Thursday 15 January 2015

The Goddess Sulis Minerva

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Living in Bath as I do, I've trailed around the Roman Baths dozens of times with and without visitors. What is fascinating is that no matter how many times I visit, I always learn something new. 
Photograph of the Baths showing a rectangular area of greenish water surrounded by yellow stone buildings with pillars. In the background is the tower of the abbey.
The Great Bath as it looks today: Wikipedia
Before Christmas, I went for a wander around in order to be inspired for a story for 7-8 year olds. I hardly dare mention I'm writing a Roman story with resident History Girls' expert Caroline Lawrence on the blog! But I consider the Roman Baths at Bath practically home, so that will serve as my excuse to dip my toe in Roman waters. 

On my last trip, they had a new innovation at the baths: actors dressed in Roman costumes who could tell you 'their' story. I had a long chat with the slave girl, maid to a grand Roman lady. I learned that the only way she had of making money was to grow and sell her hair. I also learned lots of fascinating information about Roman cosmetics and the fact that Romans disliked body hair. 

As I'm in the process of writing the e-book now, I'm particularly interested in the goddess of the baths, Sulis Minerva. She was an amalgamation of the local Celtic deity Sul, goddess of healing and sacred waters, and the Roman deity Minerva, goddess of wisdom. The largest Roman baths in Britain, built to make use of our only hot springs, are dedicated to her. The city was named Aquae Sulis in her honour.

Sulis Minerva: image courtesy of Wikipedia
There was a huge temple, which only the priests could enter, next to the baths complex, but the altar was outdoors in the temple precinct. Here sacrifices of food or animals were made by the priests.
But the public had their own way of communicating with the goddess. It was believed that the Sacred Spring was the point at which the human world touched the world of the deity and that here communication could take place. Prayers, wishes and above all curses were scratched onto thin sheets of lead or pewter and thrown into the spring. They seem to have been accompanied by a gift thrown into the spring: a wealth of jewellery and coins from the era have been recovered along with the prayers. 
I love the idea that the deity could intervene in human affairs through the spring and so have had my young characters ask Sulis Minerva to bring down a plague of carbuncles upon a thief. That should serve him or her right. Let's just hope the goddess is listening. 


Susan Price said...

Thanks, I enjoyed this. I've never been able to resist making an offering to the Goddess. So far, I've resisted cursing anyone, though there are a few I'd like to...

Near where I live is the small church of St. Kenelm, built beside a spring. The story goes that the sweet, gentle little golden haired kinglet, Kenelm, was murdered by his wicked sister. She had her henchman cut off his head while they were out hunting - and where his head fell to the ground, there burst out a holy, healing spring... Which is still gushing today, and there are always tokens tied to the trees beside it.
The whole story gives it away as a pre-Christian sacred spring, taken over by the christian church. (And Kenelm was, in fact, 35 years old when he was killed, not by his sister. And since he was an Anglo-Saxon King, he probably wasn't very sweet or gentle either.)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

That does sound very Christianized - just the fact that it was 'her fault'! All these wicked things were always done by scheming women if we were to believe the Church.
I've never cursed anyone either. But now you've mentioned it... :)

Marjorie said...

I always enjoy the total over-reaction of the curses.
(I live close by, but don't go in often as it is so expensive... although I did enjoy the costumed staff member last time I was there (it was an older Roman matron)

Mary Hoffman said...

We have a Saint Kenelm locally too - the church at Minster Lovell. I didn't know his history or his legend.

I love the way that Bath just joins up the Celtic and Roman traditions.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Marjorie, I get to go in free as a BANES resident - a great advantage. Mary, the joining/merging is a sign of a resilient, successful occupying power. There's no change for the locals to fight, nor any loss of traditions. They feel respected. The Catholic Church was very skilled at that too.

Marjorie said...

I wondered if you did! (I am about a mile and a half into Somerset so I don't qualify!)