Seven years ago, I was standing on a hillside, not far from the borders of the Wyre Forest in Shropshire. I was looking downhill, into the valley below, where a little river was plashing noisily along the bottom. There, before me, silhouetted in the moonlight and starlight, was a vast oak tree, his broad branches spreading like the tines of antlers. Beside me stands a fellow druid, a bearded mystic and a poet, with wide blue eyes and an even wider sense of vision. We’re both regarding the tree levelly as we talk about the gods; one of whom I had felt nearby as I stood beneath the tree, some moments ago.
My companion sucks his teeth and speaks softly. “See, Nodens isn’t like the other gods we work with here. There’s something diffuse about those others – the Lord and Lady, Brigid, the Horned God, Lugh and that. I find them a bit distant, somehow. But Nodens, he’s – a real character. He feels… real.” I instantly understood what he meant. This wasn’t so much a dismissal of the other gods’ existence, but rather an attempt to articulate something very difficult to put into words – a distinction that hit you at the preconscious level, rather than through rational appraisal. Encountering Nodens would affect you, standing here, under these stars, gazing at these bare branches, in a way that other divinities could, or would not.
All the gods have their place in the animate cosmology of British Druidry, but that doesn’t mean that all gods touch us in the same way, or in the same places. What both my companion and I knew in our bodies, but struggled to articulate verbally, was that Nodens had a presence, a power, in the places we knew and lived – one that exceeded that of the more familiar recipients of Pagan reverence in those same places. When I asked a Classicist-colleague at Cambridge if she could characterise the difference between the ancient British gods and those on the continent, she eventually settled on the idea that they were “wilder” – more connected with springs, hills, woods, and rivers, than with civilised things; hearths, and beauty, power and war. They do not preside over realms of human experience as the classical gods do, but over particular stretches of countryside. If you found yourself in a sacred grove, or a hidden cave, you could leave an offering there, or make a promise – have a wish granted, or a curse laid.
One of the things I find most curious about the nature of Paganism in modern Britain is the kinds of gods that people worship most frequently. It is very common to hear British Pagans invoke and pray to a broad range of deities, hailing from many different pantheons and different parts of the world – Odin from Scandinavia, Astarte from the Middle East, Isis from Egypt, and the Morrigan from Eire. This ecumenism is no bad thing, nor is it a recent phenomenon. As any student of religious or social history will tell you, the British have always avidly worshipped “foreign” gods, with syncretism being a central aspect of pre-Christian spirituality right across Europe. The sort of nationalistic categories we think of today simply had no meaning for the ancients – people owed their allegiance to their family, and their kingdom or republic – but there was no sense of a linguistically and culturally distinct “nation” with its own, exclusive pantheon. Rather, people simply chose to revere gods they encountered personally, or who they thought would be able to offer them something in return. If a particular god who resided in Camulodunum gained a reputation for being very good at healing illnesses, then sick pilgrims from all over the Empire would come and pay him a visit. Gods moved around, carried by their devotees, and spread along with the tales of their great deeds and powers.
It is not the presence of gods from faraway lands that is surprising to me, then – but rather the relative unfamiliarity that people have with the gods who are from England. We are not so different from the Romano-British in that we are thoroughly eclectic in our spiritual, ritual, and contemplative practices; we are quite unlike them, though, in that we English seem to have a relatively weak connection with the gods of our native eco-cultural context – the genus loci, or the spirits of place. In Wales this is not the case; the characters of Welsh mythology are written into the landscape – in place names and stories – and are revered there today. The contrast to England in stark; most English people wouldn’t be able to name their local gods. Even many English Pagans would struggle. Despite the fact that the evidence for Romano-British religion and beliefs is relatively plentiful, it has not yet gained a tremendous degree of traction in the modern spiritual imaginations of English communities.
That said, it is very widespread for British Pagans to acknowledge and respect the spirits of place in ceremony. Within Druidry, we honour and thank them whenever we gather together, locating ourselves within a broader community of beings, only some of which are human – to use Graham Harvey’s excellent phrase. But these Other-Than-Humans are usually nameless, formless, without story or personality. Engagement of this kind does not do justice to these beings, nor does it capture the imagination (or the body) as it should. There is something unique and magical about using a name and a ritual formula to which that name belongs, that is thousands of years old, in the place where it flew from ancient, long dead tongues, soaring on thermals of incense and sacred fire.
Some Pagans I know have defended the anonymity of spirits of place by claiming that names, stories and personalities are human traits we are projecting onto non-human nature. The reality of the gods should not be constrained by such anthropocentricisms, as these are constructs human have invented. This claim has a certain power, but ultimately it cannot be sustained. Names, stories, personalities and so on are projections, constructs – but they are projections even when we apply them to ourselves, and one another. Decades of social scientific and critical theory are insistent on this point. Our categories are always provisional labels we place upon the world to make it easier to understand – they might not be the essential properties of plants and rocks, but nor are they the essential properties of human beings. Constructs do not become real as soon as they cross the divide from nature to culture. They are everywhere constructed, so they are either real nowhere, or everywhere. And so if we can playfully and provisionally apply them to ourselves, and explore them with other human persons, then we should not be overly coy about their presence beyond the human family.
The Romano-British gods are, therefore, conspicuous in their absence; missing not because they have gone anywhere, or because they were never really human-like at all, but because we ourselves now miss them. We ignore their stories, their names, their homes, and habits. But they have not forgotten them. The Land Remembers. All we need to do, is ask it for a reminder.
– III –
A couple of months ago, I stood amidst the ruins of an ancient Temple, on hand in case I was needed. The golden stones of the walls and floor rang with the raucous voices of tourists and school children; interspersed with the throng was a party of 15 pilgrims, who had been led by the British Pilgrimage Trust from the holy well at Frome to the Waters of Sulis, in the warm heart of the city of Bath. The Trust operates on a policy of “bring your own beliefs” – pilgrims are of many different faith communities, and none, but they are united in their common desire to connect with holy places in the landscape. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the atmosphere of the sacred springs of Aquae Sulis cannot be denied. To the Romano-British, these springs were venerated as a goddess – Sulis – who was syncretised with the Roman divine Minerva, the name “Sulis” possibly being derived from the Proto-Celtic word *sūli, or “Sun”.
As the pilgrims wonder and wander clockwise about the steaming waters, they are given a simple blessing by a local Druid – a friend of mine, invited to greet us -, then throw an offering of silver into the waters, before going to drink from the fountain beyond the spring itself. This pattern of behaviour – circumambulation, being blessed, offering a small token, and then taking the waters – is truly ancient, and resonates with something far deeper and more profound than the labels and categories of contemporary religious identities. The waters touch you physically, and emplace you in a way that complex liturgy and ceremony can struggle to achieve. The aim is not to carry you aloft, but to sink you down, deep into the land about you.
The impact of this is profound. The pilgrims had this light in their eyes, almost children again, like on Christmas morning. There was a sense of wonder there, a closeness with all the world, that gets lost in the hurly-burly of modern life. Once they’d all made their offerings to Sulis, I turned to face her waters, and gazed at the bubbles rising to the surface. I was reminded of a promise I made to the winter sun, on a frosty hilltop in the Chilterns when I was 18 – over ten years ago. Bring the people back to us, the sun had seemed to say, help them remember. Remember, of course, means to re-member, to put back together. It’s an embodied, physical act; more than metaphor, no mere mental exercise. Getting people to remember the land and the power of place is not a matter of belief, or something to bear in mind – it has to be done at the level of the body. I blinked. I realised that, without realising what I’d been doing, I’d fulfilled that old promise, bringing the pilgrims there. A great raft of bubbles rose to the surface; a reply.
I inclined my head gently to the waters, smiling. Ex voto suscepto. In fulfilment of my vow.