Sabrina and the River Severn
By Liam Rogers
Published at Beltane 1999
High in the Black Mountains, on the windswept slopes of Mount Plynlimon, three sisters met to discuss the weighty problem of what was the best way to the sea - for, being water spirits, they were fond of the oceans. The first decided to take the direct route, and headed westward. She became the river Ystwith, and was the first to mingle with salty waters. The second sister had a taste for landscape, and made her way through purple hills and golden valleys - her name was Wye. The remaining sister decided against short-cuts and it took her 180 miles to reach the sea. The Severn, it appears, wished to visit all the fairest cities of the kingdom and never stray far from the haunts of men. 1
Of course the river influenced the location of the cities she loved so much, not vice versa, but one cannot argue that the country's longest river has not been of immense importance to her human parasites throughout history. The infant river gains strength from the transfusions of scores of smaller streams and rival rivers as it courses its way from the mountains of mid-Wales, through the Welsh Marches, and into England. Then it snakes through four counties whose economic, social and political histories it has shaped, before plunging into the Bristol Channel.
The Severn has been an important trade artery since probably before the coming of the Romans, and particularly since medieval times. With its tributary, the Avon, it cuts deep into the heart of England, linking the iron and coal fields of the Midlands with the Bristol Channel. Its important role during the Industrial Revolution is reflected by the innovations of Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge that took place on her Shropshire banks.
However, in this article I am more interested in the river's role in earlier times, and the myths and superstitions that blossomed on her fertile banks.
The Severn as boundary
The difficulties encountered whilst trying to cross the river before bridges became commonplace has led to the Severn playing an important historical (and mythical) role as a natural boundary. The few fording places provided the soil out of which many early riverside settlements grew, and the fords themselves were jealously guarded.
A frontier made up of the courses of the Severn and Trent marked the extent to which the Roman commander Plautius managed to subdue the British, before he was called back to Rome in 47 CE. The British leader, Caratacus, had retreated over the Severn into Wales where he enlisted the support of the warlike Silures, and from there they led repeated forays into the new Roman territory. The new Roman commander, Scapula, was caused no end of hassle until he finally crossed the river to storm the Britons' riverside stronghold at Caersws and capture the cunning Caratacus. 2
The river was also important when the Saxons arrived in Britain. In 577, the Saxon leader Cealwin defeated the Britons at Dyrham, a victory that led to the establishment of the Hwiccan kingdom. 3 The retreating Britons are rumoured to have been engaged again near Frethern (near Arlingham in Gloucestershire) whilst heading for a river crossing:
The river thus played a major role in preserving the Celtic culture for so long. The Saxons, gazing out over the river, saw an unknown mysterious land that the Severn preserved from their attentions. Wales thus gets its name from the Saxon term for foreigners, wealas , an indication of the power of the Severn to dictate borders. 5 And when Saint Augustine came to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxon population, he is said to have chosen to meet with the bishops of the surviving Celtic Church at Aust, on the banks of the Severn. 6
Shakespeare, in his Henry IV part 1 , recalls (inaccurately) Owen Glyndower's Welsh rebellion and has Glyndower and Edmund de Mortimer battling to the death by the side of the Severn:
The remnants of the perennial rivalry between the inhabitants of the lands separated by the Severn linger on. The Reverend Mayo, writing in 1914 of the riverside parish of Arley, tells that in his day the old manorial right of hanging every Welshman that dared to cross the river still existed - perhaps it still remains to this day! 8
The Severn's vital role as a boundary is reflected in myth and folklore that suggest liminality and links with the Underworld. The Severn is said to be the boundary of the nightgale's song, for instance. 9 Rivers have often been seen as frontiers that also act as rites of passage (the Rubicon for example), and that dissolve previous identity (the mythical Lethe). Baptism, that John the Baptist performed in a river, is an initiation - a rebirth - and also death to the past life of the person. The river recalls the primal waters out of which many mythologies have creation begin from. Mircea Eliade explains how this concept works:
All this may help to explain the belief that the hermits of Blackstone rock near Bewdley used to rescue infants from the river and give them the surname Severn, as if they were born of the river. 11 Less likely is that the tale is a vague memory of human sacrifice, although many rivers do seem to recall this in their folklore. The Wye, for example, is supposed to demand one human life every year. Although many bodies are found in the Severn to this day (from misadventure or suicide, usually), I haven't come across any such beliefs surrounding the river. The story of Sabrina's death, as we shall see later, can be read in the light of Eliade's comment. The river not only spells Sabrina's death in this world, but also (according to Milton at least) a transformation and rebirth into another form of life - as the tutelary goddess of the river. All this links in with cycles of the year, and of flood and drought, which make rivers important for the fertility of the land, as I shall explain shortly.
The river is a space between places, a strange gap between two areas of land. It is something that connects, but yet separates. This watery no-man's-land is often seen as an entry to the Underworld. Thus a man who went fishing on the river on a Sunday (a liminal time) is reputed to have hooked none other than the Devil, who pulled him out of his boat and into the mysterious waters. 12 In his interesting article on some of the Severn's rock-cut hermitages, Chris Jenkins mentioned several pieces of interesting liminal lore including a story about the Blackstone hermitage in which a salmon with a ring turns up. 13 As he points out, this is reminiscent of the Salmon of Knowledge, and also the Salmon of Llyn Llyw from the mabinogi of Kulhwch and Olwen which is also associated with the Severn. 14
The salmon is said in this story to be the oldest (and hence also wisest) of the creatures of the world who helps Arthur's men in their quest to complete the tasks set by Ysbaddaden Chief Giant, so that Kulhwch can marry the giant's daughter, Olwen. The giant (whose name means "hawthorn") is clearly associated as a liminal or Underworld character when he is wounded in the leg, breast, and eye (the three wounds may also reflect archaic Indo-European tripartite themes). The heroes have to retrieve a comb, shears, and a razor from between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a giant boar who is finally tracked down and chased into the Severn:
Also, the fourth century Romano-British temple at Lydney (intimately linked to the Severn, as I shall explain a little later) is also suggestive of the river's connections to otherworldly agencies. Cubicles there may have been used for visitors to sleep in whilst awaiting the healing or inspirational touch of the god Nodens. 16 At the centre of the temple is an intriguing pottery structure in the shape of a funnel which was filled with votive offerings. Ross suggests that, like the river itself, the funnel is a representation of the Underworld. 17
Bloodstreams: fluvial fecundity
With the Severn now constrained by artificial banks for much of its length, and its flow regulated by the Clywedog dam and reservoir - reducing the risk of seasonal flooding and allowing extra water into the river in drier periods - it is no longer so apparent how the river's moods would have once varied with the seasons. The difference between having water available to irrigate your fields and having your livelihood threatened by flooding would have been marginal, and a close eye needed to be kept on the waters that could bring fecundity or ruin.
As such, it is no surprise that many ancient cultures made offerings to the deities of rivers. At the Babylonian New Year, a ram was sacrificed and dismembered. Its blood was smeared on the temple walls, and then the head and torso were cast into the Euphrates to encourage the waters to rise. When they did, an effigy of Tammuz was "launched in a funerary vessel that then sank to the fluvial underworld." 18
The death and resurrection of the harvest god is thus re-enacted in the hope that the river will bring fertility to the land. The Greek myth of Achelous is similar. Whilst fighting Hercules for the hand of Deianira he transforms himself into a bull, and, as he is defeated, one of his horns is torn off. Achelous drowns himself in the river that was to bear his name, and nymphs throw the horn into the river where it bears strange fruit. The horn thus becomes Cornucopia, the horn of plenty.
Of course the most famous of such myths is the dismemberment of Osiris by Set, and the loss of his phallus in the Nile. Simon Schama explains Plutarch's interpretation of this tale:
After the river pike and sea bream have eaten the phallus of Osiris, eating them becomes taboo because they contain the means of regeneration. Plutarch describes the bream as thus becoming a "self-sent messenger ... announcing to a happy people, the rise of the river." 20 Similarly, to return to the Severn, the life cycles of eel and salmon become a metaphor for the river's role in the cycles of life and death.
Eels, for example breed in the Sargasso sea, from where the elvers make the hazardous trip across the Atlantic into the Severn (and our other rivers) where they reach maturity, only to trek their way back across the ocean to breed again. Salmon breed in the shallow gravelly areas of rivers, where the young alevin are hidden in the gravel for the first month of their lives, before emerging to grow to maturity and head towards the sea. The mature salmon then return to the river to breed, giving us the famous sight of the fish fighting their way upstream, jumping weirs, and all sorts of madness. Then, after breeding, the majority die, leaving their young to start the cycle all over again.
Despite the habit of deities connected with rivers in the classical world of being male, many Celtic myths speak of river goddesses. The Boyne and the Shannon owe their origins to goddesses (Boand and Sinaan) who defied magic wells. The wells rose up against them in anger, mutilating and drowning the goddesses (as well as forming the rivers in question). 21
In Wales, Saint Tybie's Well is the source of the River Gwenlais - the spring issuing forth from the spot where a virgin was slain. 22 This begs the question of just what is meant by slaying a virgin! Maybe we are talking about the blood of a deflowered virgin as a metaphor for the fecundating power of rivers, or the menstrual cycle as a symbol for the cycles of nature? Certainly the sources of rivers have often been equated with vulvic symbolism, and the name of the River Kennet (once Cunnit) has been linked with the word "cunt". The source of the Kennet, Swallowhead Spring near Silbury Hill, also has a rather suggestive name (or is it just me!).
In Snorri's Edda , a tale is told in which Thor is crossing a river which starts to rise, threatening to drown him. His problem is caused by a giantess called Gialp, who is standing "astride the river ... causing it to rise". Thor announces "At its outlet must a river be stemmed", and hurls a rock at, one assumes, her vagina. 23 Another goddess who is found standing astride a river is the Irish raven goddess the Morrigan whilst mating with the Dagda. 24 At which point it is time to turn back to the Severn and the maiden who gave her name to the river.
The story, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth at least, concerns the King of England, Locrinus, who is one of the sons of the Trojan Brutus who is supposed to have founded Britain. Locrinus leads an army to the north of England to defeat invading Huns who have already defeated his brother, Albanactus, in Scotland. With the invaders routed, Locrinus falls for one of the prisoners he has taken, a German girl called Estrildis, whom he wishes to wed.
However, Locrinus is already promised to Gwendolen, daughter of Brutus's second-in-command, Corineus. Corineus, battle-axe in hand, forces Locrinus to honour his word and marry Gwendolen, but the king keeps Estrildis as a mistress in an underground dwelling in New Troy. Pretending that he is making sacrifices to the gods, Locrinus visits his lover for seven years, and in due course she falls pregnant and bears him a daughter by the name of Habren.
When Corineus dies, Locrinus takes the opportunity to leave Gwendolen and marry Estrildis. Mad with rage, his former queen raises an army in Cornwall and marches against Locrinus, defeating her former husband's forces and killing Locrinus in a battle near the River Stour (probably the Severn tributary, that joins the Severn at Stourport). Gwendolen then ordered that Estrildis and Habren be put to death, whereupon they are drowned in the Severn.
In tribute to the guiltless Habren, she pronounces that the river should bear the child's name - Habren or Hafren in Welsh, Severn in English, and Sabrina in Latin 25 . Sabrina effectively becomes the genius loci of the river, and may even be a memory of a genuine river goddess. In the seventeenth century, Milton spoke of her in his Masque Comus:
It is possible that Sabrina's story retains hints at more archaic themes. I am merely speculating, but the subterranean abode of Estrildis does have certain affinities with Indo-European myths concerning the withdrawal of a goddess within a cave or labyrinth - myths intimately related to the land's fecundity, and the cycle of death and rebirth. At the risk of seeming rather Freudian, I also suggest the cave may be symbolic of the vulva. Anne Ross notes that the drowning goddess theme has a considerable history, and even when found in more recent folklore "clearly has a considerable ancestry with its possible origins in genuine cult legend." 27
Tacitus, in his Annals , refered to the Severn as Sabrina in the first century CE, and the name of Hafren is probably Celtic in origin but, like Afon (from which the various River Avons got their name), probably only means "river". The English name may just be a corruption of the Latin. Geoffrey's account is a means of creating stories to explain the names and origins of landscape features - but this is not to invalidate the stories as real myths, for it seems likely that he inherited much of his stuff from earlier sources. We will never know whether Geoffrey invented the tale of Sabrina, or whether it existed previously, and quite how it was influenced by Classical sources - but it probably doesn't matter. No matter where she came from, Sabrina now has a life of her own.
The God of the Severn
The late Romano-British cultic temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire (built upon an Iron Age British site) is dedicated to one Nodens, who is clearly associated with the river. Although the site is now some distance from the Severn, it commands impressive views over the estuary, and the river probably flowed much nearer by during the Roman era.
If anyone is to be picked out as the god of the Severn (as Milton depicted Nereus) it is surely Nodens. His temple was probably a healing centre where people would come to make offerings, and there is also evidence of incubation cubicles where devotees would sleep - perhaps to gain inspiration from their dreams. It is possible that Nodens was invoked as a deity of inspiration as well as healing. A bronze that was found at Lydney depicting a fisherman hooking a salmon has been interpreted as referring to the Salmon of Knowledge, with Nodens playing the role of both the fisherman and the fish.
Nodens himself appears to have been associated with Mars, but it is as Mars the healer and not the warrior, he is also likened to the divine hunter Silvanus. His role as huntsman may explain why a bronze dog was found in the funnel-shaped receptacle in the centre of the temple which seems to have acted rather like a ritual shaft for votive offerings. Ross considers that his name may mean "the Cloud Maker", and may derive from the same source as the medieval Irish hero Nuadu. Nuadu's epithet of "silver hand" (same as Welsh Nudd = Lludd Llaw-ereint, "Llud of the silver hand") recalls the find of a bronze arm at the Lydney temple - and it has been suggested that Nodens' silver arm may refer to the silver waters of the river. 28
Nodens is clearly associated with aquatic matters, and on the mosaic floor of his temple, a crowned Nodens is seen rising from the river in a chariot drawn by four horses, accompanied by Tritons bearing coracle paddles. Also represented at Lydney is a goddess of plenty holding a cornucopia - could this be Sabrina? The discovery of offerings of pins appears to suggest that Nodens may have had a consort to whom the pins were dedicated by pregnant or barren women.
Brian Waters goes as far as to link Nodens with the Seven Bore:
The Severn Bore
Even as its waters disperse into the Atlantic the Severn has one last trick up its sleeve - the Severn Bore. The ocean tide sweeping towards Europe suddenly hits shallower waters on the continental shelf, slowing it down thus contracting the length and forcing up the height of the waves. A section of the tide then finds itself trapped between South Wales and Cornwall, forcing the tide to even greater heights, and the shallowing waters and ever enclosing banks of the Severn estuary project the wave upstream. Due to the fact that the water is shallower now at the front of the wave than at its rear (and so the front moves slower) you see the typical bore shape of a truncated wave with a very steep nose and a flattened back-slope. 30
Although the Severn is not the only river to boast a bore -there are several more in Britain - it does have the biggest, and a big bore is a most impressive sight. Its awesome ferocity perhaps justifies those who claim the word "Bore" is derived from bur meaning "indignation", "violence", or "tumult"; the alternative names for the bore used in earlier centuries of "Hygre" or "Eagre" have been traced in similarly dramatic fashion to the French Eau-guerre - "water-war"!
More likely is that "bore" comes from the Saxon bara , meaning "the wave", the bore's importance to the Saxon settlers being confirmed by their name of Hwicci - the men of the tidal creek. 31 The other terms probably stem from the Scandinavian giant Aegir who was Lord of the Seas, and whose submarine hall needed no torches for light due to all the glittering gold stacked around that had been swallowed by the sea. His wife, Ran "the ravisher", would stir the waves and imperil the ships upon which the jaws of Aegir were said to close. 32 It seems possible that bores (especially those on the Trent and Ouse which are usually called Aegirs) were seen as some aspect of him. It seems likely, too, that offerings may have been made to the god of the bore. The ancient Chinese certainly threw offerings into the river to appease the Hangchow bore on the Tsientang River - the world's largest and most dangerous bore. The Romans too, were allegedly rather freaked out when they first saw the Severn Bore, folk tradition claiming that they thought the end of the world was coming. 33
The Severn Bore is not a once a year deal, as many think (folk tradition insists it happens on Good Friday), but the biggest are seen around the spring and autumn equinoxes when the moon is full or new - there are no magical connotations in the timing: it's a matter of tides!
When the tides are right, the bore starts to form around Sharpness, powers up to Awre, wobbles around the contorted stretch of river called the Noose and smashes noisily into the foot of Hock Cliff. It soon reforms (albeit slightly confused, since one section often wanders seawards along another channel and runs into another lost bit that split off near Sharpness - but thats what you get with constantly shifting sandbanks) and heads towards Minsterworth, a popular viewing point where the bore is now constrained within more conventional riverbanks, and from there on to Gloucester where the bore hits trouble.
To the west of the city, the river splits into two around Alney Island - the trouble for the bore is that each channel contains a weir that waits to swallow it. Fred Rowbotham gives us a vivid description of the fate that awaits western section of the bore as it meets Maisemore weir:
"No thunderous crash of waters marks the meeting of the
But a really big bore somehow survives its twin battles with Maisemore and Llanthony weirs and struggles on a little, the twin bores reforming. However, the eastern channel is longer than the western one, so the western section reaches the point where the channels meet up again first - and part of it turns down the eastern channel to meet head-on the bore that has narrowly survived its tussle with Llanthony weir. No more bore, just a vague upstream flow that wanders towards Tewkesbury, and occasionally up as far as Worcester - where Diglis weir completes technology's rout of one of nature's bravest fighters.
The bore confounds Western ideas of rivers as one-way linear flow of water from source to sea by bursting back upstream and reversing the flow in a most bemusing manner. Rivers, as I hope to have gone some way towards showing, aren't as simple as our modern linear rationality would have us believe. I had great trouble writing this article: for months I sat perplexed on the banks of the river trying to get my head around it, but in the end gave up trying to do justice to this beautiful yet bewildering thing and tried to put some of its themes together in an article that begins and ends, and tries to put things into neat little sections. In this, the result of my work, you can probably see that I have failed. The river constantly rose up to try to overflow the bounds that I had set for it.
You cannot do justice to a river, or perhaps any other natural thing, within the confines of an article that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. My linear thinking, I'm afraid, meant I had no choice but to write in this manner; and, although I hope I have made a little dent, I cannot fathom the depths of my subject. My mind cannot fully understand it. James Joyce maybe realised this when he wrote his remarkable Finnegan's Wake , a book whose structure is influenced by the flow of the River Liffey. Not only does the last sentence run back into the first sentence, but the book cannot be comprehended apart from the cycles and rhythms of the river. What Joyce shows is what I have discovered here: our language and whole way of thinking is shown to be pitifully lacking when it is faced with the primal forces of nature. That our ancestors thought differently to how we do today is, I feel, proved by the myths and folklore that I have examined here.