THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD
The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.
“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.
On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.
The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.
“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.
“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”
R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996
(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)
(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011
NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.
I hadn’t heard of Bladud or Geoffrey’s claim he was grandfather of Bran and Branwen. Was he meant to be the father of Llyr? I also hadn’t heard the theory that Sulis is a variant of Ceridwen. Who suggested that?
In ‘The History of the Kings of Britain, Bladud is the son of Rud Hud Hudibras and father of Leir – hence grandfather of Goneril, Regan & Cordelia. In a version of the story used by Kevan Manwaring’s ‘The Bardic Handbook’, the young Bladud contracted leprosy and was exiled from court, becoming the swineherd prince and was cured when the his pigs, being intelligent and by legend a gift from Annwn, nudged him in to some magic mud. Moving out into the middle of the pool which the mud surrounded, Bladud bathed and experienced a vision of a woman in white – Sulis, Goddess of the healing springs. He was able to go on and become king. I suspect the the link between Sulis and Ceridwen was made by R. J. Stewart’s intuition, supplemented by the pig connection. Geoffrey’s Leir, apart from the name, doesn’t really show much of a Llyr connection, so I suppose Stewart and Williamson have made another imaginative leap there.
Thank you for sharing this. The imaginative leaps of modern scholars can be as valuable as older mythic connections… so the myths continue to live…
Yes – and R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson are both deeply immersed in this tradition, noted as musicians and storytellers as well as scholars – both awenydd in my understanding of that term.