Bath – Aquae Sulis

Bath – Aquae Sulis



So on the way back from the British Society of Dowsers Symposium we decided to visit Bath and ‘take the waters’.

When we arrived we did the tourist thing of going on a ‘sightseeing bus tour’. It was a lovely day and the top deck of the bus gave a lovely view of this amazing city. (As an aside if you go to Bath we’d recommend this trip as when we went the tickers, although sounding expensive; were for other sightseeing tours too and lasted until the following day – so to get the best value from them go early and keep the ticket)

Bath is widely known for it’s ‘hot springs’ and within the UK these springs are unique.

The hot springs emerge at 46ºC in the centre of Bath Spa, through the  limestone, whilst others emerge at significantly lower temperatures (20° to
28ºC).If you’re interested in the Geology of these springs then this article is a good starting point.

The water which bubbles up from the ground at Bath falls as rain on the nearby Mendip Hills. It percolates down through limestone aquifers to a depth of between 2,700 metres (8,900 ft) and 4,300 metres (14,100 ft) where geothermal energy raises the water temperature to between 64 °C (147.2 °F) and 96 °C (204.8 °F). Under pressure, the heated water rises to the surface along fissures and faults in the limestone, It is a steady flow of water which the tourist literature claims “could fill your bath in seconds’ and in amounts that would ‘fill a double decker bus every day’. That’s a staggering amount of water….

The site held special significance well before the Romans arrived.

As we have been exploring in the Celtic Shamanism Course, the Celts rather than being a large coherent civilisation were actually varying tribes which shared a broadly similar culture and originated from different parts of Europe. They arrived in England to find a well established culture, which had developed from Neolithic times, and it would appear adopted, or extended, some of the customs they found – particularly in relation to megalithic monuments and ‘scared places’.

The Dobunni were one of the Celtic tribes living in the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion of Britain … and was the tribe living in the area of what is now Somerset.

The latter part of this tribal name possibly derives from Bune which means a cup or vessel. The name seems to have had a similar meaning to the later tribal Hwicce; both being related to the recognisable cult of a Romano-British goddess.

(Hwicce was a tribal kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the kingdom was established in 577, after the Battle of Deorham. After 628 the kingdom became a client or sub-kingdom of Mercia as a result of the Battle of Cirencester.).

The Dobunni, like other Cetic tribes,  will have worshiped the natural world It is possible to identify deities associated with the landscape.

for example:

Cuda is known from an inscribed sculpture found at Cirencester, England, the capital of the Dubunni tribe.

cudaThe image depicts her as a mother goddess, accompanied by three hooded Genii Cucullati (hooded figures found in sacred contexts who are generally small in stature and carry eggs, or other fertility attributes.

The goddess is depicted seated with something in her lap – possibly an egg –  and the three hooded figures are standing. The nearest figure appears to be accepting something from Cuda. Cuda, is a mother goddess associated with the Cotswold Hills


Nodens – later known in Wales as Nudd or Lludd Llaw Ereint (the Silver-Handed) and in Ireland as Nuadu – was the Celtic God of Healing, and the son of Belenos, the Sun God, and Anu, his wife.

He had a large shrine at Lydney (Lludd’s Island) in Gloucestershire, where the devoted made offerings of small bronze representations of their diseased limbs. He was sometimes identified with the protective Mars or the regenerative Silvanus and his companion and symbol was the dog: a deerhound whose lick could cure the afflicted.

Sulis, as noted in the title, was the local goddess of the thermal springs at Bath, which the Romans called Aquae Sulis (“the waters of Sulis”).Her name primarily appears on inscriptions discovered at Bath, with only a single instance outside of Britain at Alzey, Germany. This reminds us that deities in the Celtic world were ‘local’ and usually had an affinity with a particular space or place. The Romans seemed perfectly happy with adopting the names of local deities prior to Romanising them.

About 130 curse tablets, mostly addressed to Sulis, have been found in the sacred spring at the Roman baths in Bath.

The text on the tablets offered to Sulis relates to theft; for example, of small amounts of money or clothing from the bath-house. It is evident, from the localized style of Latin (“British Latin”) used, that a high proportion of the tablets came from the native population.

In formulaic, often legalistic, language the tablets appeal to the deity, Sulis, to punish the known or unknown perpetrators of the crime until reparation be made. Sulis is typically requested to impair the physical and mental well-being of the perpetrator, by the denial of sleep, by causing normal bodily functions to cease or even by death. These afflictions are to cease only when the property is returned to the owner or disposed of as the owner wishes, often by its being dedicated to the deity. One message found on a tablet in the Temple at Bath (once decoded) reads: “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.

hile most texts from Roman Britain are in Latin, two scripts found here, written on pewter sheets, are in an unknown language which may be Celtic (Brythonic). They are the only examples of writing in this language ever found.

Enter MInerva …

Minerva_from_BathMinerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. She was born from the godhead of Jupiter with weapons.

From the 2nd century BC onwards, the Romans equated her with the Greek goddess Athena. She was the virgin goddess of music, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts, and magic.] She is often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl usually named as the “owl of Minerva”, which symbolizes that she is connected to wisdom.

At Bath, the Roman temple is dedicated to Sulis Minerva, as the primary deity of the temple spa. Through this Roman Minerva connection we can assume that  later Sulis was also a goddess of wisdom and decisions.

Whatever Celtic shrine existed at Bath, the Roman edifice was a palace of splendour – Bath Rooms, Cold Plunge Pools, Dressing Rooms, Sauna Rooms and a Temple complex..

Bath2Taking water from the spring and channeling it through a series of troughs and under-floor cuttings the hot water was used for the bath water itself as well as to ‘power’ a sauna and underfloor heating.

The Roman brickwork and engineering is amazing. From the arches and tunnels which allow the water to flow through the buildings and eventually out into the River Avon; through to the sluice system which controls the flow of the water to the mosaic flowering and the elaborate buildings themselves.

The Romans took their bathing seriously with those coming to the Baths going through a steam-sauna and Bath1‘washing’ process before entering the main pool. I guess they worked out that they needed to wash the dirt off before they had a bath so as to control the water quality in the main pools.

In Sue’s photos we see the hot stream water coming in (on the left) and the drainage tunnel which takes excess water to the River Avon. (on the right). This drainage tunnel is apparently large enough to walk down and is serviced by a number of ‘man-hole’s running above the tunnel itself.

The main building must have been impressive. At each end two stone pediments over looked the baths.

One of the pediments featured a carving of Luna/Selene – a well known and respected Moon Goddess, the other is said to depict a Gorgon.


This pediment, which exists as a partial artifact is clear in Sue’s picture.

This display is not only eye-catching but held both Sue and I entranced…. for want of a better word – there was a lot of ‘energy’ within this carving. It had a tangible presence.

The various texts refer to the image of the face as a Gorgon.

Now I always thought that the Gorgons were female and this is decidedly a masculine image.

Others have interpreted this face to represent Oceanus.

Oceanus  was a pseudo-geographical feature in classical antiquity, believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the World Ocean, an enormous river encircling the world;  this world-ocean was personified as a Titan, a son of Uranus and Gaea.

Roman_baths_temple_pediment_02Before we consider this further perhaps we can look at the other symbols to be found on this pediment…

Firstly there is an owl sitting atop a helmet in the right hand corner of the frieze – a reference to Minerva perhaps. Also there is a wreath of leaves, possibly ‘oak’ around the head.

To me the head ‘looked’ Celtic rather than Roman and I instantly thought ‘sun’… that was before knowing that Luna would have been depicted on the other pediment.

BelBel, or Belenus, Celtic was deity associated foremost with the Sun. “Shining One.”

Bel is closely associated with Apollo, due largely to the Roman occupation of Celtic land, and the comparison exchange between the conflicting cultures.

Most are agreed that this is a representation of Bel, and whilst not as detailed as the one at Bath we can see clear similarities. The audio commentary provided to those visiting Bath also suggests that the pediment head was Celtic, originating from Gaul. This again suggests some form of God, if not Bel, rather than a Gorgon.

In looking around for support for these ideas I discover that God-Heads, of the kind we are looking for, a re not that common in sculptures. I did find the ‘Bath Head’ reproduced on numerous sites as a Celtic-God but often with no clear attribution.

Then  I came across this image..



Its a drawing of a Roman altar at The Louvre (Harpers Dictionary of Classical Literature 1896). It features Selene, Phosphorus (left) and Hesperus (right) and a ‘bearded guy’ below,  He is identified in this as Oceanus…. so at least the non-Gorgon identity is supported/

I still can’t define what I mean by the ‘Celtic’ feel of the image however. Heads, and particularly ‘Divine Heads’ feature with Celtic myth and legend so perhaps we see a male head, which is set in stark contrast to that of Luna/Selene which was on the other pediment, has been carved with ‘strong Celtic’ influences. 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 but there is no representation of her, all we have is Minerva, goddess of craft.

The Triple Goddess at Bath

We could enter into some rather interesting and controversial territory here. I (alan) am very supportive and would go as far to say ‘champion’ the Goddess Tradition and within that accept the notion of Maiden, Mother, Crone as being a positive representation of the tradition in modern terms. Now before I get shot down let me state that so much of magical and pagan practices are the result of ‘rediscovery’, ‘recreation’ or ‘re-interpretation’. We, as a culture, are so far removed from the culture of our pagan ancestors and for them some of the complex frameworks we use to explore spiritual meaning were simply not-relevant or, more likely, over-thinking of ‘what is’ and that ‘what is’ IS the connection between us, as individuals, and the world around us. Because, on the whole, we are disconnected from ‘nature’ and the ‘universe’ we have ‘invented’ (or re-invented) systems to help us re-connect. So just because, for example Druidry and Wicca are re-creations and re-imaginings of older beliefs and practices, it does not make them in valid., They are extremely valid reference points for our journey to re-connection.

So whilst it my be that the idea f Maiden, Mother and Crone are modern attempts to reconnect to the divine and sacred feminine, they are valid and powerful references for us today. Moreover they have been seen by many female writers, mystics and magicians as are ways that women may embody the Goddess, making the physical body sacred. We are all aware of the widespread dis-empowerment of women within many areas of culture, not least politics, religion and spirituality.

Modern neo-pagan conceptions of the Triple Goddess have been heavily influenced by the prominent early and middle 20th-century poet, novelist and mythographer Robert Graves who regarded the Triple Goddess as the continuing muse of all true poetry and who speculatively reconstructed her ancient worship, drawing on the scholarship of his time, in particular the Cambridge Ritualists. More recently the prominent archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has argued for the ancient worship of a Triple Goddess in Europe, attracting much controversy, and her ideas also influence modern neo-paganism.

Many neopagan belief systems follow Graves in his use of the figure of the Triple Goddess, and it continues to be an influence on feminism, literature, Jungian psychology and literary criticism.

So why am I rambling on here?

Well at Bath we find a fantastic representation of the idea of a Triple Goddess. – not necessarily in the sense of Maid, Mother, Crone, but within the context of historical goddess triads and single goddesses of three forms or aspects.

The Goddess Triad here is said to be representations of The Mother Goddess – a goddess who represents and/or is a personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction or who embodies the bounty of the Earth. When equated with the Earth or the natural world, such goddesses are sometimes referred to as Mother Earth or as the Earth Mother.

Many different goddesses have represented motherhood in one way or another, and some have been associated with the birth of humanity as a whole, along with the universe and everything in it. Others have represented the fertility of the earth.

The Matres or Matronae are usually represented as a group of three but sometimes with as many as 27 (3 x 3 x 3) inscriptions. They were associated with motherhood and fertility. Inscriptions to these deities have been found in Gaul, Spain, Italy, the Rhineland and Britain, as their worship was carried by Roman soldiery dating from the mid 1st century to the 3rd century AD.

In Norse Myth we find …

The Norns :  Urðr (Along)  : Verðandi (present) : Skuld (future)

In Irish Myth we find..

Ériu;  Banba  and Fódla as well as The Morrígan ( Badb Macha Anand)

In Roman Myth we find …

The Fates :  Nona (the Spinner) : Decima (the Weaver) :  Morta (the Cutter) as well as

The Moon Goddesses : Luna (heaven) :  Diana (earth) : Proserpina (underworld)

And in Greek Myth we find a whole host of ‘triple aspect’ Goddesses…

Moirai  Clotho (spinner) : Lachesis (allotter) :  Atropos (unturnable)
Charites Aglaea (Splendor) : Euphrosyne (Mirth)  : Thalia (Good Cheer)
Erinnyes Alecto (untameable) :  Megaera (grudging) :  Tisiphone (vengeful destruction)
Harpy Aello (storm swift)  : Ocypete (the swift wing) :  Celaeno (the dark)
Horae Eunomia (order) :  Dikē (justice) :  Eirene (peace)
Gorgon Stheno (forceful) :  Euryale (far-roaming) :  Medusa (guardian)
Graeae Deino (dread) :  Enyo (horror : ) Pemphredo (alarm)
Muse Aoidē (song) Meletē (practice) Mnēmē (memory)
Siren Parthenope (Maiden Voice) :  Ligeia (Clear-Toned) :  Leucosia (White-Substance)
Hesperides Aegle (dazzling-light) :  Erytheia (Red)  : Hesperethusa (sunset-glow)

Bath3The point I am making, I believe, is that to simply think of all Triune-Goddess forms as Mother, Maiden, Crone is actually very limiting and stops us from considering the richer and much more profound nature of he Goddess in tradition, in pagan practice and in magic. I know the female readers will be going ‘duh’ since this is not news BUT I’m reaching out to male practitioners who from some conversations I have had seem to be simply removing one set of Goddess/Feminine Attributes to another – albeit a ‘triple’ rather than singular stereotype.

The Goddess Craving at Bath, I think, asks us to look at the nature of our thinking about The Triad of Goddesses (not Triple as in Graves’ assertion) but as a trinity within a sisterhood within a Goddess-dom..


The earliest example of the Triple Goddess is in the figure of The Mothers–Matronae–found in inscriptions on the continent, dating from the first bathgoddesscenturies of the Common Era. Usually, the reliefs depict three well-attired women, holding flowers, fruit, wheat, and so on. Sometimes they were depicted as married, otherwise as not (noted by a lack of bonnets, apparently). Often, secondary names–likely that of local land or river goddess–are given along with the title of “Matronae”. It is important to note, however, that there is a lack of uniformity to this depiction–that is, the figures do not fit a “maiden-mother-crone” pattern. Sometimes there is a mix of married and unmarried figures, sometimes it is entirely married women, etc.

The most famous of the Triple Goddesses is Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda, often called “the poetess.” Her worship was widespread, probably through the semi-dominance of the Brigantes tribe, who covered a wide area from Ireland into Gaul. According to Cormac’s Glossary, there were three of Brigits, all sisters–Brigit the Poetess, Brigit the Smith and Brigit the Doctor–patrons of their respective skills. However, we are not told that they are a maiden-mother-crone; they are all the same age. Instead, her multiplicity implies that she is a master of many arts, and like the Matronae, was patron of the tribe.


Bath – Aquae Sulis – is worthy of more than one visit. As you walk along the bath-side you are several meters below the current city level, you are literally down and back in time. It doesn’t take too much imagination to ‘be with’ our ancestors and as the visitors walk around the site we are reminded that we, like the peoples of 2000 years ago, are drawn to ‘special places’ to experience something special,

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