That sentence popped into my head when I wondered what to title this post, so let’s go with that.
When I first began to practice as a Pagan, I favoured the Fire element (in fact, my first magical name, Scarlet, came from the mental image of a red-hot flame); with equal fervour I disliked Water, associating the element with soft and “wishy-washy” sentiments. I wanted to radiate the vitality and passion of fire, fill myself with Fire’s strengths; I resolved too to avoid Fire’s destructive energies, especially the unwise habit of making impulsive decisions – how I worried about appearing soft and unserious, in all things, even before the Gods for whom humour is divine! As I learned more about divinities, I also decided to choose one pantheon and work strictly within it, to avoid mixing groups together or chasing after any god who merely caught my interest. I strove desperately to be “better” than those other Pagans who were constantly working with this deity and called to that deity, who seemed sometimes to be “drawn to” or “chosen by” or “resonating with” every non-human power in existence.
With those proud prejudices blazing high, I began seeking after “my” Gods, and almost immediately eliminated the “Celtic” deities from the running. It seemed that many of those beings were connected to water or the sea, and worse, they all struck me as forms or relatives of each other; I feared that any individual deity would come connected to five more who’d also require worship, and that I’d end up overwhelmed with “have to” and “vowed to” and “drawn to.” I also owned a numbingly dull copy of the Mabinogion, as well as a boring bargain-bin book about Irish mythology, and – not yet understanding the need to approach difficult texts with good translations – I shuddered at the thought of gleaning liturgy from those tedious, convoluted tales. Finally, my heritage is actually from the “Celtic” regions – I have distant ancestors among the Bretons and Welsh, as well as an English grandfather and an Irish great-grandmother – and my own roots seemed like the most boring source of inspiration imaginable. Why on earth would I want to draw my Fascinating New Pagan Practice from such familiar soil?
Twenty years ago I issued those hasty verdicts, standing tall upon my pedestal of impatience and inexperience. And now I’m chuckling ruefully at all of the above, before launching into a long post about a Romano-British sea-god. It rather serves me right to be proven so egregiously wrong, don’t you think?
What knowledge we have of the god Nodons comes from excavations at His 4th-century CE temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire, of which little remains save a fabulous example of the truth in this quote by comedian Eddie Izzard:
“And they always find in archaeology ‘a series of small walls.’ Every time, a series of small walls. Everywhere you go: ‘We found a series of small walls; we’re very excited. We think this proves that they had walls in olden days. They were very small. A series of small-walled people.’
And then someone, very learned with glasses, says, ‘the King and Queen entertained here, courtiers. And soldiers in this room. And elephants dancing hopscotch over there. Mad fiddler in this room, playing the banjo. Viaducts and aqueducts…’
And you watch going, ‘you’re making this up, mate.'”
Besides the obligatory diminutive structural supports, the Lydney complex retained some pieces of a mosaic floor and several bronze reliefs that depicted sea creatures. Digging into the site’s pith revealed some votive-type bits inscribed to “Nodens” and “Mars Nodons,” along with coins, pins (associated with childbirth), body-part amulets (of the sort offered up for healing), some dog statues, and a diadem depicting a crowned God.
A particular set of small walls is interpreted as a bath house, while some other rubble is believed to be the remains of dream-incubation chambers, both supporting the notion of a healing sea-God.
But by far the most amazing recovery from this site – really, one of the best discoveries at any site, ever – was a curse inscribed on a lead tablet, in which a man named Silvianus petitioned Nodons to help him regain a gold ring, which had been stolen by somebody he knew. Silvianus even suggested how to make the thief forfeit his ill-gotten gain: he asked that Nodons should “among those named Senicianus, permit no good health until it [the ring] is returned to the temple of Nodens.” And the curse was renewed later on, indicating that Silvianus was determined to recover his still-missing precioussss ring.
Curses of this sort were frequently cast at Greco-Roman temples, and so the tablet, found in 1929, might have remained an obscure historical footnote – except that 150 years earlier, a heavy gold ring had been discovered a hundred miles away, in Silchester, with an intriguing inscription engraved upon it: “Senicianus, may you live in God.” (1)
Alas, while the Lydney complex yielded plenty of nifty Nodons-centered artifacts, there was nothing to reveal explicit information about Nodons himself. Contemporary literature made no mention of this god, and no litanies, prayers, or other written materials survived to clarify Nodons’ exact nature or describe his rituals. So the head excavator at Lydney, a gentleman named Sir Mortimer Wheeler, decided to contact Oxford University’s Anglo-Saxon department and inquire after the etymology of the name “Nodons,” hoping that a linguistic breakdown might reveal more about this new God.
By that time, Wheeler certainly knew about the gold ring of Silchester and its astonishing correspondence to the details of a curse-tablet just unearthed at Lydney (a match made more likely because “Senicianus” was not a common name). It’s probable that Wheeler recounted this archaeological triumph – a finger-ring and its associated defixio, linked across a hundred miles’ distance after fourteen centuries! – to the language expert he consulted. And that consulting professor was J.R.R. Tolkien, who began writing The Hobbit, with its now-famous “cursed” ring, a year later.
Tolkien suggested that “Nodons” meant “Catcher” or “Snarer,” but that’s only one possible translation, and even now, there’s no consensus on the name’s significance. In fact, all we know for certain about god Nodons is the following: (a) He had a spiffy temple complex in Gloucestershire, whose ruins show a similar pattern to healing temples of the time. (b) Many images and offerings were excavated from the temple grounds, and some of them suggest that Nodons had functions related to healing, hunting, and seafaring/fishing. (c) Inscriptions link him to the gods Mars, Neptune, and Mercury, and his name indicates possible connections to King Nuada and to the hero Lludd (who, in turn, may be linked to the site Lydney, the name perhaps signifying Lludd’s island).
And so – by my own prideful god-selection criteria discussed above – this Nodons was certainly not a deity to draw my attention, being as he was sea-linked, obscure, and associated with some hand-chopping/silver-fisted baggage from stories that might or might not be about him.
But in answering the whisper of another great King – Gwyn ap Nudd – I was given an instruction that seemed to confirm my concerns about the “Celtic” gods coming as a package deal: Honour my Father before me.
It strikes even me as strange, my shrinking reaction of TOO MANY GODS ZONOES, but I’ve abandoned enough paths, and strayed from enough dramatic THIS IS TOTES 4-EVA-type declarations, to legitimately fear taking on more devotion than I can handle. But despite my worry of entangling myself in excessive worship, what I’d heard wasn’t a request to craft extensive rituals or address elaborate prayers to Nudd. It was a simple command to acknowledge the King’s progenitor – giving a few words of greeting and perhaps a bow of the head – before greeting the King Himself. It was an honourable and loving wish, and no great labour unless I made it so.
So I swallowed my overinflated, self-centered woes – reminding myself that I couldn’t well serve the Wild Hunt’s leader by being a wuss – and then said a tentative hello to this unknown God. And through this daily custom of “Greet Nodons First,” I’ve met and learned of this beautiful deity; the duty has become, not the burden I feared, but a source of serenity and strength.
Though his Welsh name is Nudd, the name I speak is Nodons, after asking him what he preferred me to say; a feeling of great fondness, of pleasure in peaceful congregation and variety, seems woven into this name. When I talk to him, I fold my hands in prayer and then speak aloud. I thank him for his blessings, for the gift of his son, for his own generosity and beauty.
Then I lift my hands and do a small gestural rite of self-protection. (It seems arrogant to presume that the practice came from him, but I’ve never read or seen it anywhere before that I can recall; one day I simply found my hands and words working in this way.) When the brief visualization is complete, I see in my mind’s eye a sphere of shining water all around me, and I do this warding each day before approaching Gwyn in meditation. Afterwards, I release those protective waters back to Nodons, with gratitude for his guardianship.
I also perform a small bathing ritual sometimes, and it has two parts, the first focusing upon Nodons: I mix sea salt and oil (any base oil I have, with a few drops of lavender added), and use this to scrub my skin while thinking of the sea, of him, of places where different waters flow and mingle, of myself purified and transformed.
In both of these ritual acts, I experience Nodons’ energy as safety-giving and soothing, the God Himself as guardian and healer. From the beginning he has seemed genuinely surprised that his name is spoken, and pleased as well. He is intensely loving, and the love and pride he has for his divine son is no small thing. I call him Eldfather; his presence is a gift. I feel that he prepares and strengthens me each day, warming and warding me in anticipation of his harsher, less merciful son.
Nodons is a hunter as well as healer, and he is not wholly gentle; his power lies also in the cleansing-burning of a fever or a steam bath, the churning of dangerous straits, the challenging allure of turbulent seas and the waves that topple the unaware end-over-end. His waters are vigorous, his being energetic and active; I see him in estuaries and in sun-warmed liminal waters, in the toils and traditions of the sea-hunters whose vessels daily sail. His is the cool draught of water on blistering days, the metal taste of salt that can soothe or sharpen hunger, the hot bath that melts away deep chill. Nodons fills nets, he holds fast; he fills the belly and feeds inspiration with dreams.
His, too, is the laughter that heals, and I sense humour in the god, from the dark jests that cut through danger and fear to the pranks that teach lessons to the incautious. This bubble-bursting contentment that I sense in Lord Nodons is one reason that I find the story of the Roman Precioussss frankly hysterical, because – as the curse never specified a time frame for the ring’s return – it seems that the prayer was finally answered, and the ring located, many hundreds of years later than Silvianus would have preferred! Nodons gives what he will, I think – what he decides, what he knows is needed, and not necessarily what is expected.
In short, the love between father and son has brought an unexpected blessing into my life. Experiencing Lord Nodons is like being held by steadying arms, and this support fortifies me and helps me brave the harder work that follows. I don’t doubt that this gentle lord is also fierce and tempestuous, but it is his form as Eldfather that I am coming to know and love – not only because he shows me kindness, but because he deserves to be called and remembered, and because devotion seems to delight him. I, in turn, am happy to have been wrong in my dismissive assumptions about Water, so many years ago; it honours me to be touched by the relentless strength of the tide and the loving embrace of the sea. And I’m grateful, not only to Nodons, but to my King for asking of me the sole, strange condition that his Father be first served. I didn’t know I needed him, but apparently, they both did.
So far, I’ve come to associate Lord Nodons with the scent of lavender, the runes Laguz and Othala (the latter of which is formed during my self-protection gestures), and the colours aqua, evening-cloud-blue, and pale gold, as well as the Clannad song Drifting and the Wardruna piece Laukr. I think, also – though have no objective proof of this – that Njord and Nodons share some traits in common.
The blog Fieldstones offers many deeply moving devotions to Gods whose names are not often spoken, including a pitch-perfect prayer to Nodens. (She has also composed words to honour Nudd, Lludd, and Nuada, addressing them each beautifully and distinctly.)
Nodons’ name and attributes also appear in several books by Caitlín and John Matthews, and I owe those authors much gratitude for one work in particular: this incubation rite, set amidst the Lydney temple, is the first effective dream ritual I’ve ever used, and so I recommend it highly – especially if you’re a dream-state dunderhead like me!
That’s all I have for now, though I hope to learn more in the future. And I would certainly enjoy hearing from anyone with experiences of Nodons (or a similar/cognate deity), or who’s come across a poem, song, or resource I’ve missed in this post!
(1) That’s one possible translation of the inscription, anyway; while the name “Senicianus” is clear, the rest of the engraving could have a few different meanings. This excellent post gives some possible alternatives, and it includes some great pictures of the ring!