Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ancient Druids -- part seven

Coin of Naxos showing the head of Dionysos
wearing a stephanos 
decorated with an ivy scroll
and an ivy vine beside the satyr. 
circa 430-420 BC
Image courtesy of  Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Dionysos is usually shown wearing an ivy wreath, but I have selected the coin on the right as on the portrait of Dionysos the ivy is depicted, not as a wreath, but as an ivy scroll on a stephanos. On the reverse of the coin, a satyr is shown with an ivy vine to his left.

When people think of the "god of the vine", it is the grape vine which usually comes to mind, but depictions of the ivy vine in association with Dionysos is actually commoner.

In his Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Carl Kerényi says of the ivy:
"Its cycle of growth gives evidence of a duality which is quite capable of suggesting the two-fold nature of Dionysos. First it puts out the so-called shade-seeking shoots, the scandent tendrils with the well-known lobed leaves, Later, however, a second kind of shoot appears which grows upright and turns toward the light. The leaves are formed completely differently, and now the plant produces flowers and berries. Like Dionysos, it could well be called 'the twice-born' ... It blooms ... in the autumn, when the grapes of the vine are harvested. And it produces its fruit in spring. Between its blooming and its fruiting lies the time of Dionysos' epiphany in the winter months.
 Kerényi then contrasts the warm, summer grape vine with the cold, winter ivy vine -- the latter being "the irreconcilable opposite of life: death." Cosmologically, the solstices separate the year into dark and light months -- a cycle that is also represented in the darkness and light of every day. This gives us a clue as to why the Celts might have picked the ivy-scroll as one of their most prominent artistic motifs: Caesar (VI,18) says:
"The Gauls declare that they are all descended from Father Dis [Dis Pater], and they claim that this is the tradition of the Druids. For this reason they measure all periods not by the number of days but of nights."
Dis Pater became associated with the Roman Pluto and the Greek Hades. Iconographically, Underworld scenes often have the attendant serpents. As they guarded Persephone when she was in the Underworld, Zeus took the form of a serpent in order to impregnate her there. She gave birth to the first-born Dionysos who was in the form of a bull.

The Underworld, virtually universally, is depicted by some sort of spiral. It can have a number of forms: the spiral can be single, and represent death, or it can be double and represent either the cycle of life followed by another life in the Underworld, or a journey to the Underworld and its subsequent return. In the latter meaning, it is often a labyrinth that is depicted whereby a spiral journey leads to the centre and then another spiral journey leads back to its entrance.

 The coin on the left, from Knossos in Crete, shows a rectangular form of the labyrinth into which Theseus travelled to rescue Dionysos' wife Ariadne and there he slew the bull-headed Minotaur at its centre. The origin of the spiral or labyrinth is lost in antiquity, likely going back as far as the Palaeolithic. Joseph Campbell, in Primitive Mythology, saying that it also appears as a mental image experienced by some during meditation and also going under ether.

Symbol of the birth of the year beneath
the pony on this Coriosolite coin

 One of the unusual depictions of the spiral is its triple form that can be seen in the inner chamber at Newgrange (direct link to this image). It becomes illuminated when the rays of the winter solstice enter the monument through the roof-box at dawn (the birth of the new year reckoned from the darkest day of the year). Concentrated on stone around the entrance to the roof box are variations of a sun symbol with four rays. Another variation of this symbol is common on Celtic coins from Britanny, as is shown beneath the pony on the Coriosolite coin above, where it is known as "the lyre symbol" (the link goes one of my articles giving more details about its use). A triple spiral is also shown on this same coin and is typical to all Coriosolite coins having only two variations in its design. Other symbols from Irish rock art can also be found on coins from this region and Giot reported that. about that same time, Brittany was inhabited about 50/50 between the Celtic newcomers and the indigenous people who descended from the  megalithic period of the area. A gold lunar-shaped ornament from Ireland was once found in Brittany.

My interpretation of the Newgrange triple spiral variation is that it represents first, a path through life that ends in death; a second life in the Underworld; and finally, and at the death of the latter, a return to a new life in this world (where the process begins again). Three represents completeness and resurrection. It was as true at Newgrange as it is in Biblical studies. We have already noted, in this series, the association between Christ and Dionysos.

The Celtic Amfreville helmet
photo: Siren-Com
When the ivy-scroll became syncretized into La Tène art, each unit became tripled and it lost its leaves (that space often being used for other ornamentation). Much of what passed from earlier Greek art also lost its more representational content with only the basic pattern being syncretized. Threeness is one of the commonest features in Celtic art, being retained even into the Roman period -- for example the Dea Matres.

The material evidence, although scant (which is typical for Celtic iconography) is supported by the Classical authors' common descriptions of the Pythagorean belief shared by the Celts about the transmigration of souls. Its first appearance coincides with Italy becoming a popular destination for Celtic warriors seeking employment by Greek commanders. La Tène art is, I firmly believe, an indication of the syncretization of Celtic belief with the Greek mysteries and their off-shoot, Pythagoreanism.

Tomorrow, how events in Italy later changed Druidic policy in Gaul

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