Thursday, 12 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 11. First you don't see it, then you do

In 1886, John Rhys gave a lecture in which he spoke of the great smith, Culann:

"Culann is to be regarded as one of the forms of the dark divinity or Dis of the Celts, and in Greek mythology he has his counterpart in Hephaestus, excepting that, owing to the departmental narrowing of the latter's characteristics, Culann  was somewhat wider; for he was not only smith, but diviner and prophet, the owner of herds and flocks, and of a Cerberus that guarded his house and chattels until it was killed by Cúchulainn."

Cúchulainn means 'the hound of Culann' -- Cúchulainn took over the dog's protective role for Culann until it could be replaced by another of the same age and breed.

Diodorus had written: "The Gauls are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another..." (V, 31)

These accounts have shape-shifting as their theme, whether by the use of metaphor in speech or through the seamless blending of the sacred and the profane in the roles of Culann. The material world, with its defined compartments did not exist. Mythos and Logos was a scale where everything was played in the middle and that is as strange to us as its modern terminals of false/true would be to them. In their manner of thinking, they foreshadowed the included middle of transdisciplinarity. They lived in quantum realities.

In recent years, there has been talk of magic in references to the Celtic smith, but this is often understood as the "magic of the forge" -- the transmutation of a metal from one state to another. In all that we have seen, so far, there is no indication of the celebration of metal -- quite the opposite, the old is disposed of or hidden out of sight. What is both celebrated and emulated is the shape-shifting aspects of part of the Plastic Style spectrum -- the anamorphosis.

Let us assume that the finial is, as I believe it to be, a sword pommel. As its owner catches a glimpse of it from a random angle in battle, or examines it in detail by the light of a fire, various images of the view are reflected in his mind -- as the well-known forms of a monster face, a palmette or a cusp. We can only speculate what these images mean, but he knew. We can tell that by their repeated use in the evolution of the art -- they were part of its vocabulary and it was a visual language. From these images that play in his mind he discovers things about himself and his relationship to his universe. The pommel acts like an oracle and its magic is attributed to the skills of its maker who, like Culann, communes with the sacred.

So why would the transmutational magic of the forge be mentioned when this came from the hammer and graver? Its influence came from alchemy, especially that of the Elizabethan time. C. G. Jung, after many years of study, came to realize that the transmutation that took place within the Vas Hermeticus and the crucible was  a metaphor for the real transmutation -- that of the alchemist himself into a higher state. Jung based his psycho-therapy and his psychological theories on that study and it was eventually published as Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.14) . Jung came to realize that alchemical symbolization reflected the contents of the unconscious just as mandala symbolism did. His patients, with no contact to alchemy or eastern belief, were manifesting this symbology within their dreams and the paintings they made and also, the metaphors were preserved in these structures so that he could successfully treat them. In a nutshell, the mind detects transmutation and equates it to alchemy.

Using the traditional ways of showing the past can hinder us thus with Celtic art. We like to have top, front and side views of things in order to study them -- but what they have to say to us only comes from the eccentric view. We like to regionalize and make distribution maps, but this only recovers the physical landscape and not the mental one. An artist might be sixty years old and creating what is currently popular, yet there are elements in his work that hearken back to his training forty years earlier. These elements do not show up in the work of his main rival, as he is only thirty years old, but they are both capable of creating the "fashionable" out of what they have -- even though their work reflects their personal lives. We might think of examples of each coming from different periods if we are not vigilant. We have to start thinking of people making things and not imagining that these things emerged from regions and periods through some sort of parthenogenesis. The ideas came in the minds of individuals -- real people who moved from here to there for entirely logical and personal reasons. Trade cannot transmit meaning with the object, or the method of its manufacture. Trade is sterile.

Next time, "Monsters in the finial"

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