Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Romano-British deities

If hard facts about the earliest Anglo-Saxons themselves are decidedly elusive, the same cannot be said for the gods of their era, not least because few things are harder than stone.

The local deities continued to be venerated long after the Romans took control of England. The main difference was that the locals adopted the Roman custom of erecting stone altars to their gods – and those altars were carved with the name of the local deity. Before the Romans the Celtic-speaking tribes never carved stone and seemingly only used wood for their religious carvings – and almost none of those have survived.

Sulis Minerva

Sulis Minerva
'Sul' means sun and suggests that the hot water was believed to be heated by the sun, which was thought to sink under the ground during the night. Minerva is the deity most like Sulis to Roman thinking.

There are also carvings of deities and a few written references too, but most of what we know comes from these altars. Quite often the dedication is dual. In the Roman temple at the hot springs in Bath there is a famous dual dedication to Sulis Minerva, suggesting that the local goddess Sulis was akin to the Roman's beliefs about Minerva.

Another altar at Bath was dedicated to Mars Loucetius, impling that the Celtic deity Loucetius had some attributes of the Classical god Mars. In Britain there are other altars dedicated to Mars Rigisamus and Mars Corotiacus. These suggest that these were the 'battle gods' of Somerset and Suffolk, respectively. But, despite the dual dedications, we must be careful with assuming that Loucetius, Rigisamus or Corotiacus shared all the attributes of Mars. Other sources suggest we would be safer to think of Loucetius – also spelt Leucetius – as a god of lightning.

Statues from northern Britain depicting men with a spear and shield and wearing helmets are inscribed Belatucadrus and Cocidius, who presumably are also battle gods. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire dedications to Mars are shared with Albiorix, Caturix, Dunatis, Vintius and Vitucadrus. Some of these are indeed battle-gods, although Vintius would have been thought of as the god of strong winds.

Similarly, Silvanus, the god of hunters, shares honours with the local deity Vinotonus on an altar erected by Julius Secundus on Scargill Moor, near Barnard Castle.


A Roman statue of Epona, with two pairs of horses, from Macedonia.

There is good reason to think that Nemetona was a goddess of battles. But then again most of the Celtic goddesses – such as the Irish ones known to us a Macha, Morrigan and Badb – was least to some extent a battle goddess. For example, many Roman cavalrymen adopted the native Gaulish cult of Epona – whose name means 'divine horse' – and her cult became known throughout the Empire. That said, one two certain and four more doubtful depictions of her are known from Britain. I have briefly suggested elsewhere (in Who were the landwights?) that a native cult of an equine goddess may have meant that an imported cult of Epona was less necessary.


Roman statue of Victory, Brescia, Italy.

Perhaps we should see these warrior females more as personifications of victory – and in more recent times there have been endless Neo-Classical sculptures portraying Victory, along with other allegorical females such as Faith, Hope and Charity.

Local or universal?

Another Roman deity commonly found on dual dedications was Mercury. The Celtic counterparts include Teutates, Atesmiius, Caletos and Moccos. They share the sense of being 'gods of the people', although less clear is what aspect of Mercury they shared. What clearly emerges is that, while the Romans had a relatively small number of deities who could be venerated almost anywhere, the Celts believed in far fewer 'universal' deities and, instead, focussed their devotions on gods which belonged to specific places – what the Romans called genii loci.

Among the more universal Celtic deities was Taranis. We know he was the god of thunder as he was sometimes depicted with a hammer. But he does not rule the sky as well – although his near-counterpart among the Roman deities is Jupiter, who is both a sky god and the god of thunder and lightning. And we must not confuse Taranis with the Scandinavian thunder god, Thunor, either. Thunor, or Thor, was the thunder god and is famous for carrying his super-sized hammer. But the Celts had a separate deity associated with hammers, Sucellus, whose name means the 'good striker'.


Roman statue of Taranis with his wheel and thunderbolt, from France.

Sucellus was sometimes depicted with a 'halo' of hammers radiating around his head. Tiranus is sometimes shown with a hammer, but more typically with a wheel. The Roman deity Jupiter is sometimes accompanied by a wheel too. As a result researchers rather too often thought that 'all hammer gods are the same' and 'all wheel gods are the same'. Such conflations are unhelpful and prevent us distinguishing between the different Celtic deities.

In addition to all the dual dedications to both a Celtic and Roman deity, there are plenty which name only the local god. Near Swindon was a temple complex with a dedication to Cunomaglus, clearly a dog-loving god. Dogs were also associated with Nodens at another temple at Lydney in the Forest of Dean. Nearby in the Cotswold the Rosmerta was the tutelary goddess. The River Ribble in Lancashire was the domain of the 'gracious' goddess, Belisima.

If only we knew the names of all the local deities. This would reveal that every river, indeed ever stream, well, hill top, wood had its own deity. And, just as importantly, so did ever household.


Rosmerta and her churn from Housesteads.
Drawing by Norman Fahy.

Despite the large number of deities seemingly specific to certain places, sometimes the same deity seems to have travelled long distances. Lyons in Gaul, Leiden in Frisia and Carlisle in Britain were named after the god Lugh, and various tales relating to this god have come down in medieval Irish literature. He was associated with high places such as hill-tops and, after the Christian conversion, seems to have in some way morphed into St Michael.

Similarly the goddess Brigantia was the guardian of mountain passes in the Alps. Yet she is also known in northern Britain and to the east of the Pennines. Indeed the area we now know as Calderdale was once the territory of the Brigantes who presumably controlled the passes across this range of inhospitable hills. While it is entirely plausible that Roman soldiers recruited from the Alps served on the northern border of the Empire along Hadrian's Wall, the Brigantes tribe predate the Roman conquest.

Did people from the Alps travel to Britain? Recent archaeological evidence suggests that people associated with Stonehenge – such as the so-called 'Amesbury archer' – had grown up near the Alps. And they lived over a thousand years before the Brigantes. So far we can only speculate about possible reasons why a goddess of Alpine passes is also venerated on the somewhat similar terrain dividing northern Britain.

TOT ring

A second or third century Romano-British ring dedicated to Toutatis.

A deity called Toutatis was venerated all along the Danube and Rhine frontier. He is also encountered in Britain, especially in and around Lincolnshire. His name means 'tribal protector', from the Latin tutelarius, 'a guardian'. The root word in Latin is tutela, protection, which also gives the English word 'tutelary'.

In recent years metal detectorists have discovered a number of metal rings, mostly silver, from the second and third centuries. They are more Celtic than Roman in design and indisputably of Briitsh manufacture. And each of the them has the abbreviation 'TOT' clearly inscribed. They were presumably votive offerings, deliberately placed at shrines, rather than casual losses. Adam Daubney is currently working on a PhD about these TOT rings. His published work suggests that this deity was especially important to the Corieltauvi tribe who lived in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire and pasts of adjoining counties.

Toutatis is also discussed in one section of The queen of the valley.

See also The Mothers.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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