The Goddess Coventina of Northumbria

hadrians_wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Coventina was an important local water goddess from Northern Celtic Britain. She was a Brythonic or Romano-British goddess of freshwater springs and wells who was revered popularly during the Roman occupation. Also known as Covetina, Culiventana (from an inscription at Santa Cruz de Loio in Spain), as well as ‘Disappearing Memory’ and ‘Disappearing Snow’. Her epithets are from the proto-Celtic kom-men meaning ‘memory’, which led to the middle-Cymric ‘cofein’, and the proto-Celtic ti-in which means to melt or disappear.

Little is known of Coventina but she was worshipped as a local British goddess, as well as being a Celtic tutelary deity and an aspect of the divine hag. She has also been described as the Mother of Covens in her role of patroness of healing waters and wells. She was worshipped from around 200 BC to 500 AD as a goddess of Celtic origin, but especially during the Roman occupation which exerted its classical influence upon her portrayal and role. As a pre-Christian deity she would have been regarded as a nature and mother-goddess. A personification of the spring flowing into the sacred well of the sanctuary. Reverence was bestowed by the Romans by the terms ‘Sancta’ (Holy) and ‘Augusta’ (Revered).

Coventina is portrayed and invoked on altars and reliefs as a nymph, a triple goddess of healing and child-birth. As part of a group of water-goddesses she is “…named and is depicted as a single or triple water-nymph reclining on water-lilies and pouring water from a vessel…” (Green, 1995). The dual aspect of Coventina shows her as part of a trinity comprising three nymphs holding two vessels, and as a single nymph floating on oak leaves or lilies.

300px-Hope-coventina01

Coventina is known from many inscriptions at Coventina’s Well at Carrawburgh, on Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland. The area surrounding the well spring is a desolate site on the open Northumbrian moors between the Roman forts of Chesters (Cilurnum) and Housesteads (Borcovicus). The site was excavated by John Clayton of Chesters in 1876.

Standing_stone_at_Coventina's_Well_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1132064

Standing stone marking Coventina’s Well

The sanctuary at Carrawburgh is a simple structure that is without a roof whose date is somewhat uncertain. A scheduled ancient monument the archaeological remains were the shrine to the ancient water goddess Coventina. Associated with the Roman fort of Brocolitia the engineers of the Roman army contained the spring within a stone enclosure around 130 AD, sometime between 128 and 133 AD. The structure follows a typical Romano-Celtic temple design beside a well fed by a sacred spring.

mithraeum

The Mithraeum at Carrawburgh

The site lies west of a Roman fort, some 3 to 4 miles from Chesters, beside the site of the spring. Coventina’s Well, or sacred basin, is in fact the outflow of the spring into a stone lined well inside the shrine. The remains of the Roman fort are called Brocolitia (Brocolita) or Procolita. Stuated nearby are archaeological remains of a nymphaeum and Mithraeum indicating the sites had once a ritual significance.

Coventina's shrine

Diagram of the shrine to Coventina

The excavation of the sanctuary site uncovered a number of inscribed altars with effigies of Coventina. In 1833 a piece of a tablet of stone was uncovered in the north east corner of the fort (Corbitt, 1958) that had been placed there by the Firs Cohort of the Aquitanians under Cornelius in 130 AD. The fort was built between 130 and 133 AD, probably in 128 AD when it was garrisoned by the First Aquitanoreum. The fort was originally occupied by the First Cycernicians plus the First Aquitanians. Later, by the First Batavians between 200 and 300 AD. the First Batavians were still at Procolitia during the late 3rd and early 4th AD.

Path to Coventina's well

Path to Coventina’s Well

The First Aquitanians moved to Derbyshire around 155 to 160 AD. The next garrison was the First Cohort of the Cungernorum, under Aurelius Campester, who were the first to mention the goddess Coventina. The final cohort to occupy Procolitia were the Batavorum who provided the site with many 3rd century inscriptions. It was Titus Domitius Cosconianus who, in 140 AD, dedicated a slab to Coventina.

At the site there were found hoards of coins beneath stone covers whose deposition ceased abruptly circa 388 AD. The discovered coinage consisted of some 13,487 specie of gold, silver, and copper. The coins dated from early Augustan to late 4th century. The excavated votive objects included brooches, rings, pearls, jars, mant copper coins, with incense burners inscribed ‘Augusta Coventina’.

Votive offerings also included pins, probably symbolising childbirth, and models of horses and dogs. The horse was a fertility symbol whereas the dog represented the god of medicine and healing called Aescalapius. The Carrawburgh bas reliefs and carvings represented an artistic deposition, with the monumental inscriptions the literary aspect. All these votive offerings and deposits as well as a  inscribed dedications were located within the walled area of the sanctuary.

coventina

The depictions of Coventina, on bas reliefs, plaques and altars were in the typical Roman nymph style and form. On the altars she was shown as a water sprite, sometimes as a trinity with two attendants, or sometimes alone. In triplicate Coventina is shown with two nymphs with vessels flowing with water. As a goddess of freshwater springs Coventina was regarded as a healing deity and beneficent protectress. These ancient well sanctuaries, such as Coventina’s at Carrawburgh, showed that “…fertility aspect of the healing water-symbolism is demonstrated above all by the mother-goddesses.” (Green, 1986).

imagesM5ANVB37 

Image of Coventina on wall of the Roman villa at Lullingstone (Kent). Source: midgleywebpages.com. and public domain. 

Many inscriptions dedicated to Coventina refer to her as Deae which means ‘goddesses’. Other  inscriptions referring to ‘matribus’ means ‘the mothers’. Little is known about the ritual activities at Coventina’s Well. The discovery of bronze heads was suggestive of the ancient Celtic head cult. There were possibly invocations and libations to Coventina as a triple mother goddess. The votive pins indicate a fertility cult and bronze horses are symbols of fertility.

A number of dedications to Coventina were erected by the Cohort of Batavians, who also inscribed as altar in the neighbouring Temple of Mithras. This altar was dated ro between 205 and 211 AD. Similarly another altar was from circa 213 to 222 AD. A single image of Coventina in translation reads “To the Goddess Coventina. Titus Cosconianus. Prefectus of the First Cohort of the Batavians, Dedicated this stone.” The temple at the site was built by the First Cohort of the Cugerini.

 Altars at Mithras

Roman altars at the Temple of Mithras, Carrawburgh.

Not far away, at Chesterholm (Vindolanda), an unadorned and inscribed altar stone is dedicated to Saitada. The inscription translates as “To the goddess Satiada, the council of the Textoverdi. Willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.” Saitada, Sattada, Saiiada, and Sandravdiga, was a Brythonic ‘Goddess of the Throng’ who is not known elsewhere in Europe. She is therefore an entirely local deity, a tutelary deity and protective goddess of a tribe, in ancient Northumbria. The Textoverdi appear to be a minor Celtic tribe under the protection of the local more powerful Brigantes. Her name is possible derived from the proto-Celtic ‘sati’ or ‘salyo’ which means swarm or throng.

All images are obtained from the public domain.

References and Sources Consulted

Allason-Jones, L. & McKay, B.  (1985).  Coventina’s Well.  Oxbow Books, Oxford.

Allason-Jones. L. & McKay, B.  (1985).  Coventina’s Well, a shrine on Hadrians Wall.  Chester Museum, Oxford.

Archaeologia Aeliana.  4th Series.  XXVI.  21.

Archaeologia  Aeliana.  4th Series.  XXIX.  36.

Collingwood, R. G. & Wright, R. P.  (1965).  The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Corbitt, J. H.  (1958).  The Goddess Coventina and her Well at Carrawburgh, Northumberland.  Archaeology News.  6 (5).

Green, M.  (1986).  The Gods of the Celts.  Bramley Books, Surrey.

Green, M.  (1995).  Celtic Goddesses, Virgins, Mothers.  British Museum Press, London.

 

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One response to “The Goddess Coventina of Northumbria

  1. Pingback: Albión Galaica. Unha viaxe de regreso polas antigüidades e tradicións de Gales e Inglaterra. | SOCIEDADE ANTROPOLÓXICA GALEGA

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