Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Ancient Druids -- part twelve

House of Dionysos, Paphos, Cyprus
The tiger is the most unusual animal associated with Dionysos. It was one of the forms that he took in his shape-shifting battle with the Titans; He is sometimes seen riding a tiger on in a chariot drawn by tigers, and there is a story of him travelling to India. The origins of Dionysianism is obscure with Minoan Crete, Thrace and Phrygia all having evidence of early associations.

I see the tiger, in Dionysian imagery, as a link between eastern and western thought: eastern belief is inward-looking and deals with the contents of the unconscious -- the psyche is considered immortal, occupying successive bodies and, as is taught in Tibetan Buddhism, is not the "personality" (which also is the result of genetics and experience), but is the essence of the person once the mortal features are stripped away.

The middle east has been the birthplace of many religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all reflect the fact that  the middle east has been an important crossroad of cultures and thus a place subject to many changes. In western history, Mesopotamia is considered the birthplace of civilization. The eastern ideas about reincarnation and resurrection are adopted by Christianity with its leaning toward Dionysianism and the importance of the vine and in Egypt, the idea is absorbed into the myths of Osiris (who is also reborn). The eastern quest for self- realization is expressed by the hero's journey to the Underworld and his safe return. This is experienced by Dionysos, Orpheus, Theseus and even Christ (resurrection and appearance in the tomb). When a female follower of Dionysos dies, she becomes the "bride of Dionysos" just as Christian nuns become "the bride of Christ".

The Celtic appeal to this sort of world-view is fairly obvious and the ancient writers mention that a belief in successive lives was an impetus to them being brave in battle and fearless of death. The Celtic interest in the importation of wine and vessels for its consumption also links to Dionysos, but the element most adopted is not the vine of the grape, but the ivy vine with its mythological connection with the darker months and resurrection. Celtic coin iconography also incorporates earlier, megalithic imagery and this is often solar with an emphasis on the winter solstice -- the "lyre symbol" on Celtic coins is often a megalithic influenced depiction of a four stringed lyre which Macrobius identifies as being an invention of Mercury where each string represents a season.

We cannot know if the eastern inward looking beliefs are what has survived of the earliest myths of mankind and the split between eastern and western thought was a late development -- supporting this idea is the fact that all myths, from all times and all places share one important feature: they show that the processes of the universe are all reflected in the processes of human existence -- all mythologies are the source of psychology and not "a way to understand the physical world" as modern man (obsessed with Logos, reality and laws so frequently believes).

When the Celts set up their military bases in northern Italy, they were confronted with a cosmopolitan society where immigrant artists from the eastern Mediterranean were finding favor from the luxury-loving Etruscans -- themselves of ultimate eastern-origin. The Celts must have seen many reminders of their own ancient knowledge passed down to them from the descendents of megalithic believers in the endless cycles of nature that are expressed also in a human transmigration of souls. Also in Italy, Pythagoras had arrived and set up his school at Croton and his beliefs (after some troubles) found much support at Taras (which the Celts helped to defend).

The recognition of a foreign set of beliefs being so similar to ones own beliefs can be a "Eureka" moment for people -- it is as if a truth beyond human social structures becomes suddenly apparent. It makes for what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called "the peak experience" -- where religious and aesthetic experience meet. It is no small wonder that the Celt's exposure to these ideas, both strange and familiar at the same time, also gave birth to a new art style. Druidism undoubtedly changed over the centuries, but most of what we know about it from the ancient authors comes from a time well past the emergence of the La Téne style. That the style was not associated with a new religious philosophy at the same time is something that I cannot explain. We have seen how the connection with new ways of thinking have been reflected in the arts -- the Italian Renaissance and the Romantic Rebellion -- even Pop Art, have been reflections of changes in society, not isolated artistic styles. Archaeologist seem to have missed the boat in that one. Perhaps this, too, is a reflection of the dangerous shift toward the Logos where the human psyche is not considered an important part of what makes us human.

Tomorrow, another piece of early Celtic art makes its debut here.

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