Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones

Thomas Stephan Unsplash

‘Was the rite conducted by a gutuater?
(‘master of voice’, ‘inspirer of song’)
chanting to inspire a modern awenydd
stepping down into the smoke of the chamber,
hearing the uttered syllables, riding the waves
of sound in the torchlight, finding a way back
to that world, re-creating, even as they did,
a rite that is alive in vision, in the presence
of those spirits called upon to officiate
as before…’
Greg Hill

Greg Hill’s poem ‘Gutuater’ led me to the section on the underground shrine of the Chartres ‘magician’, dated ‘to the second century AD’, in Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia (2018). In 2005, during excavations for a car park in the centre of Chartres the construction workers found a ‘basement shrine’ accessed by ‘a wooden ladder and ‘a cache of sacred material, including pottery vessels, oil-lamps and a broad-bladed knife, of the kind used in killing sacrificial animals.’

The pottery vessels were incense burners (thuribula) likely used for burning mind-altering drugs. Inscribed on one of the vessels, on each of the four panels, is a script beginning with names of the cardinal points: ‘oriens (East), meridie (South), occidens (West), and septentrio (North).’ Beneath each directional heading is a prayer to ‘all powerful spirits’ written by their ‘guardian’, ‘Caius Verius Sedatus’ and ‘a long list naming these spirits’ (which, disappointingly, Green does not share). However, she does mention the term ‘dru’ occurs in the list, suggesting Sedatus was invoking the spirits of druids.

What stands out to me firstly is that here we have evidence of a Roman citizen with a Gaulish cognomen – Sedatus – performing a ritual underground to invoke underworld spirits. In Gaul they were known as the Andedion and were invoked on the Tablet of Chamalières (50AD) for aid in battle. Secondly, we find a fascinating combination of Greco-Egyptian magic with invoking native spirits.

Finally, Green provides an interesting interpretation of the role of Sedatus. She mentions that Chartres was ‘the capital of the Iron Age Carnutes tribe’ and this land provides ‘evidence for the survival of specifically native, non-Roman spiritual leaders’. Aulus Hirtius ‘an officer in Caesar’s army and later governor of transalpine Gaul’ speaks of the resistance of ‘a freedom fighter called Gutuatrus’. This means ‘master of voice’ or ‘father of inspiration’. It may have been a title rather than a name as references to gutuatri have been found in the nearby Aeduan territory. An altar from Macon ‘recorded the presence of a gutuater of Mars’ (possibly Nodens under interpretatio Romana?). The word ‘GVTVATER’ is inscribed on the base of an altar to the local god, Anvallus, from Autun. Thus Sedatus may have acted in a religious role as a gutuater for his people.

Intriguing parallels can be found between the Gaulish and British traditions. In The Gods of the Celts (2011), Green records a remarkable example of an underground shrine to an underworld god from a similar period:

‘At the bottom of this shaft, found at Deal in Kent, all some 2.5 metres deep, was an oval chamber containing a complete figurine, composed of a featureless block of dressed chalk from which rises a long slender neck and a head with a well-carved, very Celtic face. This figure may have stood in a niche high up in one wall of the chamber. The presence of footholds in the shaft indicates that access to the shrine was intended but only four or five adults could have sat in the chamber at once and the shrine was perhaps meant for the deity or god and priest alone. Pottery would indicate a first or second century AD date for the structure.’

It seems likely this deity is one of the spirits of Annwn, our British equivalent to the Andedion. It may even be Pen Annwn, the Head of the Otherworld, who is known as Arawn or as Gwyn ‘White’.

The term gutuater may be linked to Talhearn Tad Awen ‘Father of Inspiration’ who is mentioned in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) and to the awenyddion ‘people inspired’ mentioned by Gerald of Wales in his Description of Wales (1194). They served a prophetic function and were said to ‘speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits’. Gerald notes their speeches are ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ although an explanation can be ‘conveyed in some term of a word’. Their use of a non-logical and poetic language fits with Green drawing attention to the ‘plosive’ sounds in ‘the list of obscure names’ spoken by Sedatus, which lend them power when recited out loud.

These links have led me to wonder whether the ‘priest’ from Deal was an awenydd who invoked Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn in his underground shrine and whether such practices were wider spread. Could there be continuity between these 2nd century inspired ones and the 12th century awenyddion?


With thanks to Thomas Stephan on Unsplash for the smoke image and to Digital Equine Designs on Deviant Art for ‘Dark Cave’.