Thursday, 9 October 2014

A Celtic corvid ― part one

Female adult raven
photo: Bombtime
The corvidae family include crows, ravens, magpies and blue jays. You encounter members of this family almost everywhere, they are more intelligent than your cat or dog and besides their cawing warning cries, they seem to have a language (softly spoken) that they usually only share among themselves. They are mythological tricksters to the west-coast Indians, a role reserved by the coyote on the plains. In the ancient Celtic world, they are associated with the battlefield and death.

I am focusing on one of their appearances on the Gundestrup cauldron (illustrated below). For myths other than those I will include here, see the two-part article: The Raven and Crow of the Celts. For an account of their intelligence and interactions with us, see: Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans, or watch the Nova presentation: A Murder of Crows.

Gundestrup cauldron plate showing corvids with outstretched
wings on each side of the female figure
On the central female figure of this Gundestrup cauldron plate, one arm is placed across her chest while the other is raised high and a small bird is perched on the hand. As with most of the animals on the cauldron the exact species is difficult to identify. The tail is distinctive, though, and its fanned out appearance could mean that the bird is a dove. This accords well with one of the myths concerning Persephone: when she was taken to Hades, her mother Demeter was distraught and searched everywhere for her. Persephone was a fertility goddess and her absence meant that everything was dying. Of course this is a seasonal myth and Persephone’s stay in the Underworld indicates winter. At that point there was no indication that she would ever return and that would mean the death of everything. Like Noah’s bird looking for dry land, Demeter sent a dove, and the dove found Persephone in her dark cave in Hades. There was an agreement reached with the ruler of Hades that Persephone would spend half of her time on earth and so life was saved from destruction. She thus becomes the goddess of rebirth. In the light of this explanation, the two figures lying across her chest on the cauldron can easily be explained. It is almost as if she cradles the fallen man and the dog although the figure of the man appears over her arm. She can give back life to man and beast alike.

 There are two figures positioned near the raised arm of the goddess: a smaller version, perhaps, of herself is seated on her shoulder. The small figure has her hair arranged in pig tails and wears a torc, just like the central figure. One arm of this figure rests over her abdomen: a gesture of pregnancy. Above this newly pregnant female, a hound or wolf flees in the opposite direction, its tail between its legs.

 A female figure stands on the other side of the goddess, arranging her hair, perhaps as a sign that she is about to embark on her journey back to the world, perhaps just to indicate her status as queen of Hades, or perhaps part of a myth now lost to us. There is distant connection, in this scene, to a Greek telling of the myth of Isis: she was searching for her son Osiris who had been entrapped, by his evil brother Set, inside a sacrcophagus that was cast into the Nile. When it came ashore in Byblos, Phoenicia, a sweet-smelling tamarisk grew around it. The divine king and queen of that place had the tree carved into a column for their palace. Isis, in disguise, waited by the well in Byblos until the queen’s handmaids arrived. Befriending them, Isis offered to braid their hair. As she did so she breathed a  wonderful scent upon them. The queen, on discovering where this scent came from, took Isis into her palace and made her the wet-nurse of her child. Isis gave the child, instead, her finger to suck on. Each night she placed the baby in the fire, so that the flames would burn away all that was mortal. Isis, in the form of a swallow, flew around the column that contained her son, and sang in lamentation. The queen, on discovering this bizarre scene one night, at once rescued the baby from the flames, thus preventing his immortality. Isis returned to her normal form and revealed who she really was. She asked the queen for the column and when her wish was granted she removed the sarcophagus that was embedded in it. Falling upon the sarcophagus, she let out such a cry that the unfortunate baby died from hearing the sound. Isis left by boat with the sarcophagus to return to Egypt, and came ashore one night in the Nile delta. Set happened to be hunting a boar, and came across the sarcophagus. He tore Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces and scattered the pieces far and wide. With some help from other deities, and again in her bird form, Isis managed to find all of Osiris parts save for his phallus, that had been eaten by a fish, and Osiris body was turned into a mummy. Isis fanned the mummified body with her wings and it came to life. From that time on, Osiris became the immortal ruler of the dead, and the dead became “the Osiris”.

The version of the story of Isis given here comes to us from Plutarch, who is 1st to 2nd century A.D. Egyptian versions omits the journey to Byblos, and has Osiris wash up in the Nile delta after being cast into the river. It would be a mistake to merely attribute the addition to the time of Plutarch: Egypt and Byblos had ties dating back to the Old Kingdom. Byblos was in Canaan -- the Greeks called it Phoenicia and everyone knows the wide trading contacts enjoyed by the Phoenicians. Egypt had long imported cedar from that area and a current runs from the Nile delta right to Byblos. An early Greek version of the Byblos part of the Isis myth comes to us from the Homeric hymn to Demeter. The stories are very similar, but in the hymn to Demeter the goddess is searching for her daughter Persephone, and these events take place in Eleusis and are part of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

To return to the cauldron panel: above the goddess, on each side of her head is a bird with wings spread wide. Their bodies face forward but their heads are turned toward each other. This posture is very similar to more recent depictions of heraldic eagles and their curved beaks lead some to suggest that it is the eagle that is depicted here. As a bird of Zeus, this could fit with his position of authority for what happens on earth but considering the context, I am sure that it is ravens or crows that are depicted. The beaks are neither raven nor eagle-like, but perhaps closer to the former, and the feet do not display the large talons associated with eagle. Furthermore, an Iron Age pit excavated in England had the skeleton of a raven at the bottom with its wings pinned in this very position. Another pit had the skull of a cow at the bottom and we could assume that both of these were sacrifices. The pits had formerly been used for grain storage, but appeared, afterward, to have been used only for refuse. Perhaps the former owner had died and his grain was divided among his heirs.

The overall meaning of the panel is that the goddess depicted spans two worlds: she inhabits the Underworld but she brings new life to the world above. She is a fertility goddess, but brings new life from death. We should not be too surprised at the many syncretistic threads illustrated by the panel. The prototype myths are both widespread and lost in the mists of time.

Tomorrow, a Thracian Isis and a tall tale from Livy concludes the article.


  1. Hi John, this is not really a comment just a piece of information which might be of interest. As you may gather I love Celtic art, so reading about the Gundestrup plates and your interpretation is fascinating. Ann Ross (and you probably know her) by the way wrote a whole compendium on the subject of Pagan Celtic Britain...

    Ann Ross writing in essays presented to Stuart Piggott - Studies in Ancient Europe - Ritual Shafts, and Wells

    "Jordan Hill; Somerset; A Romano-British temple; Well lined with clay, in which a layer of used stone tiles were laid edgeways. A rough cist of two oblong stones in which there were two urns, a broad iron sword, iron spearhead, knife and a steelyard;above this was a layer of thick stone tiles, on it a bed of ashes and charcoal. On this a double layer of stone tiles, arranged in pairs, between each pair was the skeleton of one bird together with a small roman coin. Beds of alternating ash and upper tiers of tiles, enclosing bird skeletons and coins, sixteen tiers in all, interrupted half way by another cist. The birds represented were raven, crow, buzzard and starling, all prognostic birds according to Ross. Hare bones were also found, hares are sacred animals in celtic mythology, Boudicca sacrificed one to Andraste before her battle with the Romans ."

  2. Hi Thelma, A fascinating account, and one I had never heard of before -- perhaps being so late. I wonder if it is an example of ancient traditions in the area or something which served the needs of new arrivals.Rural areas are certainly slow to change, especially in folk tradition and religious matters, but 4th to 5th cent AD seems very late if it is Iron Age Celtic continuity!