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HERCULES IN CELTIC COIN ART – MIS-INTERPRETATION OR RE-INTERPRETATION

The figure of Hercules/ Herakles is a common motif in Classical art. It features on many Greek and Roman coins and makes its way into Eastern Celtic coins too. It is quite easy to see the Celtic images simply as copies of varying skill. But on closer examination, it can be seen that, in fact, there is a divergence of not just style, but also imagery.

Firstly, however, it is important to remember that the figure of Herakles has a very long presence around the whole of the Mediterranean. The visual prototype of semi-divine hero who fights animals and monsters is perhaps earliest to emerge in the art of Mesopotamia, but it is likely to have a much older pedigree. It is one of the main templates for cultural- hero- protector- progenitor. It is related, to, but not identical with, the warrior-king archetype. That warrior-king type is clearly related to Sovereignty and the Right to Rule. It has to do with structure and order of society, supported by the warrior elite and priestly classes. Although Herakles is king of various territories throughout his life, his main exploits are those of a lone, outsider, wandering hero. The fact that he is half- god, half-human sets him aside as a liminal misfit. In fact, most of his tribulations arise from the antagonism between human and divine realms. Some Classical texts maintained that Herakles was already known to the Western Celts before contact with Greek or Roman cultures, and that he was considered a ‘First Ancestor’ figure. His adoption into Coin art is therefore wholly legitimate, even though a Classical representation tends to dominate. The loner-wild man- hero- protector is a figure that pervades myth and folklore. He tends to be immensely strong, cunning, but not the most intellectual of beings. He is fecund, violent, but a protector of family. He appears as Thor and The Dagda, where both these IE mythic types wield simple weapons, are of giant size, battle monsters and accrue a popular, likeable, bawdy nature. They are related to all sky/thunder/storm/fertility templates. Some believe that Vajrapani, the Tibetan protector yidam derives from a Herakles type, and that this also evolves into the fierce protector gods of the gateways of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist temples. They can be found in the sky-castle dwelling giants that later, more knightly heroes attempt to eradicate on their quests, ( a clear usurpation of the roles of earlier cultures by newer cultural sensibilities). The wild man tamed, or the wild man running wild, seem to be the issues being explored. Herakles himself is a complex, flawed figure, both protector/ progenitor and also destroyer. He is a summation of the difficulties of humans in wielding innate power. An ideal First Ancestor, in many respects.

It is surprising that Hercules/Herakles is not used more often at the moment as an example of fluid gender models. Depicted as the alpha male, all bulging testosterone and the like, Herakles took both male and female lovers and also spent time in a cross-dressing, gender swapping relationship.

1. I have put these images in a stylistic order, starting with those that follow Classical prototypes quite closely, then moving on to those that diverge towards more clearly Celtic forms. This in no way represents the actual chronology of the coins: Classical types were probably used for a variety of reasons, such as the availability of die cutters with Classical training, political or aspirational links to a Classical culture, and so on. This image shows a well-modelled relief figure, standing contraposto, right hand resting on a large wooden club, left arm bent at the elbow holding a lion skin. The Greek text of Classical coins is more or less precise. The only move towards Celtic abstraction here is the rather, (no doubt intentional), phallic head of the lion-skin

2. Another close copy of a Classical,original. The figure has less modelling and less definition, though the contraposto with hand on hip is still clear. The Greek lettering is still important, though some of the forms are showing more interest in pattern-making.

3. The Classical elements are still present here, but the artist is more interested in the curve of lines and an abstraction of forms. Much greater attention is given to the details of the club and the lion-skin. The letters become more integrated with the design, rather than simply giving a square frame to the figure. The club seems to be transforming into a fruiting branch, or a very knobbly club. The lion-skin is rendered as a three sets of pellets. Note also that there is much emphasis placed on the muscles of the upper torso and shoulders, whilst the legs are less important. The profile head is also moving away from a Classical profile, towards a more Celtic ‘staring eye’ type.

4. The figure here is greatly schematised. There is a clear celticisation of the head: it now has a big eye, a clear nose/mouth, spikey, warrior hair and a clearly depicted neck torc.

Breasts and shoulders are still emphasised. The lion-skin is now just a stylised drape over the left arm, But the right arm has become elongated to have a ‘long reach’ with particular, but difficult to interpret, protrusions that may be fingers or something else.

The ends of lines are given prominent pellets ( letters, legs, lion-skin).

5. This design retains the sense of contraposto and Classical proportions in the figure. The club is still clearly a club, but the lion-skin has been replaced by a bow. The bow was one of Hercules’s main attributes and weapons. The figure is twisting completely round, looking backwards, head turned in opposite direction to the feet, giving the whole pose a tense dynamism despite its heavy abstraction. Note the possible single horn that is appearing on the head. Here the lettering has been completely replaced with a double row of pellets. The letters between club and leg have now become a triple pellet – sign of sacred and Otherworld power.

6. Classical pose and proportions are retained here, a nice contraposto and well-defined arms and legs. The lion-skin takes greater part in the overall design echoing the lines and movement of the figure in a pleasing, balanced way. The club no longer resembles a rough-hewn branch. It’s form is familiar to coin art, though hard to clearly interpret. It may be a sceptre or wand and its top may be suggestive of serpentine energy.

There is a strong elongation of the face and jaw. This may be a representation of a long beard ( Herakles is always shown bearded), but the animal-like profile this gives to the figure may be suggestive of some kind of transformation or shape-changing qualities.

The lettering here is a more fluid, randomised ground of different sized pellets.

The mirroring of human and animal in the human/lion and human body/animal head may be an important aspect of the message in this image.

7. The figure of Herakles here is abstracted and statuesque, but all the physical characteristics are present. There is a conscious symmetry about the design with fairly precise mirroring about the central vertical axis. Both club and lion-skin are rendered as an arc of pellets. The head is just about identifiable as human but the whole feel is more hieratic and totemic. The way the two streams of small pellets meet and echo the surrounding pattern suggests a ‘pouring forth’ of blessings, power, abundance and so on. In this image the Otherworld divine certainly takes over from the Classical love of lithe, muscular, perfected masculinity. The phallic references of the elongated, domed head points to the progenitor, ancestor, fertility archetype, and is explored and developed in other Celtic coin images of Hercules, as we shall see. In all these images, the warlike attribute of the club is in a passive role, used more as a prop than a threat. Here, the originals are abstracted and, without reference to Classical types, one would not guess what they were – other than some kind of flow or emanation from the central figure.

The use of round pellets by coin artists is an interesting subject. Practically speaking, using a punch to create an indented round mark on the die is much simpler than engraving or carving a shape or line. Remember, that the working surface for coins is incredibly small, usually not much more than centimetre or two in diameter. Certainly there is a convention across coin art to terminate lines in a small punched circle. This is stylistic, but also practical : a neat way to clearly end a shape. Where there are masses of punched pellets there are several options as to specific meaning. Firstly, they provide a textured background pattern- though Celtic art is rarely concerned with showing ‘things on a background, or located in space’ as Classical art is. The Celtic artist is more focused on an integrated pattern-making that balances and plays with positive and negative space. Often the negative spaces are constructed to add to, or comment on, the objects modelled in relief.

There is a possibility that heavily pelleted grounds represent some quality of significant elemental solidity – earth, water and so on. This provides a whole development of possible meanings for images where these pellet grounds occur. If we ignore the prototype of Greek alphabetical text, what might these marks in this design now mean? Apart from amorphous and difficult to portray substances, such as light, darkness, earth, water, cloud, vapour, mist, air, stars, round pellets also reflect the circular nature of the coin itself and thus by correspondence to wealth, abundance, power, blessing, authority, seed, harvest, obligation, richness, the Land, numbers ( specific, as in triplicity, and general, as in manyfold, numerous, uncountable).

8. Another abstracted, statuesque totem. The emphasis here is on the large eye and the echoing ring pellets placed symmetrically around the figure. The Greek lettering has taken on a much more characteristic range of Celtic coin motifs that may or may not have fixed and understood meanings to the observer. Ring pellets may be solar symbols; dumbbell rods are commonly found and definitely suggest an object that has presence and weight, a ritual tool or piece of insignia;

groupings of three pellets commonly seem to indicate the special or sacred; groups of five- a square with a central pellet are also common, perhaps relating to the pentagram that was later In Medieval times associated with druid knowledge.

9. Here we have a continuation of the similar theme: a figure framed by four solar ring pellets on a field of other more or less same sized pellets. The figure is more dynamic, clearly moving off towards the right. The shoulders are emphasised but the arms are much less prominent. There is a hint that these may also be wing-like forms. The profile head has spiky hair and a prominent eye. The nose, lips/beard are at the same angle as the phallus and are also phallic in shape. There is a much greater sense in this design that the figure is integrated or emerging, or dissolving back into, the swirled lines of pellets around it. The presence of the ring pellets continually pull the viewer’s attention to them and they easily become staring eyes in a mysterious numinous face.

10. This design combines major aspects of both the Classical depictions and the Celtic interpretations. We have the club, the lion-skin, the broad, muscular shoulders. The figure in embedded in a regular field of pellets, with an additional halo of pellets arcing around the head. Spiky hair and phallic nose are emphasised. There is an interesting difference in the depiction of the legs: the left leg looks as if it is damaged or withered. There is no practical reason why the legs should not be drawn in the same way, so we can assume that the difference was intentional and significant. It could be argued that the ‘contraposto’ pose has simply been misinterpreted, and that the different angle and outline of the left leg was read as a malformation. Alternately, the staff/club, often shown as a support, may have suggested a more elderly, war-worn ancestral figure, or one who is magically ‘other’ or set apart from normal beings

11. This Herakles moves a long way away from the Classical, away from the human hero towards the numinous and ambiguous Otherworld being. Only the presence of the club, held in the right hand and resting on the ground, points us towards the Classical prototypes. Even that has its own peculiar doubling up of its knobbly shape. The symbol/Greek character between club and leg is now definitely the triple pellet of sacred presence. The other Greek letters have become familiar Celtic motifs. Note the torc below the feet, and, of course, the six-pointed star to which the figure seems to be gazing.

The profile head still possesses a prominent chin or beard and a long nose, but now there seems to be a clear pair of horns on the top of the head. The lion-skin is gone, replaced by a long tail that echoes the shape of the arm above, though this arm could be interpreted as a wing just as easily.

The pellet at the armpit is a real focus for the attention, and it also creates what resembles a long-necked bird’s head in the negative space there.

So here is a fully transforming, ambiguous Celtic Otherworld being: part human, part animal, part bird, part cosmic being.

There is still a sense that the figure is bestowing power or other blessings ( the pellets flowing away from the arm/wing; the pellet-like club; the symbols of wealth and power beneath its feet). These is a certain intensity in the portrayal of the head and star – it definitely seems to be the focus of the figure’s attention, almost to the exclusion of all else. The star was used in Roman coinage to symbolise apotheosis of emperor to god. The star in Celtic coin art is rather more ambiguous. Does it here represent a star deity? Or the ancestral progenitor as both a chthonic giant and a celestial presence?

12. The last image from this selected group clearly derives from the Herakles type, but is very simplified and has characteristics that emphasise a very different archetype – that of the Bird-Man-Spirit. We saw the iconographical shift take place in the last image, but there, the human was still present. Now the head is vehicle for a large staring eye, framed by a comb of spiky hair that is suggestive of a coxcomb. The long nose and chin now is transformed into an open bird beak. The arms, still with prominent shoulders, now terminate in birdlike, triple clawed feet, whilst the feet are also birdlike with maybe a hint of a spur at the heel. The warrior as wild boar is the commonest representation, but there is also a notable number of warrior-as-cockerel images. Both creatures share important characteristics: the razor-sharp bill/tusks and claws/feet; the erectile spinal bristles of the boar and puffed up feathers of the cockerel when threatened or in combat; the aggression and display; the relentless territorial protection of their offspring.

As well as these images from the Eastern Celts, there are also one or two possible Herakles images from Gaul. The attributes ( club, lion-skin, posture) are less certain, but we should consider that the similar imagery may also indicate, if not Hercules himself, then the archetype of a semi-divine progenitor, guardian spirit and model of the heroic defender of the people.

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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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