Friday, 8 January 2016

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

Creator, macrocosm, and microcosm in human
form, the microcosm surrounded by the elements.
from St. Hildegarde of Bingen's Liber divinorum
operum, 1165. (13th cent. copy)
"... the higher, the spiritual, the masculine inclines to the lower, the earthly, the feminine; and accordingly, the mother, who was anterior to the world of the father, accommodates herself to the masculine principle and, with the aid of the human spirit (alchemy or "the philosophy"), produces a son—not the antithesis of Christ but rather his chthonic counterpart, not a divine man but a fabulous being conforming to the nature of the primordial mother. And just as the redemption of man the microcosm is the task of the "upper" son, so the "lower" son has the function of a salvator macrocosmi."

C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, p.24.

In the modern, popular, mind alchemy is seen as a precursor to science but that science is understood more as metallurgy and chemistry. In that same mind, mythology is understood as a precursor to the natural sciences — as a way of understanding the observed world. These attitudes are far removed from what Jung discovered through his extensive studies of alchemy and mythology and these studies are embedded in modern depth-psychology. After the above quoted passage, he apologizes if what he saying would seem to the reader to be more like Gnosticism and his recently published The Red Book, also, bears a great resemblance to some Gnostic texts.The contents of the modern Bible has little to do with early Christianity but evolved over centuries and it is a misconception that it all results from the First Council of Nicaea held by Constantine the Great in 325.

You might well be wondering what this has to do with the psychology of early Celtic art, but without the understanding of the directions of western belief and science going back at least as far as Democritus and including Christian, Jewish and Islamic belief, the psychology of early Celtic art will be largely unavailable to you. Like all beliefs it, too, evolved over time through syncretism. We have no Celtic texts; nothing at all from before their contact with the Mediterranean civilizations, but we do know that there was some syncretism, afterwards,  with the Dionysian, Orphic, and Eleusinian Mysteries and also with Pythagoreanism. For syncretism to occur there has to be connecting meanings between two beliefs and while we cannot reconstitute (easily or completely) the Celtic component, we can at least get some hint of its nature from the classical. This is not as simple as it might sound because the Mysteries were just that, knowledge that was forbidden to be written or spoken about to the uninitiated. Most of what we do have comes from later Christian apologists, themselves having been subjected to much syncretism within their own belief structures. Thus the cultural sources that provide us with much of the content of the collective unconscious leaves out that which was not recorded, and that includes pretty well all of the Mysteries syncretism with the pre-Roman Celtic religion of the elite (the indigenous Celtic mythologies of the common man are simply continuations of Neolithic beliefs that were syncretized among themselves through the Bronze and Iron Ages and only contain a veneer of the Druid's philosophies which seem to have been syncretized more directly from the Megalithic religious cultures. While everyone laughs at the old idea that the Druids built Stonehenge, there is actually a very tiny thread of truth buried within that.

Besides Jungian psychology, one modern discipline has helped to bridge this gap and that is quantum physics, but it has found most of its parallels, not with western thought but eastern religion and mysticism. Critics of Jung  with little knowledge of his work have scoffed at the idea that the contents of the unconscious can contain mandala imagery as most of us have little familiarity of such. The answer is that eastern religious practices are far more inward looking (introverted ) than the western and came into contact with such imagery which they then incorporated into their own cultural themes.

Among physicists, Wofgang Pauli, through his association with Jung, and his previous interest in the Vedic inspired Schopenhauer incorporated some of his ideas within both eastern beliefs and with Jung's interest in the Yijing, alchemy and mythology; David Bohm incorporated eastern beliefs through his association with Krishnamurti.

Rather annoyingly, for me, Jung completely ignored the pre-Roman Celts because Celtic mythology was an interest of his wife, Emma, but her interest was really in the Arthurian Romances with their Medieval connections with the Welsh Mabinogion. She worked on The Grail Legend until her death and it was completed by Jung's associate, Marie-Louise von Franz in 1970. Within its pages are only the slightest references to the Irish epics, and then only by way of comparison with Arthurian themes and people.

The Irish stories have to be treated with great caution in looking for pre-Roman material. I find they can be of some use if you track syncretistic threads forward in time, for example with my essay on the continuity of Ovid's Meleager and the Calydonian Boar (itself already heavily syncretized when it was penned) to the Irish Diarmait and the boar of Ben Gulbain which, although much later, is far less syncretized than the Roman.

I had hoped to be able to track forward from the Situla Culture to end with the Grail and it can be done, but the problem is that it appears to not be an unbroken transition within the Celtic sphere as Classical and Gnostic works were familiar to the Irish scholar/ monks of the early Medieval. So the fact that Ireland was never Romanized is not as significant as might be assumed. I do believe that some of the Irish stories originated in Britain and were adapted by migrant bards for a new audience after the Roman conquest of Britain. Chariots are well covered in the Irish stories but there are no remains, whatsoever, of Irish chariot parts yet discovered while they are very common in Britain. The remains of what I am sure is a wooden board from a chariot at Corlea bog has its origins in the Rhineland and likely arrived in Ireland via the Menapii who were positioned both in Ireland and at the mouth of the Rhine. It has maple studs just like some chariot remains from the Rhineland, but the maple was not indigenous to Ireland.

So I had to strike out on my own to develop methods for the interpretation of pre-Roman Celtic iconography and art, but for that you will have to wait until Monday. Owing to the complexities of this subject, I have abandoned numbering blog posts for the series and am now just using such numbers for themes within the series. Apologies for any confusion this might have caused. Have a questful weekend!

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