On the Roman forts along and in the surrounding areas of Hadrian’s Wall Adkins & Adkins count that there are ‘over 50 inscriptions’ (2004: 306) to the god or gods known variously to his worshippers as either ‘Vetris, Vitiris, Veteres, Votris, Hviteres, Hviteris [and/or] Hvitris’ (Breeze & Dobson 1977:263). Burnham & Wacher refer to Vitiris as ‘the “Old God”‘ (1990: 62) due to his name meaning “the Old Man”. A number of commentators regard Vitirus, the old man, as a seer/prophet and wise man. He is sometimes depicted as singular and at other times part of plural deity, yet the meaning of this is unclear as Adkins & Adkins point out ‘[l]ittle is known about his character or function’ (op.cit.). Occasionally one finds iconography associated with him such as altars decorated with a boar and/or a serpent.
What we do know is that the Vitiris’ cult differed from his chief rivals due to having ‘its centre further east, thus spreading into County Durham and down into North Yorkshire instead of Cumberland and Lancashire’ (Collingwood & Myres 1998: 269). For example, ‘[d]edications to the Vetris god stretch along the Wall from Benwell to Carvoran, which has no less than sixteen dedications, and stop there’ (Breeze & Dobson, op. cit). Collingwood & Myres argue that Vitiris ‘had his sanctuary [. . .] not far from the Wall’ (1998: 269), perhaps specifically Carvoran fort due to it having ‘a quarter of all known dedications’ (ibid.). However, one should be wary about such specificity given that this claim is made merely on the number of altars which have been unearthed. For example, the Vindomora fort at Ebchester has only two known altars to Vitiris, yet there could have been a great deal more for what we know of this fort is highly limited due to the fact that the town is built directly on top of it. Also, forts such as the one at Washing Wells are yet to be properly excavated. Vitiris was then a thoroughly North Eastern deity.
Adkins & Adkins point out, ‘[h]is cult appears to have been exclusively male’ (op. cit.). Breeze & Dobson add that the male faithful of Vitiris seem to have been ‘relatively unimportant socially’ (ibid.) due to the fact that they did not ‘put their names on their small altars, or they [gave] one name rather than the three of the Roman citizen’ (ibid.):
the only soldier of any rank attested for [Vitirus was] an imaginifer
We have already established the typical iconography associated with Vitiris, that is, the boar and/or the serpent yet what do these icons mean? Fig. 2 (below) shows a phallus-shaped altar to an undisclosed god adored with serpent iconography, if this altar was made for Vitiris why the phallic shape? Perhaps there was a connection between the phallus and the serpent in Vitirus worship? Hopefully, we’ll be able to shed some light onto this at a later date, however what concerns us at this present moment is the inscriptions.
Many of the altars to Vitiris end with the letter V.S.L.M. which stands for votum solvit libens merito (Hornum 1993:179), meaning (who) willing and deservingly fulfilled his vow. For example
At Cataractibium (Catterick, North Yorkshire), he is invoked as DEO SANCTO VHETERI PRO SALVTE AVR MVCIANI VSLM (To the Divine god Veterus, for the well-being of Aurelius Mucianus, (who) willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow)
fig. 2 Phallus-shaped altar with serpent iconography to unknown god. Vitiris, perhaps? If so, why so phallic?
and at Vercovicium (Hadrian’s Wall Fort, Housesteads, Northumberland)
[t]here are three inscriptions to Veteris (or the Veterae). The first of these [RIB 1602] reads: DEO HVETERI SVPERSTES ET REGVLVS VSLM (To the god hVeteris, the survivors and Regulus willingly and deservedly fulfill their vow). Which might suggest that Veteris was a martial deity and that the survivors were the survivors of a conflict.
But what was this vow? Why would the majority of over 50 inscriptions make reference to such a pledge? What was demanded of them by the Old Man god of Vitiris? Perhaps an answer to this can be found if we look at the basics; if all religious cults seek to further the cause of that specific cult and if Vitiris’ following was ‘exclusively male’ as Adkins & Adkins (op.cit) point out then we must therefore conclude that vow made in the name of Vitiris was a promise to further the cause of this god and his exclusively male followers, i.e. it was a vow to do it for the Boys!
- Adkins, L, & Adkins, R.A. (2004) Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (New York: Facts on File, Inc.)
- Burnham, B.C., & Wacher, J.S. (1990) The Small Towns of Roman Britain (Los Angeles: University of California Press)
- Breeze, D.J., & Dobson, B. (1977) Hadrian’s Wall (London: Penguin)
- Collingwood, R.G., & Myres, J.N.L. (1998) Roman Britain and English Settlements (New York: Biblo & Tannen)
- Hornum, M. B. (1993) Nemesis, the Roman State, & the Games (Leiden: EJ Brill)