Cocidius, the Cumbrian god

Cocidius altar, Tullie House, Carlisle

Cocidius altar, Tullie House, Carlisle

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there were people here before the Romans. But they were here, leaving echoes of their lives and beliefs through place names, 5,800-year-old tools and 2,000-year-old weapons. When the Romans first encountered us 2,000 years ago, they wrote down some of the things they discovered. They said that there was a people in northern Cumbria called the Carvetii, ‘the deer people’, who were a sub-group of a large northern tribe called the Brigantes – at least that’s what the Romans called them; we don’t know what they called themselves – and we had a number of local gods.

The Romans had an impressively egalitarian approach to the religions they encountered as they travelled the world. They believed the same set of gods was present everywhere but just known by different names. When they came across a native god, they looked in their own pantheon for the Roman equivalent, which is how Lugus – after whom Carlisle is named – came to be seen as a different name for their own god, Mercury. Every native god in turn was partnered with its Roman equivalent and this is how we get to hear about the northern British god, Cocidius.

There are no less than nine carved images and 25 inscribed dedications to Cocidius on Hadrian’s Wall, some from Netherby and Carlisle and others found by Cumberland Quarries (exact site unknown). There are six inscriptions from Bewcastle fort in Cumbria, where he is described as ‘Mars Cocidius’, which means the owner of the altar believed that Cocidius was the native name for the Roman god of war, Mars. Two silver plaques found at Bewcastle show Cocidius wearing a helmet and holding a shield and a club or spear.

The Ravenna Cosmography – a 7th-century summary of all towns that had been in the Roman empire – mentions Fanum Cocidius, which means Cocidius’s Temple. It says that it was between Maia (Bowness-on-Solway) and Brovacum (Brougham). Given this description and the number of inscriptions found, it’s tempting to believe that this site was Bewcastle.

At the eastern end of Hadrian’s wall, Cocidius is linked to forests, and hence to hunting. In an inscription at Ebchester in County Durham, he is ‘Cocidius Vernostonus’ – Cocidius of the alder tree – and at Housesteads Fort and Risingham, he is ‘Sylvanus Cocidius’. Sylvanus was the Roman god of wild forests. An intaglio found at Habitancum Roman Fort on Dere Street at Risingham shows Cocidius surrounded by leafy branches, holding a hare, accompanied by a dog. A further north-eastern image at Yardhope at the tantalisingly-named ‘Holystone Burn’ (the name pre-dates the discovery of the carving in 1980!) shows Cocidius with hat, spear and shield, legs akimbo, arms wide.

Cocidius at Yardhope, Northumberland

Cocidius at Yardhope, Northumberland

There used to be another image, known as ‘Robin of Risingham’, but it was blown up by an 18th-century landowner who was fed up of people visiting it. I find it intriguing to think of people hunting out the carving in this period, and the name is suggestive: Robin Goodfellow is a name from folklore linked to forests (think Robin Hood) and impish creatures (Shakespeare’s Puck). It may be too much to suggest that the 18th-century people knew that the carving represented a pagan deity but they may have thought there was something otherworldly, even magical, about it. A half-size carving based on a drawing of the original was erected in 1983.

As is often the case with Celtic names, the etymology is frustrating. It could derive from ‘cocco’, the Brythonic word for red, or it could be ‘coit’, the root of the modern Welsh word, ‘coed’, which means woods or forest. Supporters of the former interpretation point to rare references to an Irish Gaelic god, Da Coca, ‘the Red God’, suggesting he is just another version of the same deity, in the same way that Carlisle’s Lugus is the Irish Lugh (and the Welsh Lleu). The colour red is readily associated with Mars and war-like qualities (although this is often overstated) and Cocidius is portrayed with a weapon and a shield. Supporters of the forest interpretation point to the inscriptions identifying Cocidius with Sylvanus, the forest god, and the hunting images. To confuse or elucidate matters – take your pick – the alder tree – as in ‘Cocidius Vernostonus’, Cocidius of the alder tree – was well-known for oozing bloody-red sap when freshly cut. Perhaps it’s not so mad to combine the two, and Cocidius in his original Celtic form was a hunter of both men and animals.

Sylvan Men by Albrecht Durer, 1499

Sylvan Men by Albrecht Durer, 1499

And there I would have ended the story of Cocidius, the northern British god, if I hadn’t come across this image, painted in 1499 by Albrecht Durer. These wild men, legs akimbo, arms aloft, carrying a shield and a club, are the very image of Cocidius. They are a conventional medieval Germanic portrayal of woodwoses – a concept known to medieval English as the ‘wodwos’ of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1390) – and possibly cognate with the medieval Green Man*, an image seen in British cathedrals from the 11th century onwards. Other woodwose-type wild men are found in other European cultures; in Lombardy, they’re known as ‘salvangs’ – wild men derived from the name of Sylvanus.

I don’t know, and suspect that no one knows, whether these deities and wild men are all ultimately the same. Perhaps they all just answer a need felt throughout history to personify a wild, dangerous aspect of nature, which was a threat to man and beast alike. Whatever the case, Cocidius was Cumbria’s very own.

© Diane McIlmoyle 30.01.12 

* I should point out that there are two inscriptions to a native god, Viridios – which literally means ‘green man’ – found in Lincolnshire.

You can see an altar dedicated to Cocidius at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. www.tulliehouse.co.uk

Note added 22.03.12: English Heritage tell me that they are opening a permanent exhibition on Cocidius at Housesteads Roman Fort, near Hexham, opening on 31st March 2012. The site isn’t open all year round so do check before you go. :http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-wall/

Note added 01.05.12 There’s a post on the Bewcastle cauldron, a giant Iron Age bronze pot found buried at Bewcastle.

18 thoughts on “Cocidius, the Cumbrian god

  1. Mention of Bewcastle makes me think of the church and cross on the site of the Roman fort. If it really was a cult centre for Cocidius we’ve got a strong possibility of religious continuity over a very long period, from pagan rites in pre-Roman times to present-day worship at the church. A fascinating site altogether – and an excellent place to visit.

    Great post btw. I wish I could blog as concisely as you, Diane.

    • Hello Tim

      Interesting, Bewcastle, isn’t it? Got to be one of those places where the idea of continuous worship is well attested, unlike most.

      Thank you for the compliment. I’d rather be the author of a couple of well-written, academically correct but readable tomes on early medieval history. Hang on, though – that’s you, isn’t it? ;) :)

  2. Well i’ve learnt something new, thank you! :D Definitely going to have to pay a visit to Yardhope! Have walked around that general area plenty of times, but had never heard of the shrine there. Most of the MOD land around there is open access when the red flag isn’t flying (and i’ve never seen a red flag flying yet!), shall have to look into it further and pay it a visit, if I can find it!!

    • Excellent idea, Laura. Take lots of pictures, please! And check they haven’t missed any other ‘holystones’… :)

      Good to know that access to Yardhope isn’t as bad as it sounds. A couple of people off-site have asked about it, too, so I’m glad you’ve posted that here.

      Thanks for coming over :)

  3. It does look like a fascinating place to visit! Next time i’m up that way i’ll pop in the park visitor’s centre and ask there if it’s one of the areas that members of the public can visit, just incase it’s closed off and has a scattering of live ammo, can’t be too careful!! Ironically, I said i’ve never seen a red flag flying… but I just checked the shooting times for the area and it looks like they’re shooting most days in the coming fortnight! So I must have just gotten lucky when i’ve been passing through. I presume it’s part of the otterburn range, though I can’t seem to find a map on the mod website showing which areas are open and which aren’t, sure one of the national park visitors centres will be able to help though!

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  5. A brithonic deitiy… no doubt of it!—It is funny to note that the inscription discovered at Carlisle was to Mars “Toutates Cocidius” ..Teutates is another well-known Celtic deity, mostly cited by Julius Caesar and Lucan. Etymologically this deity’s name can be interpreted as: ‘He who belongs to the Tribe’ comprising also the concept’Father of the Tribe’. Could there be a so called celtic tribe then?… Maybe a sort of Wood Settlers isn’t it?
    Great article indeed!….cheers ♥

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