Pagan Fertility Symbols
Originally, the term pagan was used as an insult for those who continued to worship the old Greek and Roman gods, rather than embracing Christianity. Technically, a pagan is a person holding any religious beliefs contrary to those of the main world religions, although today it is more often associated with people who worship the Earth.
On the western side of Royston Cave are the carvings of a horse and an earth goddess, known as a Sheela-na-gig. These are said to be pagan fertility symbols and are thought to be the only non-Christian carvings in the cave. Their style appears to be contemporary with the rest of the site but their presence has never been explained.
Although confusing, it’s not that uncommon to find pagan symbols alongside Christian ones. Sheela-na-gigs, for instance, are often found carved into the stonework of churches, particularly from the Norman era. As in the cave, they are depicted as crude representations of a female figure, naked and displaying their genitals. They are linked with fertility because of the sexual nature of their image, but though some do have enlarged breasts or sit beside men with erections, many are flat chested and hag like, and none are ever shown pregnant or with a child. These differences have made it difficult to determine their original meaning. Their presence on churches may have been to warn the parish against lust or sin, or used as a protection symbol against evil spirits, while some suggest it was to promote the fertility of the land in the area, which the community would have relied on for food and money.
Although assumed to be, there is actually no definitive proof that Sheela-na-gigs are pagan. There were very few Celtic symbols left to study, and those that do exist do not have any resemblance to this crude figure. Their attribution to paganism may have come from the Victorians, whose prudish morals would have rejected them even being considered Christian.
The horse beside the Sheela-na-gig in Royston Cave is shown with a phallus and has been compared to the 360 foot Uffington White Horse, a prehistoric hill figure made from chalk. Horses, particularly those that were white, have been revered by many civilisations, including the ancient Greeks, who associated them with warfare, and the Romans, for whom horses were symbols of strength and power. With the rise of Christianity, horse worship declined but the new saints were still sometimes depicted with one.
Both the horse's and Sheela-na-gig’s genitals do not appear in drawings of the cave made by William Stukeley in 1742, or by Joseph Beldam in 1858. This may be because they were later additions or, more likely, because the carvings were censored. Stukeley believed the scene represents the conversion of St Paul instead, depicting the moment that he fell from his horse after being blinded by the sight of God. Rev. Charles Parkin argued that these carvings show the martyrdom of St Hippolite, who was torn apart by wild horses.
Beside the Sheela-na-gig are the carvings of a sword and a set of concentric circles, another example of which can be seen on the southern side of the cave by the carving of St George. Concentric circles have carried various meanings throughout history. To Druids, who were leaders in the ancient Celtic religion, concentric circles represented three different worlds: Annwn, Arbred and Gwynvyd. The middle ring, Arbred, symbolised the physical world we live in, and the outer ring, Gwynvyd, was a shining realm, a place only glimpsed when in a state of superconsciousness or bliss. At the end of life, the soul may spiral inwards to Annwn, the inner ring, to be reborn, or spiral out to the realm of wisdom or light. Perhaps this carving was to represent a portal to these other worlds. The geomantic and physical position of the cave, situated on the crossing of two ancient highways, has leant itself to the theory that the cave itself was a sacred entrance to the underworld.
To Ley line enthusiasts, patterns such as these, carved onto surfaces, can affect the flow of earth energies in the area. They believe that people used these techniques to manipulate the landscape and concentrate the forces. To others, the positioning of the concentric circles next to swords in the cave suggests a military connection or protection symbol. Similar markings have been found in Chateau Chinon, in France, a prison known to have held Knights Templar.
While no further carvings have officially been attributed to paganism, there are more which may be. The carving of the crescent moon, for instance, to the right of the northern entrance shaft, has possible links to fertility. There are two types of crescent moon, each with a different spiritual meaning. The waning moon, which is C shaped, represents closing down, rest or dormancy. The waxing moon, which is present in the cave, looks like the letter D, and represents a time of growth or renewal. Its position before the ‘Grave’ area, thought to be used for initiations, could indicate it was used as part of a ritual, to represent rebirth and enlightenment.
Then there are those, like historian Joseph Beldam, who have suggested that the entire cave was originally a pagan site, which was successfully Christianised by adapting and changing its carvings into the saints we see today. Beldam, who made studies of the cave during the Victorian period, concluded that the site was of British or Romano-British construction, repurposed by the Romans as a sepulchre and then converted to Christianity around the time of the Crusades. He noted that some of the markings were similar to those seen in Druidical and Phoenician structures.
If this was the case, the striking image of St Catherine, who wears a crown and holds a wheel in her hand, may have originally been a carving of the Roman goddess Fortuna, who is also often depicted with a wheel, or, more likely, the Greek goddess Persephone, also known as the Queen of the Underworld. Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, was abducted by her uncle Hades and taken to the underworld. She is said to remain there for a third of the year and emerges in Spring, when her return is marked by the flowering of plants and growth of crops. Persephone is usually shown wearing a crown and holding a sheaf of wheat in her hand, a symbol of the fertility of the soil.
Similarly, while Persephone was kept prisoner in the underworld, Hermes was sent to retrieve her. Hermes was the protector of travellers and could journey between mortal and divine worlds. His servants, known as hermits, lived in solitude and became spiritual guardians of roads. Stone markers called Herms were placed at road boundaries, showing the carved head of Hermes and a phallus, symbolising his fertility. Perhaps the carving in the cave now considered to be St Christopher, which appears with an uncharacteristic phallus, was originally intended to be Hermes. The carving’s position, directly beneath the entrance shaft, may relate to Hermes’ ability to traverse worlds, or could explain the cave's proximity to the crossroad, as he guided travellers safely through.
Of course it remains speculation, but it’s interesting to consider that Royston Cave might have been a sacred place before Christianity; repurposed, reused, adapted and changed as religions evolved or new ones emerged.
The Path of Druidry by Penny Billington
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Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.