Sabina the Goddess of the River Severn
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth at least, concerns the King of England, Locrinus, who is one of the sons of the Trojan Brutus who is supposed to have founded Britain. Locrinus leads an army to the north of England to defeat invading Huns who have already defeated his brother, Albanactus, in Scotland. With the invaders routed, Locrinus falls for one of the prisoners he has taken, a German girl called Estrildis, whom he wishes to wed.
However, Locrinus is already promised to Gwendolen, daughter of Brutus’s second-in-command, Corineus. Corineus, battle-axe in hand, forces Locrinus to honour his word and marry Gwendolen, but the king keeps Estrildis as a mistress in an underground dwelling in New Troy. Pretending that he is making sacrifices to the gods, Locrinus visits his lover for seven years, and in due course she falls pregnant and bears him a daughter by the name of Habren.
“She, guiltless damsel, flying the mad pursuit
Of her enraged stepdame Guendolen,
Commended her fair innocence to the flood
That stayed her flight with his cross-flowing course.
The water-nymphs, that in the bottom played,
Held up their pearled wrists, and took her in,
Bearing her straight to aged Nereus’ hall;
Who, piteous of her woes, reared her lank head,
And gave her to his daughters to imbathe
In nectared lavers strewed with asphodel,
And through the porch and inlet of every sense
Dropped in ambrosial oils, till she revived,
And underwent a quick immortal change,
Made Goddess of the river …”
When Corineus dies, Locrinus takes the opportunity to leave Gwendolen and marry Estrildis. Mad with rage, his former queen raises an army in Cornwall and marches against Locrinus, defeating her former husband’s forces and killing Locrinus in a battle near the River Stour (probably the Severn tributary that joins the Severn at Stourport). Gwendolen then ordered that Estrildis and Habren be put to death, whereupon they are drowned in the Severn.
In tribute to the guiltless Habren, she pronounces that the river should bear the child’s name – Habren or Hafren in Welsh, Severn in English, and Sabrina in Latin. Sabrina effectively becomes the genius loci of the river, and may even be a memory of a genuine river goddess. In the seventeenth century, Milton spoke of her in his Masque Comus:
It is possible that Sabrina’s story retains hints at more archaic themes. The subterranean abode of Estrildis does have certain affinities with Indo-European myths concerning the withdrawal of a goddess within a cave or labyrinth – myths intimately related to the land’s fecundity, and the cycle of death and rebirth. The drowning goddess theme has a considerable history, and even when found in more recent folklore “clearly has a considerable ancestry with its possible origins in genuine cult legend.”
Tacitus, in his Annals, referred to the Severn as Sabrina in the first century CE, and the name of Hafren is probably Celtic in origin but, like Afon (from which the various River Avons got their name), probably only means “river”. The English name may just be a corruption of the Latin. Geoffrey’s account is a means of creating stories to explain the names and origins of landscape features – but this is not to invalidate the stories as real myths, for it seems likely that he inherited much of his stuff from earlier sources. We will never know whether Geoffrey invented the tale of Sabrina, or whether it existed previously, and quite how it was influenced by Classical sources – but it probably doesn’t matter. No matter where she came from, Sabrina now has a life of her own.
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