Thursday, 7 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 22: Tracking religious changes over time

Hallstatt, Austria
photo: Pedroserafin
The Hallstatt period spans the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. Unlike the  La Tène, there is considerable uniformity in the type of art that decorates objects. A very common and widespread type of object is the bronze bracelet with decoration at the terminals and sometimes around the ring. The decoration can include a series of lines, X's, diamond shapes and  chevrons. From finds in graves we know that these bracelets were often wore in mismatched pairs.

Franz Boas' Primitive Art focuses mainly on North American Indian art, but he could have been describing late Hallstatt decoration with:
"The pattern of artistic expression that emerges from a long, cumulative process determined by a multiplicity of causes fashions the form of the art work. We recognize the permanence of pattern in those cases in which a useful form that has lost its function persists as a decorative element; in the imitation in new materials of natural forms used at one time as utensils, and in the transfer of forms from one technique to another. The fixity of the pattern does not permit the artist to apply natural forms unmodified to decorative purposes. His imagination is limited by the pattern" (p. 354)
Differing from much-repeated applied decoration on humble objects, Boas stresses the difference, with regard to meaning, in other art forms:
 "The graphic and plastic arts owe much of their emotional value to the representative and symbolic values of form. This is no less true in literature, music and dance. narrative and poetry so far as they contain intelligible words, always have a meaning which may have deep significance because they touch upon those aspects of life that stir the emotions. Frequently there is an added meaning, when the words have a symbolic, ulterior significance related to the religious beliefs or philosophical ideas. In music and dance also symbolic significance is often attached to form." (p.356)
While there are many examples of primitive art around the world to which the above words could also apply,  La Tène art would seem to be an exception, not only in our current perception of  it, but also in the ways that the original artists dealt with meaning. We have no idea about the nature of early Celtic music; we are not even sure if they danced, and the Druids and mystery religions both forbad the use of literature. The spoken word was transmitted in verse, but again, we have no surviving La Tène poetry.

I see more than just habits in what Boas has to say, the urge to express is a universal human trait and when one avenue of expression is shut down, people have a tendency to seek new outlets for their expression. We might even wonder if dance and poetry was used even more to replace the loss of meaning in the visual arts when symbols no longer carried meaning and what was previously significant had deteriorated to mindless pattern-fill.

When Tacitus noticed the similarities in a pair of German gods to the Roman Castor and Pollux, it was a curiosity to him, so he mentioned it in his Germania. He did not seem to take it as any sort of revelation, and he certainly did not start a new religion from it. A common meme among archaeologists is that artistic motifs or styles were carried far by trade. That it is a meme is indicated by its concurrent lack of thought or explanation: the human being vanishes from the scenario and things appear to affect other things without any human intervention at all. It becomes especially unthinking when difficult techniques are needed to construct objects that are considered to be inspired by trade goods. Just because I buy a television, I do not have to get the urge to build more of them and the use of the television does not tell me anything of how to make one.
We also do not see any failed attempts to copy early Celtic art in, say, Britain. The first British productions of early Celtic art come fully formed, like the birth of Athena from Zeus's skull. This error was pointed out by Martyn Jope on the very first page of Early Celtic art in the British Isles:
"The initiating stimuli for this rise evidently came from Europe, yet at the crucial time, the fourth-third centuries B.C., we can point to practically no imported pieces that might have served as potential exemplars; the new ideas and skills must have come largely in the minds and hands of men with a considerable experience in distant ateliers."

I was very pleased to be able to prove Jope's hypothesis with my discovery, in the trade, of the only piece of the La Tène Plastic Style to have been made in Britain. At first, I thought that it was the only piece of the Plastic Style to have been found in Britain, and that was exciting enough  ― I had no example of that style in my collection because of its great rarity. When it arrived, though, and I was able to examine it more carefully, I realized that it contained distinctly British features like the trumpet. I also saw that the basic geometry of the triskele decoration had acquired further dimensionality by no longer being just wrapped over a curved form like the Plastic style arm rings and anklets, but traveled from a top elevation, ninety degrees to a side elevation, so that the entire design could not be seen from any single viewpoint. After receiving a lot of skepticism about the object being British, I had it tested by electron microprobe because I knew that, if it was British and of the time period of the Plastic Style, the trace metals would show a high cobalt to nickel ratio. That it did, in spades, being just over the highest cobalt to nickel ratio recorded so far (only if it would have had very low cobalt, could its British origin be questioned).

I will come back to the Plastic Style later, but for now we will briefly track La Tène styles and add religious commentary. La Tène starts with the Early Style which preserves more of its Greek or Etruscan origins. Religious references can be narrative like the decoration of the sword scabbard from Hallstatt where the wheel turners demonstrate the repeated cycles of life. The idea of cycles was not new to them and cosmic cycles were demonstrated at Newgrange nearly three thousand years before. What had changed, though, was the addition of human beings to the scene. There are two reasons for this: Jacobsthal noted that the human figure was mostly represented in Celtic areas that had a very close contact with Mediterranean cultures such as the Rhineland and the port of Massalia in the south of France. Also, the Celts' arrival in Italy had exposed them to Pythagorean and Dionysian concepts of the transmigration of souls and resurrection, and they could then accept a more active human role in cosmic cycles apart from having the human being act as metaphor.

Far earlier than Newgrange, the people likely had a similar concept about their identity as do many First Nations people where I live: they are not a people inside of an environment, but they are people who are part of that environment. You cannot remove the environment without destroying the people's identity. Thus, when they say to doubting archaeologists, "We have always been here", they are describing a concept as sophisticated as when Stephen Hawking talks about time and the big bang theory. If the archaeologist counters their statement with something about the Bering Strait, and if the archaeologist is being honoured, then the reply will be something along the lines of "White Man's thinking." If the archaeologist is not being honoured, then the First Nations person might just say nothing and walk away to do something useful.

It is almost certain that the geometric decorations at the entrance to Newgrange were fully understood by those who saw them, but by the Hallstatt period, these decorations had become little more than part of a "pattern book" for weavers, potters, carvers, painters, and smiths. If any meaning remained at all, it was probably taken to mean "good luck". It stands to reason that when you have a long period of time where there is not only no signs of artistic inspiration, but what art there is becomes increasingly simplified, abbreviated, and repeated without change, that any sort of peak experiences in that society will be an unlikely event.

Apart from the Celtic fighter having had the peak experience of "If I die heroically in battle, I will be promoted in my next life!", his more pragmatic commander might be thinking "Great! they will do anything I tell them, and everyone will be afraid to fight them." We can never know where, on this Mythos to Logos line of thinking, the Celts sat. All we can do is to project wherever we are along its line, to the earlier time. If we assume that we don't know, however, then future clues to the Celtic world-view might not be missed and we might at least approximate these things better. There is an indication of the dual nature of the Celtic world-view much later, where Caesar reports that many tribes had piles of war loot set up in their towns, and that no one could remove any of it under penalty of death. It was given as a religious taboo, but the Celts used gold to purchase troops, the more gold you had, the more powerful you became. Ancient societies fell easily when their local economy had only badly debased currency. While such a situation could be countered locally by price fixing etc., bad currency would not buy good soldiers. They fell because they could not hire auxiliaries and probably had depleted their own resources anyway. Such went the Etruscans. Had captured gold been allowed to "circulate", the inevitable end result would have been the emergence of a war lord who had a bigger army than anyone. They had brought an awful lot of gold back from the Mediterranean. The Druids did not want that situation to play out (they were a sort of democracy, if only among themselves). I should add, that there are those who disagree with my theory and say that the reason was purely religious or the piles were set up simply as a trophy. To the latter, I say that the Greeks and Roman both set up trophies for only a short period of time. To leave them up would have been like opening old wounds and not conducive to progress.

In its own way, but dated much later than the early style, the Gundestrup cauldron (my date: after 272 BC - circa 200 BC), too, has similar religious iconography to the Early Style. This is because of a secondary syncretism between the Celts, and this time, Thracian craftsmen who had their own nuanced approach to the Dionysian ideas already absorbed by the Celts. It might have introduced Dionysos as Zagreus, but I think that the Celts had absorbed Dionysos as shapeshifter in the first half of the third century BC. While this overlaps my date period for the Gundestrup cauldron by 22 years, that system is based on limits and I would imagine the cauldron to have been made in circa 210 BC (with a lower percentage of certainty).

The Early Style had little influence on what came next, it had been transitional and while a certain amount of Greek/Celtic syncretization had taken place, there appears to be no peak experiences associated with the Early Style. The style that followed was called "Waldalgesheim", but is now called "Vegetal". This is where the ivy is introduced as an aspect of Dionysos the twice-born.. This had a dramatic impact on Celtic art and innovation and variation flourished. This indicates multiple and ongoing peak experiences at least among the Druid class and this would include artists. The winter aspect of ivy would certainly have been a strong syncretizing connection for the Celts and this line of syncretization, for them, goes back as far as the Newgrange winter solstice. For the Greeks, the ivy was a common decorative element on Minoan buildings, before its meanings had been defined by Dionysianism.

Dionysos as shapeshifter, adopted by the Celts in northern Italy sometime in the first half of the third century BC, was a peak experience of even greater magnitude than the adoption of the ivy. It was the start of Celtic magic. Find out tomorrow...

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