Cumbrian Gods | Cocidius

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A sullen sky hung over the land. The mountains had wrung most of the moisture from the clouds, but what little remained now fell on Scaleby.

I met the Walkers are Welcome group at Crosby-on-Eden, but we would give Scaleby Castle a miss. Built by Robert de Tilliol in 1307, on land granted by Edward I, the moat of this remote Royalist pile would be brimming. Attacked twice by Parliamentary troops during the English Civil War, Storm Dennis now laid siege to Scaleby Castle. 

The previous week’s rain made Scaleby’s marshy ground impassable. We detoured along Hadrian’s Wall instead then struck north, over barbarian land, towards Laversdale and its medieval Tithe Barn. 

Walkers are Welcome is a national scheme that encourages visitors away from tourist areas to experience alternative landscapes on foot.

The project has enabled over 100 towns and villages to support their communities through increased economic, physical, and mental well-being through walking. It relies on volunteer leaders to create & lead walks. Today, eighteen souls set out for Laversdale.

As an ice-breaker, I’d introduced the Fox Walk, the ancient technique of quiet-walking in the wilderness. In honour of our stealthiest native mammal, the fox-walk empowers us to move through the landscape without making a din.

The Fox Stance

All eighteen were very happy to look ridiculous and assume the fox-stance, the precursor to the fox-step:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  2. Take one short step back with your weaker foot and rest your body weight behind you, counteracting our automatic response to step forward and start walking.
  3. Step forward with your leading foot and carefully place on the ground with just the outside edge touching.
  4. Roll the foot from the edge onto the ball. Now the toes can gently explore the surface you are about to stand on.
  5. Finally, lay the rest of the foot flat on the earth.

In acupuncture, each toe has four pressure points connected to the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Pineal and Occipital centres of the brain. In searching out the ground with our toes, we are connecting with the earth. Instead of digging our heels in the soil, we feel our way without a sound. 

But what about sight? The two hemispheres of the Cerebrum control the opposite sides of the body, except when it comes to vision. We have two optic nerves that meet at the optic chiasm, located near the pituitary gland. In the chiasm, each nerve splits again. Both halves of the brain now receive information from each eye. When we look, both retinas see the same thing, binocular 3D vision, perfect for the hunter-gather. Humans use 95% focal vision and 5% wide-angle vision, but for the hunted, it’s almost the exact opposite.

It is in this 95% peripheral vision that the slightest movement is detected. A wide-angled seeing perfected for the all-seeing. If we want to move through nature with eyes wide open, we must learn to regard in a broader sense.

Mast Year

Lunchtime. We tried the fox step again and felt the mud slide over the welts of our boots. We soaked up the vast field, edged by the crookedness of Brunstock Beck (Rivolum de Brunscathe in 1279), here overgrown with rowan and hawthorn. This hardworking beck drains ten square kilometres from Laversdale in the east to Houghton in the west and empties into the Eden at Rickerby.  

The air crackled with the fizz of nature all around us. The rain sparked again. A Common Beech (Fagus Sylvatica) allowed us shelter under its oval leaves. The perfect time to pick up a hand-full of beech mast and talk about Beech & Oak’s sensible decision to mass-produce seeds every 3 or 4 years to guarantee reproduction. 2020 is a mast year and the ground is littered with ‘hard mast’. Soft mast is for tree fruits like apples and blackberries, that fall under-shrub.

I peeled some paper-thin bark to show why the Old English words for book (bōc) and Beech (bece) reference early printing methods, the notion being of beech-wood tablets on which runes were first inscribed. Bōcfell is the Old English word for parchment.

Someone kindly said that I was bringing the countryside alive for them and it struck me that yes, nature is animate. When we speak the language of the landscape, we address the genius loci, that protective spirit of the place. Here in this misty, greenfield amidst ancient enclosures and coppices, tithe barns, moated castles and roman walls, in the north of Cumbria, we spoke to the Cumbrian Gods.

Cocidius

Arms flung wide, shaking spear & shield in crazed choreography, Cocidius is your consummate Cumbrian God.

Cumbrian Gods - Cocidius
Altar to Mars Cocidius RIB 2024

The indigenous population had evolved mythologies before the Romans occupied Cumbria in AD72. The first Celtic Cumbrians form their gods around the aspects of life important to them; landscape, fertility, prosperity, and death.

Originally part of the Brigantes Tribe, the Carvetti (deer people) had enough about them to achieve independent status settling most of Cumbria and North Lancashire. Carlisle was their Civitas, the only walled town in north-west Britain. 

The Romans practised Syncretism, the toleration and intermingling of native religions that enabled the worship of conquered deities. Lugus was another Cumbrian god who the Romans adopted, taking his name to their Civitas, Luguvallium (walled town of Lugos), now Carlisle.

The Roman god Mars, originally an Italic deity of fertility and vegetation, became linked with Celtic deities. At Tarraby near Carlisle, ditch digging in 1804 brought up an altar (left) to Mars Cocidius:

To Mars Cocidius the soldiers of the Second Legion Augusta, from the Sanctian century and from the century of Secundinus, with this gift fulfilled their vow under the command of the centurion Aelianus; Oppius Felix, optio, had charge of the task. RIB 2024

At first, a campaign of invasion and subjugation, it took Roman literacy and artistry to reveal Celtic deities undocumented by their oral tradition.

The Temple of Cocidius

There are nine carved images and twenty-five inscriptions to Cocidius along Hadrians Wall. Six at Fanum Cocidius (the temple of Cocidius), at Bewcastle. 

Cumbrian Gods - Cocidius
Cocidius stands in a shrine with spear in right hand and shield in left. Bewcastle RIB 986

Of the six, two altars survived, and two lost. But two examples of exceptional devotion to Cocidius, silver plaques (left)discovered in 1937 in a sacellum (shrine) below the headquarters of the fort, can now be seen at Tullie House Museum. RIB 986

There is a striking Cocidius (main photo) hammered into the rock at the entrance to a natural shrine, at South Yardhope near Harbottle in the Northumberland National Park. Romano-British in date, this Cocidius is unclothed except for a cap or helmet and stands with feet apart and arms outstretched. He holds a spear in his right hand and a small round shield in his left. The style of the figure is of a Celtic god. The nature of the craftsmanship is Roman.

Cocidius of the Alder Trunk

After lunch, we walk another section of the Roman Wall back to Crosby-on-Eden. There is nothing to see as we pass the site of Milecastle 60. In 1851, another altar to Cocidius ploughed up here tells us that the Sixth Legion Victrix built this section of wall and felt the need to honour the local god. RIB 2020

Cumbrian Gods - Cocidius
Silvano Cocidius. Houseteads RIB 1578

There is an inscription (right) at Ebchester Fort in County Durham that ascribes Cocidius Vernostonus (groaning of Alder-trunks) and an altar in Habitancum at Risingham that displays Cocidius Silvanus hunting against a backdrop of roe deer and trees. Both depictions point to a more vernal diety, a Woodwose or Green Man of Celtic folklore. In Arthurian matter, the Green Knight beheaded by Sir Gawain in a drunken wager dwells in the panoply of nature spirits with strong Cumbrian connections.

Either way, Cocidius is a god of war and a god of provenance. We see in our deities what we want to see and their presence helps us come to terms with the world around us. During the Dark Ages, worship of the Cumbrian gods would have continued, but back in the old ways, with no inscriptions or silver plaques to record their worship. Cocidius has served his purpose now and dwells only in museums and archaeological journals. But he’s still there, amidst the copse of Beech trees, running with the beck below the rowan, watching over the old borders.

Etymology Place Names of Roman Britain, suggest Cocco, the British Celtic word for red is the root of Cocidius, maybe a Latinised version of the Old Welsh coit (woods or forest). 

Further Reading:

ART. X III. Bewcastle. Report of the Cumberland Excavation Committee PDF

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