Pagan Pilgrimage: The Roman Baths

Pagan Pilgrimage: The Roman Baths November 23, 2014

rsz_15247512517_ac3a3560eb_kI’m fascinated with history and sacred spots. I was lucky enough to recently visit the United Kingdom and wanted to share some of my experiences there on Raise the Horns. Instead of a boring travelogue I thought I’d provide a little context on the places I was able to visit and perhaps offer some tips to the next Pagan traveller.

Previous entries in this series include trips to Rosslyn Chapel, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge.

Before our trip: Our trip to Bath was the third part of a bus tour that also took us to Stonehenge and the village of Lacock. To be honest when I heard we were going to Bath as a part of our UK trip I shrugged my shoulders. The main event was going to be Stonehenge, right? Bath was just filler.

As I shared plans of our trip with friends I was told I’d love Bath. I think Gwion Raven was really emphatic on that point, which made me reconsider my ho-hum attitude. Gwion was right too, Ari and I loved Bath and it was a highlight of our trip (spiritually speaking, second only to the White Spring).

15434130655_a2fffc6bba_zWhat are the Roman Baths?: The Roman Baths are well, baths. The bathhouse was built on a hot-spring, and before the arrival of the Romans the same site had been home to a Celtic shrine. The baths are about more than being clean, the complex also contained a temple dedicated to Minerva (Athena). Some of the baths survived, but sadly not the temple. On a positive note a lot of the temple has been recovered, those remains are what made our trip there so memorable.

People have been living around the baths (and attendant hot spring) for over 2000 years, but the site as was we know it today was massively refurbished during the 19th Century. It was at that point when statues of Roman emperors associated with Britain were added around the central bath. If you aren’t familiar with Bath, I think it’s important to point out that the bath you are looking at is lined with lead. Because of that no one is allowed to drink or bathe in the bath.

15433770522_f03c51099d_zThe Central Bath is Interesting, But . . . A visit to the baths starts in an old concert hall that overlooks the lead lined bath. There’s some museumy things in there before you head outdoors to the bath. I’m a history nerd so this was pretty cool. I also love the grandeur of Ancient Rome, and even though the Emperor statues are of fairly recent vintage they feel as if they belong there.

There are also some re-enactors who wander around the pool, dressed up as Roman centurions and the like. I always find such things ridiculous and unnecessary, but judging by the amount of tourists around them apparently I’m alone in my opinion. The remains of the bath shown here are in pretty great shape for something that’s 2000 years old. So this part of the tour is fine and all, but it’s all just a prelude for what comes after.

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. . . The Temple Remains Are What Rock: After a walk around the outdoor pool we headed into the museum. This is when Bath started to blow my mind and things got super spiritual for my wife and I. The picture above is what would have greeted worshippers as they entered the Roman Temple near the baths. It’s hanging on a wall in all of its life-size glory in the museum and it’s incredibly awe inspiring. I sat in front of it for a good five minutes just paying homage to the figure in front of me.

15434087485_db8131056a_zSpeaking of the face in the middle of the temple’s outside, no one is completely sure what or who it’s supposed to be. It’s often said to be a gorgon (as in Medusa with snakes for hair) but I’m not completely sold on that idea. It reminds me a lot of a solar deity, but that’s just my interpretation. Whatever it is, it’s powerful, and I found myself kneeling before it not giving a damn what the other tourists around me thought. I didn’t kneel at Stonehenge, I did at Bath.

One of the things I found so powerful at Bath were the various pagan traditions all represented there. There were Roman gods of course, but most of those Roman gods all share a history and mythology with Greek deities. In addition Celtic gods and goddesses are represented at Bath as well. The “Three Mother Goddesses” shown just above and to the right were common among the Celts, though their names often changed from place to place. We were so taken with the Mother Goddesses that we took home a wall plaque with their likeness on it.

15433818402_517d2819cc_zAs our museum tour continued it dawned on my wife and I just why we were falling so hard for Bath. The Greek and Roman gods represented there were our gods. Carvings of Dionysus, Hermes, Athena, Hercules, and Apollo greeted us around every corner and we could still feel just a bit of their presence. Stonehenge a few hours before had been fascinating and all, but we have no idea what was worshipped there. At Bath I was surrounded by old friends.

The temple’s original courtyard featured several carvings dedicated to the moon goddess Luna and the sun gold Sol. That the two were purposefully placed near one another reminds me a lot of my own Wiccan practice. In pictures of Sol I can see my own Lord of the Sun, with obviously Luna as the Mistress of the Moon. I know the Romans didn’t necessarily see them as I do, but it still felt holy to be so near a place that at least superficially mirrors some of my own worship.

15433752552_74b829f1f3_zGetting to Bath: With the exception of Rosslyn Chapel, Bath is probably the easiest pilgrimage place to visit in the UK. There are tour buses that leave from London daily, but Bath is also accessible by rail.

Admission Prices & The Gift Shop: Tickets are 13.50 pounds per person, and 50 cents more in July and August. Instead of a tour guide you can pick up a free Audioguide, available in several different languages. There are two gift shops at the baths, one in the middle of the tour and one at the end. I was in such a hurry to take a pice of the baths home with me that I bought things from the first shop. As a Pagan that first shop was all I needed. There were reproductions of artifacts there, and of course water bottled from the spring. We didn’t get to take advantage of it, but there’s also a twilight tour that comes with a three course dinner. Next time we visit we are going to go that route (38 pounds).

15434059555_3c4ebed59b_zDrinking from the Spring: Unlike Glastonbury’s Chalice Well which features cool and refreshing water, the water at Bath is warm and full of minerals. I didn’t mind at all, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (or glass of water).

Anything Else?: Since we visited Bath as part of a tour group we were not on our own time schedule. We got just a little bit over an hour in Bath, not nearly long enough. If it had been left up to us we would have dithered around the museum for at least another hour, and the city its self is charming and historic in its own right. When we departed the bus our guide told us we could see the baths in a half an hour or so. Fat chance of that, they took up most of our time, and could have taken up more.

Our time in Bath was short, but the memories and feelings will last a lifetime!

PHOTOS
1. Bronze head of Sulis-Minerva. Sulis was a local goddess, and Minerva is of course Athena.
2. The central pool.
3. 19th Century statue.
4. Outside of the Temple, my favorite artifact from the Roman Baths.
5. Celtic Triple Mother Goddesses
6. Minerva (Athena)
7. Luna, moon goddess
8. The spring. The “museum” contains a lot of what remains of the “other baths” away from the main pool.

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