Thursday, 7 January 2016

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

Celtic Monsters
image: John Hooker, Goya, and five ancient Celts
Applying reason to the subject of early Celtic art is the easiest way to get it all wrong. Most people do not even attempt the task. Miranda Aldhouse-Green mostly sticks to Gallo-Roman imagery because the classical content is part of our own cultural perceptions and thus interpretation is more available to us; Perhaps many of the more timid Celtic numismatists avoided the subject because  Derek F. Allen. said "This need to look behind the surface of Celtic coin types has made a happy hunting ground for the crankish interpreter in pursuit of devious religious symbolism.". In fact, Celtic coin imagery is full of devious religious symbolism, it is just that the subject did not sit well with Allen's own psychology. Then there are those who write of the subject in such general terms that there is little danger of being proven wrong. Unfortunately, the results are neither right nor wrong. There is a lot spoken about "display" when describing the Celtic fondness for gold torcs and armlets etc. but every human being engages in display, even if it takes the form of a Porsche, makeup, or a really neat lawn. With the Celts, it is more honest to ask "What were they displaying?" and don't listen when someone replies "their identity". That is just another weasel word.

Tetradrachm of Athens
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc
Identity is both a safe and true interpretation to apply for the coin design on the left. The types apply perfectly to the city, her goddess and the small rock-owls of the area that are associated with both. When these coins were used in payments to other city-states, the recipients knew at once that the silver would be good: a rich silver mine was nearby and metal objects are generally purer when close to the mine source.

British Thurrock type potin coin
The British Celtic coin on the right copies the bronze types of Greek Massalia in southern Gaul. The oldest interpretation of this sort of coin is that they were first copied by the tribes close to Massalia and then underwent a degradation of workmanship as the type was subsequently copied further afield. The same principle was applied in a hopelessly wrong manner in a paper in what must be the worst book in the Jungian oeuvre: Man and his Symbols.

plate and caption (cropped) from Man and his Symbols
There is nothing in the caption that is even vaguely correct. To start with, none of the coins are Roman: the first is Greek and the rest are Celtic. Even if there were any significance about the distance from Rome, Paris (third coin) is closer to Rome than Amiens (second coin). Societal disintegration was a buzz-phrase of the time that the book was published and that sort of visual disintegration is not generally symptomatic of LSD, but was part of the popular modern art aesthetic also at the time of publication.

It was Peter Northover at Oxford who discovered that that the Thurrock potins were both of British manufacture and the earliest of the Massalian copies and during a long phone conversation this Christmas with Mark Fox of Michigan (who is cited in the linked blog post), I finally realized the psychology of the use of the Massalian coin type in the Thurrock potins. Previously, I had assumed that the type was used as the tin was being sold to Massalia in that form for their copper coinage, but in the course of the discussion, it occurred to me that that the type represented an important source of power for the British Dobunnic producers of those "coin-type ingots" which were exported to France from SE England. Thus the coins served a completely different function than the Athenian (or any Greek) coin. The type did not signify identity at all, that was already known; it signified power. It was almost a reverse psychology from the Greek. The Greeks, themselves, had a hard time understanding the Celts: whenever the Celts took a city it was not to hold onto it, it was to collect ransom. They did the same when they took Rome.

In applying reason, we do so from our own world view. If the culture we are studying has a very different world-view from our own, mistakes are likely to ensue. Tomorrow, how the collective unconscious can also fail in the matter of early Celtic art.

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