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The Lyre Symbol

The lyre as an attribute of Apollo, is well known, and the association of lyres and depictions of Apollo on Greek coins is common. The earliest Celtic gold staters are derived from the staters of Philip of Macedon and show, on the obverse, the head of Apollo. The design lasted, in abstract form, to the end of Celtic coinage in Britain.

While the Macedonian coins did not have a lyre as part of the design, there are a number of depictions of Apollo in Gaul during the Roman period. He is shown nude, and with his lyre, but often these images are associated with healing springs. Some inscriptions refer to healing hot springs, and even today we have a famous mineral water containing the name of Apollo. Caesar informs us that the Celts, like other nations at the time, had the idea that Apollo averts illness. All of this gives weight to the opinion that lyres on Celtic coins are merely a reference to Apollo. That the lyre on its own seems to refer to Apollo as the god of music should alert us to a problem with this symbol, and possible references to health and healing springs are unlikely subjects to find on coins.

Treating symbols in isolation, without taking the context in which they appear, or their substitution with other symbols in a particular coinage, can lead to a pastiche of interpretation where many gods and myths seem to be fighting for dominance even on a single coin. Such a situation, if believed, belies the very character of Celtic art, which could be expressed as multiple variations on a theme

Celtic art on coins reached its greatest expression in Armorica, and although other regions have produced very beautiful coins, it is in Armorica that we consistently find the most complex designs. Lyres are also fairly common on Armorican coins. The lyre symbol usually has four "strings" or lines emanating from a sound box consisting of a pellet within a circle. The latter element is a well known sun symbol, and thus appropriate to an attribute of Apollo. Some inscriptions from Roman Gaul have Apollo's epithet as "Grannos", which has been connected to the sun. John Rhys makes the following connection:

Grannos is probably to be referred to the same origin as the Sanskrit verb ghar,"to glow, burn, shine; "ghrna, ghrni," heat, glow, sunshine.

With this translation we can combine both the sun and hot springs. The presence of the lyre, while it may be understood merely as an attribute of Apollo, seems to be given greater significance on Armorican coins.

The pellet-in-circle sun symbol is ancient and appears in many cultures. The pellet representing the sun, and the circle its corona is such an obvious rendition, that we do not need to look for routes for the diffusion of this symbol, and can safely assume that the symbol could easily have occured to many peoples quite independently.

The prevalence of the sun symbol as part of the lyre in Armorican coins warrants further investigation: there are always four strings that fan outward from the pellet-in-circle. Other regions' coins can depict lyres with different numbers of strings, they are often less abstract than the Armorican examples

The classical authors could not agree about the number of strings on the original lyre: three, four, or seven were proposed. All of them did agree that it was an invention of Hermes (Mercury). This disagreement about the number of strings probably stems from different mythological roots for the lyre as symbol. The interpretation of the four string lyre of Mercury is given by Macrobius, who says that the strings symbolically represented the four seasons of the year.

From the combination of a sun symbol with the number four, we can form the hypothesis that the lyre symbol appearing on Armorican coins is a sun symbol divided into four seasons, in other words, the symbol represents the solar year. To test this hypothesis it is neccesary to look for earlier examples of this symbol in a similar context.

Newgrange in Ireland, is a Neolithic temple/passage grave dating to about 3200 B.C. The lyre, and related symbols, can be found in a number of forms carved into some of the stones. There is evidence that these stones were decorated before being placed in their present locations. We might expect, however, that some consideration was made about where certain forms of decoration would be placed.

There are eight examples of this symbol that have been observed so far, 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.

One of these representations of the radiate sun symbol, on K88, consists of two sets of 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 passsage 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 lyre symbol cannot represent the instrument, and pre-dates any reference to Apollo by millenia. What we see in this symbol are the first rays of the sun appearing at dawn. The winter solstice is the dawn of the solar year, and Newgrange is aligned to that event. This interpretation of some of the symbols at Newgrange is supported by later 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., tell of an island off the coast of Armorica,where priestesses 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. This is close to the efffect at Newgrange when the roof box was opened to allow the first rays of the sun to enter on the winter solstice.

The persistence of this legend in its various forms is quite amazing. We cannot tell whether the custom persisted from the Neolithic down to the Iron Age, or just the myth. The changes are typical for a story retold over a span of centuries by different cultures.

On Coriosolite coins, the lyre beneath the pony is sometimes substituted with a boar standing on a base line in the same position on the coins. In the centre of the line, part of a pellet-in-circle sun symbol can be seen to rise, like the sun at dawn. The boar and the lyre have the same calendric significance - that of the new year - but different mythical roots. Those wishing to look further into the boar symbol should consult my article: "The Boar Symbol"

The use of boars and lyres as alternative symbols is not restricted to the Coriosolite coins. On the coins of the Baiocasses from Normandy, the boar symbol often occurs in the hair of the obverse head. This can be seen on gold and billon coins. Some gold coins have a lyre in this position that is similar in style to those found on Coriosolite coins, differing only by the absence of the pellet, and that the "strings" are splayed. When we look at the hair patterns of these coins, we find that these symbols are placed between the hairs growing forward, and those growing backward. This expresses the idea that the boar or lyre is to be found at a transition, or at the centre. The beaded lines, arranged continuously in approximate arcs around the head, lead the eye and suggest to us a path or process that is at one point marked by the symbol and the centre of the hair patterns. The interpretation of this design could be either, simply, the path of the year, or it might mean the route between this world and the underworld, the portal represented by the centre.

When the story of the nineteen year cycle returns to Ireland and is finally written down (our versions date to about the twelth century), the original meaning has been lost, and we havethe sort of syncretism where the later gods battle the earlier ones:

Finn Mac Cool left his Druid master and went to Tara, there to serve Cormac the High King as one of his household warriors. He joined the feasting the first night, but as time went on, the warriors grew anxious and fearful, their music and laughter dwindled away to silence. It was Samhain, and every year at midnight of that day, Aillen of the Flaming Breath emerged from the fairy hill nearby, and breathing on the thatch and timbers would burn Tara over the heads of the warriors No warrior could avert this as Aillen carried with him a silver harp, and the music that he played lulled all that heard it into a deep sleep. The warriors only knew the name of this creature, they had no idea of what he was, and every year Tara had to be rebuilt.

Cormac offered a great reward to anyone who could vanquish this creature, as he and his father had for some twenty years before - the time that Aillen had visited Tara. Finn stood up and bargained with Cormac for the Captaincy of the Fianna of Erin if he should prevail over Aillen. This was agreed upon and Finn, taking his spear began to patrol the outer walls of Tara, waiting for Aillen to show.

An old warrior approached him and presented him with another spear, saying as he did so that Finn's father had once saved his life, and that this spear would help him in his fight. The spear was forged by Lein, the Smith of the Gods, and he beat into it both the fire of the sun and the potency of the moon. The blade was of blue iron, like moonlight, and was studded with thirty rivets of Arabian gold. Finn was told to unsheath the spear and lay the blade on his forehead as soon as he heard the first notes of Aillen's music, and the fierceness and bloodlust of the spear would drive away sleep.

As soon as Finn heard the first notes of Aillen's harp, he did as he was told. The angry voice of the spear overpowered the haunting and seductive notes of Aillen's harp, and Finn looked toward the fairy hill to see a misty, ghost-like thing floating toward him. It came close enough for Finn to see its form, even to the long white fingers playing the strings. Aillen reached the stockade and shot a greenish flame from his mouth to the timbers. Finn took his saffron cloak and beat out the flames. Aillen wailed and fled for the fairy hill, its doorway open and emitting a green light. Before he had a chance to escape into the hill, Finn hurled his spear right through Aillen's body. At this, the doorway disappeared and Aillen lay dead, a fungus, thistle-down mass of human shape. The warriors woke to find Tara intact and Finn displayed Aillen's head on his spear, and showed them his scorched cloak. He was awarded the Captaincy.

In this tale, Finn is the new hero that has unified solar and lunar time in the form of his spear. In the Neolithic, the new year started at the winter solstice. It was at that time when the days began to lengthen and the sun began to overpower the darkness. The Celtic year began on November 1st - Samhain, but to this day the dark forces unleash their fury on the night preceding this - Hallowe'en. Finn's saffron cloak identifies him as a solar hero.

The old sun god has fallen, in his Greek form as Apollo, the light bringer, he can now be identified with Lucifer. As Aillen, now an eerie wraith or demon from beneath the ground, he is vanquished by Finn. The mound from which Aillen emerges is no longer a temple but is now, and to this day, as is still believed by some, a fairy hill. The twenty years that Aillen had visited Tara corresponds approximately to the nineteen year cycle of the heavens with the intercalation of seven months, and the thirty golden rivets in Finn's spear to the days of the solar month.

We might feel more confident about our attribution of the lyre symbol to Apollo were it not for the fact that, in Armorica, it is the four-string lyre of Mercury that is always depicted. Caesar gives a clue by saying that the Gauls reverence Mercury above all the other gods, and that there were images of him everywhere.

While coins from Britain depict an abstracted head which identifies with Apollo by reason of a dominant laurel-wreath design, most Armorican coins show a different sort of head that is connected, tribe to tribe, by accompanying symbols and devices such as beaded lines around, boars in the hair, crosses, sun symbols and lyres. Sometimes, there are small heads around the central head, or forming part of the design of the head. One example of these small heads is to be found on a coin of the Osismii, the central head having a combined boar and sun symbol in the hair. There are two popular interpretations of these small heads: the most recent being that they represent trophy heads as described by Poseidonius, and reported in Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily. This interpretation, left as that, is of dubious merit: the iconographic content of most coins with these small heads has little to do with war images. Only when a rider is seen carrying a head can we find a direct reference to the practice as described by Posidonius. If, however, we examine later myths, we find that certain heads had the power to communicate with the living. In the Mabinogion, Bran's head does this, as does Lomna's head in an Irish story recorded by Rhys.

The other interpretation was popular in the nineteenth century, especially among the French numismatists, who saw in the small heads connected by beaded lines to the large central head, a depiction of the god Ogmios, a Celtic Hercules. Rhys tells of Lucian, in the second century, describing seeing an image of this god with his club, quiver and bow, much as he is usually depicted, but also with a great number of men connected by their ears with cords of gold and amber to the tongue of the god. A Celt who was standing nearby, interpreted the image for him:

Stranger, I will tell you the secret of the painting, for you seem very much troubled about it. We Celts do not consider the power of speech to be Hermes, as you Greeks do, but we represent it by means of Heracles, because he is much stronger than Hermes. ...So if this old man Heracles, the power of speech, drawsmen after him, tied to his tongue by their ears you have no reason to wonder, as you must be aware of the close connection between the ears and the tongue. ...In a word, we Celts are of opinion that Heracles himself performed everything by the power of words, as he was a wise fellow, and that most of his compulsion was effected by persuasion. His weapons ... are his utterances which are sharp and well aimed, swift to pierce the mind: and you too say that words have wings.

By the second century, the Celtic and Roman religions had become conflated. The Druidic and warrior classes were no longer, and most of the population were engaged in farming or in trade. Lucians' account might have reflected a belief in vogue at the time and it could even have been a local idea. The image that is important, and that has a pre-Roman content are the cords that connect a dominant head to others. While I know of no mouth to ear connection, we do see mouths joined to heads on Armorican coins.

As a god of eloquence, Ogmios has again, little to do with the other imagery on these coins, but if the head on these coins was equivalent to Hermes or Mercury, then he has already been associated with the four string lyre. As a god of agriculture, he is concerned with the seasons. The lyre represents the birth of the sun each year, and its four strings or rays; the four seasons. There is another aspect to Hermes, as Joseph Campbell puts it: of souls to the underworld, the patron,also, of rebirth and lord of the knowledges beyond death, which may be known to his initiates even in life.

Once again, we can return to Newgrange. In a story I recounted in my article on the boar, Aengus says that he will take Diarmait's body to Newgrange and there give it a soul that he might converse with it daily. We are reminded of the heads that had the power to communicate with the living, and might wonder about the significance of the location where this would take place.

The most notable feature of the inner chamber at Newgrange is the triple spiral engraved there. Given that the lyre symbol at Newgrange found its way to Armorica at a later date, we should not be too surprised that this triple spiral, also can be found on Armorican coins, prominently displayed at the ear position on coins of the Coriosolites and some others. On the coins it has been simplified somewhat, but its general shape is the same.

The spiral, especially in its multiple form, is another symbol that transverses many cultures and times. It is familiar to many as the labyrinth in Crete. Joseph Campbell cites an example from the Melanesian island of Malekula, a culture that also involved boar sacrifices. Robert Graves refers to Newgrange directly in this respect:

Thus the pagan Irish could call New Grange (sic.)'Spiral Castle' and, revolving a fore-finger in explanation, could say, 'Our king has gone to Spiral Castle': in other words, 'he is dead'.

Wherever the symbol appears, its meaning is the journey from this world to the underworld. The multiple spiral is the portal that the dead travel through, and, we might suppose, communicate back to us in an oracular form, as in the example of the Celtic heads.

While some might view the universality of this symbol as something mystical, citing the "tunnel" of near-death experiences, there might be a physiological explanation: Campbell mentions the vision of a spiral during meditation, and the same with the effects of ether. I have experienced something similar regaining consciousness after nitrous oxide at a dental surgery. That ancient peoples, experiencing such an effect during unconsciousness, or trance, would then associate the spiral with the portal to the underworld, is very likely. The reverse of going through a spiral to the underworld, can be commonly seen in Celtic art as the vine scroll variations, where new life is represented as an unfurling of a shoot in a spiral.

The double spiral is often simplified to an S shape on Celtic coins, but sometimes the loops travel all the way around to better suggest spirals. Generally speaking, the Neolithic and Bronze Age examples of the symbol have more turns than do those of the Iron Age.

In Celtic symbology of the Roman period, the S shape is associated with the wheel-god. Miranda Green shows an example of a wheel-god figurine from Le Châtelet, where the god is portrayed bearded, and brandishing a thunderbolt in his right hand. He holds a wheel in his left hand, and over his right shoulder is a large ring from which hangs nine S shapes. Green notes the resemblance to Jupiter and says that the S shapes may be spare lightning flashes. She also cites other examples where the S shape is associated with wheels.

On Celtic coins, S shapes, wheels, and pellet-in-circle symbols are used substitutionally as subsidiary devices in certain types. The Hosidius type of the Corieltauvi (Coritani) is just one example.

That lightning would be portrayed as an S shape and thus be a variation of a double spiral, is not immediately clear to us. In our time, we depict lightning as a zig-zag shape, not because lightning is so shaped, but because that is how we think of it. If we examine myths however, lightning portends an encounter with the numinous, and thus a symbol representing a communication with the underworld is completely appropriate. The Calydonian boar flashes lightning, thunder is the first sign of the arrival of the black knight in the Welsh story of Owein, or the Countess of the Fountain. Even today, in horror films, thunder and lightning are used to provide suspense for what follows. We can thus view lightning as a communication from the underworld, or perhaps as a portal between the two worlds. In my article on the boar symbol I drew a parallel between the log that measured Meleager's life, and the Yule log of Germanic custom, and told how the Yule log was brought indoors to protect the house from lightning in the coming year.

The wheel, especially in its common form consisting of four spokes, pre-dates the classical period, and can be compared to the four-string lyre symbol. On an inscribed stone in the subsidiary chamber of Dowth are two conjoined four-spoked wheels. On the same stone is a wheel of eight spokes, and most interestingly; a rectangular figure where eight lines radiate from the centre. The latter symbol appears on Coriosolite coins as a banner in front of the pony. V. Kruta is of the opinion that certain sugar-loaf shaped stones from Brittany that are engraved on the top with crossed lines, represents the omphalos, or navel of the world. While this could be viewed in a geographic sense, I prefer to see it as also encompassing the idea of a centre, around which, the seasons revolve, and the path of the seasons as the generative forces occupying first this world and then the underworld in the course of the year. This concept is expressed in Greek myth as Persephone visiting Hades during the winter months, and as a result vegetation would die, only to be born again when she returned in the spring.

Billon coin of the Osismii

To return to the symbology of Armorican coins; on a well-known coin of the Osismii, the central head has a combined boar and sun symbol in the hair. As we have discovered earlier, this refers to the beginning of the year. In pre-Celtic times this was the winter solstice, but now, presumably, the shift has been made to Samhain. Around the head are three small heads, the first at the end of a beaded "S" shape that issues from the mouth of the central head. It was probably this image that first led scholars to attribute the central head as that of Ogmios. We can easily imagine that the beaded line is the chain of amber by which the listener is bound to Ogmios' tongue. Given such a revalation, it would be easy too, to ignore the designs of the other two heads. It is the three heads seen as a progression that really defines the obverse design as a whole.

The first head has only the beaded line in an "S" shape that connects it to the mouth of the central head, and a double beaded line, also in an "S" shape that issues from its forehead. This line then connects the snout of the boar and the back of the second head, one branch leading to the front of the boar's baseline, the other branch leading to the top of the small head. This second head differs from the first in that an "S" shape issues from its forehead and terminates in a leaf bud that is begining to unfurl. From the back of the boar's base line, another beaded line connects to the hair of the third small head. Again, another "S" shape line issues from the forehead of the third small head, but this time the line terminates in a fleur-de-lis shape.

In a general way, the iconography is simply showing the progression of growth: At first, nothing is visible above the soil, but the generative force, or perhaps the soul of the plant is present in the form of the small head. As time passes, the plant has put out a shoot that has grown a small leaf bud that is beginning to unfurl, and eventually this opens out to two fully developed leaves with the beginnings of a third leaf at their centre.

The interpretation becomes more complex when we include the presence of the combined boar and sun symbol. As this represents the beginning of the year, or more properly, the end of the old year when the sun is being overwhelmed by the boar, we should expect it to be positioned before the first small head as it is in the early spring when life, or the generative force is active in the seed below the ground. The governing factor in this symbology is that the boar and sun symbols combined must be at the centre.

If the artist wanted the boar to be at the centre of the progression of the plant depicted, he must then place the boar at the back of the head. This would break the tradition where the boar is at the centre of the main head. You will remember other coins cited where a boar, lyre, or a cross was positioned in the hair at the parting of the locks.

In order to maintain the tradition, and yet still demonstrate the process of growth, the artist used two beaded lines for the first small head. We can now understand that the line begins at the front of the boar, travels to the first small head below, and then doubles back to the second small head. The third small head is positioned behind the main head to mark the end of the process, and is connected to the back of the boar's base line to show that it is opposite, relative to the boar, to the beginning of the process. Of course it is the large head, that is breathing life into the entire growth process, and it is this deity that is the source of all individual life forces as represented as the basis of every living thing. In short, it is the Creator.

There are other varieties of this coin, and as more come to light, it might be possible to construct a die chronology to determine if this is the culmination of the designs, or just another step in the creative processes of the die engraver. It seems successful to me, but we cannot yet tell if this opinion was shared by the coin's designer.

This coin is perhaps the best example of the combination of compositional and iconographic skills. If the die engraver was only concerned with the symbology, he could have placed the three heads between the mouth of the central head and the boar at the top of the head. This would have cluttered the front of the design, while leaving the back too empty.

At the beginning of this article, we examined the popular interpretation of the lyre symbol. Those that see Celtic coins as derivative of Greek prototypes, might now have cause to rethink this opinion. Many of the symbols that appear on Armorican, and many other Celtic coins, have their genesis in Neolithic Europe. Some of these symbols travel unchanged, or evolve through similar forms through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. While early Celtic coins copy the stater of Philip of Macedon, it is not merely that the coin was familiar to them. It is rather that the symbology of that coin was already apropriate to their world-view.

The Celt that spoke to Lucian appeared to take great pleasure in discussing the conflation of Herakles and Hermes. All over Gaul, Roman gods are given different Celtic surnames. We have, in the lyre symbol, some confusion between Apollo and Hermes. The wheel god introduces Jupiter into the equation. The more that we look into the symbology, the more that everything seems to be connected in what must have been a Celtic pantheism.

The identification of the god portrayed on the obverses of most Celtic coins seems less important, and the mythic image of the coins' designs as a whole, comes to the foreground. This is how it should be. If we were to take a head that has a boar in the hair, and identify it as an underworld god, we could not then take the same head where the boar is substituted by a lyre, and then state that it is now Apollo.

We have seen in the above passages that the "secret knowledge" was really a view of how the universe works, the path of the sun through the heavens, and the cycles of nature. The Celts that were in the know, had no reason to criticize other religions, or to try and eliminate them. They could understand the commonalty of all of the various beliefs. As they migrated in small bands westwards over the centuries they incorporated their ideas with those of the indigenous Bronze Age populations they encountered. While the Celtic religion had regional variations, it was essentially the same religion. They had no need to argue over the names of gods, and perhaps neither should we.

There was a drastic change in the Celtic religion in the early Roman Empire. It was the destruction of the warrior elite with their Druid priests and counsellors, and the beginnings of a market economy where those that had been little more than slaves, could now view life with some hope. Coin types reflected this change. The gold staters used by chieftains were the last to change from abstract symbology to representational types, borrowed often from Roman coins or intaglio gems. Inscriptions became more common as the population learned to write, and images of gods became more specific and developed along classical lines. The earlier religion was a mystery religion, initiates studied for years, and presumably advanced to greater revalations as time went on. The Druids maintained total secrecy and power over these lessons. As the Druids were eliminated, the peasant population lost all but the simplest expressions of the Celtic religion. It became the propitiary religion of the masses, and was guided largely by fear and superstition. The stories remained, and thus the myths were passed from one generation to the next, with no understanding of the symbology, but a belief perhaps in the literal truth of the heroes that were their ancestors.


HTML Link Notes

Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, London,1898

Sat. i. 19

O'Kelley, Newgrange, London, 1982

O'Kelley, op. cit., K2, K88, Co.1/K7, Roofbox.

Henri De La Tour (DLT), Atlas de Monnaies Gauloises, Paris, 1892: 6983-4.

note the similarity to the temple that was unroofed once each year.

the later version of the lyre.

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The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,New York, 1964

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, New York, 1959

The White Goddess, London, 1961,

Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, London, 1989

R. D. Van Arsdell, Celtic Coinage of Britain, London, 1989, V.A. 855-3 to 867-1

R. A. S. Macalister,The Archaeologyof Ireland, 2nd ed. London, 1949, fig. 14

V. Kruta and W. Forman, The Celts of the West, London, 1985,

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