I. The Mural Crown
At Lydney overlooking the Severn stands a Romano-British temple dedicated to Nodens. From it was recovered a mural crown. It depicts him riding from the waves on a chariot pulled by four water-horses. Flanking him are wind-spirits and water-spirits.
I had used this image on my altar to Nodens for several months before thinking to pose the question of who these mysterious spirits are. Out walking in my locality in the voices of the winds I received the answers: ‘weather-shapers’ and ‘shapers of dream’.
My meditations have led me to the intuition that the spear-bearing wind spirit on the right is the piercing east wind. The spirit on the left with the spiralling rag is the west wind who brings both the warm moist air that keeps our climate temperature and storms and hurricanes.
Both water-spirits have the bodies of men, the frontlegs of horses, and the tails of serpents. The spirit on the right carries two pick axes and the spirit on the left a hammer and chisel. They are the shapers of the cloud formations that arise from evaporating waters approaching from the east (across the Continent and North Sea) and the west (the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea).
One of the translations of ‘Nodens’ is ‘the Cloud Maker’ from the Proto-Celtic stem *snoudo ‘mist, clouds’. He is later known as Nudd ‘Mist’. He and his spirits are the shapers of Britain’s weather.
II. The Cry of the West Wind
Whereas the east wind came across as quick-witted, clear-minded and bold, the west wind struck me as inconsistent and troubled, like a misunderstood youth: smiling, enthusiastic, and eager to please, but also moody, prone to fits of violence, brooding on some kind of trauma.
This reminded me of the words of Nimue Brown in her evocative essay ‘Watching for the winds’. Nimue lives ‘Where the Cotswolds meet the Severn / And the Severn seeks the sea’. She witnessed the tryst of the east and west winds last March on Swift’s Hill and noted their parting was ‘hesitant and regretful’ as if ‘they might not meet again’ or feared the circumstances of their next meeting. After the east wind departed the west wind remained, uneasy, not knowing what to do with himself, and shared ‘a warning, perhaps, or a cry for help.’
To interpret this cry I had to look beyond Britain to the direction from which the west wind blows: across the Irish Ocean (the domain of the sea-god Manawydan) to the Atlantic Ocean (associated with the sea-goddess Iwerydd and her consort the sea-god Llyr – Manawydan’s parents).
III. The North Atlantic Gyre
The warmth of the west wind is connected with the complex system of the North Atlantic Gyre, one of four gyres that form the ‘global conveyor belt’ of oceanic currents that determine the earth’s climate. It begins near the equator off the west coast of Africa where warm water driven by the easterly trade winds becomes the North Atlantic Current.
In the Gulf of Mexico it becomes the Gulf Stream. Joining the Antilles Current in the Straits of Florida it gains strength before the westerly anti-trade winds drive it toward Europe bringing 300,000,000 kWh/s of warm air – equivalent to the heat of a million nuclear power stations.
It then splits into the Irminger Current, which heads toward Greenland, and the North Atlantic Drift, which continues to Europe. The interactions of the west wind and the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift raise Britain’s temperatures 5 – 10 degrees Celsius higher than other continents at the same latitude and play a large role in shaping our mild, wet weather.
When these currents have lost their heat the cold water sinks (in the Denmark Strait it drops dramatically 11,500 feet as the world’s biggest waterfall) and returns as the Labrador Current beneath the Gulf Stream and the Canary Current past Africa.
In the centre of the gyre lies the calm deep blue Sargasso Sea, which is named after its unique sargassum seaweed. The bounding currents deposit the refuse they carry in its midst disturbingly creating the ever-growing North Atlantic Garbage Patch.
IV. The Re-Shaping of the Weather
It’s well known that anthropogenic global warming is having a drastic effect on our climate, which has been relatively stable since the last Ice Age. The rise in sea temperature has led to storms and hurricanes forming further north buffeting Britain’s coast and to more rain and flooding.
Some scientists claim that the melting of the ice caps will lead to the water around Greenland cooling and becoming less saline. Salinity is one of the factors that causes cold currents to sink. If their circulation stops this will shut down the North Atlantic Gyre issuing in a new Ice Age.
Even the gods and spirits are in trouble. The west wind, impelled to bring storms, his nature threatened by the cessation of the warm currents cries out for help, but his voice falls on deaf ears.
Centuries of Christianity and reliance on the predictions of science have cut us off from the weather-shapers. The arguments of our modern aeromancers, ‘weather-diviners’: the meteorologists and climate scientists who strike up a conversation of sorts with the gods through their instruments have not been listened to and now it’s too late to turn back the clock.
V. The Last Salmon? The Last Eel?
On the mural crown beneath Nodens and the weather-shapers is an enigmatic figure with a short tail hooking an enormous salmon. Salmon also appear on the mosaic in the centre of the temple.
The Severn was once renowned for its migrations of salmon leaping upriver to their spawning grounds. Atlantic salmon are now in decline due to the lethal combination of weirs preventing them returning and spawning, damage to habitat, industrial fishing, and global warming.
Changes in the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre due to rising sea temperatures have affected Atlantic salmon who use them to swim to and from their feeding grounds in Greenland.
Eels, who spend part of their life in the Severn, use the cold currents of the gyre to swim to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso sea. Their larvae utilise the warm currents.
Could the snake-like creature wrapped around Nodens’ arm be an eel?
Both these creatures, sacred to Nodens, whose lives have been intrinsically connected with the Severn for thousands of years, are currently in decline. New fish passes have been placed in the weirs. This might help, but the changes in the North Atlantic Gyre lie beyond human repair.
V. The Broken Crown
The image of Nodens and the weather-shapers provides us with a picture of the ‘beauty and integrity’ of Britain’s climate and the fecundity of its rivers during the Romano-British period.
If the mural crown was crafted again today its vision of wholeness would be broken by the agony of the west wind torn between two fates – stormbringer and bringer of a New Ice Age. The water-spirit in the west would be the crafter of ominous storm or snow-clouds. The salmon would be in distress, the eel wriggling nervously, both on the brink of disappearance. Nodens, ‘the Cloud-Maker’, would be a troubled god, riding far less victoriously on his chariot.
This crown was once worn by a priest of Nodens who had the task of interpreting pilgrims’ dreams. Who would wear it today? Who would interpret the dreams shaped by the beings shaping Britain’s weather – hurricanes of garbage, seas rising over coastal towns, salmon lost in sealanes, stranded elvers wrapped in sargassum? Who could bear the cries of distress?
David Righton, ‘Empirical observations of the spawning migration of European eels’, Science Advances, Vol 2, No. 10, (2016)
D. Freidland, ‘Oceanic changes in the Sargasso sea and declines in recruitment of the European eel’, ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 64, Issue 3, (2007)
J. Dadswell, ‘The North Atlantic subpolar gyre and the marine migration of Atlantic salmon Salmo salar: the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ hypothesis’, Journal of Fish Biology, 77, (2010)
Nimue Brown, ‘Watching for the winds’, A Beautiful Resistance, (Gods & Radicals, 2016)
Renee Cho, ‘Could Climate Change Shut Down The Gulf Stream?’, State of the Planet, (2016)
‘Scheme to re-open Severn to fish wins almost £20m in funding’, The Guardian
‘The North Atlantic Gyre’, Eduspace,
‘The Gulf Stream Explained’, In a Nutshell