Links to Mythographic Topics within this Web Site
|The following links are to topics that have some mythological or iconographic relevance. The article below is included on this page because I feel that it is the best overview.||
||I recommend reading this before wandering where you will, and exploring those things that most interest you. Check back for new articles and don't forget to scroll down!|
The hub of our Web site
Methods for "Celtic Style" Iron Age Coin Iconography
Read this first.
The Role of the Boar in Celtic Iconography and Myth
It's more than you thought!
"The Big Picture" Enter the system or view related pages
Myth and the Modern World
Explores the relationship of myth and science.
The Lyre Symbol
5,000 year old lyres?
The 'Banner' Symbol
Commonly believed to be a military standard, the
'vexillum' is really a religious symbol.
What is the truth behind the strangest boar in Celtic iconography?
P A N is now online!
Prior to any possible interpretation of the mythic, or symbolic content of any group of coins, we must determine that the grouping is as accurate and complete as the evidence allows. If we are examining the coinage of a specific tribe, our arguments will be weakened by the later attribution of some of the coins to another tribe. Similarly, if we are looking at a regional style, we should include all coinages of that style, even if some of these fall outside of the geographical area commonly associated with that style. This is especially relevant to the "Armoricains émigrés" whose coinage is found in the territorial area of the Treveri, but is not necessarily, I believe, an issue of that tribe.(Derek F Allen, The Early Coins of the Treviri, Germania, Jahrgang 49, Berlin, 1971.)
A thorough stylistic analysis is needed to be sure of the grouping, die links will suffice for this, but are not as informative, and certain types of analyses will only be possible if we can be sure of the order that the dies were engraved. Having done this preliminary work, each motif should be recorded with it's position relative to the rest of the design. If these are indexed, it should be both by motif and position. Any part of the design that appears blundered, or disjointed in an unusual way should also be recorded. If this type of element has any significance, it might show up later in the analysis. It is safer not to make any assumptions about die cutter's errors at this stage.
As single heads on the obverses and horses on the reverses are ubiquitous, they should be ignored. An exception to this is where our examples are unusual in someway. Generally start with the subsidiary devices, and determine which of these are dominant. It is better to judge this by the number of times they appear, rather than by their relative size. At least two motifs should be isolated at this stage. Design variations are not important at first, but may play a part in a later stage of the analysis.
If, for example, we have isolated a boar, a lyre, and a spiral, then it would be difficult to start our enquiry with the spiral. Being an abstract symbol, the spiral can be assumed to be an interpretation of a concept. To find its appearance in myth, without prior knowledge of its meaning, would be very difficult. As myths are essentially stories, any index will focus on characters, places, and events. A myth might contain a spiral, but only the most thorough index will mention it. If our initial source is a study of myths, then the spiral, if it does appear, will be more likely to be indexed. It is best, however, to begin with something like the boar.
General works on mythology that embody the author's theories about myths,are an excellent source for preliminary work. It is best to obtain several of these, written at various times. Do not shy away from nineteenth century, or earlier,works, even if current belief labels them as outdated. We are not trying to give credit to the author's theories, we are looking for his sources.
As we are investigating Celtic myths, we might be tempted to restrict our sources to what the Classical authors had to say about the Celts, and to the various Irish, Welsh, and Breton tales that were recorded during medieval times. While these appear to be the richest source, they both have certain drawbacks. In the case of Greek and Roman writers, be careful of propaganda; they were always willing to make the barbarians look bad, and thus justify intervention in their affairs, or to show themselves as superior by contrast as a form of national pride. Classical sources, especially Roman, that praise the Celts for certain traits are more likely to be believed. Remember also that the Greeks and Romans viewed the Celts from their own perspective, and that many of their sources for this information were at least innaccurate, if not complete fabrications. Medieval stories also have their own styleand content that is part of their time, and often their Christian background. Celtic deities become Christian saints, and their deeds become Christian deeds. Some of the Celtic myth might be transformed, some might be omitted. A parallel drawn between a symbol or motif on a coin and an element from a single Celtic myth does not carry much weight if we cannot even be sure that the myth element was ever part of the Celtic ethos.
Myths pertaining directly to the Celts are but one source for the answers to their iconography. We can search the myths of Greece and Rome, and examine the archaeological record of other cultures that could have had direct, or indirect contact with Celtic peoples. Furthermore, we can examine myths, or elements of myths that may be universal, those elements that direct themselves to, and are part of, the human psyche. The relevance here is neither contemporaneity nor geography, but the similar perceptions of human beings faced with similar circumstances. We must be selective in this. It would be more appropriate to compare two agricultural societies, than to compare one of them with a hunting/gathering society.
Having searched for our chosen element or motif in myths, historical accounts, and in the archaeological record, we can then go on to the next element, and so on. If the search is successful, we will notice that the myths share certain themes and elements. Some of these will be obvious, others might only become apparent after further investigation. These connections should be listed.
New elements that appear in the myths can be searched out in the same manner. Particular attention should be paid to important myth elements that seem unusual in the context of the story. I have elsewhere discussed the presence of the log at the end of the story of Meleager and the Calydonian boar, and it's symbolic connection to the Yule log in German custom. This is also connected to the similar German custom of the Yule pig. The purpose of the Yule log, the Yule pig, and Meleager's log, is the same as that of the Boar of Gulbain in the story of Diarmait. The deaths of both Meleager and Diarmait share the same mythological root, and are connected by the arrival of an Otherworldly boar.
The paths that myths take on their evolutionary journeys are tortuous. People remember parts of stories and pass them on to other people. Sometimes, these stories are tagged on to other stories. We find the story of Androcles and the lion so tagged on to the story of Saint Jerome, and Androcles becomes Jerome for that part of the story. Travellers hear these myths and take them with them, changing them for their own reasons, or passing them on to others that then change them. There can be no simple, direct transmission of one culture's myths to another culture.
Many myths might have only local relevance. There are a surprisingly large number of alternative names for Celtic deities in Gaul. It is possible, if not likely, that each of these names had their own attendant myths, and that some of these were borrowed from the indigenous peoples that the Celts found in these area when they first arrived.
It can sometimes happen that new common themes emerge from the myths that we were not looking for, and are not directly related to the motifs and symbols that we have selected. We might then find other motifs and symbols on the coins, perhaps far less dominant, that do tie in to these newly discovered myth elements. These are worth pursuing further. We are looking for general traits, and these will be noted abstractly. We cannot recreate the Celtic myth that is contemporary with the image on the coin, but we can gain insight to its essence.
An important differentiation should be made between the pre- and post- Roman symbology. As the earlier Druidic classes succumbed to Romanization, there was a shift from arcane knowledge to the more everyday religion and superstition of the masses. The farmers and merchants had a greater sway on the economy, and the iconography reflects this. Roman, or Roman trained artisans created more representational images for the coinage. This is demonstrable both by the greater presence of such images in areas with strong trading connections to the Roman world, and in the fact that it was the silver and bronze coinage that first made this shift from the symbolic to the representational. Gold coins held on longer to their earlier Celtic style, as none but the wealthy and powerful would have possessed them. In economically depressed areas, the change to baser metals did not signal a blossoming market economy, but was due to devaluation. The Celtic style persisted longer in these places, and most never made the change to the Roman style.
Having learned what images appear in both the coinage and in the mythologyand archaeological record, we should next take notice of where the coin images appear, their relationships to each other, and to the coins. Is a certain image often or always in attendance with another image, or is it the reverse of this? Do some images appear only on base metals? Is there any image that only appears on the reverse of the coin, or below the horse, or in front of the horse? There are many questions like this that can be asked and might shed further light on the subject. We are not testing hypotheses, but are accumulating data that may or may not be applicable to the act of forming hypotheses later.
The position of a motif on the coin is often important. We should note what appears on other related coins at that position. Generally, there are three possibilties: first, the motif is unchanged on other coins, second, the motif undergoes some change, but may be perceived as a "variation on a theme", and lastly, there is a different motif that is substituted.
When we find a variation on a theme, the meaning is embedded in what all occurances of this motif have in common. This is perhaps more pertinent to symbols than to representations of objects, although it is often difficult to differentiate the two. Die engravers evolve designs for artistic reasons, and these variations might be nothing more than an ongoing attempt to perfect the design, or to vary it for aesthetic reasons. True variations on a theme are not reflected by similar changes to other parts of the design as evolutionary changes often are, and there is an almost indefinable numinous quality about the way that they vary. The common theme can be expressed as a concept, but might not be very clear until other parts of the design are deciphered. Any interpretation of this common theme must remain hypothetical until it can be checked against other motifs and symbols. The Celts did not mix themes and myths on the same coin, but wove the designs together in closely related meanings. We can be sure that we are on the right track if the background myths of one coin motif can be directly linked to the background myths of another motif. If we find a pastiche of mythic elements, we should suspect our interpretations and search more thoroughly.
When a symbol or motif in one position on the coins undergoes a complete change, we might observe that some part of the prior design is retained. On Coriosolite coins, boars change to lyres at one mint, and yet both motifs contain a "pellet in a circle" sun symbol. The meanings of both of these motifs are the same, but they each have their own ancestory, albeit with prior connections.
By changing the parameters of our search we can shift from the study of a single coinage to that of a region bound by stylistic similarity. While this increases the number of symbols and motifs available for study, it does allow for less certainty of interpretation as we cannot be sure that the "mythic" zone is the same as the"artistic" zone. Repetition of motifs throughout the region lessens this risk.
The more cross referencing that can be done, the stronger the argument becomes. The technique for doing this is simple in its formula, but is often difficult to put into practice. We also will encounter motifs and elements that cannot be resolved. A head or a figure without attendant symbols or attributes is indecipherable, and myths might be alluded to where the roots of such myths, or their subsequent transmission, have been lost forever.
The stories that the ancient Celts told each other around their fires, might not be recoverable, but many of the tenets of their religion and art, and the arcane knowledge of their Druid teachers, might be ours for the asking. They created many of their images as codes to be understood by the initiated, and these, like any other codes, can be cracked. Top