Monday, 14 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 4: Voices from the distant past

Maes Howe entrance passage
photo: Rob Burke (Geograph)
The apparent proliferation of Celtic deity names in the early Roman Imperial period had always bothered me. I understood  that these names had appeared at religious monuments associated with Roman deities as a response to Augustus' classification of deities and with the intention (by the Celtic priests) to gain income and favour from the Roman government, but trying to fit such a number of names into the development of the Celtic religion, even if extended back to the late Bronze Age, still seemed unrealistic. A number of people had thought that each name had focused on an aspect of the same deity that had been approximated by the Latin name which accompanied the Celtic in the inscription, but regional foci suggested otherwise. A number of deity names had wider circulation, but some of this could be attributed to movements of ethnic units within the Roman army; other Roman soldiers who had become smitten by foreign cults and migrations of various tribes or segments of tribes such as the Aulerci tribes (= far from their tracks) and the Belgae (confederation of tribes with some claims of shared ancestry).

So I could hardly contain my enthusiasm when Euan MacKie posted this message to the Britarch discussion list about alignments at Maes Howe in Orkney, as can be seen from my reply. Euan appreciated what I had to say, which was not a surprise to me because I had briefly spoken with him at the Bournemouth meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in 1999 about the problems he had experienced with getting one of his papers accepted by a certain journal ― not because there was anything wrong with it, but because they did not think much of archaeoastronomy (he originated the term). That is one of the problems with "peer review" ― the term "peer" being wholly inappropriate when used by the "old guard" who are fearful of change in order to suppress such change. You might be familiar with the criticisms of Impressionism from the French academy at the time. Suddenly, a lot of my research,  in the late eighties, into Megalithic imagery on later Armorican Celtic coins had been given an unintentional boost of confidence. It had been an area in which I was very much alone, and perched way out on a limb.

In trying to make sense out of long-lingering Megalithic imagery (from circa 3000 BC to 1st century BC), I had seen religious changes in the world as represented by a thought-image of various wheels turning at different speeds: the greater the cross-cultural influences, the faster the speed. When religions change extremely fast, though, they often take on an aspect not dissimilar to the way that modern cults engender fanaticism. In the busy crossroads of the Near East, both Christianity and Islam had experienced such rapid change. This does not invalidate those beliefs, far from it, but it does explain their, sometimes, manifestations of fanaticism and hostility to other beliefs. The latter two religions also took on a very strong Logos aspect and the source of that appears to be their influences from Judaism which has very strong national-cultural emphasis, and  a correspondingly weak Mythos emphasis. These are all the "law-based religions" which Joseph Campbell speaks of, and quite different from religions which make greater use of metaphor. I have found that seeing Logos/Mythos as manifested on a sliding scale where the extreme ends each act something like a psychosis to be a very workable model, and it was Emilio Valli through discussions on another list, who first inspired me to look into Mythos and Logos and I owe him very much for that inspiration.

Language is one of the strongest carriers of cultural viewpoints and Proto-Celtic is estimated to have emerged by the late Urnfield period, so it is not surprising to see manifestations of water-bird imagery passing from the Urnfield Culture to the La Tène Culture and later. One of my favorite manifestations of the mythological thread is the Irish story of the Children of Lir where the children, changed into swans, are connected in pairs by a silver chain around their necks. The La Tène 1a brooch in my collection that I showed in Friday's episode is especially pertinent as such fibulae were frequently worn in pairs and connected by a chain to secure a cloak. We might even then associate body-coverings into the mythological connections and thus tie that story, through syncretism, to the more widespread legends of the swan-maidens. Lir means "sea" and myths abound of journeys across the sea or other bodies of water (such as the Styx) to the otherworld.

Prior to the Urnfield Culture, which at its close, is manifested in the earlier Golasecca Culture in northern Italy (this will be very important later), is the Únětice Culture, and a division of that is the Straubing Culture of Bavaria known best for their large numbers of copper torcs which appear to have been recognized units of wealth (primitive currency). Although often finished as jewelry, hoards of these torcs in their unfinished state seem to have had a fairly unified weight. I used to own one myself, allegedly from northwestern France although their westernmost find was, at that time, recorded from Alsace. We do find plenty of gold torcs in the late Bronze Age as far west as Ireland, although any function apart from jewelry is not established. The source of  Irish La Tène gold seems to have been the Rhine on account of its platinum inclusions (also present in the gold from Lydia in Asia Minor) and might have travelled to Ireland via the Menapii  which is probably the same as the Irish tribe of the same name. It should also be noted that platinum inclusions exist in the gold coins of Alexander the Great, but not of his father Philip II and that British and Gaulish gold appears not to have such inclusions, but a coin of the Boii was found to contain them.

The latter is also reinforced by the find of a piece of woodwork from Corlea trackway, Co. Longford, with maple studs in ash ― Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, Fig. 53 (and in less accessible books from the same author). Maple is not native to Ireland and there was another example of maple studs used in the woodwork from a chariot from Waldgallscheid, Rhineland (Jacobsthal No. 26). I suggested to Raimund Karl that the Irish example was from a chariot on account of its material, the Waldgallscheid connection, and its  fine workmanship which was not in keeping with a common farm-cart and he agreed having already suggested the Corlea trackway's potential use as a chariot road.

Moving backward in time toward the period of  Maes Howe, we cross the Beaker Culture which greatly overlaps the Únětice culture in time. Evidence, of course, becomes sparser as we move backward. We can see, though, with the Beaker Culture a greater presence of an elite than is shown earlier, combined with a certain degree of military aggression.

So, with such a long period of syncretism, we do not run into much of a risk of Logos attitudes and we see, instead (by corollary) a great degree of not only the metaphors of Mythos, but its resulting understanding of different viewpoints which would have been manifested as religious tolerance among the elite who travelled distances either in military campaigns, or by migration.

This is a very convenient place to end this episode and I will be back tomorrow with more.

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