Celtic Festival Calender: the Complex Goddess Sulis Minvera

“To the Goddess Sulis, for the welfare and safety of Aufidius Maximus, Centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix, Marcus Aufidius Lemnus, his freedman, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.” From the Temple Courtyard. Roman baths, Bath, UK. photograph copyright Mike Peel http://www.mikepeel.net

As part of a way to coordinate a Celtic polytheism festival calendar, I have been researching festivals in the Roman Empire. The Celtic people conquered by Rome merged their own local religious practices with what they learned of Roman religion. At the same time, the Roman Empire had a policy of interpreting the deities of other cultures by comparing them to their own. I suspect some Celtic people adapted the Roman Festival Calender to their own tribal ceremonies. There have been three Festivals already posted since the start of 2019, so be sure to check those out. More have been already researched, written, posted and scheduled, so please follow if you are interested.

Sulis Minvera is a great example of how a Roman deity and magico-religious practice were changed by local Britons to fit their cultural needs. But first let’s learn about the Greater Quinquatrus held between March 19 and 23.

The Greater Quinquatrus was a festival dedicated to the Goddess Minerva, who ruled over all the arts. Like with the Celtic people, arts meant more than painting, music and poetry. Arts included all the important skills needed for a people, like medicine, weaving and education. (Steel Bars, Sacred Waters: Celtic Paganism for Prisoners delves into the arts more deeply and you can buy it here for less than at Amazon. All profits go to sending free copies to incarcerated Pagans!)

“Let girls learn how to card the wool and work the distaffs. Minerva also teaches us how to weave on the upright loom warp with a shuttle. She tightens the loose threads with a comb. Worship her, you who want to remove stains from your clothes. Worship her, you who dye the wool in large bronze kettles. Cherish her, you who carve and sculpt in stone, or you who paint brightly colored pictures. Minerva is the Goddess of a thousand works. Surely, she is the Goddess of poetry as well.” (Ovid Fasti 3.811-34)

The first day of the Greater Quinquatrus was called an artificium dies, meaning “day of the arts.” Teachers, students and doctors made sacrifices to Minerva.

In the opinion of Julius Caesar, Minvera was the Goddess most popular with the Gauls. Celtic deities tend to be great at everything. The Gaelic Brig is a great example of a Celtic Goddess of the arts, celebrated on Imblog, and the Sovereignty Goddess of Leinster, its wartime protector, and honored for Her fertility around August 1st. Minvera has a powerful connection with the Greek Athena who rules over the city of Athens the way Brig protects Leincester. To learn how Brig became associated with Leincester and why Her followers made Her a Saint, read this post.

Sulis Herself is an enigma. In Britain the Romans built a temple over the thermal spring at Bath (now Somerset) dedicated to Sulis Minerva. Sulis may have been a Goddess native to the Britons or their name for the Goddess of the thermal spring may have been different. The name Sulis may also have associations with a Celtic word for the sun or the eye, but scholars can’t be sure. There’s a possibility that Sulis could have been created by Romans for Minvera at this sanctuary. The name Sulis Minvera may mean “the eye of Minvera” which would probably be a reference to Athena.

Other scholars believe Sulis comes from The Suleviae, the protective Goddesses “the good guides” brought by Gaulish soldiers. The native British Celtic sanctuaries rarely had inscriptions for the deities worshiped. Most of the names of deities honored in Britain actually come from the Gaulish, German, and Roman soldiers stationed in Britain. Whatever the case, the hot springs would have had a local deity name even if it was not Sulis.

Fresh water had always received offerings in the British Isles – large, grand ones for the good of the entire tribe. Things changed in the Roman era. Offerings were mass produced, cheaper and sacrificed by individuals.

Another change is the constrution of the temple. In Bath the Sulis Minerva sanctuary does not have the usual Celtic procession circle around it for ritual walking or perhaps dancing. Instead Bath was a very traditional Roman-style bathing sanctuary.

Although it was a healing temple, around a hundred and thirty curse tablets were also found in the sacred spring. Curse tablets were something brought from Rome. Romans usually had professional scribes write their curse on lead*, sometimes with magical words, and then fold the curse and hold it closed with a nail. The curse tablets often were put in cemetaries, which did not happen in Britain. The tablets of Romans were about a broad range of topics such as love or lawsuits.

What the Britons did differently is that they wrote their own curses and signed their names. They seem to have felt it was best to directly talk with Sulis themselves. Another change is that almost every tablet describes an item that was stolen, nothing about love or law. Sulis is usually asked to make the thief suffer physically until he or she returns the object missing to its owner or offers it to Sulis Minvera Herself. It seems that the point is not necessarily to get the stolen item back, but for the justice of the thief to physically hurt until they do  the right thing.

The actual Roman members of the community did not make these curses, indicating that the Britons probably did not go to the local law for theft. Evidently to the Britons theft was a divine issue. Theft breaks the Celtic virtues of honesty and hospitality which hold tribal cultures together. People wrote the curses for thefts of all types of belongings, both inexpensive to expensive, showing that any theft was considered a violation and deserving of divine punishment. Many of the thefts were of clothes and shoes as people bathed. If bathing in the sacred hot springs was a traditional Celtic religious activity, these thefts would have broken more Celtic virtues, making the thief even more accountable to Sulis.

Britain may had its native political structure of independent tribes torn apart, but at Bath people continued to appeal to the Goddess of the thermal waters when old community values were broken. They adapted a new Roman way to their tribal beliefs.

From Steel Bars, Sacred Waters:

Invocation to Sulis by Heather Awen

“Sulis, praise be to you, Grand Goddess of the hot spring spa
Where many were healed
And many were helped.
Your strength is like the eye of the sky
Rolling across the heavens,
Watchful of any wrongdoing
In the body or in the community.
Many are the reasons I praise you,
May you hear them all.”

Sulis may have been considered an aspect of Minerva or Athena to the Romans, but She appears to be a Goddess of healing the individual and the community to the local Britons. I say the community because She maintained the right rules of tribal living. Tribal deities were treated like tribal chieftains, and a chieftain or King often heard the complaints of the people and made legal decisions. Whatever Her name before the Romans, Sulis is a Queen to the Britons. Although She may no longer be able to defend Her devotees from invasion and war, She still protects their health and maintains some old ways to care for the community.

For your own festival of Sulis Minerva, you could focus on the Roman attention to the arts. The Celts did expect their deities to have mastery of all the arts. Weaving was a skill greatly valued, and anyone especially interested in fiber arts might want to make an offering. Healers should honor Sulis Minvera on March 19, along with students and teachers, including students and teachers of Celtic polytheism.

Along with gratitude for the skills the deities have shared with mortals, you could focus on the obvious healing aspect of Sulis Minerva. A hot bath, steam room or sauna can be turned into a holy experience. You can also make an appeal to Her for safety and honesty in your community. This could be where you live, extended family or an online organization. If you have been the victim of theft, you can ask for Her to replace the stolen goods and that the thieves are healed from whatever it is that made them steal, whether addiction, poverty or compulsive behavior. Their healing will make your community better and improve your life.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to make your offerings, preferably biodegradable materials into a river.

(Much of the information in this post is from Steel Bars, Sacred Waters: Celtic Paganism for Prisoners.)

* Lead is incredibly toxic, even in trace amounts. It is proven to cause severe health issues for children and according to the New York Times is linked to gang violence in the years before unleaded gasoline. It actually does make people enraged and very ill. As there is so much lead in our water and land already from lead paint chips left in yards to factory pollution, NEVER use lead in ritual especially throwing it in water! You can write the alchemist’s symbol for lead or the planet Saturn’s symbol, the planet associated with lead on blank recycled paper for the same effect.

Selected Bibliography

Adams, J. N., ‘British Latin: The text, Interpretation and Language of the Bath Curse Tablets’, Britannia 23 (1992): p.1-26

Bernstein, Francis, Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome. Harper Collins e-books (2007)

Byrne, Francis J., Irish Kings and High-Kings. Four Courts Press (2001)

Cunliffe, Barry, Britain Begins. Oxford University Press (2013)

Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press (1997)

Cunliffe, Barry, ed. The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, vol. 1 & 2. Oxford University Press (1988)

Gager, J., ed. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells in the Ancient World (Oxford: 1992)

Grömer, Karina, “Textile Materials and Techniques in Central Europe in the 2nd and 1st Millennia BC” (2014). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings.

Haussler, Ralph, How to identify Celtic religion(s) in Roman Britain and Gaul, Divinidades indigenas em analise, J. d’Encarnacao (ed), (2008)

Haussler, Ralph, Interpretatatio Indigena: Re-Inventing Local Cults in a Global World, Mediterraneo Antico, xv, 1-2 (2012)

Huth, Christoph and Monika Kondziella, Textile symbolism in Early Iron Age burials, CONNECTING ELITES AND REGIONS: Perspectives on contacts, relations and differentiation during the Early Iron Age Hallstatt C period in Northwest and Central Europe, Robert Schumann & Sasja van der Vaart-Verschoof (ed.) Sidestone Press (2017)

Meyer, Kuno trans., Hail Brigit: An Old-Irish Poem on the Hill of Alenn. Dublin: Hodges, Figgs, and Co. (1912)

NÉMETH, GYÖRGY, Voodoo dolls in the classical world, (publication unknown)

Nova Roma, http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Roman_religion

Rankin, David & d’Este, Sorita, The Isles of Many Gods: An A-Z of the Pagan Gods & Goddesses worshipped in Ancient Britain during the first Millennium CE through the Middle Ages. Avalonia (2007)

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago (1967)

Smyth, Alfred P., Celtic Leinster. Mount Salus Press Ltd. (1982)

Wolf, Casey June, The Mythical Pairing of Brig and Bres – Its Origins and Meaning in Cath Maige Tuired, 34 SFU (Surrey) HUM 332 Celtic Mythology with Antone Minard (2015)

8 thoughts on “Celtic Festival Calender: the Complex Goddess Sulis Minvera”

Comments are closed.