Monday, 11 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the psychology of early Celtic art, part three

Annual cycle depicted on a billon stater of the Osismii, mid 1st cent. BC.


1: boar symbol. The boar which, universally, represents death, night, and the underworld is standing on a base line from which rises a "pellet within circle" sun-symbol. The rising sun is either the winter solstice or Samhain, the start of the Celtic year. There might have been a shift from the winter solstice to Samhain as Newgrange temple in Ireland has a roof box which illuminates the "triple spiral" in the inner chamber at dawn on the winter solstice. The boar symbol is placed in a central position because of its importance and some possible cultural differences within the society, and its place in time is clarified by the paths of the beaded lines.

2. The first small head shows the first subterranean growth of the seed. Nothing is yet visible above the ground.

3. The second small head shows the first growth unfurling above the ground in the same manner as a fern sprout.

4. The final small head shows the fruition of the process whereby the new seed is created. The cycle can now begin again.

5. Two uncertain symbols connected by the same beaded lines as the previous symbols. Although the identification of each can, currently, only be guessed and any guess has virtually no value, the fact that the two symbols face opposite directions indicates the liminal: the division between the world and the underworld. This is evidenced by a number of other symbols where the meanings are known and follow the same convention. The sub-meaning is "as above, so below".

6. The complete design with the beaded line paths providing the chronology of the cycle which differs from the composition. This is the only example in Celtic coin iconography where a cycle of more than two parts is given a linear order instead of being "embedded" in a more holistic manner (such as in a cross composition which can be read in any direction).
A clue to early Celtic composition is given by Diodorus:
"... 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)
One of the reasons that some observers fail to see the unity in Celtic iconography is because only manifestations are observed and not underlying meaning: things are taken too literally. To a lesser degree, the same phenomenon happens in languages that are highly nuanced and depend on context, such as Chinese which suffers greatly from machine translations as machines, apparently, cannot be taught to be poetic. Greek, too, is highly nuanced and the roots of the Homer's Meleagros (Ovid's Meleager) are, in order: "honey" and "field". Some scholars agree in interpreting the name as "the one who takes loving care of the fields". A more literal interpretation might signify a field of flowers where bees gather pollen to make honey. It is also quite possible that the two meaning are also united through mythological syncretism (the mythological transference of mead to wine discussed by Kerényi in Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life, chapter two, Light and honey).

On a coin of the Coriosolites who were neighbours of the Osismii, the theme of the previous obverse coin design appears with the chariot driver where the sun symbol is part of his sceptre and a line connects to the ladder-like emblem in front of the pony and the boar symbol is, here, beneath the pony. The cycle is depicted with the emblem which contains three lines ending with a bead within a crescent. The last element is the liminal time where the cycle starts again.

Britain, Iceni Freckenham gold stater
The Iceni gold stater on the left is slightly later than the previous coins and uses the crescent and pellet motifs opposed within a cross-shaped composition. Celtic artists would take elements and recombine them in new ways: If we place back to back cresecents within a circle, such as on the terminal of a torc, the negative space created is a pelta above and below, and the closing of the cresecents by the circle then creates, not only the implied bead, but the swelling ring shape typical in much insular art (see the Sudeley strap junction which contains all of the latter elements).

Early Celtic art is noted for its originality and many variations on a theme. An understanding of the design elements is essential for its appreciation and understanding but that is not easily obtained as we will discover tomorrow.

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