Thursday, 28 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part two

Julius Caesar

"All is phenomena. All is text. All is simulacra for which an original does not exist. There are no structures of class, race, gender or good and evil. These are, variously, texts written by people with a political agenda. People are supposed to take these structures as valid 'representations' of that which actually exists."

Postmodern Phenomenology, by T. R. Young

I used this quote once before in one of my favourite posts. Although Young labels the ideas as belonging to the most extreme form of postmodernism, I see it not just as core to the philosophy, but a theme that we can track back at least as far as Kant. Whenever we read anything, we are looking through the world view of its author, but we are also filtering that through our own world view.

In Caesar's Perception of Gallic Social Structures, Sean B. Dunham clearly establishes the fact of Caesar's world view in its title. The paper focuses on Caesar's ethnographic Book VI and compares it with the rest of his text and the views of his contemporaries. There is really nothing I can add to what he says about the subject matter and I hope you will follow the link and read it for yourself. I can say, however, that we also add out own world view to Caesar's words and the English translations are the vehicle of that transmission. For example, the Latin equites gets translated as knights and when we see Rex, we think of the succession of kings through heredity.

Sometimes, further misunderstandings add to the problem and propagate as memes. Recently I have come across several references to the Belgae as a tribe, and while Caesar refers to them as a confederation of tribes with distinctions that separates them from the rest of the Gauls, Strabo finds far fewer differences. No ancient author, though, ever refers to them as a singular tribe. The meme, so far, seems restricted only to the U.K.

These identity problems stem from the fact of indigenous peoples whose roots in their communities go back at least as far as the Neolithic and whose practices grew out of their respective environments. Such connections bind them together in various sets of cultural frames so that later, when their collective areas have become Celtic they still maintain many of these traditions. To argue against a unified Celtic culture based on any of these differences is like saying Louisiana is not American because of its French cultural frames. One could then find other, regional, cultural frames in other parts of the U.S and then make the claim that Americans do not exist. This is exactly what had been done with the ancient Celts. British round houses go back to the Neolithic; Gaulish rectangular houses go back to the Neolithic. Becoming Celtic did not require that one had to build houses differently. When the Gauls gathered together to fight the Romans, it was, at first, because Roman legions appeared in their geographical area, so neighbouring tribes gathered together to protect that area. Before that time, we could have had situations whereby some tribes of the region were fighting other tribes in the region and where the differences were not based on geographical factors at all. Unities in Celtic coinage styles are different from unities in Celtic artistic styles and each form different regions, their connections lie only in their subject matter and we cannot identify them as indications of different peoples. There is a distinctive artistic style that is focused in Champagne and includes works from both Celtic and Belgic regions (as defined by Caesar), and there is another distinctive style focused in the Rhineland which also includes these Belgic and Celtic tribes and it gets transmitted to Armorican Gaul (Brittany and to the east of there) in coinage but not in other sorts of objects. The survival of earlier Megalithic symbology in Armorican coinage has its closest parallels in Irish Megalithic art because of strong ties between the two regions in that time. Yet, the meanings behind the artistic motifs can be demonstrated to be identical wherever they exist, and can often be traced to common roots.  Of course, that takes a little study to reveal, Something that people with political agendas realize that most other people are not going to bother doing. Even such politicization cannot be restricted to national interests and can include many of its own cultural frames.

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