The summer solstice is almost upon us and in keeping with the theme of light and weekly topic of deity on the Pagan Experience I thought I would post accordingly. Stay in close to home and bucking the gender trend I thought I’d post a little about the “Celtic Goddess” Sulis, also known by the conflated Romano-British name of Sulis Minerva. Sulis is known as a both a water and sun goddess, famously associated with the spa town of Bath.
Of Britain and Rome
Sulis is the Celtic tutelary spirit associated with the hot springs of the spa town of Bath. There is evidence in the archaeological record that the springs have been visited by man since Neolithic times. The springs became a focus for veneration in later times, reaching prominence in the Iron Age. Solsbury Hill, an Iron age hill fort, is located close to what is now the modern city of Bath and provides excellent views over the city and it is possible that it was associated with a developing cultic centre around the mineral rich hot springs and eventually grew into the formalised settlement and temple complex of Aquae Sulis, or the waters of Sulis, under the Roman occupation of Britain.
The goddess venerated at what would become Aquae Sulis was the conflated goddess of Sulis Minerva. Sulis is not an authentic Roman name or epithet in origin, indeed it was quite common in the Roman occupation of Britain to conflate pre-existing Celtic deities with their closest Latin counterpart. In the cases of syncretized names the Celtic name comes before the Roman and acts as an epithet whilst also emphasising that the Celtic deity was the original occupier of the space being used.
The Romans have a long association with syncretisation of deities both as the inheritors of Greek and Egyptian civilisations and then later as the creators of a European wide empire. Linking gods and goddesses of similar attributes and mythologies can be seen as a way of bridging cultural gaps and whilst it is sometimes presented as a method of imposing one belief system over another it is often something that results when two cultures live side by side over an extended period of time and successfully find commonalities and begin to create their own unique cultural identity. This is the case in Roman Britain, where the Iron Age culture and social structures of Britain were fused with the incoming Roman culture and social structure to create an identifiably unique culture known as the Romano-British culture.
The Baths of Bath
What of Bath and the hot spring spa that it grew up around? The springs themselves are a balmy and constant temperature of 49oC (120oF) and bubbles out of the ground at a rate of around a quarter of a million gallons per day. Hot springs are unusual in the UK, not being famed for our geological activity. Of the 11 hot springs in England (there is at least one in Scotland and at least one more in Wales) 5 are located around Bath. Most of the other ‘hot’ springs emerge at temperatures around 30oC and therefore are not true hot springs. Being a hot spring it is mineral content mineral content is mainly composed of sodium, calcium, chloride and sulphate ions in high concentrations. If you are interested in knowing more about the geology and mechanics of the Bath hot springs I recommend this article.
Not only do the springs represent a liminal and sacred site which was cultivated by the Romans they are a source of hot, fresh water (important to bathing). Even after the decline of the cultic importance of the spring faded they remained of interested to the local inhabitants, regaining national importance in the 1600’s when aristocrats and royalty began to “take the waters” or “take the cure” as a way of maintaining their health. By the 1720’s the town began to develop into a fashionable spa town which is an association that remains strong eventoday. The modern day Thermae Bath Spa continues the 2000 year old tradition in a modern style with the appropriately named Minerva Pool the main attraction.
A quick note on the chthonic connotations of springs in general. Water sources that were found bubbling out of the ground, regardless of the temperature, were often the focus of religious and ritual activity. There is a long history in Britain (and the world at large) of holy springs and wells being associated with Christian saints, martyrs and/or miracles an in many cases it is possible to show that there is a much older tradition upon which this is based. Oral, written and archaeological records often show that there are Iron Age origins for veneration and in some cases it is possible to evidence the importance of a site much further back as with the Mesolithic origins of Blick Mead and its pink flint phenomena.
Water which comes straight from the ground is coming from the Under/Otherworld where the Ancestors and Gods reside. That gives the site a particular religious significance as a point where these otherworldly forces can be contacted. Ritual deposition is common, be it of votive offering such as money or jewellery or representations of objects of beings (divine or otherwise). These offerings are both gifts to the God’s themselves and representative of a message that the devotee wishes to share with the god in question.
Bath in particular has a rich record of defixio (curse) tablets being deposited in the hot springs and in the temple of Sulis Minerva. Those tablets that have been found are almost exclusively focused on obtaining justice. Amongst the 130 known tablets are little gems such as;
“ … Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”
But why is the site of the Temple of Sulis Minerva particularly associated with defixio’s and pleas for justice? The solar connections of Sulis and the then conflation with Minerva (who herself is strongly associated with law and justice) partially explains this association as does her healing attributes. Let’s look at that next.
Eye of the Sun
The commonly accepted meaning of the name Sulis is “eye/vision”. The old Irish word súil meaning eye or gap is most likely derived from the proto-celtic word súilwhich is in turn derived from the proto-Indo-European word for “Sun”. By looking at the etymology of the name we can see some of the Goddesses attributes.
‘Gap’ can be seen as referring to the spring head, the point at which the water emerges from the surface of the earth. The ‘gap’ leads down into the Otherworld and it a perfect site for communicating with the God’s and Ancestors and therefore becomes a site of veneration.
‘Eye’ on the other hand is likely a reference to the reflection of the Sun on the waters of the spring. As the springs in Bath are thermal springs it is reasonable to assume that the temperature was associated with the heat of the sun and on those rare occasions that the sun is seen (at all given the British weather) reflected off the surface of the spring itself such associations would be strengthened. The association of healing with the sun is not uncommon and let’s be honest there is nothing more healing than a long soak in a hot spring. As they say, cleanliness is next to godliness and the fact that the site was later the focus of not only a cultic centre but also public baths (which would have been a cut above most baths as the water would have been flowing and much cleaner than manually filled public baths) is also very telling. The conflation of Sulis and Minerva serves to strengthen and previous and possible association of the site with healing, as Minerva is herself associated with healing and the practice of medicine.
The association of Sulis Minerva with justice can also be seen as coming out of the root meaning of “eye”. There are other solar deities who are associated with justice and oath taking and the motif of the “All Seeing Eye” or the “All Seeing Sun” is common in Egypt, Greek and Roman cultures. For example Helios (and his Roman incarnation Sol) was associated with oath taking. He was invoked ahead of the taking of solemn oaths and would bear witness to their completion or breaking. Sol himself was not involved in the exacting of punishment or granting of rewards, he would carry word of the deeds of the oath maker to the appropriate God’s and Goddess to leave them to deal with it. Sulis Minerva on the other hand was more involved with the exacting of just deserts. This most likely comes about as a result of the conflation of Sulis with Minerva (who’s Greek counterpart is Athena). Minerva is not a passive goddess, born from the head of Jupiter bearing weapons and with a skill for strategy, and she brings this active force into the pairing with Sulis. Rather than being a passive observer of the world below, as is the case with Helios/Sol, Sulis Minerva is invoked and asked to directly intervene on the behalf of the person seeking justice.
Sulis Minerva is also associated with fertility both in terms of nurturing agriculture and female reproduction, particularly breastfeeding. A number of pairs of ivory breasts have been found amongst the record of offerings made to Sulis Minerva and is it assumed that these were worn by breastfeeding mothers and given as offerings in thanks for a bountiful supply. Her association with fertility also comes from the mineral rich nature of the waters and the verdant growth such rich waters can bring. Again, this plays into the solar connection of Her name as the combination of water and bright sun is what brings fruitful harvest. These are not attributes commonly associated with Minerva and it is likely that these associations are brought to the pairing by Sulis herself.
Another attribute associated with Sulis Minerva that comes from her solar connections is her gift of prophecy. Although Minerva herself has no clear associations with prophecy it is possible that this is something that Sulis herself brought to the pairing. Scrying by sunlight in water or water alone is a common form of divination and seeking of prophecy and is it possible that the site was associated with visions granted by the Goddess, certainly this is an association attributed to the Goddess in New Age writings.
Whats in a Name?
If my post seems a little confused as to who I am talking about that is because it is. It is hard to grasp hold of this Goddess because of her very nature, and I saw it in researching other blogs and pagan sites and as I have written I realised that the same confusion has crept in to the latter sections of the post. The confusion stems from Her being a composite or syncretic goddess.
On one hand we have Sulis, who is the Celtic tutelary spirit of the hot springs of Bath. She has her own personality and both her worship and attention is focused solely on the springs around Bath and has always been restricted to this area. There is no evidence for the cult of Sulis anywhere else although there are other tutelary spirits that perform a similar function. To all extents and purposes she is fixed within a given landscape and does not travel beyond it and she cannot be worked with outside of her domain.
Minerva on the other hand is a Goddess of the Roman Pantheon. It can be argued that as the Roman culture spread around Mediterranean and Europe they carried her, and the other members of the pantheon, with them and there is evidence of the worship of Minerva throughout the Roman Empire. Gods can travel, but they are carried by their worshipers and remain within the stones of the new land long after they departed as long as they are remembered. Minerva is syncrinised with a number of different tutelary spirits through out the Roman Empire, such as Deva of Deva Victrix or modern day Colchester, and it is clear that she has been associated with many different locations.
Finally we come to Sulis Minerva, the sum of these two parts. Again she is focused upon the area immediately around Bath, with influences and attributed brought to the pairing by the two entities that create her. In the archaeological record there the cult is limited to the springs around Bath however the influence of Minerva in the pairing opens the argument that this deity may travel. My personal opinion is that Sulis Minerva is as fixed as the Celtic spirit that lends Her name. To me She can only be worked with in the area of the springs however I realise my interpretation is not necessarily everyone’s and I have included some suggestions on how to work with Sulis/Minerva below and will leave it up to the reader to ponder and make their own decisions.
Honouring Bright Waters
Sulis is, as already mentioned, a tutelary spirit associated with the hot springs of Bath, Aqua Sulis, and there can be nothing more appropriate than visiting the city and baths both modern and ancient. At the point of writing this I do not know if it is possible to leave offerings to Sulis/Minerva at Bath but honouring the memory of the place is in itself an act of honouring the spirit, and if you are carrying a coin and a wish and there is opportunity to safely make the offering them so much the better.
The spring at Bath have particular qualities which are not common in the rest of the British Isles but visiting any spring head or well is a good way to connect with deities, be it Suilis or the local spirit or Genius Loci of that particular location. Looking after these locations honours not only Sulis but these local energies and you might want to consider litter picks and maintaining areas as a good way to create and maintain a connection with these energies. Again, casting wishes and petitions with coins or other votive objects is something long associated with watery places which are seen as being liminal and might be something you want to consider however think about the environment as you go, you might want to leave fairy offerings of bread and honey on the first occasions if you intend to visit regularly.
You may wish to try and invoke Sulis Minerva at these locations as well, or you may want to do so at home. You can do this by placing a bowl of water into direct sunlight so that the sun is reflected in the water as you invoke her. You can also use this set up to attempt water scrying by sunlight. You might even want to try this form of divination at a natural site as described above. Running water or standing, it is really up you, what you really need is that rarest of (British) phenomenon’s, bright and direct sunlight.