Coventina in Context

Perhaps the most important water-goddess from northern Britain was Coventina whose cult, like that of Sulis, was concentrated at one particular site, Carrawburgh, on Hadrian's Wall. Her name is Celtic; she was the personified spirit of a spring that welled up out of the ground to feed a pool. The identity of this water-spirit is known from the inscribed dedications to her which bear her name. Coventina was not exclusive to Britain: there is evidence that devotees worshiped the goddess in North-west Spain and at Narbonne in southern Gaul.

In about AD 130 engineers contained the spring and well within a square stone-walled enclosure. Its first use was as a functional cistern but soon afterwards it became imbued with religious significance as the vallum-builders gave way to soldiers with Celtic superstitions and beliefs regarding springs. The coin-evidence from the well indicates that Coventina's cult reached its height of popularity only gradually, the greatest level of ritual activity taking place during the late second and early third centuries AD. By the fourth century the cult was already waning. There is evidence, however, that in the late fourth century Coventina's devotees reacted to the Theodosian Edict of AD 391, in which pagan rites were made illegal and temples closed, by trying to conceal and protect her shrine, placing building-stones on top of the well and its offerings.

What do we know of Coventina's nature, her cult, ritual and dedicants? The many votive gifts and inscribed altars bear testimony to her importance. Her high rank is indicated by such titles as "Sancta" (Holy) and "Augusta" (Revered), which are rare for other than Roman State goddesses. Coventina is depicted on some of her altars, and her imagery is unequivocally that of a water-spirit. Her iconography owes much to Graeco-Roman depictions of nymphs, and indeed one inscription is "to the Nymph Coventina." But the artistic treatment is stylised and somewhat schematic, betraying indigenous Celtic influences and tastes. On one stone, the goddess is depicted reclining on waves lapping against a bank, waving a waterlily leaf in one hand, her other arm resting on a pitcher of flowing water. On another relief a triple water-goddess is represented: this triadic form is worthy of note since near Coventina's Well was a shrine dedicated to the Nymphs, who are frequently portrayed as a triad in Classical art, and some scholars argue that the triple image found at the well in fact depicts the Nymphs rather than a triplistic Coventina. But since the stone was found in the well itself and since one dedication to Coventina equates her with a Nymph, I see no reason for doubting this image as one of goddess, perhaps triplicated to increase the symbolism of the carving and reflective of Celtic predilection for tripling deities of well-being (see below).

We can gain an idea as to the nature of Coventina's cult by looking at the votive offerings and other material found in or near the well itself. These divide fairly sharply into stone dedications and small items such as coins and jewellery. More than 16,000 coins were offered to the goddess and thrown into the well -- a higher level of ritual activity per year than is reflected at Bath, where the cult was active over a much longer period. Many finger-rings, brooches and other trinkets were cast into the water, together with a thin bronze plaque in the form of a horse and a number of small bronze masks of human faces. There were also objects of bone, glass, lead, leather, jet and shale from the site, many of which were probably votive gifts, although some of the vessels may have been used in water-rituals associated with the cult. Some of the altars had been deposited within the well, a curious occurrence and one that apparently reflects two separate activities: some stones were carefully placed in the water, whilst others were seemingly ritually destroyed.

The fact that Coventina was a spring-goddess would appear to suggest that she was a healer-deity. However, there is very little, if any, direct evidence, from the offerings themselves, for such a function. The inscribed dedications are not specific, and only a few of the small offerings are particular to a healing cult. Pins are a feature of many curative shrines, including that of Asklepios at Epidaurus, but only two come from Coventina's Well. It is possible that the masks may represent the heads of sick pilgrims requiring a cure, but there is no firm evidence for this. The figurine of a dog allegedly found here would seem to strengthen the identification of Coventina as a healer, but there is some doubt as to the security of provenance of the Carrawburgh dog. One of the altars from the well bears a dedication to Minerva and, mindful of Sulis Minerva at Bath, this may indicate a therapeutic connection for the North British cult. But the main reason for linking Coventina with healing is the spring itself. The connection between springs, curative cults and goddesses is sufficiently strong, especially in the Celtic world, to make a healing function for Coventina at least likely, even if this was not her sole, or even her primary, concern. Lindsay Allason-Jones suggests that she may have been an "all-rounder" goddess, a beneficent protector against all the evils besetting humankind. That she had an infernal dimension is suggested by the offerings of leather shoes (noted also at Bath), which are often found in Romano-British graves (Curbridge in Oxfordshire is an example) and which may symbolise the journey to the Otherworld. The fragment of a human skull found in the well is unlikely to represent any sinister ritual practice but rather a reverential interment of a piece of a human body, perhaps found by devotees and placed in the water to give the soul an easy passage to the afterlife.

We know a little about the supplicants who came to worship and ask favours at the shrine of Coventina. One point of interest is that the altars were dedicated by individuals and there is no evidence for corporate or official worship. The inscriptions suggest that dedicants came mainly from the Gaulish and German provinces, and most must have been associated with the army: one of the images of the goddess was the gift of a prefect of a cohort of Batavians. The impression gained from the inscribed altars is that most of the of dedicants were men, but this may not reflect the true picture, since one would expect more men than women to have possessed the wealth and status to enable them to commission such relatively costly offerings. The other gifts -- coins and jewellery for instance -- offer no clues as to which sex was more attracted to Coventina's cult.

Virtually nothing is known for certain about the ritual activities of visitors to Coventina's Well, apart from the clear evidence for casting in offerings to the water itself. But we can perhaps envisage supplication to the goddess, prayers, vows, propitiation, to accompany the giving of gifts. Maybe sick pilgrims bathed in or drank the pure water, to gain some of the essence of the goddess. The bones of animals from the well (which were found during its original investigation but, alas, not kept) may reflect feasting, sacrifice or both.

Author's Notes

The above excerpt is from Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers by Miranda Green, published by British Museum Press in 1995. This book is an academic but highly readable survey of the goddesses worshipped by the Celtic peoples of Europe. It's great for not only introducing Coventina but putting her in her proper context with the other Celtic goddesses.


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