Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 16: Wheel-turners and unicyclists

There is a single mysterious motif in this Gundestrup cauldron plate and that is the identity of the animals at the top: the motif might represent a canine or a feline. It might be intended to be a Celtic kerberos or it might be an Etruscan panther. Perhaps it is Dionysos in one of his animal forms. It might even be something of which we have no knowledge at all. The rest of the scene will give us less trouble.

The central half-figure is of a composition seen on the small plates of the cauldron. He is a supplicant who raises his hands in the orans gesture. Just as in the small plates where the half-figure makes the same gesture, he is the Celtic equivalent of the Roman genius loci. What makes him (and his like-minded companions on the small plates) different from other religious depictions of the orans gesture, is that he is not offering praise, but offering his experiences and his tribal identity. These experiences are the battles that his people have fought and through which, some of them died. They were neither conquerors nor defenders, they were auxiliary troops serving under a Greek general. For their effort, they were given rather a lot of gold. While their campaigns went well, death did visit some of their number. We cannot be sure of the tribe he represents, but it could well be the Armorican Redones, or perhaps another tribe with a name that sounded something like that, or who shared a similar, and very ancient, mythos.

At the bottom of the scene are three griffins. This mythical animal represents gold or  treasure. It might guard it or it might even find it. That it is tripled means that there was a beginning, a middle and an end. It also means that it was the perfect cycle. Three is the perfect Pythagorean number. However, not all who went along for the ride got to get the gold in the end. For those who died in the battle, it was the first step of another cycle: death, the underworld mysteries and then resurrection  ― or the Pythagorean transmigration of souls. A number of ancient authors spoke of how the Druids shared this Pythagorean belief, but today there are more people who prefer speaking, themselves, and who did not listen.

While the griffins are going about their business, who should insinuate himself on the scene but Dionysos Zagreus in his ram-headed serpent form. He's quite the shapeshifter! Well, he comes by it honestly. His dad, Zeus,  had taken on a serpent form so that he could get past the snakes that guarded her, and seduce Persephone. Mother, of course, was the sometimes wife of Hades.

He might take on the form of a boar and get himself killed by Meleager or by Diarmait, or as a bull, and get himself killed and eaten by the Titans. He sure seemed to get chopped up a lot back then ― there was that time as  Osiris, too. You've got to give him credit, though, he always seems to bounce back. Granted, his dad was known to help him out when things got really bad. but that's what family does.

I blame the stepmother, unable to free herself from her philandering husband, she took it out in the kid, like when Meleager was a log and his real mother who had a thing for what's his name, just tossed the boy on the fire. But that was Fate, or I should say, the Fates because there were three of them. More like three witches, if you ask me! Together, they make the Perfect Woman, and she'll run your life, mate.

But it just keeps going and going. Well, that's what cycles do. It's all like one big cosmic wheel and everybody's battling the Fates.

The wheel-turner above Dionysos Zagreus is no impartial looker-on like the pair of them on this early La Tène scabbard from Hallstatt (Jacobsthal 96), He is the professional soldier and he is there on his own volition. He's still wearing his helmet, and in the background, the battle rages on. On the same scabbard are the line of spearmen with their shields, and the knights on horseback with their lances, and on the chape,
there are griffins.

We meet our bearded genius again on this extremely rare coin of the Redones. His ivy wreath symbolising resurrection. His beard tells us he is very old, and before he took up the ivy scroll, he had only his wheel. Redones meant to travel about by horse, but the word was Latinized, later as raeda (Delamarre's dictionary) and was the name of a four-wheeler, (not a two-wheeled chariot). His age puts us back to the time of the wagon:

Hochdorf Burial reconstruction
photo: jnn95

As the legs of the king's funeral bier are human figures standing on wheels, the "unicyclists" You do not put wheels on a funeral bier to make it easier to get into the tomb, nor do you do it to make it easy to vacuum underneath it. You do it because it represents the cycle that the king is experiencing. The human figures, with their arms raised in the orans gesture seem to support the bier.

Of course, most people say it is about a wheel god called Taranis, but there is no evidence for that whatsoever, it's a modern Celtic myth. The wheel symbol appears commonly as talismans in the later  La Tène.

When the bard looked at such imagery on the Gundestrup cauldron, he or she could weave stories and poems about it, for it was only the concept and a historical event that was depicted and not the myriad stories that thus ensued.

No comments:

Post a Comment