Shield of Sulis

Sulis-Minerva. A goddess here depicted with a moustache and snake hair, on a stone shield: the Gorgon’s head shield found in the classical temple the Romans built to the native goddess of Bath, a flourishing cosmopolitan spa town in the west country.

When the Romans asked about the local deity in Bath, they were told about Sul. From what they heard, the Romans recognized a divinity and set out to give proper cultic veneration to one they now called Sul-Minerva. The Romans knew Minerva as the Greek Athene, goddess of Athens and wisdom, she of the late-flying owl who gave Perseus the shield by which he slew Medusa, the snake-haired monster with petrifying gaze.

The shield is deceptive. On the one hand it is a naturalistic representation of the face of Sulis (with moustache as well as snakes). On the other hand it is rather a symbol of the power of the goddess. As a symbol of the power of Sulis, the stone shield speaks of the magical protection her hot springs offer (a mirror by which to avert the evil eye), and also spells a warning to one who approaches her beneficience not to look her too hastily in the eye, which may blind with its brightness.

When we look at the face in the shield can we see the Eye that came to fill the Mirror of Galadriel?

The Gorgon’s head of Sul at Bath much occupied R.G. Collingwood, Tolkien’s colleague at Pembroke between 1926 and 1935. Collingwood evidently consulted Tolkien on the local Celtic goddess given such honour in this western pocket of what is now England: a footnote in his Roman Britain reports that Tolkien has told him that the  Celtic nominative is Sulis, and that this “may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun” (p. 264).

Nowhere in print did Collingwood follow up on the semantic implications of the native name of the goddess of Bath, the Lady of the Hot Springs. Nor did Tolkien in any explicit fashion, although we may wonder at Bilbo’s riddle about daisies. Yet the two must have talked further as to what light the respective philological and archaeological shone on one another.

The archaeological evidence, in Collingwood’s hands, tells a history of artistic and religious fusion, revealed before our eyes in the depiction of the goddess through one of her mighty gifts to mortal man – her shield, which her hero Perseus used as a mirror to cut off the head of Medusa without meeting her eye. To this, Tolkien remarks that the name of the Celtic goddess may mean ‘the eye,’ and perhaps also ‘the Sun.’

 

 

Collingwood and Tolkien share a vision of cultural encounter as rarely succesful yet, when ideally achieved, issuing in great art. What the Gorgon’s head is for Collingwood, Beowulf is for Tolkien. Tolkien told us what Beowulf is in his 1936 lecture.

Collingwood by 1935 had much to say about the Gorgon’s head as the anomaly of the history of art in Roman Britain – everything else, seemingly without exception, he deemed mass produced, a naturalistic betrayal of the native artistic tradition, and devoid of artistic merit. But he never returned to reckon with this footnote before he died in 1943.

We therefore lack a definitive reconstruction of the Gorgon’s head, a complete fusion in the spheres of both art and religion that is a one of its kind in Roman Britain.

Collingwood has much to say about the Gorgon’s head, as you will see if you consult his writings on Roman Britain, but he does not move beyond (an inspired) reading of the sculpture as native symbolism masquerading as Roman naturalism. Despite beginning a book on fairy stories in 1936, Collingwood never arrived at the reconstruction of the native story that might explain the symbolic motive revealed in the sculpture of the temple of the Lady of the Hot Springs, the Day’s Eye of Bath Spa.

This was just Tolkien’s cup of tea, but if he ever gave such a reconstruction he did so surreptitiously, in Lothlórien. To enact such a reconstruction would require prizing an ancient natve story out of the Roman telling of the Greek story of Medusa by reflecting upon the work of an artist in stone who was not only a master of both symbolic and naturalistic techniques, but also understood (as we do not) the relationship between the ancient native traditions of Sulis and the Mediterranean tradition of the shield as a mirror.

What the unknown Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf achieved was a fusion between his native northern poetic tradition and the new stories read out of a big book of Latin letters. The fusion that is Beowulf is made of a discovery of native necromancy in the biblical genealogy of Cain – a recognition of a shared understanding of evil as misbegotten of ourselves. (A Tolkienian insight developed in the 2007 movie adaptation of Beowulf).

What did either Oxford don say, to the other, or later to himself, about the fusion of Celtic and Mediterranean cultures that issued in the Gorgon’s head of Sulis-Minerva in Bath? Now we need a Palantír.

Even now my heart desires… to look across the wide seas of water and time to Tirion the Fair, and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Fëanor at their work.

If either man wrote down any further thoughts about Sulis, they have not that I know come down to us. But they must have talked. In the late 1920s, Collingwood roped his new colleague at Pembroke into agreeing to contribute a philological appendix to what became the 1932 report on the archaeological dig at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, less than thirty miles from Bath but the other side of the water. The report was authored by the Wheelers, an archaeological couple happy to give a public face to academic industry in the dawning age of television.

Tolkien’s appendix was a philological meditation on the name, Nodens, found in three inscriptions at the site of the ancient templte built at Lydney Park, one of which asked Nodens to curse a thief who had stolen a ring.

Tolkien’s appendix suggested that the name of this god of the Forest of Dean was originally a Germanic adjective, a title that in Britain had become the proper name, Nodens. He suggested also that when Nodens passed on west into Ireland as Nuada he received a new title reminscent of the meaning of the apparent ancient Germanic title: of the silver hand. There was something slippery in the magical hand of Nodens, which kept reappearing over a great ocean of time and sapce. Tolkien concludes his philological appendix:

Whether the god was called the ‘snarer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense… mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexion that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. (2007, 182)

What was said by two who once talked by the waters of Sulis, in the long ago, before ever the Romans came to Britain? Did they talk of a darkness that had come before their eyes, of one who now dwelled on the ancient hill fort in the forest that could be seen from Bath on the other side of the great river that ran to the sea. The two talked in the pre-Roman temple of Sulis, the daisy of the magical spring, but they talked of the one whose name was not said, known in his own foreign tongue as the hunter. 

He lifted his eyes across the river and all the light went out… Beyond the river the land appeared flat and empty, formless and vague, until far away it rose again like a wall, dark and drear…. ‘There lies the fastness of Southern Mirkwood,’ said Haldir. ‘It is clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither. In the midst upon a stony height stands Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy had his dwelling.’

Does the Gorgon’s head reflect a story once told in Bath, of a victory of Sulis over the intruding Germanic Nodens?  A very ancient story of the west country, which when the civilized Roman intruders began to understand they saw had some affinity with the story of the shield by which the hero of Athene slew the Gorgon, Medusa. The only two clues Tolkien gives us boil down to the remark that Nodens is the ensnarer, while the name of Sulis suggests a daisy.

Had Nodens of the silver hand intruded into Bath before he was thrown out, over of the water and into the hills? If Sulis had chased him out, her victory must have been told as a story that turned on a trick of the eye, a use of a mirror that allowed the defeat of those followers of the foreign godling, Nodens of the hand, after they had perhaps shown their hand by placing it on the sacred treasures of the goddess. Nodens had shown his quality, and been chased over the water, but he still lurks on his Welsh hilltop. Can we read the snake hair of the Gorgon on the sculpted shield as depicting the still potent hands of Nodens? Do we see in the male face within the snake hair around this shield in Bath a face of an imprisoned Nodens?

Again, I ask but can provide no definitive answer: When we look at the Gorgon’s head at Bath are we looking at something like what Frodo saw in the Mirror of Galadriel?

2 thoughts on “Shield of Sulis

  1. Sue Bridgwater

    I’ve seen that image from Bath reproduced so many times, but never seen it as a gorgon, only as a ‘Green Man’ – though if it really is Sulis, I suppose that’s a Green Woman. Looking at it after reading this post, I’m now confused as to whether those are leaves, short snakes or sun-beams.

    I can’t honestly say it reminds me of The Eye of Sauron, though. Sorry.

    1. simon Post author

      You have to look very carefully with all the lights off 🙂

      Since writing yesterday I’ve been looking at Collingwood again and see that I need to trace the art history more carefully – there is more than I had realized.

      The head is certainly a gorgon – look carefully at the hair: snakes. But it is a male gorgon – and both the gorgon and Sulis are female. What I am now unsure of, however, is whether the face is Sulis, or if Sulis is to be imagined as holding the shield and as such is not depicted in the gorgon-face.

Comments are closed.