Monday, 4 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 19: Interpreting Celtic coin iconography

Fig. 1. Variations on a theme
A set of banner designs on Coriosolite Series Y,
Group H1/2, coins. Each die on this  sub-group is specially
marked and in each banner, the top half opposes the 
bottom half as a lesson in Celtic iconography
In the Druid schools, writing was taboo and the student was expected to memorize a great amount of information in verse form. None of that information is available to us today, because even if such verses were
memorized and eventually written down in the Medieval period, there is no way to reconstitute the original because the stories become changed over time to better relate to the people in those times.

After studying Coriosolite coinage for many years, it was apparent to me that many of the motifs had religious significance and that some artists sought interesting ways of explaining that significance. I had noticed that the exact design of the banners in front of the pony in Series Y seemed arbitrary and that the die engraver would vary the designs and would take up, abandon, and take up again various forms of that motif. The clincher, though, was when he built a set of variations one after the other over a part of the chronology and  specially marked those die, on the obverse with the use of a C-shaped mouth, and on the reverse, with a martingale in front of the pony. The moneyers, though, mixed up the order so that the sequence ended up being stagger by one die and the first and last coins only showed the obverse and the reverse of the sequence. Some of the middle designs might have been mixed as well, but as there were no "evolutionary" changes to that sequence, the intended order of each within the series could not be determined.

Reasoning that the meaning of these banners would be the same and that the different designs would all share a particular characteristic, it was easy to see that the "as above, so below" concept was being demonstrated by having the top half mirror the bottom half as a visual metaphor. But why should I reason this way? Just because I see some pattern in the data and then interpret it, does not mean that the same pattern and interpretation was intended by the original artist. This is where the subject can so easily go "pear-shaped" for the novice. Such novices fall into two, broad, categories: the first (Introvert/Mythos/Yin) says (in essence): "I am seeing this and because, when I point it out to other like-minded people who see it too, it must thus be true". The second category (Extravert/Logos/Yang) says "The whole thing is just too subjective, and besides, a certain symbol in one place might mean something completely different in some other place".
These are extremes: people who will stop at that thought and go no further. Most people, and those closer to the centre of the two poles, especially, will see both ends of the problem and thus will be able to resolve it with a new reality. At the poles, only classical logic is possible and only one can be right, but in the middle is a zone of transdisciplinary potential where a new state can exist which too, contains two poles, and at their middle is another new state where... .This is the area where we also find the wave/particle duality and Schrodinger's Cat.

Before it is possible to find evidence to resolve the problem, the requirements of the problem have to be simplified. The reason for this is that when faced with a very specific problem, the chances are great that it also contains a very high measure of uniqueness. We need to make it a part of a greater whole, so that we kind find corresponding evidence from other realities that all, while different in many ways, share a certain structure. The minimum requirement for my banner interpretation is that the artist's culture would understand visual metaphor and that the artist would not be against inventing a quiz using visual metaphors for his audience. Diodorus stamps our license in talking about Celtic conversation:
"... when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another." (V, 31)
Can this also be applied to their visual arts? Apparently so, with a Celtic bard translating a cryptic painting for the Greek orator, Lucian .

Shifting from the banner problem which subsequently gets resolved in various ways, we return to the coin theme with regard to the position, on the coins, where certain devices appear, and any determinable purpose that the device in conjunction with its position might have. We also need to know what is permitted by the tenets of their art and what is forbidden.

Some Armorican coins are easily grouped together as tribal issues or as "classes" within an issue by reason, in part, of them sharing the same device seen below the horse. The Redones coins have the wheel beneath the pony; One paper on the manufacturing methods of Coriosolite coins referred (erroneously) to two groups
of coins: one with a lyre "mintmark", the other with a boar "mintmark". This tendency extends to other coinages who have an identifying device on their coins such as the tree on the Dobunni coins, a consistent pattern (like on the pattern/horse Iceni issue), and so on.

Fig. 2. Some Celtic coin reverse sides showing a variety of devices around the main subject 
From Henri de La Tour, Atlas de monnaies gauloises

In Fig. 2., a coin of the Arverni (BN 3740) depicts two lyres, one above the horse, and one below. We can be sure that such repetition was allowed, and we might also wonder if the position added further meaning in combination. The other coins of the Arverni that I have shown here have a wide variety of devices below the pony, quite unlike the Redones coins where the idea of the wheel is likely even embedded in their tribal name and their mythology. Obviously, the Arverni coins are all of the same tribe, but they have different devices in a place that other tribes seem to use to identify themselves. If the rule or tendency is true, also, for the Averni, who are not one of the Armorican tribes (the identifying use of that position is also seen on many Belgic coins, but other Celtic tribes use different places on the coin to show their identity) then we might be seeing clan or settlement designations. All of the devices used have a wider usage as religious symbols, but it would seem that certain groups had a greater affinity for one symbol.  This is a bit like a small Greek city state who has an emblem on their coins which represents the local religion, myths or product. For the Celts, the clan or the ethnic group would seem to be depicted with varying symbols below the pony.

The position above the pony, on Coriosolite coins, is where a lot goes on: evolutionary changes, and various examples of "variations on a theme" like my banner example. The position below the pony. however, changes only rarely, and then permanently. Its device does not evolve or present visual metaphors of itself. It is distinctly iconic.

The sun sceptre above the horse in Fig. 2 (BN 3722) appears in another form below the horse in BN 3699. A consistent feature in Coriosolite Series X, where it appears most often as a staff surmounted by a pellet within a circle, but on a rare occasion as a fleur-de-lis shape. Also on BN 3722, a triskele element of the vine scroll motif shows a different version to the one above the boar on the Petrocorii coin. A fleur-de-lis sun sceptre is below the boar That the sun sceptre is below the boar might be significant as wherever the boar appears on the Series Y Coriosolite coins, it is conjoined by a pellet in circle sun symbol rising above a base line. Like the lyre symbol in the same position on Series X coins, it refers to the dawn of the year (originally sunrise at the winter solstice).

The coin of the Santones (Fig. 2, BN 4316) might be depicting a myth with the wolf standing in front of a tree or large plant of indeterminate species and a bucranium to the side. Unfortunately, identifying the myth on such narrative-depicting coins is rarely possible.

So this has been just a basic introduction to how some of the Celtic coin iconography might be investigated. It always requires. at the least, an interdisciplinary approach, but often, although general meanings can be assigned to certain devices, their exact role in local myths might never be discovered.


  1. Does this suggest that the Coriosolites were a druidic tribe that stored its wealth as coins / tokens which could be used as devotional offerings or as payment for mercenaries in times of need? (e.g. defence against the advancing Romans)

  2. Hi Trefor, They only seem to have made coins from about 57 to 55 BC, Although all tribes had a large number of druids, the Coriosolites would likely have hired the best artists to cut their dies because they were not an important tribe. While this sounds illogical, the greater the desperation, the greater the displays of wealth or over-the-top sacrifices. Such classes of smiths were extremely high status and would also have been of the druid class.

    The Brittany hoards are numerous but mostly very small and of Gallic war period. The largest hoard by far had only 1,756 coins, and only four hoards had more than 80 coins.The Jersey hoards are massive, with many examples of "foreign" coins and are later (by how much is debated). Yet the Jersey hoard contents show no greater signs of circulation than the Brittany hoards and no more wear. This indicates that the Jersey hoards are accumulated small hoards. Evidence from Le Petit Celland in Normandy shows that a small group of people were attacked at an uncompleted and abandoned hillfort where they had constructed a gate without any knowledge of how it should have been built. The gate burned and fell on them, their Coriosolite and Unelli coins and pottery of a type also associated with Coriosolite coins in Jersey and Hengistbury, Dorset.

    The small, primary hoards might have just been stored wealth or they served as security for livestock loans. At some point, though,many of them were gathered up and taken to Jersey for rerouting to the Durotriges cupellation hearths at Hengistbury where the silver could be extracted. Along this timeline, the Durotriges were debasing their silver coins and that ended up with a cast copper coinage. At about the same time, (10-15 AD), the Coriosolite mainland port was destroyed by the Romans. Hengistbury had been cut off from Roman trade after Caesar left England.