The Gorgon from the Roman baths at Bath. A Possible Case of Mistaken Identity.
Is the Gorgon head at the Roman Baths at Bath actually Oceanus?
Whilst idly flicking through a book on Greek mythology, I happened across an illustration of a Roman altar depicting what I thought was a familiar face. There were a number of figures on it, but the main focus was Selene, a Greek lunar deity, known by the Romans as Luna. It wasn’t actually Selene who had caught my eye, but the hairy, shaggy browed gent beneath. There aren’t many faces like his in Classical literature, or anywhere else for that matter, so it didn’t take long before the penny dropped and recognition dawned – he was the spitting image (apparently a truncation of spirit and image) of the ‘Gorgon’ face at the Roman baths at Bath. The caption identified this chap as Oceanus. I’d never heard of him before – I know very little of the Greek and Roman pantheon – so I thought this would be a good opportunity to educate myself and, along the way, see if there was any connection between the two deities.
Oceanus was one of the Titans, a group of supernatural figures who the lither, bickering, unpredictable and entirely more human gods of Olympus overthrew. Oceanus, as you have have intuited from his name, was an aquatic deity. He was husband to Tethys, who was also an aquatic Titan, and his sister. Between them they produced over three thousand watery daughters (the Oceanids) and the same amount of watery sons (the Potamoi). Both sets of offspring were expressions of aquatic domains, with the Potomoi appearing to be largely restricted to rivers, while the Oceanids covered all else – rain, ponds, springs, clouds and rivers.
Oceanus was a popular god (or rather Titan) amongst the Romans in Britain, particularly with those who depended on him being in a good mood. The emperor Severus, whose campaigns in Europe relied on a combined fleet, issued coins bearing the images of both Oceanus and Neptune. The Sixth Legion set up a pair of altars – one for Oceanus and one for Neptune – which are believed to have stood either side of the road of the bridge that crossed the Tyne. These altars, at which you were supposed to leave an offering, presumably functioned like a supernatural toll-gate. He also appears in a couple of mosaics. Well, in one of these his image is unmistakable, but the other has been disputed, largely based on the fact that his horns have a somewhat antleresque quality to them, as opposed to the more commonplace bull-horns or pincers. But as the centre-piece of the great dish that composes part of the Mildenhall treasure, Oceanus shows that his head-gear could take on a variety of forms including, in this case, a pair of porpoises.
In short, Oceanus, father of the Potamoi, co-progenitor of the Oceanids, and all round master of watery things, was just the type of deity you might expect to find as the face of the Roman baths, given that it was a temple devoted to water, and is a stone’s throw from the Avon, a large river that leads to the Severn (an even larger river) that leads to the sea. In stead, the visage at Bath has always been identified as a male Gorgon. This is mystifying on a couple of points – the first is that it does not have snakes for hair, and the second – possibly most important point of the two – there is no such thing as a male Gorgon (should that be a Gordon?), and never has been. There are in fact two possible serpentine candidates in his lower beard. But Oceanus was frequently depicted with serpents. In one mosaic featuring Oceanus and Tethys side by side, she has a serpent looped, boa-like, across her shoulders, with the creature roping him in on the act too.
The only thing standing in the way of moving the identification from persuading to convincing was the fact that Gordon sported not dolphins at his temples, nor pincers, or horns, but a pair of wings. But look again at the mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys. Tethys has wings very similar to Gordon’s. These are generally taken to represent her role as the mother of storm clouds – an aspect we must presume was high in the mind of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the second emperor of France, when he chose the binomial of the Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel, Oceanodroma tethys. Could the Gordon at the Roman baths be Oceanus, sporting the wings of his sister/wife Tethys? That sounds like special pleading, but there are one or two other things we should bear in mind before dismissing the possibility.
The face that floated in a roil of hair reminiscent of the surface of a hot pool, occupied the centre of the pediment above the main entrance to the baths and had further distinctly fishy features. It was encircled by two wreaths, clutched by a pair of winged Victories, who are in turn flanked by fish tailed Tritons. Below the Victories are a pair of helmets, the one on the left crested with a depiction of a porpoise. This entrance occupied one side of a precinct, and on the opposite side of the precinct was another pediment, this time featuring a depiction of Selene/Luna, who, as I’m sure you will recall, was the deity hovering above the face of Gordon/Oceanus on the altar that caught my eye and set the ball rolling in the first place. Coincidence? Well, yes, quite possibly. Answers on a lead tablet, to be folded and flung with force into the waters of your nearest hot spring.
Things I found while researching this post. . .
The Oceanides, by Sibelius. Rather lovely. Builds like a river running to the sea.
The author discovered news depths of fortitude by resisting the inclusion of the line ‘Gordon is a Merman’. And then blew it.
And finally, Sabrina Rises. Being the legitimate offspring of Oceanus and Tethys is enough justification for a little Rackham. Otherwise what’s the point?