Celtic art, like Gaelic mythology, points eastwards, and to a very early origin. It may be new to many to hear of “Celtic art,” but nevertheless it is classed in the Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, who is an acknowledged authority in such matters. In books and sculptures, and in ornaments of known date, from the fourth and fifth centuries to the eleventh or twelfth; in ornamental writings, on stone, pottery, and metal, found in the British Isles, there is a peculiar style of interlaced ornament, which is not to be found in Germany or in Norway, though it is similar to Anglo-Saxon ornaments found in England. Something of the kind has been found about Mount Athos, and in a few places in continental Europe where Irish or Anglo-Saxon missionaries have been. And as Britain was formerly celebrated for basket-work, it has been ingeniously suggested that these patterns, which can be imitated in basket-work, were copied from ancient British osier patterns, and so spread eastwards to Rome, and Byzantium, and the East. It is said that in the oldest manuscripts, foliage is not represented. Basket work might well be the foundation of pottery and of defensive armour. It is quite common for herd boys to make bottles and shields of rushes, and even conical helmets and long swords of the same materials, and therewith to hold sham fights, with the cattle for spectators. Early British clay vessels seem to bear the mark of similar workmanship, and the crow, in No. VIII., advises the girl to carry water by stuffing a sieve with clay. A basket covered with leather makes a good shield. Boats were so made, and a basket lined with sunbaked clay would serve to carry water, and the shape of the basket might well suggest decorations, but I would rather believe that the basket-makers brought their patterns from the East. At all events the interlaced design given below was taken from a bronze which belongs to a set on which the signs of the Zodiac, elephants, camels, lions, and Eastern emblems are represented, together with similar designs.
The Western tombstones of Iona are rich in such patterns, and so are the crosses of Ireland, the sculptured stones of Scotland, and crosses at Sandbach, in Cheshire. The pattern on the cover is taken from a stone in Islay, the tail-piece is from an ancient Gaelic manuscript; several interlaced designs will be found in vol. iii., and these complicated knots appear to be the distinguishing feature of ancient British Celtic art.
But on crosses and other monuments in Scotland these interlaced patterns are often found associated with other designs; with human figures, and those of monsters, and with certain symbols which have not yet been explained.
On the bronze vessels, from one of which the pattern below was copied, a great number of figures and symbols were also engraved, and as their meaning is generally clear enough, and the style of ornament is the same with that which is called “Celtic,” the bronzes and the sculptured stones may perhaps throw light upon each other. One of these Scotch hieroglyphics is very roughly drawn at page 220, vol. iii., and is better represented at page 499, Prehistoric Annals of Scotland.
In the one case it forms part of a very rudely sculptured stone, of unknown date and origin, in the other it is part of a design copied from a suit of silver armour discovered in Scotland. It may be described as three spiral lines starting from a common centre, and comprised within a circle, and these spiral lines are characteristic of Celtic art according to Owen Jones. In the silver ornament this symbol is twice repeated, and is associated with the “Z ornament,” the “crescents,” and the head of some creature which seems to have horns. The question is, what do these symbols mean? for they are frequently repeated on sculptural stones in Scotland.
I have imagined that they have an astronomical signification, and that they may have related to solar worship before they were adopted as ornaments on crosses. – See page 356, vol. iii.
The Isle of Man has always been the stronghold of fairies, and it was the refuge of the Druids; the Druids were astronomers, as it is said, and the Manxs penny bears a device which is the same in principle as the three spiral lines, though these have grown into three armed legs; and thereby hangs a popular tale, and it is this:-
“Some fishermen long ago arrived on the shore of an island which they had never seen or heard of, because it was always enveloped in a magic cloud, raised by little Manain, the Son of the Sea. They landed, and presently there came rolling on the mist something like a wheel of fire, with legs for spokes, and the portent so frightened the men that they fled to their boats.” But the charm was broken, the Isle of Man had been discovered, and its possession has been disputed by men and fairies ever since.
The “legs of Man” then have to do with a wheel of fire.
It is common in the Highlands now to speak of the “wheel” of the sun, and it was the custom not long ago to ascend some high hill on Easter Sunday to see the sun rise, and “whirl round like a mill wheel, and give three leaps.” But a peasant of a practical turn of mind rebuked a friend, saying –
“Fool! And dost thou think to see the sun rise from these, when she rises beyond Edinburgh, and so many hills as there are in the way?”
The characteristic spirals, the circle, the wheel, and the sun are thus associated by Celtic traditions and devices. The design given below was traced from the bronze vessel already mentioned, and it represents the sun, with three lines starting from its centre. These are not exactly the “Legs of Man,” but they are drawn on the same spiral principle, and the spaces enclosed are filled by three human faces, rudely carved. The design resembles that on the “Norrie’s law relics” found in Fife, and in the east it clearly related to fire or light.
But the design given above is only one of a great many on the same vessel; all bound together and enclosed by endless lines, turning, and twisting, and sprouting into heads, leaves, and buds; and twelve of the designs represent the signs of the Zodiac. Thus the particular style of ornament which experts have agreed to call “Celtic” and “Byzantine,” here occurs on a “Hindu” sacred bronze almanac, and the sun in “Leo” has the spiral lines in its centre, so these once had an astronomical meaning.
The Lion’s tail grows into a serpent, and the interlaced ornament sprouts into a whole crop of buds, and monstrous heads, over which the lion stalks triumphant. “Aries” is a man riding on a monstrous ram with a flourishing tail; “Taurus” is mounted on a bull; “Gemini” are dancing about two bulls’ heads; “Cancer” has got the sun in his claws; “Leo” is described above; “Virgo,” men gathering autumn fruits; “Libra” is a lady playing on a guitar; “Scorpio” a man fighting with two scorpions; “Sagittarius” is a Centaur shooting back at a monster which grows out of the end of his own tail; “Capricornus” is looking back, and riding on a goat; “Aquarius” has a bird; and “Pisces” his two fish; so there is no doubt of the meaning of these designs at all events.
A six-pointed star, made of interlaced triangles and curves and interlaced patterns, is in the inside of the bronze vessel, and as the star is surrounded by fish, it is to be argued that the symbol relates to water, though it is also surrounded by forty-nine points like rays.
But the Scotch crosses, and standing stones, and sarcophagi on which interlaced designs appear, often represent animals with which Scotch artists could not well be familiar. There is an elephant on a very beautiful cross in Islay; there is a camel on another stone, figured in the “Sculptured Stones of Scotland.” On the St. Andrews sarcophagus there are lions, and apes with globes, a griffin, and a knot of snakes; and though the system of ornament might be of home growth, the most patriotic of Scotch antiquaries must refer these to some foreign source. The question now is, Whence did the Scotch artists borrow these ideas, which they could not have got at home? Beneath the signs of the Zodiac, on the eastern bronze, is a kind of frieze of figures, all fighting, and marching sunwise round the bowl. Beneath Aries are two men mounted on a camel, one shooting arrows backwards, the other shooting forwards at the tail of a nondescript animal like a hare. The falconer, in the wood-cut below, is between “Cancer” and “Leo.” Beneath “Virgo” is a man on foot resisting the progress of the others with a long spear, and also an elephant with several riders; and beneath these is a procession of birds, probably to indicate that the whole has to do with the powers of the air. Beneath them are human-headed snakes. Above the signs of the Zodiac is another frieze, comprising forty-two human figures engaged in all sorts of occupations – playing the harp and the tambourine, fighting and drinking; and above all these, on the cover of the vessel, are eight compartments, of which one is figured above; and the rest are in like manner occupied by figures which appear to represent divinities or the heavenly bodies. Two of these comprise legends which are almost effaced; one is in a “Persian” character, the other has still not been identified, and neither has been read. Still it is evident that this is of Eastern, probably “Hindu” workmanship; that the designs relate to matters connected with the heavens, and the gods; that the sun is one of these, and that the style of ornament is that which is called “Celtic.” With these designs are animals which are associated with like designs on stones in Scotland; camels, elephants, lions, horses, hawks, rams, bulls, goats, snakes, fish, dragons, and monsters.
“Celtic ornament,” then, is found in the far East and in the far West; and the foreign animals associated with “Celtic ornament” in Scotland are associated with a similar style of ornament on the ancient Hindu vessels. The meaning of the symbols in the latter case is sufficiently plain. It seems possible that the others may have a like signification.
With this view, the horseman on the St. Andrews sarcophagus may have the same meaning as the horseman figured below.
They are dressed in some national costume; the one wears a belted plaid and has bare legs; the other appears to have a Persian dress, but both carry hawks and swords, and are fighting lions, without any apparent reference in the one case to a bronze bowl, or in the other to a sarcophagus. In both cases the figures are marching “sunwise;” in the one case the figure clearly has to do with astronomical symbols; it is possible that the St. Andrews stone and the Eastern bowl may have been sculptured with a like intention.
Another curious ancient bronze sacrificial vessel was brought from Java in 1817 by my friend, Mr. John Crawford, and proves that the signs of the Zodiac were associated with Hindu worship, in a place nearly as remote from Central Asia as Scotland is. The vessel was found amongst the ruins of Hindu temples, and bears a date equivalent to A.D. 1320. It is a rough casting, and the style of art is different. In the inside, at the bottom, is an eight-pointed star, with some rude figure in a circle within the star. On the outside are twelve symbols, with twelve figures above them. These are –
- A ram, or some other horned and bearded animal of a like kind, above which is a long-armed, long-bearded, large human figure, in profile. Both are facing the same way – “sunwise,”westwards.
- A bull, or cow, with a hump; above which is a human figure with a crown, or a glory; see full face, and therefore stationary.
- Instead of “Gemini,” something like a triple claw emerging from a sleeve, or a cloud, and pointing back at the bull; above which is a short, thick, human figure, with a helmet, or a monstrous head, with a bill like that of a goose, facing the usual way.1
- A crab with his claws upwards, ready to run either way sideways; above is a man carrying something over his shoulder on a stick, and walking sunwise about the bowl.
- Instead of “Leo,” a two-legged dragon, without wings, and with a long tail, facing sunwise; above which is the stationary figure in No. 2 repeated.
- A draped female figure, moving sunwise; above which is a stationary female figure, very like the male figure in No. 5.
- The scales. The figure above is moving sunwise, but is not easily made out.
- A scorpion, facing sunwise; above is a repetition of the figure in No. 2.
- A bent bow, with an arrow on the string pointing sunwise; above is the monstrous bird, like an eagle, walking the other way.
- Instead of “Capricornus,” a creature like a lobster, crayfish, or shrimp; all of which walk forwards, and swim backwards. This symbol, therefore, corresponds to the crab, which walks sideways in either direction; and it probably indicates the Southern tropic, or Northern winter.
- A jar, above which is a man walking sunwise, and carrying something; probably “Aquarius” in his Javanese dress.
- A fish, with something like an elephant’s trunk, the head as usual pointing sunwise, or to the right of the vessel. Above the fish is the same figure which is repeated in 2, 5, 8, 10, and 12. The human figures are dressed in some scanty costume which bears a resemblance to Javanese dresses; it is therefore probable that the vessel was made in the country where it was found.
Java is to the south of the equator, and consequently, stars which seem to move along the equator or ecliptic there appear to move about an observer or a vessel set upright, in a direction contrary to that in which they seem to move in the northern hemisphere. The sun, during the greater part of the year, is to the north of an observer whose head is towards the South Pole, and there appears to him to move East, North, West, South, from his right hand towards his left from morning to evening. But the symbols of constellations on the Java sacrificial vessel, like those on the Hindu bowl, are facing in the opposite direction; the direction in which the constellations would appear to move about the vessels if they were placed on their bases north of the tropic of Cancer.
When the sun in our spring seems to move northwards, up, and back, from “Aries” to “Taurus,” the ram and the bull seem to move from East to West, and from left to right, and down, and to the south of the sun, on the ecliptic, because the earth is moving. But to an observer in the southern hemisphere who has put his head the other way through the hoop, towards the South Pole, the constellations seem to pass the sun, and rise and set, still moving from East to West, but from right to left, not from left to right. On the Java bronze they are facing to the right, consequently it is probable that the symbols were not invented in Java or south of the line, but somewhere in the northern hemisphere, and the agricultural operations represented in the signs of the Zodiac agree with northern seasons.2 But if these symbols were invented in Central Asia, or in Babylon, 3000 years ago, or in Egypt or Greece, it is just as likely that they should have arrived in Scotland, as it is that they should have got to Java 540 years ago. It is thus proved that certain symbolic creatures have been associated with astronomy; that in Java, India, Greece, and Rome, they have been associated with worship; and in India with a particular style of ornament. That style of ornament is found in Scotland, on sculptured stones of unknown date, and associated with the figures of the animals, which in Rome, Greece, India and Java, have represented constellations. The meaning of these, and of certain Scotch symbols,3 is unexplained, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that they once had a similar meaning in India and in Scotland, when there are so many hands pointing towards Central Asia as the common starting place of so many human races.
It would be going too far to call the ram on the St. Andrews stone “Aries,” and the lion “Leo;” but till something has been found out concerning the stone-falconer of the long locks, and the naked legs, and the flowing dress, he may perhaps pass for a relative of the Eastern bronze falconer who is fighting a lion, between “Cancer” and “Leo,” amongst twisted snakes, and branches and buds, under the sway of the sun and moon, and of diverse many-armed graven images, whose meaning is not so clear.
Perhaps the oldest bit of Celtic ornamental art known is to be found in Gavr Innis, in Brittany. A large sepulchral mound was opened some years ago, and was found to cover a passage formed of large boulders, one of which is figured above. The cut is taken from a very hasty sketch, made in August, 1855, in a very bad light. The design appears to be a rude attempt to represent the inside of a house, like the tomb itself, or such as a Lapp hut, or an Icelandic house, or a Highland cottage, now is. A sketch of part of the interior of a Lapp hut will be found in vol. iii., frontispiece. Such dwellings are thus made – a number of rough sticks or trunks of small trees, or big stones, are set in the ground about the plan or floor of the house, which in Gaelic is called “làrach,” and in Scotch “stance.” If the house is to be of sticks and round, the sticks slope over towards the centre, and form a cone. If it is to have a passage, like Icelandic houses, stakes or large stones are set in two rows, and planted nearly upright. If it is to be square, the passage walls are separated and repeated, and the roof is a pyramid.
This, so far, is an imitation of, and only an improvement on the frame-work of a round or square tent.
The next step is to place sticks across the others to keep them steady, and in the Gavr Innis design, as in the sketch of the Lapp hut, this appears to be indicated. In Highland stone and turf cottages, the partitions are still made of hurdles plastered with clay.
In the Morea, the shepherds still make temporary conical wattled huts in which they live, but as the climate is warm a thatch of branches is sufficient.
The frame-work being made, the hut is covered outside with birch bark, turf, or some contrivance to “stop up the sieve,” or “line the basket;” and then big stones, and earth, and rubbish, and turf, and other available materials, are heaped up and stamped down to keep out the wind and cold, till there remains a hollow, conical, or pyramidal mound, on which, after a time, the grass grows. To extend this principle, it is only necessary to place the cone or pyramid of earth upon the upright passage walls. To make this a really comfortable dwelling, it is only necessary to line the sides with planks; and many comfortable hospitable dwellings, in which well-educated, polite ladies and gentlemen now reside in Iceland, are mainly built of boulders and turf, lined with planks, and look like a nest of green hillocks at a distance. The long passages in tombs at Gavr Innis, and in Greece, are very like those in old Icelandic houses which I have seen. No material, it is said, resists cold so well as earth; and as fuel and timber are scarce in the north, so Highland cottages are like Icelandic houses.
The architectural design on the passage wall of the tomb in Gavr Innis appears to represent the inside view of such a building, with its stakes, stones, and turf, but the waving lines cannot be so explained. They look like serpents, and there are similar designs, like a serpent pierced by a zig-zag line, on stones in Scotland. (See vol. iii., 309.) In the immediate neighbourhood of Gavr Innis, there are great numbers of “standing stones,” like those which exist in Britain, etc. Some of enormous size have fallen and are broken, but others remain erect. At Carnac4 there is an array of smaller stones which extends for about three miles. There must have been many thousands of them arranged in rows at some period, and many hundreds still remain erect. It is hard to believe that this enormous work had not a religious meaning. If so, then, similar monuments on a smaller scale, such as “Stonehenge” in England, and “Calenish” in Lewes, and standing stones and barrows all over the world, even to the obelisks, and pyramids, and temples of Egypt, may be but various growths of the primitive ideas of dwellings, tombs, and temples. From a tree came a post, a gnomon, and a pillar; from a tent came a hut, and thence a house; from a sepulchral mound came a cairn, and thence a pyramid; from stakes and poles grew columns; from sloping tent-sticks came rafters and a roof, and thence a covered temple, with rows of pillars; and so architectural ornaments might take their origin from wattled branches, leaves, basketwork, hurdles, and mats; plaited straw, rushes, and hair, honeysuckle, and birch roots.
Specimens of the style of design, which is called Celtic, will be found at pp. 137, 303, vol. iii, and on the cover of this book [1862 edition]; and the nearest good hairdresser or maker of straw mats will imitate the design on page 137.
Thus sacred ivy, matted about a sacred oak, may have suggested the interlaced ornaments on stone pillars and Christian crosses; and basket-work may have suggested the patterns on gold and silver filigree, on stone and clay vessels and pottery, on carved powder-horns and dirks, and generally the designs attributed to Celtic art. Honeysuckle is the object of superstitious observances at this day. It winds sunwise about trees, and its long stem would be a good material for making these basket-work designs.
But the fact that such designs are found upon works of art manufactured in the far East, seems to prove that “Celtic art” was not invented in the British Isles, but imported at some early date.
It was not brought by the Northmen, for there is nothing like it in Scandinavia. For a similar reason it was not brought by the Normans, Anglo-Saxons, or Romans; stones and manuscripts on which it occurs are older than the Saracenic period; and unless the Celts brought the germ of it from the far East, with their religion and language, and their popular tales, it is hard to explain the occurrence of similar eastern animals, monsters, and “runic knots” on the sculptured stones of Scotland, and on “Hindu” bronzes.
There are plenty of cases in which Greek or Italian art can be traced in the Hebrides. The ornament figured below is from a stone which was found in the ancient stronghold of the MacDonalds in Islay.
It is rude enough, much broken, and the stone is worn away, seemingly by the hands of those who used it. It is very old, but the style of ornament is not “Celtic.”
It is the style which is to be found in wooden Norwegian churches, said to be as old as A.D. 1100, and which is characteristic of more modern Norwegian carving, on knife-handles, powder-horns, wooden chests, and such like articles. A glance at the following woodcut will show what is meant.
Celtic art, then, appears to be of Eastern origin, like “Celtic nations” and “languages,” and like Gaelic popular tales.
The well-known superstitious observances connected with Halloween have been referred to Eastern solar worship.5 The Reverend James Robertson, minister of Callander, described them in 1791, and alluded to the stone circles of Scotland as to Druidical temples. He tells that in his day, in hamlets, a fire was lighted at sundown, made entirely of ferns gathered on Halloween. The neighbours assembled, and each, according to seniority, placed a marked stone at the edge of the ashes till a circle was made about the site of the fire, which was then abandoned.
Next morning the place was visited, and if any of the party found his foot-print in the ashes, and his stone removed from its place, he was doomed to die before the twelve months expired.
I have often seen the site of fires surrounded by stones placed there by children; and once, on a beautiful Easter Thursday evening (April 5), just at sundown, many fires suddenly appeared blazing and smoking on the hill-tops in the Isle of Man. In about ten minutes they all vanished as suddenly as they had appeared, and a Manksman, who was asked to explain the cause, looked much disturbed, and went his way in haste without answering.
“Bealtainn,” yellow May day, is in spring; and All Saints, All Hallows or Halloween, “Samhuinn,” 1st of November, is late in autumn – so there are Pagan as well as Christian observances connected with these two seasons.
The following passage from Mr. Robertson’s letter adds to the list of things which were done sunwise in his day in the Highlands:-
“To this day, when the Highlanders go round anything with a degree of religious veneration, they go round in the same direction as the sun goes round the world on this side the equator, i.e., from east to west, by the south side. This is the direction in which a bride is placed by her bridegroom when they stand up to be married; the direction in which the bridegroom turns round the bride to give the first kiss after the nuptial ceremony; the direction in which they go at least half round a grave before the coffin is deposited; the direction in which they go round any consecrated fountain, whose waters are supposed to have some medicinal virtues which they expect to receive by immersion or drinking.
“I have heard it said, that in certain places of the Highlands the people sometimes took off their bonnets to the sun when he appeared first in the morning.”
It seems, then, that the ancient eastern veneration for the sun and for fire, which is recorded in the Vedas, still survives in the West Highlands in popular superstitious observances which resemble Indian religious ceremonies. Perhaps “Bodach,” the bogle, may once have been “Buddha,” the sage; “Bramman,” the fiend, “Brahme,” the air; “Fuath,” the spectre, “fohi,” the god; “Cailleach,” the night hag, “Cale;” and “Aigne,” thought “Agni,” divine fire.
12 thoughts on “Celtic Art, pp.348-369.”