LAST WORDS (part four)
The nature of the designs to be found on Coriosolite coins is governed by cultural, religious, and artistic tradition. The vast majority of Celtic art is decorative; it is the embellishment of the object that defines the state of the art rather than the outward form of the object itself.
A coin is a functional object, and the design on a coin is a part of its function. By looking at what is stamped on a disc of metal, we can determine that the object is a coin issued by a particular group of people. Thus, if not actually guaranteeing standards of purity, the coin does advertise the identity of its creators.
The western tradition, which survives to this day, is to place a head on one side of the coin. It may be a portrait of a leader, a deity, or a personification of a national characteristic. In many countries, this tradition is constant and unvarying, and any artistic expression is subservient to this. Thus a portrait may be naturalistic, or expressionistic, and it may show a head, a bust, or a full-length figure.
Coriosolite and other Armorican coins are also subject to this convention. The distant prototype of their coins was Greek, and it was part of quite a different artistic tradition than that of the Celts. Celtic art had never experienced the need for portraiture, and the human figure had never been idolized, as it had by the Greeks, so because of a convention, Celtic tribes were forced into adopting an alien art form. Often their attempts at this form are crude. Coin collectors, who are unfamiliar with Celtic art, have the impression that the Celts were bad artists, and usually describe all of their coins as crude or barbarous: in some instances this is true, but many Celtic artists found ways of combining their own artistic traditions with the classical ones. Some of these syntheses are masterful, but if the viewer is unfamiliar with the Celtic component, it becomes invisible, and all that can be perceived is something that is not realistic enough.
The main point is that part of the design of most Celtic coins is functional, that function being to identify the object, universally, as a coin. In this way, part of the design is also an intrinsic part of the object itself, and therefore may be embellished, or not, with purely Celtic design. This embellishment can take the form of abstraction of the image itself, but it must contain enough of the original information to identify the prototype design.
Some later Celtic coins are completely in the classical style. Good examples of this can be found with some of the coins of the British kings prior to the conquest, in the first cent century AD. Some people believe that these coins were produced by Celtic artists. Perceiving that many Celtic-style dies are expertly cut, they believe that this skill is all that is needed to produce works of art in another style. A painter wields a brush, and if he is a great painter he wields it expertly. If a great painter, brought up in a western artistic tradition, attempted to paint a Chinese-type painting, he results would be laughed at by most Chinese people, even if they themselves were incapable of painting a picture. Art is a learned activity, not a natural talent. People that are "born" artists only have an interest and aptitude in art: it is their diligence that makes them good, and what they practice depends upon the tradition they are working within.
Every die engraver that produced coin designs in a classical style had many years of training in that style. He may be Celtic by birth, but he is not a Celtic artist. Some coins have been identified as being copied from Greek or Roman intaglios, indicating a possibility that gem engravers augmented their income by producing coin dies for their Celtic patrons.
Once the standards have been met for identifying the disc of metal as a coin, then attention can be paid to making the design culturally relevant to the local populace. the Coriosolites were part of a cultural group that included other Armorican tribes. There was a Celtic elite, and a mixed population of Celtic and indigenous peoples. Intermarriage may have been permitted, but by the time of Caesar's invasions this would not have eradicated pre-Celtic beliefs and customs.
The Celts were not rigidly dogmatic in their beliefs; they were very capable of discussing their own religion, using another framework of belief. The Celtic belief allowed and perhaps encouraged debate, so there was no strict adherence to a single line with its attendant xenophobia and wish to proselytize. As Celtic peoples migrated over much of Europe, they encountered a large number of local cults, which they enfolded into their own religion. It is possible that they interpreted local deities as equivalents of their own, and were happy to let the local names prevail. The dates of local festivals were likely changed in order to fit in with the Celtic customs. The Celts did not place as much importance on the times of the solstices as did the earlier inhabitants: therefore, gradually, certain earlier festivals may have fallen into disuse. Some of the features of these earlier festivals would be transferred to the newer ones. Even today, some Christmas and New Year's customs are derived from ancient celebrations of the winter solstice.
The religion of the common people was not as complex as the religion of the Druids. Through study, observation, and discussion, the Druids expanded the religion to more than the propitiatory expression of the peasants' hopes and fears. It became a mystery religion, one where initiates were led to greater revelations, stage by stage. Although the Druids were known to discuss the nature of the gods and the universe, it must be assumed that these were not open discussions where any members of the tribes could join in. Only by keeping certain knowledge from the general population would the Druid class maintain its power. Those who had received Druidic training would feel more at ease discussing some aspects of this with Greeks or Romans versed in philosophy than they would with uninitiated members of their own tribe. Thus, some information has come down to us from classical authors. The knowledge thus discussed was in the manner of comparison between classical and Celtic belief. The Celts had no argument with syncretism, and this probably was a large part of their teaching.
Remnants of the earlier megalithic religion of western Europe appears on the Coriosolite coins in the form of the standards in front of the pony in Series Y, and the lyre beneath the pony in Series X. The latter symbol has also strong connections to the classical Apollo, and Mercury or Hermes. These double meanings are favored devices with the Celts, and are expressed not only in the religious sense, but in the arts as well. We cannot tell what the symbols represented to the uninitiated; they could have viewed them as little more than "good-luck" symbols, without any idea of their history. The Druids, however, would have been well versed in their origins, and as artists and smiths were members of the elite, they too, would have been instructed in the use of such devices.
A correlation to this can be found in the Celtic practice of religious offerings. It has been observed that offerings made at Hillforts were more symbolic than those offerings made in peasant settlements. The elite might only offer the less useful parts of an animal, whereas the peasant would offer the entire animal. This is the reverse of what we might expect, since a wealthy person could afford much more than a poor person. The reason for this, apart from the natural desire of the rich to remain so, is that the elite could understand his sacrifice as symbolic and ritual, whereas the poor were, in effect, trying to strike a bargain with the gods.
A similar phenomenon is seen by the use of plated coins offered at temple sites: the ability to symbolize enables a person to offer such a coin with the understanding that he was not cheating the gods, but partaking in a symbolic ritual. In his mind, his offering of plated money would give him the same benefits, as he would receive if the money were genuine. The offering of money cannot be compared to a collection plate in a modern church. In a church the money is used for various things, such as providing for the poor, or helping with building maintenance costs: it is not a pact with God, and, although some members of the congregation may feel virtuous for donating, and thus closer to God, they would be incensed by any accusation that they were bargaining with the Deity. In contrast, a Celtic temple was where the god resided, and any offerings were made directly to that deity for future favours and the money remained where it was placed.
Another example of the symbolic nature of Celtic religion, and the use of sacrifice to obtain favours, is furnished by some bizarre discoveries in England: the Celts stored their grain in pits dug in the ground. These pits were carefully prepared and sealed so that the grain would not spoil. A number of these pits had subsequently been used for refuse. At the bottom of some of the refuse pits, archaeologists discovered either a cow's skull, staring up at the opening, or the remains of a raven that had been pinned down with its wings spread.
The offering of cattle was associated with matters of health, while a raven or crow, feeding as they do on carrion, was associated with war. Common both to illness and war is death: when a person became ill or set off for battle, offerings would be made to ensure his survival. If a sacrifice was made properly, it would be expected to work. If the person died, then the gods had not kept their part of the bargain. I feel a likely explanation for the remains at the bottom of these pits was that the pit had contained the grain of the unfortunate person. When he died, it was removed, and the symbol of the bargain was placed at the bottom, where it would receive bombardments of refuse, showing the disgust of the people at the god who had lied to them. Dedicating a refuse dump makes no sense, especially with that manner of offering, but my explanation, alien to modern beliefs, may be too distasteful for many to agree with.
The Coriosolite use of symbols is systematic; for example, the symbols placed beneath the pony differ in their design, while sharing the same meaning. Symbols placed in front of the pony also seem to share the same meaning, although in some cases this is less obvious, and in the case of the emblem on the coins of Group A, the meaning is difficult to assess. A strong connection exists between obverse and reverse types, but this idea has to be strengthened by the observation of other Armorican coin types. Double meanings abound: some appear only visual, but may have had mythological connections, now lost.
I doubt if the full import of the designs were understood by the general population, but the images would have some talismanic significance, and coin offerings at Celtic temples might contain this element, as well as being merely offerings of value. This is an untouched line of research, but one that may be fruitful. It is interesting that many later coins of the Atrebates, found in great numbers at a temple site in England, bore images that can also be found adorning lead sarcophagi of the Roman period.