The Story of Coventina

Stone engraving of the goddess Coventina found hidden in her well.

Jealous goddesses might bristle at the reverence and the lavish gifts that the ancient Britons showered on Coventina.

Who was she, anyway? Just a small-time, small-town divinity who entire domain was limited to a single well in the remote north of England.

"Well," Isis might complain, if she were the whiny type, which she isn't, "she's never even been to Paris or Rome."

"Yes, and," Athena might snarl, if she were small-minded (which by definition she isn't), "she doesn't even stand for anything. Not for wisdom, or for love, or..."

Nonetheless, the Britons doted on her. Wherever they found fresh water welling up sweet and fresh from the body of the earth, these people went wild with gratitude. Who else but a goddess, they reasoned, could pull off such a generous feat, bestowing good water on their rugged island with its limited resources? And so to Coventina's well, they brought jewels and cash... and faith in the magical, healthful properties of the water. The Celtics were stubbornly local. The little deities inhabiting individual trees, springs, hills, and other familiar landmarks were enough to satisfy their spiritual needs. There were people who, if alive today, would resolutely choose to shop at their neighborhood corner store rather than at the gleaming new supermarket down the road.

As if this were not enough to make other goddesses burn with envy, the Romans, who were here during the third and fourth centuries, took to Coventina, too. The Romans, those uptight foreigners, added their own rich tributes to those heaped at Coventina's feet.

These Romans were soldiers, members of the First Cohort of Batavians, the First Cohort of Cugernians, and the First Cohort of Aquitanians, whose job it was to guard against attack from the north. Their fort, Brocolitia, stood poised directly against Hadrian's Wall, the empire's northern frontier. These Romans were hardly a sentimental lot, yet they found room in their hearts for a simple water goddess. They found time to build her a temple just a few yards to the west of the fort.

Enclosing Coventina's sacred spring and its oblong stone basin, the temple measured forty feet across and was sturdily angular in the Romano-Celtic style. There was nothing else like it in any of the British military bases. Its west-facing door, now gone, was a handcrafted marvel.

But even good intentions like these can go astray. As the Roman Empire collapses, the soldiers departed and the natives had a whole new set of worries. Coventina's Well was forgotten. The goddess languished, her waters bubbling for no one, until a British antiquarian rediscovered the site in 1876. Under a layer of stones and gravel that had clogged Coventina's basin for who knows how many centuries, he found a huge mass of artifacts. While the excavation was still underway, vandals sneaked in one night and made off with untold quantities of objects. Even so, what they left behind amounted to 13,487 coins, including some gold and silver ones, as well as brooches, pearls, pottery, clay animals and other things. These were the amassed tributes to Coventina's gentle goodness; votary objects that long outlived the devotees and their all-too-human prayers, and even the temple itself. The presence of larger objects in the well, such as altars, incense burners, temple bells, and even a rare carving showing the goddess reclining on a leaf, suggests that the sanctuary may have been dismantled in a hurry and its most sacred paraphernalia hastily hidden in the well.

You can still visit the stone basin with its energetic little spring. But poor Coventina! She's not enviable after all. She came that close to disappearing altogether, and her once-pampered shrine just another hole in the ground, in a land where few remember that water is a gift, and divine.


The above is an excerpt from Goddess Sites: Europe by Anneli S. Rufus and Kristan Lawson, published by Harper Collins in 1991. This travel guidebook is a witty and scholarly introduction to hundreds of European sites where goddesses were worshipped, from the Isis temple in Roman Pompeii, to Celtic Brigit's fire sanctuary in Ireland, to prehistoric sites in the Czech Republic. I have had endless enjoyment from tracking down the sites in this book so I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's out of print, so if you come across a copy, grab it! :)

Read more about Coventina's historical context or her mythology.


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