In ancient times, the name given to holy places, sacred district or underground, usually Greek temple buildings, or a sacred grove, accessible only to priests and so restricted to common people. Sometimes, it was accessible to the faithful who have submitted to ritual cleansing. In Greek, the definition described ‘untrodden place’, as only priests were allowed to set foot in most of them.
The term stands either for an inaccessible religious building, such as a monastery or part of a sacred building and its enclosure. In ancient Greece, abaton was also meant as a bedroom for patients expecting miraculous healing while sleeping and it was usually built as a long stoa.
Among others, abaton is mostly used in reference to an enclosure or a temple of Asclepius, in Epidaurus (sixth century BC.-fourth century AD., Peloponnese, Greece), a temple on the island of Bigeh, in the Nile river situated in historic Nubia, where ancient Egyptians venerated the burial of Osiris (The Middle Kingdom, 2055–1650 BC.), and finally a monument on the island of Rhodes, erected by Artemisia the Second of Caria to celebrate her conquest of the island (the fourth century BC.).
Featured image: View of the Island of Philae with Isis Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, in the Nile, Nubia. Island of Bigeh and its ruins in foreground. 1838 painting by David Roberts. Painting by David Roberts (1838). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kjpuYy>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
“Abaton (disambiguation)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3D4SWdg>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
“Epidaurus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sD1VgI>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
“Artemisia II of Caria” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL5Htj>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
“Abaton” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3B08ehr>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
“Abaton” (2021). In: Powered by Oxford Lexicon. Available at <https://bit.ly/3D3rnkt>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].
PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 1. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
A religious object for a specific intention or as an expression of gratitude, or as a means of giving thanks for the fulfillment of a wish. They can include “one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use” (“Votive offering” 2021). Such votive objects or offerings are usually dedicated to gods (in polytheism) or to the God or saints (in Christianity) in a shrine, temple or a church, or others places of pilgrimage.
In pagan antiquity, a votive was often a symbolic offering, given to a deity or deities as a thanksgiving (agalma) or in order to ask for answering the faithfuls’ prayers. It was usually in the form of small terracotta or metal (bronze, lead) figures or body parts made of clay, and even vessels. The more rare form of votive offerings were statues or small buildings.
Christian religious offerings are symbolic items related to a specific intentions of the faithful or their gratitude for all that they have received from the God. Christian votive objects can take various forms, usually of devotional articles, such as lit candles and rosaries.
Featured image: Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos votive; a Mexican votive painting of 1911; the man survived an attack by a bull. Photo by Andreas Praefcke (2008). Photo and caption source: “Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V0oAHK>. [Accessed 28th August, 2021].
“Dar wotywny” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3DqhoWt>. [Accessed 28th August, 2021].
Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 227.
The term jamb stands for a recess between the wall face inside the room and the side of a fitted window (window jamb) or door (door jamb) or other wall opening.
The jamb on a medieval church doorway (in a Gothic portal accompanied by lintel and trumeau) is normally occupied by a cascading row of carved figures. “These [jamb] statues are often human figures, typically religious figures or secular or ecclesiastical leaders” (“Jamb statue” 2020). Such jamb figures are very often visible in Gothic cathedrals of France and elsewhere in medieval Europe.
 An advertising slogan accompanying the painting of Saint Anne and promoting Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw.
Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!
Book of Isaiah 18:2
Saint Anne is a Nubian wall painting estimated to have been painted between the 8th and 9th centuries, by using the technique al secco with tempera on plaster. This early Christian painting was discovered by a Polish archaeological team led by the Professor Kazimierz Michałowski during a campaign undertaken in the 1960s under the patronage of UNESCO (the Nubian Campaign) in Faras. The image itself belongs to a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements from the Faras Cathedral, discovered by an archeological mission. Faras Gallery is the only permanent exhibition in Europe featuring Medieval Nubian paintings from the Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract. The collection of over 60 paintings from the 8th to 14th centuries came from the cathedral in the city of Faras, a large urban centre in the Medieval kingdom of Nobadia, in present-day Sudan.
Nobadian rulers controlling the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity around 548 AD influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora.
The first cathedral was erected in the 7th century, when the city was still known as Pachoras, and likely stood at the exact site where Polish archaeologists taking part in the Nubia Campaign discovered the subsequent 8th century cathedral. The Nubia Campaign was an extensive international mission to preserve ancient legacies threatened by flooding from the imminent construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the resulting formation of the artificial reservoir, Lake Nasser. Since 1964 the painting is in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, of which the image has been used as a logo.
Saint Anne, of David’s house and line, was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus according to apocryphal Christian tradition. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels. In writing, Anne’s name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James (written perhaps around 150 AD) seems to be the earliest that mentions them. In the painting, St Anne places her finger against her mouth, asking for silence, which may allude to the ‘divine silence’. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is praying.
This gesture is rarely visible in Christian art and probably it refers to the tradition of Egyptian Christians (the Copts) who did so while praying undertone. It was believed to ward off evil powers trying to break into a human heart. Personally, I also understand this gesture as a synonym of a mystery and unuttered truth, which remains in silence. Also it is likely that Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child and a successful labour.
That night was simply full of magic and mysticism. When we reached our starting point to head off the Mount Sinai, the world had already laid down in darkness, yet disfigured with a thousand spots of light coming from clusters of bonfires and torches. Black silhouettes of Bedouins and camels were standing out sharply against their orange flames, casting their elongated shadows on the rocky ground, like the finest dancing lacework. Above us, the navy-blue dome of the sky was spread out, sprinkled with shiny stars.
Awe Inspiring Feeling
I felt at once happy, excited … and cold. It was January. By the Red Sea, about three hours away, the weather was much warmer, letting me swim and sunbath all day long, but here the temperature was far lower, and suddenly I felt a freezing blast of air all over my body. I trembled from cold and quickly started to follow an example of my friend putting on herself subsequent layers of a pullover, waterproof jacket, scarf, winter hat and gloves.It’s difficult to imagine I was wearing my bikini yet in the afternoon …
Egypt or Saudi Arabia
Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai.
With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Catherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.
Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.
Before going on a spiritual journey
It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.
I admit I was not so well prepared at that time as I would do, planning my trekking anew, but for those who would like to climb up there, if it’s possible in the future (I mean here the political situation in Egypt), it is good to know such essentials. Additionally, you should definitely take good trekking shoes and warm clothes if you climb up in winter.
Fourth Wise Man
At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Some people mounted camels led by Bedouins, others decided to go on foot. We chose the latter way of transport … and we survived! Moreover, anytime you feel tired walking, you can also hire one of these useful desert animals to carry you up.
Under starry sky, among muffled sounds of mixed languages and the clamor of grumbling camels walking between us, I felt as if I was back in time, going to welcome the newly born Christ.
South Korean Sweets on the Egyptian Desert
Halfway, the path was getting narrower, with rocky stairs up and down and partially icy. Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock.
Finally, just one hour before the expected sunrise, we got to the last stop to be fully ready to take our final climb to the summit. I was chilled to the bone. My friend as well, and as she was much more tired than me, she refused to go any further before she took some rest. I quickly agreed to do so. We entered one of numerous tents put up for pilgrims, just at the foot of the summit. A warm stream of air hit me from the inside. Only a loud gurgle of boiling water and a Bedouin’s voice recommending a variety of refreshments could be heard over the hubbub of the crowded people, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. And all of them squeezed together on wooden benches were trying to win as much of a heavy blanket so they could to cover their frozen legs under.
‘There is enough space for you to sit down with us!, said eastern-looking man smiling so widely his eyes turned into two horizontal lines.
‘Thank you a lot’, I replied.
‘Welcome, welcome!’, he uttered, still smiling.
We sat together one by one and I reached for a piece of the desirable blanket.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like it much’, I apologized my friend. I kept yet in mind she refused to use it several times on the way as they did not look clean enough to her … and they smelled strongly with camels.
‘It doesn’t matter’, she said hiding her legs under the smelly blanket. ‘Well … I’m going to stink, but at least I would feel warmer … and I’ll take a shower first when we finally get back to the hotel!’
I smiled to her. I really like her gentle irony and sarcastic sense of humour. She is so honest in it. I’m sure that if it was somebody else sitting by my side, such remarks would make me crazy but Gosia behaves in such a sweet way I’ve just got addicted to her. Since our first journey together to the Middle East, we have already travelled many times, and I hope we will keep travelling together in the future.
‘Some soup?’, asked me the same smiling man moving a vaporous bowl full of noodles toward my nose.
‘Oh no!’, Gosia strongly refused. ‘It’s too risky. I don’t trust them. They may not have boiled the water enough. I’m not going to stay in the middle of nowhere suffering from an Egyptian diarrhea.’
Of course she said it in Polish and luckily the eastern-looking man did not understand a word. Instead he made a big gulp of his noodle soup not caring much if the water had been prepared appropriately.
‘No, thank you. We are fine’, I replied. ‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after a while.
‘From South Korea. I’m here together with my friends to see the sunrise’, he replied waving to a group of smiling young people from the opposite bench. ‘And you?’
‘We are from Poland, and we are here just for the same reason as you are, I suppose …
My new friend smiled and nodded to my guess.
Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Their passion for travelling is an answer itself.
‘Are you single?’, the man asked out of the blue.
‘Well …’, I felt disconcert. ‘… Why are you asking?’.
‘If you are single, my friend is single too’, he said to me and then added something in Korean, surely to his single friend. The latter approached me with a piece of Korean sweet and encouraged me to try it: ‘It will give you power to reach the summit’, he promised while I was unwrapping up something that looked like orange jelly. I tried it carefully. It tasted like jelly.
‘Do you want some?’, I asked my Gosia.
‘No, thank you. I don’t feel like having a Korean diarrhea either …’, she said outright. ‘Enjoy!’
The very last length of the track turned out to be the most challenging of all. The stairs carved out along the path were filled with sharp stones covered in ice, and the slope itself was dangerously steep. Our Egyptian guide was doing his best trying to help us to move forward even if he kept sliding down the rocky steps. When eventually we reached the summit I forgot I was tired, frozen and out of my breath. The view itself was breathtaking …
“Wow!” I sighed.
The sunrise had just started. When the very first rays reached the rusty rocks of the summit, the Sinai Mount shone up reflecting the sunlight. Beneath, the curtains of darkness opened and blazing red landscape appeared to people gathered together at the top. Some were sitting side by side covered in blankets; others were standing up like enchanted columns of rock. Flashes of cameras brightened time after time. While the sun was rising higher and higher, the Sinai mountains uncovered their rugged outlines to the coming day, casting their dark shadows against a rocky desert.
It does not matter if Moses had ever been here. In such moments like that, you can definitely meet God and talk to Him …
Saint Catherine and Her Monastery
And then there left just trekking down. It was much funnier as it was already taken in the warm, Egyptian sun. In front of our eyes desert colours were dancing happily; even usually unmoved camels were pleased with the daylight and surely with the fact they could throw heavy loads away from their backs.
At the end of the way down, we came to the high walls of Saint Catherine Monastery. Built in the sixth century, the monastery is one of the oldest working Ortodox Christian monasteries in the world. It is very famous for its unique collection of Byzantine pre-iconoclastic panel icons that miraculously survived the hard time of religious turmoil on the lands of Byzantium. By the same tradition which leads Moses’ track to the Sinai Peninsula, the Burning Bush from the Bible grows just in here, within the walls of the monastery. According to the narrative, Moses heard the Voice of God who had taken the form of the burning bush not consumed by the flames. At that time Moses was ordered to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
Before we stared visiting that religious pearl in the desert, we opened our lunch boxes and enjoyed the silence of monastic atmosphere.
Unexpectedly, Gosia interrupted it thinking aloud: “I feel sorry for Moses” she said seriously “Poor man … he must have been exhausted just walking up and down…”
Few days before our trekking to the Sinai Mount, at the end of January, 2011, we landed on the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh. On the coach to the hotel I noticed numerous armed soldiers spread out all over the way. Suddenly our coach was ordered to stop by a military. From the perpendicular road a long black limousine went across in front of our coach. Then I found out that inside there was Sajjid Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was coming back from an emergency summit meeting organized in the face of the situation in Tunisia. A week later while we were crossing Israelite-Jordan border in Eilat, we learned about the Egyptian Revolution that had forcefully burst out in Cairo.
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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Amer (2018) “Catching Sunrise at Mount Sinai, Egypt – Breathtaking to say the least”. In: “Mount Sinai Trekking”. In: Where it all begins. Accessed on 29th June, 2018, link unknown.
Vetratoria.com (2018). “The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery”. In: The Holy Monastery of the Mount Sinai. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8zMYQ>.
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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.
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.
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.
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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High density of palm trees and a heavy breath of tropical climate were the first impressions that had touched my foggy senses since my arrival in Sri Lanka. Confused and exhausted, I crawled out of the airport dragging my suitcase behind me and carrying an unnecessary winter jacket over my shoulder. The flight was long and a nightmare, but a thought about staying on a warm island during the European winter slowly gave me a new strength to live.
Pyramid in the hands
Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I was planning, reading and watching a lot about that corner of the world, including the preparation of a bucket list things to do during my journey. I knew from experience that similar plans are subject to verification in the field. There were most famous monuments usually mentioned in tourist guides, especially Sri Lanka’s old state and religious capitals – the milestones of the island’s history. The official website of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka) connected all of them by means of a line creating an equilateral triangle, placed almost in the very centre of the island.
The figure of the triangle was additionally covered by a pair of hands, as if in a gesture of protecting cultural heritage. This pyramid-shaped graphic sign contains three ancient capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Inside the triangle field, the majestic Sigiriya and Dambulla with temples carved in the rocks were enclosed. Although they are indeed the most visited places, which are must-sees according to tourist folders, and at the same time extremely important places for the Buddhist community, it does not mean that the number of important places in Sri Lanka should be limited to the mentioned heritage triangle. On the contrary.
A similar sign of the pyramid enclosed in the hands, this time carved in the granite rock, can also be found elsewhere – in a place that is already outside the line of the geometric figure mentioned above, at the ancient site, called Mihintale. It is believed to have also been made by the same government organization to mark the place of Sri Lankan cultural heritage in the same way as it is represented in its famous logo. But why did the CCF choose a place for this sign beyond the delineated triangle? Why did they choose a less known site of Mihintale? The author of a series of articles devoted to the puzzling history of Sri Lanka, Volodymyr Kovalov (Cf. 3rd June, 2013), draws attention to yet another pyramidal-like triangle … It is formed by ancient cultural-religious complexes suspended on rocks, and simultaneously, unknown Sigiriya’s sisters.
Seat of gods suspended in the sky
The main symbol of the island constantly appears on postcards, folders and on more or less successful paintings hung on the walls of hotel rooms. The massive monolith from magma rock shoots from the ground in the very center of the island to the height of 180 meters.
If you remember the tales about turtles, so big that their shells seem to be islands covered with thick woods, you can easily compare them to the bulk of Sigiriya. The rock seems to bend under the weight of secrets that it wears on its steep back covered with tourists: “Lion Gate”, “Mirror Wall”, frescoes of women whose bodies are drowning in flowers and jewellery, and disappearing in clouds (see: Debate on the Paintings of Damsels Flying on the Clouds), megalithic constructions worked out in hard granite of unknown purpose … And there is only one written note about this giant in the archives preserved on the island:
He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri which is difficult to ascend for human beings. He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion… Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold, like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
The main character of this fragment tells about a builder of Sigiriya who, according to the record, was called the King Kashyapa (also Kassapa). He is believed to have ruled on the rock in the fifth century A.D. (473-495).
The fragment above comes from the chronicles called Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicles), which are a sequel to the much older chronicles of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicles). Mahavamsa covers the period from 543 to 300 BC., while Culavamsa deals with the period from the 4th century BC. up to 1815 AD. Over the centuries, the chronicles have been repeatedly transcribed and compiled, which greatly obscures the original history of the country. The text on Sigiriya itself appeared 700 years after the reign of the King Kashyapa. There is no other evidence of the age of the Sigiriya complex. And this is indeed a multipart construction, as it is not limited to the rock itself, but it also covers a significant area around the monolith. First, the road to the top of Sigiriya leads through the so-called “Water Terraces” and before it starts to steeply roll around its protruding belly, it climbs up the stairs that wind through the corridors created by the formations of huge granite boulders. These, in turn, faithfully guard the passage to the famous “Lion’s Gate”, flanked by two paws armed with claws … but are these really the remains of a lion, as it is described in the fragment above?
If the chronicle does not lie, Kashyapa had only 18 years to create the entire complex. Taking into account the material used, the impetus of the construction and quality of the tools available at the time, it seems rather unlikely. What’s more, after completing the feat, the king did not use its significant potential of defence, as if he had ignored the primal function of the fortress and the workload involved in its construction. In order to fight the final battle, he abandoned his insurmountable rock and faced heavy defeat at its feet. Besides, the circumstances of Kashyapa’s death are also shrouded in mystery and have different versions. Finally, the victorious brother of the beaten king moved the capital back to Anaradhapura, and Sigiriya fell into the hands of Buddhist monks and with time it became a pilgrimage and tourist centre. Probably the Buddhist followers had inhabited the rock much earlier, precisely around the 3rd century BC, as soon as the Buddhism appeared on the island.
Sigiriya is not a lonely island
In the same period, Buddhist monks undoubtedly formed monasteries in the caves of the Pidurangala rock, which is located a few kilometres north of Sigiriya.
Both rocks are the monoliths created as a result of volcanic activity, and their stories are related to each other. Pidurangala’s peak resembles the form of a slanted, flat triangle, as if someone had cut the top of the rock across with the same ease with which the butter is sliced.
From the top of Sigirya, you cannot see this characteristic triangle, or a heart to be more poetic, because it lies on the other side of Pidurangala (see: Kovalov 3rd Hune, 2013; 22nd March, 2013). The entrance to its summit is even more strenuous than in the case of the nearby Sigirya, but the view from there is magnificent, particularly on the famous neighbour, who is stormed by the crowds of tourists (see: Kovalov 3rd Hune, 2013; 22nd March, 2013) .
Are these really just fairy tales …?
Before I came to Sri Lanka, in my imagination Sigiriya dominated the plain as a lone monolith. Now it turned out that it is just one member of the team of rocks monoliths that form an enigmatic whole.
Together with already mentioned Pidurangala, Sigiriya points out a peculiar top of the pyramid with two other peaks at its base: Mihintale – in the northwest of Sigiriya and Yapahuwa – in the southwest.
Like Sigiriya, Yapahuwa has a flat bevelled top and steep walls. In the 13th century, there was a capital of the state and a religious centre with a famous Buddhist relic, which is now kept in Kandy. Mihintale, in turn, is a rocky table that carries huge blocks of granite. However, nature did not pull them up there. According to legends, the Mihintale summit once served as a place for anchoring aircraft, vimanas, described by Vedic texts such as Mahabharata.
The aforementioned Sri Lankan oldest chronicle, Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of Mahinda to Sri Lanka from India. Mahinda was a Buddhist missionary and a famous monk who was also the son of the ruler of India, Ashoka. With his coming he brought the new faith to Sri Lanka. Every tourist arriving on the island hears this story as a testimony to the beginnings of Buddhism there. I have heard it myself as well, but never in a full version of the story described by the chronicle. Namely, according to the full text Mahinda came to the island by landing in his vimana at the top of Mihintale, and his flight from India would have taken him less than a day …
As if I heard a modern report on an airplane journey from India to Colombo … The summit of Mihintale is also linked to the monk by his name – Mihintale means in Sinhalese as much as the “Mahinda Plateau”. According to ancient epic stories, both Sinhalese and Tamil, before the arrival of the monk, the same rock was called Sagiri, while the name Sigiriya is pronounced in the Sinhalese language as Sigiri (Cf. Volodymyr Kovalov, 3rd June, 2013). Such similarities certainly testify to the relation between the rocks.
Of course, similar content about ancient flying machines is treated as a fairy tale. Still it is quite illogical that the record compiled in the 11th century on the history of Sigiriya is widely accepted as an irrefutable fact, and some of the content that comes from much older sources is cut off in order to pass on only what the human mind is able to fully accept.
Ah, those ever-present pyramids…
On the stone in Mihintale, there is a carving of the already mentioned glyph of a pyramid or triangle covered by the hands. The top angle of the figure contains a smaller pyramid, as if an Egyptian pyramidion crowning the top of the main pyramid. The above-mentioned author, Volodymyr Kovalov (Cf. 3rd June, 2013), draws attention to this sign when he mentions a triangle made of rock monoliths: Sigiriya (Pidurangala) – Yapahuwa – Mihintale. The axis of symmetry of the triangle, from the top of Sigiriyia to its base, i.e. the horizontal line joining Mihintale and Yapahuva, meets with the axis of symmetry of the triangular peak of Pidurangala. As we all remember Pidurangala’s summit itself had once been shaped as a triangle. Couldn’t it be symbolically represented as a pyramidion of the pyramid carved in the Mihintale granite rock?
And who was Kuvera?
Kuvera or Kubera, mentioned above in the fragment of the Younger Chronicle (Culavamsa), was a god and legendary ruler of Lanka, today Sri Lanka. His half-brother Ravana (or Raavan) took power over him and became an undisputed ruler with his royal seat on Sigiriya (Alakamanda). There are other written sources telling of those events, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.
They belong to the epic Sanskrit of ancient India which was written on the basis of oral tradition, first formed during the Vedic period, namely in the first millennium BC. Ramayana focuses mainly on the armed conflict between Ravana and Rama, ruler of India, which was to take place millennia ago. Ramayana, meaning ‘the Way of Rama’, is one of the greatest Indian poems that has been adapted to many films and theatrical plays. Its authorship is attributed to also a legendary poet, Valmiki (see: ‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka). Indian eposes describe the time of flying vehicles – vimanas, an advanced technology and a nuclear war … Even today, inhabitants of Asia take those stories as actual records of their lands and ancient rulers … Although it is still impossible for western scholars to explain certain phenomena or purpose of major constructions scattered around Sri Lanka (likewise everywhere in the world), similar records are only treated as a bunch of legends created by people with a vivid imagination, just as an ancient genre of sci-fi.
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.