Sulis: the eye, the sun, the well

Sulis is probably one of the more famous Celtic goddesses, even though she only has one cult site, at a thermal spring in south-west England.1 The site, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, was not only a spa, but had a temple to Sulis Minerva2, her Romano-Celtic form.

The Waters were actually a hot spring that gushed forth reddish, iron-rich water. Their curative powers brought pilgrims who left votive objects, a large hoard of coins, and other offerings. (You can still go to the tap-room and get a glass of the water. I thought it seemed a small glass until I tried it – it’s very minerally, and was hard to finish.)

Sulis’ name is linked to words for sun and eye, although she is an intriguing sun-goddess, since she manifests both the healing energy of the sun and the darker underworld aspect as well.

Sulis and the Romans

While it might seem as if the Romans had completely taken over Bath and its goddess, a quick glance at the Roman Inscriptions of Britain shows six altars dedicated to Sulis, and two dedicated to Sulis Minerva. (One of which is for Sulis Minerva and the Divinities of the Two Emperors, and was set up by a centurion on behalf of his legion.)

We know that there was activity at the spring before the Romans arrived; locals had created a gravel ridge north of the spring, and they left coins at the site. (Reynolds/Volk: 379) The three hot springs that break within 50 m of each other are the only ones in Britain, adding to their appeal. (They also lie on a bend of the river Avon, which was an important trade site.)

Head of Sulis Minerva. Wikimedia.

Head of Sulis Minerva, by Hchc2009. Wikimedia.

The only image we have of Sulis date from the Roman period, and is in Roman style, similar to statues of Minerva. Her head, in gilt bronze, is a little larger than life-size. The statue it belonged to probably stood in the temple, and may have been there since the founding in the first century AD.

Another object which has survived the centuries is the Gorgon’s head which adorned the temple pediment, a Romano-Celtic hybrid which changes the female monster to a bearded male, with swirling hair in place of snakes. Since Minerva (and her Greek counterpart, Athena) wore the Gorgon on their breast, it seems fitting that it sat over the door of her temple.

Gorgon's Head. Picture by mermaid, from Flickr.

Gorgon’s Head. Picture by mermaid, from Flickr.

Why Minerva?

Sulis is not the only goddess who was identified with Minerva. Belisama, in the south of France was also called Belisama Minerva in an inscription, although she had a flourishing cult of her own, including a temple. There may be many more local goddesses who fit this profile, as Julius Caesar tells us that the Celts worshipped Minerva.

Back in Britain, the Yorkshire goddess Brigantia was depicted in a very Minerva-like fashion, although she was never syncretized with her in an inscription. The same is true of the newly-discovered goddess Senuna, whose images could easily be taken for Minervas if you didn’t know. (Ashwell in Hertfordshire, where offerings to her were found, has a series of freshwater springs, and its name reflects this.)

Brigantia, and the Irish goddess Brigit, were both associated with healing springs, as well as the French goddess Bricta or Brixta. The last is especially interesting because she also had “curse tablets” in her spring – wishes to have the deity harm someone who has done wrong to the petitioner. The hot spring at her shrine, with its iron-rich water, also suggests a connection to Sulis.

I think that Sulis, and Bricta, as well as Belisama, who is assumed to the unnamed consort of the god of healing waters Belenos, were all goddesses of healing, probably warming, water. It may be that the Minerva element comes from the heat, since both Coventina and Brigantia were called Nymph at their respective springs.

The Deo Mercurio site makes an interesting argument: Minerva in her capacity as warrior would battle against diseases on behalf of petitioners. If we read Belisama as “Most Powerful” rather than “Brightest”, she would fit in here as well. (As would an altar, found in Bath, to Nemetona and her consort, Mars Loucetius. It may be just random, however.)

Eye of the Sun

Sulis’ name can be traced to one of two roots: either the Proto-Indo-European root for “sun”, *suh2lio- or else the Old Irish súil, eye, from a reconstructed word for sun, *sulis. Further, the Old Welsh word licat means both eye and spring. (Mann/Koch: 1636)

The eye/sun imagery seems pretty clear, with Sulis as sun-goddess linked to the all-seeing eye in the sky. (The French scholar Delmarre derives the name from Celtic suli, (good) sight.) Furthermore, the warmth of her water, as well as its fiery colour, would fit with a goddess whose own warmth, transferred to the water, gave it its healing quality.

Eyes and water connect in a story about St. Brigit, whose folklore is remarkable for its solar tinge. In it, she plucked out her eye to discourage a persistent suitor, then struck her staff against the ground, causing a spring to gush forth. She washed the empty socket with the water, and her eye was made whole.

Deo Mercurio notes that this symbolism connects Sulis to the Celtic Apollo gods, who combine eyes, healing and water. (Belenos and Vindonnus are two of these type of gods.) The Romans seem to have taken note of it, as they put images of Sol and Luna on the north and south sides of Sulis’ temple, and an altar to Diana inside, thus associating her with their own celestial deities.

Dark Side of the Sun

Some aspects of Sulis’ cult were not so celestial, however. Her worshippers regularly asked her to harm people who had harmed them, sometimes in very detailed ways, and the hot springs have led some to see her as having an underworld aspect, like the Sun-Goddess of Arinna. This aspect, known as the sun-goddess of earth, represented the goddess as she travelled through the underworld during the darkness. She conveyed the dead to the underworld, was invoked in rituals for the dead, and offerings to her were buried in the earth.

McCrickard thinks that the Celts imagined Sulis in the underworld actually charging the waters with her solar energy, and offers evidence of other folklore rituals involving “charging” water with rock crystal as another form of the same idea. We also know that there is an Indo-European myth of the “Fire in the Water”, of a fire deity who lives in water and is dangerous to approach.

The curse tablets found at Bath seem to indicate a darker side to the goddess, perhaps connected to a night side of the sun. Solar gods and goddesses are often all-seeing, so it makes sense to petition them for justice, or simply vengeance. Considering that bath houses, like swimming pools or gyms today, offered easy pickings for thieves, it’s not surprising that many of the tablets at Bath want their property returned. (She wasn’t the only deity people went to for cursing, either. Similar ones have been found at shrines to Nodens, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter.)

The Gorgon may also fit in here. If Minerva was a goddess of justice, the Gorgon simply paralyzed all who approached, and may well have served as a warning to those who would petition the goddess.


Water as Portal

Hrana Janto’s image of Sulis shows a woman swimming up through water toward a bright sun. It used to annoy me as I read it as seeing Sulis as an underworld goddess rather than a sun-goddess. But I was making a false binary, and not realizing that Sulis is a much an under- as upper-world deity.

The Norse goddess Saga lived underwater, and knew all that had happened since the beginning of time. Odin used to visit her to learn history from her. Although the sources don’t tell us how he got to her underwater home, the Norse saw certain lakes, pools and well as portals to the otherworld. Offerings thrown into them went directly to the otherworld, and a lucky few could use them to pass between the worlds.

It may well be that the Celts had a similar idea. We know that they also had the habit of throwing precious objects into water, and the offerings, especially the curses, given to Sulis suggest that the water was seen as a way of communicating with the goddess herself.

What about the Suleviae?

A final question when it comes to Sulis: is she related to the Suleviae? These seem to have been a form of the Matres, the mother goddesses who were worshipped all over the Roman Empire. While their names look alike, it seems that Suleviae comes from su– ‘good’ and a radical leu-, ‘to steer’. So it would mean something like “Those who steer (or lead) well”.

Given the protective function of the Mothers, that makes sense, and many were willing to be steered by them, since they have 40-odd inscriptions across Europe. One inscription does connect them to Minerva, saying: Svleviae Edennicae Minervae votvm, or “vowed to the Suleviae Edennica”. The inscription itself is fragmented, and who or what Edennica was is unclear.

Deo Mercurio suggests that they were like the junoes or genii, protectors of individual people, families or associations, citing one particular inscription: “for the well-being of our august Emperors, to the paternal and maternal Mothers, and to my own Suleviæ”.

PS – There’s another possible English site associated with Sulis: Brockley Hill in Stanmore (outer London) was called Sulloniacae at the time of the first Roman invasion. Julius Caesar’s army fought the Catuvellauni, led by Cassivellaunus. there. Sulloniacae was a centre for pottery, as well as hosting a mansio or rest stop for government officals. F.X. Delmarre, however, thinks the name Sulloniacae might be derived from the pesonal name Sollinius.

1. There is a single inscription to “Dea Sul” at Alzey, Germany. Click here to see the image.
2. Archaeologists found a gravestone commemorating one of Sulis’ priests, named Gaius Calpurnius Receptus.

Mann Michelle 2005: “Sulis Minerva” in Celtic Culture, an Encylopedia, ed. John T. Koch, ABC-Clio: 1635-6.
McCrickard, Janet 1990: Eclipse of the Sun, Gothic Image.
Reynolds, Joyce and Terence Volk 1990: “Gifts, Curses, Cult and Society at Bath (review of The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath vol. 2, by R. Tomlin, D. Walker, B. Cunliffe.),” Britannia 21: 379-91.




23 thoughts on “Sulis: the eye, the sun, the well

    1. solsdottir Post author

      I never really thought about the underworld aspect until I was writing this – I’d always seen her as a sun goddess. But her chthonic aspect is what makes her stand out, and the way she has elements of light and dark.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. greg

    For the record, modern Welsh ‘llygad’ (eye) is also often used for the source spring of a river, there is, for instance, a pond called ‘Llyn Llygad Rheidol’ (‘ lake of the eye of Rheidol ) at the source spring of that river.

    It does seem that the Romans petitioned many of the gods for favours including requests to exact justice or curse others. There are examples of this being deplored at the time, e.g. In an edict from Justinian.

    Your discussion illuminates the way water flows between the worlds; out of the darkness into the light.


    1. solsdottir Post author

      Thanks for the information – both the etymological info and the insight into Roman prayer.
      A good point too about water – it doesn’t just flow about on earth, but travels below it, and falls from the sky. In other words, it moves between all the worlds.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Faye

    Love the photo and your explanation. Out of the darkness into the light (above) a beautiful illustration of the water flow between the worlds of your writings. Thanks for post.


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