Tuesday, 9 February 2016

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

The Children of Lir, John Duncan, 1914

And Mac Howg came down to the brink of the shore and said to them: "Are ye the children of Lir?"  "We are indeed," said they.  "Thanks be to God!" said the saint; "it is for your sakes I have come to this Isle beyond every other island in Erin. Come ye to land now and put your trust in me."  So they came to land, and he made for them chains of bright white silver, and put a chain between Aod and Fingula and a chain between Conn and Fiachra.

The Fate of the Children of Lir

Who better to paint the children of Lir than John Duncan? A Celtic revivalist and mystic, his work spans the Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau, styles that are frequently reflected in Celtic mythology book illustrations. These are the styles of grandparent's generation and I have like them since I was four years old. They are what I expect to see illustrating Celtic legends.

Celtic continuity is seen by some as a bad thing, and there are "purists" who scoff at such things and even use this material to dismiss many ideas about the ancient Celts, but this is illusion, too and such legends and themes are forever being dressed in contemporary garb and thus get preserved. As we go back in time, the same themes existed even before there were Celts.

Wagon-vessel from Acholshausen ca. 1st Millenium BC
photo: Prof. Dorothy Verkerk, University of North Carolina (modified)

In The Fate of the Children of Lir, the children are changed into swans and connected in pairs by a silver chain. Swan imagery is very old indeed and you can see that this wagon-vessel is drawn (in either direction) by pairs of swans, their spatulate bills exaggerated. This vessel is from the Urnfield culture, a precursor to the earliest Hallstatt Celtic cultures.

The prototypical Celtic brooch
But what of the theme of swans being attached by a chain? Celtic fibulae (brooches) were used to fasten a cloak and were worn in pairs connected by a chain. When its previous owner showed the fibula on the right to the experts at the British Museum, their jaws dropped in amazement because they recognized it as the prototypical La Tène 1 brooch. Only two other examples are known and are line-illustrated in D. Bretz-Mahler, La civilisation de La Tène I en Champagne,  1971. p. 17f. Pl. 1.2). The two examples there came from  Witry-lés-Reims and are dated to about 480 BC. They are listed as La Tène 1a or Hallstatt transitional. This fibula was one of the first objects in my collection of early Celtic art and it is still one of my favourites. While we might imagine that the story of the Clildren of Lir being changed into swans and attached in pairs by chains could be inspired by the sight of such brooches being worn, I think it more likely that the person who made the brooch had a much earlier version of the story in mind and that the design became prototypical for all La Tène 1 brooches and them that evolved into the subsequent styles attests to its archetypal content. Nothing can be isolated.

As I wanted this post to express continuity both in its themes and its colour scheme, you will have to wait until tomorrow to see how we can use these ideas in our research techniques.

John's Coydog Community page

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