Having again listened to the fascinating talk by Suzie Fox, author of Ritual Journeys with Great British Goddesses over the weekend I was inspired to do a little research into a Goddess which is relatively local to me.
Verbeia is the Romano-British name given to the genius loci of the River Wharfe and is specifically associated with the two streams which flow down from Ilkley Moor and converge just behind the town itself. Her name is attested to once in the local archaeological record in the form of an altar stone. This stone is held in All Saints Parish Church which sits on the site of the Roman Fort, which may also have been called Verbeia.
Stylistically the image depicted on the altar stone is similar to ones found in Mavilly-Mandelot, France which depicts a Goddess figure holding two snakes. The Ikley Altar stone is significantly different in that it depicts the two snakes as being joined at the tail, mirroring the natural landscape with the joining of the streams. The altar was dedicated by Second Cohort of Lingones and there is some evidence that the people around Lingones, Italy migrated across the Alps around 400BCE and this may be why the iconography is so similar.
As well as Ms Fox’s book (which I have yet to read but it is on its way) There is a very interesting pamphlet on the subject of Verbeia by G.T. Oakley of Dreamflesh
But what is the nature of Verbeia?
In her talk Ms Fox linked Verbeia with the Strid, though as a local I would contend that it is not “close” to Ilkley as she attested. This section of the Wharfe runs past Bolton Abbey and is well known for its deadly beauty. The Strid is narrowed area of the river which increases the force and speed of the river from a pleasant meander to a raging torrent. The death toll of the Strid is high not least because its narrowing and the illusion that the other side of the gorge is closer than it actually is. Once upon a time it was men on horse back that risked themselves, now it is cocksure jumpers that plummet into the gap and torrent that is the Whafe.
Mr Oakley says…
What was Verbeia’s nature? She was obviously a Water Goddess, associated with the life-giving and life-taking powers of the Wharfe and its tributaries. The latter aspect is most memorably manifest these days, especially at the Strid, further up the Wharfe, which regularly claims lives. As well as relating tales of pernicious female water elementals such as Jenny Greenteeth and Grindylow, folklore tells us that the goddess of the river manifests at the Strid as a white horse before she claims a victim (Clarke & Roberts: 90)
If you have ever been to the Strid it is a powerful place. Even as a child I had a healthy fear of it, once describing it as “hungry” to my parents. Now as an adult, fully aware of its history, I would stand by that description. Travel up or down river and the atmosphere is very different and I have spent many an hour getting waterlogged in the River but the Strid is of a different nature all together. It isn’t just the sound of the water and the white horses leaping but it is the demanding atmosphere. It is a place that demands sacrifice, and keeps itself well fed by luring the foolish into pitting their will against its own. Not all who go in will come out the other side; the Goddess, it seems, wishes to hold close those She takes.
Life and Death are two sides of the same coin and it is not surprising that the Romano-Celtic people saw them as two aspects of the same goddess. A healthy respect for any river is necessary for just as it can bring life giving water, fish and other plants and animals to bring comfort to our lives it can bring death and destruction unlike anything else.
If you would like to read more GT Oakley has made his pamphlet on Verbeia available for download and personal use. You can get straight to the .pdf by following this link.