The nymphs traversed the transitional realm between gods and mortals in the ancient imagination. As the personifications/providers of natural resources and patrons of those undertaking transformative journeys, the nymphs appealed especially to military populations navigating unknown landscapes. Hadrian’s Wall, the monumental marker of the northern periphery of the Roman empire, was a liminal and permeable border between the discrepant peoples living in Britain at the time. Evidence from Hadrian’s Wall reveals unusual patterns of nymph worship, including joint worship and syncretism with local numina. The metamorphosis of nymphs into native deities serves as a paradigm for the transformative journeys undertaken by their military worshippers. This transformation was both physical, as they travelled across the geographic expanse of empire, and metaphorical, as their identities were reconfigured through this life-altering process.
Fig.1 Relief Stele dedicated to Coventina. Chesters Museum Inv.CH 387. Image: Allason-Jones, 1996, fig.8.1.
As nature deities, the nymphs’ sphere of influence was universal. However, 75% of inscriptions to the nymphs in Roman Britain were dedicated by members of the military population.[i] The nymphs’ popularity among soldiers stationed overseas can be explained by the compatibility of their cultic and mythological functions with the needs of the army. The nymphs provided fresh water, which was the essential element for any community to survive. Additionally, naturally occurring springs associated with local nymphs were traditionally believed to have healing properties.[ii] Freshwater springs were therefore essential for a military population living, working, and fighting overseas. Military sites of nymph worship in Roman Britain, like the shrine of the nymphs and Genius Loci (local spirit) at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s wall, remained active until late antiquity.[iii] Carrawburgh is better known as the site of Coventina’s Well, a built shrine containing the sacred springs of the local water goddess. Like the votive inscriptions to the nymphs, the majority of dedications to Coventina were erected by members of the Roman army.
Excavation of Coventina’s Well yielded a monumental figural representation of the eponymous deity. Her depiction highlights the significance of aesthetic exchange in religious syncretism (the process of assimilation of two or more divinities). On the sandstone stele dedicated to ‘The Water Goddess Coventina’, a semi-draped female figure is shown relaxing on the rolling waters of a stream (fig.1).[iv] She is identifiable as a water deity from the water lily leaf she displays in her left hand and the small water jug she holds in her right, an attribute she shares with water nymphs in Greco-Roman tradition. Moreover, the image of a water goddess reclining conforms to the popular format used in depictions of Venus and her Nereid attendants shown travelling gracefully across the waves. These are found in a diverse range of media and contexts (figs.2-3). Her drapery is articulated as schematic striations carved across her lower body without movement or three-dimensionality. Although her representation lacks the naturalism of Classical and Neo-Attic imagery of the nymphs, fidelity to naturalism was not the objective of the stone-carver in this context. The focus of the sculptor was to convey information about Coventina’s role as a water deity. This was achieved through the depiction of accessible and recognisable iconographic attributes of water nymphs, whilst her provenance as a native goddess was simultaneously foregrounded. Standardised Greco-Roman motifs facilitated the identification of divine attributes through familiar signs and symbols. When replicated in a foreign context, these were intended to blend comparable elements of deities rather than juxtapose them as mutually exclusive paradigms.
Fig.2 Venus Marina Fresco, Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Image: Author.
Fig.3 Marine thiasos floor mosaic, Antioch: Image: http://vrc.princeton.edu/archives/items/show/14504, accessed 20/05/2020.
The image of Coventina can be compared with another relief sculpture discovered inside Coventina’s Well. This relief depicts three semi-draped female figures shown displaying water jars in one hand, while pouring streams of water from the vessels held in their opposite hand. The flow of the liquid mirrors the curvature of their bodies, which are half-covered by drapery that falls in curvilinear folds from their shoulders. Their semi-draped appearance is again reminiscent of imagery of Venus and water nymphs. However, as the relief is anepigraphic, their identities have been subject to speculation. Initially, they were believed to provide evidence of Coventina as a divine triad rather than a single deity.[v] Alternatively, they have been interpreted as Venus accompanied by two Nereids.[vi] The third, and most plausible, possibility is the site’s eponymous goddess flanked by two local Naiads. This is due to the presence of the nearby shrine to the nymphs and Genius Loci, which has yielded the highest concentration of votive inscriptions to the nymphs at any site across Roman Britain.
Fig.4 Relief from Coventina’s Well. Chesters Museum. Image: Allason-Jones, 1996, fig. 8.2.
Notably, these inscriptions contain epigraphic evidence of religious syncretism of Coventina with the nymphs. Coventina is firstly explicitly identified as a nymph by a Roman Decurion, and secondly as a ‘Goddess-Nymph’ by a male dedicator who chose to identify himself as simply ‘Maduhus, a German’.[vii] These dedications reveal how an array of pre-existing traditions from disparate provinces converged to create a hybrid water goddess, worshipped by foreign soldiers far from home. While the first dedicant chose to highlight his military identity, Maduhus emphasised his ethnic identity. This helps us conceptualise how the exchange of cultural traditions shaped the identities of the multicultural population co-existing in Roman Britain.
The exchange of an ideological or visual concept can be a stimulus for conflict and dissonance. Yet, for those navigating their new lives on Rome’s northern frontier, nymph worship provided a means of bridging cultural divides. Contemporary examples of religious syncretism in Roman Britain is Sulis-Minerva of Aquae Sulis (Bath). Minerva was also linked to native goddess Brigantia, who in turn was referred to as a ‘Goddess-Nymph’.[viii] As the dedications to Coventina and the nymphs also demonstrate, nymph worship was malleable in new contexts and compatible with the pre-existing traditions of Iron Age Britain. The convergence of the nymphs with deities in the archaeological record of Roman Britain represents the multilateral exchange of cultural traditions across the empire. It also shows how provincials responded to these heterogenous inputs through material culture.
Medi Jones-Williams received an MA in Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh in 2018 and is now an MPhil student at the University of Bristol. Her research project relates to the changing role and representation of nymphs in the visual and material culture of the Roman empire.
[i] Just three were dedicated by women: R. G. Collingwood, R. P. Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain (Oxford: 1965 –): nos.744, 1789, and 1228. See D. Noy, ‘Epigraphic Evidence for Immigrants at Rome and in Roman Britain’, Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, edited by H. Eckardt. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 78. (Portsmouth, RI, 2010): 13–26.
[ii] See cross-cultural examples: F. Sokolowski, Lois sacrées des cités grecques (1969): no.152; Z. Goceva, ‘Les plaques votives du Nymphee pres du village d’Ognjanovo’, Archaeologica 41 (1990): 73-6.
[iii] L. Allason-Jones, ‘Coventina's Well’, The Concept of the Goddess, edited by M. Green, S. Billington (London: Routledge, 1996): 113.
[iv] R. G. Collingwood, R. P. Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain (Oxford, 1965 –): no.1534.
[v] E.A. Budge, J. Clayton, An Account of the Roman Antiquities: Preserved in the Museum at Chesters, Northumberland. (London: Gilbert & Rivington, 1907): 310.
[vi] L. Allason-Jones, ‘Coventina's Well’, The Concept of the Goddess, edited by M. Green, S. Billington (London: Routledge, 1996): 111.
[vii] R. G. Collingwood, R. P. Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain (Oxford, 1965 –): nos.1527; 1526.
[viii] National Museum of Scotland Inv.X.FV 5; R. G. Collingwood, R. P. Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain (Oxford: 1965 –): no.2066.