Friday, 1 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 18: Hacking the druid code

number of vessels made by Greek artists most likely from Sicily
photo: Nenko Lazarov
Everyone knows that the Gundestrup cauldron was made by Thracian hands but apparently it is less well known that besides hands, Thracians also had feet. These enabled Thracians to travel around a bit, which is essential if you are an artist dependent on patrons as, when things get a bit tight for funding in one place, you can move to where there is more money. Greek artists (who also had  feet) had flocked to Sicily to take advantage the wealth there, but when the economy took a bit of a dive some of them found work in Thrace, which was doing much better at the time, and had developed a fashion for all things Greek.

Native Thracian style vessel
photo: Nenko Lazarov
This fashion for Greek art in Thrace did not bode well for the native Thracian artists so they started to look around for a market better suited to their more primitive styles and iconography. Northern Italy was hosting a lot of  rather wealthy Celts at that time, and the Celts even shared some of their religious iconography, so they hurried there as fast as their feet and a boat could take them.

Later still, Augustus was teaching his puppet Thracian king Rhoemetalces a thing or two about the value of nationalism in getting people to question their rulers less, and that led to a native Thracian revival (Hooker, forthcoming) with such objects as the Stara Zagora phalera which, because they were unable to break with the classical style entirely, was only partially native.

Unfortunately, there is no image of the Stara Zagora phalera which can be freely used so you will have to look at the image at the linked page while I point out its defining details. The figure of Herakles wrestling the Nemean lion, is not taken from the same sculpture as on the coins of Herakleia in Italy, but  combines an earlier image used by Kimon of Syracuse with a view where Herakles holds his club and was known by the folks at Taras in southern Italy. The more recent model for Herakles head, on the phalera, shows him with a Roman haircut and appears to have been copied from a coin showing L. Junius Brutus which had circulated in Thrace. The Stara Zagora phalera, and other Thracian revival phalera, used a cruder and more open background chasing that was used on the much earlier Gundestrup cauldron. Even though the Stara Zagora phalera was found with silver cups from around Augustus' time, and presentation phalera were popular during Augusts' time, the cauldron was dated far too late for its style, and too early for the Stara Zagora phalera with which it is compared (although one of the Gundestrup papers does ask the question about what native Thracian artists had been doing for the two hundred years since their last work).
Without a knowledge of human anatomy, especially that people, even Thracians, always had feet, only guesses are possible and the Celts who ordered the cauldron must thus have been the Scordisci who were very close to Thrace.

To decipher a lost language, a bilingual inscription such as the Rosetta stone really helps, and the same is true for art objects as well: the Celtic themes depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron are far easier to understand if you know a little about Greek iconography and how Thracian artists depicted beliefs very similar to those adopted by the Celts. The cauldron is a sort of "bilingual document", too, but it is in the visual language of art. Without a knowledge of art-history, only guesses are possible.

I have also used a lot of coin imagery, both Celtic and Greek. The Celtic coins are also "bilingual" in that it was necessary for the Celts to adopt Greek motifs for their own coinage ― especially those coins which had been paid to them in their earlier, more glorious, times serving in the Italian campaigns and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. The coins were not just currency, they had cultural content and the Greek imagery spoke of heroic battles. So too, of course, did the Gundestrup cauldron. But the Celtic coins, especially those in Armorica were "multilingual" as they bore devices more familiar to the indigenous people who lived in the regions that the Celts later controlled, as well as earlier imagery from those Celts' homelands, too. Some of that imagery can be tracked back more than three thousand years ― religious iconography is especially long-lasting. In hacking the Druid code, without a knowledge of numismatics, only guesses are possible.

On Monday, some Celtic iconography "cracks".

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