The Midnight Muse received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of South Florida and writes about world cultures.
The Culture of the Celts
When referring to the term "Celtic" in regards to the Gundestrup cauldron, the term is used to refer to the inhabitants of Southeastern Europe, and not to the cultures occupying Western Europe or British Isles and Ireland. The use of the term "Celtic" in this regards can be very misleading and has been the bane of many scholars and thus has led to the misuse of the Gundestrup cauldron in many contemporary books. The intended Celts which are discussed were from the lower Danube region and had migrated eastward into Transylvania during the 4th century BC, and had even gone south into Greece and Thrace. (Cunliffe: 401) It was also these same tribes which sacked Seuthopolis and Delphi, and then later established the Kingdom of Tylis in Thrace during the 3rd century BC. (ibid.)
The Discovery of the Cauldron
The Gundestrup cauldron was first found in 1891. (Zaczek: 44) It was discovered within the Raevemose peat bog at Gundestrup in Himmerland near Jutland, Denmark. (Green: 108). The cauldron is thought to have been ritually deposited into the bog as a votive offering. (Green: 110) According to pollen analysis, the cauldron was originally placed on dry earth and not initially buried. (Zaczek: 45) It is now being housed at the museum at Arhus in the Danish National Museum (MacKillop: 261); however, the cauldron travels continues to be featured in museum exhibits around the world. Most recently, in September 2015, the cauldron was displayed at the British Museum in London, UK during as part of a special exhibition called, "Celts: Art and Identity."
Manufacture and Craftsmanship
The cauldron was manufactured sometime between the 2nd and 1st century BC. (Green: 109) It measures 14 inches high, 25.5 inches wide, weighs 20 lbs., and is capable of holding 28.5 gallons. (MacKillop: 261) It was originally gold-gilded, and composed of 96 percent pure silver. (Green: 109) The cauldron was made up of seven outer plates, five inner plates, and a single base plate which had all been carefully dismantled before being placed in the bog. (ibid.) Thus, the total number of pieces making up the cauldron was thirteen. (MacKillop: 261) Each of the plates portrayed mythological oriented scenes. (Green: 109) A hole in the bottom of the cauldron was patched by a silver horse-harness phalerae. (Cunliffe: 402)
Examination of the cauldron shows that there were several silver craftsmen who manufactured the cauldron. (Green: 109) The artistic stylizations are indicative of an origin in Thrace or Romania. (ibid.) Even the techniques used to create the cauldron were markedly Thracian. (Cunliffe: 401) However, there are some scholars which believe the cauldron was made as far away as the Balkans, but the more predominate thought is that its origins were in Romania or Thrace. (MacKillop: 261)
The Imagery of the Cauldron
The imagery shown on the cauldron appears to come from a variety of cultures including: Celtic (Southeastern Europe), Greek, Indian, and Iranian mythology. (Cunliffe: 402) There are many pictures shown on the cauldron that include what some scholars believe to be Gods, people, and animals. (Green: 109) Some of the more exotic animals depicted even include leopards. (ibid.) There is even a dolphin-rider that appears on the cauldron. (Cunliffe: 402) Scholars believe that the larger humanoid figures were actually depictions of divine beings, or Gods, due to their increased and seemingly symbolic stature. (Green: 109) Thematically speaking, the pictorial depictions that are featured on the Gundestrup cauldron appear to fit the history of the Eastern influenced cultures that lived along the Euro-Asian steppe axis. (Cunliffe: 402)
Some of the more popular and well-known images shown on the cauldron are as follows:
- Ram Horned Snake
Appear twice on two different plates. (Green: 109)
- Horned Human Figure
A stag-horned large human figure grasping a ram-horned snake in one hand and a torc in the other. There is a torc around his neck, and he is sitting in a cross-legged position. There is a stag and other animals that are shown in his company. (Green: 109) The horned figure may reflect the use of tantric yoga in Dacia and Samartia during the time of manufacture. (Cunliffe: 400) Similar figures from this time are found in Moldavia and the Don basin. (Cunliffe: 400)
- Bust of a Large Bearded Man
A small man wearing a bull-horned helmet offers a taller bearded man a chariot or cart wheel. (Green: 109)
- Foot Soldiers and Calvary
A procession of foot soldiers and a troop of cavalry are shown with a tree. (ibid.) The foot soldiers are wearing close-knit short trousers. (MacKillop: 261) A secondary troop of foot soldiers each carry a carnyx which consist of a long-stemmed horn topped with the head of an open-mouthed boar. (Zaczek: 39)
- Tall Human Holding a Man Over a Vat
A tall man holds a smaller man over a large vat or cauldron. (Green: 109)
- Female Flanked By Wheels
A female figure is depicted as being surrounded by wheels as if she were in a cart. (Green: 110)
- Three Bulls and Three Warriors
Three bulls appear as if they are going to be sacrificed by three warriors who are holding swords. (ibid.)
- Enormous Bull Sinking Into the Ground
A very big bull who sinks into the ground and appears to be dying. (Green: ibid.)
The Journey to Denmark
So, how did the cauldron get to Jutland, Denmark? Well, the most predominate theory is that the cauldron was looted by Teutonic warriors and then taken to Denmark. (Green: 110) Along these same lines, another theories suggests that it was taken as booty by German mercenaries under the Roman army. (Zaczek: 46) Or, that the cauldron was made by the Scordisci tribe who settled for a time in Thrace and was then taken northward. (Zaczek: 46) Yet another theory was that Cimbri raiders took the cauldron and then later settled in Jutland. (Cunliffe: 402) Although the Gundestrup cauldron remains somewhat enigmatic regarding its journey to Denmark there is one thing which remains clear: the cauldron has nothing to do with the cultures which occupied Ireland or the British Isles. The origin of the cauldron was in the southeastern portion of Europe and was only later carried into Northern European territory. Unfortunately, due to an abundance of scholastic apathy the origins of the cauldron continue to be mistakenly portrayed even today.
Cunliffe, Barry, ed. The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.) Pages 400-402.
Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. (NY: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Pages 108-100.
MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.) Page 261.
Zaczek, Iain. The Art of the Celts: Origins, History, Culture. (London, UK: Parkgate Books, 1997.) Pages 39, 44-46.
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