Depicting the Gods


The bronze statue above is of the Gaulish bear goddess Artio. Like statues of Epona which show the goddess as human with an associated horse or horses, this shows both the human form of the goddess and a bear. However, in this case we know that the human form was added later and that the original sculpture just showed the bear and the stylised tree. It has been suggested that the addition was to accommodate Roman taste for the depiction of their gods in human form, the implication being that the Gauls did not feel such a necessity.(*) Tacitus, speaking of the northern European tribes in his Germania, asserts that “they do not think it in keeping with divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.” (**) When Tacitus wrote this the tribes of Gaul were becoming fully Romanised under occupation and the same process was under way in Britain, but the neighbouring tribes of Germany remained independent.

The catalogue text for the recent exhibition ‘Celts : Art & Identity’ organised jointly by The British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, states in relation to a stone carving of Brigantia that she is portrayed as a composite figure seemingly incorporating other goddesses. The carving was commissioned by a Roman soldier and its dedication to Brigantia, it is suggested, has more to do with the Roman habit of placating local gods than it does to portrayal of deities by the native British: “The very idea of giving a god human form is a classical one. Iron Age beliefs did not usually conceive of gods as humans” (*). Other examples are given to make this point, including the statue of Artio. The main issue here, though, is one of representation. Celtic art was not naturalistic in the way that Greek and Roman art was, though it had been absorbing naturalistic elements from those cultures even before conquest. It tended to deal in abstract figures, often of animals, and geometric patterns rather than life-like portrayals of its subjects. So even if the gods were thought of as having human form, their art may not have shown this. A bear goddess, or a horse goddess, may have been depicted (if at all) as a stylised bear or stylised horse

white horse

But if they were given names or titles (locally or more generally across a wider region) this also suggests that they had an identity beyond that of a numinously perceived presence. We don’t have written literature from the pre-Roman period so we can never know in the sense of having evidence from the historical record. And of course things were unlikely to have remained the same through the whole of the early Iron Age, and for all of the various tribes, even if they were likely to have been culturally conservative in their beliefs. Styles of representation varied and became more complex over time, though they also continued to be distinct even after being influenced by Roman art. Many of the surviving representations of Celtic deities were made by people who had become thoroughly Romanised, though they often also retain distinct Celtic features. This is our inheritance.

So what can we say today? Many of the distinct forms of deity that have come down to us in written form are from the Middle Ages. We can still, surely, share the sense of Tacitus’ reference to “hidden presence” as a common form of direct religious experience, and so see them with “the eye of reverence”. What such presences may communicate to us in the way of distinct identities is likely to be mediated by cultural artefacts. The very fact of using language is one such, so if a god whispers a name in our ear, how will we know what we are hearing without also having a way of saying it to others? A name, like a story, is something in human language. Language infiltrated by the gods as they infiltrate our landscape and our mindscape. Those stories, which the gods inhabit, need have no direct line of connection with those statues or inscriptions from the Ancient World with which we associate them. The gods don’t travel in straight lines. They appear here; they appear there. We find them, looking back a little way, a longer way. And we experience their presence back then and also now, here with us.

    • (*) Catalogue of the Exhibition Celts : Art and Identity, British Museum Press (2015)
    • (**) Tacitus Germania (Ch 9)

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