a different conclusion for the meaning of her name.  He breaks the word into three parts, Tri, which he translates as meaning ‘very’ or ‘great’ related to the modern Welsh word ‘dra’ with the same meaning.  The second part he gives as ‘suant’ which gives us the modern Welsh ‘chwant’, meaning ‘desire’, with the third part ‘ona’ modifying the ‘suant’ to ‘suantona’, giving us the related modern Welsh ‘sorchan’, meaning ‘beloved’.   This results in the word Trisentona meaning something like ‘the goddess of great desire’, or perhaps better rendered in English as ‘greatly beloved’.

I think we can get closer still.

The belief in a triple goddess is a pan-European one, representing the three aspects of the feminine divine.  Consider here the three fates of Greek myth, the three norns of Germanic and Scandinavian myth, or the Irish and Welsh triple goddess figures.  The connection between water, life, and the life-giving goddess is very ancient, dating back far into prehistory and has perhaps continued into historic times with the celebration of holy wells with their female patron saints.

The number three was of great significance, and it is my contention that in the ancient past the three rivers were understood to have given birth to the triple goddess.  The ritual landscape and ceremonial complex that stood for so very long acknowledged this, and importantly, may have been recognised and celebrated by our ancient ancestors as the birthplace of the goddess herself.  The prefix or word-forming tri is of proto-Indo-European origin, meaning (of course) three, and is represented in almost all modern European languages as a variant of this, as well as Indian languages through Vedic Sanskrit and Indo-Iranian languages (Persian, or Farsi).  This means that a small revision to Professor Breeze’s derivation of Tri, instead of mutating to ‘dra’ meaning ‘very’ would remain with the usual meaning of ‘three’.  The goddess Trisentona’s name would then mean ‘thrice-beloved’, emphasising the tripling of the regard in which she was held, and as a recognition of the ‘three-ness’ of the triple goddess and the importance of the confluence where three rivers meet.

Bringing these aspects together, these three rivers, the Mease, Tame and Trent gave birth to the triple goddess, with the creation of the Catholme Ceremonial Complex as the celebration of that birthplace.  The river then becomes a manifestation of the goddess, and the goddess a representation of the river.  Almost lost to us on the verge of forgetfulness, she was called Trisentona the thrice beloved, shortened over the millenia to Trent.