UD: October 2016
In contrast to other creatures, depictions of the ram in Celtic art are comparatively rare. For example, on fibulae with zoomorphic decoration less than 2% feature the ram, and in the vast majority of cases where the animal is represented it is most often the head alone, naturalistic or schematically, which is portrayed (see: Cluytens M. (2009) Réflexions sur la symbolique du bélier chez les Celtes protohistoriques à travers les représentations figurées, Lunula. Archaeologia protohistorica 17, 201-206).
Fibula from the burial of a Celtic woman at Orainville (Aisne), France (bronze/coral) decorated with ram head motif (300-275 BC)
Zoomorphic/ram head attachment from a Celtic (Scordisci) firepot from Boznik (Pernik region), Bulgaria (late 2nd / early 1st century BC)
Danubian kantharos with ram head handles from the burial of a Celtic woman at Csobaj, (Kom. Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén), Hungary
(3rd c. BC)
Glass beads in the form of ram heads from burial VII-28 at Kapiteljska Njiva (Novo Mesto), Slovenia
(5/4 c. BC)
The head of the creature is also frequently present in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations of hybrid ‘monsters’, most notably the ram-horned serpent which is a well-attested cult image throughout Celtic Europe both before and during the Roman period and which appears, for example, three times on the Gundestrup Cauldron.
The antlered deity of the Gundestrup cauldron, identified with Cernunnos, holding a ram-horned serpent and torc.
As in the Gundestrup case, this enigmatic creature is often associated with the horned or antlered god Cernunnos, in whose company it is regularly depicted. This pairing is found as early as the fourth century BC, for example in Northern Italy, where a huge antlered figure with torcs and a serpent was carved on the rocks in Val Camonica. Other examples include a carving at the curative sanctuary at Mavilly (Cote d’Ôr), carvings at Beauvais (Oise) and Néris-les-Bains (Allier) in Gaul, or on an altar at Lypiatt (Gloucestershire), England (Green M. (2002) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge). Perhaps the best known example of this hybrid creature is the ram-horned serpent represented on the cheek-piece of the Agris Helmet (dated to the 4th century BC), which was discovered in 1981 during archaeological excavations in Perrats Cave (Agris, southwestern France).
Detail of the Ram-Headed serpent on the Agris Helmet
Coiled serpent with ram’s head on the obverse of a Celtic bronze issue (Trinovantes or Catuvellauni) from southern England (struck AD 10-15)
Horned serpent attachment from a Celtic firepot discovered at Sliven, Bulgaria (1st c. BC)
Other such images include those from a bronze statuette from Étang-sur-Arroux (Saône-et-Loire; below) and a stone sculpture at Sommerécourt (Haute-Marne; both in France) which depicts Cernunnos’ body encircled by two horned snakes that feed from bowls of fruit and corn-mash in the god’s lap, while at Cirencester in Gloucestershire (England) two snakes, eating fruit or corn, rear up on each side of the deity.
Depiction of Cernunnos, grasping two horned serpents, from Cirencester
Another such relief, from Vendoeuvres (Indre, France) depicts Cernunnos wearing a sagum; he holds between his legs a large round object, and has two antlers on his head, the tines are held by two putti standing on either side above large serpents.
The Cernunnos relief from Vendoeuvres (2nd c. AD)
Despite being described by most commentators as a ‘monster’, in fact in most iconography the ram-headed serpent is depicted as a beneficent beast, evocative of plenty and fertility – representing a dualistic scheme illustrating the interdependence of life and death, and encapsulating the theme of regeneration intrinsic in Celtic religious belief.
Bronze statue of Cernunnos from Etang-sur-Arroux (cavities at the top of his head indicate that the statue was horned). The deity is depicted with torcs at the neck and on the chest, and two ram-headed serpents encircle him at the waist.
Ram-Headed serpent and other fantastic beasts depicted on interior plate C of the Gundestrup cauldron