ARMORICA AND THE GODS (part three)
Up to now, I have focused on just four motifs: the lyre, the boar, the spiral, and the quadrilateral banner. All of these have strongly related meanings. I have not delved into descriptions of the sun-symbol, as its simplicity and universality is little more than an observation of nature. Sometimes shown as a simple circle, it is most often depicted with the pellet representing the sun, and the circle representing its corona.
There is one variation of this symbol that is not self-explanatory, on Coins 13 and 27: instead of the usual pellet within a circle, there is as trefoil. The trefoil could represent the divisions of the daytime into morning, noon, and afternoon. In a later story, Olwen, a Welsh Venus whose name meant "Her of the White Track" was so called because wherever she trod, four white trefoils would spring up.
A counterpart of Olwen was Blodeuwedd, "Flower aspects," the wife of Llew, the sun god. She had a lover, and together they plotted the death of Llew, but Llew was brought back to life, and Blodeuwedd was changed into an owl. Blodeuwedd represented the dawn and dusk; her lover, the night - but the sun vanquished them both. The story is convoluted, but it is reminiscent of how Proserpine came to spend half of the year with Pluto and the other half with her mother Ceres. When she was in the Underworld nothing could grow, and thus winter was explained.
The threefold aspect of the daytime is expressed in all of the coins by the three locks of the hair arranged in spiral form; the separate curls of the head remind us of the rays of the sun, and recall the description of Ogmios as "sun-faced".
Moving away from cosmological symbols, there is one motif prominent on the coins of the Coriosolites that returns us to the identity of the god depicted on the obverses: the coins of Series Y and Z show a forelock on the obverse head. The design of this forelock appears as a flame, and probably means idea, thought, or inspiration.
In the Irish "Song of Amergin," though undoubtedly suffering from being translated from the original language, there is a line that reads something like "I am a god who forms fire for a head." R. A. S. Macalister, quoted in Robert Graves' The White Goddess calls this work "a pantheistic conception of a Universe where god-head is everywhere and omnipotent." The symbology of this song is different in most other respects from that to be found on the Coriosolite coins, but the similarity resides in the idea of pantheism, which can best be described as the belief that God infuses the universe the way life infuses a person; without one, there cannot be the other.
To identify the deity that appears on the Coriosolite coins should by now seem somewhat inappropriate. We could call him by any number of names, for he has been enveloped in a mythological web, where he becomes an aspect of so many different gods, that to give him any name at all would be misleading.
The head above the pony on the coins of Group H to L might be compared with the description of Ogmios as recorded by Lucian. It has become popular in modern times to ascribe these small heads found on many Armorican coins to the Celtic practice of headhunting. Certainly, many later myths confirm a cult of the head, and some Celtic coins depict a rider holding a severed head. In the case of Coriosolite coins, the inclusion of severed heads is glaringly out of place when the rest of the design is considered. In fact, even the association with Ogmios is not relevant, when we consider that the head above the pony connects by the lash to the standard. The small heads are more likely to represent an aspect of the deity, or the deity aspects of the idea.
On the Coriosolite coins, and on many other Armorican coins, various objects will be found issuing from the head or the mouth. These represent thought and speech respectively. The symbolic method is universal, and can be seen in North American Indian pictographs, and more familiarly, in comic books, where thoughts are seen contained in the last of a series of bubbles emanating from the head, and the spoken word is encapsulated, and has a point of the capsule issuing from the mouth.
The Celts were familiar with the classical deities. They had a history of migration, moving westwards from the Danube in search of better lands; they would have encountered many races and religions. Some Celts became Greek mercenaries; many traded with people from lands they did not occupy; they even attacked Rome. When Celtic tribes settled in new areas, they encountered indigenous populations; in Brittany, they would have found remnants of the megalithic cultures. The Celts did not massacre these people; instead, they co-existed, even if as overlords. They were an enigmatic people, quarrelsome and warlike, but always maintaining a cultural connection and identity.
It is little wonder that we have failed to understand the pantheism of the Celts: they encountered many gods; they laughed at people that gave their gods human form; and yet, they would discuss theology with the Greeks without even offending them. Their feeling of superiority allowed them to be tolerant, so there was never any threat from a foreign religion.
The Druidic class arose from the exposure and assimilation of many religious beliefs: it could maintain itself by showing its followers an increasing revelation. Caesar reported that students of the Druids took as long as twenty years to complete their education. In the lower levels of understanding, the nature of the gods would probably have been discussed. The Celts did not mind doing this, even with foreigners. As the learning progressed, various beliefs would have been equated. At some point, or less likely, throughout the teaching, comparisons would be made of the various stories and the laws of nature. Sometimes it would be revealed that the gods were abstract forces, and that these forces were all united in a single order of the universe.
Most studies of the Celtic religion approach it from the same viewpoint as Caesar: they attempt to build a pantheon, or collection of gods, and attribute to each deity particular characteristics and areas of responsibility. Being exposed to vast numbers of Romano-Celtic inscriptions, students then compile lists of Celtic god names under headings of the classical gods. Sometimes the study is expanded, and comparisons are made with other European deities, particularly the Norse, but other than repeating what the classical authors said about the Druids, there is little attempt to reconstruct a Celtic theological system.
Just as the design evolution and the variations on a theme found in the art of these coins provides us with a picture of the working of the Celtic aesthetic, so too, the enfolded nature of the iconography provides us with a picture of the Druidic doctrines; the mythological references are many, and span several cultures, but they bring us back, time and again, to a central theme: the movements of the heavens and the inner workings of the cosmos.
As can be seen symbolized on these coins, the day, the seasons, the year, and the nineteen year cycle of the heavens are all connected, and the play between this world and the underworld, the positive and negative, Yin and Yang, were not alien beliefs. As to how far Druidic thought advanced, we cannot say, but perhaps it is better that way: if all the mysteries of the Druids were exposed, their romance would be lost, and we would be the worse for it.
In the past, Celtic iconographies have suffered from a too casual approach. Scientific methods cannot be applied very easily to this topic, so subjectivity is difficult to avoid. With so many European myths to draw from, any numbers of interpretations of a symbol could be offered. Many symbols are virtually universal: this does not mean that they share a common genesis. The similarity of geographically remote symbols has given birth to a large number of pseudo-scientific theories about worldwide cataclysms; migrations from centrally positioned lost continents, and even interference from outer space. What many have failed to realize is, when people share similar circumstances, are faced with similar problems, and are equipped with the same sort of brain and thought processes, cultural differences cannot be absolute.
Many symbols are based on direct observation: who would view the sun as anything other than a circle? Other symbols stem from the human psyche; they are part of what Jung labeled as psychological archetypes. Our own modern concerns and interests must impinge on our observation of the past. Scientific research has provided us with miraculous tools with which to study artifacts. With such high-budget gadgetry at our disposal it is too easy to be lured into using the tools to the exclusion of everything else.
In this chapter, I have endeavored to use the same methodology as I used in the catalogue. I originally suspected that there was a system at work in the designs on the coins, which were not a random mixture of elements. After testing several alternatives, I found that it was the minor details that provided the answer: sets of design elements were fixed in their chronology by other sets. The variations within a set sometimes exposed another order, that is, the association of design elements by idea.
The presence of the martingale in front of the pony defined Subgroup H1; this, in turn, exposed the set of variations in the banner of the overlapping Subgroup H2. Those variations had the common denominator of being, as well as merely a quadrilateral design, a diagram whose bottom half reflected its top half. The occurrence of one of these designs on a stone in Ireland, and the similarity to design found on other stones in Brittany, where the meaning has been interpreted, led me to suspect that these symbols represented the crossover between this world and the underworld. At this stage, it was merely conjecture. The association of these quadrilateral banners alongside of, or replaced by a spiral, usually in the form of a curl and leaf, and the recognition of this spiral as having a universally understood, similar meaning, is encouraging, but could be coincidental. At Newgrange, a temple aligned to the winter solstice, or the division between the dark and light times of the year, the lyre symbol is connected, both by its proximity to other spirals, some resembling those found at the ear position on the obverse head, and by its association to Apollo as sun god. Then there is the substitution of the lyre symbol with a conjoined boar and sun symbol, the battle between light and dark, the mythological representation of the cycles of the sun.
All of these connections and the others that I have mentioned are too numerous, and too consistent to be viewed as coincidence. They also express the same psychology as the manner of the designs themselves: nothing is haphazard; the design elements fit with each other, as do notes in a piece of music, and the mythological content is the theme.