Sulis


Sulis
Gilt bronze head from the cult statue of Sulis Minerva from the Temple at Bath, found in Stall Street in 1727 and now displayed at the Roman Baths (Bath).

In localised Celtic polytheism practised in Britain, Sulis was a deity worshipped at the thermal spring of Bath (now in Somerset). She was worshipped by the Romano-British as Sulis Minerva, whose votive objects and inscribed lead tablets suggest that she was conceived of both as a nourishing, life-giving mother goddess and as an effective agent of curses wished by her votaries.[1] The tablets were often written in code, by means of letters or words being written backwards; word order may be reversed and lines may be written in alternating directions, from left to right and then right to left. While most texts from Roman Britain are in Latin, occasional texts may be in a Celtic language. Typically, the text on the tablets offered to Sulis relates to theft; for example, of small amounts of money or clothing from the bath-house. In formulaic, often legalistic, language tablets appeal to the deity, Sulis, to punish the known or unknown perpetrators of the crime until reparation be made. Sulis is typically requested to impair the physical and mental well-being of the perpetrator, by the denial of sleep, by causing normal bodily functions to cease or even by death. These afflictions are to cease only when the property is returned to the owner or disposed of as the owner wishes, often by its being dedicated to the deity.[2] One message found on a tablet in the Temple at Bath (once decoded) reads: "Dodimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and eyes in the temple where she appoint." [3]

Contents

Etymology

Although the name "Sulis" appears almost nowhere else outside Bath, she is identified with the Suleviae, a group of Celtic goddesses known as the subject of votive inscriptions in the city of Rome and elsewhere; Suleviae has been attested in the epigraphic record from sites at Bath.[4] Suleviae, frequently identified as a plural form of Sulis, is linked to a good many widely revered divine mothers, who frequently appear with two or three primary aspects to their character. On the other hand, the identification of the Suleviae with Sulis has been dismissed by some researchers who suggest that the similarity of the names is coincidental.[5] Suil in Old Irish is "eye" or "gap", with the implication an entrance to the underworld.[6][7] The usual etymology, however, is that Sulis means "sun" as this is the original form of current Welsh haul—"sun"—and Old Irish suil (from Indo-European *sawel-); cf. Latin sol "sun".[8]

Cult at Bath

The Roman baths at Bath

Sulis was the local goddess of the thermal springs that still feed the spa baths at Bath, which the Romans called Aquae Sulis ("the waters of Sulis").[9] Her name appears on inscriptions at Bath, but nowhere else. This is not surprising, as Celtic deities often preserved their archaic localisation. They remained to the end associated with a specific place, often a cleft in the earth, a spring, pool or well. The Greeks referred to the similarly local pre-Hellenic deities in the local epithets that they assigned, associated with the cult of their Olympian pantheon at certain places (Zeus Molossos only at Dodona, for example). The Romans tended to lose sight of these specific locations, except in a few Etruscan cult inheritances and ideas like the genius loci, the guardian spirit of a place.

The gilt bronze cult statue of Sulis Minerva "appears to have been deliberately damaged" sometime in later Antiquity, perhaps by barbarian raiders, Christian zealots, or some other forces.[10]

‘Minerva’

At Bath, the Roman temple is dedicated to Sulis Minerva, as the primary deity of the temple spa. Through the Roman Minerva syncresis, later mythographers have inferred that Sulis was also a goddess of wisdom and decisions.

Sulis was not the only goddess exhibiting syncretism with Minerva. Senua's name appears on votive plaques bearing Minerva's image, while Brigantia also shares many traits associated with Minerva. The identification of multiple Celtic gods with the same Roman god is not unusual (both Mars and Mercury were paired with a multiplicity of Celtic names). On the other hand, Celtic goddesses tended to resist syncretism; Sulis Minerva is one of the few attested pairings of a Celtic goddess with her Roman counterpart.

Dedications to “Minerva” are common in both Great Britain and continental Europe, normally without any Celtic epithet or interpretation. (Cf. Belisama for one exception.)

References

  1. ^ Joyce Reynolds and Terence Volk, "Review: Gifts, Curses, Cult and Society at Bath", reviewing The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath: vol. 2 The Finds from the Sacred Spring, in Britannia 21 (1990:379-391).
  2. ^ "A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from Roman Britain". Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaulish_language#Corpus. Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  3. ^ "The Romans in Britannia". University of Washington, Tacoma. http://courses.washington.edu/uwtgeo06/papers/AlisonCrouch_Paper.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-11. 
  4. ^ Cunliffe, Barry W. (1984). Roman Bath discovered. London: Routledge. p. 188. ISBN 0-7102-0196-6. 
  5. ^ Nicole Jufer & Thierry Luginbühl (2001). Les dieux gaulois : répertoire des noms de divinités celtiques connus par l'épigraphie, les textes antiques et la toponymie. Editions Errance, Paris. pp.15, 64.
  6. ^ Maier, Bernhard (1997). Dictionary of Celtic religion and culture. Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer. p. 256. ISBN 0-85115-660-6. 
  7. ^ Gesler, Wilbert M. (2003). Healing places. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 48. ISBN 0-7425-1956-2. 
  8. ^ Koch, John T. (2005). Celtic Culture : A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 1636. ISBN 1-85109-440-7. 
  9. ^ The standard introduction to the archaeology and architectural reconstruction of the sanctuary, with its classic temple raised on a podium at the center, and the monumental baths, with the sacred spring between them, is Barry Cunliffe, ed. Roman Bath (Oxford University Press) 1969.
  10. ^ The Official Roman Baths Museum Web Site in the City of Bath

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