What Ails You, Father? The Rain of Nodens
We recently experienced the wettest December on record in Lancashire. Across the north of England, Scotland and Wales rivers burst their banks and many areas suffered devastating floods.
On the night of the highest tides, December 26th, I went to speak with the goddess of the Ribble, Belisama. Realising she didn’t want a physical offering thrown into her swollen waters I spoke a poem and apologies we’d changed her course and concreted her in and prayed she wouldn’t flood the houses of local people.
During this process, I realised whilst Belisama has some control over the Ribble, a factor I had not addressed was the rain: the relentless rain which has not stopped pouring down the north-west’s hillsides sweeping down valleys soaking field and marsh dripping constantly down drains. Who to address and what to say?
Nodens: A Romano-British Rain God
It is my belief Nodens is a Romano-British god of rain. The name Nodens has been interpreted to mean ‘to catch, entrap… thus he is the catcher’ (Tolkien) ‘acquire, utilise, go fishing’ (Porkny) ‘moisture’ (Porkny) ‘mist, clouds’ (Matasovic) and ‘the Cloud-maker’ (O’Rahilly). Nodens is associated with hunting and clouds and hence rain.
At Vindolanda, Nodens is equated with Neptune. Neptune has been interpreted to mean ‘moist substance’ (Kretschmer) and ‘he who is moist’ (Bloch). Petersmann claims Neptune presides over ‘clouds and fogs’ and sees him as father of all living beings through a hieros gamos with the earth via fertilising rainwater. He quotes lines from Virgil ‘Whow, why so many clouds surrounded the sky? What are you preparing, father Neptune?’ These parallels provide clues to Nodens’ role as a rain god in sacred unison with an earth goddess.
The Temple of Nodens
The best attested centre of worship for Nodens is his temple at Lydney. This consisted of a central cella (inner chamber) with three chambers in its north-western end. It is surrounded by an ambulatory with another seven ‘projecting’ chambers. It seems likely the chambers housed statues of Nodens.
A mosaic from the floor depicts dolphins, horses and sea-monsters. On a bronze relief and headdress we find images of Nodens as a sea-god, in one case driving a chariot pulled by four horses, tritons with serpent’s tails carrying anchors and conches and winged wind spirits. These represent Nodens as a deity who, like Neptune, presides over weather and the sea.
Nodens’ temple is believed to have been a place of healing where pilgrims made offerings, evidenced by bronze hound statuettes and coins, then slept in the long dormitory building. Parallels with the temple of Asclepios and the presence of an interpretus (interpreter of dreams) suggest Nodens appeared in dream-visions with solutions to ailments.
A votive hound at the bottom of a funnel entering a pit shows Nodens was viewed as a god of Annwn ‘the not-world’ ‘the deep’. ‘The Awen I sing’ says Taliesin ‘from the deep I bring it’. Awen (‘inspiration’) and dream were believed to flow from this watery underworld. Nodens’ associations with the dream-world are with us today in the phrase ‘the Land of Nod’.
It is significant Nodens was not the only deity worshipped in the temple. A stone statuette of a goddess holding a cornucopia was also found with offerings of pins from women for aid with child-birth. It may be suggested she was Nodens’ consort and the efficaciousness of their healing was rooted in their hieros gamos as earth goddess and rain god.
Lludd of the Silver Hand
Scholars agree Nodens is cognate with the medieval Welsh god Nudd (‘mist’) ‘the superior wolf-lord’ who is best known as Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Lydney means ‘Lludd’s Island’. A bronze arm found at Lydney demonstrates these equivalences hold.
In Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd is the oldest son of the great ancestral god, Beli Mawr, from whom he inherits the kingdom of Britain. ‘He was a good warrior and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it.’ With the help of his brother, Llefelys, Lludd freed Britain from three plagues. Unfortunately his Queen is never named.
How Lludd lost his hand remains unknown. In Culhwch and Olwen, where his son Gwyn ap Nudd and daughter Creiddylad play more prominent roles, he is referred to as Lludd Llaw Eraint for the first time.
In Lludd of the Silver Hand: the Catcher who can no longer catch, the King who cannot defend his kingdom, we find a figure of great pathos. Lludd slides incapacitated into a background of cloud and dream whilst his descendants act.
The Fisher King
Lludd bears similarities to the Fisher King who appears in the stories of Peredur, Perceval and Parzival. The Fisher King suffers from a debilitating wound, most often in his groin, which deprives him of the ability to do anything but fish. His debilitation is reflected in the state of kingdom.
In each story the hero enters the Castle of Wonders where the King lies recumbent. A procession passes featuring a bleeding lance and a representation of ‘the grail’. The protagonist fails to question the scene. After a long exodus through a kingdom plagued by monsters he returns.
In some variants he asks the question ‘who does the grail serve?’ in others ‘what ails you, father?’ The words are not important. The act of asking results in the healing of the King and his kingdom.
Conspicuous by its absence is the King’s reunion with his Queen. It remains implicit this follows his return to virility and is the source of the kingdom’s recovery.
Asking the Question
In The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Robert Johnson notes we fail to ask the question because we do not know the answer. The current rate of climate change throws environmentalists into despair as capitalists ravage the land for the last oil and gas. The relentless rain is bound up with global warming and there appears to be no solution at hand.
It is indubitable Britain’s weather has been irreversibly affected by three centuries of industrial smog. At the same time it seems to be no coincidence as factories have risen and people have been oppressed, Ned Lud (a name that echoes Nudd and Lludd) and General Ludd and his wives and daughters have stepped forth as answers from the realm of dream as figures of revolt. In the 21st C Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad return to new devotees.
In Nodens Britain’s weather and dreaming are one. In pouring rain beside decaying factories and mill-ponds the time arrives to ask the question beneath grey grey skies. To retreat to dormitories and await the dream-god’s answer beneath sober pillows. To dream and enact the re-birth of a land where the hieros gamos of rain god and earth goddess is restored.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Bernard Maier, Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture, (The Boydell Press, 1997)
James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower, (White Cloud Press, 2014)
Miranda Green, The Gods of the Celts, (Sutton Publishing, 2011)
Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, (Harper San Francisco, 1995)
Stephen Yeates, A Dreaming for the Witches, (Ox Bow Books, 2009)
Forest of Dean History: The Romans and Celts
Lorna Smithers lives in Penwortham, Lancashire. She writes poems for unsung landscapes and myths for unacknowledged gods. She can be found performing in cafes and libraries, enchanted woodlands and on mist-wrapped hills and blogging at Signposts In the Mist.