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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Gorgon's Head?

Gorgon's Head?
I have puzzled over an alternative interpretation as to who/what the image in the centre of the Temple Pediment really is. I am sure that the character who dominates the centre is almost certainly not a Gorgon. For starters it’s a male; the only male Gorgon is Nanas (guardian of Zeus) who would have no relation to this site. Most importantly though, where are the snakes!? I see some thick wisps of beard but certainly no snakes. So who is this character?

The obvious choice for me is Neptune, not only does the aged bearded face resemble him but he is the God of water. The Romans had no natural explanation for hot springs such as those found at Bath, so to turn to a supernatural source for worship was not uncommon and here the deity of water makes perfect sense.

Artist illustration of Temple Pediment
If you look carefully you will see nestled in the corner of the pediment are Tritons; half men half fish creatures who were the servants of Neptune. If this image is not of Neptune then who is he? This mysterious figure could be any one of a number of water deities, perhaps the God Oceanus?

Mildenhall Silver Plate
Another theory is that in an effort to endear themselves to the native populous they governed, the Romans often amalgamated ‘their’ Gods with local ones (our very own Sulis Minerva is a great example of this.) Perhaps this is what happened here but current knowledge of local deities is very limited and offers no obvious links.

Next and perhaps most controversially it might be Mithras. This Eastern God was popular amongst the Romans at the time the Baths were active. Worship of Mithras was most popular among the military; soldiers of course built the Baths. The story of this God is also entwined with that of Sol (the Sun God).

As the Roman Baths website tells us the discovery of the Gorgons Head Temple Pediment “confirmed that the Roman site at Bath was unusual and attracted special interest to the site”.
Is it right to keep referring to this image as a Gorgon when it is clearly an interpretation that can be questioned? It’s hard to believe that once the head of Sulis Minerva was believed to be that of Apollo, What do you think?

Heath Meltdown


  1. I always thought he was the sun - heat, etc. - Sulis? There is a guide who suggests that the zig-zag mark on his forehead was J.K. Rowling's inspiration for the scar on Harry Potter's head. He seems to think that Rowling spent a while down there looking at Sulis. Hmm...

  2. The temple in Bath is said to be associated with Sulis Minerva, a Romano-Celtic blend deity. The Minerva head is said to be part of a whole Minerva said to have been within the temple, while the "gorgon" was said to be Sul the Celtic deity. This has always puzzled me, as it seems to suggest a deity (Sulis-Minerva) of variable gender. Further confusion is caused by the possible discovery, through unrelated internet research, of Sul/Sulis being actually female. If one looks at the "gorgon", one will note, in addition to your correct observation that there are no snakes and it is male anyway, it also has wings sticking out of its head, like Mercury's helmet. Someone somewhere refered to Sulis as Queen of the Springs of the Sun. So could the "gorgon" be a syncretization of Mercury and the Sun? Or could it be a representation of the actual Celtic deity of the sun with a confusion or word-play of Sul/Sol and Sulis/Solis? I think it would be very unlikely that the "gorgon" is a representation of Neptune, because Neptune and Minerva were always enemies and always in conflict with each other (sour grapes by Neptune for losing out to Minerva when the Athenians chose her as patron).


  3. For the record, there were no male Gorgons; Nanas was a hoax by an anonymous Wikipedia editor, not a genuine mythological figure.

  4. I can count at least four snake heads – two at the top and two either side of the moustache. The Bath pediment head is indeed stylistically influenced by the Roman era gorgon, which was sometimes shown mounted on a shield and born aloft by a pair of winged victories. However the fact that it’s male doesn’t fit with the gorgon interpretation.

    The head is unlikely to be a sea god either as this would not suit a freshwater thermal spring. Neptune was always at odds with Minerva in myth and neither he nor any other water god was depicted with wings. Oceanus was generally shown with dolphins and seaweed hair, which does not match the Bath head at all.

    We need to consider the head in context: it is displayed as a trophy, which rules out it being any Roman god or even a native British-Celtic sun or sky god. Therefore, the head can only represent a vanquished daemon or monster that is being displayed in victory.

    John Hind makes a good case for Typhon (Tyhoeus). Typhoeus was a giant born by Gaia to Tartarus in order to overthrow Zeus. After a titanic struggle Zeus eventually overwhelmed the giant with his thunderbolts and buried him beneath Mt Etna. Hinds notes that Typhoeus was said to buried beneath places known for hot springs including the island of Ischia, Cumae, Cilicia and Mt Etna.
    Here is a description of Typhon: ‘He had wings all over his body, and filthy hair springing from his head and cheeks floated around him in the wind and fire flashed from his eyes’ (Apollodorus 1.6.3).

    Aeschylus describes the head of Typhon depicted on a shield: ‘The symbol is Typhon, spitting out of his fire-breathing mouth a dark, thick smoke, the darting sister of fire. And the rim of the hollow-bellied shield is fastened all around with snaky braids . . . (Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 486 ff)

    The Bath pediment then could be an allegory of the victory of Roman civilisation over barbarian chaos. As ‘a personification of geothermal activity’ Typhoeus would both be a fitting symbol of Rome’s victory over British barbarianism and appropriate to a thermal spring.

    See John Hind (Britannia, Vol. 27 (1996), pp. 358-360) for the complete argument.

  5. Aesculapius..?
    Almost all statues of the God of Medicine have a bearded man, and a snake around a staff. This could be an image of him floating in water, with his haired splayed out.
    It seems to fit extremely well with the idea that a Spa is a place of healing.
    I can't believe I'd be the first person to suggest this.