River gods

There have been disputes, but the source of the Thames is generally agreed to be on Trewsbury Mead near the Fosse Way, west of Cirencester. A walk across the fields will take you to the spot marked by a plaque and a signpost—in winter a pool in the meadow besides some trees, and in late summer perhaps just a pile of dry stones—where the River Thames has his rising. The river was Tamesis according to Julius Caesar, Tamesa to Tacitus, but not personified by any god to the Britons – or if so with a name known only to the Druids themselves, that sect who kept the population in ignorance, illiteracy and alienation from the natural world.

The Greeks had more of a kinship and understanding with the world around them, and their rivers had the personae of male deities: sometimes kindly, like the one who welcomed Odysseus into the land of Phaeacia and washed the clothes of Nausicaa and her girls; sometimes lustful after women, like Alpheus who tried to ravish Arethusa; sometimes in competition with men, like Achelous who wrestled with Hercules, and sometimes with unusual powers like Scamander.

But it was the Romans with their instinct for the homely and the familiar who actually had a deity called Cloacina (goddess of lavatories and drainage); the Romans who reverenced the natural world but also believed that human beings should make inroads into it. It was the Romans who decided that river gods needed to be put in their place and permanent stone bridges thrown across them. There was something pleasurable about the subjugation of the river god, and his resulting annoyance:

pontem indignatus Araxes
‘Araxes, indignant at his bridge’
         Aeneid VIII.728

And in a late inscription commemorating the repair by Narses of a destroyed bridge over the Anio, this pleasure is explicit:

quam bene curvati directa est semita pontis,
atque interruptum continuatur iter.
calcamus rapidas subjecti gurgitis undas,
et libet iratæ cernere murmur aquæ.
‘How well is our path directed over the curving bridge,
and our interrupted route now resumed.
We tread underfoot the swift waters of a tamed river,
and it is pleasant to hear the murmur of the angry water.’
                           Poetae Latini Minores (Lemaire) p.555

In other words—we’ve built a bridge over you, so get under it.

Of interest:

Next post: Rewriting history.


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