Last summer I visited a friend in Dublin. I also visited the National Museum of Archaeology. The visit was free of charge and amazing. The bog bodies impressed me the most. To block out the light, the bodies were placed in a spiral-like cardboard box. Thus meeting a bog body was a gradual process. And when I finally did meet them, we were utterly alone together. Together we had a private moment in a very public place. This is a rare experience in a museum.
And placed within the same exhibition – Kingship & Sacrifice -, there was the Gundestrup Cauldron. Or rather its replica. Yet still I was confronted with the cauldron’s sheer physicality. I was standing in front of an object I had seen many times before. It was an odd experience. I wonder if there are any Pagans who are not familiar with its imagery. Many still consider it the summon of Celtic art. And the placement of cauldron in an exhibition focussing on the national treasures of prehistoric Ireland, seemed to suggest a similar vein of thought, making it appear Irish by association.
The Gundestrup Caudron however is most definitely of Thracian workmanship and it was found disassembled in a Danish bog, not an Irish one. And Denmark is well out of the Celtic geographic sphere. As P. Sufenas Virius Lupus says:
“Something as definitively Celtic as the Gundestrup Cauldron, therefore, brings up all sorts of questions when it comes to syncretism and to external cultural influence.”
The sixteen-year old version of me would have been sorely disappointed by these facts. I would have wanted the Gundestrup Cauldron to be Celtic in all things. In much the same way, I wanted to be able to discern whether the bronze age burial sites on the heath lands of Regte Heide were Germanic or Celtic, or perhaps neither, in order to understand my heritage. I also remember a lot of heathen forum discussions on whether the south of the Netherlands was in fact ‘Celtic’ or Germanic’. A clear border was created between Celtic and Germanic peoples, and this border also distinguished between those who resisted the Roman invasion and those who succumbed to it. The Rhine river served as the marker.
This was a rather pointless discussion. People have always known how to cross the Rhine. The Romans did have forts north of the river. During the Migration period Franks and Saxons moved through the southern provinces of our present country. And the ancestors who lay in the burials mounds on the heath, we cannot be certain to what language they spoke. We know that they liked Celtic artwork, may have spoken something resembling a Germanic language, and in all likelihood had no understanding of Celtic versus Germanic tribes. Burial mounds of this form kind are rare and have not been found in present-day France or Germany. They are in fact far more similar to iron age mounds in southern England.
In the latest Queer I stand, P. Sufenas explains why he is an Antinoan Celtic Syncretistic Polytheistic Pagan. But how could any Pagan not be syncretistic? Syncretism is a plain reality. Like the multiplicity of truths and gods, we cannot effectively deny it.
The need for identification and for this identification to be certain and final can, I believe, be traced back to our current fluent identities. This is not limited to teenager experience. We all search for an identity and becoming tired, we would very much like it when something outside of our conscious selves, would determine our identity for us. Be it blood, science or little historic facts whipped into a shaky theory. I found Paganism in my teenage search for identity and connection. But as Paganism matures, we should all realise that we are responsible for our own identities, even if it is not fully in our own power to construct them. Cultural and religious diversity is a fact, but we still have to choose to be pluralists. In a similar vein, religious or cultural syncretism is unavoidable, but we do still need to embrace it.
I embrace the beauty of the Gundestrup Cauldron.
And I embrace syncretism.
In the end, Pagans create their own meaning and negotiate their own identities. Unlimited eclecticism can be a cop-out of making religious choices. But so are these rigid identification practices if they stand in the way of embracing beauty. When the gods speak to us, why would we deny them?
The gods most certainly speak through art. And art must always be syncretic in some way. The Gundestrup Cauldron really is magnificent. Yes, the gods even speak through replica art. And they speak of a story that changes while they are telling it. We should set the gods free. And we should let them set us free too.