Friday, 25 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 13: Megalithic roots

Newgrange building display visitors centre
photo: the untraceable Aligatorek
One of the most mysterious monuments of prehistory is Newgrange temple/passage grave in Ireland. Today, that mystery is preserved by its management company who forbids photography inside the monument, and by the only book which records all of its petroglyphs (many not visible today) having its diagrams protected by copyright. If you follow the above link to the unsearchable entry in Google Books, you will see that the policies are working excellently as the only reviewer says: "I too, have not read the book. But I will surely cite it in my archaeology paper due tomorrow". They have even managed to keep such valuable information from Andy Burnham's magnificent site: The Megalithic Portal. Surely, they must all be congratulated for their glowing endorsement of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetic lines:
"It is above all that, oh yes. It sits upon the choicest of Church seats up where art directors meet to choose the things for immortality. And they have lain with beauty all their lives. And they have fed on honeydew and drunk the wines of Paradise so that they know exactly how a thing of beauty is a joy forever and forever and how it never never quite can fade into a money-losing nothingness." But I have read the book and I can verbally describe some of these petroglyphs, and so spill out another blog post upon the Bosch-like world. I don't think they can stop that, can they?

We will start with one of their freebie marketing images, the triple spiral, so I'll hand the mike over to Joseph Campbell:
"The fear of the dark, which is so strong in children, has been said to be a function of their fear of returning to the womb: the fear that their recently achieved daylight consciousness and not yet secure individuality should be reabsorbed. In archaic art, the labyrinth―home of the child-consuming Minotaur―was represented in the figure of a spiral. The spiral also appears spontaneously in certain stages of meditation, as well as to people going to sleep under ether. It is a prominent device, furthermore, at the silent entrances and within the dark passages of the ancient Irish kingly burial mound of New Grange. These facts suggest that a constellation of images denoting the plunge and dissolution of consciousness in the darkness of non-being must have been employed intentionally, from an early date, to represent the analogy of threshold rites to the mystery of the entry of the child into the womb for birth."  Primitive Mythology, p 65f
Now, a body (or those reenacting the events) can be taken along that birth-passage at Newgrange to be deposited in the womb or inner chamber, and its soul can then leave that place to be born again by the same route. But there is another, small, passage above the symbolic birth passage, where the first rays of the dawn sun at the winter solstice enter into the womb at its entrance, the "roof-box", and it illuminates the triple spiral in that womb. As above, so below. While the concept is widespread, the Wikipedia entry questions for citation with regard to the Vedas. The only corresponding citation that I can find on the web is badly misquoted. The language bothered me, and as I have the Rig Veda (in a 1992 Book of the Month Club edition of all things!), I looked at that verse in Book 1. Despite, the publisher, the exact wording also appears on the Sacred Texts site:
"Who, that the father of this Calf discerneth beneath the upper realm, above the lower, Showing himself a sage, may here declare it? Whence hath the Godlike spirit had its rising?"
Perhaps the former text was a published interpretation, but if so, it missed out on its "threeness" ― "beneath the upper realm, above the lower". For the sake of anyone finding this through Google and not reading the entire series, I am repeating what I gave earlier from Aristotle:
"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."

That the Rig Veda is thought to date from 1500 -1200 BC gives us an intermediary position between Newgrange and the Celts whom the classical authors said held Pythagorean views about the transmigration of souls. Pythagoras was originally an Orphic, and this is strongly related to Dionysism, with its three-fold depiction of the slaying of Dionysos as a bull, and its three stages of the transmigration of the dead warriors, both on the Gundestrup cauldron. To this, we can add the legends of Dionysos' journey to India.

I am certainly not saying that there is any communication between the people at Newgrange and India, but Jung found much Indian symbology in the unconscious and he said that this was due to the inward-looking nature of eastern religion. What we can see of the Megalithic beliefs is not very "western". We have no heroes celebrated, nor do we have traces of deities. It was certainly not a collection of local cults with one or two similarities shared. It has the stamp of the later great religions which had great consistency over a large geographical area.

There could, however, have been a secondary connection tying Ireland to India during the La Tène period: Irish gold of the period has platinum inclusions, and British and gaulish gold does not. It might well have been brought there by the Menapii, as Rhine placer gold has such inclusions, but there is another possibility as well, and that is the penultimate origin could have been gold staters of Alexander the Great. He obtained such gold from Lydian sources, and he was in that general area because of his own journey to ancient India. Two pieces of evidence give this some weight (but also to the Menapii connection): a gold stater of the Boii had platinum inclusions, and a paper in an archaeometallurgical journal (which I have yet to obtain, but I got the information from an archaeometallurgist with knowledge of the Celts) said that the gold at Waldalgesheim, famous for its "Dionysian" vegetal scrolls was found to have been made from melted Persian gold darics. The gold source for these Persian coins was the rivers of Lydia. There is also ample evidence for Dionysos in both Lydia and in Phrygia, to the north.

Xenophon's Anabasis was his account of his escape from Persian lands. He also wrote a treatise on horsemanship in which he talks about spurs in two places. He also found employment among the Thracians. Thracian workmen, in Italy, depicted the Celtic knights wearing spurs in the Gundestrup procession plate. The Celts did not adopt the spur until later. Many of the pottery vessels that served as inspiration for the
La Tène styles in the Rhineland were made, in Italy, by eastern Mediterranean potters escaping the Persians who had overrun their former countries. The Boii also had a large base in Italy.While you are looking at the last link, pay attention to the Coriosolite coins with its version of the Newgrange triple spiral centered at the ear position on the head. This triple spiral is the junction of three hair masses or locks, and this is a common feature in Armorican coinage.

Baiocasses coin (Normandy)

We see these three locks on the coin of the Baiocasses to the left. Above the head is what is called the Lyre symbol which has four strings. Macrobius (Sat. i. 19) reported that the four string lyre was the invention of Hermes/Mercury and that each string represented one of the four seasons. Caesar said the the god most reverenced by the Celts was Mercury, but Lucian reveals (in Hercules) that the Celts depicted Hermes as Hercules, and called him Ogmios:

The Celts call Heracles Ogmios in their native tongue, and they portray the god in a very peculiar way. To their notion, he is extremely old, baldheaded, except for a few lingering hairs which are quite gray, his skin is wrinkled, and he is burned as black as can be, like an old sea-dog. You would think him a Charon or a sub-Tartarean Iapetus anything but Heracles! Yet, in spite of his looks, he has the equipment of Heracles: he is dressed in the lion's skin, has the club in his right hand, carries the quiver at his side, displays the bent bow in his left, and is Heracles from head to heel as far as that goes. I thought, therefore, that the Celts had committed this offence against the good-looks of Heracles to spite the Greek gods, and that they were punishing him by means of the picture for having once visited their country on a cattle-lifting foray, at the time when he raided most of the western nations in his quest of the herds of Geryon. But I have not yet mentioned the most surprising thing in the picture. That old Heracles of theirs drags after him a great crowd of men who are all tethered by the ears! His leashes are delicate chains fashioned of gold and amber, resembling the prettiest of necklaces. Yet, though led by bonds so weak, the men do not think of escaping, as they easily could, and they do not pull back at all or brace their feet and lean in the opposite direction to that in which he is leading them. In fact, they follow cheerfully and joyously, applauding their leader and all pressing him close and keeping the leashes slack in their desire to overtake him; apparently they would be offended if they were let loose! But let me tell you without delay what seemed to me the strangest thing of all. Since the painter had no place to which he could attach the ends of the chains, as the god's right hand already held the club and his left the bow, he pierced the tip of his tongue and represented him drawing the men by that means! Moreover, he has his face turned toward his captives, and is smiling I had stood for a long time, looking, wondering, puzzling and fuming, when a Celt at my elbow, not unversed in Greek lore, as he showed by his excellent use of our language, and who had, apparently, studied local traditions, said: "I will read you the riddle of the picture, stranger, as you seem to be very much disturbed about it. We Celts do not agree with you Greeks in thinking that Hermes is Eloquence: we identify Heracles with it, because he is far more powerful than Hermes. And don't be surprised that he is represented as an old man, for eloquence and eloquence alone is wont to show its full vigour in old age, if your poets are right in saying 'A young man hath a wandering wit' and 'Old age has wiser words to say than youth.' That is why your Nestor's tongue distils honey, and why the Trojan counsellors have a voice like flowers (the flowers mentioned are lilies, if my memory serves). This being so, if old Heracles here drags men after him who are tethered by the ears to his tongue, don't be surprised at that, either: you know the kinship between ears and tongue. Nor is it a slight upon him that his tongue is pierced. Indeed," said he, "I call to mind a line or two of comedy which I learned in your country: the talkative have, one and all, their tongues pierced at the tip. In general, we consider that the real Heracles was a wise man who achieved everything by eloquence and applied persuasion as his principal force. His arrows represent words, I suppose, keen, sure and swift, which make their wounds in souls. In fact, you yourselves admit that words are winged." 
I was discussing this and Armorican coin imagery, with Helen Benigni, one of the authors of The Myth of the Year. In the subsequent edition of their Celtic Calendar they needed a name for their intercalary month and decided on "Ogmios". She sent me a copy of the book, writing on the title page "Thanks for Ogmios, All my love, Helen".  They also added an Ogmios page to the site.

The lyre, and related symbols, can be found in a number of forms carved into some of the stones at Newgrange. There is evidence that these stones were decorated before being placed in their present locations. We might expect, however, that some consideration was made about where certain forms of decoration would be placed.

There are eight examples (K2, K88, Co.1/K7, Roofbox) of this symbol that have been observed so far, one having the four lines of the "lyre" variation, two having double sets of four lines. Three others appear to have the rays emerging from a dish-shaped or broken baseline: two of these have four rays, one has a double set of four. Of the eight examples, then, six have a single or double set of four rays. These "radiate suns" may have a central circle, a central pellet, or a combined central pellet-in-circle, with or without an additional pellet outside the circle, central to the radiate lines.

One of these representations of the radiate sun symbol, on K88, consists of two sets of lines radiating from a central pellet close to the pellet-in-circle; the rays, themselves ending in attached pellets, are surmounted by an arc of seven pellets. The sun symbol on the back corbel stone of the roof-box has six radiate lines, or four plus a broken baseline, and omits the circle, leaving only the central pellet. Nineteen pellets are arranged in two semi-circular rows around this symbol. The sets of nineteen and seven pellets on various of these radiate suns represent the nineteen year cycle for reconciling solar and lunar time, which involves an intercalation of seven months.

Another Baiocasses coin with the boar

in the same position as the lyre
On all Coriosolite coins there is either a lyre or a boar beneath the pony on the reverse. This is not a mint distinction as my Series X has both (Series Y has only the boar). On coins of the Xn Series (formerly Abrincatui), two closely related heads have either a lyre or three circles on their cheeks. The chariot driver on the Coriosolite series X coins carries a sun sceptre with the head drawn as a pellet within a circle, but there are two exceptions (13 and 27), and the head of those sceptres has a fleur-de-lis or trefoil shape (three leaves). In the Mabinogion, Olwen, a Welsh Venus whose name meant "Her of the White Track" was so called because wherever she trod, four white trefoils would spring up.

A counterpart of Olwen was Blodeuwedd, "Flower aspect," the wife of Llew, the sun god. She had a lover, and together they plotted the death of Llew, but Llew was brought back to life, and Blodeuwedd was changed into an owl. Blodeuwedd represented the dawn and dusk; her lover, the night - but the sun vanquished them both. The story is convoluted, but it is reminiscent of how Persephone came to spend half of the year with Hades and the other half with her mother Demeter. When she was in the Underworld nothing could grow, and thus winter was explained.

Osismii coin
The most "literary" Armorican coin, a stater of the Osismii illustrated on the left tells the whole story of the year. It starts with the birth of the year represented by the boar in the same position as on the previous Baiocasses stater. The boar, typical to many Armorican coins, including all Coriosolite coins which have the boar beneath the pony (Series Z is actually Unelli) has a baseline from which the sun (symbol) rises. At the time of Newgrange this was the winter solstice dawn. The story is carried by following the beaded lines. The lower beaded line runs from the front of the boar to a small head in front of Hermes Ogmios' mouth. Nothing extends from the forehead of that small head. From that head, it issues upward to meet another small head where an unfolding shoot is depicted. Running behind the boar, it continues to the third small head where the fruit starts to emerge. The boar has to always be in the centre by their iconographical tenets, but the artist has managed to incorporate the progression of the year with the use of the guiding beaded lines, while following that tenet and also following the tenets of composition: the three small heads must be equidistant. Without the beaded lines to follow, the positions head with the fruit and the boar would have to be switched and that would destroy the composition. At the back of the head, a triangle of beads plays the role of the triple spiral of Newgrange and the Coriosolite head In the dead of winter, nothing can be planted and nothing grows; before the spring, life has started again, but the seed's sprout has yet to break the surface; in late spring to early summer the leaves are growing and in the autumn, the plant bears fruit.. The design combines a three, and a fourfold division of the year thus. We have the boar in Mid december when nothing is planted, the seed has not broken the ground by mid March but is growing mature in June and bears fruit in September. Such a division would be in accord with the climactic conditions of the seasons at that time, or would be a continued tradition from another place and time. It is fairly typical for a colder climate, although one not as cold as where I live with its short growing season.

Coin of the Aulerci Eburovices
The lunar aspect of the calendar is represented in the coin to the right which is of the Aulerci Cenomani. In the Belgic style, a highly abstracted head which derives from the stater of Philip II of Macedon, copies of which were paid to Celtic troops for the Italian campaigns at the recruiting centres of eastern Armorica and nearby. Apollo's wreath is turned into an ear of grain and a line through it forms a cross. At one end of this line is a bead which represents the midsummer solstice, at the other end is the boar, who in Irish myth is the boar of Benn Gulbain, and in classical mythology, the Calydonian boar who was killed by the hero Meleager, who also had to die like Diarmait. The Roman version is conflated with the northern tradition of the Yule log. Meleager's life is measured by the time it takes the log to burn, as was decreed by the Fates themselves, and symbolic of the birth to death of the year. Meleager's angry mother kills her son by throwing the log into the fire after he has slayed the boar. The Celtic mistletoe with its semen-like berries refers to the castration of Uranus by his son Cronus which ends the year (think about that next time you kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas). On the coin above, the boar stands upon the lunar crescent. The boar is Celtic, the Lunula is both Celtic and Irish (an Irish gold lunula was found in Brittany).

In John Koch (ed), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, in the entry for Celtic coinage, I explain how the Celts adopted the Philip II coin design because it was military currency. While they rarely depicted the human form outside of areas with strong classical connections, the coins were thus not just currency, but expressions of the heroic.

The as above, so below, concept at Newgrange was also expressed in a specially marked series of Coriosolite coins (within Series Y, Group H) with the use of banners in front of the pony. The commonest "Union Jack" variety which shows up on many Celtic coins is also exactly portrayed on a stone in a subsidiary chamber at Dowth, Ireland. Related to this are crosses on Armorican omphali and "Druid ritual spoons" in Britain, and the cross at Calvary reflects the Dionysian aspect with the subsequent resurrection of Christ.

The many strands of this cable weave in and out and over a vast time period in many places, and even that is expressed in early Celtic art, as I will explain on Monday. Have a great weekend!

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