Celtic Phalerae: Quintessential Examples of an Oral Culture’s Visual Expression

Found entombed with numerous Celtic charioteers and warriors, ancient phalerae are ornamental metal discs worn by their horses. The phalerae have been recovered from burials throughout northern Europe, including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. The designs found on these phalerae are distinctive to the various Celtic cultures that created them and offer an insight into the patterns that ordered the Celtic view of the world.

An oral people, Celts passed on their knowledge and understanding of the world through poems, songs, stories, and art. The complexity of the designs, which are based on repetition, parallel the structures found in Celtic literature, which have their roots in oral traditions. The Celtic artists who created these designs are in sharp contrast to the Greek artists who busied themselves with the human figure and a recreation of natural forms. The contrast between the two cultures, may, in part, be the result of a Greek system of written and a Celtic system of orality which eschewed writing. As the ethnographers Marcia and Robert Aschler have stated, "All humans, literate or not, impose arbitrary orders on space" (p. 125). Although both Greek and Celtic ordering of space is highly mathematical, the Celtic patterns are emphatically abstract and circular, as opposed to the more linear and narrative patterns of Greek art.

Many of the visual patterns show a remarkable continuity from ancient to more modern periods. The phalerae in this study survive from the La Tène period, ranging from the fifth century BCE to the 1st century BCE. Phalerae designs peak in this period, articulating abstract concepts and embodying the complexities of Celtic ornamentation.


Poetic Rhythm in Phalerae Design

A common trend in all phalerae is the use of repetition and layering of distinct patterns to create a dynamic circular image. "Orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically," writes linguist Walter Ong. (p.34) Accustomed to preserving their cultural knowledge through a collective memory as opposed to a written account, the Celts relied on mnemonic systems. (Ong, 35) Patterns of gesticulation and musical interlude often accompanied Celtic bards’ storytelling, techniques that enhanced memory and recall. Phalerae, with their patterns of design, epitomize the oral mind frame that identifies with dynamic repetition.

During the La Tène period, the use of the compass as a tool for making designs became popular. The compass-drawn phalera with band of web design shows the complexity of this craftsmanship. Four small circles of webbed and punched design surround the central band of web and the inner circle. The repetition of circles, punches and webs puts movement into this phalera.

The compass-drawn phalera with stylized lotus blooms is another example of a systematically rendered piece. Its layered structure of different sized circles generates a pattern that resembles four lotus blooms around a central circular axis. The curved triangular and elliptical negative spaces formed by the overlapping circles add delicate tension to the phalera’s metal form.

The Waldalgesheim Style, with its patterns of palmettes, triskeles, lotus blooms, and other vegetal forms, developed during the Insular la Tène period. The combination, repetition, and reversing of these basic forms allowed for an infinite variation of designs.

The layering of many significant images surely represented conceptual ideas to the Celts. The simple circle was a Celtic solar symbol. Ong writes, "Oral subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects," (p. 51). The Celts also associated the circle with the wheel and their special calendar. Palmettes often resemble spooky faces, and vegetal patterns represent mistletoe and other sacred Celtic plants. In the phalera from Horovicky, two bands of mask-like faces surround a central boss. The faces peek out of palmette plants and are flanked with sets of large dots. The combination of these images creates a tour de force of iconography.

Celtic tales were not memorized verbatim, as there were no text from which to read word for word. Instead, it was up to the bard to pass along stories in their own manner. In the same way, Celtic artists had the responsibility to create phalerae that carried on a visual dialog with the people. this meant using the formulas, patterns, and iconic designs in accordance with tradition. "They used only fundamental units," writes Doran, "yet their art is of monumental complexity," (p. 263).

Enigmatic Images Relate to Life on the Fringe

"Shunning the rigid rationality of their classical neighbors, the Celts appear to have embraced the subtly cyclic and occasionally chaotic world around them," writes Harvard Celtic scholar Brent Doran (p. 276). Contact with nature was an intrinsic part of life as a Celt. Northern Europe was covered in thick forests full of wild animals boars and wolves. Mediterranean cultures did associate with the Celts, but trading was difficult for it involved navigating long distances up rivers or sailing out into the Atlantic. While influences of Etruscan and Arabic design are seen in Celtic art, the Celts maintained a culture distinctly separate from their Eurasian neighbors.

The patterns of many phalerae reveal the views of Celtic people living on the fringe of Europe. "Oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien, objective world to the more immediate familiar interaction of human beings," writes Ong (p. 42). The use of dynamic patterns and zoomorphic and shape-shifting images in phalerae shows the profound link between nature and Celtic culture.

The phalera from Chao de Lamas, Spain features variations on the swirl pattern highlighted by hammered-out dots and dashes. The movement suggested by these designs relates to forceful wind or rough ocean waves. The sparkling dash details could be sun rays. Or they may imply the refraction of light by water or the emotion stirred when enveloped by such a powerful atmosphere. Whatever feeling, moment or religious notion the pattern represents, the important aspect to note is that it is totally abstract.

Oral cultures have no need to name things that are non-objective. Celtic visual depiction took the place of verbal description when dealing with intellectual concepts. "Trades were learned by apprenticeship, which means from observation and practice with only minimal verbalized explanation," notes Ong (p. 43). Literate cultures seek to describe feelings and ideologies through invented words in order to document in writing the ethereal. The abstract patterns on Celtic phalerae articulate certain cultural sentiments and awareness that remained unnamed in their oral tradition.

Shape-shifting and zoomorphic images are commonly featured on phalerae. Like swirls, these images reveal the dynamic of Celtic life linked to the natural world. The play between negative and positive space in the phalera from Langenhain, Germany allows the viewer to see series of lotus blooms and rings of abstract faces. Returning to the idea that the Celts put into design what could not be verbally articulated, one can only imagine what such mysterious images suggest. Celtic tales included descriptions of deities that hid within nature and that changed into other animals. Ong writes, ‘Nature states no ‘facts’: these come only within statements devised by human beings to refer to the seamless web of actuality around them, " (p. 43). The shape-shifting phalera may seek to make a concrete portrayal of puzzling natural phenomena that no words can pin down. Written accounts of the Celts by Greco-Roman explorers document that the Celts commonly used puns and questioning in their conversation . The writings as well as ancient folklore describe the Celts’ belief in magic. Perhaps shape-shifting phalerae refer to enigmas involved in the Celtic oral tradition and spiritual relations.

The phalera with enamel and coral inlay, when closely examined, reveals zoomorphic images, distracting, flashy inlay and sacred number sequences. This compilation of forceful elements implies a link between the phalera and the Celt’s world view. The vegetal, spiraled s-curves and teardrop patterns epitomize the Waldalgesheim Style that was contemporary with the phalera’s creation. Shiny coral and enamel inlay serve to catch the eye. The contrast between the gold surface and the inlaid areas gives definition to the features of the abstract faces. The attention to detail and concordance with Celtic symbolic forms shows the Celtic artisans involved intense cultural significance in the phalerae they crafted.

Phalerae as Significant Objects in Celtic Society

The Celts were known for their fighting skills on horseback and in chariots throughout Eurasia. The fact that phalerae were worn by the Celts’ war horses indicates that they were an esteemed item of battle gear. No two phalerae are exactly the same, yet they always include imagery that relates to cultural norms. It is highly possible that phalerae were made for specific warriors as a religious force or blessing to take into battle.

Maybe each phalera served as a warrior’s personal crest. An analogy, in this case, can be made to the practices of the Native Americans that inhabited the plains of North America. A nomadic culture, these people hauled their tee-pees with them when they moved. Families painted the outside of their tee-pees with meanigful images: hunting scenes, animals linked to their spiritual worlds and abstract designs of their distinct tribe.

Did Celtic warriors have specialized phalerae custom-made to portray the cultural imagery most significant to their personal spirituality? The fact that many warriors were buried with their horse’s fittings, the phalera being the most poignant piece of these sets, speaks to the phalera’s relationship to the deceased individual. Many burials also included food and riches to support the dead in the afterlife. That phalerae were involved in the passage to ‘ eternity’ secures their relevance as manifestations of the spiritual realm.

small silver phalera