Thursday, March 25, 2010

Roman Temple at Bath

In Britain are Hot Springs adorned with sumptous splendour for the use of mortals. Minerva is patron Goddess of this; Solinus 3rd century AD

Relief sculpture of Celtic Head at Aqua Sulis

 His head, his probably one of the finest relief sculptures of a Celtic head in Britain. It is set in the centre of a pediment and is wreathed round with twining oak leaves. There are various symbolic pieces on the rest of the pediment.

Firstly there is an owl sitting atop a helmet in the right hand corner of the frieze, recalling Minerva's bird. There are also various bits that are seen to relate to the tritons, half men, half fish who serve the god Neptune. The head is often referred to as a gorgon's head ( medusa type) these heads were often placed on temple porticos, eaves of buildings, and shields. Ann Ross in her book Celtic Realms also emphasises the strong symbolic imagery of the "tete coupee" of the Gaulish head, which in some ways it bears a striking resemblance to. The two cultures having been blended by a skilful (probably from France) craftsman. It shows the strong celtic influence that existed side by side within the roman period of this part of the country.

Gorgon heads depicted snakes/serpents in the hair but were also found to be linked with healing springs. This head also has a pair of wings, that can be seen in the photograph .So here the craftsman cleverly combined classic roman" gorgon" imagery with the deep symbolism of the "divine head" of the Gauls. The complexity comes though in that Medusa is female whereas here we have a male head. The head would have presented a striking appearance to the people coming to the temple. Its powerful imagery set above the doorway, would imply to the native inhabitants, that they were leaving the sunlit world of their day to day existence and entering into a dark liminal"otherworld" of the celtic culture. This of course would be further enhanced by the hot steamy waters of the spring, and perhaps the "eternal" fire that was part of the temple. A psychological religious drama that the romans were clever enough to combine with their many gods. Aqua Sulis as Bath was called, is named after a celtic goddess Sulis but there is no representation of her, all we have is Minerva, goddess of craft.

The head of the Roman goddess Minerva

This great gilded bronze statue would have probably stood centrally in the temple by the spring and overlooking the sacrificial altar......From Ovid's 'Fasti', commemorating the festival of Quinquatrus, Minerva's birthday Dies admoniet et forti sacrificare deae, quod est illa nata Minerva. (This day reminds us to sacrifice to the strong goddess, for today is Minerva's birthday). Minerva is the daughter of Jupiter and Metis, she was the virgin goddess of warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce and crafts.

Relief of the Goddess Minerva
She is usually depicted in roman imagery wearing a coat of mail and a helmet and carrying a spear. The Aqua Sulis Minerva has holes on top of the head which would probably have held a helmet. There is no depiction of the Sulis goddess, but her presence is known by the dedications made to her....

"I have given to Minerva the Goddess Sulis the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to redeem this gift unless with his blood.
Priscus, son of Toutus, stonecutter, of the Carnutes Tribe, to the Goddess Sul, willingly and deservedly fulfils his vow)
Quintus Pompeius to Sul Anicetus;

To the Sulevi, Sulinus Scultor, son of Bricetus willingly and deservedly made this sacred offering. (Taken from Roman Britain on the web)

Sulis has two altar stones dedicated to Sulis and Minerva, and six without Minerva. The Sulevi dedication, is probably the attribution of the three celtic goddesses that are found under this name on the continent. The coupling with the god Anicetus is interesting, on Wikpedia it states that he might be the equivalent of the British Apollo, on the continent he is found as Apollo Anicetus, also as Sol Invictus, Mithras Anicetus at Rudchester, combining Roman, Greek, Celtic German, and Persian this time. Noting that he has been conflated with Sol (sun) it may be interesting to speculate whether this had anything to do with Sulis at Bath being partly a sun goddess. One of the dedications is by a Haruspex named Memor, a person who foretold the future by divining the entrails of sacrificed animals;

Celtic Sulevia - plural form Sulevia or Sule there are 40 inscriptions distributed in the celtic world. They are distinguished from the Matres and have in their meaning "those who govern well" but they are also though cojoined with the Matres at Colchester.

The Matres, though seen as roman goddesses also probably stemmed from the celtic religion, they are often depicted with one breast bare, a basket and children, there is a good example at Cirencester; It is interesting to note that the small plaque with three unknown goddesses may in fact be the celtic equivalent of the Matres.

Celtic women probably had a more equal status than their roman counterparts, one has only to think of Queen Cartimandu or Boudicca to understand that women could rule and were part of the druidic way of life, they are mentioned in classical writing as being prophetesses. This is mentioned in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae but Strabo's description of women, Cimbrian priests, gives a vivid portrayal of their gory role in sacrificing prisoners of war by cutting their throats and then by inspecting the entrails would foretell the victory of their countrymen. (Miranda Green- Druids). She also mentions Veleda the prophetess.

Tacitus in His Histories tells of this person that she was immured in a high tower and that a relative would be deputed to transmit questions and answers, "as if were mediating between a god and his worshipper. A small statue of a goddess found in a well at Caerwent, Romano-Britain town, shows a crude seated female figure with hands clasped. .... describes them thus; " Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; The Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosphers; whilst the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy study also moral philosophy". There are druidic women also mentioned in the classical sources.

So if we are to build up a mental picture of the goddess Sulis, it is perhaps not wise to think in terms of the beautiful classical roman goddesses, whose romantic encounters with the gods are the stuff fairytales are made of. It is well to remember that the celts worshipped the forces of nature, such as Taranis the god of thunder,
Sulis if the word is explored can also mean Suil (old Irish for eye or gap) is 'sun'. The "Gap of the waters" could be interpreted as a place to descend into the underworld. Solar worship was also part of the celtic religion, and this area has bronze age evidence of sun worship in the sun disc found on Lansdown. So our goddess might have several roles, keeper of the healing waters of the shrine, a person who also had command over death and the underworld.....

Mercury and Rosmerta with the three cucullati at their feet

and perhaps also the sun Mercury and his Celtic consort Rosmerta, with the three Genii Cucullati at their feet; his small relief depicts the god Mercury and a native celtic goddess Rosmerta, they can also be found at Nettleton Shrub, a romano british shrine dedicated to Apollo and probably a healing shrine like Aqua Sulis, a few miles away Mercury as a roman god is well known


but he was seemingly adopted by the celts as well, as Caesar says; "of all the gods they most worship Mercury. He has the largest number of images, and they regard him as the inventor of all the arts, as their guide on the roads and in travel, and as chiefly influential in making money and in trade. Mercury came to prominence in the 3rd c BC, he is seen as the god of trade, profit and commerce. His attributes are winged shoes, a winged hat (petasos) and a caduceaus - winged staff with two snakes entwined around it. His celtic consort Rosmerta, on the left, can be seen as a native territory deity, her name means "good provider" and she may appear with a basket of fruit, or Mercury's purse. Reading Miranda's Green (The Gods of the Celts), she identifies the little animal by the side of the Cucullati as a ram, and if the three Genii Cucullati are interpreted as mother figures, both the ram and the Cucullati are seen as representing fertility. There is a fairly worn relief of three Genii with a mother goddess found in the following link at Cirencester; there is also a more stylised depiction of just the three hooded men at the same link. There is also another badly worn relief scupture of Mercury at the Roman Bath Museum, this time it is of a single naked figure, with what looks like a bag in the right hand, though again it could be the top of the staff.

Hand holding thunderbolt (Taranis the Thunderer)

In all this it is sometimes unwise to rely on the stories of classical writers, the myth being translated down through the centuries.

Relief fragment of Diana and Hound

This is a particularly fine relief of the hound, but Diana seems to have disappeared, it must be compared to the Nettleton Shrub relief, which is to be found in the essay "The Temple of Apollo" further down. The Roman Diana is often represented in a short skirt as a huntress and her companion is not a dog but a deer, therefore the celtic version seems to favour the hunting hound as the companion, and as dogs seems to be important to Iron Age Britain - they were after all one of the riches that Caesar speaks of when he comes to Britain - again that wonderful blending of images to local beliefs seem to have happened. Also it must not be forgotten that dogs were probably sacrificed as well.

Penultimately, there are two more paired gods to speak of. There was an altar to Mars Loucetius and Nemetona (Mars Loucetius means brilliant Mars) which of course relates to the "sacred grove" and has many place names on the continent and also here in Britain. Mars Loucetius not only has a roman god in its name but also a celtic one. Starting with Mars who although a deity of war, is also a deity of agriculture, protection and healing has been combined with the celtic god of lightening. Pairing the lightening god with the sacred grove goddess and we have trees.

Drunemeton means sacred oak groves, so the idea of great oaks struck by lightening is a pretty vivid image. The blending of two different sets of gods, and how it was done, we will never know, perhaps because such things were not read about by the populace, it was the priests who transformed the ideas of the cosmic world into its natural and human world imagery. Religion is a form of control and yet the natural world is not controllable, foolishly sacrificing creatures so that luck would prevail is a very superstitious custom, but occasionally it would be nice to go back in history and view all the endless dicussions that must have taken place as to how to interpret the gods. Or were all those celtic and roman priests cynically playing the power game to subdue the local populace.

The three celtic matres/ geni cucullati?

The three celtic goddesses. This small votive plaque was found at Bathampton Down. It must represent the equivalent of the three roman matres relief sculpture that can be found at Cirencester,. It is obviously early and fairly crudely portrayed. Three is of course one of the "magic" numbers that are found in Celtic literature, and it must also be remembered that in this south west area, the three hooded spirits genii cucullati are also found so its symbolism may cover several aspects. Not forgetting of course, the old stone religion of the three faces of the mother goddess figure - crone, maiden and mother, though of course this is only a theory and can never be proved. Its interesting because of its native appearance, no hint of romanisation, the heads though joined at the same level at the shoulders are all different, it maybe that it has something to do with the gaulish Sulivae.
The Luna goddess was also worshipped at Bath, she is traditionally associated with fertility, there were parts of a priest's headdress together with a moon shaped pendant found in the excavations.

Note; The following photo shows a head from Bath Museum, this head is of a roman matron, probably from a stone tomb, depicting an elaborate coiffured head found in Walcot street; there are a couple of places on the web that describe the latter head as Minerva - not true says she.

This is the Luna goddess, shown here with the other Roman depiction of females, mainly because of her hair style; she is represented by several names in the Greek/Roman myths, the moon frames a rather mutiliated face and she holds some kind of staff.. The next photos will be a miscellany of what else was at Bath Museum

The fiery hot roman springs

1 comment:

  1. You have refreshed my sense of good luck that I live in the middle of all this. I have reset great blocks of stone which were the portal between the Temple Precinct and the Great Bath, finding Celtic artefacts underneath it. I park my car on Walcot Street, and I often wonder what lies underneath it, like the body of Richard the Third in that car park.


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