Gundestrup Cauldron

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.

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10 thoughts on “Gundestrup Cauldron

  1. It’s evidence of cultural exchange like this that make me even more strongly hope for an eventual conclusion to the desires within the larger (at least) American Pagan community to disassemble ourselves into various smaller groups based on specific practice and belief.

    Historically, just about all of the cultures commonly cited for spiritual inspiration with the community had contact, both peaceful and violent, with each other. There’s even some evidence found in the 1950’s by Trinity College in Dublin that the Egyptians may have had contact with the ancient tribes inhabiting Ireland!

    Is this something you encounter with various European communities as well?

    1. Do you refer to European Pagan communities or European integration in general? As to the first, at the moment I have little contact with Pagan organizations. Having lost interest in them early on, and discovering like-minded people though blogs instead of internet forums, I have been rather negligent in seeking or building a Dutch-based community. So, strangely enough, I am in closer contact with American Pagans than my own country-man and am also much more informed on American political issues than you would expect, even if only through reading The Wild Hunt.

      Most of the Dutch groups and organisations I have some knowledge of, are wicca-based. Apart from an asatru/heathenry group, I do not think there is any organised reconstructionist group. The Netherlands is a very small country. That being said, I also have the impression that American Pagans seem more in need of a delineated cultural basis for their Paganism. Perhaps it’s because the America’s are nations of immigrants (though in fact all nations are). And thus many Dutch pagans do not feel the need to adopt another culture so to speak. For many European Pagans, their ancestral roots seem more obvious. I say ‘seem’, because it is not really so. I have German and Belgian ancestors, and as Europeans borders have moved around a lot the last centuries, most people only need go back a few generations to find foreigners in their genealogical tree.

      As to European integration … I am very much a European. I have friends in Ireland and England, though they have now decided to emigrate to India. Travel has become much easier and cheaper. To me, Spain feels a long way away at 2 hours by plain, but for an American this must seem very little. Someone once wrote that Americans think big in space, Europeans think big in time. Many American tourists are impressed with a building a century old. Europeans are used to that, nothing is really old if it isn’t Medieval, but any great distance seems even greater to us. So maybe Europeans in general are slightly less awed by the ancient, of by strange cultures. I only need drive for an hour and be in a different country where people speak a different language. However, I do feel the differences growing smaller.

      However, economic troubles reinforce nationalism. And I have seen how these nationalist angsts are reflected in heathen groups. I desire a bigger world than they do. And the world is in fact bigger. Nehalennia was venerated in Zeeland, was she Celtic, Germanic, Roman? Does she deserve any less honours because of this mixed heritage?

      New culture and art are created at the borders. The devision between those of a more stern re-constructionist bent and syncretists is a largely false one. If you go far enough back, we are all migrants, and all the gods have syncretistic roots.

      Gods, I am rambling on and on. Have I made any sense?

  2. “That being said, I also have the impression that American Pagans seem more in need of a delineated cultural basis for their Paganism.”

    That’s sort of what I was reaching for. I’ve talked to some Pagans in the UK and in Australia and they’ve been both somewhat surprised and mystified about the American community’s efforts to separate in Wiccan, Heathen, Hellenic, Qadishuma, Khemetic, etc. communities rather than grouping up under the umbrella of Pagan.

    1. I think that in the Netherlands, it is also a question of numbers. There are fewer of us, and the number of Pagans who are willing to lead even fewer. The situation in the UK, birthplace of both Wicca and Druidry, is rather different. The Netherlands is a far more secular state. The UK has a state religion (Church of England) but also recognized Druidry. In the Netherlands there are no recognized religions at all. All are equal, but therefore there is also no media attention. There is no BBC. I suspect the differences between the European countries are very great. There was an article on The Wild Hunt about Paganism in France, where it was made clear that the lack of translated books was a real issue. This would be the less the case here because almost all higher educated Dutch people under 40 have mastered the English language pretty well.

    1. Yes, it would. Not that you need any advertising on my part, but good ideas deserve to spread. And you tend to have many reasonable ideas, so … referencing to you cannot be avoided I’m afraid.

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