Ancient Witches by Stephen Yates


The Tribe of Witches of the Severn Valley

Stephen Yeates

Meeting of 14th August 2014

We had a wonderful talk from the author of four books on the ancient religions of the Forest of Dean and adjacent areas. The argument was couched within the knowledge of recent DNA analysis by Oppenheimer and Sykes that during the ‘Anglo-Saxon migration’ of the 5th and 6th centuries AD only a small number of people arrived from the continent. This implies that there are aspects of local continuity to consider in respect to local religion and beliefs. In the Iron Age and Roman period the area was occupied by a tribe called the Dobunni, then in the early medieval period the Hwicce. DNA research and religious analysis would imply that these are two different names for the same people.

When the Romans incorporated the local peoples into the Empire, there were two important state cults that they introduced: The Cult of the Emperor was probably established at Gloucester, a major Roman Colonia (a city of the highest status secondary to Rome only). Archaeological evidence exists for a huge temple complex in the northwest part of the Roman Colonia, with large colonades on the north side of West Gate Street. In the Capitoline Tradition (the second cult) a Capitoline temple was probably established at Cirencester, the civitas capitol of the Dobunni people.

The landscape was also revered at this time. Large landscapes such as the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean were probably given a persona. In the Cotswolds a goddess called Cuda can be recognised. The name Cuda became Cod, the recognised source of the prefix of ‘Cotswolds’. Shrines were established on rivers particularly at their sources, for example Bath, and the source of the Thames where curse tablets have been recovered. There are indications of a shrine at Weston-under-Penyard where a Bronze head depicting a ram horned god was recovered. The head appears to have been severed and deposited at the temple in much the same way as that of Sulis Minerva at Bath.

A major shrine associated with metal working was established at Lydney Park. Ovid and Vergil record that mineral sources were revered and offerings made at the end of worked out rakes or mines. This was in the belief that like a tree the mineral would regrow.

Gods were established over tribal groups. Sculptures from Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath shows evidence of a cult associated with Mercury and the Mater (Mother). The mother goddess has a vessel portrayed alongside her. The distribution of the cult of this divine couple fall in the area identified with the Iron Age tribal coins of the Dobunni. Evidence from other parts of the Roman Empire indicates that the defining suffix of the name of a mother goddess was that of the tribe. The Dobunni were probably no different and that the name probably contains ‘bunna’, a cup or vessel, and ‘Do’ a later Welsh saintly title of reference.

Lots of sites in the Forest show continuity of activity from the Iron Age to the early medieval period and the establishment of the earliest churches. A series of archaeological monuments can be identified in each early ecclesiastical territory that includes: Iron Age hillforts, Roman towns, and temples. Roman towns and temples were often deserted in the early medieval period in the 6th to 8th centuries AD and the sites handed over to the authorities of the new Church. A minster church was probably established at Ross-on-Wye over an earlier Roman site, a further minster was established at Westbury-on-Severn in a ‘burh’ or fortification. Monmouth clas (a Welsh minster) was established over a Roman town and fort, probably on an earlier temple site. Lydney and Tidenham are also sites of probable minsters.

And then the Witches: The famous medieval Welsh text the Mabinogion refers to the 9 Witches in the Colonia of Gloucester. The word Hwicce first meant a sacred vessel (and is used in biblical traditions for the arch of the covenant), Wicce with the loss of the silent H refers to a witch. So is this just a continuation of the Dobunni name? SY/CS