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)

“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

Advertisements

CERNUNNOS AND THE RAM-HEADED SERPENT

UD: April 2019

 

 

Ram intor

 

 

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).

 

Fibule ajourée en bronze et corail découverte dans la sépulture d'une princesse gauloise à Orainville (Aisne), datée des années 300-275 DOUBLE V.

Fibula from the burial of a Celtic woman at Orainville (Aisne), France (bronze/coral) decorated with ram head motif (300-275 BC)

 

Pernik Ram

Zoomorphic/ram head attachment from a Celtic (Scordisci) firepot from Boznik (Pernik region), Bulgaria (late 2nd / early 1st century BC)

https://www.academia.edu/5046182/Zoomorphic_Cult_Firepots

 

 

Danubian kantharos with ram heads from Csobaj, Kom. Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén - grave of a woman discovered at Csobaj

Danubian kantharos with ram head handles from the burial of a Celtic woman at Csobaj, (Kom. Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén), Hungary

(3rd c. BC)

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/the-archaeology-of-heads/

 

a-stekleni-jagodi-v-obliki-ovnovih-glavic-novo-mesto-kapiteljska-njiva-grob-vii-28-5-4-st-pr-n-st

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, commonly identified with Cernunnos, holding a ram-horned serpent and a torc.

The antlered deity of the Gundestrup cauldron, identified with Cernunnos, holding a ram-horned serpent and torc.

 

As in the Gundestrup case, the enigmatic hybrid 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-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

Detail of the Ram-Headed serpent on the Agris Helmet

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-mechanism-of-dreams-vegetal-style-and-the-silivas-helmet/

 

rinovantes & Catuvellauni. Cunobelin. Circa AD 10-43. AE Unit (2.01 g). Struck ca AD 10-15. Coiled serpent with ram’s head obverse

Coiled serpent with ram’s head on the obverse of a Celtic bronze issue (Trinovantes or Catuvellauni) from southern England (struck AD 10-15)

 

Sliven RAm Good

Horned serpent attachment from a Celtic firepot discovered at Sliven, Bulgaria (1st c. BC)

https://www.academia.edu/5046182/Zoomorphic_Cult_Firepots

 

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.

 

Cernunnos comes from Cirencester, England. This find shows a man grasping two horned serpents by the neck

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.

 

stone - Cernunus with putti serpents. Gallo-Roman Stone. Vendoeuvres, Indres. France.

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. 

 

A bronze image at Étang-sur-Arroux - Cernunnos

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.

 

GUND RAM 2

Ram-Headed serpent and other fantastic beasts depicted on interior plate C of the Gundestrup cauldron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail

 

 

 

 

 

Birds of Prey

(Updated May 2013)

 

 

 

 

Bird Gds.

 

          ‘In dama huair ann ba rigan roisclethan ro alainn;

           Ocus in uair aill… na baidb biraigh banghalis’.

 

(At one moment she was a broad-eyed, most beautiful queen,

And another time a beaked, white-grey badb)

(Harleian manuscript 4.22)

 

 

 

 

The central tenant of Celtic religion was metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul and its reincarnation after death. (Caesar J. De Bello Gallica, Book VI, XIV) This belief is probably best summed up by the Roman poet Lucanus (1st c. AD):

 

 

While you, ye Druids, when the war was done,
To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned:
To you alone ’tis given the heavenly gods
To know or not to know; secluded groves
Your dwelling-place,
and forests far remote.
If
 what ye sing be true, the shades of men
Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus
Or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life
Still rules these bodies in another age-
Life on this hand and that, and death between.
Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star
In this their false belief; for them no fear
Of that which frights all others: they with hands
And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe
And scorn to spare the life that shall return.

Pharsalia Book 1, (453-456)

 

 

In the transportation of the soul from one world to the next birds of prey played a central role:

 

‘to these men death in battle is glorious;

And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;

For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,

If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey’.

(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3 340-343)

 

 

‘those who laid down their lives in war they regard as noble, heroic and full of valor,

And them cast to the vultures believing this bird to be sacred’

(Claudius Aelianus. De Natur. Anim. X. 22)

 

Fig. 1 - fln warr

 

 

  The removal of flesh from corpses, which is well documented in the Celtic world, had a mortuary significance that differed greatly from the Greco-Roman practices (Soprena Genzor  1995: 198 ff.). The last 25 years of research have revealed how interments were the culmination of previous very complex rituals. The removal of flesh before interment is clearly attested at Celtic sanctuaries like Ribemont (Brunaux  2004: 103-24), but the enormous deficit of interments, especially in the late La Têne period, can be partially explained by the exposure of corpses with the consequent destruction of most of the skeleton. This exposure ritual was a genuine self-sacrifice, as the enemy who had taken the life of the warrior, just as the bird of prey who devoured him, was merely the hand of the god. (Soprena 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24)

 This process is illustrated, for example, on the Celtiberian golden diadem from Asturias which shows the bird metamorphosis of the human figures during their final journey.

 

 

Fig. 2 – Detail from the Asturias diadem (After Marco Simón 2008)

 

 

 

On the Balkans the same ritual is described by Pausanias (X, 21, 3) in connection with the Celtic migration into the Balkans at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC. Celtic warriors who fell in battle during the invasion of Greece were likewise left exposed to be devoured by birds of prey, consistent with the religious practice outlined above (Churchin 1995; Mac Congail 2010: 57).

In light of the significance given to birds of prey in Celtic culture it is interesting to note the ‘name’ of the leader of the Celtic offensive on Greece at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, the same as that of the chieftain who led the Celtic tribes who sacked Rome a century earlier – Brennos. It is unlikely that this is coincidence, and it appears that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes.  The term comes from the Proto-Celtic *brano- (Matasović R. 2009. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic; see also Mac Congail 2010: 54-59) and means literally The Raven.

 

The importance of the raven, and birds of prey in general, in Celtic culture and religion is archaeologically confirmed by their frequent appearance on Celtic artifacts and coins. For example, of the more than 500 Celtic brooches with representational decoration now known, from Bulgaria in the east to Spain in the west, more than half depict birds (Megaw 2001: 87). On the Balkans birds of prey also appear on artifacts such as the Celtic helmet from Ciumesti (Romania) (see ‘Prince of Transylvania), similar examples of which are depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron (fig. 3) produced by the Scordisci in northwestern Bulgaria. Depictions of birds of prey are also found on the Celtic chariot fittings from Mezek in southern Bulgaria, and the Celtic sacrificial daggers from Romania and Bulgaria (see ‘Sacrificial Daggers’ article).

 

 

 

Fig. 3 –                         Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DEATHRIDER

 

 

 

 From Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary originate Celtic coins of both the Philip II (fig. 4/5) and Paeonia model (fig. 6/7) on which the ‘raven’ is depicted behind the left shoulder of the horseman, accompanying him into battle. The presence of the triskele on the Paeonia model coins in particular confirms the religious nature of the images. On the vogelreiter type (fig. 7), from the 3rd – 2nd c. BC, the horseman himself is portrayed as a skeleton, the ‘deathrider’ again accompanied by a raven.

 

 

Fig. 4 - Sc. 1

 

Fig. 5 - Sc. 2

 

 

Fig 6-7 Paeon

 

 

 

 

THE RAVEN GODDESS

 

 

 

The Celts believed that the war-goddess, or more accurately the mother goddess in her war mien, appeared to warriors slain in battle in the form of a bird of prey, most often a crow or raven (O h’Ogain 2002: 22; Mackillop 2004:30; Mac Congail 2010: 72-76). She was known as Catubodua (battle-raveness) which survived in later Celtic tradition as the Cathbhadhbh or Badhbh Chatha (loc cit).

 

This theme also appears on Celtic coins from the Balkans, in depictions of the mother goddess in her personification as the Badhbh Chatha / Battle Raven. Such is the case, for example, with her portrayal on Celtic Thasos model coins from Bulgaria (fig. 8) as well as some of the Celtic Paeonian ‘imitations’ (fig. 9).

 

 

Fig. 8 – Depiction of the Goddess on the Reverse of a Celtic Thasos model issue from Bulgaria

 

 

 

 In fig. 9 the obverse portrays the central theme of transformation of the goddess, while the reverse is packed with religious symbolism including  the triskele symbol and the Celtic inscription. The central image again portrays the mother-goddess in her personification as the war raven  – Badhbh Chatha.

 

Fig. 9 - Pa 2

(Gobl 436; BMC 131)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources Cited

 

Brunaux J.L. (2004) Guerre et religion en Gaule. Essai d’anthropologie celtique. Paris: Errance.

Churchin L.A. (1995) The Unburied Dead at Thermopylae (279 BC) In: The Ancient History Bulletin 9: 68-71

Soprena Genzor G. (1995) Ética y ritual. Aproximación al estudio de la religiosidad de los pueblos celtibéricos. Zaragosa.

Mac Congail B., Krusseva B.  (2010) The Men Who Became the Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv. (In Bulgarian)

Mackillop, James (2004) A dictionary of Celtic mythology. Oxford University Press

Marco Simón F.  (2008) Images of Transition. The Ways of Death in Celtic Hispania. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 74, 2008. Pp. 53-68.

Matasović R. (2009) Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden and Boston

Megaw V., Megaw R. (2001) Celtic Art from its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. London.

Ó hÓgáin D. (2002) The Celts – A Chronological History. Cork.

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail

 

 

 

 

 

Download Pdf. Version of this Article:

Birds of Prey