Posts Tagged ‘iconography’

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…


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.


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.


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.


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..

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


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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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.


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.


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.


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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