Thursday, 14 January 2016

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

Cú Chulainn
"There was a law made by the Ultonian knights that they should have Silver Shields made for them, and that the carved device of each should be different from those of all the others.

"Cuchulainn was at this time pursuing his military education at the school of Buanann and Scathach; and on his return home he found the shields in process of being made. Cuchulainn repaired to the manufacturer, whose name was Mac Engé. 'Make a shield for me', said he, 'and let me not find upon any other shield of the shields of the Ultonians the same carved devices that shall be on it'. 'I cannot undertake that', said Mac Engé, 'because I have exhausted my art on the shields of the Ultonians'.

" 'I swear by my arms (of valour)', said Cuchulainn, 'that I shall kill you if you do not make my shield according to my order. 'I am under (king) Concobar's protection before you', said Mac Engé. 'I shall violate Concobar's, protection, then', said he, 'and shall kill you besides' ; and Cuchulainn then repaired to his home.

"Mac Engé was greatly distressed at what happened; and as he was musing over it he saw a man advancing towards him. 'You are distressed', said he to Mac Engé. 'I have cause to be so', said the shieldmaker ; 'namely, that I am to be killed unless I make Cuchulainn's shield'.

"The man said to him: 'Clear out the floor of your work shop, and spread ashes upon its floor, until the ashes are a man's foot in depth'. It was done according to his directions.

"As Mac Engé was standing, after this, he saw the same man coming over the outer wall to him, with a fork in his hand, and two prongs projecting from it; and he planted one of the prongs in the ashes, and with the other described the devices that were to be engraven on Cuchulainn's shield. Luaithrindi, [or 'ashes- engraver',] was the name of this prong; as Dubdiiha said: 'Were I Mac Engé, it is so I would engrave'. And Dubhan [the Black] was the name of the Shield".

Ulster Cycle, Manuscript H. 3.17, from Trinity College Library, Dublin.
translation: Eugene O'Curry, 1873 (On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish).

Witham Shield
Orlando Jewitt, 1863
We have to read between the lines in Medieval tellings of Celtic stories. The original Irish story of the 1st century AD would not have referred to a silver shield and we see the the same sort of finery described in the Welsh Mabinogion. The story, itself, would have been adapted from an earlier British poem. The clue to the latter is that the ash had to be laid to the depth of a man's foot. If an engraving (actually chasing) formed the design, then the ash would not have needed to be so deep and such a depth would have made the chased design difficult to duplicate. It would, however, have been the ideal depth for sculpting a repousé design with the compass-like tool described. In Ireland, chased line decoration had been planned with compass work on bone flakes (Lough Crewe, Co. Meath). There are only two pieces of evidence for shields in Iron Age Ireland: a native shield was found in Littleton bog in Clonoura, Co. Tipperary. It was a convex rectangle, slightly rounded at the corners which had been made from leather covered alder wood (Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, p. 146, fig. 89); the bronze boss of a British shield was found at Lambay Island near Dublin. The site was Dobunnic (formerly believed to be Brigantian). The British Witham shield, illustrated on the left was an earlier type: the longer shield was used with a spear rather than a sword. It has traces of an even earlier boar design and some of the later bronze decoration was made by someone trained in a southern Italian workshop. Repousé work in high relief was typical in third century BC Britain down to the second century BC. Later the relief was much lower and eventually it was mostly replaced by chasing work designs often accented with enamel inlays. The Plastic Style had been the impetus of high relief repousé.

Original designs on shields, to a Medieval reader would have meant heraldic, but this was not a feature of the Iron Age, but was necessary in the Medieval period. The originality of Celtic warrior finery is always noted but never explained. I will do that in tomorrow's post and the meaning behind the story of Cú Chulainn's shield and Mac Engé's underworld advisor will be revealed and further demonstrated with examples from Celtic coinage.

John's Coydog Community page

No comments:

Post a Comment