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The most famous of Classical commentaries concerning the druids is Pliny’s description of the ritual collection of mistletoe from sacred oak trees. It is quite likely that this description, if not entirely fabricated, has at least been artistically interpreted to suit a Classical readership. There are, however, sufficient clues within Celtic art to suggest that mistletoe did indeed occupy a significant place in religious iconography.

Mistletoe is an unusual plant. It is a parasite of soft-wooded trees such as poplars, willows, limes and apples, rarely attaching itself to harder wooded trees like oaks. Birds, like the mistle thrush distribute the seeds from tree to tree as they attempt to remove the sticky, viscous pulp from their beaks after feeding, by rubbing against tree bark and branches. The lodged seeds then send out roots that tap deep into the tree so that it can draw nutrition from the sap. Mistletoe grows in short, angular branches, each dividing and subdividing to form an open globe or ball. The plant rarely has thick branches but the wood is close-grained and hard. At the angle of each joint leathery elongated oval leaves emerge in symmetry around a small bud-like yellow-green flower. Female flowers go on to produce the gluey white berry. Over winter and into spring the olive-green leaves take on a distinctly golden hue…

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Mistletoe thus has distinctive visual symbolism. It partakes of heaven by never touching the ground. Its globular, golden form resembles suns caught in the branches of trees as they ascend or descend from the sky. The leaf colour is solar, but the translucent white seeds and the tendency for the leaves to curl into crescents are clearly lunar. The colour and texture of the seeds is distinctly seminal, whilst the leaves can be visualised as both phallic and labial. All in all, mistletoe suggests a fertilising union of the Upperworld with the Middleworld, the sun with the moon, the male with the female.

The simple leaf shape and its symmetry makes the form of mistletoe easy to embed within two-dimensional patterns. What is less certain to determine, as with the common motif of “hidden faces”, is whether the artist and the contemporary viewer recognised those combinations of shapes in the same way as we do today. On the whole this is likely to be the case – the human nervous system is hardwired to recognise and respond to face-like patterns, and if the mistletoe plant was truly central to Celtic religious ceremony then the hidden symbolism within any pattern would be understood as its primary meaning.

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Early Celtic art drew on, or closely echoed, some of the motifs of the Classical, Mediterranean cultures, particularly the palmate and acanthus patterns of Greek art. As with other borrowings, and particularly pertinent to coin art iconography, the significance of such borrowings is likely to reflect the recognition of an already existing, familiar mythos of the tribes, rather than a random adoption of meaningless shapes from another culture simply for the sake of fashion or imitation of high status.

Once we start looking, as with hidden faces, it is possible to see mistletoe motifs all over the place. Not all these attributions may be correct, but when it appears as the ‘leaf crown’, I think we can be pretty certain that the mistletoe plant is being referenced in that motif at some level of meaning. The leaf crown appears right from the start of Celtic art in the Hallstadt period. It takes various forms and has been interpreted in many ways by art historians. It takes the form of a head framed by two symmetrical lobes that originate around or below the ear level and curve up, expanding in size, framing the face and meeting above the centre of the head. Only relatively recently have these been specifically likened to the form of mistletoe. Others have seen them as simplified wreaths, animal ears, headdresses or prototype vegetal “Green Man” types.

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This design is clearly primarily lunar in its content. The triangular, nested forms not only the triple status of the lunar cycles (waxing, full, waning) but also indicate the sacredness of the image by its repetition of triplicities. It is the paired arcs and the grouped pellets that can be seen as mistletoe berries with opposing leaves. The design thus may embody a direct relationship between moon and plant.

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Such (apparently) abstract designs as shown here are clearly combinations of significant symbols in Insular coin art. They are arranged to provide multiple views and interpretations with animal and human faces emerging and disappearing. The majority of symbols appear to be celestial in nature: suns, moons and stars. Mistletoe fits well into this symbolism having a combination of solar and lunar attributes, and the curvilinear V-shapes can easily be seen as the leaves of that plant, especially if the ring pellets are also read as the round berries containing the hard seed..

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Even when the main subject matter seems to reference other common motifs there is still the possibility of hidden correspondences to mistletoe. The image of the bull’s horned head visually echoes the paired leaves, and when a round pellet is placed between them, as here in this coin of the Boii (bohemia) the similarity becomes more notable.

This particular design is one of my favourites. It has great simplicity but is a powerful, if ambiguous statement. The bull’s head, or bucranium, is a frequent motif, probably of wealth and/ or fertility. It’s shape echoes not only the mistletoe but also the harp (lyre). It overtly appears in many designs and covertly appears in the symmetrical fields of other imagery as hidden faces. Here the human head has become the bovine, with what seems to be wings replacing the arms. That the figure is human is indicated by the feet, shown in profile. It is tempting to see the image as a shaman figure of some kind. The pellets are arranged in groups of three, signifying the sacred (three to the left , three to the right, and three framing the head). The seven in all suggest the stars of the Pleiedes, an ancient indictor of the beginning of Spring, which also happens to be associated with the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Mistletoe flowers around March so this too correlates to this season…. That famous Classical quote directly associates mistletoe with bull sacrifice though it cannot really be taken as more than anecdotal evidence for a true ceremonial link

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The hair styles in coin art might reflect the flamboyant battle styling of the Celtic warrior. Hair was very important, both for increasing fearsomeness and also probably as an indication of status or allegiance ( material and spiritual). Very often the hair was shown as arranged in rigid bristles, clearly imitating the dorsal ridge of an angry boar – archetype of the fearless, wild protector of the clan. In the image here the spirit of the boar is visible, perhaps as a personal spirit ally or as a helmet decoration. The two sweeping locks of hair below can be seen as bull’s horns or as mistletoe leaves. The leaf crown is suggested, maybe just as a stylistic preference for S-spirals and leaf lobes amongst the artists.

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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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