Friday, 20 December 2013

The Gundestrup Cauldron (preview)

I will be taking a break until January -- Season's Greetings to all of my readers.

What follows is a recent draft of a chapter from my forthcoming work on the iconography of the Gundestrup cauldron. The entire work will appear next year as an Ebook -- I will keep you posted. (Apologies for the formatting problems -- mostly due to the footnotes)

The first large plate in my analysis depicts, on the left, a pony-tailed figure who is immersing (or drawing out) another, smaller, figure from what has been variously described as a vat or a cauldron. From its profile and deep form, the vessel can be identified as a situla of a type known from southern Italy. The shape closely resembles an Apulian red-figure pottery situla dated to ca. 350 B.C. and in the Museum of Fine Arts in 
Boston1 .

To the right of these two figures, the central design is divided into upper and lower registers by an ivy branch. The ivy is a very common icon of the Dionysian cult and, although most associate the vine with Dionysos, Carl Kerényi2 says “It is a significant fact that in Greece the wine god never bore the name or epithet “Ampelos,” “vine,” but in Attica was called “Kissos,” “ivy”.” Lysimachos of Thrace appointed Philetairos to guard the royal treasure which had been deposited at the fortified city of Pergamum in Asia Minor. Philetairos was a devotee of Dionysos and had himself made into a eunuch to emulate Dionysos’ feminine aspect. He founded the Attalid dynasty which continued through his nephew Eumenes I (263-241 B.C.) and the coins of this dynasty often bore an ivy-leaf subsidiary symbol as an attribute of its founder.

The usual form of the ivy branch as a decorative element on Greek pottery of a Dionysian theme such as is illustrated by Kerényi3 shows the branch as having a serpentine form, but here, the branch is straight. There is an uncertain, double wing-like object at the left end and the right end terminates in a single ivy-leaf so it is possible that the artist has combined the ivy branch with the image of a thyrsos, the often ivy bound staff held by Dionysos and his attendants that is normally crowned with a pine-cone instead of the ivy leaf depicted here. A more prosaic explanation could be that the artist did not want to devote the space needed by a serpentine branch, although this does not explain why the branch has two terminals as the ivy scroll should be depicted as being continuous and having no terminals whatsoever.

To the right of the ivy branch, three figures walk to the left, each playing the Celtic war-trumpet known as the carnyx. The long instrument is made to be played upright and the horn at the end is in the form of a boar’s head. There is no significance to the appearance of the carnyx with regard to the place of manufacture of the Gundestrup cauldron as the silversmiths’ clients were undoubtedly Celts and would have brought such instruments to any battle that they fought. Both Greeks and Romans used the image of a carnyx as an attribute of the Celts where they often used them as part of the depiction of war trophies.

Above the carnyx players is a serpent which is possibly ram-headed. This represents the form of Dionysos known as Zagreus. Another aspect of the serpent which ties into the ivy theme is discussed by Kerényi:

The snake is a phenomenon of life, in which the association of life with coldness, slipperiness, mobility, and often deadly peril, makes a highly ambivalent impression. ... Of the two characteristic plants of the Dionysian religion – ivy and the vine – it was the former “colder”plant that suggested a kinship with the snake; thus, a snake was twined into the ivy wreaths of the maenads. The maenads tore the snake to pieces as they did the other animals they carried in their hands. They also tore the ivy wreaths, perhaps instead of the snakes.”4

In front of the carnyx players, and forming the lower register of the procession, there is a man wearing a boar-crested helmet and carrying what might be either a sword or a short staff over his shoulder and in front of him are six spearmen carrying long Celtic shields. The procession makes its way toward a rampant hound which faces them. Behind the hound is the lower part of the large figure who holds the smaller figure above the situla.

The choice of a boar’s crested helmet is no accident, for the boar is the Celtic symbol of the underworld, night, the dark half of the year and death as I have described elsewhere.5 He drives the spearmen toward a Celtic Cerberus who guards the entrance to the underworld.

The design of the shields with their small round bosses has been used to support a late date for the Gundestrup cauldron as most round bosses are of a later date than the long spindle bosses such as on the famous shield from the River Witham in England6. The round-bossed Battersea shield was traditionally dated to the first century B.C. but a recent analysis of the red enamel has proven that its actual date was the second century B.C. or earlier.7 In his discussion of the Wandsworth shield roundel Jope says that the dating presents a paradox: the line ornamentation being suggestive of a time before the later second century B.C.8 The round bosses depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron are far smaller than than the round bosses on the later British shields and the shields themselves are very narrow. It seems that the bosses are just a little bigger than the size of the hand. In the early third century B.C., Celtic shield bosses were small and of round or rectangular form and the shield itself had a central midrib9. Problems with this design led to the boss being extended to form the familiar spindle-boss. On some coins of Ariminum in Umbria dating after 268 B.C. a Gaulish warrior is depicted with a shield having such a small round boss. These coins are very rare and their condition is usually not very good but there is usually no clear depiction of the mid-rib. On one example, the shield appears to be of wicker but this specimen is in very poor condition. Another example shows no mid-rib whatsoever although the condition is good enough to show such a detail had it been present.10

The real key to the dating of these spearman is the fighting style which combines a long shield with a spear. In Britain, the earliest weapon set seems to be the dagger and spear, with the long sword replacing these and appearing after about 300 B.C.11 The coins from Ariminum in Umbria must adjust this date slightly toward the present, but it would be very difficult to explain the combination fighting styles of infantry with body length shields and spears and cavalry, presumably with swords, any later than the third century B.C. The related Greek hoplites had completely fallen out of fashion by the time of Alexander the Great.

The origin of the design of the spearmen procession lies in the Venetic decorated bronze situlae of the 5th. century B.C. and it seems likely that Thracian artists working in northern Italy would have had a number of models to choose from. Jacobsthal illustrates two of these situlae12 showing a procession of spearmen with long shields very similar to those on the Gundestrup cauldron. The shields depicted on the second illustration have small round bosses just as is depicted on the Gundestrup plate.

The procession reverses its direction in the upper register with four helmeted horsemen galloping to the right. Each has a different helmet crest: from left to right a crescent, antlers, a boar and a bird. The horse strappings have two phalerae on each horse, but these are of simple design with a large central boss surrounded by smaller bosses or roundels. Most of the Celtic phalera illustrated by Jacobsthal are of ornate pierced work in the early Celtic style, but one from La Tène has a simply-decorated central boss with very small bosses surrounding it13. Another, more elaborate example from a chariot burial in Horovicky, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and dating to the 5th century B.C.
is in Prague
at the Národní Muzeum.14 This example has the central boss and is surrounded by two registers of masks interspersed with sets of two very small bosses. Owing to the plain design of the phalerae depicted the range of possible dates could be quite long.

The horsemen are wearing spurs and rather too much has been made of this with regard to the dating of the Gundestrup cauldron. Kaul says “... spurs were first introduced in LT D, which started about 125 B.C. On the basis of the spurs therefore, the cauldron cannot have been produced prior to 125 B.C. or at the most one two two decades earlier. Spurs are thought however to have been in use earlier in Greek Macedonia”15 Given the cultural range of devices depicted on the cauldron, any reference to Celtic spurs as dating only to La Tène D should not be taken too seriously. The horsemen are attired in Thracian garb and reveal their Celtic identity only through the helmet crests. The artist drew from his models rather freely as we can see in the use of an Italian situla on this plate and in the overall composition of the spearmen which appear to have been taken from Venetic situla art. It remains only for us to ask just how early spurs can be dated in the Greek world. The answer to this question does not come from any archaeological finds which mostly would be dated very loosely – and perhaps even inaccurately, but a date prior to 350 B.C. is proven in the historical record through Xenophon’s (c. 430 – c. 355 B.C.) treatise on horsemanship. He says:

With a horse entirely ignorant of leaping, the best way is to take him by the leading rein, which hangs loose, and to get across the trench yourself first, and then to pull tight on the leading-rein, to induce him to leap across. If he refuses, some one with a whip or switch should apply it smartly. The result will be that the horse will clear at a bound, not the distance merely, but a far larger space than requisite; and for the future there will be no need for an actual blow, the mere sight of some one coming up behind will suffice to make him leap. As soon as he is accustomed to leap in this way you may mount him and put him first at smaller and then at larger trenches. At the moment of the spring be ready to apply the spur; and so too, when training him to leap up and leap down, you should touch him with the spur at the critical instant.”16


“But possibly you are not content with a horse serviceable for war. You want to find him him a showy, attractive animal, with a certain grandeur of bearing. If so, you must abstain from pulling at his mouth with the bit, or applying the spur and whip-- methods commonly adopted by people with a view to a fine effect, though, as a matter of fact, they thereby achieve the very opposite of what they are aiming at. That is to say, by dragging the mouth up they render the horse blind instead of alive to what is in front of him; and what with spurring and whipping they distract the creature to the point of absolute bewilderment and danger.”17

I include the quoted passages lest there should be any doubt that it was indeed the spur to which Xenophon was talking about and not any loose translation of “whip”. Where, exactly, the use of spurs actually originated remains questionable, but it should be mentioned that Xenophon did enter the service of the

Thracian king Suethes18 and one study places the origins of the spur to Thrace, Macedonia and Illyria19. Part of Illyria, too, is within the zone of the so called “Situla Culture” and it is possible that the original model of the horsemen came from a now lost situla and that the artist changed the costumes to the familiar Thracian garb he was used to depicting and added the Celtic helmets as an attribute to identify the nationality of the riders.

The final element is the horned serpent in the top right corner of the plate. The direction of the serpent is the same as the horsemen that precede it and it appears to lead them. Zeus impregnated Persephone when he was in the form of a serpent and in this form he was Zeus Meilichios, the epithet referring to an early serpent deity of the underworld. Zeus had earlier pursued Rhea, the Great Goddess and his own mother, and she changed herself into a snake. Zeus did the same and mated with her, the two snakes intertwined in the form of the Herakleotic knot. This device was combined with the staff of Hermes, the guide of souls to the underworld, and it became the caduceus. “Meilichios” meant "Easy-to-be-entreated", gracious or gentle. 

Aelian20 tells of a grove in Epirus where snakes that are supposed to be descended from the Python at Delphi are fed by a naked priestess. If the snakes are gentle when she approaches them with honey cakes then it is a good omen for the people, but if they frighten her and do not accept the cakes then it is considered a bad omen. The theme exists in Gaul and Miranda Green21 describes a stone at Sommerécourt in Haute Marne where a goddess is depicted with a ram-horned snake entwined about her that feeds from a bowl on her knees.

Kerényi reveals the process in the stories of Zeus and Rhea and Zeus and Persephone:

Taking his mother or daughter to wife, the son or husband begets a mystic child who in turn will court only his mother. To such involvements the snake figure is more appropriate than any other. It is the most naked form of zoë absolutely reduced to itself. Rhea, the great mother, assumes it for the original generation of her son, but this form is eminently suited to a male, a son and husband, who forces his way uninterruptedly down through the generations of mothers and daughters – the generations of living beings – and so discloses his continuity just as zoë does. Individual snakes were ritually torn to pieces, but the snake, the genus as a whole, was indestructibly present, bearing witness to the indestructibility of life in what was, in a manner of speaking, its lowest form.”22

There is little disagreement on the overall narrative interpretation of this plate as showing the regeneration or resurrection of fallen warriors. The situla is described by some as a cauldron, not because of its form but because of a later Welsh story where a magical cauldron is described “that if one of thy men be slain today, and be cast therein, tomorrow he will be as well as ever he was at the best, except that he will not regain his speech.”23

One of the interpretations of the plate24 is that the foot-soldiers on the lower register become resurrected as cavalry on the upper register. If we consider this as a historical account then we might say that the cavalry in the upper register had formerly been spearman in an earlier incarnation. This not only preserves the idea of zoë but gives us a date of somewhere around 300 B.C. when the Celtic style of fighting shifted away from their version of the Greek hoplites to include mounted swordsmen. It would thus not be a representation of a future, but of a past.

The rest of the iconography confirms the iconography of that particular scene by having the warriors associated with Dionysos. The ram-headed serpent is Dionysos Zagreus and the process of resurrection takes place in the underworld – the entrance being guarded by a hound representing Cerberus. The ivy branch represents the continuity of life as zoë. Unlike the southern Italian pots which depict the ivy branch in its typically serpentine form, this branch is shown like a tree, with the wing-like device at the left end perhaps representing roots. The symbol of a tree can be found on some Celtic coins – especially on gold coins of the Dobunni where it is the sole obverse device. Branches and tree trunks are sometimes found in Celtic pits and wells where they appear to have been ritually placed. It is thus likely that the fusion of the Dionysian or Orphic beliefs with those of the Celts thus had the Celts sacred tree being combined with the Greek ivy-scroll. A deciduous tree can be seen to “die” in the winter, only to be reborn again in the spring. In this symbolism, a leaf can be compared to life as bios while the tree itself represents zoë. The procession here is very different from the Greek versions in which the dead are escorted into the countryside and the situla carries the wine for the rites of resurrection. We might wonder if the Druids reserved this resurrection only for the bravest of warriors and that the cauldron on which this scenes were illustrated were used for serving the heroes feast in which the bravest of all would be given the choicest portion. That a situla is shown and not a cauldron suggests that the idea of a cauldron of regeneration actually predates the ritual use of the situla and the change to the situla is an example of syncretism.

The situla was originally a bucket used for drawing water from a well. The Venetic culture used the form to depict scenes from life showing feasting and processions and it appears to have taken on some significance to the afterlife. This idea is supported by by its common depiction in Dionysian processions showing the rites of the departed, but instead of water, wine was carried in it. Perhaps the later miracle of changing water into wine was, in reality, a metaphor for the shift in the composition of the sacred liquid. This miracle is not restricted to Christ but also to Dionysos. Robert M. Price says:

My guess is that it was this contact with Gentiles and Samaritans that resulted in the assimilation of theological and mythological themes from these traditions, both as Johannine missionaries accommodated their message to the categories of their hearers and as Samaritan and pagan converts brought favorite beliefs and mythemes, even unwittingly, into their new religion. Thus in the Gospel of John Jesus repeats the water-to-wine miracle of Dionysus (2:1-11) and describes himself, like Dionysus, as the life-giving grapevine (15:1-10). (Of course the Synoptics bear many of the same traces of Dionysus influence: Jesus’ blood is wine, his flesh bread, since he is a Dionysian corn king.)”25

The source of this metaphor is in the formation of the Orphic cult where, sometime prior to the later sixth century B.C. Orpheus (whether a real person or a mythological founder of the cult is uncertain) shifted the meaning of religion away from gaining material blessings in this world toward the fate of the soul after death.26 Knight refers to this event as “the great reformation”. He continues:

“The mystery cults were ancient religions founded on the idea of human interaction with spirit. ... Before the great reformation, spirit generally meant the life force within nature, specifically the power of fertility. In the Near east for example, fertility was closely associated with water. There was an ancient Babylonian mystery tradition in which it was believed that moisture retreated to a great underground abyss during the dry season. This abyss, known as the Deep, was the source of life-giving energy that sustains the world, and it was from here that the life-giving waters returned at the start of the wet season each year.

In the mystery cult tradition the essence of fertility also was identified with a hero figure, usually but not always male. The seasonal disappearance of fertility was depicted as the captivity of the hero, and its return signified the hero’s resurrection or rebirth. The primary purpose of the cult was to secure material blessings and the continuation of human life. As time went on, however, especially in Egypt, this also became associated with the continuation of life after death.”27

Price cites an example of the continuity of the belief into modern times as experienced and reported by John Cuthbert Lawson28 :

... during a trip to rural Greece, he attended a Passion play. As the local man acting the role of of Jesus was being brought into the tomb on Good Friday evening, Lawson was startled at the manifest anxiety of an old peasant woman beside him. On his asking the cause of her distress, she blurted out, ‘Of course I am anxious; for if Christ does not rise tomorrow, we shall have no corn this year.’”29

We know of many incidents of the Celts offerings in wet places such as springs, rivers wells and bogs and we also know that the shift to the La Téne style of art was associated with the importation of wine and vessels associated with that trade. Their word for the underworld was “dubno”, meaning “the deep”. We cannot be certain if the idea of “the deep” was transmitted to the Celts from the Near East, or whether the idea is a part of our mental evolution as a species – a human archetype, but a friend once told me of an incident where he was setting seismic charges on a hill in rural Mexico. The local people seemed afraid of him and his companions and he later discovered that they believed that he had been sent by God to blow a hole in the hill which, according to local legend, was filled with water and that the ensuing flood was to punish them for their sins.

Finally, from the iconographic connections in this plate to northern Italy we turn to an account of the triumphal procession held in 191 B.C. to celebrate the victory over the Boii by Publius Cornelius. Livy speaks of “2,340 pounds of silver, both unwrought and wrought into vessels of respectable craftsmanship in the Gallic style”.30 We have no evidence of the Celtic production of silver vessels and silver seemed mainly to be used by the Gauls for coinage only, but we know that the Etruscans had a history of finely crafted silver and silver gilt vessels such as has been found in the Regolini Galassi tomb of the seventh century B.C. It is highly unlikely that any Roman would mistake the Etruscan style for Gallic, but the same could not be said for any works done by Thracian silversmiths for Celtic patrons such as with the Gundestrup cauldron. The fate of these captured silver vessels would have been the melting pots. We thus might wonder if the Gundestrup cauldron is the only currently known example from a thriving Thracian workshop in northern Italy that catered to the Gauls and perhaps even to the Etruscans.

1 Attributed to the Varrese Painter, Italy, Apulia, 26.7 cm, Gift of Horace L. Mayer and Paul E. Manheim, by exchange, and the Helen and Alice Colburn Fund 1992.317
2 Kerényi, Carl, Dionysos, Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton, 1976, p.62f.
3 ibid, figs. 127 & 128, the theme is the Dionysian exodus where a situla is carried in a procession.
4 Kerényi, Carl, op. cit. p. 61-2
5 Hooker, John, op. cit., p. 60 and The Meaning of the Boar, Chris Rudd, List 69, Aylsham, May 2003, p.2-4.
6 Jope, E. M. Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, 2000, Plate 60.
7 Ibid. Plate 76 and Appendix 2.
8 Ibid. p. 249.
9 Rapin, André, Weaponry, The Celts, Venceslas Kruta et al, eds. New York 1997, fig. p.345
10 Classical Numismatic Group Inc. Electronic Sale 130, lot 8
11 Jope, E. M. Op. cit. p.53.
12 Jacobsthal, Paul, Early Celtic Art, Oxford, 1944, Plate 216 a - from the Certosa di Bologna , and c – in Providence.
13 Ibid, No. 203
14 Duval, P. M. Les Celts, Paris, 1977, fig. 42
15 Kaul, Flemming, op. cit. p. 2.
16 Xenophon, On Horsemanship, Book VIII.
17 Ibid, Book X.
18 Xenophon, Anabasis, Book 7.
19On the spurs’ development in Thrace, Macedonia and Illyria during the Early Hellenistic times”. – In: ПЪТЯТ. Сборник научни статии, посветени на живота и творчеството на д-р Георги Китов , Sofia 2003, 198-203
20 De Natura Animalium, XI.2
21 Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, London, 1989, (1992 ed.) p. 26.
22 Kerényi, Carl, op. cit. p. 114-15
23 Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr, in The Mabinogion, Tr. Lady Charlotte Guest.
24 Gricourt, J., Sur une placque du chaudron de Gundestrup, Latomus, XIII, pp. 376-383
25 Price, Robert M., Deconstructing Jesus, New York, 2000, p.234
26 Knight, Alan, Primitive Christianity in Crisis, Antioch, California, 2000, p. 4
27 ibid, p. 23
28 Lawson, John Cuthbert, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals, Cambridge, 1910, p.573
29 Price, op. cit. p.88

30 XXXVI, 40


  1. hi john,very interesting.i own an apulian situla circ 350 bc and it also has an ivy band not the more common olive that a situla in the plate?most situla have handles and some have antefixa,mine has both surely these would have been included if indeed it is a situla?i put a link to mine,not the best example but at least you can see what i mean.bought at bonhams 23rd may 2012 lot 26.i
    ps i read your blog and find it very interesting but just cant find the time these days to engage as much as i would like.

  2. Hi Kyri,

    Nice piece! -- the Boston Museum example is here:

    I don't think that the depiction of the situla shape was intended to represent a real situla, rather, that the artist thought of a situla shape when hearing of the intended symbology of that part of the scene. For the Celts, it could have represented a well or spring (or something else) that contained the same sense of meaning of the situla for the artist. I think it was a deliberate metaphor, but it is possible that the shape was drawn unconsciously. I should clarify that in the finished text.

    A Merry Christmas to you and your family!



  3. a merry christmas to you and your growing family john and a very happy new year.