Thursday, 6 August 2015

Viewpoints 7: Context

Two gold alloy coins of the Baiocasses
featuring boar and lyre symbols (BN numbers)
On any Celtic coin of the Coriosolite tribe there will be either a boar or a lyre symbol below the pony on the reverse side of the coin. How should we go about interpreting these symbols? Anyone with a little understanding of the Celts might say that the boar was an animal of the hunt and cite myths like Diarmait hunting the boar of Ben Gulbain, or even Ovid's account of the hunting of the Calydonian boar. These two stories figured largely in my interpretation of the boar symbol, too. The difference being that I determined that the main element in both myths was not the hunt of an animal, but a contest between the dark and the light. With the latter statement, most people would read this as a battle between good and evil because light and dark are common substitutes in western religions, and especially Christianity, for good and evil. While this is might be a cultural symbol to us, we know that the Celtic imagery predated Christianity, so we might not believe that the Celtic meaning is the same. How are we to determine what sort of meaning was given to the boar by the Celts? First of all, how "matter of fact" were the Celts? Were they materialists who believed in telling it like it is and with a firm grasp on reality? Was the boar just a boar: a dangerous yet tasty animal who would bestow a heroic character to the hunter? It all sounds very Celtic to us. Let's turn to a contemporary account (Diodorus) of how the Celts communicated with each other:

"... 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)
Evidently not realists. We must move the pointer for the Celts further toward the Mythos and away from the Logos end of the scale. If we fail to do this, then we are projecting our own philosophy onto the ancient Celts because our society is very much on the Logos end of the scale at this time. In fact the word "myth" is commonly interpreted by us as a falsehood.

Any myth (if you are a Jungian mythologist) is going to have two types of meanings: the first is cultural, as we might expect, but the second is psychological and that spans all cultures because we are all human and have the same brain structure and evolutionary history. We commonly get confused when we react to a cultural symbol from a purely human perspective, or a psychological symbol from a purely cultural perspective (although less so with the latter). If our personality type is one of the extraverted variety, then we will more likely project our own reality onto the past as to us, there can only be a single reality, anyway. Such people like to think that they are applying common sense to the problem. They are also the sort of person who rarely thinks about religious symbolism. If the person is an archaeologist, they might go so far as to assign a ritual explanation for something at an archaeological site, but they will never offer an explanation of the ritual and how it compares with other rituals of that society or others. You will only get "It is ritual".

From Diodorus, we see that the ancient Celts were keen on metaphor and mystery, so we should expect that their symbolic language would be quite developed. We also know that the Druids committed their philosophy to memorized verse and we might know that writing poetry can stimulate the unconscious mind in the same ways that beating on a drum or taking peyote can do for a shaman.

So, if we are diligent thus, we have included another two contextual frameworks for our interpretation: cultural factors and human psychology. For the human psychology aspect to the boar, we have to examine more remote societies that place importance on the boar and that could have had no direct influence on the Celts, nor be influenced by the Celts. Fortunately, Joseph Campbell has already done the work for us in his Primitive Mythology (Masks of God series). The boar represents the dark (as it is a dark animal); the underworld (as it roots in the ground); The nighttime (from its crescent moon shaped tusks); and death (as it is a dangerous animal). Campbell focused his interpretation on a living culture on the island of Malekula, Vanuatu, in Melanesia.

Using only what can be gleaned through archaeological context and their viewpoints on the Celts, the boar is usually only defined by archaeologists as an animal of the hunt or (because of depictions of boar totems on Trajan's column and Celtic coins both) a symbol of war. The main meaning of the boar, to the Celts, was cosmological: he was the animal of the dark half of the year. Diarmait slays the Boar of Ben Gulbain at Samhain, the start of the Celtic year. Earlier, it seems to have been the winter solstice that marked the new year because the imagery is always a battle between the (solar) hero and the (lunar) boar. Miranda Aldhouse-Green, however, does say that the boar might also have chthonic significance (Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art).

The substitution of a lyre symbol for a boar on Coriosolite coins becomes even more significant when we discover that this substitution extends to the coins of other tribes such as the Baiocasses in Normandy (illustrated above). This gives us another factor to consider and that is the positions of both symbols. Boars in the hair, for example, are also found on coins of tribes other than the Baiocasses. Here we employ the context of Celtic iconography and form the hypothesis that because of a fairly standard usage of positioning and substitution, the boar and lyre symbols must share a considerable amount of meaning, and that the differences lie within cultural differences in the people that make up the tribes that use the symbols thus. Sure enough, I found many connections between the two symbols.

Both of the linked articles were written in 1995 and I was pleased when a Greek inscription was translated in 1997 and I mentioned it in an updated article The meaning of the boar (Chris Rudd List 69, May, 2003):
"Recently, a fragment of Greek text from Noricum was translated into German (G. Dobesch, Zu Virunum als Namen der Stadt auf dem Magdalensberg und zu einer Sage der kontinentalen Kelten, Carinthia 187, 1997, 107-128). It is the only contemporary telling of a Celtic foundation myth. An Otherwordly boar is wreaking havoc in the land, and although many try to slay the boar, they all fail. Finally, a stranger comes, and he "brings back the boar on his shoulders". The people all hailed him "one man" in their language, and the Noricum city of Virunum came to be named as such."
I should add, that when a stranger shows up in a Celtic story, he is not from the town up the road, he is from the Otherworld (the mythic country). It was such a stranger who presented a smith with the design for Cuchulain's shield. In other cultures, he might come in a dream. When I worked at Glenbow Museum, a Plains Indian drum had been given a provenance on its worksheet under the heading of where the donor obtained the article as "Given to him in a dream". What you are seeing, in these accounts, are not primitive stories to explain the world, but mental structures akin to composing formal or obsessive verse in their effect, which have an ability to contact deeper levels of the unconscious than we are used to experiencing in our modern western lifestyle. Of course, this is nothing new to many eastern religions. In using context correctly, if we do not like to discuss the mystical, then we had better stick with Roman and later times. We have to address any culture from within its viewpoints as best we can, and certainly not from our own cultural viewpoints. Common sense is cultural, not human.

Tomorrow, functionary viewpoints.


  1. Hi John,
    Was the 'Lyre' symbol a lyre or is it / could it be a comet. Ancients were entranced with the heavens and there were comets around. Esp with Coriosolite coins as there was a comet in about 60 BC

  2. Hi Trefor,

    There has been more than one paper suggesting that the lyre symbol on Coriosolite coins was a comet, but other representations of the lyre on some Celtic coins shows a more realistic lyre (or Celtic equivalent). Also, in what I consider to be earlier and more varied versions of the symbol at Newgrange (ca. 3400 BC) where they are most strongly associated with stones around the roof-box which admits the first rays of the sun at the winter solstice dawn.

    Other Coriosolite remnants of megalithic images are the quadrilateral "Union Jack" banners of Series Y (stone in the subsidiary chamber at Dowth -- R. A S. MacAlister, The Archaeology of Ireland, 2nd ed. 1949, Fig 14). The style of the "Class V" nose is also seen in a frieze in Brittany, but I've forgotten the name of the site. I have less certainty about these others as they lack corroborating evidence like at Newgrange.