It may seem strange that in Roman times the British god Nodens, famous for his healing shrine, was associated with Mars, a god more likely to do damage than to cure it. However, other Celtic “Mars” gods such as Lenus and Ocelus were healers, and not just to soldiers or men, but women and children.
Noden’s healing shrine was at Lydney, not far from Bath, and lies on a bluff overlooking the Severn Estuary.
The temple itself is rectangular in outline, measuring some 72m by 54m with the cella (the central part of the temple) measures 29m x 49.5m in total and its north-western end is divided into three separate chambers 6.3m deep, possibly indicating the worship of a tripartite deity with each room dedicated to a different aspect of the triad. The temple of Nodens emulates the format of a normal Romano-Celtic shrine, although in a somewhat monumental style, using a rectangular plan instead of the usual square and providing for three separate shrines instead of the normal single cella. The floor of the cella was originally covered with a mosaic, only parts of which survive. The remaining fragments show dolphins fish and sea monsters. Within the temple numerous small finds were also recovered. These include nine statues of dogs in stone or bronze, a bronze plaque of a woman, a bronze arm, an oculist’s stamp, 320-odd pins and nearly 300 bracelets. The dogs, pins and bracelets all indicate Nodon’s temple to be the centre of a healing cult, with the dog a companion of the healing aspect of Mars and the pins are associated with childbirth. Bronze reliefs… discovered in the site depicting a sea deity, fishermen and tritons suggest some connexion of Nodens with the sea. A bronze object (headdress or vessel?) also shows a sea-god driving a chariot between torch-bearing putti and tritons.
(Nemeton site, recovered with the Wayback Machine)
About 8 000 coins were also recovered from the shrine, so it had a lot of grateful (or desperate) visitors.
Dogs were also part of Asclepius’ cult, and the large cella may have been intended as a dormitory for pilgrims to sleep in, like the temples of the healing god Asclepius. The pilgrims would either dream of the god himself, or else he would send them a clue for the priests to interpret. Snakes were the usual Asclepian animals, but dogs were also used at Epidarus, Rome, Piraeus and Lebene. (Hart: 77)
Another statuette of a dog recently found in Gloucestershire may also come from Lydney. It shows a dog with its tongue out, as if licking. It was the dog’s ability to heal wounds by licking them that made them healing animals.
We know that there were dream interpreters at the shrine from lettering found in the floor mosaic, just in front of the triple shrine:
M(arti) N(odenti) T(itus) Flavius Senilis pr(aepositus?) rel(igionum?) ex stipibus possuit o[pitu]lante Victorino interp[re]tiante
‘to the god Mars Nodens Titus Flavius Senilis, superintendent of rites(?), had this laid from offerings, with the assistance of Victorinus the interpreter (of dreams?)
The mosaic itself is pretty damaged, but you can see some rather fanciful sea-creatures, perhaps dolphins, with their tails twined together. (Ling: 69) This, the bronze objects with various sea-creatures and fishermen, and the helmet with its sea-god suggest that Nodens and the Roman god Neptune shared some attributes, although there’s no evidence of a direct connection.
(An inscription from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall is sometimes put forward as evidence, but the R.I.B. has it as Deo | Neptuno | ara(m) [p]o|s(uit) [.] NO. Their suggested translation is: To the god Neptune … set up the altar.)
There was also a bathhouse near the shrine, and hydrotherapy was part of Asclepian healing. (The Celts also saw water as healing, and many of their healing shrines and temples were built around springs or other natural sources.) The temple was built after 364 CE, but there was a natural mineral spring nearby, and an iron mine. Bath capitalized on its mineral-rich waters, so perhaps Lydney did as well. (Hart: 77)
Mars and Nodens
I mentioned above that the Gauls and Britons saw Mars as a healer, with many different healer gods associated with him. Deo Mercurio sees Mars’ healer function as part of an overall duty to protect, whether it’s on the battlefield, in sickness, or in everyday life. Both the Romans and Celts gave Mars a role in protecting crops in the field, not dissimilar to the way the Germanic peoples saw Thor.
Mars had two animals that gave warning: the dog and geese. One plaque from Lydney combines the barking dog with an offering to Mars Nodens:
Pectillus votum quod promissit deo Nudente Marti dedit (R.I.B. 307)
Pectillus gave to the god Nudens Mars the votive offering which he had promised.
Another plaque, the gift of a military man, also links Mars and Nodens:
Deo Marti Nodonti Flavius Blandinus armatura votum solvit libens merito (R.I.B. 305)
To the god Mars Nodons, Flavius Blandinus, weapon-instructor, gladly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.
There were also two statuettes of Mars Nodens, now lost, but they come from further north in England, in Lancashire. Cockersand Moss may once have held a Roman temple; at any rate two silver images of Mars, one finely made and the other more crude, were found there. Although the Roman Britain site gives them as Mars Donatus and Mars Nodens, the Roman Inscriptions of Britain says they’re both Nodens:
Deo Marti Nodonti Aurelius […]cinus sigillum (R.I.B. 616)
To the god Mars Nodons, Aurelius […]cinus (set up) this statuette.
Deo Marti Nodonti Lucianus collegae Aprili Viatoris votum solvit (R.I.B. 617)
To the god Mars Nodons, Lucianus fulfilled the vow of his colleague, Aprilius Viator.
The statuettes have since been lost, although like bracelets from the Lydney site, they’re probably still out there somewhere.
A similarly-named god, Mars Noadatus, from Mainz is unlikely to be connected to Nodens on linguistic grounds. (Carey: 3, n. 27)
One small puzzle for me in researching this piece is the continual references to the Roman god Silvanus. Both Nodens and Silvanus, a god of hunters and the boundary between wild and cultivated, had dogs as companions, but there’s no direct connection between them.
Two of the dog votives from Lydney were Irish wolfhounds, which could suggest that Nodens was also a hunting god. Of course, wolfhounds were high-status dogs, so perhaps Nodens cured them. (Still better than Mars Mullo, who cured mules.)
The Irish god Nuada is often linked to Nodens, and in the tale Tochmar Emire Cuchullain says: “I am Nuada, of the pestilence that frequents dogs.” (Carey: 8) Perhaps both gods could cure rabies.
Among the items found at Lydney there is a curse tablet that mentions a Silvanus, which I’m going to quote in full just because it’s so interesting, especially the second writing, which makes you wonder exactly what happened to make Silvianus want to re-curse them. (Some sort of family feud?)
Devo Nodenti Silvianus anilum perdedit demediam partem donavit Nodenti inter quibus nomen Seniciani nollis petmittas sanitatem (R.I.B 306)
To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and given half (its value) to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens.
(This curse) comes into force again.
It’s pretty clear from the text that Silvianus is a person, although his faith in Nodens’ power to restore his ring is clear. Archaeologists found similar curse-tablets at Sulis’ shrine, so clearly people felt it was worth petitioning these two deities for retribution and/or justice. (PS – A ring engraved “Silvianus” was dug up in a church in Silchester; did he lose it after all?)
Carey says “it is safe to say that no etymology so far proposed can be accepted with full confidence”, although he goes on to list two he seems to feel are the top contenders. The first derives Nodens from an Indo-European root *neu-d, “to acquire, to make use of smth.” to get “Catcher”, which would fit with the fisherman engraved on brass at Lydney. (Another theory is that Nodens was a god of mines, which fits with the history of the area.)
The other could come from *sneud– mist, giving us Welsh nedd, mist and Irish snaud, appearance, colour. Thus Nodens would be the Cloudmaker. Miranda Green mentions another possible meaning, “wealthy one”. This intrigues me because Stephen Yeates thinks Nodens might be a god of the iron mines at Lydney, although he starts from the *neu-d root, “to acquire”. (Phelpstead: 6)
Tolkien and Lovecraft
Nodens has had some impact on popular culture. Tolkien wrote a paper on the name Nodens, and one persistent theory is that he was in part inspired by the story of Silvianus’ ring and its curse. H.P. Lovecraft put the “archaic” god Nodens in his novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. His version of Nodens is a benevolent figure opposed to the crawling chaos, Nyarlathotep. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan also mentions a pillar dedicated to Nodens.
Carey, John 1984:”Nodons in Britain and Ireland’ Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie (ZcP), 40 (1): 1-22. (available on DeepDyve)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
Hart, Gerald D. 1970: “A Haemetological Artifact from 4th Century Great Britain” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 44/1: 76-9.
Ling, Roger 2007: “Inscriptions on Romano-British Mosaics and Wall-Paintings” Britannia 38: 63-91.
Phelpstead, Carl 2013: “Tolkien, David Jones, and the God Nodens” (academica.edu)
Tolkien, J.R.R. 2007: “The Name “Nodens”” Tolkien Studies 4: 177-83. (Project Muse)
Curse Tablets in Great Britain
Wikipedia entry on Nodens
Mary Jones on Nodens
A Gaulish Polytheist take on Nodens
Dun Brython on Nodens, Nuada and Nudd
Nodens Silver Hand
Catching Wisdom: Nuadhu, Nechtan, Nodens
Dogs And Deities From Nodens To Nehalennia
And Comic Vine’s take on Nodens (and Lovecraft)