Animals On Coins

By the second century BC the tradition of striking and using coinage had spread right through Celtic Europe, reaching its peak during the first century BC. The coins derived from Mediterranean prototypes but their iconography shows independence and individuality on the part of the Celtic die-cutters. The imagery on the reverse of many coins has zoomorphic themes; some of these depict manifestly religious subjects and it is possible, on occasions, to link coin iconography with other Celtic art. Indeed, animal types are far more numerous than human representations on the reverse of Celtic coins. The creatures depicted were 'as often as not fantastical beasts, composed of elements drawn from more than one

animal, but in other cases plain, routine, representations of farmyard and forest animals'.

Of the domestic animals, the horse is by far the most ubiquitous motif on coins. Often horsemen - or horsewomen - and charioteers, both male and female (figure 4.13), ride across the coins. Depictions of female chariot-drivers were especially favoured among the Redones and Turones of north-west Gaul.80 Sometimes the soldier has a boar-headed carnyx or an animal crest on his helmet81 reminiscent of the kind of zoomorphic imagery that has already been discussed. The horse itself clearly fascinated the Celts and their artists: the coin-designer had a wonderful time splitting up the body of the horse into complex patterns, whilst at the same time managing to retain the distinctive character and integrity of the animal. The horse on Celtic coins is frequently associated with solar symbolism (figure 6.22). This image derived ultimately from gold staters of Philip II of Macedon (359-336 BC) which bore the head of Apollo on the obverse and the chariot of the sun-god on the reverse. Celtic moneyers adopted the horse-and-chariot theme and made it their own: often the vehicle is reduced to a single wheel, but the sun is frequently prominent, and chariot wheel and sun seem often to be interchangeable, the rayed solar disc appearing beneath the horse and a naturalistic wheel symbol in the celestial position above it. This sun-horse symbolism is something which may be traced far back into the Bronze Age in northern and central Europe. In the Romano-Celtic period, the solar horseman, a sun-shield in his hand, confronts the forces

of evil on the Jupiter columns. Curious things may happen to horses in coin imagery: fantasy is

introduced in the triple-tailed creatures common to Britain and Gaul. A silver coin from Bratislava

(figure 4.9) depicts a prancing horse, with a triple phallus or triple teats. Another way in which the horse is removed from the real world is by its endowment with a human head: this may mean that rider and horse are being fused and synthesized to achieve complete unity (figure 4.13).86 Finally, it may be possible to establish a link between the horses on Celtic coins and the Romano-Celtic horse-goddess Epona. Certain coins in central Gaul show a mare accompanied by a foal. A gold stater issued by the tribe of the Aulerci Cenomani of western Gaul depicts a mare suckling a foal. This is reminiscent of Burgundian images of Epona, where the goddess rides a mare

which suckles its young (figure 8.6).

Figure 6.22 Celtic coin decorated with horse and sun symbols, Midlands, England. By courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

After horses, boars are the most common zoomorphic image on the coins. These may appear on the summit of battle-standards or in their own right. Distinctive in their artistic treatment are the raised and spiky dorsal bristles, portrayed in precisely the same manner as the figurines described above. On a coin at Maidstone in Kent, a boar and stag appear together, with greatly exaggerated spines and antlers

respectively (figure 3.4). Very frequently boars are associated, like the horse, with solar imagery, the

sun motif being balanced either above the dorsal crest or beneath its feet. Hilda Ellis Davidson suggests that the raised spines on the boar's back actually symbolize the rays of the sun.90 There are a number of instances where boar images are in close association with those of humans. They may perch on top of human heads, and are not always there as helmet crests; an example is a coin from Esztergom in Hungary (figure 6.23). Among the Aulerci Eburovices are coins depicting a human head with a boar on its neck.91 This iconography has been linked to that of a stone sculpture which may date to just before the Roman period (first century BC or AD), a representation of a god in human form, over whose torso strides a boar, bristles erect (chapter 8).

On Armorican coins,92 a warrior may carry a severed head in one hand, a boar image in the other, as if to emphasize the war symbolism of the animal. Some Breton issues, notably of the Osismi, show curious imagery on the obverse, comprising a large central human head surrounded by smaller heads attached to

it by chains, and with a boar perched on top of the main head. The reverse of one such coin depicts a human-headed horse beneath which is a small boar. Again the boar may be present as a battle emblem, perhaps a helmet crest on the large severed head of the obverse, and a war motif on the reverse. Finally, some odd coins of the Bellovaci94 are interesting since they form a link between coin art and cult imagery: these depict boars held up as effigies by humans, and are strongly suggestive both of the iconography of the Gundestrup Cauldron's outer plates and that of the Fellbach-Schmiden cult images.

Figure 6.23 Silver coin depicting human head surmounted by boar, early first century BC, Esztergom, Komaron, Hungary. Diameter: 1.7cm. Paul Jenkins.

Bulls occur frequently on coins, often associated with horses, and perhaps also celestial images: some bear lunar crescents between their horns. But many may simply be present because they were economically important to the Celtic peoples. In addition to bulls themselves, there are gods with bulls' horns, especially among the Danubian tribes.95 Stags, however, are rare, though the Maidstone coin, alluded to in connection with boar images, bears a beautiful stag figure with enormous antlers. A unique coin, said to have been discovered at Petersfield (Hants)96 bears an image of the stag-antlered anthropomorphic god Cernunnos (figure 8.20). The ram-horned serpent, ubiquitous companion of Cernunnos in Romano-Celtic Gaul, again appears on the coins. An Arvernian issue displays the image of a horse accompanied by a crane which seemingly attacks a ram-horned serpent threatening the

underbelly or genitals of the horse. This could represent a dualistic myth or allegory, in which the chthonic snake confronts the celestial forces represented by the solar horse. But in most iconography, the ramhorned snake is a beneficent beast, evocative of plenty and fertility, so it is probably not presented on the coin purely as a destructive element. It could be that what is represented is a dualistic scheme showing the interdependence of life and death, sky and underworld. It is worth remembering that the ram-horned serpent accompanies the sun-god on the Gundestrup Cauldron. In addition, a Romano-Celtic altar from Lypiatt in Gloucestershire (figure 8.19) combines the symbolism of the solar wheel with that of the horned snake.98

A group of Armorican coins contains some very curious zoomorphic symbolism: a wolf is depicted, apparently devouring the sun and moon; beneath his paws are an eagle and a snake. The wolf is huge in relation to the cosmic symbols he consumes. This, once again, could represent the dualistic, allegorical struggle between sky and chthonic forces, reinforced by the celestial eagle (Jupiter's bird) and the earth-bound serpent.

But Paul-Marie Duval99 links this iconography with a Teutonic myth in which the death and resurrection of the world are symbolized by a ravening wolf swallowing the heavens and all life on earth, followed by the renewal and rebirth of the universe:

Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the wolf shall swallow the sun: and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he shall also work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens . . . and all the earth will tremble.100

Another related coin-type101 depicts a wolf perched on a horse, itself a solar symbol. Here the same dualistic conflict may take place. The horse is protected by an apotropaic triskele symbol. Whatever the precise symbolism of the wolf, there is no doubt that it was held by the Celts in awe and respect as a formidable forest adversary of man and as a wild version of the dog.

Of the birds that appear on Celtic coins, most prominent are the marsh-birds, such as the crane, and the crow or raven. The obverse of the Maidstone coin (with its reverse images of stag and boar) shows two facing cranes (figure 7.9). The question is whether the symbols of obverse and reverse are related. In any case the die-cutter was evidently preoccupied with zoomorphic themes. On a coin of the Lemovices, a crane perches on the back of a horse: we are reminded of the early Romano-Celtic imagery of Tarvostrigaranus, the Bull with Three Cranes, on a stone of the earlier first century AD from

Paris (figure 8.11). Horse and crane are again in company with one another, together with a horned serpent on the Arvernian coin examined earlier. The symbolism of the crane is unclear: there is sometimes a link with warfare, in that cranes occur on Roman military iconography, and Celtic shields depicted on the early first-century AD arch at Orange are decorated with crane motifs. We have seen, too, that crane-like birds are engraved on late Iron Age helmets (figure 7.8). Ross104 alludes to the military associations of these wading-birds in the early vernacular sources, where (perhaps because of their harsh cry) they are linked with evil or unpleasant women. But the Greek farmer Hesiod, writing in the eighth century BC, has an interesting allusion to cranes as weather forecasters, thus relating these birds to agriculture:

Take heed what time thou hearest the voice of the crane, who year by year, from out the clouds on high clangs shrilly. For her voice bringeth out the sign for ploughing and the time of winter's rain, and bites the heart of him that hath no ox.105

Finally we must look at the role of the raven in coin iconography. In both British and Gaulish coinage106 there occurs the curious image of a horse on whose back is an enormous carrion-bird, sometimes with a small cake or pellet in its beak. Its talons dig into the back of its mount and the reins are apparently held by nothing except the bird itself. The scene must surely reflect a Celtic myth: the bird is huge in relation to the horse, a device which supports the interpretation of the bird as a supernatural being. The pellet in the beak is a detail which recurs on other bird iconography: the late Iron Age raven figurine from the hillfort at Milber Down in Devon bears this cake, as do the two raven-statuettes from the Romano-Celtic hoard of religious bronzes

from Felmingham Hall, Norfolk. The imagery of these coins is idiosyncratic and it is tempting to link it with an important early Irish myth concerning the war-goddess Badbh Catha (Battle Crow), who wreaked havoc on the battlefield, unmanning armies by her appearance among them as a huge raven, gloating over the bloodshed.

The imagery of the coins really sums up the entire theme of this chapter: in pre-Roman Celtic art, we are introduced to a bewildering tapestry of interwoven subjects and symbols associated with animals.

Vincent Megaw was right in his allusion to a 'Celtic zoo'.

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