Rosmerta of Roanoke: Our Lady of the Valley

Local Gods hold a special place in my particular religion, where I emphasize connection and interdependence. I’ve always been drawn to building relationships with the spirits that surround me, even from a young age when I didn’t explicitly identify as pagan. Going into the woods as a kid, I tried to feel out the spirits of the trees, the living breath of the forest. I craved those immediate, commonplace connections, discovering the hidden holiness around me, and a feeling of intimacy with a place, before I had any interest in petitioning more widespread and historically attested Gods.

When I first visited Roanoke six years ago, I was captivated by it. I loved the small but cosmopolitan energy of the place — the silver whale of the ultramodern Taubman Museum cresting above the late 19th century brick market and railway buildings, the sprawling Tudor-style monolith of the Hotel Roanoke and the yellow Victorian Gothic Catholic church posed prominently on two hills beside the highway. It’s a place where history seems to collapse, and eras sit side by side, in a way that is not often seen in the United States. Most importantly to me — mountain lover that I am — Roanoke is literally surrounded by mountains: the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. It was a place that I instinctively and almost immediately wanted to embrace, become part of, and know better. Even so, it took some time to feel out the Gods here and build familiarity and trust. The first thing I did was learn all I could about the area’s history — natural history, human history — to understand what Roanoke has been and how it became what it is today.

Liminality, Journeys, and Hospitality

via The Virginia Room at RCPL

The Roanoke Valley is a twenty-mile long valley that, in the Colonial era, served as a stop for tradesmen and frontiersmen traveling along the Great Wagon Road. Before Roanoke proper was settled, it was a series of inland salt marshes criss-crossed with trails made by animals and the nearby Native peoples — Cherokee, Monacan, Saponi, Monahoac, Iroquois, and Totero/Tutelo — who hunted them. C. Grymes explains that,

salt springs from underground salt beds create ‘salt licks’ on the surface of the ground. Animals seek out the minerals at those locations, and for perhaps 15,000 years hunters have been well aware of the locations where salt from underground formations is carried by groundwater to the surface.”

This valley was a liminal place, a place to stop for nourishment on the way to somewhere else. It was frequented by buffalo, elk, and deer, who liked to drink the salt water for its mineral benefits (the first two are extinct here now, thanks entirely to early settlers who squandered resources). In the spring, heavy rains were and are frequent, sliding down the mountains into the low-lying places and causing flooding, especially around the nearby Roanoke River, which regularly caused catastrophic damage and loss of life. Because of this, the Roanoke River became known colloquially as the River of Death.

In the 1740s, two Pennsylvanians, Mark Evans and Tasker Tosh, purchased the land here and founded the town of Gainsborough (Lindsann). However, because of the salt marshes, the town eventually took on the name Big Lick in 1834. Between 1852 and 1874, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad came through Big Lick, and in 1881, it was renamed Roanoke, from the rawrenok, shell beads gathered from the river waters and manufactured and worn by local Natives who used them as currency. In 1882, railroad magnate Frederick J. Kimball combined two of his railroads into the Norfolk and Western Railroad and built the Hotel Roanoke over a wheat field on a hill overlooking the railyard. It was styled as a grand hotel to serve travelers coming to the city by road or rail.

The city market built in these early years still stands downtown, serving as a hub for local businesses, independent merchants, and holiday events. It’s one of the oldest extant markets in the country and remains a vibrant element of local life. Roanoke is still a transportation hub, especially for the railroad centered downtown that runs throughout the city. In the northwest, we also have a regional airport that connects us to larger air transportation hubs like Charlotte, NC, Philadelphia, PA, Atlanta, GA, and the D.C. area.

Surveying all this, we see recurring, consistent themes: that Roanoke is a liminal place, a place of travel, crossroads, and temporary rest and sustenance along a much greater journey. The Mother of Roanoke seems to me a liminal Goddess of journeys and crossroads as well as hospitality. She is a Goddess of marshes and swamps, which can be found throughout the valley beside libraries, trails, and playgrounds.

Floods, Disease, and Specters

There’s another theme as well here in Roanoke: that of danger, disease, destruction, and death. I mentioned above that the Roanoke River was called the River of Death because of the spring floods. Even as late as 1985, there was a major destructive flood in Roanoke that older locals still talk about with shivers and sadness. Even beyond the dangers of flooding, Roanoke was a tenuous place to live in its early years. Throughout the 19th century, a legend sprang up across Virginia about Big Lick Fever: “The salt marsh passed along disease to those who settled down there, and by 1800 was already acquiring a state-wide reputation as a breeding-ground for a legendary disease, a mélange of illnesses…” (Lindsann). It was a breeding ground for typhoid, malaria, and smallpox, and the problem was compounded by poor sanitation and drainage issues throughout the city.

Part of the city leaders’ solution was to drain the marsh — the Big Lick herself — and encase the main water source, Trout Run, in a tunnel of wood and, later, brick. The city was built on top of it, the original landscape utterly erased. Lindsann writes that

This repressed landscape asserts itself, like the buried Lick itself, only when it is swelled with rain, floods, and temporarily turns the center of the city back into the stagnant mire it has sought to efface—drowning the streets built above it, rendering them for a few hours impossible to pass through.”

I’ve seen it rise up myself in the spring during long, heavy rains. Water fills the gutters, no longer able to drain into the sewer system, and even shoots up in little fountains from the manholes. Streets and sidewalks are submerged beneath the water, and the marsh — for just a moment — is awake and fully Herself again. So She is dangerous. She can be a specter of disease, destruction, and death, waiting for clouds to become heavy enough with water to fill Her and bring Her back to life. It isn’t that She seeks to wreak havoc; She is merely being what She is, fostering life that isn’t always useful or healthy for humanity. Mosquitos are alive, too, just like us, seeking to feed their bodies and bring forth young, nevermind how they irritate us and carry disease. Diseases, too, are only beings striving to exist — microbes feeding and multiplying.

The theme of liminal danger is also expressed in the urban legend of a lady in black who briefly haunted Roanoke in the early 20th century. She dressed in black, wearing a “black turban” that obscured her features, and was described as strikingly beautiful with “dancing eyes” (“Haunted Roanoke”). She would appear seemingly out of nowhere, following men walking home late at night, even up to their doorsteps. She told one man, “You are not the first married man that I’ve seen to his home this night.” And then she would disappear as suddenly as she’d come. That was the extent of her “haunting”: merely accompanying men safely home.

I’ve wondered now and then if this Woman in Black, something of a stock character in Appalachian urban legends, was a manifestation of our local Goddess. It would make sense in a way: a spirit of hospitality and of journeys, clothed in the color of night and mourning, beautiful and friendly but unsettling. Not unlike the original salt marsh, whose remains lie only a few yards beneath the city streets.

I don’t see our Goddess only as a woman in black, though. I also see Her embodied in the physical structure of Hotel Roanoke, the beacon of hospitality that has been an icon of the city for nearly all of its existence. She might also appear as a ghost train — another stock figure in Appalachian legends, like in the bluegrass song “Silver Ghost” — carrying away the souls who pass on here to wherever they may go in their afterlives.

Our Rosmerta

I recently began identifying Her as a local Rosmerta as I was reading through The British Celts and Their Gods Under Rome by Graham Webster. He mentions statues and offerings being given to Mercury and Rosmerta together at Bath, which piqued my interest for a few reasons. First, Bath is a spiritually important place for me, as a devotee of Sulis, around whose hot springs the elaborate and archaeologically significant bath complex and temple were built. Second, I also worship Mercury, especially in His psychopomp aspect, and I have strongly felt His presence in the valley, both along the railways and at the airport section of town, which is another major shopping district. He and Rosmerta are paired together not only in Bath but also across Gaul and the western parts of Germania.

Rosmerta is most often described as a Goddess of bounty and fertility, depicted with a patera (a shallow ritual bowl for pouring liquid offerings, or libations), a bucket and ladle or a butter churn, a cornucopia, and/or a basket of fruits or grains. McGrath suggest that the bucket may be a variation of the magical cauldron found in Irish mythology. Webster mentions Rosmerta in connection with a wooden bucket found in the Aylesford burial in Kent:

The most interesting objects are the wooden buckets with their decorative bronze mounts and strips in which the ashes had been placed. This may have been an association with Rosmerta, the Celtic goddess of plenty and good fortune.” (117)

Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate. The Aylesford Bucket, as it’s called, features bronze fittings, including two handle-mounts in the shape of a human head wearing an elaborate headpiece. The top bronze band is embossed with rosettes, swirling vines, and dancing creatures that resemble deer. Webster may have been merely making a connection between these images on the bucket and the Goddess, as well as the bucket itself as a symbol uniquely associated with Rosmerta. But the fact that the cremains were placed in the bucket and then buried is interesting to me. Was it the wish of the funeral attendants that the “Great Purveyor,” as Her name has been translated from Gaulish, would provide safe passage to the spirit of the cremated person to the next life in this bucket? Could Rosmerta then have a psychopompic aspect? Or was the bucket merely a useful vessel, or a beloved object of the deceased, and chosen to contain the cremains for that reason? Occasionally, perhaps because of Her close association with Mercury, Rosmerta is shown wearing a winged diadem (or even wings emerging from either side of her head) and holding a caduceus. This could mean that Rosmerta was also known to bestow healing and luck in travel, including (as with Mercury) into the world of the dead.

At any rate, it seems suitable to identify Rosmerta as Our Lady of the Valley, Who has always provided passersby with sustenance: minerals and water for animals, and meat for hunters. Even now, as the Goddess of the Hotel Roanoke and downtown area, She provides meals, entertainment, and rest for travelers. Rosmerta was worshipped at a number of springs and rivers, including Champ-de-Tombeaux, France, Gissey-le-Vieil, France, and Bath, so a marshy place near a prominent river is a natural place for Her.

I’ve come to associate certain things with our local Rosmerta: white tail deer, which are still populous here, grains (especially maize and wheat), fruits like apples, peaches, and plums that have been grown in our area for at least the last hundred years, railways and crossroads, trains, as well as swamps and water in general. Rosmerta of Roanoke is a Goddess of hospitality, movement and travel, transformation, and nourishment. She is a guide for those going through change, whatever the change, and those on long journeys, whatever the journey. She gives us a place to stop and rest, collect and nourish ourselves, and sees us safely to our next destinations. She is the patron of our railroad and airport workers, our hospitality industry, and the many shops that populate downtown. And She is a patron for me in my work as a death care professional, as I seek to comfort the dead and grieving, provide them with physical and psychological space to process this monumental change, and help them begin their long journeys elsewhere.


Resources

“A Heritage of Hospitality.” HotelRoanoke.com. https://www.hotelroanoke.com/southwest_va_hotel/.

Beck, Noemie. “Goddesses In Celtic Religion: Nature and Bounty.” Brewminate. https://brewminate.com/goddesses-in-celtic-religion-nature-and-bounty/.

“Bucket.” The British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1886-1112-5.

Grymes, C. “Salt in Virginia.” VirginiaPlaces.org. http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/salt.html.

“The Haunted Hills of Roanoke Valley.” Gramercy Row. https://gramercyrow.com/haunted-hills-roanoke-valley/.

“Haunted Roanoke.” Colonial Ghosts. https://colonialghosts.com/haunted-roanoke/.

“History of Roanoke.” VisitRoanokeVA.com. https://www.visitroanokeva.com/region/cities-and-counties/roanoke/history/.

“Indians in the Mountains.” Virginia Department of Education. https://www.doe.virginia.gov/instruction/history/virginias-first-people/culture/language/index.shtml#:~:text=The%20southwestern%20coastal%20plain%20was,peoples%20and%20home%20to%20few.

Lindsann, Olchar E. “Passing Along the Lick: The Buried History of Downtown Roanoke.” Roanoke Rover. https://roanokerover.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/passing-along-the-lick-the-buried-history-of-downtown-roanoke/.

McGrath, Sheena. “Rosmerta: not just a consort goddess.” We Are Star Stuff. https://earthandstarryheaven.com/2015/02/14/rosmerta/.

By thecunningwif

An ageless forest spirit. A whole ass Virginian mountain witch. You can also call me Heidi. Animism, polytheism, folklore, spirit work, & witchcraft. She/her.

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