Posts Tagged ‘bird priestess’


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….

(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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