Of Antlered Gods and Gold – Celtic Wildlife Mythology and Jewelry


One of the few records of Celtic mythology, the Gundestrup Cauldron depicts the Celtic deity Cernunnos wearing a torque. Photo by Malene Thyssen
One of the few records of Celtic mythology, the Gundestrup Cauldron depicts the Celtic deity Cernunnos wearing a torque. Photo by Malene Thyssen

The Roman records, officially known as the Interpretatio Romana, or Roman interpretation were a simplification of the complex and fluid universe of Celtic deities that depicted the Gauls as noble savages, but barbarians nevertheless. In reality, the duties and responsibilities of Celtic deities were not only multiple, they also overlapped. Those relating to death and afterlife, trade and war were predominant. One of the supra-regional gods was Cernunnos, the god of nature and fertility. While the Romans equated him to Bacchus, their own god of agriculture, wine and drunkenness, what many Celts saw in Cernunnos was the god Dis from whom all humans descended. In the few representations we have of him, he is antlered and surrounded by animals, most prominently stags and ram-horned snakes, but also canines, felines, bovines and rats. He is the archetype for the Lord of the Animals, or Lord of the Wild Things, which makes him the central Celtic deity for hunting and wildlife conservation.

The few depictions found of Cernunnos are in Italy, France and Denmark, and one of the most prominent ones is the Gundestrup cauldron housed in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. This large silver vessel from the La Tène period was not made by one craftsperson alone. Instead, it was assembled over a period of time from the 5th to 1st Century BC by Celtic and Thracian silversmiths and bears testimony to their advanced metallurgical know-how and their metal working techniques, particularly in chasing and soldering.

The Dying Gaul portrays a Celtic warrior wearing only a torque. It is housed in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Photo by Jastrow.
The Dying Gaul portrays a Celtic warrior wearing only a torque. It is housed in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Photo by Jastrow.

Among the Insular Celts inhabiting the British Isles, Cernunnos is likely to have evolved into the Wild Man, who has also been called the Green Man or the Wild Hunter. In Wales he goes by the name of Cernwn, or Herne the Hunter, and is referred to as the keeper of Windsor Forest in the English county of Berkshire. It was not until William Shakespeare mentioned him in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that there was a written record of Herne the Hunter. Insular Celts also looked to Nodens, the god of hunting, dogs and the sea. In his research, J.R.R. Tolkien believes Nodens’ name may have originated from the Germanic word for “to entrap” as a hunter. True to Celtic fashion, the concept of Nodens was adapted on a regional basis throughout much of the British Isles and may even have been revered as far as Gaul.

Over the centuries, the Roman hunting deity Diana has been the main theme and motif of countless paintings, sculptures, objets d’art and fine jewelry items. But as Julius Caesar noted, the Celts were downright secretive when it came to leaving records. Instead of a concrete depiction of a deity in the Roman fashion, they would resort to encryption by symbolism. Archeologists are still debating whether the motivation behind such extreme discretion was inspired by their druidic tradition of secrecy, or whether it was out of recognition of the invisible nature of a deity.

godsandgoldCornucopiaMorningGloryAs a result, a kind of ersatz-symbolism evolved, one of which was less about the deity and hunt, but rather about conservation and a respect for Mother Nature. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, brought the idea of plentiful nourishment and the happiness that comes with it. Since the Celts had such intense contact with the Greeks, it is very possible that the symbol was assimilated with time, because in the few depictions there are of Cernunnos he is handling a cornucopia someway or another in many of them. One could see why he was revered as a generous nurturer and benevolent provider.

Another symbol associated with Cernunnos was the torque. Although torques had been standard ornamental fare from the Bronze Age, they experienced a kind of revival with the Celts, who interpreted them to be the bodies of two ram-headed snakes winding around each other. In Celtic mythology, ram-headed snakes

Metalsmith Stephen Fitz-Gerald created this unique stainless steel torque. Photo courtesy Stephen Fitz-Gerald
Metalsmith Stephen Fitz-Gerald created this unique stainless steel torque. Photo courtesy Stephen Fitz-Gerald

in particular were a symbol of authority. A closer look at the Gundestrup cauldron reveals Cernunnos not only holding one such snake in his left hand, he is also wearing a torque around his neck while holding onto another with his right. So en vogue were torques with the Celts that the unknown creator of the Hellenistic marble sculpture of the Dying Gaul (3rd century BC, now in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy) had his subject of a mortally wounded Celtic warrior from distant Anatolia wear absolutely nothing except for a very prominent torque.

Today Celtic jewelry has become very fashionable indeed. It is well documented that Celtic druids had been apt disciples to their Greek teachers in mathematics and geometry, Pythagoras himself among them. So trained were the Celtic druids in the Greek school of mathematical thinking and logic that Cicero took them to be Pythagoreans at first, and for good reason.

These earrings are a contemporary homage to the ancient torque motif. Photo by Hap Sakwa, courtesy of Michael Good
These earrings are a contemporary homage to the ancient torque motif. Photo by Hap Sakwa, courtesy of Michael Good

Celtic ornamentation is complex and highly developed, and its symbolistic content has always been kept intentionally ambiguous. With Insular Celts, who would be influenced by the artistic sensibilities of the Anglo-Saxons, this shows in the richness of their curvilinear patterns, those very popular Celtic-knot motifs. Even in the digital age—or precisely because of it—they continue to fascinate jewelry designers and their patrons alike, no matter whether you are looking at a piece of costume jewelry, a souvenir item or the most high-end fine jewelry. So great is the demand for Celtic knots that some jewelry-specific CAD (computer aided design) applications today even feature Celtic knot builders that are designed to facilitate the workflow.

But due to the intentional ambiguity of the motifs and the applied symbolism, very little of what is called Celtic jewelry actually qualifies when it comes to expressing the concept of preservation, hunting or a reverence of nature. As various artifacts reveal, Celtic goldsmiths and silversmiths were undisputed masters of their craft. The torque motif in its many variations dominates much of the jewelry that has been excavated. Other pieces display complex symbolic design components that are intentionally open to multiple interpretations, which appeared surreal enough for the German historian Paul Jacobsthal to coin the term “Cheshire Style” to describe it, in reference to the supposedly untrustworthy smiling cat from “Alice in Wonderland.”

The Agris Helmet ca. 4th Century BC is a testament to the skills of the Celtic metalsmiths. Photo by Rosmania
The Agris Helmet ca. 4th Century BC is a testament to the skills of the Celtic metalsmiths. Photo by Rosmania

In their execution, Continental Celts also strove for curvilinear designs, which, upon close inspection frequently reveal themselves to be the body of a ram-headed snake, and the magnificent Agris Helmet is a case in point. It takes close and careful inspection to fully appreciate the intricacies of the design and the symbolism, let alone the execution.

The extreme discretion of the Celts regarding their spiritual life leaves many unanswered questions, all the more since nearly all the records in existence are from Roman and Greek sources. Generally, Celtic design preferences ranged from geometric abstractions to cleverly ambiguous symbolism, while they avoided concrete depictions. This also applies to the representation of their deities, and on the subject of nature and its preservation, or hunting, the Celts quite universally maintained the two symbols of the torque to represent the authority of Cernunnos and related deities, and the cornucopia to remind them that it was he was the one to be revered by all tribes for providing the fat of the land.– Robert Ackermann, G.G.

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