Aquae Sulis: Sacred Springs

One mild March morning in 2007, a group of friends and I set off, crammed into a tiny, scruffy car, on our way to the Somerset city of Bath. To everyone's surprise, I had never set foot in the city, despite having studied Classics in some form or another from the age of eleven. After some awesome sweeping valleys and stuffy long queues of traffic, we made our way to the park and ride which is situated at Bath University, and having finally worked out where to pay, got ourselves on a bus and heading towards the city centre.

 My first impression was of the quaint beauty of the place: steep hills with grand Georgian buildings, all with yellow façades which caught the sunshine and glowed, twee little shops and dainty houses. Was this really a city? We reached the centre, and to our pleasant surprise, discovered that the Roman Baths were literally a few metres away, adjacent to the stunning Abbey which loomed over the little square beside the Baths.

It was an impressive opening entrance hall in a grand domed building, which, sadly, was matched by impressively high admission prices. After a brief discussion of whether as four 20-somethings, we could pass ourselves off as a family of two adults and two children, we ditched the plan and stomached the ten pounds each to get in. It did, however, prove to be well worth the money. We were immediately given a black phone device with a purple cord, which was to be our commentary source. It had three options: the standard commentary, a little dry but with interesting facts, the Bill Bryson commentary, which was really rather good and full of unusual and vivid insights, and finally a kids' commentary. Of course, none of us listened to that one.

We found ourselves up on the terrace, which overlooked the main Bath area, and the daunting Abbey peered over on one side. Seagulls and pigeons wheeled around the enclosed space, and the sun shone down onto greenish waters. Apparently these are green because of the algae in the waters which are stimulated by sunlight.  Worn down statues lined the terrace overlooking the waters, but apparently these were built after the excavations of the Roman baths, conducted by the City Architect Major Charles Davis in the 1880s. Bill Bryson's mentioned here that the water might have fallen as rain water thousands of years ago and been percolating through the ground, hence the water makes even the Romans look like recent visitors. This was one of many nice points made by his commentary. Looking over the waters, you can see the vapours of steam rising off the surface, making the bath look like a huge rectangular cauldron, and people sitting around the edges, gazing down as if mesmerised.

Walking through an archway, we were able to look down onto the sacred spring, where the waters were hot – 46.5 degrees celsius in fact – and the waters rise at a rate of 1 170 000 litres per day. The Romans used this spring to supply hot mineral waters to the baths. Offerings to Sulis Minerva were also thrown into this spring.

Healing was the reason why people travelled great distances to Aquae Sulis, the Roman town upon which modern Bath is founded (Aquae Sulis means waters of Sul/Sulis). Pilgrims and priests made their way there, where a temple and baths were built around 65-75 A.D. A stone reservoir was built around the sacred spring to collect the hot water and feed it into the baths. The reservoir was in a corner of a colonnaded courtyard, at the centre of which stood the Classical temple of Sulis Minerva. You can see the temple pediment in various pieces, on display. The central carving is of a Gorgon's head, circled by wreaths of leaves and supported by winged victories. The gorgon was the symbol of Minerva, and resembles other Roman water deities like Oceanus and Neptune. It also looks very like a sun, perhaps invoking the heat of the sacred spring. For me, the overwhelming expression of the face is one of mournfulness, a patient, thoughtful reflection. It didn't look like the face of an angry or spiteful god, as one often imagines the gods to be, but one that is mild and understanding.

Next, which you could hear before you can see it from all the lovely gurgling sounds of water churning and gushing, is the original Roman drain which still takes the hot water from the spring to the river Avon some few 100 metres away. And then you step out below into the main bath area.

Standing here for me was the most powerful moment of the visit. The sound of trickling and running water pleasantly tinkling on all sides recalls the inexplicably comforting sensation of being around fresh water sources. There is something deep and elemental about the effect of water, and this suddenly shot me back in time thousands of years to when people would travel far and wide to be healed here at the sacred waters, believing them to possess supernatural powers.

Through an archway were the East Baths – these were dim and dank smelling, like ruined castles and caves, and you could see the semi-circular bath where the desperate, the dying, the hopeful, all would come here, sit in the hot swirling waters, maybe believing that the heat they could feel was straight from the healing powers of the goddess herself. It was a really evocative experience, and one of those occasions where you remember how constant human nature is, and how the same fears and vulnerabilities remain, despite time and technology.

The suite of “sweat baths” could now be seen, in various states of ruin, all in the dingy damp cave-like edifice. There was the caldarium (hot bath), the frigidarium (cold bath) and the tepidarium (luke-warm bath), and some commentary about how the Romans would see the bathing experience. The fact that the baths were not just a place of bathing and healing, but also acting like a community centre, was emphasised. So people would come there to socialise, snack, exercise, even do business. It must have been a thriving place. Also men and women would originally have bathed together, so it was also a rare place of relative equality, although later rulers restricted this. Also the point was made that Baths were seen as symbols of Roman civilisation, and wee to be found in all parts of the empire. The unique element of Aquae Sulis was, of course, the healing and religious aspect.

We finished the visit by sitting around the main bath area watching the sunshine reflect of the gently rippling greenish waters, and occasionally seeing the bubbles rise up to the surface of the mildly warm waters, and steam wisp off the surface. It was a very relaxing experience, not even bathing but just sitting there. A free glass of spring water, which was hot and tasted faitly of sulphur, and then we were out.

We decided to walk around the centre of the city, savouring the money quaint little ornament and food shops. The fudge kitchen proved an essential visit, as did the bridge of shops and a walk down by the wide, fast flowing river. We also wandered into the market, where we were greeted by an array of noticeboards for local events. There were a lot of posters and fliers for healers, healing remedies, meditation classes and all sorts of similar classes, clubs and meetings. It made me wonder how much Bath has retained its reputation of being somewhere of peace, hope and healing. It certainly seemed a peaceful, pleasant and relaxing place, from our brief visit, and I could easily imagine the ancient people coming in their great numbers on long difficult journeys, to arrive at this peaceful, watery place...

Sulis is an ancient British goddess associated with healing waters, the spirit and the craft of medicine. The name Sulis is thought to be associated with the derivatives Sul or Sulla from the Celtic Siul or eye. Sulis had a great reputation as a healer and people travelled to her shrines to take the waters, commune with the Goddess and seek a cure for their ills. Sulis was also a Goddess for women as she is associated with fertility and childbearing. Votive offerings of bronze and ivory breasts were found at her shrines. It has been suggested that these offerings were originally worn by breastfeeding women as amulets until they weaned their infants. The amulets were then offered to Sulis in thanks giving for a bountiful supply of milk.

The Romans had a genius for appropriating local deities and blending them with their own gods. Sul thus became Sulis Minerva when they built their temple at Bath. Sul, goddess of arcane prophecy, was tempered with the cultured arts and science of Minerva. Like the Celts, the Romans believed that the goddess guards this entrance to the Underworld. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, the arts, dyeing, science and trade, but also of war. As Minerva Medica she is the patroness of physicians. She is the daughter of Jupiter In the temple on the Capitoline Hill she was worshipped together with Jupiter and Juno, with whom she formed a powerful triad of gods.

By the time we left, twilight was falling, as the park and ride bus chugged painstakingly up the hill while bright orange bus loads of students were being bus-ed down for a night on the town. Perhaps the evening would have proved rather less healing and peaceful than the day time experience, then, but an amazing day out and a breath-taking, provoking visit to the Roman Baths, which I would recommend to anyone.

Dr Lorna Robinson is Director of The Iris Project.