Belief, Legend and Perceptions of the Sacred in Contemporary Bath

Article excerpt

For centuries Bath has exercised an attraction as a centre of religion, healing and pilgrimage. As the name implies, Bath contains hot water--to be precise it has three geothermal springs which emerge from the ground at temperatures between 42 and 47 degrees centigrade, at a rate of around 1.2 million litres per day.

The unique hot waters of Bath have attracted attention since prehistoric times as the hottest springs in Britain, and their powers have repeatedly been attributed to divine sources. The sacred symbolism of water is of course multivalent; purification, rebirth, healing, transition. It is often a vehicle of sacredness. The connections between water and religion, religion and healing have been both explicit and implicit in Bath's history. Sacred symbol and sacred substance are inextricably linked here. The hot springs, it has long been believed, come from, are in touch with, or have been touched by, the sacred.

In legend, Bath owes its foundation to King Bladud.(1) To summarise the best known current form of the legend (see Clark 1994, 44-7), Bladud was a prince who was banished from court on account of his leprosy. He settled in Swainswick, on the outskirts of what is now Bath, and obtained employment as a swine herd. He used to take his pigs to a place where hot spring water combined with earth to form an area of warm mud, in which the pigs loved to wallow. However, Bladud observed that pigs who went into the mud with skin diseases came out cured, so he decided to try the mud as a remedy for his leprosy. The cure was so successful that he returned to court, and became king on his father's death. He then made Bath his capital, establishing a great city there. Naturally, the city included baths using the hot springs, so that others might benefit from the water's curative properties.

The foundation legend of King Bladud's healing at Bath provides the stereotype of the city as a special, therapeutic location, a visit to which can heal and transform in both a medical and a metaphysical sense. Bath's status as a special or significant place is based on and legitimised by the hot springs. It is visited by over two million tourists each year. About 950,000 of them visit the Roman Baths, now administered as a heritage site, but many others come to Bath--as they have done for centuries--with the expectation of healing or some sort of spiritual experience.

Background

Before describing the present situation it will be helpful to give some brief background history of Bath and its springs. Prehistoric, Celtic Bath is much speculated upon, and the surrounding area is rich in ancient sites of religious and ritual interest. Stonehenge, Avebury, Stanton Drew and Glastonbury are all within easy travelling distance. Under the Romans, the waters were dedicated to the hybrid deity Sulis Minerva, a combination of the Roman Goddess of wisdom and healing, Minerva, and the Celtic deity Sul. The word "Sul" is usually translated as "gap, opening or orifice," the interface between this world and the otherworld, from whence the extraordinary hot waters emerge. The Roman name for Bath was Aquae Sulis.(2) In pre-Roman and Roman Bath the waters seem to have been a focus for contact with the sacred; many coins and other objects, including lead tablets on which blessings and curses were written, were found on the two occasions when the baths were drained for excavation. This blessing and cursing, as well as thanksgiving, show the association between the substance and the sacred; throwing gifts, blessings, or curses into the water, as it were, establishes a direct line to the deity. It is interesting to note that the earliest evidence of Christianity in Bath is generally taken to be a curse inscribed on lead calling down revenge on the perpetrator of a robbery, "whether pagan or Christian." In the great Roman complex of springs, temples and baths (which covered an area the size of two football pitches), religion, healing and recreation interacted. …