Animals in Celtic culture

Zv dřevěné sochy mix jelen a beran - ověřit

Big animal statues from one piece of wood found in Fellbach Schmiden, Germany, and possible depiction of the remaining part that didn’t preserve. Year 127 BC. Source: http://www.zum.de/Faecher/G/BW/Landeskunde/schwaben/museen/landesmuseum_wttg/mw_fruehgeschichte.htm

Three bronze animal figurines found in Staré Hradisko, Přísnotice, Czech Republic. Source: Keltové na Moravě, PhDr. Jana Čižmářová. Průvodce stejnojmennou výstavou. Moravské zemské muzeum – Dietrichsteinský palác. 2. 5. 2001 – 30. 10. 2001. Page 13.

This article is about occurrence of each species of animals important to the Celts in documents of material culture (archaeological finds), but also about importance of these animals in Irish (mainly Irish) mythology in later years, as Irish sources are directly linked to Celtic culture and share similar characteristics. If you get interested in this topic, you can find exhaustive information provided in thematic paper: Animals in Celtic Life and Myth by author Miranda Green, Routledge, 2002 (Google eBook).

Bear

Celtic cult of bear followed older traditions. Bear was associated with strength, further life after death and with motherly care. Archaeological findings as well as mythology associate bear cult primarily with islands territory, however, bear teeth and figurines were found throughout the whole Celtic area.

Birds

Birds have always had something “supernatural” in them – thanks to their ability to fly, swim or snorkel, and because of their “disappearance” for long part of the year. In mythology, they served as messengers and bearers of messages, beings supremely good as well as bad; birds were frequent form of metamorphosis. A special place is occupied by eagle – a guide of god Taranis, a symbol of longevity and as a being able to predict the future. Birds can also be found on Celtic coins. An important position among archaeological findings and in mythology have ducks, geese, swans, owls, cranes, on territory of modern-day France cock; in the islands’ mythology there are ravens and crows very often.

Zv ptáci Sequana 1

Statue in bronze of Sequana standing on a boat with a duck-headed prow (Sources-de-la-Seine). H. 0.615m and weight: 7.560 kg. In the Musée Archéologique de Dijon. Deyts, 1985, p. 8. Source: http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159219

Zv ptáci 2

Bronze duck with the demarcation of the water-line along its body, holding a pellet or a cake in its beak, discovered in the Iron Age Milber Down Fort (Devon). Green, 2004, plate 15, fig. 2. Source: http://theses.univ-lyon2.fr/documents/getpart.php?id=lyon2.2009.beck_n&part=159219

Detail showing a duck on the spout of one of the Basse-Yutz flagons, British Museum. Photo: author.

Boar

Figures of a boar were found throughout the Celtic world, from Romania to Spain and from Ireland to northern Italy. It is associated with warriors who for example wore its figure on their helmets (there is an evidence of it on the Gundestrup cauldron). The Celts generally loved pork, as confirmed by findings as well as by literary evidence (Strabo). There are archaeological findings of boar bones from burials (bones of other animals are rather rarely found in the burials; the boar is probably related to the funeral feast), wild boar tusks were used as amulets (sometimes they were decorated with bronze). Boar is a frequent motif for gold coins minted in Central Europe at break of the 2nd and 1st centuries. Boar is connected with god Teutates. In the islands’ mythology it is a popular animal; whether there is a dangerous hunt, metamorphosis from human or origin of the boar in the Other world or specific magical boars that cause extensive damage (Welsh Twrch Trwyth having behind his ears scissors, razor and comb, that warriors in the story are trying to get (and they succeed but only at great cost) or Irish Torc Triatt and Torc Forbartach). An interesting archaeological find is a bronze figure of the goddess Arduinna riding the wild boar; this goddess apparently gave her name to forested Ardennes Mountains lying mostly in present-day Belgium and Luxembourg.

Zv kanci z helmy Hounslow, Middlesex 150-50 BC z British museum

Boars from warriors’ helmets. Hounslow, Middlesex, 150 – 50 BC. British museum, photo: author.

Zv kanec Arduinna

Celtic goddess Arduinna riding a boar. Source: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/gaelsgauls.html

Zv kanec 1_Gutenberg_Eber_LLM_Foto_Sven_Beham-1024x731

Bronze Boar, Gutenberg Deposit, 4 cm height (Photo Sven Bham). Source: http://www.electrummagazine.com/2012/07/liechtenstein-landesmuseum-vaduz/

Zv kanec 3 rothwell_boar_black

Boar of Rothwell Top, UK. Source: http://www.thecollectionmuseum.com/?/blog/view/iron-age-miniature-boar-acquired

Zv kanec 6 replika Drakkaria

Silver replica of a figure of a boar, locality: Tabor (Bohemia), Age: La Tene culture. Length: 3 cm. Source: http://www.wulflund.com/jewelry/silver-jewels/silver-and-brass-replicas/celtic-boar-tabor-bohemia-pendant-sterling-silver-13-g.html

Zv kanec 2 Bata boar

Boar 2nd century BC, Báta, Hungary, located in Budapest – Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum. Source: http://www.kelticos.org/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=513

Zv kanec 5 replika Drakkaria

Replica of a pendant of a boar from Galia (Joeuvres, France). Age: 1 century of Old Age. Material: tin. Size circa 2.4 x 4.0 cm. Source: http://www.wulflund.com/jewelry/amulets-and-talismans/celtic-pendants/boar-from-gallia-1st-century-tin.html

Zv kanec mince Filip

Golden Celtic coin from Bohemia, the oldest coin mint in this region. Kopidlno by Jičin. Coin with picture of a boar. Source: Keltská civilizace a její dědictví, Jan Filip, Academia Praha 1995, page 136

Zv kanec 7 sanglier-enseigne-gaulois

Figure of a boar. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Soulac-sur-Mer. Source: http://www.kelticos.org/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=226

Bull

Symbol of cultivated nature, power (because of its ability to infuriate) and fertility (symbolism of third horn). It is not associated with any deity. Interesting is its role in the island Irish mythology: in story called “Táin Bó Cuailnge” (Cattle Raid of Cooley – which is the main islands’ mythological text preserved in several versions), there are black-brown bull Donn and white bull Finbennach – both are results of metamorphism of two magical swineherds. Donn is a giant, with human intelligence and magical abilities; in his day-long final duel with Finbennach Donn wins, but subsequently he causes massacre among his own people and his heart breaks. In one sentence, beginning and content of the story is Queen of Connacht Medb’s effort to gain Ulster bull Donn of Colley; however probably the most outstanding character in the story is epic hero called Cúchullain. Evidence of sanctity of bull (taurus) is reflected in some names, such as in particular of Celtic tribe of the Taurisci from Sava river; and in numerous findings of bull bones and skulls in burials. Probably the bull was often sacrificial animal. That is confirmed by text by Pliny the Elder from the 1st century AD that writes about a ritual, where white-clad druids cut off mistletoe from sacred oak, sacrificed two white bulls so a drink made of the mistletoe could cure any animal infertility and could heal all poisons. Bull can also be found on the famous Gundestrup cauldron – according to interpretation, bull is mortally wounded by hunter Smertul; the bull has sun with five spokes on its forehead, one of which is connected to a crescent moon. Besides bull, a cow was embodiment or attribute of maternal goddesses; in the islands’ mythology this animals is often supernatural, from the Other world or associated with fairies.

Zv býk 3

Celtic silver torques with iron core, ended with bull heads. La Tene period. Diameter 29,4 cm, weight 675 g. Trichtingen, Württemberg, Germany. Museum Stuttgart. Photo: P. Frankenstein. Source: http://www.verein-keltenwelten.de/keltische-staetten/stuttgart-das-landesmuseum-wuerttemberg/

Zv býk 2

Celtic silver torques with iron core, ended with bull heads. La Tene period. Diameter 29,4 cm, weight 675 g. Trichtingen, Württemberg, Germany. Museum Stuttgart. Photo: P. Frankenstein. Source: http://www.verein-keltenwelten.de/keltische-staetten/stuttgart-das-landesmuseum-wuerttemberg/

Zv býk třírohý - Green page 181

Source: Green, Miranda: Symbol and image in Celtic religious art. 1989 Routledge. Page 181.

Zv býk 1

La Tene bronze figurine (height 11 cm), original is located in prehistoric collections in Munich, Germany. Replica according to the original. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Weltenburger_Stierl_latenezeitliche_Bronzefigur_Replik_Archeolog_Museum_Kelheim_Niederbayern.JPG

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Small bull found at Býčí skála, Czech Republic – one of the most mysterious archaeological findings ever. Probably from 6th century BC. Displayed in Vienna, Austria. Source: http://www.adamovaokoli.cz/zajimavosti/branzovy_bycek.html

Cat

It occurs only in the islands’ mythology and only as strongly negative and hostile animal.

Deer

Already much older cultures linked this animal with the Mother Goddess. Even the Celts used amulets from deer antlers or teeth as a gift for the deceased (as a symbol of continuation of life after death – probably due to ability of does to sacrifice their lives in danger for their offspring). It is associated with fertility, changing of seasons, deer could be a kind of spirit of the forest, deer was a sacrificial animal. Deer is often portrayed with god Cernunnos as evidenced mainly from Gundestrup cauldron. Deer is a popular motif on ceramics, and it occurred as a motif on coins. In the Irish and Welsh tales it is one of the most common animals – whether as an object of metamorphosis, hunted animal or eg. as a gold fawn showing somebody a way.

Zv jelen 2

Bronze stag figurine, 275 – 15 BC, found in Saalfelden, Biberg, located in Salzburg Museum. Source: http://www.salzburgmuseum.at/1491.0.html

Silver replica of a La Tene – Celtic Deer Talisman. This pendant has been found in area of a Celtic settlement – Oppidum of Stradonice (SW of Prague). Source: http://www.wulflund.com/treasure-of-wulflund/jewelry-by-wulflund/celtic-stag-pendant-la-tene-oppidum-stradonice-replica-ag-925.html/

Zv jelen 3_Gutenberg_Hirsch_LLM_Foto_Sven_Beham-681x1024

Gutenberg Bronze Deposit “Stag” Votive Figurine, 6.4 cm height (Photo Sven Beham). Source: http://www.electrummagazine.com/2012/07/liechtenstein-landesmuseum-vaduz/

Zv jelen 4

Bronze deer statuette from Neuvy-en-Sullias, France. Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/280700989247616588/

Dog and Wolf

People of the islands (Ireland, Britain) distinguished one type of strong dog for fighting, tending cattle and hunting etc. (Irish Wolfhound), and second one – a kind of women’s pet. The first type was denoted by word “cu” – which occurs in many first names as well as surnames (the legend of Cúchulainn). Dog’s skills were regarded as supernatural, great importance was attached to ability of dogs to heal. Dogs were guides of several gods and goddesses. Dog was also a sacrificial animal, at the same time, however, it was also buried properly – probably as a guide to the Other world (dog figurines in graves could have the same meaning). On the Gundestrup cauldron, dog (or wolf) is displayed twelve times (probably the most famous depiction is the god Cernunnos separating deer on the left and wolf on the right. Dogs were also eaten by the Celts (maybe just some species designated directly to this purpose). Wolf, on its own, is linked with life (wolf willing to breastfeed even a human child – mythology) as well as with death (wolf devouring its victim).

Zv pes - sklo Balkancelts

Miniature glass dog from a Celtic burial (#31) at Wallertheim, (Rhineland) Germany. Source: http://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/the-dog-in-celtic-culture-and-religion/

Zv pes či vlk Basee-Yutz flagon Francie 450 BC z British museum

Dog or wolf, flagon from Basee-Yutz, Francie, 450 BC, British Museum, photo: author.

Zv pes - Green page 105

Source: Green, Miranda: Symbol and image in Celtic religious art. 1989 Routledge. Page 105.

Fishes

They have rather insignificant role in archaeological findings, if they occur, then as a symbol to depict water. In the islands’ mythology they play significant role, with an important position of salmon (wisdom, immortality).

Hare

According to Caesar, it was a sacred animal of the British, but there is not much evidence for it. But sometimes hare occurs as a motif on archaeological finds, in folk superstitions (hare connection with the “mother goddess” or vice versa with witches) and in the islands’ mythology (the story of Ceridwen).

Horse

Importance of horse is not surprising by the Celts – warriors who used to ride horses or to pull chariots (two-wheels chariots made from the end of the 5th century). There were myriad of horse harness, horseshoes and spurs preserved. Horses were generally smaller than they are today, with average height of 125 cm at withers (although we also have documented use of higher, eastern types of horses with a height of up to 155 cm). Horse, however, served as food as well – but that could maybe happen only on special occasions during rituals. On coins, horse often occurs independently, but sometimes also with human head or other symbols. Motif of winged horse is no exception, as on Gundestrup cauldron, which accompanies a warrior standing before god Taranis. It was also a sacrificial animal, remains of horses were found as burial gifts (instead of live animals, figurines were also used). In Ireland, a specific ceremony had been kept for a long time – a intercourse of incoming king with white mare (description of it is found in text from the 12th century, by author Giraldus Cambrensis); the king was then bathed in a broth made of meat of this mare, that he then had to eat (for prosperity and good harvest of the country). Horse is associated with goddess Epona; the only deity taken over by the Romans from the Celts. We know about over 300 depictions and inscriptions with the name of the goddess of horses across region from Portugal to Bulgaria, from the British Isles to southern Italy. To a certain extent, features of Mother Goddess can be attributed to Epona. Interesting fact is a preserved ancient text containing a snippet by the Greek author Agesilaa, which tells of birth of Epona – allegedly her father was a man called Fulvius Stellus who hated women and her mother was a mare. Horse however remained associated with other gods too. In Irish mythology it is a common animal often with magical abilities and usually somehow connected with the Other world.

Zv kun Mauduit

Bronze decoration depicting a horse (height 10 cm). Source: J. A. Mauduit: Keltové. Panorama 1979, photo attachement of the book

Zv kun Epona - Green page 20

Source: Green, Miranda: Symbol and image in Celtic religious art. 1989 Routledge. Page 20.

Zv kun - Green page 148

Source: Green, Miranda: Symbol and image in Celtic religious art. 1989 Routledge. Page 148.

Zv kůň - Biatec Wikipedia

Celtic coin of BIATEC found in Slovakia. Author: matissek Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Web_Biatec.jpg

Zv kun 1

Replica of a pendant of a Celtic Horse from Galia (Joeuvres, France). Age: 1 century CE. Size approx. 2.2 x 3.0 cm. Source: http://www.wulflund.com/treasure-of-wulflund/jewelry-by-wulflund/celtic-horse-pendant-from-gallia-bronze.html/

Ram

Ram was worshiped animal already in previous cultures as a symbol of pushingness, strength and fertility. In the beginning of La Tene period, it can be identified with the god Teutates, as evidenced by several artefacts of the 5th and 4th centuries mainly from the German territory, with representation of the god together with head of a ram or directly with a ram’s (instead of human) head. Similar documents were found in region from Gaul to the Balkans until the beginning of the 3rd century, when Teutates changes ram for a boar. However, even then, special objects from clay or iron were used by domestic fire with bull or ram’s heads that besides their purpose of kind of a (supporting) stand were also a symbol of hospitality and could have iconic significance. In the late Irish mythology ram plays rather minor role.

Zv beran 3

“Celtic zoomorphic ram figurine/attachment from Celtic ceramic (firepot) found at Boznik, Pernik region to the west of Sofia. Such ceramic has been located in the Sofia region at the villages of Jana and Muchovo, and in the Poduaine area of Sofia City.” Source: http://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/serdiserdica/

Snake (and “dragon”)

It often occurs in form of “a horned snake” or serpent with a ram’s head. Snake is very symbolic animal in many aspects, in terms of contrasts, life according to the seasons, reincarnation (skin shedding); snake accompanies gods associated with land, fertility and healing. Well-known mention of St. Patrick is about his cleaning Ireland from snakes – of which we can suggest that the snake cult in Ireland was very strong. When it comes to archaeological findings, circle coiled dragon or dragon’s head appear on coins – on so called “rainbow cups” minted in the 1st half of the 1st century BC in the westerly part of the Celtic region.

Zv had-drak Strakonicko

Detail of scabbard of iron sword with motif of two stylised dragons, found in Modlešovice by Strakonice, Czech Republic (4th / 3rd century BC). Source: book “Keltové. Podivuhodný lid.” Nakladatelství SD, Jemnice u Strakonic, 1994 u příležitosti výstavy “Keltové na Strakonicku”, pořádané Muzeem stř. Pootaví ve Strakonicích 19. 4. – 30. 9. 1994.

Zv had mince Filip

Golden Celtic coin from Bohemia, the oldest coin mint in this region. Hradiště by Stradonice near Beroun. Coin with motif of coiled dragon. Source: Keltská civilizace a její dědictví, Jan Filip, Academia Praha 1995, page 136

Gundestrup cauldron

Finding on which it is shown so many animals (and gods) that it deserves its own paragraph. It is a silver (97%, partly gilded), 9 kg ritual cauldron found in 1891 in Denmark, it has a diameter of 69 cm and depth of 42 cm and was made some time in the 2nd-1st century BC; we do not know whether it appeared in the Germanic territory as a war prey or article of commerce. Some researchers believe it could be a work of the Thracian craftsman per order of Celtic tribe of the Skordisci who were attacked in year 118 BC by the Germanic tribe of the Cimbri.

Zv Gundestrup Silver_cauldron

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silver_cauldron.jpg Author: Rosemania, original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312

Zv Gundestrup_antlered_figure

Cernunnos. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gundestrup_antlered_figure.jpg

Zv Gundestrup_C

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gundestrup_C.jpg. Original source: http://www.timelessmyths.com/celtic/gallery/dagda.jpg , via English Wikipedia

Zv Gundestrupkarret1

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gundestrupkarret1.jpg, autor: Malene Thyssen

 

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