Research on Verbeia
This is a summary of research into the Romano-Celtic goddess found in Ilkey, West Yorkshire, England.
Verbeia is the name of an apparent Romano-Celtic deity, whose altar was found in Ilkley in England. She is not known anywhere else, although as will become clear, she is probably related to other Celtic goddesses. I’ve written an essay and a booklet about her, which should be consulted for more wide-ranging and speculative information on Verbeia; here I’d like to summarize the facts in an easily-updatable and referenced way.
The altar stones
The evidence for her consists of a pair of relief carvings and an inscription. The carvings are currently to be found behind a large Anglo-Saxon cross inside the All Saints Parish Church of Ilkley. The church stands on the grounds of the old Roman fort that once occupied an area about three times the area of the present church grounds, just south of where the River Wharfe passes through Ilkley. The stones were found built into the northwest corner of the church, having been recut for use by the builders. The stone to the right of the Anglo-Saxon cross shows a pitcher and a patera, a type of flat dish with a handle which was used in ritual libations. The altar to the left (shown here) shows an apparently female figure wearing a long pleated robe, with what looks like a shaped head dress. She also holds two long wavy objects, described by the plaque next to the altar as torches. Anne Ross, however, says they were “undoubtedly meant to represent serpents.”1 The plaque interprets the figure as the earth and barley goddess Demeter. Homer’s invocation of Demeter as the “bringer of seasons”2 certainly fits with likely associations for Verbeia, but ultimately there is little to suggest Demeter per se is involved here.
The stone bearing the inscription was found by the historian Camden at the time of Elizabeth I, and was then being used to support some stairs in a house. It was removed to Middleton Lodge, north of the Wharfe from Ilkley, which is possibly close to the area where it was originally discovered by William Middleton.3 The inscription became illegible due to exposure, but Middleton made a copy of it, and a copy can now be seen in the Manor House Museum (just behind the church).
The inscription reads:
VERBEIAE SACRVM CLODIVS FRONTO PRAEF COH II LINGON
This is translated4 as:
To holy Verbeia, Clodius Fronto, prefect of the Second Cohort of Lingones (dedicated this).
The Roman fort
The town of Ilkley, and its name, has traditionally been associated with the supposed name of the Roman fort, Olicana. However, current opinion favours Verbeia as the name of the Ilkley fort, associating Olicana with a location near Skipton in North Yorkshire.5
If there is an identification here between the goddess and the fort itself, this could associate Verbeia with the warrior aspect of Brigantia, tutelary goddess of the Brigantes tribe, the native Celts of northern England at the time.
If we take on board the Celtic identification of snakes with rivers and streams, we may also see in the depiction of Verbeia holding a snake in each hand a representation of the fort with the two streams which once flowed down from the moors to the south, either side of the fort’s location, into the Wharfe.
A.L.F. Rivet & Colin Smith, in The Place-Names of Roman Britain, assert that the goddess altar we are studying here, the Roman fort where it was situated, and the river which flowed past it, all shared the same common name: Verbeia. Further, they trace the origins of this title to “a British base *Uerb- ‘to turn, twist’, cognate with that found in Anglo-Saxon weorpan ‘to throw’, Latin verbena, etc.”.6 Verbena will be discussed later.
The troops stationed in Ilkley, who erected the altar to Verbeia, were Celts recruited from the Lingones tribe. The Lingones originated in the Upper Marne region of modern France, near present-day Dijon.
Some sources,7 including myself, assumed that the Ilkley troops were recruited from this region. River and water cults abound in the region, and Anne Ross8 (without making the connection via the Lingones troops) compares the Verbeia relief carving to one found in Mavilly-Mandelot, just southwest of Dijon (right). This carving depicts a goddess in a similar pleated robe, holding two distinct serpents in one hand, and an indistinct object (possibly a torch) in the other. Rising vegetation is seen to her right. This seemed like a good candidate for Verbeia’s Gaulish predecessor.
However, some sources5 claim that the Ilkley troops were recruited from elsewhere. In around 400 BCE, some of the Lingones migrated southwest, across the Alps, and settled across the Po estuary, along the Adriatic coast of northeast Italy.9 Were the Second Cohort of Lingones recruited from here?
The Swastika Stone & the Camunian Rose
If the Ilkley troops came from the “Cisalpine”, Italian Lingones, this may shed some intriguing light on one of the most famous pieces of prehistory in the Ilkey area: the Swastika Stone (right)
The moors around Ilkley are rich in prehistoric rock art, mostly variants of a style known as “cup-and-ring” art. This is dated anywhere from the early Neolithic to the late Bronze Age, and is found in northern England, Scotland, and a few other places in northwest Europe (notably in Galicia, Spain). Despite its use of cup-marks, and a half-swastika form among the cup-and-ring art on the Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor, the Swastika Stone’s uniqueness and careful rendering has led to it usually being classed as separate from the moor’s cup-and-ring tradition.
The design is unique in the British Isles, but a great number of similar – often identical – designs are to be found in the Val Camonica region of northern Italy. The example shown here (right) should make the comparison striking enough.
On the strength of this, together with the information about the possibility that the Lingones in Ilkley were recruited from northern Italy, it seems possible, if not probable, to me that the Romano-Celtic troops carved the Swastika Stone on the moor, as well as erected the Verbeia altars in the fort.
The migratory path across or around the Alps may well have taken the Lingones through Val Camonica itself. The Val Camonica art is so prolific and varied, it’s hard to date the “Camunian Rose” motif (as it’s known). If the Lingones brought the swastika to Ilkley, it remains to be seen whether they also brought it to Val Camonica or (more likely it seems) adopted it from there on their travels.
The similarities between the Swastika Stone and the Camunian Roses are maybe slightly more emphatic than those between the Verbeia altar and the Mavilly goddess. However, the Mavilly altar also remains a significant part of the puzzle here; it’s possible of course that the Lingones from Italy took with them from the Upper Marne a cult of this or a similar goddess, just as they may have taken the swastika design from Italy to Ilkley.
Verbeia is frequently associated, if not identified, with the River Wharfe, which flows through Ilkley from the Dales to the northwest, east to Wetherby, Tadcaster, and the Humber estuary.
There are many folk traditions associated female spirits with the river, often associated with potentially dangerous spots like the Strid near Bolton Abbey. It is said that sometimes the goddess of the river appears here as a white horse and claims a victim in her waters.10 Such folk tales commonly surround British rivers, and although they should mostly be considered as ‘nursery bogies’, tales to warn children with, they may also be echoes, somewhat demonized echoes at that, of ancient aquatic cults – especially in areas where other evidence of such cults abound, such as in Wharfedale.
Most antiquarians after Camden accepted Verbeia as goddess of the Wharfe. The first recorded references to the river are in a letter by Simeon of Durham, where it is called ‘Hwerver’ and ‘Hwerf’.3 Middle English hwerfen means ‘turn’ or ‘change’, so these names obviously echo the winding of the river; also, hwerfen was spelt by Ormin in 12th century Lincolnshire as wharfen. If we want to try and trace ‘Verbeia’ back to Latin, there is nothing conclusive. However, we find that vertere also means ‘to turn’.
The Anglo-Saxon wer-bære means ‘a weir where fish are caught’. But the Anglo-Saxons invaded well after the Romans left, so although it has appropriately ‘turning’, watery connotations, this word couldn’t have influenced the altar inscription. It is worth noting, though, that Wetherby, located further down the Wharfe from Ilkley, is thought to have inherited its name from Anglo-Saxon roots which referred to the town’s position on a bend in the river.11 This was one of the first conjectures about the origin of ‘Wetherby’. An early Victorian writer said that the town was named by the Saxons Wederbi, which, he said, “signifies to turn”. More recent researchers have suggested that this place-name is derived from the Scandinavian vedr, or Old English weder, both meaning ‘sheep’ – implying that Wetherby was formerly a sheep farm. There seems to be no evidence for this, though, and the town’s name – which has been variously recorded as Wargebi, Werebi, Wederby and Wedderby – most likely derived from ‘turning’ words like the British root uerb (‘wind, turn’) and/or the Anglo-Saxon wer (‘a fence of stakes or twigs set in a stream for taking fish’). The Wharfe has been an important fishing river through the ages, and le Heckes (signifying the same fishing device as wer) is in the earliest existing list of family names in the Wetherby township. “Given its location on a bend, and if it is accepted that it was a mansiones (or posting station) during the Roman period, it is not inconceivable that the original place-name of Wetherby may have had within it the elements uerb or Verbeiae.”12
A Celtic etymology for Verbeia has been suggested which maintains watery connotations, albeit with interesting variations:
Based upon the reconstructed proto-Celtic lexicon it’s possible to derive the elements: *wera- (rain) and *beja- (strike) or bei-e/o (live). Thus Verbeia could be ‘Living Rain’ or ‘Rain-striker’. Living rain could well refer to a river, but the possible interpretation of the metaphor implied by ‘Rain-striker’ is a little more problematic. However, it could refer to what happens after a heavy rainfall when a river bursts its bank flooding the surrounding area. It is possible therefore that one interpretation of Verbeia links up with how the goddess’ name might have evloved in later Cymric.13
Many pieces of circumstantial evidence associate Verbeia with the Celtic goddess Brigid.14 15 16 If there is any truth to this, the minor cult of Verbeia would have been an interesting blend between an imported Lingones cult and the regional cult in northern England of Brigantia – often equated with Brigid.
Brigid is the goddess of smiths, poetry, inspiration, healing, and the domestic hearth. Like Verbeia, she is associated with snakes17 and rivers18. Her celebration is Imbolc – 1st February, or when dairy animals start to lactate, heralding the spring – and it’s interesting in this respect that Latin for spring is ver.
Most important, if we assume that Verbeia is associated with the Swastika Stone, is the Irish tradition of Brigid’s cross – a symbol fashioned from rushes or straw as part of spring celebrations that is related to the swastika. Tracing links back from this Irish tradition to the Lingones may be impossible, however.
Verbeia’s name can hardly fail to bring to mind the herb verbena (commonly known as vervain). “Verbena” was actually the generic name in ancient Rome for herbs used in sacrifices that were considered especially potent; it is said that it was also used extensively by the Druids, for healing and divination.19 It seems possible that the five-petaled flora on the Mavilly altar (above) could be a stylized representation of the flower of Verbena officianalis (right, taken from Wikimedia Commons).
The Cirencester altar
Further, there is a bas-relief found in Cirencester, Gloucestershire (right), which bears a striking similarity to Verbeia. Anne Ross20 argues that this altar stone depicts a stag-god, possibly related to the Gaulish Cernunnos, with ram-horned serpents forming his legs – supposedly depicting the traditional ‘squatting’ posture of Cernunnos. Ross speculates that the two objects either side of the head may be purses filled with coins (viewed from above), or ‘cornucopeia’ filled with grapes.
However, it’s interesting that these objects at the top are nearly identical to the potential ‘verbena flower’ on the Mavilly stone. I would add that the figure seems to be of indeterminate sex, rather than definitely male. The possible derivation of Verbeia from the Mavilly goddess, her possible association with verbena, together with this figure associated with the same design, also holding two snakes, all add up to an inconclusive but fascinating constellation of circumstances, that may never be resolved into a clear picture.
For a good discussion of the historical problems around the evidence for Verbeia, see ilkleyrocks.com.
- Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 279.
- Collyer, Robert & Turner, J. Horsfall. Ilkley: Ancient and Modern (W.M. Walker & Sons, 1885), p. 26
- Rivet, A.L.F. & Smith, Colin. The Place-Names of Roman Britain (Book Club Associates, 1979), p. 493
- e.g. Bogg, Edmund. Higher Wharfedale (James Miles, 1904), p. 134
- Ross, ibid, p. 428
- Clarke, David & Roberts, Andy. Twilight of the Celtic Gods: An Exploration of Britain’s Hidden Pagan Traditions (Blandford, 1996), p. 96
- For the sources of the following references, see Unwin, Robert. Wetherby: The History of a Yorkshire Market Town (Wetherby Historical Trust, 1986)
- ibid, p. 8
- Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess (Thames & Hudson, 1989)
- Ross, ibid, p. 47
- Ross, ibid, p. 139