Feathers of Celtic Art

curated by David Zoller

Understanding the Celts as a loosely defined group of peoples has been a continual source of interest, yet it remains coupled with confusion and debate.  In fact, even calling the tribal clans of northern Europe, that spread their boundaries and their culture throughout the continent, "Celts" is considered an historical misnomer by some scholars.  The main barrier to finding clues to the true nature of the Celts is the fact that they, mostly on religious grounds, forbade the writing of a scripted language.  The only known written accounts come from outside sources, some spanning hundreds of years after the Celts reached their high-water mark of civilization,  and other written documents are embellished by personal interests.  What the Celts did leave behind was a plethora of art and artifacts, spanning the continent and documenting almost one thousand years of  their material culture.  Through the remains of their art-making is revealed a complex civilization governed by mythological religious beliefs and rituals. During the span of time they occupied Europe successfully the Celts maintained what appears to be a steady cultural consistency that is shown in the way they depict and reuse the same symbols and imagery in their artwork.  Birds have appeared in all cultures, indicating that from earliest times, humans have revered the bird, whether, engraved into a Neolithic wall or cast by Roman workers.  For the Celts, this one symbol is especially prevalent, since they have left many images of  birds.  The bird imagery provides a singular opportunity to investigate the relationship of Celts to their natural world.  Their creativity and their attention to detail  in the record of the world around them give insights into Celtic culture that are amazingly colorful and mysterious.
 Birds, occupying virtually every part of the Celtic lands, were often significant to many religious cults, and were the center of many early pagan Celtic beliefs and iconographic images, as well as in later Northern European literature and folklore.  Even as Celtic culture moved from the La Tène to the early Christian period, the imagery continued.  What could have spurred their interest and in many cases, sacred designation of birds is still under academic study.  The famous anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss offers some very favorable insight into man's fascination with birds in ancient cultures.

They [birds] are feathered, winged, oviparous and they are also physically separated from human society by the element in which is their privilege to move.  As a result of this act, they form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live.

The Celts had a close association with the earth, which is evident in the mythologies eventually recorded in written texts, for the gods dwelt on the earth around them.  The planet's geographical features that expanded into the sky were sacred, as well as the animals that could roam the sacred space above.  Birds show up in Celtic traditions as symbols of divinity and as servants and messengers of the gods.   Like virtually all Celtic artifacts, the birds were not direct natural representations of the birds around them, but rather creatively fashioned of elaborate design and ornamentation. Key structures, such as wings and beaks are mostly recognizable while the rest of the animal falls into the aesthetic design of the piece. Owls, various birds of prey, ravens, and swans are prominent in Celtic art and mythologies, while other birds played smaller roles in the artistic history.
Owls are believed to have played a more prominent role in early Celtic cults, and could perhaps have derived from a more broadly based deity of a common European descent.  Predating the Greek cult of Athene, for whom the owl was an animal attribute, were images of these mysterious birds in Celtic lands.  Owls are believed to be a sacred animal to the famed Cult of the Head.  They often appear with human heads and with bovines, such as rams and bulls, all of which have been determined by scholars to be objects of this strange cult.   In modern Scottish and Welsh languages, the owl, by the etymology of the word alone carries negative connotations of death and darkness. Then, in later Gallo-Roman times the Owl lost its cult significance, but has been linked to a Celtic goddess associated with fertility.   The most famous myth dealing with the owl is in the story of Bloudeuwedd, contained in the Mabinogi.    Lleu, one of the central characters of the story has a wife created for him by the magician Gwydion, because his mother forbade by her own word that he would never marry any ordinary woman.  Bloudeuwedd is her name, and as the tale goes she tricks Lleu into divulging the secret to his own mortality, convincing him to even demonstrate how.  In the process, Bloudeuwedd then kills Lleu, who avenges his death by turning her in and owl, from which she receives her namesake in Gaelic.  A prime example of owl imagery are the handle fittings found with a famous cauldron found in Bra, Jutland that dates to the 3rd century B. C.. The cauldron was found in a bog in Bra, and was believed to have been a votive offering that was broken into pieces before it was deposited.  When put together, the cauldron spanned over a meter in diameter and was adorned by several owls and bulls heads.  In the Celtic style, the fitting bears the face of an owl through an arrangement of shapes that terminate at the end of some columnar tendril designs.  This owl is typical of La Tène work and is defined by the large eyes and sharp, curved beak that stand forth from background of intertwining designs.

Birds of prey, similar to owls, show up in earlier Celtic history in cults and are the most widespread species of bird found in artifacts.  Celts, like many ancient societies saw large birds, such as the eagle as the dominant kings of the sky.  Birds of prey were the strongest, the largest and could fly the highest it seemed, which is probably what led large birds of prey to be connected to the sun and solar cults.  Later, Celts adopted the eagle who was the attribute of the Roman Jupiter.  An early appearance of a bird of prey is the large stone statue that was found in the ruins of Roquepertuse in France .  Dating to the 3rd century B. C., the sanctuary contained a hillfort that was adorned by this bird, and some animal and human heads.  This bird of prey is life-size and is distinguished by its protruding beak and claws; however, its wings have been lost.  One of the most interesting artifacts illustrating birds is a battle helmet that was discovered in Ciumesti, Rumania from the early 3rd century B. C..   Adorning the top of the tendril decorated iron helmet is a large bronze bird of prey.  This helmet, with its fierce bird of prey, is thought to have seen combat.  The large bird was probably used  for its powers of strength and association with the gods.  The bird is anatomically correct, especially in the facial area, with the large beak and enameled eyes.  Especially intriguing is that the wings actually move with the wind.  The sight of a warrior wearing this mechanical headdress with its combination of form and function, must have been awe inspiring to foes.

Birds of prey, however, are not limited to military gear. Personal adornment for a female, in the form of a fibula brooch form Panensky Tynec, Czechoslovakia from the 5th century B. C. curiously features a bird of prey facing a ram's head. This bronze bird of prey is beautifully depicted in ornate designs and patterns.  Spirals and vegetal designs, characteristic of Celtic metalwork, cover the surface of the bird to illuminate its surface features and artistically rendered body.  While, the face is very naturalistic, with detailed eye, beak and head.   Another portrayal of a bird of prey that is remarkably striking is of a bronze eagle found in Silchester, Hampshire from the 2nd century A. D.. This piece is the closest actual natural representation of any bird of prey found in Celtic art, which can be due to its time and purpose of creation.  The feathers are detailed and the entire body and face follow closely an actual eagle.  Due to the roundness of the underside of the feet, it is believed this eagle adorned the top of a globe that was held by Jupiter or and Emperor.   Thus, here is an example of how Celtic metalworkers transformed their craft and symbols with the inclusion and submersion into Roman culture.  With their long tradition of honoring birds of prey, the Roman eagle was easily adapted for Celtic use.

The raven is another bird that is prominent in Celtic art and lore.  In Gaul, Ireland and Britain ravens are associated with groups of gods and goddesses.   On many artifacts found around Europe there are depictions of gods, and goddesses, often in threes, holding or being surrounded by ravens.  They are capable of foretelling the future and are closely associated also with war and fertility as are the ravens they bear.  One such god, Lugus, whose name connotes "raven" in Gaelic was believed to be a messenger to the gods due to his ability to fly, similar to Mercury.  Also the raven played a valuable role in foretelling the future for Celtic Druids.    The flights and cries of ravens were divinely linked to predicting events of the future, especially evil.  Artistically, the ravens adorn mostly metalwork associated with death or funerary rites.  A widely known piece featuring the raven is the bronze flesh-hook from the Dunaverney Bog, in Antium, Ireland, indicating that the raven was a bird with a long tradition in Ireland before the Celts arrived.   This work is actually utilitarian in use, as it was used to move and suspend pieces of meat for cooking.   On one side of the shaft of the hook stand two identical depictions of ravens.  Though they are basically three-dimensional silhouettes of the bird, detailed only by eye- holes, the shape, especially the emphasis of the beak reveals the species.  These two ravens directly oppose a family of five swans, and hanging directly under all of the birds are single rings, where the meat was hung.

Another popular bird in Celtic art and literature is the swan, or any other closely shape-related water bird.  As mentioned above, five swans appear on the Antium flesh-hook, and, like the ravens, are recognizable only by the contours of their bodies, with sockets for eyes.  Though seemingly basic, these aesthetic figures still immediately translate the intended representation to the viewer.  The swan came into prominence as a cult image also in early Celtic history.  Like the large birds of prey, the swan is thought to be associated with the sun cults.   Aquatic birds throughout ancient Europe were believed to possess the therapeutic powers of rivers, lakes and other bodies of water deemed sacred to the sun.  Religious deities are drawn in chariots led by swans, and often they transform themselves into these birds.  One such tale involves Angus, an Irish folk hero, who desires another deity, the goddess, Cear, who cyclically transforms from a swan to a human form every other year.  Seeing an advantage to her abduction in bird form, Angus transforms himself into a swan to apprehend her while she is bathing, at which he is successful.   Swans appear to have a closer connection to humans in Celtic culture, as is suggested by the amount of these morphing tales of humans into swans.  In art, other depictions of swans bear human jewelry and acting in human activities. A set of six bronze torcs from the Marne region in  France, dating to the late 5th century BCE, feature swan-like birds on all of them.   The primary motif on the torcs are silhouetted swans that are mostly in pairs surrounding either a wheel, of solar significance, or an image of the tree of life, and image of lasting Eastern European lore.  Some of the swans are sums of their shape with eyes and some decorative punchwork, while others are even less, demoted visually to a series of geometric shapes that barely suggest the species.

Thus, through the different representations of birds in Celtic art  the complexities, as well as the consistencies, are revealed.  Some pieces are utilitarian/ritual such as the flesh-hook, while others, like the fibula, show the owner's status.  The mythology is creative and full of the world around the Celts, especially the natural.  The skilled detail and classic Celtic ornamental style show an artistic mind at work that far exceeds the expectations of ancient craftsmanship.  And the sites of these finds document the position, movement and origins of a people we would otherwise know little about.

Beauvrey (Marne), France
Second half 5th century B. C.
Saint Germain, Musee de Antiquities Nationales



Beauvrey (Marne), France
Second half 5th century B. C.
Saint Germain, Musee de Antiquities Nationales


Sarry (Marne), France
Second half 5th century B. C.
Chalons-sur-Marne, Musee Municipal

These particular torcs were found in a series of tombs being excavated in the surrounding areas of Marne, France, which dates back to the ancient Celtic Marne kingdoms.  Some of the arms of the torcs consist of repeatedly twisted spiral coils that wrap from the ends of the piece, which are designated by little balls, to the top design.  While, others consist of mainly a plain band.  However, on the top part of all three of the torcs is an attatched series of virtually symmetric designs of bird that show up all over Celtic metalwork, similar to the openwork of many plates and plaques.  In fact, there were six of these bird torcs found around this site that can be placed in the same time period.  Attached three-dimensionally to the center of the first torc is a symbol of the "sacred tree", designated by three open circles oriented on top of a stem.  Connected to each side of this tree is a water bird (thought to be a swan) facing toward the tree.  There are also two smaller, but similar birds facing outward from the center that are tail to tail with the first set of birds.  The second torc has only the two central swans, outlined by punchworked holes, facing a large wheel with a cross-shaped spoke (a solar symbol).  While, on the third torc, which also has only the two central swans, has been further abstracted to simple geometric etchings and shapes surrounding a small square, with a hollow interior.  All the representations on this piece are treated very two-dimensionally suggested by a flat-silhouetted outline, which is was very typical of the early styles in Celtic metal art.  Some of the other torcs similar to those found at Marne did use some punchwork, such as and were believed to have gems used for the small eyes of the birds such as the Waldalgesheim metalwork form Germany. Torcs were worn by half the female population in Celtic times and from adolescence on seem to have some type of social importance.  Jewelry assemblages found at gravesites can be used to indicated hierarchy of the female tombs.

Statue of a Bird of Prey from the Roquepertuse Sanctuary
Bouches-du-Rhone, France
3rd century B. C.
Marseilles, Musee, de la Vieille Charite

Originally believed by archaeologists to be a large stone statue of a goose, this piece found at the famous Roquepertuse site has been identified as a bird of prey.  With more recent reconstruction and restoration, this piece has almost retained its original shape, but many of the exterior surface features are unknown.  The full, like-like size statue adorns a short rectangular podium, upon which rest its long feet, with talons engraved on the rock.
The bird rests on the podium with its body straight and neck curved to the left, so that the bird is looking to the side.  On the breast of the bird, there is some indication of the feathers by roughly chiseled patterns.  Most of the tail has been lost, but the face is in good shape, showing the eyes, which are holes now that were filled with some type of precious gem, and a stubbed beak.  This statute, as well as the famous Janiform Deity Head, full Statue of a Man and some engraved animal figures were part of a hillfort sanctuary complex made of stone and timber, and were thought to have been created by a early Celtic society, influenced of the Late Iron Age.  In fact, the site was an important place of gathering by societies as far back as the late Neolithic age.  Some have associated the Roquepertuse site with the mystic Cult of the Head and their Pagan rituals, while others believe the findings to actually be an accurate record of the society of the period.

Cauldron Handle Attachment
Bra, Jutland, Denmark
3rd century B. C.
Moesgaard, Forhistorisk Museum
This handle fitting is part of a large bronze cauldron that was recovered and reconstructed near Jutland, Denmark and is over one meter in diameter. The cauldron was found at a burial site in Bra, and was broken into pieces before placed into a bog seemingly as a votive deposit.  It was adorned on the rim five cast bulls heads and birds head ring attachments that held the three large iron rings.  This particular piece, despite its small size is finely crafted with delicate ornamentation.  The front face of the flat semi-circular fitting bears a three-dimensional face of an owl that is constructed of several curved, and circular shapes, with the large eyes and sharp beak standing out.  Celtic scholars refer to the technique of creating hidden or suggestive faces out of designs as the "Cheshire Cat style" of ornamentation.  Running from the top the furrowed brow of the owl all the way to the backside is an attached columnar ring that is detailed with curved triscles and tendril designs. The exterior sides of the fitting are lipped to reinforce the structure.  The Bronze pieces associated with the Bra Cauldron, as well similar mounts and fittings found in the Moravian cemetery at Malomerice represent the emergence of the Celtic Plastic Style of the 3rd Century.

Ciumesti, Rumania
3rd century B. C.
Iron and Bronze
25cm h.
Bucharest, Mazeul National de Istorie

One of the most interesting pieces in Celtic art is this helmet that is mounted, like a perch by a bird of prey whose wings actually flap when met by wind.  The cap of the helmet is made of iron and was roughly caste, which gives it a very interesting appearance in the presence of light. There are several raised circular areas around the helmet in the middle and along the rim that are almost spiral.  A small rear flap adorns the back third of the helmet.  The body of the helmet comes together to a point that is attached to a small round perch that the bronze bird of prey clutches to.  The legs are smooth, and gradually widen into the belly.  The entire body of the bird is pressed into a design that resembles a turtle shell.  On each side are hinges that attach the wings, which are long smooth pieces of bronze with blue enameled tips.  The tail is also composed of similar bronze sheets.  The head is a small round shape and is characterized by walnut-shaped, red enamel eyes and a blue enameled beak that resembles a two piece crystal.  This helmet was found in what is believed to be the funerary tomb of a Celtic chieftain.  Though it was found in a funerary context, helmets such as this one were actually used in combat.

On their heads they wear bronze helmets which possess projecting figures lending the appearance of enormous stature to the wearer.  In some cases, horns form one piece with the helmet while in other cases it is the relief figures or the foreparts of birds or quadrupeds.

-Diodorus Siculus

Dunaverney Bog, Co. Antium, Ireland
8th century B. C.
60.7 cm
British Museum, London

This bronze utensil dates back to the Hallstatt period, when Celtic metalworkers were still developing their craft.  The flesh-hook is composed of a the long main rod, which is adorned by a knob at one end and come to a "T" at the other end, with two pronged hooks inserted into it that curve at the end.  The rod section is periodically designed by separated bands of engraved lines, and is indented slightly in two places.  On the knobbed end are two attached raven figures, and facing this pair, as if they were going to meet are five swan-shaped birds, with two larger ones in the front, followed by three smaller ones.  All the birds are treated with basic stylization, which was a trademark of the Hallstatt period.  For the bodies are suggestions of shape, especially the s-shaped swans, with no detail except for punched holes for eyes. Both animals in this procession are known to be sacred to many Celtic societies.  Directly below each of the birds on the other side of the rod are small bronze rings that hang down.  Thought he true use of this object is unknown, it was believed to have been used to move and hang lumps of meat for cooking in a cauldron.  This one was recovered from the Dunaverney Bog, which not by mistake, for the Celts were historically known for their treasure hoards in lakes and bogs.

Panensky Tynec, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia
Lt. 5th  century B. C.
1.3 cm
Narodni Museum

This piece was discovered in the late 19th century in a grave site near Louny in Bohemia, along with several other metal artifacts that give evidence for the presence of Czechoslovakian chieftains in to the early La Tene period.  The brooch, unlike many similar pieces, was cast whole and is adorned by a goat’s head on one end and a whole bird ad the other facing the goat.  Both animals are more naturalistic, with their main physical attributes comprising more of elaborate design than actual figuring.  Cross-hatching lines, swirls and other cast designs cover the entire bodies of the two animals to create the illusion of fur and feathers, as well as the entire body of the bow, whose lines form a complex pattern of curved interlace weaving.  If one looks very closely, you will find that both the bird and the goat are wearing tiny torc collars, typical to the contemporary Celtic culture.  Brooches such as this one and has been compared to a series of other similar zoopomorphic brooches from Halstatt Croatia have been instrumental in introducing the idea of animal and figure decorated fibulae to the Celtic world.  The appearance of birds on fibulae in particular is thought to have originated in Greece, with their use of bird designs for the Grecian situlae.  Most of the Celtic brooches have been discovered at the grave sites of women, and may have indicated status and identity within their respective societies.  Some even believe that with the complex ornamentation and once shiny metal was designed to ward off evil spirits.

Statue of an Eagle
Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester, Hampshire
2nd century, A. D.
Collection of the Duke of Wellington
This bronze piece, created in a much later time in Celtic artistic evolution, was hollow cast and is by far the most naturalistic rendering of any bird known in Roman Britain.  The bird is posed for flight with the head tilted upward, however, the wings that were once attached to the slots on the back, were believed to be raised up as if about to take off.  Instead of the famous Celtic hatch design for the feather adornment, the detail and realism in this artifact are amazing to the point were you can count the exterior feather sets.  This is a great departure form most of the Celtic metal figurines that are made before the great influx of Roman rule and culture, which brought new traditions in art as well.  The finest rendering is done on the head, whose curved brow and staring eyes give a very real feel to the bird, along with its curved protruding beak.  The curve of the under sides of the feet suggest that the claws once clasped the surface of a round object, such as a globe.  Therefore, experts believe the eagle once crowned globe the laid in the large-scale hand of Jupiter or one of the emperors.  More than likely it was commissioned by a Roman citizen to be made for honorary purposes.