Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth

In 1891 a precious silver cauldron appeared during peat-digging in the bog Rævemosen, near Gundestrup in Himmerland. The vessel, which dates back to the first century BC., had been deposited in the bog – an immensely valuable sacrifice to the powers above. Before this occurred, the cauldron had been taken apart. The rim and the large silver plates, which make up its sides, were taken off and placed in the bottom of the vessel. Among them, there was a set of thirteen silver elements: one round, known as the base plate with a decoration of a round medallion in the center of the interior, five interior panels, long and rectangular and seven exterior ones, shorter and rectangular (the eighth one was not found). These elements, made of 97% silver, were partially gold-plated. In 1892, Sophus Müller reconstructed the Cauldron, arranging all the elements in the shape known today, with five shorter ones on the inside, seven long on the outside and a circular plate as the base. Following the idea by Ole Klindt-Jensen’s, the exterior plates are now denoted by lowercase letters from a to g and interior plates by uppercase letters from A to E.

Life-giving cauldron

Magic cauldrons appear as a leading theme in Celtic mythology, both Irish and Welsh. Some, like the one belonging to the god Dagda, never empty themselves as long as they are not used by cowards. Others, like the cauldron of the god Bran, bring the dead back to life. Still others contain an essence of the knowledge called greals. The name itself is reminiscent of the Christian tradition of the Holy Grail, which ultimately turned the miraculous Celtic cauldron into the Christian relic, described on the pages of medieval romances. As such, it promises immortality to those who find their physical and metaphysical way to its holy powers.

Mixture of influences

Surviving pagan Celtic cauldrons are made of bronze, copper or silver and are richly decorated with mythological scenes. The Gundestrup Silver Cauldron is the greatest known example of European Iron Age goldsmithing. All its plates, except the base, are excessively decorated by using a repoussage (repoussé) technique, which consists of hammering from the reverse side beneath to push out desired parts of the front side and, by these means, obtain an image in low relief. “Other techniques were used to add [details with] extensive gilding and some use of inlaid pieces of glass for the eyes of figures. Other pieces of fittings were [also] found. Altogether the weight [of the object] is just under [nine] kilograms” (“Gundestrup cauldron” 2021).

The style and workmanship suggest a Thracian origin, although the ornamentation points to Celtic origins, including such motifs as torques, horned deity, carnyx, decorative leaves in the style of La Tene. Yet, some of the themes are derived from Ionia (the central part of the coast of Asia Minor), like griffins and seahorses. The lion, leopard and elephants were, in turn, influenced by Eastern cultures. Moreover, the scene evoking Hercules’ fight with a lion comes from the Greek mythology. Figures with raised arms refer to motifs and gestures known from Asia Minor. On the other hand, goddesses supporting breasts are associated with representations of a naked goddess from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

Who made it and where did it come from?

The variety of themes and influences created a field for various, often contradictory, theories about the Thracian or Gallic origins of the object. A.K. Bergquist and T. F. Taylor propose that the cauldron was made by Thracian artisans, probably commissioned by the Scordisci, a Celtic-Thracian tribe having lived in present-day Serbia, and later fell into the hands of a Germanic tribe of the Cimbri (Jutland), who invaded the Danube basin in 120 BC. G.S. Olmsted, in turn, interprets the iconography of the Cauldron as a prototype of the Irish myth described in Táin Bó Cuailnge, linking the figure of the horned god with Cúchulainn rather than Cernunnos, with whom, however, such a character in central part of the interior plate A is mostly associated.

The image of the horned god Cernunnos surrounded by a deer and a dog or a wolf. It is the most famous representation from Gundestrup Cauldron. interior plate A. Photo by Nationalmuseet (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Kocioł z Gundestrup” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

On the whole, the variety of Cauldron’s motifs draw the observer into an alien universe far from that of the people who deposited it in the bog in north Jutland. Elephants, lions and several unknown gods, represented in a foreign style, indicate that the cauldron originally came from a distant area to the south or southeast. Exactly where it was made is still open to question. Perhaps it was a gift to a great chieftain or could it have been war booty? Most scholars, however, agree that hammered decorations on the Cauldron depict Celtic deities and rituals. It is for this reason and due to its size (69 centimetres in diameter, 42 centimetres in height) that it is believed that Gundestrup Cauldron may have been used for sacrifice by druids. But was it animal or human sacrifice?

The image of the interior plate E and its interpretation

Silver and gilded interior plate E detail, known as the “Warriors and Cauldron” (La Tene III) is one of the most interesting and intriguing scenes hammered into reliefs on the silver Cauldron. It may represent a ceremonial scene with a larger than life god-like figure on the left and three musicians playing and ancient instrument – carnyx, on the right. In front of the god, there is a row of probably dead warriors standing in the underworld. A depicted dog is to symbolize that sphere. They are wearing helmets, spears and shields – so they must have been killed in the fight.

Above them, there’s a horizontally represented plant stem or a tree trunk with bell-like flowers and roots – maybe the Celtic representation of the Tree of Life. At first, it seems as if it was knocked down on the ground. Nevertheless, as it blossoms, it must be alive. Consequently, if the image is turned 90° left, the tree’s roots actually stem from the cauldron itself, and so the walking warriors are walking down, towards the cauldron, and the horse riders going up, along the trunk. Accordingly, the gigantic god and his cauldron would find themselves underground, and the presence of the dog beside the cauldron supports this idea. In turn, the underworld stands for the kingdom of the dead, who by drinking from or being washed in the cauldron find their the way to the afterlife. But only those who deserve it will be revived for entering it. The warriors with shields seem to be the chosen ones, who are waiting in a queue for a reviving bath in the god’s vessel, which may be interpreted as the gateway to their immortality. Can it be just the same cauldron on which the scene is depicted?

In the representation, one of the warriors is just caught by the god, hanging upside down, held by the leg; he is going to be saved from the dead. The riding horsemen above the tree are apparently the already revived in the afterlife. The appearance of a snake above, guiding them ahead, itself indicates the concept of their being restored to life.

Gundestrup Cauldron is composed of internal (A to E) and external silver plates. Here are visible the external plates, from the left: D, E, C, F. Photo by Nationalmuseet (1992). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Gundestrup cauldron” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

God “of the Tribe”

The mysterious god is sometimes recognized as Teutates or Toutatis, immersing his victim in a liquid-filled cauldron. His name means “of the Tribe” or “of the Whole People”. He is one of the chief early Celtic gods and occupies a significant place in the Gallic pantheon. In Roman times, Teutates  was identified either with the god Mars or Mercury. Although the former evokes warfare, the former serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. Both roles are embodied by the Celtic Teutates. He described by the Roman writer Lucan, who enumerates him as the major Gaulish gods, together with Taranis and Esus, as deities known for their desire for blood.

The problem is, however, there are no known images of Tetuates and his identification with the colossal image of the god from the Cauldron’s scene is a pure speculation. It is only recorded that the god killed his victims by drowning and hence some scholars associate this feature to the described scene, where a supreme figure is holding a smaller one upside down over the huge vessel. On the other side, the Roman records of human sacrifice ascribed to the Celts may have been just a useful propaganda, in order to underline the superiority of the Roman civilization facing the barbarian and blood-thirsty Gauls, who did not deserve to survive.

It is also worth noticing that the mythological cauldron was to revive and not to destroy. Accordingly, the scene may imply hope for an eternal life after serving his tribe as a courageous warrior who died in a fight.

Christian face of the Celtic cauldron

Similar iconography possibly occurs on later monuments on the lands previously owned by the Celts. Namely, on the bases of some of the High Irish Crosses, such as the Market Cross from Kells, the scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron seems to be recalled on its two separate representations. Neither the colossal god or the cauldron is represented there. Nevertheless, there is a fierce battle on the South Side of the Cross, and the horsemen with shields on the East Face, which is usually dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ represented on the High Crosses of Ireland. The East Face scene additionally resemble the horsemen from the upper part of the Cauldron’s Plate E, hovering over the trunk of the Tree of Life, and implies their victorious parade. Is it then the shaft of the cross itself a counterpart of the Tree of Life in the Christian version?

Simultaneously, on the North Side and West Face of the same base of the cross, there are scenes representing the world of fauna in its two different aspects. Whereas on the West Face, analogously to the East Face, the scene indicates a harmony, where in the former it is held between mankind and forest animals, the North Side, as if referring to the South Side, shows a battle expressed by means of a wild hunt led by two centaurs, armed with bows pointed to the animals. Among them, there are also canine figures, as much as in the Cauldron’s scene. 

Moreover, the imagery of the West Face also greatly resembles the scene on the interior plate A of the Cauldron, where the horned anthropomorphic figure, possibly the god Cernunnos, is surrounded by wild animals, such as a deer and a wolf. His calm attitude, open arms and the yogin’s position evokes but peace and harmony among the animals. Similar atmosphere is very tangible in the scene on the base of Christian cross. Possibly this is why it is also believed to represent the narratives of Genesis, either Noah who is gathering animals on the Ark or Adam who is naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.

Providing that images in bas-relief from High Irish Crosses constitute an undecipherable mystery of their own, there can be apparently a direct link between iconographical elements on the verge between the Paganism and Early Christianity in Ireland. Is it then possible to open the unknown Celtic world by the key provided by the Christian symbolism and iconography?

Featured image: The Gundestrup Cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. National Museum of Denmark.: the interior Plate E: Warriors and Cauldron or a Ritual initiation. By The British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: The British Museum (2015). “The Gunderstrup Cauldron” (2018) In: britishmuseum.tumblr.com. 

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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