Wednesday, 10 February 2016

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

Oeneus, Atalanta, Meleager and a son of Thestius (?). Engraved Etruscan mirror, bronze, 4th–3rd century BC., Louvre
The Kouretes on a time were fighting and the Aitolians staunch in battle around the city of Kalydon, and were slaying one another, the Aitolians defending lovely Kalydon and the Kouretes fain to waste it utterly in war. For upon their folk had Artemis of the golden throne sent a plague in wrath that Oineus offered not to her the first-fruits of the harvest in his rich orchard land; whereas the other gods feasted on hecatombs, and it was to the daughter of great Zeus alone that he offered not, whether haply he forgat, or marked it not; and he was greatly blinded in heart. Thereat the Archer-goddess, the child of Zeus, waxed wroth and sent against him a fierce wild boar, white of tusk,  that wrought much evil, wasting the orchard land of Oineus; many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground, aye, root and apple blossom therewith. But the boar did Meleagros, son of Oineus, slay, when he had gathered out of many cities huntsmen and hounds; for not of few men could the boar have been slain, so huge was he; and many a man set he upon the grievous pyre. But about his body the goddess brought to pass much clamour and shouting concerning his head and shaggy hide, between the Kouretes and the great-souled Aitolians.

Homer, The Iliad, Book 9, lines 529-548

Atalanta (?) and the Kalydonian boar, Aitolian League triobol
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Even as early as Homer, we are walking into stories stretching back as far as the Neolithic, forever being retold to reflect the storyteller's time and place. These stories pass from one culture to another whenever they resonate with equally ancient stories of the second culture. But even those familiar stories are amalgamations of myths from yet more cultures and times that have been carried forward in the same manner.
"A wild hunter... "Orestheus," "man of the mountains,"... a son of Deukalion, the first man, comes to Aitolia in search of a kingdom. His she-dog gives birth to a stick. He buries the stick, probably because it is an abortion. It soon turns out to be the first vine, a gift of the celestial dog, the dog of Orion, who may be recognized in the wild hunter. After the event Orestheus names his son "Phytios," "planter." His son in turn was named "oineus," after oine, "vine.""  Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life, Princeton, 1976, p.76.
These stories, in combination, pass into the Celtic cultures in several places:
"Recently, a fragment of Greek text from Noricum was translated into German (G. Dobesch, Zu Virunum als Namen der Stadt auf dem Magdalensberg und zu einer Sage der kontinentalen Kelten, Carinthia 187, 1997, 107-128). It is the only contemporary telling of a Celtic foundation myth. An Otherwordly boar is wreaking havoc in the land, and although many try to slay the boar, they all fail. Finally, a stranger comes, and he "brings back the boar on his shoulders". The people all hailed him "one man" in their language, and the Noricum city of Virunum came to be named as such." John Hooker, The meaning of the boar, Chris Rudd List 69, May, 2003.
The Calydonian Boar Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, Getty Museum
"Wrapped in a flowing red cape, the warrior Meleager thrusts his spear into the shoulder of a massive boar. The ferocious creature--seemingly undaunted by a pair of hounds latched onto its bristled hide--has turned to confront head-on its human adversary. Meleager's blow will prove to be fatal to the boar, but the beast has proven itself as a fearsome foe. Beneath its imposing hooves lie the disemboweled carcass of a hound and the prostrate corpse of the hunter, Ancaeus." Excerpt from Getty caption for the painting.
In the Rubens painting, the story is taken from the Roman retelling by Ovid which is also the subject of this denarius of Hosidius. The hound of Anceus "descends" from Orion's dog, and the Greek Artemis is shown on the obverse as the Roman Diana. Anceus is not alone:
another Anceus was killed by a boar ravaging a vineyard at Samos. It is not so much a specialty of wild boars to ravage vineyards but the boar represents the dark time of the year (and was also so recognized by the Celts). Unseasonable weather can destroy the crop. Meleagros (the name comes from the Greek for "honey" and for "field"), is "the loving protector of the fields". The Romans called him Meleager.

British "Corieltauvi Hosidius type" silver unit
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

On the British Celtic coin, the spear in the boars back intersects a solar symbol and this represents the division of the year into two halves. The boar is killed by the solar hero, who in turn, must then be killed by the boar so that that the seasons can cycle year after year.

"Then Grainne felt sure of the death of Diarmuid, and she uttered a long exceedingly piteous cry, so that it was heard in the distant parts of the stronghold; and her women and the rest of her people came to her, and asked her what had thrown her into that excessive grief. Grainne told them how Diarmuid bad perished by the wild boar of Benn Gulban, by means of the hunt that Finn mac Cumaill had made. “And truly my very heart is grieved,” said Grainne, “that I am not myself able to fight with Finn, for were I so I would not have suffered him to leave this place in safety.” Having heard of the death of Diarmuid, they too uttered three loud, fearful, vehement cries together with Grainne, so that those loud shouts were heard in the clouds of heaven, and in the wastes of the firmament; and then Grainne bade the five hundred that she had for household to go to Benn Gulban, and to bring her the body of Diarmuid.". The Pursuit of Diarmud and Grainne, from the Irish Fenian Cycle.
It is not sufficient to extrapolate, backwards, from later Celtic legends to explain pre-Roman Celtic motifs: so much of any story is of its time and place and we can soon become lost if we try to track the wrong elements. Only by bracketing the element with what came before and what came later can we see the exact patterns of the various syncretisms. All cultures are unified because all humans have the same mental structures. Any national expression is virtually irrelevant.Cultures reside only in the heads of individuals.

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