FANTASTIC BEASTS – The Sphinx and other Hybrid Creatures in Iron Age European Art

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?”.

(Golding; Lord of the Flies)

 

 

Iron Age European Art is populated by a multitude of impossible creatures, ranging from the Ram Headed Serpent associated with the God Cernunnos, to fantastic hybrid serpentine and human headed beasts depicted on artifacts throughout the La Tène period.

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Hybrid creatures with the body of a horse, neck of a giraffe (!) and bird heads; executed in ceramic and discovered at Römerstein (Baden-Württemberg), Germany

(8/7 c. BC)

https://balkancelts.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/detail-of-the-ram-horned-serpent-on-the-cheek-piece-of-the-agris-helmetated-from-the-4th-century-bc-which-was-found-in-1981-during-archaeological-excavations-in-perrats-cave.jpg?w=820

The Ram Headed Serpent depicted on a a Celtic helmet from Agris, France (4 c. BC)

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/cernunnos-and-the-ram-headed-serpent/

 

From the early La Tène period (i.e. 5th century BC) onwards,  a particularly interesting development is the appearance of the Sphinx, and variants thereof, in European art. Such representations can be roughly divided into 2 main categories, the first of which is a group which is obviously derived from examples to be found in the Ancient Greek and Etruscan spheres. 

 

Sphinxes depicted on a gold applique from a drinking horn, discovered in the burial of a Celtic chieftain at Weiskirchen, Germany (late 6 – early 5th c. BC)

 

Bone sphinx with amber face discovered in the burial of a Celtic chieftain at Asperg (Baden-Württemberg), Germany. Two sphinxes, of bone and ivory, both with amber faces, were discovered in the burial.

(ca. 500 BC)

 

Such representations continue throughout the Iron Age, and are to be found on Celtic jewelry and other artifacts across Europe. Depictions of sphinxes are particularly common on late Iron Age Celtic coinage.

 

Reverse of a Celtiberian bronze issue from Castro (Andalusia), Spain (2-1 c. BC)

Sphinx springing right – reverse of a silver issue of Cunobelinus, chieftain of the Catuvellauni tribe in southern England (Early 1 c. AD)

 

A second group of hybrid creatures represented in Iron Age European art is perhaps even more interesting. These take a wide variety of forms, combining anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features in a multitude of combinations, resulting in fantastic creatures drawing from elements of both real and imaginary beings.

 

Sphinx-like creatures depicted on a bronze flagon, from a Celtic burial at Glauberg (Hesse) Germany (ca. 420 BC)

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Humanoid and sphinx-like creatures on a Celtic bronze brooch (maskenfibel / 5 c. BC) from Parsberg in Bavaria.

 

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Fantastic sphinx-like creatures on a Celtic bronze belt plate with coral inlay, from Weiskirchen (Saarland), Germany.

(ca. 400 BC)

Hybrid creature depicted on a Celtic bronze flagon from Dürnberg, Austria

(5 c. BC)

Fantastic creature from the Dürrnberg Flagon

 

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Bronze hybrid/sphinx creature, from the Celtic settlement at Horné Orešany, western Slovakia. The creature was most likely mounted on a large ceremonial vessel.

(5/4 c. BC)

 

 

Thus, while the first category of creatures is clearly influenced by / drawn from prototypes borrowed from other ancient cultures, the latter group is born of the experimentation and surrealistic fantasy typical of Iron Age Celtic art, a phenomenon which is continued and expanded upon, culminating in images to be observed in later Insular Ultimate La Tène art. 

 

Winged Ox depicted on Folio 27 V (detail), one of a large number of fantastic / hybrid creatures represented in the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE BIRTH OF DRAGONS – Dragonesque Creatures in European Celtic Art

 

A search on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia will reveal to the curious that, “The modern, western image of a dragon developed in western Europe during the Middle Ages through the combination of the snakelike dragons of classical Graeco-Roman literature, references to Near Eastern European dragons preserved in the Bible, and western European folk traditions”. We are also reliably informed by anonymous ‘experts’ that, “The oldest recognizable image of a fully modern, western dragon appears in a hand-painted illustration from the bestiary MS Harley 3244, which was produced in around 1260 AD”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon#Western_Europe

(Accessed 24/3/2018)

 

MS Harley 3244 –  “The First European Depiction of a Dragon”

 

 

What is understood by a ‘fully modern dragon’ is debatable, but as with many historical and archaeological “facts” pertaining to European culture. presented on a medium from which the vast majority of today’s generation form their perception of the past, the conclusions presented on the tradition and origin of dragonesque creatures in Europe are hopelessly inaccurate and misleading.

In fact, even a quick overview of the actual archaeological evidence reveals that depictions of dragonesque creatures are common in Europe from the Iron Age onwards, appearing on jewelry, coinage, weapons and other artifacts throughout the La Tène period in particular.

 

Double-headed dragonesque / serpentine creature depicted on a decorative bronze element discovered in a Celtic chariot burial at Cuperly (Marne), France

(5th c. BC)

 

Bronze Celtic fibula from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (5th c. BC)

 

Dragonesque fibula (bronze) from a Celtic burial at Arbedo (Ticino), Switzerland (4 c. BC)

 

 

As with all aspects of Celtic art, the stylistic execution of such dragonesque creatures varies greatly, from relatively naturalistic to quite schematic images such as the iconic “dragon-pair” images  found across Europe on Celtic scabbards and other artifacts of the middle La Tène period.

 

 

Detail of decoration on a “dragon-pair” scabbard from a Celtic warrior burial at Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie), France (late 4th/early 3rd c. BC)

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/brotherhood-of-the-dragon-celtic-dragon-pair-scabbards/

 

“The Dragonmaster” – Exterior plate B of the Gundestrup cauldron

See also: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/the-gundestrup-ghosts-hidden-images-in-the-gundestrup-cauldron/

 

Potin (billon) coin minted by the Bituriges Tribe in central France (1 c. BC)

 

 

Thus, despite what some would have us believe, the dragonesque beasts which populate Medieval European literature / art and survive in the consciousness and popular culture of the modern world, derive not from “Graeco-Roman literature and Biblical sources”, but are the offspring of fantastic creatures born in the dark and shining fantasy of Celtic Europe…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail

 

BALKAN CELTIC SERPENT-HEADED BROOCHES

 

Some of the most exquisite European Iron Age jewelry pieces were produced by the “barbarian” tribes on the Balkan peninsula between the 4th and 1st century BC. During this period Celtic craftsmen, working in a variety of mediums, drew heavily on both Scythian and Hellenistic art; a process which culminated in a distinctive Balkan Celtic style.

Although multiple mediums were used, the genius of Celtic craftsmen of this period is to be most clearly observed in silver treasures produced by the Scordisci tribes, such as those from Hrtkovci, Židovar, Čurug etc...

 

FULL ARTICLE:

https://www.academia.edu/35771383/BALKAN_CELTIC_HINGED_SERPENT-HEAD_BROOCHES

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MEZEK SYNDROME – Bogdan Filov and the Celtic Chariot Burial from Mezek in Southern Bulgaria

 

The Celtic chariot burial from the Mal Tepe tomb at Mezek in the Haskovo region of southern Bulgaria is one of the most significant Celtic finds from the Balkans, in terms of the artifacts themselves, and the nature and chronology of the burial. However, from the outset the site has also been a prime example of the ugliest aspects of archaeology on the Balkans…

 

FULL ARTICLE:

https://www.academia.edu/33277322/THE_MEZEK_SYNDROME_Bogdan_Filov_and_the_Celtic_Chariot_Burial_from_Mezek_in_Southern_Bulgaria

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A GOD BY ANY OTHER NAME – Cernunnos, Christ, Buddha and the Oseberg Bucket

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One of the most sensational discoveries of the Viking Age, the ship burial uncovered in a tumulus or haugr at Oseberg farm, Norway at the beginning of the 20th century consisted of an astonishingly well-preserved Viking ship containing the remains of two women along with a wide variety of associated burial goods….

 

 

Full Article:

https://www.academia.edu/30935667/A_GOD_BY_ANY_OTHER_NAME_Cernunnos_Christ_Buddha_and_the_Oseberg_Bucket

 

 

 

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OF SWANS AND SWASTIKAS – Avian Creatures in Celtic Artistic Compositions

UD: October 2018

 

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“In order to arrive at knowledge of the motions of birds in the air, it is first necessary to acquire knowledge of the winds, which we will prove by the motions of water in itself, and this knowledge will be a step enabling us to arrive at the knowledge of beings that fly between the air and the wind”.

(da Vinci)

 

 

The enigmatic bronze objects known as ‘Horn Caps’ were produced exclusively by the Celtic tribes in England and Wales during the mid-late Iron Age (ca. 300 – 43 BC). Despite various theories defining them as ceremonial staff-heads, a finial for ceremonial seats or chariot elements (although no examples have ever been discovered in chariot burials), the exact purpose of such objects remains unclear…

 

FULL ARTICLE:

https://www.academia.edu/29157809/OF_SWANS_AND_SWASTIKAS_A_Celtic_Horn_Cap_with_Zoomorphic_Swastika_Decoration_from_Essex_England

 

 

 

wandsworth

 

 

 

 

POSTCARDS FROM THE PAST – The Art of Celtic Scabbards

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Some of the finest examples of Iron Age European art are to be found on Celtic scabbards of the middle/late La Têne period – fantastic compositions born of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric motifs, or a combination thereof.

 

 

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Detail of scabbard with Triskele decoration, from a Celtic burial at Novajidrány-Sárvár, Hungary. The triskele is a particularly common motif on Celtic scabbards and other protective military equipment.

(3rd c. BC)

https://www.academia.edu/11899946/An_Tr%C3%ADbh%C3%ADs_Mh%C3%B2r_-_On_The_Triskelion_in_Iron_Age_Celtic_Culture

 

 

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Scabbard with Triskele decoration from a Celtic warrior burial at Srednica (Ptuj), Slovenia

(Late 4th / early 3rd c. BC)

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/a-celtic-warrior-burial-from-srednica-northeastern-slovenia/

 

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Geometric and Anthropomorphic decoration on scabbards from a Celtic hoard discovered at Förker Laas Riegel (Carinthia), Austria.

(3rd c. BC)

 

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Bronze front plate of a Celtic scabbard with incised symmetrical curvilinear decoration, discovered in Lisnacroghera Bog (Antrim), Ireland

(ca. 250 BC)

 

 

 

Celtic art draws its inspiration from all aspects of the natural world, and the artistic compositions on middle-late La Têne scabbards are no exception, with creatures of all kinds, both real and imaginary, appearing in the decoration of such scabbards.

 

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Fantastic aquatic/serpentine creatures depicted in the decorative composition of a Celtic scabbard from Cernon-sur-Coole (Marne), France

(ca. 280 BC)

 

 

 

Beasts portrayed on Celtic scabbards range from highly stylized examples, such as those which appear on Dragon-Pair scabbards, to comparatively naturalistic portrayals.

 

 

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Celtic scabbard with dragon-pair motif from a Celtic warrior burial at Chens-sur-Léman in eastern France

(Late 4th/early 3rd c. BC)

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/brotherhood-of-the-dragon-celtic-dragon-pair-scabbards/

 

 

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Geometric/zoomorphic composition on a Celtic scabbard from the Förker Laas Riegel hoard

 

 

 

 

 

A particularly interesting example of the diversity of creatures used to decorate Celtic scabbards of this period is a bronze sword scabbard mount discovered in Lincolnshire, England, the zoomorphic decoration on which bears a striking resemblance to a horse-fly complete with large protruding eyes and proboscis…

 

 

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The Lincolnshire bronze scabbard mount (3 c. BC)

(Illustrations thanks to Adam and Lisa Grace)

 

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Head of a Horse-Fly (Tabanus Atratus)

 

 

 

 

Postcards From The Past…

 

Celtic art functions on a number of levels (often simultaneously), merging reality, the subconscious and the absurd. While the modern mind may never fully comprehend the exact messages being conveyed, the artistic symphonies portrayed on Celtic scabbards provide a unique glimpse into the framework of religious and cultural values which motivated the Iron Age European population.

 

 

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Trio of dancing deer in the artistic composition on a Celtic scabbard from La Tène, Switzerland

(2 c. BC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail