Friday, January 20, 2017

This Animate Earth

“Brennus, the king of the Gauls, on entering a temple found no dedications of gold or silver, and when he came only upon images of stone and wood he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that gods have human form, should set up their images in wood and stone.” 

Library of history, XXII,, 9.4, Diodorus Siculus

The Tholos at Delphi, Greece. 

If we  take a sort of black and white look at history, like an artist squinting their eyes to gauge the measure of light and shade, we can see very clearly that history is a journey (I use this word rather then the term ‘progression’, which conjures up the idea that we are moving forward and that the evolution from polytheism into monotheism is progressive  - that is a matter of opinion). 

Beginning way back in the Paleolithic and then for tens of thousands of years, our species believed everything was alive and animate. This sense of animism* permeated every moment of hunter/gatherer life, and such notions still flourished in ancient Grecian and Celtic times. Every stream and tree had its protective spirit (and people had their personal 'thaimons' - Socrates being the famous example).  Some of these ‘beings’ were elevated to the status of gods and goddesses. The Celtic tribes had hundreds of such tribal and local spirits which were banded together after Roman occupation and attributed to Roman deities such as Jupiter and Mercury. Hence the reason why there are numerous ‘Jupiters’ with different suffixes to their appellations.  Today many of the tribes that remain on this earth retain such traditions.  These cannot be said to run parallel, or reflect fully, the distant traditions of the past, but they do provide us with a reflection. 

Romano-Celtic Jupiter-Taranis

It appears to me that under Roman dominion the Celtic tribes, beginning in Gaul, were forced to amalgamate many of their tribal totemic gods and spirits into the Roman model. Though the deities retained some of their previous Celtic peculiarities, the essence was altered as an anthropomorphic hierarchy was adopted. Previous to Roman occupation of Gaul and Britian deities were not carved with such prolific profusion as they were in the Romano-Celtic era.** 

The above quote is from Brennus, a leader of  a Celtic army that swept down the Adriatic coast towards Greece and Macedonia in the 3rd Century B.C. Whether the quote is fiction or fact the notion that the Celts of the pre-roman period worshipped deities without human form is also referenced in other sources. There are also rock carvings from Valcamonica in the Italian Alps in which Bronze-Age carvings portray more formless, spirit-like beings.

We will possibly never truly fathom the true intricacies of ancient animism or the gods and goddesses of pre-classical societies, especially those who were illiterate and based their traditions on complex oral traditions, such as the Celts. In carvings from the Bronze-age through into the early Iron-age such tribes leave us tantalising glimpses of their beliefs. 

Perhaps if we sit amongst the shattered bones of their giants, or by the waters of their serpent goddesses and close our eyes,  we can picture these ancestors passing by, and perhaps, if we listen hard enough, we might catch some essence of what was. 

Spirit or Deity from Valcamonica, Italy (photo by the author).

Here symbols utilise the form of the rock, suggesting a figure. Valcamonica, Italy (pic by author)


*I’m not using this term in the Jungian sense here, but in the sense of the living earth, a world animated by spirit beings etc.

**Though some Celtic gods and goddesses were seen in human form before the roman conquest - see the Gundestrup Cauldron for an example. 

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