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Saturday, October 3, 2020

The mingling of Greco-Roman and Celtic mythology

 As I was looking through the images I took at the British Museum in 2016, I saw this drinking cup and wondered about the symbolism depicted on it.  Although the horseman could be just any mounted warrior and not a mythical hero, that would be unusual during the 6th century.  Although the Spartan kings during this time period were accompanied by 300 royal guards called hippeis (cavalrymen),  they were actually infantry hoplites like all Spartiatai. The Spartans did not utilize a cavalry of their own until late into the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), when small units of 60 cavalrymen were attached to each mora (unit of 576 men composed of four lochoi of 144 men each). 

This cup was produced, though, about the time of earliest contact between the Greeks and the Celts which occurred around the Greek colony of Massalia in 600 BCE. Celtic elites traded for wine, drinking vessels, and other status symbols with merchants from Greece and Etruscan Italy. Perhaps Celtic mythology would provide a clue.

In 2007, I was researching a bronze head of a bull with three horns found in Octodurus and came across research focused on Celtic mythology related to sacred bulls and cranes and epigraphic evidence on the Pillar of the Boatmen, a monumental Roman column erected in Lutetia (modern Paris) in honor of Jupiter by the guild of merchant boatmen in the 1st century CE. Although dedicated to Jupiter and Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the column is thought to also depict the Celtic god Esus (also spelled Esos) pruning or chopping down the tree of life on one side and the deity Tarvos Trigaranos, a bull with three cranes sitting on its back, on an adjacent side.  Scholars of Celtic mythology each have their own interpretation of the symbolism represented, including that of the three cranes.  They point out that a similar relief was found in Treves where Esus is cutting a tree that contains three birds and the head of a bull sitting in its branches. It has been speculated that the three cranes appear to be a mystical grouping to the Celts.  Scholar Mary Jones points out in Welsh mythology there are the three birds of Rhiannon, mother of the Celtic hero Pryderi and related to the Gaulish horse goddess Epona.  As told in the Celtic compilation, the Mabinogion, Rhiannon's birds were sent to show the seven survivors of Prydein the way to the Otherworld.  Although the Mabinogion was compiled in the 12th-13th centuries CE, it is thought to have been based on much earlier oral traditions. 

In his text, "Birds in the Ancient World,"  Jeremy Mynott points out that in Greco-Roman folklore, a gathering of cranes indicate an impending attack by enemy forces. So if we consider all of these sources, this depiction of a horseman riding amidst three cranes could represent a hero like Pryderi with portentious goddesses in bird form riding to battle, or even a Greco-Roman version of the Celtic god Esus (associated in Greco-Roman folklore to Mercury or Mars) wearing a tree of life headdress, with his accompanying cranes, riding to victory, as represented by Nike. (I'm still not sure what the bird riding on the horse's neck or the eagle-like raptor may symbolize).

This is just my own attempt at suggesting what the symbolism represented here might be.  I'd be interested in hearing what some of you think the iconography represents.

Spartan black-figured kylix with horseman, birds, and a winged figure, possibly Nike (Victory), attributed to the Rider Painter, 550-530 BCE that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.


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