The state religion
The Roman Empire had a state religion, largely borrowed from the Greeks. Many of the names of their gods are familiar to us through the reading of classical literature. Jupiter was the king of the gods, Juno his wife, Mercury was their messenger (hence the name of the modern communications company), and Mars the god of war. It was this religion that was used on formal occasions and for public worship. However, the Roman Empire supported and even encouraged dozens of other religious cults, provided that for formal occasions their worshippers would pay lip service to the official religion. Some chose not to. This is one of the reasons why early Christianity was brought into conflict with the Roman government.
The Greetland temple site
One possible Roman temple site has been identified in West Yorkshire, though it is certain that many more must have existed. In 1593 workman digging at Greetland uncovered an altar dedicated the Goddess Victory of Brigantia, a plaster cast of which can now be seen at Clay House, Halifax. The original is at Trinity College Cambridge. The site was identified by modern archaeologists as Bank Top Farm and excavations were carried out there in the 1930s, but no trace of a structure was found.
Altars are not, however, an unusual find in West Yorkshire. Several have been found in the area around Bingley, although no Roman settlement is known there either. An altar dedicated to Fortuna was recovered from the bath-house at Slack Roman fort, and an altar dedicated to Verbeia, perhaps the goddess of the River Wharfe was found near Ilkley. Part of a large sculpture depicting an alter scene was discovered at Castleford in the 1980s. It had been sawn up into sections to make stone drains to line the side of a later Roman road. Only two sections were recovered.
Roman gods and goddesses
Depictions of Roman gods themselves are even rarer. A small bronze figurine, now on display in the Manor House Museum, Ilkley represents what may be Jupiter himself or one of his native equivalents. Another figurine represents an eagle, which was the symbol of Jupiter. The Castleford excavations revealed a number of carvings which illustrated how the Romans thought of their gods. One of these was a figure of the god Mercury which perhaps came from a temple or ceremonial monument. Mercury was not only the messenger of the gods, he was also responsible for conducting the souls of the dead to the underworld. Another interesting item found at Castleford was a stone which a crudely carved representation of two female figures and the dedication NYMPIS (to the Nymphs). Figures of this sort are often associated with wells and springs, and it is sometimes thought that the use of such places carried on into the post-Roman and early medieval periods. This may account for the large number of wells dedicated to St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century and Helena is supposed to have discovered the remains of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. In the case of the wells dedicated to her she may have been confused with a British goddess with a similar sounding name.
A Castleford curiosity
Perhaps the oddest find from Castleford was a small stone statue of what might be a siren. These were monsters, half woman half bird, who were supposed to shipwreck unwary sailors. The Castleford example has clawed feet, a pot belly, arms and wings. Unfortunately the head is missing so it is impossible to say whether it had a birds or a womans head. One of these is distinct enough, but a second was also found, also missing its head. However, the two figures are not a matching pair, as one is substantially larger than the other.
There is little direct evidence of the introduction of Christianity to West Yorkshire in the Roman period. Some later Roman burials from Wetherby may possibly be Christian. The bodies had been buried in gypsum, a burial practice which has been associated with early Christianity elsewhere.
Branigan, K. (ed.), 1986, Rome and the Brigantes: the impact of Rome on Northern England
Green, M, 1995, Celtic Goddesses
Henig, M., 1995, Religion in Roman Britain
Woodhead, A., 1992, Shrines and Sacrifice
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