Water Goddess of Ilkley

I have never successfully managed to enter Ilkley Parish Church until this month; previous attempts have been thwarted by closure, funerals or services. Curiously, under its tower, are a number of Roman altars, including one with an unusual woman depicted, holding or bearing two objects. One information board explains that they are torches, while the writers of the Dreamflesh website prefer to see them as snakes. This might suggest it is the local river goddess, Verbeia, after whom the Roman fort (upon which Ilkley Church is built) might have been named. The snakes may refer to the two streams which trickled down, past the fort, into the River Wharfe. The speculation and etymological investigations are interesting but ultimately difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt. The text under the snake-wielding lady reads:


-To holy Verbeia, Clodius Fronto, prefect of the Second Cohort of Lingones (dedicates this altar)

Was Clodius honouring the local river which protected his fort’s flank, or the river spirit whom the locals had worshipped long before the Roman invasion?

Quite what Verbeia thinks of the comings and goings of All Saints’ Church as she gazes, impassively, down the aisle, one cannot say. We Christians reject the existence of water sprites, river spirits and sea gods, for the one, Living God, made the waters and all that is in them. Yet there is a deeper theological application here, too. The Lord Jesus proclaimed in John 7:37-39:

On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (NKJV)

Not only is He the water of life, but we who imbibe will become fountains of living water, too. The ancients understood the value of flowing water- it was a defence, a source of food and place of refreshment and cleanliness. Our tapped, treated supplies are wonderfully more convenient, but they do remove us from the importance of waterways. While the ancestors deified the creation, and moderns discard divinity, Jesus talks about the believer overflowing with life and truth. I pray the good people of Ilkley both find Christ's good water, and that His church there dispenses it to those around it. 

Not to hear the fiery law,
But with humble joy to draw
Water, by that well supplied
Jesus opened when he died.

Lord, there are no streams but thine
Can assuage a thirst like mine!
’Tis a thirst thyself didst give;
Let me, therefore, drink and live!

-John Newton, Gadby's Hymns, No 973