The search for the Gods and Goddesses of my local landscape has been a deep journey of discovery that remains on-going. In this blog post I would like to share with you what I have discovered so far, and the conclusions and speculations I have come up with in order to form a coherent narrative in my own mind.
The gods of this land I am searching for are the original deities that our Bythonic/Celtic ancestors who lived in this area worshiped. It is often said that we know very little about Celtic religion, but it is not really true. There are a lot of gaps yes, but over the years researchers have been able to paint a pretty comprehensive picture of what the Celts believed.
The area in question – Mansfield and its surrounding area -formed part of the border lands between the tribes of the Coreltauvi to the south and the Brigantes to the north. We do not know exactly where the boarder was. Some have suggested that the River Trent formed the boundary between these two tribes. Others believe it was the Meden valley, with its natural boundaries that were further fortified by the Romans after their invasion. We know the Romans faced very little if any resistance from the Coreltauvi. We also know that the Romans described the Brigantes as “war like”. It is often assumed that the Coreltauvi welcomed the Romans as protection from their northern neighbors. It could be however, that it was the Romans and not the Corieltauvi who thought the Brigantes were “war like”, due simply to the number of Brigantes uprisings during the occupation.
I feel there are a few issues with some of what we think we know about the area at this time. For a start I don’t believe that there was a static boarder between the Coreltauvi and the Brigantes. It is very likely that it fluctuated many times over the years. Not just because the Romans pushed the Brigantes back, as evidenced by the roman fortifications and marching camps in the area. But also, simply because this area is just so far away from the administrative “capitals” of either territory.It is also theorized that both the Coreltauvi and especially the Brigantes were both made up of other smaller local tribes. I suspect then that the people living in this area, may have affiliated with either of the larger tribes, and allegiances may have shifted many times over time. It is also worth noting that the area was largely populated by small farms. It was not the thickly covered woodland that many people believe. The names Mansfield and Ashfield indicate to us cleared areas in the forest that were used for farming. There was certainly enough agricultural land in the area that the Roman Villa at Northfield, Pleasley Vale was constructed, and was likely used to coordinate the local food production and delivery of supplies to the Roman armies pressing north. In addition, I feel that the lack of pre-Roman fortifications in the area is indicative of a land at peace. Recent discoveries north of Hadrian’s wall have also forced us to question the “war like Scotts”. Many settlements have now been found that have no defenses at all. This indicates that people had lived in peace for generations, and had absolutely no fear of being attached. I believe the same was true in the Mansfield area at one time.
We are now beginning to formulate a picture of our Mansfield ancestors. Living in small villages dotted around what was to become known as Sherwood Forest. Small clearings are remembered in the post-fix *-ly (Celtic for clearing)as in Pleasly, and larger clearings for agricultural land became known as fields (Mansfield and Ashfield). They lived in the borderlands between two major tribes, but were probably more concerned with local day to day living than big tribal affiliations. Their language, Brythonic, survives in many local place names and is very close to modern North Welsh.
We also know that rivers were very important to our Brythonic ancestors. Both as sources of water, and as a means of traveling large distances. But rivers, wells,lakes and springs all held a much deeper spiritual meaning too, and were often associated with Goddesses. In fact, it was not just bodies of water. Our ancestors saw everything as alive and full of spirit. Animated. Trees, stones, the sky, Mountains…Each had their own spirits, their own personalities. They were in this way Animists, seeing everything as alive. These spirits were sometimes seen as local gods, and the people developed relationships with them. But there were also less local, pan-Celtic gods. Gods recognized by people from all across the lands. In this way they were polytheists .Believers in many gods just like the Romans, Greeks and other Pagan religions of Europe that developed from the same Indo-European root culture.
We do not have much in the way of primary material from which to learn of the ancient British gods. After the roman invasion, the religion changed significantly and many carvings, statues and other representations of the gods were created and in most instances Romanised. Some of the names and iconography come down to us from this time, but it is important to understand that they are Romano-British not Celtic/Brythonic. Further, the stories that survive in the Irish and Welsh medieval literature were all recorded long after the Roman invasion.
Despite the questions that we have around the validity of the source material it is all we have. And so it is from here that any investigation of the Gods of Mansfield must begin.
The welsh mythology is the obvious first place to start, given that the Brythonic people who lived in this area were ultimately pushed westwards and are survived by the north welsh. The majority of the Welsh mythology comes from the Mabinogion, and largely concerns the antagonism between the houses of Dôn and Lir. The house of Dôn is also known as the children of Dôn, and is the equivalent of the Tuatha De Danann from Irish mythology.
While there is conflicting evidence around the supposed genealogy of the gods and heroes recorded in these tales, here is the generally accepted family tree of the characters from the Mabinogion.
And here is the equivalent Irish Pantheon
Before moving on, I just want to highlight a few things here. First, in both Welsh and Irish Dôn/Danu is the head of the pantheon of the gods, whereas the House of Lir/Fomorians are the antagonists that take on a similar role to the titans of Greek mythology, in that they seem to represent an older, earlier pantheon of gods. Secondly, the absence of Brigit, an extremely important deity from the welsh pantheon is rather noticeable. We will come back to the Irish and welsh pantheons in a moment, but for now let’s return to Mansfield.
With the importance of rivers to our ancestors established, I would first like to examine the rivers around Mansfield (actually around Sutton). There are three main rivers that rise in the area. The first is the Idle that rises on the Ashland estate in Sutton-In-Ashfield, once known as the Roods, or Sutton on the Roods. The next a little to the North of the Idle is the Meden. The Meden rises in what is now Brierly Forest Park in Huthwaite, and the area known as Wood End. And Last there is the Maun, which rises in the landscape around Hamilton Hill. There are other rivers that feed into these, most notably Rainworth Waters and the River Poulter. Both of these are considered tributaries to the Maun. Rainworth Water has its source In Harlow/Thieveswood, and the Poulter rises near Scarcliffe just to the west of Shirebrook. The point here is that the sources for all three of these rivers are all very close together, and they are here, in our landscape.
The source of the river Idle is contentious. Wikipedia states that the Idle is formed with the confluence of the Meden and Maun at Markham Moor, but this is not true. As stated above, the Idle rises in Sutton-In-Ashfield and fills the boating lake on Sutton Lawn before joining the Maun to fill Kings Mill Reservoir. You can follow the Idle from its source until it disappears underground at spring road. It is said the river used to flow through the basement of what is now B&J Carpets at the bottom of the hill. You can briefly see the river again in the car park between Asda and Wilco’s. It is from the River Idle, that the Idlewells shopping centre takes its name. Once the Maun leaves the Reservoir, it makes its way east until it meets with the Meden at Markham Moor to once again becomes the Idle. The Idle then continues on to empty into the Trent…….. But is was not always this way……… Before the river was diverted in the 1600s, the Idle continued north until it joined the River Don…..Yes Don. A river named after the same goddess who is mother to the Welsh pantheon of gods, and that is situated well within Brigantes territory.
As an aside it is interesting to note at this point the association between Llyr and the River Soar south of Nottingham and well within Coreltauvi territory. There are stories to suggest Llyr (King Lear) was buried under the river Soar. It is almost as though the Brigantes and Coreltauvi are associated with the two families described in the Mabinogion.
There have been a number of theorized organisational structures that have been proposed for the “Celtic” pantheons. Traditionally the main theory was the tripartite Dumezilian system which divides the gods into three categories. Warriors, craftsmen and agriculturalists. This system however has often come in for criticism. In his 1994 book “The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans” Garrett Olmsted expanded upon the tripartite system, but reinterpreted the functions as gods of the upper, middle and lower realms. This is seen easily in the Norse mythologies with Asgard, Midgard and Niflheim as Upper, Middle and Lower Realm and in the Vedic System which says that 11 gods dwell in the heavens, 11 on earth and 11 in the water. Or in druidic terms, Land Sea and Sky.
Over four hundred Celtic deity names have come down to us. Most in the form of inscriptions from the Romans who generally associated the Celtic deity to a Roman one. Mars for example is mentioned along side over fifty other god names. This is not surprising at all. If we look at other Indo-European pantheons we find that most gods have numerous local and functional names and bynames. Briganti for instance means “the High one” or “the exalted pure one”. It is not really a name, but a title. And the same is true of many of the names of Celtic gods and goddesses that have come down to us. They are titles rather than names that most likely describe their local function. As such we can identify the following major functions of the gods.
- Sky farther and Earth Mother
- Ruler of the Lower realm and his consort
- Rulers of the Upper realm (day and night)
- Youthful champion
- Goddesses of the upper, lower and middle realms
- Trickster god
- Sovereignty goddess
- God of trees and fruit
- Goddess of war
- God of Oratory
- Goddess of place
- Spring / water spirits
- Wood spirits
- Hooded ones.
What we have then is a few starting points with which to begin our investigations into the gods of Mansfield. Let’s look again at the three local rivers.
As we determined above, the Idle is split into two parts.The first from it’s source on the Ashland estate to where it joins the Maun the other side of Sutton Lawn next to the A38. This is the lesser known part of the Idle. And secondly, several miles to the north east from where the Maun and Meden meet at Markham Moor to where it now empties into the Trent at West Stokwith. During the first part of the Idle, the river is little more that a trickle, but the second better known part of the Idle is a much more substantial river.
The origins of the name are uncertain. It could take its name from the old English Idel, which like today means slow and lazy. i.e. the slow lazy river. This would fit the infant Idle we find in Sutton, but not the better-known adult Idle further up river. Alternatively, the name could come from the Brythonic Isole, Idol(a) meaning isolated or remote.
From what I have learned of the Idle, it could be considered a Mother of the Maun. And given the two different natures that can be associated with it (the slow tickle of the first part, compared to the fast flowing river of the second part), I find it a mysterious river that is difficult to pin down.
The Maun is a reasonably well-known river, visible in many places as it passes through the town of Mansfield. It takes its name, as does Mansfield, from Hamilton Hill which in ancient times was known as Mam. Just like Mam Tor in Derbyshire, here mam means mother, hill or breast.
The Maun also has its main tributaries or sources around Hamilton Hill, which bears all the hall marks of a Neolithic long barrow, and has a circular mound on top that could very well once have been a shrine. It also has a number of solar alignments with other important markers in the nearby landscape. For more information on this subject see my post the ancient ritual landscape of Mansfield
We are not really sure of the entomology of the Meden. Historical records/maps sometimes mark it as the river Mayden which is an alternative spelling of Maiden. It could also mean “meadow stream”.
You may have just noticed that one of these rivers may have associations to the concept of “mother”, and another with the concept of “maiden”. It would be very easy at this point to start to draw associations between the Idle and a “crone” concept and construct an entire maiden-mother-crone link to the local rivers. Further observing that they all fed into the Don, or the great mother goddess. The idle is ultimately the biggest of the three rivers. And both the first and last in the chain. Could this be a maiden-mother-crone triple goddess? Daughters of Dôn? The answer is no I am afraid. Not entirely. There is no evidence of a historical Celtic maiden-mother-crone triple goddess. The concept is entirely the invention of Robert Graves and others that built on his work. While it is true that Robert Graves focused on other triplicates too, this particular maiden-mother-crone triple goddess that has become a big part of Wicca has no basis in British history as far as we know. The closest we have are some groupings of Greek and Roman Goddesses.
Yet it is true that triple deities did make up an important part of the world view of the Ancient Britons. And there are just as many triple gods as triple goddesses. In fact, Brigit (Briganti) was a triple goddess in the Irish mythology. Three sisters, children of the Dagda and Danu, the goddesses of Poetry, Smithing and healing. Danu’s Welsh equivalent is Don, but her only daughter mentioned in the stories is Arianrhod who’s Irish equivalent is Eithne. But this doesn’t mean that Briganti is not remembered in wales. In particular a river on Anglesey (the sacred Isle of Môn) called the Braint is named after Brigit/Briganti, and there is a fair amount of lore around St Ffraid (welsh for Bridget).
Discovering this pantheon of Mansfield is as much a personal journey influenced by my other avenues of exploration as it is an intellectual historical study. Sometimes in order to get to something concrete, I have to choose where to make my own speculative, intuitive conclusion. I do not feel there is anything wrong with that so long as it is honest. What I would not want to do is dress up my own speculations as historical fact for others to follow.
Sky Farther and Earth Mother
The gods are our ancestors. Real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter. As part of this research into our local area, and I did some genealogical research too and discovered Beli Mwar, the farther of the Welsh Pantheon in my family tree. It is for this reason, and the fact that our local rivers are connected to Dôn that Beli Mwar (Belinos) occupies the role of “Sky farther” in MY Mansfield orientated Pantheon. If that works for you too, then that is good, but I want you to understand how I arrived at this point.
The partner of the Sky farther is the Earth Mother, Dôn as it is in the Welsh pantheon simply because the three rivers originally fed into the Don. Across Indo-European cultures the Earth Mother is usually along with the sky farther the parents of the pantheon. Some mythologies have the earth mother as a separate entity such as the Greek Gaia, and the Celtic Danu/Dôn while others have her merged with the goddess of the Upper Realm. In many Indo-European cultures she is usually also the mother of three rivers or springs which are the goddesses of the upper, middle and Lower Realms.
Goddess of Sovereignty
Briganti is our Goddess of sovereignty. The Queen of land, and a representative of nature and it’s potential abundance. In days past kings would symbolically marry the goddess of the land in order to ensure the land and the people were united as one. This is the most obvious identification, as it is directly given to us by the fact that we know that the patron goddess of the Brigantes who lived in these lands was Briganti. Meaning it is very likely that Briganti was worshiped as a sovereignty goddess in this area.
There is a lot of cross over between the sovereignty goddess and the earth mother. Both are symbols of the land, fertility and motherhood. But to my mind the earth mother is more primordial, the mother of the Earth itself, and the mother of the gods. By contrast the goddess of sovereignty is intimately connected to the specific area, the kingdom and its people. Our mother.
Briganti’s Healing aspect is associated with water, and it is tempting to think of water in terms of simply the sea. However, about five miles west of Sutton-In-Ashfiled is Morton where there is a plaque stating that Morton is as far from the sea as you can possibly get in the UK. So, I would argue that any water aspect in this part of the country has little to do with the sea, and much more to do with lakes, rivers, wells and springs. Remember that Briganti was the patron of healers too, and water, and especially springs and wells are often seen to have healing powers. With quite a number of “Ladywells” in the area, it is very likely these were dedicated to a goddess, and quite probable that many of them would have been dedicated to specifically Briganti.
The rivers again
As our goddess of sovereignty, and mother of this land, I feel Briganti is connected to the river Maun. The Maun takes its name from the mam, which means mother, and Briganti is the mother of the tribe. Furthermore, I feel Hamilton Hill is her shrine as the place where the Maun rises.
As previously stated, Meden could be an alternative spelling of Maiden. But it could also mean Meadow. There is one very obvious character from Welsh mythology who embodies both of these concepts in a very literal way. Blodeued was created by Gwydion (Dôn’s son) and Math (Dôn’s Brother) as a wife for Lleu (Dôn’s Grandson and Gwydion’s nephew/son). They created her from flowers and her name means flower face. I feel like she is a perfect fit for what I currently know of the river Meden.
This leaves us with the Idle, which at this time, I feel unable to associate with any particular deity. I will of course continue to research in this area, and I hope that eventually I can come to know this river better, and perhaps infer a potential link to a Goddess.
If I am going to draw so heavily on the Welsh pantheon for my understanding of the local gods, I feel at this point I can start to fill out some of the other major deity functions previously listed. Some of them are very easy such as identification of Gwydion as the trickster. For some of the other roles there are multiple candidates.
Youthful Champion / Upper realm controllers
The first obvious one is Lleu, as the Youthful Champion. Lleu is the son of Arianrhod, who during a test of her virginity, Math made her step over his wand which caused her to immediately give birth to Dylan and Lleu (divine twins). In the stories Lleu becomes a great hero, and fits the youthful champion archetype very well. Lleu is equated with the Irish Lugh, he is associated with skill, crafts and the arts, as well as with oaths, truth and the law – and therefore with rightful kingship. Lugh is also associated with the harvest festival of Lughnasadh, which is named after him. As Lugh’s name is probably derived from a Celtic root *lug with the meaning “burn, enflame”, we can possibly see the daytime Upper realm controller in him. Dylan his twin immediately made for the sea upon the baptismal waters touching him. His name means “The wave that floods” or “The tide that returns”. Either way he is connected with the sea and with waves. Waves of course caused by the moon. So Dylan as a sea, or rather wave god and as a twin of Lleu, with him could be the daytime and night time controllers.
Lord and Lady of the lower realm
In the Mabinogion, we are given the name of the ruler of the underworld (Annwn) as Arawn, and we are told that Pwyll trades places with Arawn in order to defeat Arawn’s rival Hafgan (summer song). During the course of the story we are told that Pwyll did not lay with Arawn’s wife, yet we are never told her name.
Gwyn ap Nudd is also introduced as a ruler of Annwn, a psychopomp who guides the souls of the dead to Annwn. In the stories he competed with Gwythyr ap Greidawl for the love of Creiddylad, abducting her to Annwn.
Gwythyr tried to rescue her and failed with Gwyn taking some of his lords hostage. King Arthur then steps in and commands them to do battle every Beltane until judgment day in competition for the hand of Creiddylad. Gwyn is also intimately connected with Samhain, when he rides out from Annwn with the wild hunt to gather the souls of the dead. It has been suggested that it is at this time that Gwyn takes Creiddylad to Annwn, and at Beltane Gwythyr wins her back. This is the basis for the modern Oak and Holly king myth where Gwyn is the king of winter (holly) and Gwythyr the king of summer (oak). It would also make Creiddylad an Earth or Sovereignty goddess, in that when she is in Annwn, winter comes to the land.
Alternatively, the lower realm Goddess in Indo-European studies often seems linked to Animals and especially Cows. Proposed names translate as “white cow”, “mother” or “great queen”. Additionally, she seems to be one of the aspects of the Goddess of Sovereignty. In Irish mythology Brigid (Briganti) as a baby drank the milk of a sacred cow that came from the other world, and cattle are considered sacred to Brigid along with many other animals. With these associations, the lack of the naming of Arawn’s consort, and the fact his rivals name translates as summer song, I feel there may be a case for a lost story around
Arawn and Hafgan’s competition over the Goddess of Sovereignty who in the case of the people of this land happens to be Briganti. This would make Arawn and
Briganti the rulers of the lower realm.
Goddess of the Upper realm
Like the lower realm goddess seems to be associated with cows, the upper realm goddess seems to be associated with horses. In Welsh mythology this is Rhiannon (Rigantona) meaning great or divine queen. In Welsh mythology she comes from Annwn to claim Pwyll as her husband. The same Pwyll who traded places with
Arawn. Again, she seems to represent the
Sovereignty of the land to some degree. Especially when she returns to Annwn and the land becomes wild for a time, she is able to eventually return with the aid of Manawydan’s magic. Horses have been sacred to the British for a very long time, and while we may not be able to see these associations in our immediate landscape, we only have to look at the Uffington while horse and to know that it is best viewed from the sky to see the relationship between horses and the upper realm.
Goddess of the middle realm
The goddess of the middle realm seems to have associations with motherhood, intoxication (by being in her presence?) and of course sovereignty. I once again place Briganti in this position due to her associations with motherhood and the River Maun, and the fact she is the patron deity of this land. Briganti has many associations, including smithing (the combining of earth, air, fire and water to create tools and weapons) and healing (the combining of plants, fungi and herbs to create desired states withing humans). Like healing, intoxication is simply the mixing or ingestion of certain combinations of plants and fungi. That might mean the combination of wheat barley and yeast, or fruit juice and yeast, or it could be the ingestion of mushrooms. Regardless, all these things come from the earth. The middle realm goddess also has water associations, and again, we can see this in Briganti. The goddess of the Middle Realm (or a human representative) is the goddess of the land that the King must marry, in order for his authority to be ratified.
Goddess of war
There is a supposed Welsh Goddess of war/battles/fate,though there is little evidence. Aeronwen had a shrine by the river Dee. The site translates as “black water” or “water of the goddess” and it is alleged that humans were sacrificed by drowning them there. The name Aeronwen however translates as “bright goddess”. She has also been linked to Agrona, a supposed goddess of the river Ayr in Scotland whose name translates to “carnage”. The name was first proposed by William J. Watson in 1922, but it could be part of a Scottish nationalist attempt to place the poems of Taliesin in Scotland. In Irish Mythology the Morrígan (a triple Goddess) is closely associated with battles and war. There have been attempts to link the Morrígans to Morgan La Fay from Arthurian legends, but this is a mistake. Arthurian legends come from wales and Morgans or Mari-Morgans in Welsh and Breton are water spirits that drown men, luring them to their death with their beauty much like many other mermaid tales. During the Roman period a number of shrines were dedicated to gods associated with Mars,and thus we have many Celtic war gods, but Welsh/British goddesses of war seem to be more difficult to identify. According to the roman historian Dio Cassius, Boudica invoked the goddess Andraste/Andrasta in her rebellion against Rome.She may be the same as the goddess Andate, who Dio Cassius describes as “their name for Victory”, i.e. the goddess Victoria.
For my Mansfield pantheon though, I do not feel that any of these have enough association to anything in the local area. None of the goddesses so far mentioned have any link to the area like Briganti and Dôn (and thus her children) do. One last element to consider is a shrine near Bingham to the goddess Nantosuelta. Because of her crow/raven associations Nantosuelta has often been linked to the Morrígan, and it has been suggested that Nantosuelta may represent the Morrígan after some sort of change. Her name however seems to translate to “sun warmed valley” or “she of the wandering stream”. The iconography depicts her with a crow holding a house on a pole, pouring water or with a pot or beehive. In the case of the Bingham shrine she is holding a bowl of apples. All of these seem to suggest a goddess of the land, or abundance and fertility with a possible role as a psychopomp. All in all, I have not felt able to pin down a goddess for this role in my local pantheon, and if I am honest, I do not feel a very war like person. If I have to choose, then for now I would feel most comfortable selecting Andraste.
God of Oratory
In Irish Mythology, Ogma is obvious god of Oratory as the inventor of the Ogham alphabet. There is debate as to whether the Gaulish deity Ogmios is the same character, who is depicted with followers who’s ears are chained to his tong. He is a weaver of words and a patron of poets. Again there is no direct parallel in Welsh mythology, but there was a pot found in Richborough bearing the name Ogmia suggesting a British presence. Alternatively, we could turn to the other gods who are patrons of poets such as Gwydion.
Goddess of Place,
Wood Spirits and Water Spirits
In many cases I would turn imediatly to Briganti for this role, however, I feel that the Goddess of place is a much more local intimate relationship, and there is of course no one single goddess that can fulfill this role for all places. One example that we do have is the Arnemetia, the local goddess of the springs in Buxton. The name can be understood as “she who dwells beside the sacred grove”. Her name contains the name of another well known Goddess, Nemetona, or “she of the scared grove”. Nemetona is an obvious candidate for “wood spirit”, but I think of wood spirits as smaller entities, perhaps inhabiting one single tree. In Greek we have Dryads that fulfill this role. I have not been able to find a equivalent Celtic term, but I have no doubt one existed. Trees were of upmost importance to the Celts, and their Animism will no doubt have recognized many different types of tree, wood and even mountain spirits.
The Hooded Ones
As an Indo-European Architype, the Hooded Ones are of course all the remaining spirits, but in particular, the ancestors and the spirits of place.
I would like to stress one last time, that none of this can be proven as historical fact. I have tried to provide what evidence and reasoning I can, and I would of course be very interested to be challenged on anything I have written here in order to further my understanding. This is a subject I will continue to pursue, and may write about again. In closing then, here are the Indo-European Architype roles and the deities I feel fulfill them in our lands.
- Sky farther and Earth Mother (Belinos and
- Ruler of the Lower realm and his consort (Arwan and Briganti)
- Rulers of the Upper realm (Lug and Dylan)
- Youthful champion (Lug)
- Goddesses of the upper, lower and middle realms ( Rigantona, Briganti and Briganti again)
- Trickster god (Gwydion)
- Sovereignty goddess (Briganti)
- Goddess of war (Andraste)
- God of Oratory (Gwydion)
What I really like about this as it currently stands is that it is actually very simple with only nine deities covering the fourteen roles. I am sure it will develop further, but for me it works for now.