Nymphs versus Christ: the battle for souls

A nature spring or a shrine to Roman spirits?

The story of the villa is one of elite wealth, luxury and entertainment. Deeper, more spiritual tales can also be found here, however.

They tell of the differences between state religion and personal belief and the reluctance to let go of the old ways, perhaps in the face of uncertainty.

Spirits of nature protect the water

When you visit Chedworth you will find the remains of what is known as the Nymphaeum. This is where a natural spring is captured and a shrine to the female spirits of nature, or nymphs was built. The spring water was fed into an eight sided pool with stone coping slabs. From here the water went to the villa buildings.

A new religion moves in

The nymphs ruled the shrine for years, but at some point in the fourth century AD, the world around them was shifting. Christianity became the favoured religion of the emperors, and many of the people. This filtered through to Chedworth.

Christ, the new protector of the spring
Christ, the new protector of the spring
Christ, the new protector of the spring

In the museum you can see a stone which was once a coping slab around the nymph's pool. On it is a tiny inscribed mark, which is known as the Chi Rho, and represents the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek. Exit nymphs enter Christ, the new protector of the spring.

Round two, the nymphs are back

But the story doesn't end here. The stone wasn't discovered by the pool, but being re-used to make up some new steps in the west bath house. The mark of Christ now hidden away. The old spirits are back in charge at the spring.

The stuff of life

For me, this is also a reminder of how important the provision of water was to the villa. Ensuring this water supply was suitably protected by some spiritual force was clearly important to th people that lived here. Without the spring, the baths couldn't function, the toilets flush or food and drink be prepared. We use this very same spring to supply water to our visitors today, though after a recent drought we now have a back-up system in place.