Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 20: The Cernunnos figure

Petroglyph presumed to be the "god Cernunnos"
 rock 70 in Naquane area. Capo di Ponte, Val Camonica
4th cent BC. (click to enlarge) photo:  Luca Giarelli
I am not the first person to link any of the Gundestrup cauldron imagery to Italy. In Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, Miranda Green says:
"The antlered deity differs from many other Celtic divinities occurring during the Roman period in that he appears iconographically well before the Romano-Celtic phase in western Europe. True he is not named until the reign of Tiberius, when he is called '(C)ernunnos' ('the horned one'), but his image may be traced back to the fourth century BC at Camonica Valley in northern Italy." (p. 87)
In the description of him holding, in his left hand, a ram-headed serpent she references a paper by Phyllis Fray Bober, "Cernunnos: Origin and Transformation of a Celtic Divinity" in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1951), pp. 13-51. One of the many connections discussed by Bober is the identification of the ram-headed serpent with Dionysos Zagreus and pro and con opinions about this from others are listed too although, strangely, there is no mention of Pythagoras in Italy even though he had been an Orphic. Orphism and Zagreus is, however, discussed.

Cernunnos detail on Gundestrup Cauldron plate
derivative photo: Fuzzypeg, original: Bloodofox
The figure wearing antlers on the Gundestrup cauldron plate is commonly identified with Cernunnos and also the "Lord of animals" theme as expressed by Orpheus' claimed ability to charm animals with the music of his lyre. While there might be some allusion to this in the composition, the central figure does not play a lyre and the animals are not all facing that figure as they are usually portrayed in Roman depictions of the scene.

The central figure in this scene is male and wears an antler headdress. He wears a torc around his neck and is seated on the ground in the celtic manner. The background ivy scroll work which connects the elements on the plate is particularly emphasized around the antlers of the headdress and the antlers of the stag to the left of the figure. This deliberate connection identifies the owner of the headdress with a concept or a deity represented by the stag. We might guess, thus, that the figure is a priest or devotee of that "stag cult". Both the Gundestrup and the Val Camonica "stag men" have their arms raised in the devotional orans position. That the Val Camonica figure has torcs on its arms together with a ram-headed serpent is open to some interpretation: if the torcs are not just a representation of a sleeve opening in a tunic, and are actual objects, why not Celtic armlets? I can also imagine the ram-headed serpent as being a sword and hangar.

In the Gundestrup iconography, offerings are represented as being grasped in the hands and the arms being in the orans position. The supplicant thus offers the torc which is used by the Celts on their coins and elsewhere as a symbol of power, and Dionysos Zagreus in his form as the ram-headed serpent. There is thus a triad of deference here: to Dionysos Zagreus, the shapeshifter who is resurrected as the god of the grape-vine. His serpent form inherited from his father Zeus, as Meilichios. The serpent, too, sloughs its skin as is "reborn" as a new serpent. This symbolization goes back to the Neolithic planters who saw in it the idea of plants growing new each year. The torc with a loop between its terminals is an ouroboros sort of symbol which might be compared with omega. The Celts share with the Pythagoreans the idea of the transmigration of souls, as is attested by the classical authors, and this is demonstrated on the "procession" plate of the Gundestrup cauldron. Finally, the stag sloughs its antlers each year to grow a new set.

All three points in this Pythagorean triad speak of the repeated cycle. Not only does this echo the triskele-form of the Celtic ivy-scroll, its symbology referring to the ivy plant being "twice-born" with its winter shoot, and the triple spiral at Newgrange reused with other Megalithic imagery on Coriosolite coins much later, it refers to the syncretization of differing, yet connected, religious belief absorbed into the Celtic ethos.

Tomorrow, connecting the central figures with what surrounds them.

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