Sillina ~ Goddess of the Blessed Isles
by Cheryl Straffon
One of Britain’s most unknown Goddesses is one who is associated with some of Britain’s most remote island groups, the Isles of Scilly, variously described as “the fortunate isles” or “the blessed isles”. They are so described because of their mild climate compared to the rest of Britain, and the beauty of their sea and land-scapes. Lying 28 miles off the coast of Land’s End, the isles are Britain’s most south-westerly landmass, and consist now of some 54 islands or 200 or so isles, islets and rocks. Only 5 are inhabited, and then only relatively sparsely: St.Mary’s (the main island), St.Martin’s, Tresco, Bryher and St. Agnes (with the adjoining island of Gugh cut off at high tide).
At the end of the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, the separate islands were probably just one, but by 3,000 BCE, when the first settlers began to arrive (probably from Cornwall), the seas had risen so that that island had shrunk into one main one, sometimes referred to as Ennor, meaning “the land”, with three separate smaller island groups to the west, consisting of St. Agnes and Gugh, Annet + islets, and the western rocks. The people who inhabited this land were the Neolithic and early Bronze Age peoples, and they would have farmed the low-lying land (now covered by the sea that has further risen since then), and constructed their sacred monuments on the hill tops above, which are now the tors and peaks of today’s islands.
These people had a particular propensity for constructing entrance graves (sometimes called portal tombs), and there are over 70 of these remaining on these islands. They were often aligned to significant calendrical points on the wheel of the year: for example, Bants Carn entrance grave on St. Marys [pictured below] and Samson Hill, Bryher, which both face the rising sun at midsummer solstice; and the two entrance graves on the twin peaks of Middle Arthur (Eastern Isles), which face SE (winter solstice sunrise) and SW (winter solstice sunset), working in harmony on the shortest day of the year.
Although we cannot be certain what the Neolithic and Bronze Age people believed, it seems likely that there was on these islands a ‘cult of the dead’, and given the plethora of entrance graves, it may well be that the remains (cremated or otherwise) of the dead were taken by boat from the Cornish mainland to be buried in these western isles. In addition, from analogies elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, it seems likely that the hills and slopes of the land were seen as the body of the Mother Goddess. Two distinctive breast-shaped hills on the Scillies are the twin peaks of Samson, each crowned with cairns and entrance graves. These are likely to have been seen as the breasts of the Mother Goddess, as were the Paps of Anu in Ireland, and the Paps of Jura in Scotland. Other island peaks also have distinctive shapes, and are very often crowned with burial mounds and entrance graves, giving the appearance of nipples on the breasts of the Earth Mother.
However, it is one particular island that becomes the focus for this article. Nor-nour is a small uninhabited island, one of the eastern isles, lying close to St. Martins. A number of these Eastern Isles have a distinctive appearance, with three peaks. One is Great Arthur, Middle Arthur and Little Arthur, all crowned with remains of entrance graves and cairns. Another is Nor-nour itself, which also has three distinctive peaks, which may have been considered to be a sacred area in Neolithic/Bronze Age times.
It may well be that this memory of the sacredness of this island became important to the descendants of these Neolithic/Bronze Age people, over 2,000 years later. For Nor-nour, in the late Iron Age and Romano-British period (approx 500 BCE-400 CE) became a principal shrine to a native marine Goddess. The site was excavated during 1969-1973, when 11 interlinked circular stone huts were found, extending over a strip of ground 49m (160ft) east to west. They were not all in use at the same time, and the site represents a continuity and modification of use over a long period, probably from the late Bronze Age onwards. The main characteristics of the buildings are of a roughly circular main room, about 4.6m (15ft) – 5.2m (17ft) in diameter, usually having a smaller annex alongside. The huts may have been roofed with cross-pieces of stone or timber. The settlement probably consisted of one extended family, with different generations occupying the three main houses.
At some point in the Romano-British period, the houses were abandoned, except for two on the west side of the settlement. These became a shrine, which may have been a specific ‘stopping-off’ place for people travelling by boat from Ireland, Wales and Cornwall to and from Gaul, all places known to have been linked in Celtic times. Here, the travellers could have made offerings to a Goddess of the Sea in thanks and hopes for a safe passage.
These ideas were first suggested by Professor Charles Thomas in his book Explorations of a Drowned Landscape [Batsford, 1985]. Furthermore, from linguistic clues and place name evidence, he went on to suggest a possible name for this native marine Goddess – Sillina, who gave her name to the Scillies themselves. The root of this word (‘Sil’ or ‘Sul’) is similar to that of the Celtic Goddess Sulis, who presided over Roman Bath, and it means “eye” or “vision” or “light”. It is therefore possible that both goddesses – Sillina and Sulis – were related, and were Goddesses of water and fire. Sulis was associated with a sacred fire at the water shrine at Bath, and Sillina was a Goddess of the Sea on the Isles of Scilly, who may also have had a fire aspect.
Fire beacons were lit on holy hilltops in Cornwall in past times, and Scilly too may have had its beacon, as a flame for mariners guiding them to the safe port of the Goddess Sillina. The highest land opposite the Cornish coast is on St. Martins, and ‘coincidentally’ it is here in later Christian times that a lighthouse-chapel was built to keep up the beacon fires. If this was only building on an earlier tradition, then we may envisage the shrine at Nor-nour marked by a sacred fire on Chapel Downs, St. Martins, with perhaps a series of bonfires running up the country to the shrine of Sulis (Minerva) at Bath, both sister Goddesses linked in a great chain of fiery connection.
The finds from the shrine rooms on Nor-nour were astounding. These included about 300 brooches, 35 bronze rings, 11 bronze bracelets and bangles, 2 bronze spoons, 84 Roman coins, 24 glass beads, and numerous fragments of glass vessels, miniature pots, and pieces of Gallic clay figurines, including a Dea Nutrix (‘nursing mother’), and a ‘Venus’ or Goddess figurine [illustrated left]. These were all interpreted by the excavators of the site as votive offerings to the marine Goddess to ask for a fair wind and safe passage. It may also not be too fanciful to suggest that the extant ‘Venus’ figurine may have been intended to be a representation of Sillina herself, made as an offering to Her in the hope of a favourable outcome to the prayers of her followers.
So, here on the very eastern edge of the Scillies, where few now visit and the seals and birds hold sway, the place was for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years the focus of a Goddess-celebrating peoples, a pilgrimage centre to which travellers came from far and near to worship and celebrate and give votive offerings. Now only the storms of the sea crash on the shore, where the deserted and ruined remains are a vivid reminder of where once stood the temples, shrines and living quarters, a sacred holy place where the Goddess was alive and her spirit flowed through the hills and sea.
For perhaps 1500 years all trace of Sillina’s name and worship were forgotten. Then in the early 1960s, the exposed buildings on the island were uncovered and excavated. The excavation revealed the existence of the shrine, and Professor Charles Thomas gave its Goddess a name and a reality. So, at the turn of the Millennium, in 2001, a small group of us decided to try and get to her island, and once again name Her and pay homage to Her. Nor-nour is not an easy place to visit. No scheduled boat trips go there: the nearest chance anyone gets is on a trip around the eastern isles, where passengers may get a sight of Nor-nour, or if they are very lucky, persuade the boatmen to put them briefly down there. There are no landing jetties or pontoons, so it is a case of wading through the shallow water to get on to the beach.
However, as there were about a dozen of us, we decided to approach the Boatmens’ Association on St. Marys to see if we could charter a boat specially to take us to the island and leave us there for a few hours. The Boatmen were willing, a fair price was agreed, and everything then depended on the tides and weather, and smoothness of the sea. We travelled over to St. Marys from the mainland, and awaited the agreed day with some apprehension. But the Goddess obviously meant us to go there, for tides, weather and sea state were all fine, and on one memorable day we set off for the island. After having waded ashore, the boat left us to it for the rest of our time. We processed to one of the huts which had a cup-marked stone that served as a libation site, and poured some honey that we had brought with us into it as an offering to the spirits of the island.
Then we started chanting Sillina’s name and invoked Her presence, probably the first time She had been called in there for over a thousand years. We built it up to a climax, raising energy for the site and the Goddess. It felt a huge priviledge to be there, and afterwards we all went off individually to explore the rest of the island, and climb up to the peaks above, where some of us continued to praise Silliana. By the time the boat came back for us later in the afternoon, we all felt a bit ‘spaced out’ if we had been in another dimension.
That was a memorable visit to Sillina’s blessed isles, and for a whole decade I did not return to the Scillies – until earlier this year, when a group of 3 of us spent a week there. We didn’t make it to Nor-nour this time, but as we were there for the Summer Solstice we did do a ritual honouring Her once again, and this time one of our Group embodied Her, which was an awe-inspiring experience. We made Her offerings of shells and pebbles, and She blessed and empowered us. Sillina was alive again on this most magical of Isles!