Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Welsh Celtic Story - Water and Mirrors

A first century AD Celtic mirror

The story starts with Peredur, the first person who was supposed to go looking for the holy grail... now on his journeying through the Celtic landscape he rode through a river valley, heavily forested. Eventually he came to a river with meadows on either side, on one side there was a flock of white sheep and on the other bank a flock of black sheep... When a black sheep bleated a white sheep would cross the river and turn black, and when a white sheep bleated a black sheep would cross the river and turn white. Also when he had crossed the river he saw a tall tree, one half of which was green, the other half was aflame..

Now here we have that marvellous Otherworld of the celts, a dreaming place of eternity, so that when a man died he passed over to the joyous place called the Otherworld, but he could also return from the Otherworld back into our world. This is a version of 'heaven', though without the miserable 'hell' that the christians tagged on to make its worshippers suffer. Both places reside in the imagination of the people who believe in them. The Celtic magical place having a more fun loving aspect to it than religions have today.

They were simple people, death meant nothing to them because you went to a better place, the soul/essence resided in the head, so that chopping off the heads of their enemies and bringing them home to display meant they respected the enemy if he had fought a good battle.

We think we know of this period through the Roman writers and their mention of the druids, but worship went on in the natural world, in the great groves of the woods, or by a spring or a river. These shrines were part of the natural world, water was a life-giver, and if you peered into its depth you could see the reflection of yourself, a mirror image of that otherworld underneath.
Water is after all a life affirming resource, its powers stem from far back into the past...

It could perhaps be argued that this nature worship went back into the Bronze Age, and that water may also have been seen as a mysterious 'force'. It is difficult to set out that history which is not written down, we have tantalising archaelogical evidence here in the West of ritual shafts such as the Wilsford one, and the swallets on the Mendips with their bronze age votive offerings to be found.

"It is difficult to imagine how prehistoric populations would have explained swallets. Not only can they open virtually overnight but many make very strange noises due to water percolation - gurgling, rumbling and echoing. They could not be entered easily. Whereas caves tend to involve a horizontal descent into their depths, swallets have to be entered vertically, probably aided by ropes and ladders. Descending a swallet is truly an entering of the earth, undoubtedly a somewhat unusual experience. Some of the deposits in swallets represent a deliberate emplacement, deliberate intent on the part of prehistoric populations to access these places. The artefacts deposited show no sign of the damage that would have occurred if they had been simply thrown in." taken from the Jodie Lewis article...

These swallets cavernous holes that appeared inexplicably, making strange noises underground, a half understood message from an unseen creature, added to the magical qualities of the Mendips with its gorges, rocks, caves and underground river.
Slowly as I meander round the Iron age and Bronze Age, I am edging my way towards that sacred spring in Aqua Sulis, here we have living proof of goddess worship at a spring. A native goddess respected by the Romans, and evidence of her powers in the written curses that have been found, and the memorial stones dedicated to her name.
The hot steaming water, its outfall housed in an arched cavern like interior, gushing forth on reddened stones, its powers remembered in the Saxon poem 'The Ruin'.

Bob Stewart in his book the Waters of the Gap, explains the mythology of the sacred springs at Bath concentrating on the Celtic/Roman aspects. He mentions that "Suil" or "Sulis", means an eye, gap or orifice, which creates a natural name for the presiding goddess; so the place-name of Aqua Sulis is a Latin-Celtic joint term meaning "The Waters of the Gap", or "The Waters of the Goddess of the Gap", and here we come to the etymology of other places of combined worship of the Latin-Celtic gods such as Appollo Cunomaglos - Apollo the Runner of the Hounds, (dedication to be found at Nettleton Shrub 15 miles from Aqua Sulis) Medionmeton - The Middle Tree Sanctuary; Loucetio Marti et Nemetona - Mars the lightening god and the goddess of the wood; Aqua Arnemetiae - the waters of the goddess of the grove....

It is a shame that the Kennet and the Winterbourne rivers meeting at Swallowhead do not have the same mythology to trace through, there is no evidence to link them with the Roman settlement to be found round Silbury, this is of course probably due to the fact that little archaeological excavations have taken place over the last century. This may be a good factor, but it is intriguing to think that somewhere in this settlement may lie clues to a Roman/cCeltic shrine here, and perhaps much earlier evidence of the importance of the meeting place at the Swallowhead spring...........


  1. Marvellous post, I've so enjoyed reading that. Shouts of 'encore, encore' :) The Bronze Age mirror is really beautiful, there were some wonderful craftsmen in this era. I love to read about the Celtic 'Otherworld' - it makes peerfect sense to me!

  2. Well, dang me, I am certain I have read about the sheep changing colour as they crossed sides in the last 24 hours. Have just bought 3 new books as of yesterday, so off to check which one said it!

    Excellent post as always. Girding up my loins for less domestic and more historical/archaeological on my blog now!

  3. Thank you both, actually I was trying to go in another direction with it ;).
    As for domestic, been knitting large rabbit (it doesnt look like one though) for one of the young people in my life)