Saturday, December 5, 2015

Celtic metamorphoses and the technology of enchantment


Your gatekeeper is a horned god who stands back to back with a second self.  You enter a field of metamorphoses. You may turn into the curl of a wave, or a waterbird in flight.
    Fish becomes man, dog becomes dragon. 
You reach for a flagon of unmixed wine and when  your hand closes on the handle it becomes the hound that is chasing a duck that swims into your mouth on a red river. Long-beaked bird-headed men are alive on a Shetland cross. Gold and silver and bronze glint at the throats and on the forearms of queens and heroes.

I am thrilled at the British Museum by by the amazing exhibition "Celts: Art and Identity", despite stumbling in, unshowered, from a redeye flight from the US. The art of the Celts reflects a collective imagination in which everything is in connected, everything in flux, vital energies change form and surge beyond form.
    Some of the patterns are visual riddles. Some were designed, as Alfred Gell proposed, as "a technology of enchantment" [1] designed to capture minds and bind them like ivy. You feel that as the shapes become tendrils, endlessly looping, making knots without end or beginning, no strings you could pull.

Some images are mysteries to dream on. Is that a bull's head with bulging eyes hidden beside the boss of the "Battersea shield"?     
    What is going on with the "ears" on the so-called Glauberg statue, dug up from a warrior grave in Hesse? Are they stylized horns or antlers, or leaves, or bunny ears, or the Moon worn as a neck rest? Symbols of hypersensory power - especially clairaudience - or the nimbus of Awen (inspiration) whose symbol he wears at his throat? Are these primal shamanic headphones? What would you hear and sense if you wore them?    
    I remember a dream of thirty years ago in which I was watching over my "family" of ancient deer as they grazed in a fertile, unspoiled valley. I felt the strength and weight of my antlers, larger than a moose's horns, and rose with the sense of power and connection.
    I look again at the statue. What is going on with that leaf-like shield over the abdomen? I think of how spirit men in my native Australia open the tjurni - located at the abdomen - to release the dream soul to go traveling. Sometimes they use a hand motion in doing this. Is that what the Celtic figure is doing with his left hand, under the shield - releasing a spirit self to go traveling, as dream shamans have always done?

The boar is everywhere, running before you and around you. Be careful. You pause to hear the hot howl of war from the throat of a boar-headed carnyx, with great leaf-like ears, recalling the statue.
    Swords and shields, iron and oak, ash and bronze. Shields that are plain at the front but have  hidden powers at the back, in the coiling serpents at the grip. Shields with glaring eyes at the front, with hidden faces of raging bulls or angry birds.
    You find your end at last, craning over the great silver cauldron from the bog, braving the fierce stare of all those gods you cannot name. You find yourself swimming in bull's blood down to the scene of mystery at the base, where a naked woman warrior exults, sword in hand, over the immense body of a dying bull. His magnificent potency is evident, but it is about to be transferred, with the rush of his blood, to those who have willed this ritual.

How far did the Gundestrup cauldron travel to its sodden burial in Jutland? Some maintain that the scale and complexity of the silverwork reveals the hand of Thracian (or Dacian) smiths far to the south-east, in modern-day Romania.[2] There are elements - elephants and the half-yogi posture of the famous antlered god - that suggest contact with peoples even farther east.  
In my end is my beginning.


1. Alfred Gell, "The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology. In Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics" in  J. Coote and A. Shelton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) 40-66.
2. A.K. Bergquist and T.F. Taylor, "The Origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron" in Antiquity 61 (1987)10-24

1 comment:

nina said...

Both statues are beautiful. I know near to zero about the Celts but I imagine that the icons were created to help people go within, stay within and connect with the forces of the earth and the universe. By watching them quietly, we might touch our own capacity to dwell in the state of being, in which human and divine are in a gracious harmony. Here, we can become what we are from the beginning because the pain of disconnection has finaly been dissolved.
Thank you for sending a great report.