Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 11: Three and resurrection

Coriosolite billon stater, 57/6 BC from a mint west of the R. Rance.
Hooker, Series Y, h,45
Last night I was sorting through various academic papers in order to make some of the more important ones easier for me to find (I often just remember some detail and not the author or title) when I came across one about the Celts sharing the idea of the transmigration of souls with the Pythagoreans. It is something that is mentioned by many classical authors and some of them are undoubtedly getting the idea from others, yet there are occasional unique mentions of some particular aspect of the idea so it seems likely that the sources are multiple. Some of them might even be due to having spoken to actual Celts about the matter. The author said that all scholars of the Iron Age are now in agreement that this was not true. So it got shuffled into the "who cares?" pile.

Why would I do such a thing? Over the decades I have learned that whenever members of a single cultural frame all agree on something where other cultural frames can have varied opinions about it, that "fact" is most often a meme. In other words, it is "group think" or "mob mentality". Sometimes, though, the cultural frame can consist of just one person. in such cases, all responses are filtered through this thought and never vary. These are "factoid fossils".

The paper, of course, did not mention what sort of  scholars of the Iron Age had come to this consensus. Were they archaeologists? historians? mythologists? art historians? ― sweeping generalities are another symptom of the meme. Presumably, they were some sort of classicists as all that was mentioned were the texts. I addressed the same topic through iconography and concluded that some ancient Celts did  believe in the transmigration of souls. It is clearly revealed in one of the Gundestrup plates. I have previously posted a draft chapter about this plate from years ago, but have since modified or changed a few of my points.

This plate is so easy to read (in its general concept, not so much  the details): The Celtic footsoldiers on the bottom register march into battle and to their death. At the back of the column are three playing the Celtic war trumpet or carnyx. Its mouth is in the form of a ferocious boar like that on the Deskford carnyx. What was this boar? He was the Calydonian boar who was killed by Meleager in Ovid's Metamorphosis, and he was the Boar of Benn Gulbain who was killed by Diarmait in the Irish story. You can read about them both in one of my early essays.  He and the hero divide the year into two halves and the day that the boar is killed, the hero dies too, but they will reenact the whole story for the next year, and for all of eternity. In front of the carnyx players,  their psychopomp commander marches them to the underworld. He wears the boar as a crest on his helmet to indicate what will come next. The spearmen seem to be carrying a tree with them balanced on their spear points that is decorated with ivy like the one at Manching in Monday's episode. More than two hundred years later, Christ carries his own "tree" to Calvary. Upon their arrival in the underworld they are first met by a Celtic Kerberos, then the king of the underworld resurrects them in the situla, the vessel which once held water but now carries wine as the symbol of Dionysos' resurrection into the god of the vine. They spend only some time in the underworld as Dionysos before they enter their new life, this time  not as spearmen, but as cavalry and they are off to the next battle. Perhaps some of them will soon be back again, to play out the procession yet again. As the horsemen ride off, they are led by Dionysos Zagreus in his form as the serpent, a spitting image of his dad, Zeus Meilichios, who has probably just impregnated another goddess held captive by the king of the underworld, fooling the serpents who guard her. He can only enter the underworld in that form. These serpents, by sloughing their own skins, personify resurrection.

But the cauldron is a trophy too, and it also tells of the battles fought by the Celts in Italy. When they first arrived, they were spearmen with long shields, but around 300 BC they were fighting with swords, and the best of them, those who were given resurrection for their heroism, were now knights on horseback.

We have a threefold history here: they fought and died; they spent time in the underworld where they were the resurrected; and they fought again. You can't keep a good Celt down. Christ was not a warrior like these, his Heaven was a different place, not back here again. His threefold aspect was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The latter was depicted as a dove, the bird that found salvation for Noah from the waters of the Deep, and the bird who Demeter had sent to find her daughter Persephone, who was with Hades. Persephone came back each year and everything grew again. But the boar of Benn Gulbain and Meleager's boar also came back to destroy the fields by killing all the plants as they rooted around in the ground. And once again, the hero had to slay the boar and once again, he too, had to die for that salvation.

The stories are almost as old as time itself, but with different players each time.
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row 
Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
From one of my favorite poets let's turn, now, to Aristotle (De coel. i. ; 268 a 10.):
"For as the Pythagoreans say, the all and all things are defined by threes; for end and middle and beginning constitute the number of the all, and also the number of the triad."
The coin I illustrate at the top of this post shows a triple spiral centred at the ear position of the deity on the obverse. You can also see this triple spiral at Newgrange in Ireland, where it was carved about three thousand years earlier.

 How can this be? You will find out, tomorrow.

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