6 Feb 2010

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (3) Aquae Sulis, Bath, England

Bath - site of the cult of the Celtic Goddess Sulis

One of the best known pagan sites in Britain is the Roman baths in the town of Bath, the Roman name of which was Aquae Sulis. This means 'the Baths of Sulis,' the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring.

The Roman baths, built after the conquest of Southern Britain in the first century, occupied a site long held sacred. In Celtic times the pool of bubbling orange-tinged water would probably have been surrounded by a grove of oak trees.

Sulis was regarded as a goddess of fertility and healing. Those seeking her assistance would make offerings, probably by tossing coins or other objects into the waters, rather as people still thrown coins into fountains and wishing wells.

There are several legends surrounding the site. One says that the Celtic prince Bladud, the eldest son of King Lud, contracted leprosy and was accordingly banished from his father's court and became a swineherd to survive. One day as he watched his pigs, he noticed that they wallowed in a particular muddy spot that had the miraculous effect of improving the condition of their skin. Taking his cue from his pigs, he tried the same treatment and was amazed to find his leprosy cured.

Healed, he returned to court and succeeded his father as King. In gratitude he formed a temple at the hot spring in honour of the goddess Sulis. 

When the Romans took over they identified Sulis with their goddess Minerva, creating the double barrelled name Sulis Minerva, and developed the town, temple and baths of Aquae Sulis, which became an even more popular pilgrimage spot. By the late Roman period there was a network of pools with water of different temperatures and a large heated swimming pool. 

Over 6,000 coins were thrown into the waters as offerings to Sulis Minerva. Lead and bronze tablets recovered from the site carry requests to the deity, including curses. One victim of theft wrote:
"To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood."

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