Medieval accounts of the Cosmos such as that given by the character Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’ are based upon much older pagan philosophies:
“…I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence…” Empedocles of Acragas/Agrigentum (Sicily) – 5thC BCE (From: ‘Fragments’ of the Strasbourg Papyrus)
Empedocles was one of the ‘Pre-Socratic’ (Pre-Hellenic) philosophers of the ancient Greek world – a group of individuals including Pythagoras of Samos (attributed to the 6thC BCE, but possibly even legendary) about whom we know little except of what was reported much later. In the case of Empedocles, we are lucky as some of his contemporary writings survive. Empedocles is credited with developing the cosmogenic theory of the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) which her referred to as ‘roots’ of matter, and which was to dominate the worldview of the ancient European, North African and Middle-Eastern peoples right through to the 17th century. Whether or not he was the true originator remains to be seen, but he became an icon of this to the Greeks. His surviving fragmentary works were – like those of Homer and Hesiod – written in a poetic verse, suggesting a possible connection to an oral transmission tradition. He was as much concerned with spiritualism and religion as what we moderns would think of as ‘philosophy’ – to the ancients there was no difference. As a Sicilian Greek, he would have had access to and interest in the ‘Celtic’ peoples and their philosopher-priests. His belief in transmigration of the soul was supposedly shared by/derived from Pythagoras and was common to the Orphic/Eleusinian mysteries, as well as by the Atlantic Europeans. The Greeks would never admit that they derived anything or shared a common heritage with the ‘Barbarian’ world, of course!
The Cosmogony attributed to Empedocles was used by Plato of Athens some 100 years later during the era of the Hellenic expansion. His famous dialogue ‘Timaeus’ discussed the structure of reality and history of creation, framed within Plato’s theories of geometry and number, itself derived from ideas of Pythagoras. Here he discusses the relationship between the elements (stoichaea):
“…Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer…” Plato – Dialogue of Timaeus (4thC BCE, Athens)
You will note that Plato talks of the ‘creator’ or ‘God’ as a single force (you’d need to check the Greek original, though!) – surprisingly like the idea of God to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist faith it would seem. This might seem strange, until one realises that to Plato and the philosophers of this age this was a natural part of polytheism – the plural ‘gods’ were a description of the important functions and continuum of time and space between the philosophical absolute ‘Monad’ and the dissolution of chaos. This was quantum physics for the mind! To worship the Monad was as senseless as worshipping pure chaos.
In the following passage from Timaeus, he explains how the stars and souls are one, expressing a great deal of the same theory as Empedocles, no doubt one of his formative sources. He tells how – as well as the universe being a huge soul ‘framework’ in itself, the souls of beings (gods and mortals) were made by combining them with aspects of the elements:
“…and once more into the cup in which he (ed: the Creator) had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils…”
Although seeming mysogynistic to modern readers, Plato’s opinions about unworthy souls being reincarnated first in the body of a woman, and next in that of a ?beast have to be judged, firstly by the standards of his culture and age, and secondarily by considering the otherworld inversion principle I have made previous references to in terms of ancient spirit beliefs. For instance, the ancient Gaelic belief in hereditary healing and protective charms always had contrasexual inheritance as its core mode of transmission. Plato’s audience at his seminars were privileged Athenian males.
In spite of his apparent misogyny, he was steadfastly devoted to the principles of Sensation (resulting, he believed, from the conflict between matter and spirit and the soul) and Love as the highest faculties motivating humanity. These, to him and his devotees of future generations, were represented in the Goddesses Athena (Strife) and Aphrodite (Love).
The views of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato were to have a profound influence upon religious philosophy in the Hellenic and Roman empires, inspiring new generations of philosophers who flourished from the 3rdC BCE to the 4thC CE. The philosophical origins of christianity may in fact be based upon them – albeit with a one-sided doctrine of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and the denial of the sensationalist aspect….
“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan –Pharsalia 1stC AD
Lucan’s famous account attempts, in a few lines, to sum up the whole religious worldview of the defeated Gauls – one which he portrays as once savage and dangerous. He names four gods – Teutates, Hesus and Taranis, and very interestingly ‘Diana, goddess of the north’. It is perhaps surprising that he fails to mention by name the two particular gods who seem from epigraphic, numismatic, literary and historical evidence to have been very prominent in religious landscape of the Celts: Bel(enos) and Lug.
Julius Caesar, instigator of the ‘glorious’ events recounted in the Pharsalia, claimed that Mercury was the Gauls’ chief god:
“…They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions…” (De Bello Gallico, Book 6)
Secondarily he mentions that they also worshipped Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. ‘Teutatis’, ‘Esus’ and ‘Taranis’ are the names Lucan gives for Caesar’s interpretatio romanum of ‘Apollo’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ but in Pharsalia, he substitutes ‘Minerva’ with ‘Diana’. Given that he was writing almost 100 years after Caesar’s Gaulish conquest, it is fair to say that he may have had better information, but it is clear from the tone of Pharsalia that Lucan considered continental Celtic culture (except, of course, for the poetic arts) to already have been largely smashed and replaced by the Romans. So what of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ mentioned by Caesar? On this he seems – on the face of things – to be silent, but analysis reveals a more interesting aspect:
It is fairly self-evident from Pharsalia, that Lucan has used Caesar as his source, albeit updated with the names of the indigenous gods. Lucan’s version, however, commences not with a mention of Mercury but with the allusions to the overly-proud barbarians and their fiery flowing locks of hair. Pride, as they say, comes before a fall – and perhaps the greatest and well-known example of this for the people of the ancient Roman world was the story of Alexander of Macedonia – whose ambition so famously over-reached his ability to outlive his conquests. The Celts were well aware of Alexander – they used his image on almost all of their coins.
So, what is the connection between Celts, Roman Mercury and Alexander? Caesar’s statement about the ‘many images’ of Mercury is interesting when one considers the most prevalent images created by the Celts were not apparently statuary idols, but coins. To the Romans and Greeks, Mercury (Hermes) was the god of trade, crafts and was generally seen as what Plato might have termed a Daemone or spiritual intermediary between man and the gods. He was also the god of poets such as Lucan perhaps being the reason Lucan does him honour with a form of circumlocution when repeating Caesar’s account of Celtic religion. Mercury was also the psychopomp who conveyed the souls of the dead on their mystical journey – something which was of core interest to Celtic religion, and upon which Lucan remarks. He was usually depicted wearing a winged traveller’s sun-hat or petasus and with winged shoes. It is therefore not inconceivable that the similarity between the ‘horned Alexander’ iconography of the coins and the images of Mercury common in the Greek and Roman world led to Caesar’s assertion that the Gauls venerated Mercury as their chief god. Indeed, on the Gallo-Roman ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’ from Lutetia (modern Paris) on the Seine, the horned figure ‘Cernunnos’ occurs. Note that his horns are adorned with rings – possibly symbolic of the older form of Celtic money before coins became popular:
‘Cernunnos’ is a name obviously derived from the Celtic name for ‘Soldier’ (Cern), and he appears to be wearing a helmet with stags antlers on it: The image of the stag with adorned antlers is specifically associated with the ‘rut’ during which combats occur over mating rights, typically at territorial boundaries such as on plains near river crossings (such as with the battles in the Irish epic tale Tain bo Culainge). In a warrior-pastoralist culture the link between battles and fecundity is explicit in this image. In the same way, the branch is a symbol of fecundity for more arable-agrarian societies, and was widely used in Greek and Roman iconography. In fact, the antlers combine both images on account of their shape. Wings for that matter are also branched, as are bolts of lightning and rivers. The Pillar des Nautes is awash with Roman-Celtic syncretism.
So – the god of wealth and fertility whom Caesar likened to Mercury and had ‘many images’ made of him was represented using the traditional image of Alexander with a cornucopia attached to his head. Lucan’s triple-set of names: Teutates, Hesus and Taranis (and their ‘blood-stained’ altars) may well all be a ‘triple aspect’ of the one he leaves un-named, teasing us with his palpable circumlocution of the underlying divinity he must have realised was represented. Lucan was a clever lad, and the gods (no doubt Mercury himself) were to receive him into Elysium at a young age – a ‘rock and roll’ life and death.
But what about ‘Belenos’? Or, for that matter, ‘Lugus’? What even of the ancestor-god Caesar remarked upon as being called (or like) Dis Pater…. Might they all be one and the same?
In terms of likeness to Mercury, it is Lug(us) who has usually been given this honour, and for whom there have been parallels found in the mythology of the ‘surviving’ Celtic language cultures of Wales (Lleu) and Ireland (Lugh), both of which associate with crafts. Lug (like Belenos) appears in placenames and inscriptions from all across the Atlantic European world, and into the reaches of the Danube river basin.
Evidence for Belenos’ prominence is shown by tribal or kin-group designations such as ‘Belgae‘, and personal names such as that of British King Cunobellin(us) (1stC AD). In the early medieval ‘Harleian Genealogies’ (British Library Harleian MS 3859) of the Kings of west Britain (Wales) and the ‘Henn Ogled’ (Old North – Southern Scotland down to Lancashire), ‘Beli’ and his wife ‘Anna’ are named as the ultimate ancestors of King Owen of Gwynedd. Anna is even said (like Brighid in Ireland) to be a relative of the Virgin Mary – further proof of attempts at early christianising attempts at syncresis with biblical narratives:
“…Beli magni filius, et Anna, mater eius, quam dicunt esse consobrina Mariae uirginis, matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi. …”
With the Romanisation of the barbarian Celtic cultures, the worship of Bel/Belenos would become submerged in the cult of Apollo, demonstrating that Bel/Belenos was an overtly solar deity.
The association of Apollo Grannus with Mars at various spa shrines in the Romano-Celtic world maintains the martial link of the Celts’ beloved warrior/sun-god icon, Alexander, whose conquests (and failure) had inspired the Celtic invasion of the Balkans, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and Phrygia in the 3rdC BCE. At some of these, the ‘Celtic’ Mars is also sometimes depicted in attire we would more associate with Mercury, demonstrating a syncresis between the two Roman gods in the Celtic mindset:
Some depictions even show Mars with wings – perhaps a convenient spiritual representation of what the Celts desired: Death in glorious battle and an ‘autopsychopompic’ flight to the Otherworld.
The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:
That the Atlantic Europeans before the Romans had a principally duotheistic religion comprising of a god and a goddess who each had a ‘triple’ identity. The imposition of Roman culture and then the overlay of Christianity created a ‘Celtic Pantheon’ which in truth never really existed. ‘Lugh’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Teutates’, ‘Esus’, ‘Taranis’ were all epithets of the same solar deity who conducted the souls of the dead in their Otherworld destinations. His companion ‘Diana’ (De Áine) had similar multiple-epithets and was associated with the worldy creation and manifestation.
The mysterious symbolism of the horse pervades the artwork of the coins of the Iron Age Celtic peoples of Atlantic Europe. From the Thracian Celts of the Balkan region, to the tribes of Britain, Gaul and Hispania – all produced coins which depicted a strange and compelling set of images, perhaps providing a clue to the supra-regional religion of the peoples classified by the Greeks and Romans as the ‘barbarians’.
The history of coinage among the Celtic peoples lies in their economic links to the ancient Greek world – in particular through southern Gaul, Macedonia and Thracia at the height of Hellenic influence, and the Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. For this reason, the design of celtic coins was afterwards strongly influenced by the format of the Macedonian/Greek ones, some of which depicted the horned head of ‘Alexander’, sometimes Apollo, Hercules or Zeus on one side….
Due to trade links with celtic tribes through southern Gaul (from 6thC BCE) and trade and warfare with the Illyrian, Pannonian, Dacian, Thracian and eastern Celtic peoples as well as marauding incursions of western Gauls , the indigenous style of coinage developed in the 4thC BCE generally copied the Macedonian and Greek format and typically showed a depiction of ‘Alexander’ on one side – an icon which would become increasingly stylised:
The celts seem to have taken the symbolism of the Greek coins further than the original format… to recap, here is a typical Greek tetradrachm from the 3rdC BCE:
Ostensibly starting with a picture of Alexander’s father Phillip II the coins of the era of Alexander gloried in the imagery of the head of the conquering hero, and evolved between depictions of humans (Philip, Alexander) and gods (Apollo, Zeus, Herakles) depending on how successful and grandiose the ruler who minted them felt himself. In the fragmented succession period that followed Alexander’s death, depicting a god was often a safer bet than advertising your discombobulated head…. The totemic value of the Mercurial ‘Alexander’ among the peoples of Europe’s highly mobile barbarian warrior culture (in the La Tene period) cannot be underestimated, and it is perhaps unsurprising that they would copy the coins of the world’s most astounding military leader, whose legend had elevated him to a godlike status. Vast numbers of Celtic warriors had poured across and down through the Balkans in the 3rd century, culminating with an assault on Delphi itself, and many would afterwards find employment within the Seleucid Empire on account of their warrior prowess, just as ‘Viking’ warriors would in the Byzantine Roman Empire during the 8th-11th centuries.
Belgic tribes like the Parisii (northern France) and their cousins among the Icenii, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (eastern Britain) produced a great deal of the most interesting and beautiful coins which elaborated on and converted the Greek template designs to meet their own system of material and religious values. In the 3rd-1stC BCE their increasing power was no doubt bought about by trade (and pillage) with the Greek and increasingly powerful Roman worlds, which demanded or received coinage.
We can tell that these tribes were powerful and influential due to the fact that they modified the design of their coins away from the Greek, demonstrating to the world their own culture and beliefs. They obviously understood the symbolism of the greek coins, but were to express their own through some significant changes and additions.
The coins of the Parisii (who occupied the region along the Seine) were typified by placing a star symbol under the front hooves of the horse, which was constructed of a circular arrangement of 6 (sometimes 5) dots. The other interesting feature of their coins was the ‘net’ design in the shape of a ‘tented inverted triangle’ above the serpentine horse, which usually faces left and is riderless. The Parisii further modified the coin template by feminising the head on the obverse side. Tree branch designs often decorate either side. There are no ‘sun wheels’ as seen in many British coins.
Across the water in Britain, their cousins the Trinovantes must have watched in dismay, as well as interest as the Parisii and the rest of Gaul succumbed to Julius Caesar and his Roman legions in 52BC. They were another great and wealthy tribe, who – along with their neighbours the Icenii and Catuvellauni – stood to become increasingly wealthy from contact (and alliance) with Rome. Their coins from this period demonstrate a more definite split from the Greek designs of the western European celts – perhaps showing more in common with their central European cousins who also excelled in stylising, perhaps when they too felt the pressure of Roman encroachment.
The Trinovantes coins show a number of variations on the theme from the Parisii. Firstly – like other British coins, they do not show the ‘net’ design above the horse, instead favouring a sun symbol (usually depicted as a wheel) and/or a branch. Like the Parisii coins, the ‘star’ symbol also often occurs under the horse’s front feet, but this seems an inconsistent feature – usually depicted as a circle surrounding a point. The horse, branch and sun symbols are more realistic and less stylised, either demonstrating the fact that they were more advanced artisans or perhaps due to the fact these coins are generally from a later date. Of greater interest is the fact that they do away with the head on the obverse side and replace it with symbolic images:
The corn/barley design was probably another borrowing from Greek coinage, but here it might also (during the 1stC BCE/1stC CE) represent the Trinovantes advertising their commercial wares to the Romans and other tribes of Britain: Beer and grains. Their territories were fertile and they had good access to the sea to supply those made hungry by war and famine, over the horizon in the brewing storm of the Roman conquest. Dropping the head of the famous Greek emperor might have represented an act of diplomacy in the face of Caesar’s threatened invasion. Note also the branch under the horse’s feet…
A more explicit depiction of corn, this time barley (similar to the Greek style) appears on another later coin (Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni in the 1stC CE), but as we shall see it appears to have had a symbolism to the Trinovantes which went beyond mere trade:
To any well-connected and spiritually educated person of the Mediterranean world in the 1stC BCE – 1stC CE, the symbolism of the ear of corn was likely understood as a reference to the Rites of Eleusis held near Athens, and the veneration of Demeter – known to the Romans as ‘Ceres’. That it appears on the coins of Cunobelinus might be a reference to this cult – it is not implausible that he himself was an initiate in what was something akin to the Freemasonic Lodge of Europe’s elite! The rites were a mystery cult dramatizing the story of the annual cycle and the return of Kore (Persephone) from Hades. Caesar’s assertion that Celts such as Cunobelinus believed in reincarnation as instructed by the druids means that they would have had a spiritual sympathy with these rites, whose origins link to the Orphic beliefs originating somewhere in the lower Danube in the late Bronze Age, and hence possibly deriving from the indigenous belief system of the north Europeans. The tie-in between heads of corn and reincarnation is therefore obvious – especially at a time when Druidism and Celtic/Atlantic religion was under great threat.
Let us look at some of the designs replacing the head of Alexander on other Trinovantes coins during this period:
One cannot help but be overcome with a feeling that the reflective symmetry and structure of the design on the obverse side to the horse is telling us something – much like the pictograms on the early medieval stone stelae of the Scottish celts or ‘Picts’. The same design occurs in other coins of the same period (immediately pre-conquest when druidism had decamped to Britain, and before the Britons began to Romanise).
The cross-like symbol with its opposed crescents and solar discs seems to prefigure the ‘celtic cross’ by at least 500 years, and is rich in the symbolism of the annual cycle. The four ‘quarter days’ seem to be represented by the branches (or corn heads) forming the limbs of the cross, and joined to the solar symbols still used in astrology today: a circle with the spot in the middle. Between these are the solstices and equinoxes represented by torcs, rings or lunulae and ‘tented triangles’. In the centre of the cross lie the mysterious apposed lunar crescents – symbol of the months.
The woman riding (side-saddle) on the horse is an innovation that we also see in the Balkan/Danube region (see the first picture above) but here it possibly also gains a martial significance – a people, a goddess and a whole religious way of life readying for war… A small serpentine figure occurs where the ‘star’ often appears – another feature seen in celtic coins from central Europe. Was this symbology copied in an effort to invoke the military success of the central European celts against Macedonia, Greece and then Rome?
Another Belgic tribe who settled in Britain were the Atrebates and their coinage seems to demonstrate similar iconography to that of the Trinovantes and their neighbours.
The composition of the imagery may vary in detail, but the obverse side to the horse shows consistent features, seen also in the coins of other tribes, such as the Iceni, Trinovantes, Durotriges etc: separate torcs, linked torcs (the ‘yoke’), crescent-moons, spots, serpentines, ‘corn ears’, branches or wreaths, linear lines, rings and what looks like leaf-shoots. All of these sometimes appearing like a Miróesque deconstruction of the image of Alexander.
All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.