For a few years of my life I lived behind a shrine. I walked past its sandstone outcrop on my way to work and sat out sunbathing and reading in the green space surrounding it, and I never knew it for the remarkable place it was. I wasn’t a particularly oblivious young woman, especially when it came to the strange and unusual, and I can’t quite believe that the ancient shrine hadn’t pulled on me more strongly. Granted, there were no signs, no special treatment, not even a path up to its carved goddess, but still…
I think I had become habituated to the past living so lightly beside me; I lived in Chester, a Roman city, filled with Roman things: baths, an amphitheatre, high fortress walls, an ancient name -Deva. On my walk to work each morning I would pass the softened strata of sandstone walls that had surrounded the city for two millennia, tra-la-la across the old Dee bridge that appeared in the Domesday Book, and then completely fail to notice the more modern stamp of Victoriana that fills the city. I feel rather impatient with that young woman who was lucky enough to have been raised, have lived in, and then worked in a place as rich and overflowing with the past as Chester.
My reacquaintance with the shrine occurred a couple of years ago, whilst researching for my book, and I have now become a regular visitor. Her presence in my past and my present has lead me down some strange and winding paths, one of which revealed a second goddess shrine on the River Dee: a far older Goddess, a far fiercer Goddess, and one who demanded both respect and reparation. Aerfen, Goddess of the river, required three lives every year to ensure success on the battlefield. But I wonder if, like Minerva, she was so much more than a soldiers’ deity, and if it is more likely that her nature simply reflected the changeable, tidal, fecund, fierce, gentle, unforgiving and generous river whose spirit she embodies.
On the eastern face of a remaining sandstone outcrop may be seen a remarkable survivor- a carved Roman representation of the goddess Minerva, the patron of all rivers and springs in Britannia, and also protector of of soldiers and craftsmen. Situated as she is here, facing the bridge and the ancient route to the south, she was revered as the protector of travellers. Hemingway calls her the Diva Armigera Pallas. Also known as Pallas and Athena, she was one of the most popular deities and was worshipped at the five-day March festival of Quinquatrix.
Later generations, taking her for the Virgin Mary, also worshipped and protected her, and she remains with us to this day- albeit a severely weathered shadow of her original self- and claimed to be the only representation of a Classical goddess still in its original position anywhere in Western Europe. –Source
I grew up by the river. I swam above the tug of her undertow. I fished in her waters, fell out of trees into her shallows. I watched her rise up and devour the land with her spring and autumn tides. I was frightened of her winter self, and I loved her. I love her still.
Gratitude is what I take to the shrine whenever I pass her now; I am lucky to have that River Goddess on my side.