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Coin images as a spiritual battleground.

Shared imagery and iconography on coins from the Roman world and from the Celtic tribes may be an indication of life-or-death spin-doctoring. It happens in all religions: representations of deities as the fiercest, the brightest, the most fearsome to overpower their rivals from other cultures. Subverting and re-writing the meaning of the iconography that is familiar to both sides, goading, belittling, cursing, shaming.

To think that Iron Age men-of-skill slavishly copied Classical prototypes without attaching meaning is unrealistic and naive within a culture where knowledge resided more in the images of memory, word and association than in written text.

We may have missed some important messages in coin art by failing to recognise what the designers were sharing with their audience…..

The most obvious image battles are between the winged Victories and the eagles. The eagles are the primary guardians of the legions, so any use of that bird in coin art must have reference to the enemy, either by comparison or subversion. Both adversaries,( of course), have the gods on their side. The Victory image is not a benign buxom lady wafting a bit of shrubbery, she is only a herald of peace in the spin of the commentators. She is the same as the Furies and the Valkyries, a Goddess of Death and dismemberment, mascot of the winning team, carrion pecking out the eyes of the fallen foe….

In the art of the Tribes, the Victory image becomes overlain with the druid-shaman shapeshifter in feather cloak…

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This coin image from a Bavarian tribe clearly echoes the Classical Victory, but here the female has become a wing-cloaked and feathered male holding, not a laurel wreath of Victory, but a torc – the quintessential and unambiguous sign of Celtic divine authority. Interesting too, that there are 13 pellets around the figure – a very lunar number. In this version of the design the surrounding lunar crescents have also become more animate, some now resembling bird and animal heads….

Some coins show eagles fighting, suggesting the Tribal totems attacking the war spirits of Rome and the Emperor. Many more show eagles in a context that suggests personal or tribal connections, such as eagles riding horses ( the image of the human rider replaced his or her personal power animal)….

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Here the larger eagle is either carrying or attacking the smaller bird. The pentacle symbol and the equal armed cross may well represent druidic authority and the authority of the tribal elders( the pentacle long associated with magical and mental control, the cross with the four directions and thus the Land of the tribe)

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Here the horse is transmuting into a stag and the rider has become an eagle.

The Tribes were in conflict long enough with the legions to be very familiar with the images on their standards and flags, and it may be that the images of Mithraism, so popular a mystery cult within the Roman Army, also became woven into the complex meanings of coin art. What adds to the complexity and ambiguity is the shared, or common themes found on both sides, ( without this basic similarity there would be no reason to maintain and carry over any Classical motifs into Tribal iconography – coin art is fundamentally a language and to carry power it must be clearly understood by all who see it…..

The cult of Mithras is the amalgamation of Indo-European and Persian prototypes combined with a plethora of Solar and resurrectional, warrior and sacrificial symbolism ( which made it so unpleasant to the new Imperial Christian cult when it was being formulated in the 4th century AD)….

The bull, and the bull sacrifice is the most familiar of Mithraic symbols, but the Sun, the Snake, the Fertilizing Blood, the raven, the Feast were also symbols of the Mithraic Mysteries. Many of these images are found in coin art and, it might be argued, represent, at least at some level of multi-layered interpretation, an attempt to vanquish the spiritual power of the enemy, to set the established, familiar tribal powers against the upstart, stolen or subverted imagery wrested from the many ancient cultures that were exterminated or assimilated by Roman expansionism…..

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Almost nothing is known of the practices within the Mysteries of Mithras, but as the most important cult in the Legions, one can safely surmise it had little to do with compassion and peace. As a male-only secret society the potential for testosterone fuelled machismo would have been extreme. We do know that, at some point, the extremes of initiatory rites had to be proscribed by law. This would suggest that significant damage was occurring amongst the legionaries attempting to rise up the heirarchy of the cult – significant enough to impact upon a habitually thick-skinned and violence-acclimatised ruling elite of the Imperial Armies.

One of the main archaeological features in the cave-like ritual spaces were deep rock-lined pits. It is likely these were used for some kind of burial and rebirth re-enactment, and as Mithras is shown being born from a rock, it is likely that some lengthy endurance test was involved.

So possible links to Mithraism might be seen in the following types of imagery:

The bull, and particularly the bull sacrifice.
A raven flying around a bull or sitting on its back.
A dog and snake feeding on the spilt blood of a bull.
Two torches.
A scorpion.
A person (Mithras) being born from out of a rock.
A water miracle, water being brought forth from a rock.
Hunting or riding bulls.
Meeting and feasting with the Sun God.
The cavern.
A naked, lion-headed figure entwined by a serpent. The male figure has four wings and holds two keys and a sceptre.

The only evidence in writing describes the seven grades of initiation.

1st Grade: The Raven ( or crow). The symbols of this grade are the beaker, the caduceus, and is linked to the planet/deity Mercury.

2nd Grade: The Male Bride. The symbols are a lamp, a bell, a diadem, linked to the planet/deity Venus.

3rd Grade: The Soldier. The symbols are a pouch, a helmet, lance, drum, belt, bread plate, linked to the planet/deity Mars.

4th Grade: The Lion. Symbols are the ” batillum” ( a short-handled iron shovel for heating or burning), sistrum, laurel wreath, thunderbolts, linked to the planet/ deity Jupiter.

5th Grade: The Persian. Symbols are ” akinakes” ( a double-edged dagger or short sword derived from the Scythians and favoured in the eastern Mediterranean region, including the Persians), the Phrygian cap, sickle, crescent moon and stars, sling pouch, linked to the deity/planet Moon.

6th Grade: The Sun- Runner. Symbols are a torch, whip, robes and the image of the god Sol, linked to the deity/planet Sun.

7th Grade: The Father. Symbols are the mitre, crozier, a garnet or ruby ring, the chasuble, jewel-encrusted robes, linked to the deity/planet Saturn. ( no wonder Mithraism was anathema to the early Church, probably embarrassed about appropriating some of the cult’s main symbols for itself!).

Now across the ancient world, especially those geographically linked and deriving from the same prehistoric progenitors, it could be expected that a certain number of natural symbols would be shared without necessarily attaching precisely the same meaning to each. However, it is worth considering the possible subtexts from the power-art of conflicting cultures. Referencing well-known iconography always adds commentary and comparison that goes right to the heart of the message that is implicitly understood by the viewer.

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Here the bull’s head or “bucranium” is juxtaposed with a solar symbol above the back of a horse, surrounded by serpentine vegetation. Do we interpret these symbols as representing the tribe or war leader, as attributes of protecting Celtic deities, or as spiritual weapons that counter the cult of Mithras, the glue of the Legions? A bucranium/lyre is a quite common motif associated with horses especially. The one here is interesting because it has been suggested that it is a bull’s head pendant that is specifically being shown, with the hanging loop clearly pictured between the horns…

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There are many images on Celtic coins that are visually powerful but difficult to interpret. Sometimes the imagery and symbols are unknown, sometimes the picture is clear but the meaning is obscure.
In this little sortie I will be looking at art that has grabbed my imagination. Please feel free to dream your own dreams….

Big Bird Hat

I have only recently come across this coin image. It comes from the same area of North Central Gaul that produced many of the cockerel, man-cock, fighting cocks imagery. Here, though both bird and man look different. Crow Man, Raven Wizard. Sometimes similar images resemble warrior’s helmets ( often following the Classical helmeted Goddess profile), but the shape here looks more like a floppy hat – Wizardly Hat, Druid Head…

There are two birds here. One is the brim, conversing, whispering into the man’s mouth. Eye to eye. Vision Bird. The dreadlocks behind the ear doubles as this bird’s legs. Dreadlocks or earrings: earrings are quite commonly represented in coin art. Men are usually shown with long, drop earrings.

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The detail of the hat is hard to make out on the example I have seen, perhaps the upper bird is attacking the lower, or perhaps they are mating. Perhaps the image is of the same bird, a multiple, layered image: flying, landing, conversing – a vision of time-lapse, a story of a guardian spirit’s descent….

I love the profile head. Really nicely rendered, full of character. Full lipped, strong eyed, prominent cheekbones, stubbly beard and woven locks. Druid, I would say. Hawk becomes crow becomes human….

Swimming Man

Most coin art focuses on warrior and tribal identity. There are some that appear to show ritual activities, ( particularly Snake Dancing). Some seem rather mundane – figures running or swimming. But they must have carried a deeper level of significance to their audience, a story we do not know, a myth we have lost, a connection overlooked.

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This image of the swimming man is a lovely composition, bending around the circumference of the coin flan. Somehow I keep thinking of the face of the full moon. How many figures, animals stories have been derived from that bright, patterned face. To the tribes was that image just one, or was it various, depending on the time of year, the ancestral stories, the circumstances? Was the moon seen as a pool, a doorway, a reflection or mirror, showing the way through from the Upper World to different spirits who were invited to participate in human activities…. A window in the night for the great spirits to see what on earth….

An ocean, river, water, deity or a hero figure? Merlin, Taliesin, Manannan, bright-browed, ploughing, floating with loquacious tongue from the waters of their birth. The relentless power of the waves, the endless tide of warriors, the roar of ancestral stories.

Or maybe a diver, for knowledge, for power, a salmon transformed, hooked by the wise…

Mushroom Frenzy

This image epitomises the strange unknown worlds that we can look into. How can we know what the designers and artists were representing? We can feel the raw power emanating magically from the shaped metal. We can feel stirrings of emotion and force somewhere within our deep minds or our cells. Our ancestors were the same as us but alien. Year by year we forget, lose memory, lose the skill of remembering, the skill of fabrication, despising the magical as childish, cutting off the roots that feed what we are.

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There are a couple of versions of this type, from the same tribes as produced the cockerel imagery – the Bellovaci and Senones. I entitled it ‘ Mushroom Frenzy’ as in some the shapes around the head looked a little like mushrooms- either that or severed tongues or genitals!

Here, though the writhing shapes seem more exhalations of raw energy, given zoomorphic form by the voice and the mind. Will-power taking visible form. Wrath and defiance. Conjuration, exhortation and manifestation of spiritual force…

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Flower of Death, Death Battle goddess….

Musing on the imagery of the vegetalised hand, the thought struck that it perhaps represented belladonna, deadly nightshade. Nowadays this plant is rarely seen and most would not recognise it – most often it is confused with the more colourful enchanter’s nightshade. Belladonna became a ‘witches plant’ in the medieval period. It is a powerful and dangerous medicine, a cardiac excitant causing death quite effortlessly and at lower concentrates, a hallucinogen fond of initiating demonic visions. The flower is a veined purple cream bell held on rich green stems and leaves that resemble its relative, the potato. The plant’s most impressive, and most dangerous feature is its fruits: large, unbelievably shiny, purple-black berries that just scream to be put between the lips and bitten down on to release the exotic juices….. Two or three may easily be enough to invite extreme disorientation, frenzy, fearful visions and eventually a boiling, revved-up catastrophic heart failure and death.

Is she, even, a spirit of belladonna?

Free-floating eye no longer attached to the body or the physical world, a vision eye, a third eye, like Odin’s offered for endless wisdom to the Well of Mimir, able to see into all worlds, all realms. ( there are other coin designs with these floating eyes- druid’s eyes squinting through the cracks in the world to spirit dimensions of past or future…)

The intoxicant grape, symbol of the tyrant civilisation of the Romans, of their ability to trade luxury for freedom, trumped by the wild, rich berries of death. Such bombastic, overt comparisons are common in Celtic coin art. The imagery turned, interpreted, subverted….

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(from an original drawing by Julian Barnes)

So here we have a raven death goddess priestess supplanting the sedate and graceful Classical Victory, the noble symbol of the laurel of the victors ( bay laurel of solar Apollo, not cherry laurel, though both have powerful psychoactive smoke), translated into another, native, Northern plant of the gods……

Belladonna, mandrake, henbane especially were all widely used. Externally, safer to use as local anaesthetic and analgesic; internally as powerful sedatives and painkillers. Likely also to have been admixtures in visionary drinks. Henbane and hemp have been found within Neolithic clay vessels – henbane being a slightly more psychoactive, than deadly, member of the Nightshade Family. In fact, the flower hand resembles henbane even a little more than belladonna – especially the seed capsules ……

I first saw the flower-hand as a bindweed, a convolvulus. This too, is an appropriate image. It fits in with the extended sinuous arm and the concept of binding ( both together in harmony amongst allies and trapped and imprisoned for the enemies of the tribe)….. But I like belladonna, bringer of frenzy and death……..

Nowadays we feel uncomfortable with ambiguity of meaning. For the Celts ambiguity was at the heart of their visual and poetic arts. The more layers of meaning, the more powerful and spiritually empowered the image becomes. (Not that the meanings would have been random: as far as can be known from later sources, there were complex layers of associations and related imagery. Some would have been know to all, some only understood by initiates.)

Identifying actual plant species, bird species, and so on, is very difficult from small-scale art, especially when each culture often has visual clues that clearly represent the subject without necessarily presenting naturalistic imagery that could be recognised by someone outside that culture. We will look at some other plant imagery elsewhere. It really would take an expert in each field: botanist, ornithologist, etc. to look at the images with a non-literal, knowledgeable eye to pick up clues that other might ignore or misinterpret.

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This is one of the first images that made me want to look much more closely at the imagery of Iron Age coinage. It is one of a type that derives from the figure of ‘Victory’ common to Greek and Roman iconography. We are so familiar with this angelic figure that we can easily make asssumptions about its nature. She is fundamentally a war deity, a reflection of the battlefield carrion-eater, eater of the flesh of enemies. She is on “our side” and so must be treated with respect and given a beneficent aspect ( much as the terrible Greek Furies were euphemised as ” Kindly Ones”, and the dangerous Fairy Folk as “The Good People”).

This figure of the bird priestess is a formidable and numinous presence. She is somewhat reminiscent of the vulture goddesses on the wall paintings of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, and the presence of the bird/bull imagery is striking both in Celtic art and in the art of these early Neolithic towns.

The figure, though no longer possessing a human head, is apparently female, with a narrow waist surrounded by a broad belt or rolled up dress-top, and a skirt or robe hanging to her ankles. Her head is a simple large eye, or an eye within a bird-like head with mouth open. ( Initially I thought ‘bird’ , but actually there are horses’ heads with similar forms. Perhaps it is a stylised sign for ‘head’ or more likely, ‘powerful head’ or ‘spirit head’ ).

From her shoulders sprout two, large down-swept wings and between them and her head are zig-zig lines of force. Her left hand is open, gesturing and fully human, but her right arm and hand is transforming into something else. It has become part of the right wing, elongating into a sinuous arc that seems to become a vine with leaves or a flower at the end (replacing the hand). Two ‘pellets’ or drops appear next to this power arm. One appears to be still attached as if it were a fruit, the second has dropped.

Between the wing feathers and the legs of this priestess/goddess, to the left is an eye/vulva – perhaps representing the power of fecundity, of life and death, of blessing and curse, of cunning power and hidden source. To her other side are three round-ended rods or sticks, the central one attached by a line to the robe. Perhaps something of a practical or ritual nature hanging from her belt. It may be that these are bird-bone whistles, like those used in America and Siberia to imitate the cries of eagles. Whistling is a magical summoning and was often frowned upon, the whistler unintentionally likely to conjure up a storm or a harmful wind.

A subversion of the imagery of the enemy ( in this case the Roman ‘Victorias’ ) is suggested by this image, as in many other borrowings from Classical prototypes. The sub-message is clear: your goddess is not as powerful/scary/effective as ours…..

Bird priestess reaches beyond normal powers

Strong arm, bringing forth, fruit, tree, flower, life

Binding spell (bindweed arms).

Eagle Woman

Cursing Carrion

image from a coin from the area of what is now Germany

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Hello world!

Welcome to my new blog, which I hope will be a site to explore the little known aspect of Iron Age Celtic coin art. I would like this to be an exploration of ideas and images. Although I have studied Art History and some archaeology, I am not an academic. My interest in this subject is as an artist and a poet. I have studied Celtic art at University and in the 1980’s was part of a group producing art resources for schools using Celtic art (ERAE at Birmingham College of Art). The designs and variety of imagery within Celtic coin art was , and still is, largely ignored by the professionals, and completely unknown by the public (who are habitually bombarded by images of Early Medieval Celtic Christian Irish art like the Book of Kells and Ardagh Chalice).

Only when I saw the catalogues of Chris Rudd, about ten years ago, did I see very good photographs of coin designs that stunned me with their strength of design and iconagraphy. Finding good photographic images of Celtic coins is surprisingly difficult. Most sources are numismatic catalogues, which at best, usually only double the magnification of what are very small objects. Here I will be showing my own drawings and paintings of the coin images. The Celtic coin as object has a beautiful physicality, but my own interest is in the imagery, the meaning, the language, the magical statement from a period right at the beginning of history. The Iron Age Celts were the heirs to the millenia old cultures of the Bronze Age and Neolithic. Many of their cultural expressions can be traced back to these times. Their art, therefore, has the potential to speak to us of a time before cities, a time before Christianity, a time when the past was remembered rather than recorded. It is a world that still lurks deep in our bones, in our unconscious minds. Like the skirl of a pibroch, it can call to us, revivify us, resussitate us from our jaded urbanity. I believe that Iron Age Celtic Coin Art should be renowned as one of the greatest of artistic expressions. It should be a source of inspiration for artists and designers, of shamans and poets. It is as close to a narrative, a voice, as we can get from the silent tribes whose worldview and opinions we have forgotten…….

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