They Died With Hazel – Sacrifices to Nodens in the Water Country?

The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.

The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.

This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.

The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.

She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.

The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.

Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’

It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.

***

The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.

Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.

When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).

When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.

I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.

In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.

At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.

As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.

In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.

It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.

***

How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.

The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.

The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.

Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.

Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.

These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.

It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.

Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.

Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.

Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.

***

SOURCES

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)
Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016)
Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009)
Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999)
Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)

Nodens and the Weather Shapers

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.

Plate XIII Bathurst

 

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.

Lines_of_sargassum_Sargasso_Sea - Copy_By Unknown - Ocean ExplorerNOAA, Public Domain, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid1175629

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?

Atlantic_salmon_fish_Wikipedia_Commons

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.

European_eel__Anguilla_anguilla_clipart_web

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?

SOURCES

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)
Nodens’, Wikipedia
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

Belisama: Goddess of the Ribble

Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble, which runs from Ribble Head in North Yorkshire, through Ribblesdale, Central Lancashire and out to the Irish Sea. Her name is known from Ptolemy’s Geography 2AD, where at co-ordinates corresponding to the Ribble’s estuary he places ‘Belisama aest[1]’. Inscriptions to Belisama have also been found in Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence and Saint-Lizier, in the Pyrenees[2].

Her name has received a number of interpretations. Nick Ford translates ‘Rigabelisama (Riga-, a queen, and Belisama)’ as ‘Most Shining One’ making her the ‘Most Shining Queen’ or ‘Most Mighty Queen’[3]. Seeing the dazzling beauty of the Ribble illumined by sunlight or moonlight confirms the legitimacy of this epithet to me. However Delamarre claims the translation of bhel as ‘white or brilliant’ is based on a false interpretation of Belinus’ identification with Apollo. Belinus is ‘the Powerful One’ and Belisama is the ‘Most Powerful One’[4]. Watching the Ribble after heavy rain, particularly at high tide conveys a sense of her power, as does observing the landscapes she has shaped.

The town of Ribchester has a close connection with the Ribble. It’s native name Bremetonacon means ‘place by the roaring river[5].’ In Saint-Lizier Belisama is identified with the Roman goddess Minerva. A bust of Minerva was found at Ribchester and it was once largely accepted the town had a temple to Minerva-Belisama[6]. Whilst it would make sense that a place of worship dedicated to Belisama was located in the heart of the Ribble Valley beside the roaring ford this is based on a mistranslated inscription[7]. To whom the temple was dedicated is unknown. As a large part has been washed away by the Ribble it might be assumed either that it didn’t belong to Belisama or she didn’t want one.

A question I’ve pondered is how much to read into Belisama’s possible identification with Minerva at Ribchester- when the Romans built the fort in 70AD they were polytheists, and their experiences of Belisama may have led to this equation. Minerva is a goddess of wisdom, crafts and healing. From the Norman period (and indubitably before), until the end of the 18th century the Ribble was renown for being rich in salmon, the quintessential fish of wisdom, with the most important of the fish garths being located at Fish House Bridge in Penwortham[8]. Another possible reason for this identification is that wisdom can be gained from watching and listening to the flow of the Ribble in different spots. One of the lessons I’ve learnt from Belisama is dynamism and change; due to a combination of the tides, rain fall and the position of the sun or moon her waters never look the same in any place.

In terms of crafts, Belisama has inspired a good deal of creative writing from the poems of Richard Dugdale (the Bard of Ribblesdale 1849), James Flockhart’s ‘The River’ (1854), Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Ribblesdale’ (1876) and John Heath-Stubb’s ‘The Green Man’s Last will and Testament’ – ‘the cruel nymphs / Of the northern streams, Peg Towler of the Tees / And Jenny Greenteeth of the Ribble, / Sisters of Belisama, the very fair one’ (1973)[9]. Jane Brunning, a Penwortham based author blogging as Reigh Belisama runs a site called ‘Save the Ribble,’ which played a leading role in preventing the river barrage at Brockholes and continues to oppose fracking on the Ribble Estuary[10].

Belisama’s influence on the cotton industry can be recalled by the number of old mills on her tributaries. Without Riversway Dockland, which was created by moving the Ribble from Strand Road to her present course beside Castle Hill, Preston could not have played its huge role in the industrial revolution. Whilst I’m unaware of any associations linking Belisama with physical healing, spending time beside the Ribble usually has a calming, cleansing effect on me.

Moving from Belisama to the Ribble, the first mention of the change of name is in ‘the Latin Life of St Wilfrid’ (patron saint of Preston) where ‘lands identified as ‘round Ribble’ (iuxta Rippel), Yeadon, Dent and Catlow’ are granted by the English ruler to ‘the community at Ripon’[11]. The Saxon Ripel was taken by Ekwall to mean ‘tearing, reaping’ making the Ribble ‘the tearing one’[12] relating Belisama’s qualities of power and might. Andrew Breeze suggests that Ribble may derive from the Welsh rhybwyll, which combined with the prefix ri could mean very great wisdom[13]. The name change and it’s interpretations demonstrate the qualities of flux and continuity innate to Belisama.

For me in present day Penwortham, (which without Belisama, in its current form would not exist), Belisama and her tributaries continue to shape the valleys and plains, as well as the lives of the wildlife and people who inhabit them. Belisama’s power and wisdom shine throughout her ever changing course and in those by which it is transmitted, whether by the spoken or written word, craftsmanship, or in the actions of those who stand against her exploitation and pollution.


[1] http://www.roman-britain.org/ptolemys-geography.htm
[2] Whilst this might be seen to indicate the presence of a goddess worshipped across Britain and Gaul, Nick Ford reminds us ‘most, if not all, the names of Celtic divinities seem to be descriptive epithets rather than real names.’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, 2010, p82.
[3] Ibid.
[4] http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159190
[5] Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[6] Malcolm Greenhalgh, Ribble River and Valley: A Local and Natural History, Carnegie Book Production, 2009, p83.
[7] ‘commander of the unit and region’ was mistranslated as ‘to the very mighty numen and queen’ Nick Ford ‘Ribchester (Bremetenacum Veteranorum): Place of the Roaring Water,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, ed. Linda Sever, The History Press, 2010, p82
[8] Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, 1988, p48
[9] John Heath-Stubbs ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament,’ Earth Shattering: Eco-Poems, ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 2007.
[10] http://save-the-ribble.blogspot.co.uk/
[11] Andrew Breeze, ‘Communications Yrechwydd and the River Ribble,’ Northern History, XLVII; 2, September 2010, p324.
[12] Ibid. p324
[13] Ibid. p326.