Nehalennia is a goddess of unclear origin, perhaps Germanic or Celtic, but also quite possibly an earlier, distinct people (such as those of the Nordwestblock). Gysseling gives her name as likely from the ancient Belgian language. He derives it partly from the Proto-Indo-European *nei- “to lead”, and translates it as either “leader” (“lead” in terms of guiding ships) or “steerwoman”.
Nehalennia is known from more than 160 votive altars, which were almost all discovered in the Dutch province of Zeeland. Two altars were discovered in Cologne, the capital of Germania Inferior. All of them can be dated to the second and early third centuries CE.
Most pieces show a young female figure, sitting on a throne in an apse between two columns, holding a basket of apples on her lap. Nearly always, there is a wolf dog at her side. In some cases, the fruit basket is replaced by something that looks like loaves of bread; in other cases, we can see the woman standing next to a ship or a prow.
Several inscriptions inform us that the votive altar was placed to show gratitude for a safe passage across the North Sea, and we may assume that other altars were dedicated for the same reason. An example of a typical inscription:
To the goddess Nehalennia,
on account of goods duly kept safe,
Marcus Secundinius Silvanus,
trader in pottery with Britain,
fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly.
Hilda Ellis Davidson Davidson links the motif of the ship associated with Nehalennia with the Germanic Vanir pair of Freyr and Freya, as well as the Germanic goddess Nerthus and notes that Nehalennia features some of the same attributes as the Matres.