Geese and cranes

In Celtic iconography, geese are most commonly associated with war: thus, because of their watchful and aggressive nature, these birds were perceived as appropriate emblems or companions for warrior-gods. The great freestanding stone goose, gazing alertly from the lintel of the Iron Age cliff-top temple of Roquepertuse in Provence guarded a shrine in which war-deities were venerated.60 The bronze figurine of a Celtic war-goddess from Dineault in Brittany61 depicts a young female wearing a helmet, the crest of which is in the form of a goose which thrusts its neck forward in such a threatening manner that one can almost hear it hissing. In Iron Age Czechoslovakia, warriors were sometimes buried accompanied by geese,62 as if the birds were considered lucky emblems of bravery and aggression which would enhance the image of the soldier in the next world.

Marsh-birds - egrets or cranes - had a close affinity with the super-natural world, as described in the Insular vernacular sources (see chapter 7). In iconography, the most important crane symbolism occurs

on two monuments in the early first century AD, one from Paris, the second from Trier.63 The two stones possess remarkably similar imagery, consisting of the association of a bull with three egrets. The Parisian monument (figure 8.11), dedicated to Jupiter in the reign of Tiberius by a guild of sailors, is made up of several stone blocks: on one a large bull stands in front of a willow-tree, two birds on his back and a third perched on his head; on an adjacent panel, a woodcutter hacks at the branch of a willow.64 The inscription above the bull reads 'Tarvostrigaranus' (the Bull with Three Cranes); that above the man reads 'Esus' (Lord). The Treveran sculpture is virtually identical, in terms of the content of its imagery: here, on a single stone surface, a woodcutter chops at a willow-tree in which are a bull's head and three cranes or egrets. The motifs of tree, birds and bull are all related in life: cranes or egrets and willows both have water associations, and the birds love willows. In addition, egrets and cattle are symbiotically linked in that the birds feed on tics and other pests which infest the hides of the cattle. The whole symbolism of woodcutter, tree, birds and bull reflects a complex mythology of which we can know little but a possibility is that the Tree of Life is depicted, its destruction reflecting the seasonal 'death' of winter and the departure of the tree's spirit in the form of birds. The bull may represent new life and virility, the regenerating strength of spring and the awakening of the earth. The water element could equally reflect the life-force and fertility generated by rivers and lakes. Tarvostrigaranus has no precise parallel outside Trier and Paris, but it is possible that a curious image from Britain may reflect similar symbolism. This is a small bronze figurine of a bull, once covered in silver-wash, from a fourth-century AD shrine at Maiden Castle, Dorset.65 The bull originally had three horns (see pp. 222-3) and has the remains of three female figures on its back. In Irish vernacular legend, women on occasions metamorphosed into cranes (chapter 7), and it may be that, on this figure, women are substitutes for the marsh-birds associated on the Continent with Tarvostrigaranus, thus presenting iconographically a tradition well documented in the early Insular literature.

Figure 8.11 'Tarvostrigaranus', the Bull with Three Cranes, on a stone monument from Paris, early first century AD. Paul Jenkins.

Doves of peace and healing

Like ravens, doves were perceived as oracular birds, perhaps on account of their distinctive call. In classical iconography and mythology, doves were the attribute of Venus, goddess of love, presumably because of the intimate behaviour of courting doves; the birds came to represent peace and harmony as well as sexual love. In the ancient world, the concept of

harmony was close to healing: bodily health and peace of mind were perceived to be related. It was perhaps partly for this reason that images of doves were offered to the Celtic healer-deities of thermal springs, particularly in Burgundy. Pilgrims offered multiple stone figures of doves, in groups of two, four or six, to the curative spirits presiding over shrines at Nuits Saint Georges, Beire-le-Châtel and Alesia.66 At Forêt d'Halatte (Oise), at Essarois and Fontes Sequanae, pilgrims dedicated images of

/yn themselves carrying doves as gifts to the healing forces who resided in the springs.67 At the great therapeutic cult establishment of Mars Lenus at Trier, images of young children held doves as presents for the healer-god, who was especially fond of children.68 Apart from the association between doves and harmony, another reason for the presence of dove images at curative shrines could be that prophecy and healing were linked: the classical Apollo was both a healer and a prophetic god and, indeed, the Celtic Apollo was venerated at both Essarois and Beire-le-Châtel. Oracles, visions and dreams were all perhaps related to the healing process, which was brought about not simply by the treatment of physical symptoms but by methods which depended on holistic concepts whereby mind and body were inextricably bound together and needed to be treated together. Certainly there is evidence that priests at these shrines were also sometimes doctors, who performed surgery in addition to providing the link between the worlds of the profane and the spiritual.

Figure 8.12 Romano-Celtic clay figurine of a dove, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Paul Jenkins.

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