Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quality, Zen and Motorbikes - Do you get it?

Having recently finished Zen And The Art of motorcycle Mechanics, by  Robert M. Pirsig, I was inspired to write this post.  I wish I’d read it years ago, well actually I tried and didn't get it at the time.  I’m not going to spoil the plot or the discourse contained within. Suffice to say this is not a conventional book. It's philosophy pinned around a fictional framework. 

The antagonist of the story, Phaedrus, is highly subversive, a radical in the true sense of the word.  In fact I'm going to elaborate here because I feel that term has been tainted over the past decade-and-a-half. Radicalism Western history were movements that sought to subvert the political paradigm of that period, in an attempt to kickstart social/political reform. The radical movement that flourished in Britain during the late 1700’s is a classic exemplar (other radicals would include the Leveller movement of the mid 1600's and the Diggers). Essentially the organisation of folks, mainly from the so-called lower orders, who mobilised to fight for things such as the right to vote, better working/living conditions, education for the people etc. Radical movements in this sense include the Suffragettes, the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: those seeking a fairer social and political climate through means other than signing online petitions. Even the student protests that flared across the globe in the late 1960s were ‘radical'. 

So the word’s been demonised by the media's fixation with Radicalised Muslims and with terrorism etc - but these are movements to whom the notion of liberty is far removed. Although the term radical may be  interpreted as the instigation of ‘fundamental’ change to a political situation or governance, I believe, if we apply common sense, we can see that the student movements of the 60’s and the machinations of IS are ‘fundamentally' opposed. There is nothing radical in IS. So with that in mind when I say Pirsigs’ book contains a radical idea please don’t get me wrong. 


As I've said I’m not going to spoil the book for you. What I wish to discuss here  is a  key element that flows through the story. This being the concept of Quality which is expounded as  something unquantifiable yet concrete. It exists, though we can’t measure it. In ways this ties into the Taoist conception of Zen (however Phaedrus elaborates the details much more eloquently than I). 

The reason this concept struck me, and why I’m writing so fervently about it in this blog, is that it’s so relevant to what I do. It is relevant to all of us. Now, here’s the tricky part, Quality in Pirsig’s opinion is something that permeates everything, but it is something many of us are steadily losing awareness of. He explains it thus:

Quality, or its absence doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object… at the moment of pure quality there is no subject and there is no object... At the moment of pure quality subject and object are identical… it is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner feels no particular sense of identity with it. The user of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by Phaedrus’ definition it has not Quality.

The book seeks to help the reader realise that the technically minded person and the artistic minded should not be at odds with each other. They are products of  dualism, or as the book's narrator terms it Classic or Romantic modes of thought. I’m the latter  - I’m totally unpractical, an artist baffled by mechanics and technical things. But I really got the book, and again the reason I’m dropping chucks of quotation in this post is because I’m hoping you’ll get it too! It is the idea  that craftsmanship is a tool for the manifestation  of Quality into the world. The following quote, though written nearly fifty years ago, is even more relevant in contemporary Western culture when wholesale, unadulterated consumerism is stripping away this sense of Quality. Again let’s try to expound this concept here:


Such personal transcendence of conflicts with technology doesn’t have to involve motorcycles. Of course, it can be at a level as simple as sharpening a kitchen knife or sewing a dress or mending a broken chair. In each case there’s a beautiful way of doing it and and ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high quality, beautiful way of doing it,  both an ability of being able to see what ‘looks good’ and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that ‘good’ are needed. Both classic and romantic  understandings of Quality must be combined. 

The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction on how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic. It would tell you how to hold the blade while sharpening the knife, or how to use a sewing machine, or how to mix and apply glue with the presumption that once these underlying methods were applied, ‘good’ would naturally follow. The ability to see directly what ‘looks good’ would be ignored. 

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of ’style' to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phoney.  Stylised cars and stylised outboard motors and stylised typewriters and stylised clothes. Stylised refrigerators filled with stylised food in stylised kitchens in stylised homes. Plastic stylised toys for stylised children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents… it’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one’s ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start. 

That makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. It's so true. It's the way we should approach everything.  Of course being a craftsperson it's doubly pertinent but it can be applied to many layer of our lives.  Anyway, I hope in reading this you ‘get it’ too, because this notion of Quality affects us all. 









Monday, June 12, 2017

Into The Underworld

Into the Duat. 


This week I’m going to take us on a journey into the depths of human psyche. Down, down into the underworld. This is another subject that fascinates me, especially regarding early conceptions of The Land Of The Dead. I touched upon the subject in my bird symbolism post, mentioning the evidence for belief in a solar boat that plunged into the underworld by night and the association with migrating birds. 

Once the world was governed by our concept and belief in Myth. Things were different then, we thought differently. Some scientists and psychologists are convinced that certain faculties of the 'modern mind' are the result of a continuing evolution of the brain. Whatever the theory the fact is attested in the art and sculpture left behind from those far off days. 

That ancient pagan religion permeated the very fabric of everyday life is an obvious indication that folks viewed the world very differently than we do. How you view your surrounding affects your thought process... it's as simple as that. Long before the renaissance rediscovered Plato and Greek philosophy, long before these same philosophers syncretised their accounts of creation and our place within the world we were part of the world in a deeper sense than we understand now. 

The roots of this separation actually lie in mystery cults preceding Christianity, but the Bible undoubtably reinforced our separation from the world: Yahweh's world was made for human use, and we, as images of the Maker, were set higher than the earth and the animals. With the advance of science many shrugged off the mantle of religion but maintained this separation.  However, previous to the anthropomorphisation* of the gods  there was no 'it' and 'us', little to separate us subjectively from the world around. We were in it. Humans and myth were inseparable. If we understand this then I think we are closer to understanding the distant past. I think C.G Jung grasped this concept, guessing that such a thought process was buried deep in our subconscious, despite our modern consciousness. Myth lived on in the form of archetypes.  

In Egyptian myth the sun god, Ra, rides his solar ship into the underworld where he battles with Apep, the great serpent, for the duration of the night, aided by a team of deities, until the ship emerges once more. The symbolism to illustrate this point is poignant, and though myth, it illustrates our eternal struggle against darkness - for it is not only the darkness of a single night that the sun’s absence represents. It is the absence of fertility, the onset of winter, both physically and mentally. As an allegory the tale works on various levels, for it is also the battle against death, which even the gods succumbed to. The Egyptian Book Of The Dead gave instructions of how the soul should navigate the Duat, or Underworld of the ancient Egyptians. The Cult of Ra flourished from at least 2400 BC. 

Sporting his ram's head form, Ra would set out on his boat to navigate the rivers of the  Duat. There he and his companions would face Apep, or Apophis, the massive chaos serpent that wished to swallow Ra forever. The defeating of this monster and the sun god's subsequent triumphant return as the rising sun was one of rebirth and victory over darkness.


Anubis weighs the Heart of the dead against the Feather of Ma'at.

The Duat was ruled over by Osiris, the God of the dead. It was portrayed as a remote and inaccessible realm. Here the souls of the dead would be judged. Their hearts were weighed on great scales by Anubis. Each heart was set against the feather of Ma'at,  goddess of truth and justice. Those unworthy would remain in the Duat, Those who were worthy were sent to Aaru, a more hospitable zone of the Underworld. 

To the Greeks Hades was a miserable place ruled by the god of the same name and his consort Persephone  It was grey and gloomy, with loads of phantasms sort of hanging around. Not exactly the place to be. And yet, the people seemed to accept this concept for eons. Hades was the jailor and the underworld was where the souls existed under his dominion. Similarly the Japanese had Yomi, another gloomy realm. But these weren't  places where the dead were tormented or punished, unlike the Christian Hell, where sinners went to be tortured by demons and devils, while Yahweh (The Christian god) looked on. 


Hades taking the hound for a wee stroll.

Elsewhere the underworld is kinda jazzed up, a sort of stop over on the way forward, a terminal terminal en route for the next world.  Famously the Celts believed in an afterlife in the soul's transmigration in other worlds. Similar notions on the theme in which souls were birthed back on old Earth to live it through again, until they learned that materialism is a no-no arise in Eastern traditions. 

The Celts, like the Vikings, were of old stock, they held tenaciously to their tribal whiles, even as they were pushed  to the fringes of  Europe by the Romans. The Celts raided cattle, lived with honour and possessed great gusto for life, just as those early Grecians of Homeric tales did. They were warriors not soldiers. That the Celts are reported speeding naked into battle perhaps projects their renown as brave warriors, whose beliefs in rebirth enabled them to assuage  fears of  Roman spear points. They were battling now, and later they’d battle in some other realm, so what? Though the Celts appear to have no clear cut underworld as such, there must have been some that did - it was named Annwn. It was a place of bounty, where people ate and drank their full from a great magical cauldron. There were many Celtic otherworlds and fairy realms, some of which the dead visited.

The underworld wasn't only a place of death though. In Norse cosmology the underworld is populated by giants and wolves. Odin, The High One, used his powers as a psychopomp to guide spirits down below, or to visit -  for only Odin could gain the secrets known by the dead (see my Odin post). He held court there, in his great hall, Valhalla, surrounded by the slain heroes, banqueting and fighting as they had in life. Indeed the Norse concept is far removed from gloomy Hades. Here warriors revelled in perpetual glory. But of course, there was also Niflheimr where the goddess Hel resided. To her hall, Èljúdnir (meaning rain-dampened) went the treacherous, the murderers and thieves. Its gate was guarded by a fierce dog called Garmr, much resembling the three-headed dog Cerberus of Greek legend.


18th century Prose Edda manuscript
with Hel in the lower Right.
She was half white and half blue.
Light and shade. 

 I could list every culture’s version of the underworld, or land of the dead, the Heaven of the Judaeo-Christians, the Nirvana of the Buddhists… every culture has its version. Originally, preceding later myths, the underworld was the domain of the Great Mother. For it was her womb that sprang forth life, but her other role was as tomb. This is reflected in the myths featuring great monsters and serpents, such as Typhon and Tiamat, which are always born of the Earth Mother, and though these monsters originally represent chaos, they are  overcome by humanity in the guise of the Sky-god/dragon-slayer**. Thus they are consigned to underworld duties, hence their Chthonic*** association. 

Exploring themes of souls and underworlds in avery different vein is a wee web-comic that I’ve been working on. It's called Nu-City Blues. Please go look and comment if you have time. It’s all free. 


My Webcomic - Nu-City Blues.



There is much to be made of the myths, too much for a humble blog post. But I’d like to suggest that there is something edifying and very human in this search for some form of world beyond this. I’m very much a believer in the intuition of the ancients. I think they could tell us a thing or two about the world - The real world, before we categorised it into abstraction, and filtered it out. 

Sure,  afterworlds and heavens have been used by the powers-that-be, those self-serving priests, who wished to monopolise the mind and soul of mankind. Mostly such sects turned these concepts into places to be desired (in the sky - heaven), or feared (in the ground - Hell). Heaven was only obtainable if you did not sin; the value of sin being set by the moral standards of the elite -  very often those that set them were/are abusers of such systems. 

How many people lived in absolute terror that they might go to hell for coveting their neighbour’s wife? Or having sinful thoughts? The Big Brother of the mind enforced by doctrine and sadists from the pulpit. A sad thing indeed. Personally, if there’s an afterlife, or and underworld, etc, I’m pretty certain it’s open to all. Hell exists solely in the minds' of humans.

From the Basilica of San Petronius, Verona, Giovanni De Moderna. Fifteenth Century A.D.

Notes:

* Assigning human attributes to something - for more on Human Gods see the last post.

** Much spare time has been spent researching Serpent mythology, and a vast part of it links to this topic. This is a tome in the making -  a real journey through time… watch this space folks!

*** I love this word - it means subterranean.




Reference:

Gods and Goddesses Of The Ancient World - Compiled by L.F.C. 
Who's who in classical Mythology - Michael Grant and John Hazel
Symbols of Transformation - C.G Jung 





Sunday, June 4, 2017

Human Gods



The Temple Of Apollo At Delphi - Photo taken in April 2017 by the artist.



It is said that when the Celtic warrior Brennus stood at the temple of Apollo in Delphi he looked upon the effigies and laughed. He mocked that the Greeks portrayed their deities in human form, for it is said that the Celts did not. However a couple of centuries later, under Roman subjugation, the Celtic peoples would  worship very human looking deities.  Under Pax Romana it appears that Celtic gods and goddesses were often paired with Roman equivalents. This is often confusing, for example there are numerous Mars' and Jupiters - all bearing their Celtic appellation too, such as Taranis-Jupiter. They also became very Classical in style.

The Celtic deities appear to have been localised gods and goddesses, probably evolving from local land spirits that were believed to inhabit certain locations. What I find fascinating about these Genus Loci, or local land spirits, is that many must have possessed similar attributes to each other. Thus once the Romans had conquered the Celts, their gods, or spirit deities, inherited the forms of the invader's classical, humanised deities. 

The Roman gods were refined versions of Grecian deities. Jupiter is of course Zeus, Mercury is Hermes etc, etc. My viewpoint is that many of the Grecian deities were personifications of the multifaceted sides of human emotion, echoing very human sensibilities - they separated the emotional and physical elements of humanity and gave these parts names and attributes - Athena, goddess of love, Apollo the shining hero. In this manner the ancient Grecian gods gave credence to people’s emotions. And the populace were allowed to express these emotions openly, for better or worse. 

This anthropomorphising of deities came at a price for now the gods and goddesses were on an equal footing. Though grand in scale and idea, they were brought down to human level, bestowed human values -  hence their shortcomings were easier to recognise, beheld, belittled and inevitably, despised. 


Zeus with his bolts of lightning


 However it is interesting to note that the Christian notion of God (and the stereotypical bearded guy was not originally the religion’s intention) is a very Zeus like image*. There again, Yahweh, the tribal Hebrew deity who appeared to ‘win out’ against the other gods (relegating them to the realm of angels and demons), was originally a sky god too. 

Archetype or Indo-European influence? The jury is still out on that one and I'm also undecided. 

But getting back to the Celts. OK, the deities of the barbarous tribes that proliferated Europe, from the Neolithic to the early Iron-Age, hold a deeper sense of mystery for me.  The tribes whose belief systems were  spirit based are the same from which Brennus came. The whole idea of his mocking the Grecian deities because of their human form might be Grecian propaganda, but it is well attested that the Celts preferred not to create representations of their deities. I like the image of the bearded barbarian mocking the human gods, heaping his distain upon the exemplars of civilisation. It's endearing ;)


Taranis-Jupiter, another Sky god plus bolts!



Notes

This similarity is evidence of the deep influence that the Hellenes had upon the Bible. They deeply influenced the early Christian and Gnostic mystery cults that came out of Alexandria in the early centuries AD. Many ancient Greek philosophers also played a role in this, unwittingly of course - knowledge, ideas were appropriated and assimilated into the, then, radical religious cult of monotheism. 


Ref: 

Jesus Christ, Sun of God - Neal Monique
Greek Mythology - John Pinsent


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Pictish Runes That Never Were Pictish.


In many of these posts I’ve concentrated on explaining various symbols. In my dealings with the designs, and over years of carving, I’ve occasionally been asked to do some designs that, though billed as real, are historical fakes - symbols that have been made-up! Like this lot here...




I thought I'd expose here the so-called Pictish runes (see above pic). Putting it bluntly these are a complete fabrication, little more than a modern invention. None of these designs feature on any Pictish stone I’ve encountered - and I’ve been to many of the sites and I have many tomes filled with Pictish designs. These ones just don’t exist! 

The Picts were tribals folk living North of The Antonine Wall. Little is known about them. They fought with neighbouring Brythonic speaking Celtic Tribes and finally succumbed to Scottish dominion. By the 11th century A.D. their cultural identity had been absorbed by that of the Scots.  

Their legacy is revealed in numerous monumental stones, covered with carvings that often feature a unique plethora of symbolic motifs.  The problem is that no-one truly knows the symbolism of the real Pictish designs. There is a lot of speculation, but really, not even the experts can explain their function for certain. With a lack of written records, and the lengths Christianity went to destroy lingering refrains of paganism, it is impossible to know their exact symbolism. But the ‘Pictish runes' or 'Pictish alphabets' used by the likes of ‘Pecti wiccans’ are little more than modern fantasy - which is fair enough, if you recognise them as such. 

So Called 'Pictish alphabet - Yet another invention.

However, in saying this I find it amusing that they have joined the lexicon of Pictish motifs; that, although not historically true, are used by people out there with good intentions. I don’t think there is anything wrong in this. Personally my take on magic, items of divination etc, is that they function as trigger mechanisms that help focus the mind in particular ways. But if a wee heart symbol  makes you aware of love, or feel loved, or respect love, then it works - if it is a symbol for strength or fire with all its associated meaning, given as a gift to a friend, the intent is powerful - and the act of giving is potent in itself. 

The symbol doesn’t need to be of ancient origin. Though I find older symbols are pregnant with meaning and imbued with a  timeless Quality that modern efforts lack - that is possibly a personal choice, but it is one that I feel that I sense intuitively. 

Chaos magic is a modern magical tradition with its methods rooted in a sort of wry scientific/experimental magical approach. Chaos Magicians are encouraged to make use of modern and ancient symbols/items for magical/symbolic/ritual purposes. While respecting older magical traditions practitioners are not beholden to them. For example, the innards of a circuit board could be sectioned into rune-like symbols for divination. Though the symbol might be modern the thought process is the same. So while I’m pointing out that the Pictish Runes aren’t authentic, I’m not saying they are without worth. 

At some point I will attempt to write more about  Pictish symbols, I’m still researching the subject amongst everything else, but I will get around to the real symbols eventually. They are mysterious, enigmatic designs that deserve a few posts. In the meantime here’s a few pics to wet your appetite. 

Hilton Of Cadboll Stone

Sueno's Stone


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Let’s Give It Some Chaos!







A lifetime ago I used to love Role-playing games, it was a teenage obsession of mine. I used to collect a magazine called White Dwarf and study the articles religiously. I loved the idea of fantasy worlds and escapism because, as a bullied teenager, I longed to escape. I also enjoyed the notion of the game. To me role-play was best when it was a group of people lost in an imaginary world. We were playing games like children play only adults aren’t allowed, so we make up rules. We used the Warhammer Fantasy rule book as a guide and there were no lead figures or anything like that. Our weekly engagments were pure cerebral adventures. It involved acting, playing, escapism but most of all it was bloody good fun (and the players included two huge hairy bikers who were abslutely mental, so erase the stereotype of geeky role-play gamers from your mind please). 

Now a symbol that arose a lot in Warhammer and still does is this:



It is a symbol for chaos, sometimes the points radiate from an open circle too. It was something that appealed to this youngster. And I still feel a  bit feverish when I see it these days. Of course in Warhammer it’s used to represent the forces of chaos. Everytime I carve it it sells instantly. Why? Because it’s a great symbol for a great theme. Chaos. However the motif's origins are interesting. The Chaos star was designed by Michael Moorcock, the author of the Elric Sagas and such. In fact it originates from his Eternal Champion series. The idea is ingeniously simple, the arrow reflects the direction of possibilties branching from the source. It’s a neat piece of imagery, which ties in with elements of chaos theory. Moorcock’s influence is deep and if you like bands such as Hawkwind then you’ll be familar with his ideas. 

Ok, but what the hell is chaos anyway?


Well chaos has been a buzz word over the latter half of the 20th century due to discoveries in quantum physics and dynamic systems, such as the weather, turbulence etc. I’ll paste some links to further your study of inquiry should you wish to expand your mind some. In Grecian myth Kaos was the first thing, from which came everything else. In fact many myths and religions follow this theme. As mentioned in the Serpent Post - the whole concept of  a sky god beating down a serpent monster can be interpreted as order triumphing over chaos. However chaos is never defeated, modern quantum physics kind of illustrates this fact: through chaos comes order, comes chaos then order. Look at any fractal such as the infamous Mandelbrot set and this is visually highlighted over and over again. 




Think of it scientifically, you have the Big Bang, the entire universe comes into being from a single unique point. Everything goes nuts! A mass of elements in their prime are sent hurtling around, crashing into each other, exploding, mixing, stabilising  and gradually forming gaseous planets that begin to solidify, harmonise and settle… yet chaos still provides an interesting undercurrent. 




Again I find it amazing how this symbol has been adopted by many modern media outlets, Warhammer being the classic, but there are many other places where the symbol crops up, Halo for example, and even My Little Pony! Haha! So it just goes to show how symbols can easily work their way into society, almost assuming a life of their own (although there are sites that insist this is an ancient symbol of chaos, which is bull - but again is interesting how such notions develop).  For me, I just like it, the idea of chaos and, like Dee’s Monad, and the design is aesthetically pleasing. Sure it’s only been around for 50 years, but I’ve a feeling it will be around a lot longer. 



LINKS TO CHAOS










Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cycladic Goddesses



I’ve recently returned from a two month sojourn in Greece. As usual I’m drawn to various archaeological sites and museums. I find that in Greece the evidence of the past is everywhere, and like symbols the past is incorporated into later ages. Temples are forgotten, their ruins pilfered for building materials, in the same way that symbols gather new meanings. 

This week I’m concentrating on the Cycladic Goddess figurines because I believe that the figurines provide a great example of the abstraction of physical form. The Cyclades is a group of Grecian islands situated in the Aegean Sea. I recommend visiting there and island hopping - each island possesses a unique character. Highlights include the volcanic spur of Santorini, the beautiful beaches of Naxos, rugged mountain tracks over Andros and everywhere  fresh food and a relaxed atmosphere. 




Dating between 3300-1100 BC the Cycladic culture is famous for producing a distinctive stylised art-form. The majority of the remains found are of the so-called ‘goddess’ figurines. Most of which are rendered in varying degrees of abstraction. For example some look like guitars, others conform to a stylised ritual stance, i.e. figure is standing, arms folded across the chest, the face is triangular, almost shield-like, with only the nose form modelled. Of course many of these were painted, so that details like eyes and mouths were rendered in ochre or charcoal. The effect of the paint upon the stark white marble must have been very striking. The picture taken for this page are my own, and they all come from Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here were see the artistic/ritual metamorphose of feminine form in a way that still has the ability to amaze us moderns. Once again we have to remember that religion was indistinct from art. But are these effigies goddess figurines, as Marija Gimbutas would have us convinced? or are they localised deities, representations of fertility spirits and such? 


A series of figurines in profile. Naxos Archaeological Museum.

Here we see the classic pose.
You might just make out a painted eye on the centre figure. 

Great close up of a marble goddess head.


The head bears a striking similarity to later Mayan pieces, though
thousands of years and miles separate them. 

Again the striking, ritual pose in various sizes. 


Classic stylised 'guitar' shape goddess.
Could it be that carved wooden heads were fixed to the neck peg?



We’ll never know for certain, but I’d like to draw your attention to the following pictures. Note how the female pubic region is simplified into a triangular form, sometimes struck with a dividing line, representing the vagina. This to me is a great example of how a symbol is formed. The vagina is bordered, or framed by a triangle, itself replete with profound symbolism. This boundary demarcates sacred ground: it is the entrance to the womb of the deity, the seat of fertility. The humble triangle inspired by the sculpture, could, in theory, be used to represent such a meaning 
-  a pictogram or ideogram. Such motifs are the beginnings of alphabets. 








Further Reading and Links:



Monday, April 17, 2017

A Load Of Old Bull?




There is a vast corpus of striking imagery from Mt. Bego in the Italian/French Alps. The images, dated to between 3,200-1700 B.C depict many stylised bulls or oxen. There are about 13,000 ‘corniform’ carvings, being a substantial percentage of the 40,000 carvings discovered at the site. 

Carvings from Mt Bego.



This reverence for the animal persisted in the Alpine regions into the later Hallstatt period. After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain the bull became linked to certain deities and cults. For example the god Esus, the strong or roaring one, was often portrayed in the company of bulls. There were also specific bull-gods, such as the Gallic Tarvostrigaranus.  In Graeco-Romano realms the bull was linked with the chief of the gods, Zeus/Jupiter, proving how powerful an image it was. The image hints at tribal memories of times when the mighty auroch roamed the lands. The auroch were  huge wild bulls that became extinct by the 2nd Millenia BC (although according to some sources the species survived into the 1600’s in Poland). 

With a lot of animal symbology  natural qualities become  sympathetic attributes ie; certain beneficial qualities of a particular animal are desired to be transferred, or acquired, by a human.  In the bull’s case these 'desired qualities' are strength and endurance. This is a reoccurring theme in many cultures. 


There appears to have been a symbolic association with the moon and the bull in many ancient religions. Of course visually the crescent of the horns could easily have been identified with the moon and this doesn’t suggest a cross fertilisation of early ideas. Such ideas could have been formed and associations deduced  by communities where stylised symbols were used. 


Brone Age Celtic figure. The triple horns suggest heightened potency.


Cattle were also linked with fertility and prosperity. This association was another practical one extending from the days when cattle were a tribesman’s wealth. The first rune of the Viking futhark, Fehu (Feoh in old English),  means money and cattle. In Vedic India cows were once payment for poets - something similar was not unknown in ancient Ireland, as is mentioned in the Táin Bó Regamna: Cú Chulainn, encountering the Morrighan disguised as a travelling poet, asked her where she got the cow that she led. The goddess replied that it was given in return for a poem. 

Bull skulls have been found at Celtic shrines, and the animal was often slain in sacrificial rites. This practice was not only confined to the Celtic regions. Bull worship and sacrifice was vital to the Minoan civilisation. Often such sacrifices coincided with communal feasting celebrations in which the sacrifice was on the menu.

The sacrifice of cattle in ritual was to yield a portion of wealth to the god/goddess. The inclusion of carved wooden bull figurines at shrine dedicated to Sequana, the goddess of the River Seine in France, may well be sacrificial offerings made by those unable to afford to sacrifice a real cattle.


Stylised bull from Pictish Scotland, Late Iron Age.


As hinted at previously, there is a strong link between cows and poet inspiration. In Vedic and Grecian myth this theme is alluded to in the Rig Veda and there are similarities between the myth of  Orpheus and the tripartite craftsmen of Hindu myth, the Rbhus. The latter are craftsmen who also craft words, which is exactly what a poet does. 

Indeed there appears to be a strong Indo-European root-myth in which a divine hero slays an underworld serpent, releasing the cattle of the dawn from the cavern of its stomach. It is said that a true poet must learn the names of the footprints of the cattle. This obscure reference (and the fact that in Hindu myth this is also linked to Soma) perhaps alludes to hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in cow dung. Perhaps naming the footprints was an allegory for naming the ’shroom. Who knows, but if you want inspiration of deep-seated and far-sighted proportions mushrooms will do the trick!* 


This notion of cattle as wealth and  as providers of poetic inspiration is heightened by the produce obtained from the milk-cow. As providers of milk and butter they are benefactors to the community and therefore, symbolically, themes of abundance, prosperity and fertility abound. Sacrificial offerings of large slabs of butter have been found in bogs in Ireland dating to the later Bronze-age, attesting to the power of the motif and providing an insight into other ways the cow was sacrificed. 

In the male aspect we see strength, endurance, and the warlike nature of men. These themes are epitomised in the famous Irish tale the “Táin Bó Cuailnge”, in which a brown and white bull  symbolise the warring tribes of Connacht and Ulster. In the final section of the tale the bulls battle on the Plain of Aei, ripping each other apart.*  Here we see a warlike aspect of the bull in vivid Celtic imagery, it is a insight into the cattle raiding nature of the warrior Celts, possessing powerful metaphoric insight. 


“It was not long before the men of Erin, as they were there early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west the Brown Bull of Cualnge with the Whitehorned of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns. The men of Erin arose, and they knew not which of the bulls it was.” 


From the Táin Bó Cuailnge




Notes:

*
It is interesting to reflect that the first runic imprint in the futhark alphabet is that of cattle! 

**
They are both swineherds who have been reborn as the mighty beasts.



References:

Futhark, A Book Of Rune Magic - Edred Thorsson
Inherited Bovine Aspects In Greek Reflexes of the Indo-European Serpent Slaying Myth - John-Andrew McDonald
Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore  - Patricia Monaghan
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Prehistoric Britain - Timothy Darvil


Links: 


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