Tuesday, 2 February 2016

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

Variation on Celtic fold-over symmetry.
detail of Lisnacrogher scabbard No 1,
Jope, 2000, Pl. 54d.
detail from photo by Notalfly
"The use of metaphor is itself an art. It greatly enriches the expressive capacity of language, and without it poetry might be inconceivable.

"However, the use of metaphorical terminology as description has been severely detrimental to the study of ornament. If applied instead as a simile its purpose would be clearer. But as it is the terms come to acquire a groundless unity with the ornamental components to which they refer. In most cases these terms have no more than a superficial formal similarity to what they describe, and if the connection is ever substantial no one bothers to demonstrate this. As such the connection and ultimately the terminology is meaningless, and what is worse it is misleading. It is an easy option which avoids the basic problem of attempting to establish the original significance or identity and sources of the forms historically where this is possible. Ultimately the use of metaphorical description disavows the necessity to study and chracterize precisely the graphic configuration of the elements of the patterns before us. In short 1t keeps us from the thorough scrutiny of the most characteristic aspect of ornament, its form. Because of this it is really no description at all."

David Richard Castriota,  Continuity and Innovation in Celtic and Mediterranean Ornament. A Grammatical-Syntactic Analysis of the Processes of Reception and Transformation in the Decorative Arts of Antiquity. Ph.D thesis, Columbia University, p.33.

Following from the Early Celtic cultural frame of the business of war, yesterday, comes the cultural frame of pre-Roman Celtic poetry. As, of course, no examples are known, we have to contact it through their aesthetic using early Celtic design as examples and tracking what we can discover forward in time to where poetry becomes written down instead of it being an oral tradition of the Iron Age. Going backward from Medieval Celtic poetry is even more risky than doing the same with mythological themes as the bard was an important figure in Medieval society. His function was much like that of the early Celtic bard: singing the praises of his patron and condemning his patron's enemies. The early Celtic bard, however, would also be used in battle to destroy the confidence of the enemy through what we call today "psychological warfare". This takes many forms in tribal societies. Who could forget the classic movie Zulu, where the British forces first hear the enemy clashing their spears against their shields and stomping their feet on the ground. By the time they Zulu forces appear over the hill, the British forces are already unnerved. In early Celtic warfare there was also the sound of the carnyx, and in Britain I have seen so many chariot linchpin heads worn in the same way that I am convinced that they deliberately bent them over to rub against the wheel to create an eerie sound. The bard would taunt the enemy to destroy their confidence and I expect that this was done when Viridovix' forces daily approached the Roman fort of Sabinus to try to lure the Romans out to battle. The Roman soldiers began to believe that their commander was a coward but Caesar explains that he was just following orders.

We know, too, that the Druids taught their philosophy through verse and that students could spend as long as twenty years committing it to memory. We know. also, that metaphor was common in the Celts day to day discussions. We see it, too, in their design aesthetics such as in what I call "variations on a theme".

In modern times, the Celtic is mostly expressed through mythological imagery rather than by its structure. A possible exception being some of the work by Dylan Thomas. In my book Celtic Improvisations, I give an example of each:
"First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands,..."
The Circus Animals' Desertion, W. B. Yeats

"And heard the lewd, wooed, field flow to the coming frost..."
In the White Giant's Thigh, Dylan Thomas
In the Dylan Thomas example, there is no Celtic imagery, but it consists of internal rhymes and paired letter sounds.

Citing early Welsh poetry, my wife Carin Perron,  who was a poet, gave an example of  "a cross-over pattern of alliteration common in some types of Celtic poetry":
The men are fed
The fields are mowed
With texts on early Celtic art, "fold-over symmetry" is defined as a design that is repeated, in reverse, on the other side of an imaginary line drawn from top to bottom through the motif. To me this is both overly complex and to subservient to an exact geometry, and as such, imposes a rule on the early Celtic aesthetic whereby exceptions are given as "rotational symmetry" and the like. I simply this form by merely saying one part of the design "mirrors" the other part, and I use fold-over symmetry only to describe what can be seen in the example I illustrate at the start of this post. It also exists in many other examples of Celtic art without any variation in its practice, but with a myriad of variations in the forms that it takes. In these examples, a motif is flipped horizontally and then placed below, and connecting to the upper version. Sometimes, small details on different sets of motifs of this construction on the same object have  "variations on a theme". At first glance, the entire design appear repetitious because the "weight" of each variation is mostly maintained.(The Bann scabbard, Jope, Pl. 57l).

Dylan uses similar devices to those discussed above in his prose piece "A Child's Christmas in Wales":

"I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

"duchess-faced horse"

"I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea"

"dumb, numb thunderstorm"

Was Dylan studied in these patterns? Was it instinctive like a Jungian archetype or an underlying epigenetic structure? We can only speculate. It was, however, very "early Celtic". The nomenclature of design forms and the inclusion of Celtic imagery can lure us away from the underlying structures that are the very best clues to the ancient Celtic aesthetic.

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