Friday, January 27, 2017

The Wild, Unruly Centaur

Having covered a couple of mythological creatures I thought that this week I would grapple with the mighty Centaur of legend. This fearsome hybrid of human and horse is a figure that crops up in many surprising locations. Having carved a lot of Pictish designs I've come across a couple in Scotland, and they appear to have featured on early Christian crosses throughout the lands of the Britons, even after the Saxon invasions and well into Norman occupancy. Indeed Centaurs appear in several medieval bestiaries from the 13th and 14th centuries. 

So who were these creatures that left such an indelible mark on the folk-consciousness of the people? Well, every schoolchild knows a centaur is a mighty creature with the body of a horse and upper torso of a human. They are great archers and two feature in the heavens as the constellations Sagittarius and Centaurus. 

To some medieval minds the Centaurs were once a race of peoples, sometimes known as the Sagittarri* who battled horned savages in the lands of India. This was said to symbolise the battle of the soul and flesh - but these are corruptions of earlier myths. And there is a certain Centaur who  often makes an appearance in several medieval texts. As  you can see in the picture below  he is often posed holding certain herbs. These herbs connect him directly with Grecian myth  and reveal him as Chiron. But to tell the tale of Chiron we must first reveal the story of the Centaurs. 

From a Medieval manuscript in which Artemis hands herbs to Chiron.

There are a couple of origin tales, that vary slightly. One of these tells of the Thessalian king Ixion and how he coveted the goddess Hera. This made hoary old Zeus really jealous, so to trap the king Zeus created a facsimile of Hera from  clouds. Enticed by the double Ixion's love was revealed and Zeus punished Ixion. However the cloud being was left to exist and was named Nepele. She bore a son called Centaurus and he liked horses... a lot! It was he who mated with the mares of Thessaly and thus brought the centaurs into being. On the whole the centaurs were savage and dangerous, they lived in the wild places and ate raw flesh. 

Chiron and Polus were different from their brethren. They were humane teachers and ever so wise. Chiron lived on Mount Pelion (in Thessaly) and taught the likes of Jason, Achilles and Asclepius. 

Now the wild and unruly Centaurs had a bone of contention with a neighbouring tribe called the Lapith's. When Ixion's son, Pirithous became king of the Lapiths the centaurs decided that they had a stake in the kingdom, for they were kind of related. After some negotiation Pirithous believed he'd settled the dispute. In time he was to marry a princess called Hippoameia and he was so jubilant he even invited the centaurs. Bad move, for the centaurs, unused to civilised ways, drank too much wine and went mental. They became  a wee bit bawdy and pawed some of the Lapith women. A violent battle broke out and despite many casualties the Lapiths were the victors that day. The surviving centaurs fled to the Peloponnese, where they had the misfortune to run into Heracles, who was hunting the Erymanthian boar. He'd been visiting Polus and drinking wine, the odour of which enticed the centaurs into their camp. After the centaurs failed to steal the brew Heracles got the better of them, slaying many and chasing those remaining to the south of the peninsula. 

The Centaurs battle the Lapiths. From the Temple of Apollo at Bassai, now in the British Museum.

Those few remaining sought refuge with Chiron, whose kindness was well renowned. But the mighty hero barged in, casting arrows at the Centaurs. It was one of these that passed through a centaur called Elatus to strike Chiron. Polus, having followed Heracles, plucked up the arrow, marvelling how such a small weapon could slay such a large being as Chiron. Dropping the arrow it fell on his foot, nicking his skin. Heracles' arrows were coated in the poisonous blood of the hydra, and it was this that slew the kinder centaurs. Legend has it that some centaurs survived, fleeing to Mount Malea or Eleusis (where Poseidon gave them a mountain refuge). 

From a medieval bestiary, 13th c. AD.
Chiron holds a herb identified as Centaurium
(compare with the Pictish piece below).

It is also said that Chiron did not die from Hercules’ arrow, for the wise old Centaur used the herb known as greater Centaury - renowned as a  cure for wounds. Indeed this is how the herb gets its name.  In some of these illustrations Chiron holds  a plant of the genus Artemisia (plants of this species include common wormwood, tarragon and mugwort), given to him by the goddess Artemis (also known as Diana). Absinth (the real stuff not the fake spirit sold under its name) is made from common absinth. 

Common Wormwood 

To me centaurs show how myths can be sustained through the ages, and also how other myths might develop, based around a central concept. Although I love the idea of mythological beasties being real (c'mon, who doesn't?) there is something that smacks of the memory of a real event - possibly early encounters in Thessaly between agrarian peoples and savage horsemen, pouring down from the steppes, or even a band of drunken Celts on their way to Galatia. Whatever the true origins that these images found their way into dark-age Pictish society points to the resilience, power and our fascination with myth. 

Pictish Carving from Aberlemno,
Angus in Scotland, 5-6th c. AD

Sagittarri - the only ref I can find relating to Sagittarian peoples is the Sagittarri who were units of archers in the Imperial Roman army. After a biting defeat at the hands of the Parthians in the 2nd Century BC the Romans adopted mounted units of archers into their ranks. 

ref: - A Modern Herbal - Mrs. M.Grieve
Early Christian Symbolism in Britain - J. Romilly Allen 
The illustrated Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology   - Michael Stapleton

Cassell dictionary of Classical Mythology - Jennifer R March

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. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Sword Stones

Sword Stone - Hand carved by Stone Mad Crafts
Sword Stone - Hand carved by Stone Mad Crafts

When I’m carving stone shape often dictates the outcome. From certain beaches I collect long, slender pebbles, which suit sword motifs. Usually the motifs I use are a selection of bronze and iron age designs, often Viking or medieval Scottish designs like the claymore. The idea behind this motif is that of the warrior, taken in the essence of Friedrich Nietzsche's notion - summed up in this quote: 

"I see many soldiers; could I but see many warriors! "Uniform" one calleth what they wear; may it not be uniform what they therewith hide!"

I think this rings true. Sure the sword is a suitable design for those out there putting their  lives on the line, but it applies to those searching, seeking, questioning. This is what a warrior does. They don't use their belief system as a crutch, they struggle with it, they question it. Only this way does a belief system prove its worth. Surely any true warrior knows this. 

Life can be seen as a battle even at the mundane level; the struggle to make a living, to fit in, to feel socially valued, to name but a few 'battlegrounds'. 

But added to this weight my warrior symbols  reflect the bearing of peace. The blade points down, something mentioned in Norse sagas; when war bands met, swords held with blades pointing to the earth as a sign for parley, a non-threatening gesture - but to come at each other blades raised… well that’s another matter. 

At first this might seem contradictory, how can a warrior design have anything to do with peace? But this is exactly the intention here. You can be a warrior and sue for peace. Many of the World's champion martial artists, who combated hand-to-hand, never went seeking battle... but man, if you were to start on them they’d floor you. 

Other posts of interest:

Sword stone with knotwork blade - Stone Mad Crafts
Sword stone with knotwork blade - Stone Mad Crafts

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Showcase Time!

When I'm not researching historical tomes for this blog I carve rocks. I carve rocks from everywhere and I carve any kind of stone and I'll carve absolutely any design. 

These are all carved by hand using a variety of tools, from hard edged engraving tools to diamond tipped rotaries -  however the technique demands artistic capability. The first stone I ever carved over twenty years ago took me about a day, for a wee pendant. experience is the greatest teacher - but I'm a human not a robot, and therefore I'm constrained by the amount I can physically manage to carve in a day.

Enough said. At some point I intend to elaborate upon the process, but for the moment please feast your eyes on some previous samples of my work... the tip of the iceberg so to speak. 

Celtic Dog Design

This was a piece that I carved in 2011 for an exhibition of my work at a craft centre near Oyne, Aberdeenshire.

Another detailed piece carved with a metal screw-driver. The stone is fairly soft and works well but you have to find good pieces that don't fracture. This type of stone is a sort of shale or mudstone. It's like pressed clay and though suitable for large paper-weights it's no good for pendants.

Detail of the above stone. I took the design from George Bain's Celtic Art book but I think the original is from the book of Kells.

Pictish horseman supping mead from a decorated drinking horn.

Another showpiece. 

A wee Selection of Stone pendents that I carved when I lived on the island of Santorini - Mostly Mycenaean designs. that's volcanic material right there and tough as hell!

Detail of the Dog.

Pendent detail... yes they come with cord!

A tiny selection of pendants... no two the same!

Stone Mad Crafts will be up and running this year.  I am based in Italy. I can post stones to any location and, as stated, I can carve any design. I'm thinking of starting an online shop, though the only problem is that each piece is different, so to place sample pictures may be misleading... but I'm working around it.