ARMORICA AND THE GODS (part one)
While much Celtic art incorporates known religious motifs into the decoration, we can never be sure of how much of the art can rightly be called religious. Were these objects considered sacred? And to what degree? Or were the religious motifs merely part of the repertoire of the artist, utilized for purely visual reasons? As most Celtic art is abstract, there is little narrative content. The Gundestrup cauldron, although usually illustrated in even the shortest articles about Celtic art, is not typical, and its depiction of Celtic myth probably owes much to foreign craftsmen.
There is greater reason to assume that most Celtic coin designs are religious. Portrayal of living persons as in the case of Greek coins of the Hellenistic period is rarely claimed. Heraldic types are difficult to disentangle from religious types; just as the pegasus on coins of Corinth could be called heraldic, and pertaining to that city, yet it is also a mythological creature, so the tree emblem on coins of the Dobunni. A British tribe, is particular to that tribe, yet has mythological ties beyond its boundaries.
In the case of Coriosolite coins, there is little in the designs that cannot be found on the coins of other Celtic tribes. Some of the motifs are particularly Coriosolite, but this is usually only because of their style, not their subjects.
As the coins of the Armorican tribes are stylistically affiliated and solar symbols, such as a pellet within a circle, are common on both the obverses and reverses. I felt that it was safe to assume that the types are religious, and that the designs of both sides of the coins dealt with the same concepts. This belief of mine was fed by the discovery of the enfolded nature of the coins designs that I had observed while determining their stylistic evolution.
Most of the earliest Celtic coins were derived from the gold staters of Philip II of Macedon, depicting the head of Apollo on the obverse and a chariot on the reverse. As one aspect of Apollo is the sun-god riding his chariot across the sky each day, it would be easy to leave the matter there. For most people, the combination of this image with its attendant sun-symbols is enough to describe many Celtic coins as having, on the obverse, the head of Apollo
While the Celts derived their coinage design from the Greeks, they did not derive their religion from them. Though there are connections and similarities between the two cultures, I prefer to view these two religions as having points of commonalty in their ancestry.
There can be two causes for the similarities: the first, that certain ideas could have originated in one area, and then been transmitted elsewhere by the movement of people. The second, that in their attempt to understand the universe and their relationship to it, people are inevitably led in similar directions.
Celtic mercenaries had been paid in gold staters of Philip; they had also been paid in gold staters of his son, Alexander the Great. Although there are some Celtic copies of the latter coins, they did not inspire the Celts as much. Their design, the helmeted head of Athena on the obverse and the standing figure of Nike on the reverse, obviously did not strike the same chord with the Celts as the image of Apollo.
The design of the chariot would have been favored by the Celts, but on the continent, the image persisted on the coins long after the vehicle had been abandoned in favour of cavalry. Only in Britain did chariot fighting last into Imperial times.
The Romans equated the Celtic gods with their own. When Caesar listed the gods worshipped by the Celts, he said that Apollo averts illness. Later, Romano-Celtic inscriptions give credit to this interpretation, Apollo being often associated with mineral springs. A popular mineral water bears his name to this day.
The Celtic gods cannot be equated, one to one, with the gods of the Greeks and Romans. A Celtic god later associated with Apollo as healer might be different from a god later associated with Apollo as the sun god. Many of the Celtic gods were regional: a god of war in one area would have a different name, and perhaps different attendant legends, from a god of war in another area. Romano-Celtic inscriptions are scarce in Armorica: we may never be able to name the god depicted on Coriosolite coins. It is not even certain that we are dealing with a god associated with only the sun; although shown with sun-symbols, the god of the Coriosolite coins could be a god of the sky, the heavens, or even a universal god.
The classical literature does not help much; the commentators were more interested with stories of the bizarre, things that emphasized the differences between themselves and the barbarians: human sacrifices and the taking of heads as war trophies morbidly fascinated them. The mysteries and power of the Druid class were much spoken of. It is rare for a classical author to take any notice of Celtic theology. As the Druids were careful to keep their beliefs secret, forbidding them to be put to paper, it is no wonder that information is sparse. It is also easy to believe that the superiority felt by the Greeks and Romans would not encourage many of them to seek out these secrets.
It was only after the Roman period that Celtic stories were written down. Time alone would have muddled and changed these myths. Their religious content, buried by hundreds of years of Christian belief, is most difficult to interpret. It is Christian monks that were mostly responsible for their survival at all. The stories of Arthur and Merlin have some Celtic ingredients, but they are mostly typical of medieval literature, infused with Christian imagery and belief. Even the early Irish and Welsh stories are strongly influenced by their time, and direct parallels must be used with caution.
Archaeological evidence can be used with more certainty, but even this is sparse and tells us more about the religious practices of the common people than it does about the religious philosophy of the Druids. We can determine what was offered at shrines, and an examination of the bones of sacrificed animals can sometimes tell us even the time of year of a festival. Romano-Celtic temples often yield inscriptions where a classical deity is given a Celtic surname, but the nature of the offering at such temples can be quite different from those at earlier, purely Celtic shrines, and we are thus led to believe that the beliefs and customs were changed to some degree by a greater exposure to the classical world.
Just as the Celtic religion was changed by the Roman conquest of Gaul, so too were the earlier religions of Europe changed by the arrival and occupation of the Celts. This kind of change is never one-sided. For example, a common motif in Celtic art is the water-bird, variously described as a swan or duck, an image that had existed in Germany in the second millennium, hundreds of years before the arrival of the Celts to that area.
There is in the designs of Coriosolite coins a blend of conservatism of type and originality of variation that enabled me to reconstruct a chronology based on the designs alone. The religious imagery of these coins has a similar gestalt; that is, by treating each element as part of a philosophical whole, we can avoid the simplistic explanations that might be generated by taking up each element in isolation. The position of a motif on the coin and its relationship to other motifs is as important as the nature of the motif itself.
Certain images can mean different things in different cultures and times. We cannot assume that the way we view an object is the way all people have viewed the same object. To a modern western mind, a tiger is ferocious; a Chinese of the T'ang Dynasty might think of the same creature as fat and lazy. So, too, have interpretations of Celtic images suffered from a casual view by a modern mind.
Two symbols can occupy the space below the pony on Coriosolite coins: the boar and the lyre. Treated in isolation from each other, they appear to have vastly different meanings. In the past, these symbols have been referred to as mintmarks, an idea that is easy to refute: Series X can have either symbol, while Series Y and Z has only the boar. Each series is regionally separate. The lyre is most obviously associated with Apollo; the boar has no obvious associations, but as it is a ferocious animal and as it can be seen carried as a standard by Celts on a Roman bas-relief, it is believed to be a symbol of war.
There would seem to be little or no connection between these two symbols. In fact, both symbols represent precisely the same idea.
Caesar stated that the god most revered by the Celts was Mercury, and that they had many images of him. There is a connection between the lyre and Mercury, though not as well known as that of the lyre and Apollo. While the inventions of the seven-stringed lyre, played with its strings upright, is credited to Apollo, Mercury is said to have invented the four-stringed lyre or cithara, played with its strings horizontal. Macrobius claimed that the four strings of Mercury's lyre represented the four seasons.
On the Coriosolite coins, the lyre appears below the pony in all of Series X, with the exception of Group A. Although lyres are depicted realistically on some Celtic coins, on the Coriosolite coins they are of abstract form, and consist of a pellet-in-circle sun symbol with four lines fanning out from the circle at the 10 o'clock position.
It would be easy to dismiss the Mercury connection on the basis of the sun symbol; while it is true that Mercury is associated with agriculture, and the seasons are obviously important to this occupation, this could be considered tenuous. For a god as important to the Celts as Mercury, there are surprisingly few images of him known: on the coins, Apollo seems to predominate; among Romano-Celtic bronze statuettes, Hercules appears to be most common.
One of Mercury's Celtic counterparts, Ogmios, was called "sun faced." Ogmios is the god most associated with the head on Armorican coins; beaded strands, with or without small heads attached, are sometimes found issuing from the mouth of this head. In a conversation recorded by Lucian, a Celt describes a depiction of Ogmios leading people with cords of gold and amber by their ears. The cords are attached to Ogmios' mouth, and the captives do not try to break free. They literally hang on every word. Here, Ogmios is a god of eloquence, something that the Celts were famous for. This was the reason wealthy Romans sought out Celtic tutors for their sons.
The Celt relating this story further confused the situation by telling Lucian that Celts did not believe the power of speech to be Hermes as the Greeks did, but Heracles, because he is much stronger than Hermes. Ogmios was depicted as Heracles, with the lion skin and club.
Ogmios' name, "sun-faced" sometimes interpreted, as "he of the shining countenance" is not difficult to associate with the head that appears on many Armorican coins. On Coriosolite coins, the many curls of hair can be interpreted as rays of the sun. On the earliest coins of Series X, there is a pellet-in-circle sun symbol at the ear position. On some coins traditionally attributed to the Abrincatui, three of these symbols appear on the cheek in the form of an incuse circle with a raised pellet in the centre. Another coin of the same tribe has the lyre symbol on the cheek.
It may be a mistake to call the god on Armorican coins Ogmios: the image might be of a similar god known to those people by a different name. The important thing is not the specific identification of the god, rather that Apollo, Mercury, and Hercules can be strongly connected to him, and the evidence of coins, artifacts, and literature need not be seen as contradictory.
The lyre symbol appears in an earlier, pre-Celtic context. Here it does not represent a lyre at all, but is solely a variation on the sun symbol, with a particular meaning. It is to be found in a number of forms carved into some of the stones at Newgrange temple in Ireland. The temple, dated to about 3200 B.C., was constructed using stones decorated prior to being placed in their present positions.
So far, eight examples of the "radiate" variation of the sun symbol are known, one having the four lines of the "lyre" variation, two having double sets of four lines. Three others appear to have the rays emerging from a dish-shaped or broken baseline: two of these have four rays, one has a double set of four. Of the eight examples, then, six have a single or double set of four rays. These "radiate suns" may have a central circle, a central pellet, or a combined central pellet-in-circle, with or without an additional pellet outside the circle, central to the radiate lines (O'Kelly, Newgrange, K2, K88, Co.1/K7, Roof-box).
One of these representations of the radiate sun symbol, on K88, consists of two sets of two lines radiating from a central pellet close to the pellet-in-circle; the rays, themselves ending in attached pellets, are surmounted by an arc of seven pellets.
The sun symbol on the back corbel stone of the roof-box has six radiate lines, or four plus a broken baseline, and omits the circle, leaving only the central pellet. Nineteen pellets are arranged in two semi-circular rows around this symbol. When the roof box was opened on the winter solstice, at dawn, the light would travel in along a passage perfectly aligned to illuminate the inner chamber. The sets of nineteen and seven pellets on various of these radiate suns represent the nineteen year cycle for reconciling solar and lunar time, which involves an intercalation of seven months.
The winter solstice symbolizes the birth of the sun; at that time it is at its weakest, but as the days lengthen, it becomes stronger. The "lyre" sun symbol, in its principal form, then represents the dawn of the year, the birth of the sun god. On the Coriosolite coins, we see him riding his chariot across the sky with his sun sceptre in hand. He has arrived, ready to battle the dark forces.
A sceptic would immediately point out that to compare symbols on a megalithic monument in Ireland and the customs of Celtic people in Brittany more than three thousands years later is reckless - and so it would be, without any corroborating evidence: Diodorus, quoting the sixth century B.C. historian, Hecataeus, says:
"Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the north, which is inhabited by Hyperboreans… Apollo visits the island once in the course of nineteen years in which period the stars complete their revolutions"Strabo, and others reporting on the travels of Posidonius in the first century B.C., tells of an island off the Armorican coast peopled by priestesses that worshipped a god at a temple that was roofed. It was their custom to unroof it once a year, insisting that it be roofed again before sunset.
The Coriosolite territory is outside of the area of Brittany famous for its vast megalithic remains, but as the distances are not that great, and all Armorican coins are related in their style, a common belief structure of the indigenous peoples could be expected. Skeletal remains of the period suggest a population divided about equally between Celts and the earlier people (Giot).
There are other connections between the megalithic art of Ireland and motifs appearing on Coriosolite coins, but a discussion of these must wait until after an examination of the boar symbol.