BROTHERHOOD OF THE DRAGON ? – Celtic dragon-pair scabbards

UD: Jan. 2019

 

 

CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard detail

“The other order is that of the knights. These, when there is occasion and any war occurs …, are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependents about them”.
(Caesar. Gallic War. 6.15)

 

 

Iron Age European artistic compositions are populated by a vast array of fantastic and impossible creatures. These include a wide variety of dragonesque beasts which appear on Celtic jewelry, coinage and weapons throughout the La Tène period. 

Celtic bronze brooch from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (5th century BC)

Bronze brooch from a Celtic burial at Arbedo (Ticino), Switzerland (4th c. BC)

Celtic potin (Bituriges Cubi tribe – early 1 c. BC) from Central France

 

One of the genuinely pan-European elements in early La Tène art is the dragon-pair motif, which is found on the upper end of the front-plate of Celtic scabbards from south-eastern Britain to the Balkans, with further examples from south of the Alps and Iberia (Stead, 1984, Megaw 2004, Megaw and Megaw 1989, Ginoux 1995). Comprising a pair of opposed S-shapes with zoomorphic heads facing inwards, the beasts represented are highly schematic, and have sometimes been thought of as griffons rather than dragons.

hamm drag 1 g.

Dragon-pair decoration on a Celtic iron scabbard discovered in the nineteenth century in the river Thames at Battersea and Hammersmith, London (Stead:1984). A further example was also found in the Thames, and a derivative of the dragon-pair motif at Fovant (Wiltshire), also in England (Jope 2000:278).

Scabbard fragment with Dragon Pair decoration discovered in the Celtic hillfort at Ensérune (near Nissan-lez-Ensérune), France

 

Although earlier studies (Jacobsthal (1944:46, De Navarro 1972:229) saw these motifs as evidence of orientalizing influences in early Celtic art, or even as a direct Scythian introduction into eastern Central Europe, subsequent discoveries in the west have now rendered this view obsolete. The earliest incidence of a dragon-pair has conventionally been the example from an old and never fully published burial from Saint Jean-sur-Tourbe in the Marne, which should belong to an early La Tène phase (Harding 2007).

CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard

CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard detail

Celtic sword in scabbard with dragon-pair motif, and detail of decoration – from a recently discovered Celtic warrior burial at Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie), France (late 4th/early 3rd c. BC)

(after Landry, Blaizot 2011)

2 - 2 - Wöllersdorf-Steinabrückl - Dragon pair 3 c. BC

Celtic scabbard with dragon-pair motif recently discovered in a warrior burial at Wöllersdorf-Steinabrückl (Niederösterreich), Austria (3rd c. BC)

 

Dating to the late 4th/3rd century, dragon-pair scabbards are also well represented in Eastern Europe, in association with the Hungarian scabbard style, as at Halimba, Jutas 3, Kosd, and Szob (Harding 2007). Other examples have been registered at Celtic warrior burials in Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Pisçolt in Romania (Megaw 2004, Szabó and Petres, 1992, Pl. 96). Interestingly, a variant of the ‘Dragon Pair’ motif is also to be found on a bronze Celtic chariot fitting from Bobata Fortress (Schumen region) in north-eastern Bulgaria, also dating to the 3rd c. BC.

 

dp schumen

Bronze chariot fitting with ‘dragon-pair’ motif from Bobata fortress (Schumen), Bulgaria

(see: https://www.academia.edu/5420363/THE_TYLE_EXPERIMENT)

*2 Dragon-pair scabbards were also found during excavations in the 1990’s of Celtic burials in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Sadly, these have subsequently been stolen / disappeared from the Regional Museum in Plovdiv. 

 

Sword / scabbard, decorated with dragon-pair motifs, from a Celtic warrior burial at Pişcolt (Satu Mare) in Transylvania

(3rd c. BC)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a-d-osijek-ciglana-zeleno-polje-site-ex.-1950s-underneath-brick-factory-eastern-croatia-dragon-pair-scabbard-1.jpgCeltic scabbard with Dragon-Pair motif from the Celtic (Scordisci) site at Osijek Ciglana-Zeleno polje in eastern Croatia

(3 c. BC)

 

 

The pan-tribal nature of the dragon-pair scabbards, a unique phenomenon in Celtic Europe, logically raises the question of whether this motif had a significance beyond simply an artistic device. That a distinct warrior class/elite existed in Celtic society is a well documented fact, and the possibility exists that the dragon-pair insignia, which cross geographical and tribal borders, represented a special group within this warrior class, i.e. a pan-European order of elite warriors.

 

 

Mac Congail

 

 

 

 

 

Literature Cited

De Navarro, J. M. (1972) The Finds from the Site of La Tène, Vol. 1, Scabbards and the Swords Found in Them, London, British Academy, Oxford University Press.

Ginoux, N. (1995) ‘Lyres et dragons, nouvelles données pour l’analyse d’un des principaux

thèmes ornementaux des fourreax latèniens’, in J. J. Charpy (ed.) (1995): 405–12.

Harding D.W. (2007) The Archaeology of Celtic Art. Routledge

Jacobsthal, P. (1944) Early Celtic Art, 2 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Jope, E. M. (2000) Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Landry C., Blaizot F. (2011) Une Sépulture De Guerrier Celte À Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie). In: Revue Archéologique de l’Est, t. 60-2011, p. 147-171

Megaw, R. and Megaw, J. V. S. (1989) ‘The Italian Job: Some Implications of Recent Finds of Celtic Scabbards Decorated with Dragon-pairs’, Mediterranean Archaeology, 2: 85–100.

Megaw J.V.S (2004) In The Footsteps of Brennos? Further Archaeological Evidence for Celts in the Balkans. In: Zwischen Karpaten und Agais. Rahden /Westf. p. 93-107

Stead, I. M. (1984) ‘Celtic Dragons from the River Thames’, AntJ, 64: 269–79.

Szabó, M. and Petres, É. F. (1992) Decorated Weapons of the La Tène Iron Age in the Carpathian Basin, Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum.

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30 thoughts on “BROTHERHOOD OF THE DRAGON ? – Celtic dragon-pair scabbards

  1. Excellent article on the dual dragon motif on Celtic weaponry. I had no idea it was so widespread nor so long lasting. It has also set me to wondering about the prophetic “dual of the two dragons” episode in Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, which English historians tend to dismiss as sheer fantasy and whether there may be something more behind the mythic tale.

    1. I hate to be less than objective about the suppositions of Megaw & Megaw, but the dragon originated in China. It reached the Balkans later than the two griffons (with actual beaks) depicted on this scabbard… and was introduced to Europe by steppe cultures migrating from the East.

      1. I tend to agree with you, but it makes a good title… To be serious, I find many of Megaw’s conclusions are inclined to the sensational. Having said that, we find many creatures in Iron Age Celtic art – unicorns, anteaters etc. which have no business being there. 🙂

      2. It’s the old serpents vs dragons problem: Where does one stop and the other begin? The semiotics are the same, and ‘serpents’ seem to be a form-class in ancient thinking rather than a species in the modern sense. Serpents could include anything from insect larvae, to earthworms, eels and snakes. The European ‘dragon’ is really (anciently) the symbolic aspect of the ‘serpent’ – irrespective of the late transfer of oriental dragon iconography, the meaning simply accreted to the symbolism surrounding serpents. It is hard to determine if any of the ‘dragons’ in these pictures are actually griffins, as the stylistic form of a ‘beaked’ head in celtic art was not always limited to birds, as far as I understand it!

    2. Hi Christopher, I think it can be healthy to question why & what people believe as long as it does not lead to ridicule & we also apply the same criteria we use to judge others by to our own beliefs, but they don’t. Ego plays a big part, independent investigation of truth with an open mind is what is needed, but most academics don’t want to stand out from the crowd & commit academic suicide or start with “their” theory and try to fit the facts around it discounting any ancient chronicler’s testimony as myth or fantasy if it doesn’t fit with “their” theory. This quote was on a website i was on recently “Real human history is clouded by Academic elitists’ miss-information” there was, and is, a deliberate effort, to deny any evidence, that suggests an alternative to the accepted historical timeline”
      Suggest you read — Exodus to Arthur (by prof Mike Baillie) look into meaning of the Welsh flag and then try & answer the following questions –What caused the vitrified stones of the hill forts in Scotland ? the destruction of Wroxeter ? The complete destruction of the white Marble Palace at Caermead (South Wales) a site that contains acres of shattered dressed marble that could have only have been caused by — an airburst or close pass of a comet/asteroid about mid 6th century. Have fun but beware there are still academics around that belong to the flat earth society.

      1. I would certainly agree that “Real human history is clouded by Academic elitists”. Academic institutions and the framework in which academics work today tends to suffocate anyone who questions ‘mainstream’ thinking.

      2. …. Which brings us neatly to the subject of ‘Fiery Flying Dragons’ (an old term for comets) and their tendency to be seen as omens of war. How this relates the original Greek word κομήτης (‘long-haired star’) to the long-haired (κομᾶν) warlike nations with ‘dragons’ on their scabbards is anyone’s guess…

      3. I might add that the Greek legend of Phaethon crashing Helios’ sun-chariot into the River Eridanos (somewhere near Hyperborea) causing a fetid swamp to form might have a mythological connection to such ideas. The name Phaethon is surprisingly close to that of the Delphian serpent, Python, the vapours of whose rotting corpse were supposed to rise up through the ground to inspire Apollo’s oracular priestesses on Mount Parnassos. The Delphian tradition claimed that Apollo took his annual holidays in Hyperborea, and the usually itinerant Dionysus was house-sitter during his absence. One wonders how much of these traditions (which seem to geographically locate with ‘barbarian’ Europe) were influential upon or influenced by the ‘long-haired’ peoples to the north. The Greeks certainly claimed that northern barbarian peoples sent gifts to Apollo at Delos from early times. Given the apparent age of the Delphic/Delian/Phaethon legends, we’d have to be talking 2nd millennium BCE or at least early 1st millennium.

    3. Are you referring to the red and white dragons in the legend of King Arthur and particularly relating to his father, Uther Pendragon? To anyone who dismisses something as “sheer fantasy”, I would tend to reply that fantasy was explanation to people for hundreds of thousands of years of human history and prehistory! What else did they have? And of course, the dragon, just as much as other animals or objects, reflects and takes on a symbolism that transcends any literal interpretation of its origin.

      1. I agree with you about the dual of the two dragons in the Arthurian narrative and in the more general aspect of oral tradition. However, the majority of English historians have dismissed it as “sheer fantasy” and have used it to discredit the Historia Brittonum, where it first appeared. The Welsh/British in particular often embedded real historical events within mythopoetic narratives and which the currently dominant school of Dark Age/Sub Roman historiography dismisses out of hand, along with just about any other source which doesn’t fit their apriori assumptions. Unfortunately, while there are some brave souls in academia who do not subscribe to this minimalist view, they are in the minority at the present time.

      2. Well put! I find it odd that so much of Welsh/British mythology and history are dismissed in the same way as are creatures like fairies or goblins, while the gods of Greece, Rome, the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Near East are spoken of with reverence and, lately, a near-hysterical attempts to “prove” that they are at least in part true and even divine. The so-called “History Channel” has turned into a near-Evangelical venue for primitive Christian beliefs, every bit as absurd as their persistent search for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster! And supposedly reputable archaeologists have been swarming all over Asia, trying to justify the New Testament. All it really amounts to is an attempt to give their brainwashed beliefs a root in reality (think “The DaVinci Code”, only dumber).

  2. How do you see the potential equation of ‘La Tène’ culture with ‘Belgic’ war-band culture of the 4th-1stC BCE? The depiction of serpents would have been very meaningful for those Celtic warriors who surged to Delphi in 279BCE, surely? There are two interpretations to make of Brennus’ assault: that he was there for booty, and that he was there for religious reasons.

    1. I think the possible religious aspect of the attacks on Greek temples during the 3-1 c. BC has been completely overlooked. In many cases, particularly during the Scordisci Wars, they go out of their way to target these sites, even though in many cases the treasures have already been looted by the Romans.

      1. It brings to mind the ‘Viking’ attacks upon northern Europe’s Christian sites during the 8th-9th centuries… The worship of Belenos or Apollo/Sabazios/Zeus appears to have been a contentious issue.

  3. I noticed the twin ‘serpent’ (?eel) figures on one of the Danubian Horseman plaques – presumably you have too? Obviously these are much later than the La Tène designs, but the symbolism seems to hold true across many centuries, particularly among warrior cults and in the symbolism of the caduceus of Hermes and Mercury.

  4. I had no idea that Mac Congail’s article on Celtic dragons on scabbards would spawn such a wide ranging discussion.

    Apropos of the dragon, while China’s version certainly is of ancient date, I would argue that such a near universal mythos argues for a far more ancient origin: not just among the Indo Europeans, but in the New World cultures as well. Moreover, the dragon and snake are intertwined and it is often hard to distinguish one from the other in ancient myths; the dragon was listed in bestiaries as late as the seventeenth century and the illustration of it attacking an elephant makes it clear that that entry is referring to a boa constrictor or python.

    As regards Professor Baillie’s work on comets and history, I have not read his main book, but much of his posts online I think make much sense. His main problem, I think, is that he relies on British some historians’ chronology for fifth and early sixth century Britain. Being an astronomer, Baiillie is used to hard scientific facts, not opinion. The sad fact is that there is no settled chronology for Britain in that period despite the many contentious arguments back and forth. I have my own views on fifth century British historiography but that is whole ‘nuther can of worms I’d rather not go that here.

    While I am not an academic, I can appreciate that if one’s career depends on defending–or at least not actively opposing–a certain dominant theory, one is loathe to risk tenure for being too vocal in one’s dissent. That, I’m afraid, applies to many disciplines other than history. Humans are by nature herd animals and that applies to academia as much as other fields of endeavor. ‘Nuf said.

    1. Well said. This article gives me chills. Granted I have a thing for Dragons. But as objectively speaking as possible, there’s no way to know what the Celts/Gauls thought the insignia’s represented, whether dragons, griffons, or some other creature foreign to our Roman-descended world view. But the fact that the insignia is universal through the various regions of Celtic culture, specifically on swords and other instruments of war is significant (the chariot).

      1. The symbolism of serpents was trans-cultural and common to ancient Greek and Italic culture as well, but in the sense of the 3rd-1stC BC Celts/Belgae/Gauls etc it is most likely annealed to the idea of regeneration through death and sacrifice of the self in battle. Carrion birds, dogs/wolves and serpents were emblematic of this and seem to appear frequently in art, personal names etc. The serpent symbolism persisted in Scandinavian art into the middle ages, even though the Nordic nations are not particularly snake-infested places.

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