Celts and the Gundestrup Cauldron

Celts and the Gundestrup Cauldron May 1, 2016

Photography was not permitted in the Celts exhibit. The picture of the torque is from the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron is from Wikimedia Commons.

a gold torque – National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

The Gundestrup Cauldron is a silver bowl about 27 inches in diameter. It is heavily decorated on both the interior and exterior with scenes from Celtic mythology. It’s about 2100 years old and it was found in a bog in Denmark 1891. It’s normally on display in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

The Cernunnos pendant I often wear in ritual is modeled after one of the scenes on the Cauldron. Whether this deity is actually Cernunnos is impossible to say with certainty, though I think He is, both from the (very limited) historical evidence and from my own UPG. I have wanted to see the Cauldron in person ever since I began wearing the pendant, and when I heard it would be in Edinburgh during our trip I made plans to see it.

The Gundestrup Cauldron is part of the Celts exhibit, a collection of artwork by people who are generally considered Celts. It covers about 2500 years of time, from the earliest mention of Celts to the present. My experience of the Cauldron was amazing, magical, and holy. But first I want to talk a little about the Celts exhibit as a whole.

The Celts Exhibit

“Celtic” refers to language and culture, not a bloodline. If you’re not familiar with that concept, the introduction on the “Celts” Wikipedia page provides a nice summary. The introduction on the National Museum of Scotland website says:

The idea of a shared Celtic heritage across ancient Europe retains a powerful hold over the popular imagination. But many common ideas about the people known as ‘Celts’ are in fact more recent re-imaginings, revived and reinvented over the centuries.

The collection is beautiful and powerful. In addition to the Gundestrup Cauldron, it includes the Battersea Shield, numerous gold torques, an ancient musical instrument called a carnyx, various stone carvings, statues, jewelry, and other objects. Whoever put the collection together did an outstanding job of telling the story of the Celtic peoples through the artwork they created.

The interpretations, though, leave much to be desired – particularly the short films running on continuous loops at key points in the exhibit. The worst showed examples of Celtic knot work and then claimed it was derived from Greek and Roman art. Now, I was at Bru na Bóinne two days earlier – I saw the carvings on the stones at Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Those stones were not carved by Celts, but they were there when the Celts and Celtic culture arrived in Ireland and Britain. To my eye, the Celtic knot work owes more to the stone carvings than to any “borrowing” from Greece and Rome.

The impact of the Romans on Britain (and through Britain, on America) is huge, but it is not the only influence. Both historically and religiously, I could have done with a lot less talk about Rome in an exhibit on Celts.

But that’s a minor complaint – I still greatly enjoyed the exhibit. The Celts exhibit is at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh through September 25. Museum entry is free – the Celts exhibit is £10 and tickets are available online. We visited on a Wednesday morning and crowds were very small – I imagine that will change on weekends and in the summer.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

The Cauldron is what I came to Edinburgh to see. It’s located about halfway through the exhibit in its own area. When I saw the entrance, I turned my back – I wanted to finish looking at the nearby artifacts, then give the Cauldron my full attention. When I was ready, I turned around and saw the Cauldron for the first time with my own eyes.

I got nothing.

Don’t misunderstand – it’s beautiful. It’s bigger than I had imagined, and the relief artwork is deeper and more pronounced. I found the Cernunnos panel and was surprised that it was on the inside of the cauldron – I knew the artwork was on both the interior and exterior, but for some reason I had assumed that panel was on the outside. Some of the other panels I recognized, some I had never seen even in pictures. It was beautiful, but it carried no more magic for me than any of the other pieces in the museum.

I didn’t know there was also a panel in the bottom of the cauldron. It wasn’t part of the original design – it was added after a hole developed in the bottom of the bowl. Whatever the Gundestrup Cauldron was used for, it was a working tool, not a display of wealth (well, not only a display of wealth). I looked down into the Cauldron, examining the “patch panel,” then my eyes moved to the smooth silver of the bowl itself.

And then the magic hit me.

I had it wrong all along. The artwork doesn’t make the Cauldron sacred. The Cauldron – the bowl, the working part of the vessel – makes the artwork sacred. This is a vessel of the Earth, made from metals of the Earth, made by people of the Earth. The magic of the Gundestrup Cauldron flows up, not down. While it invokes the Gods and heroes depicted on its sides, it does so to honor them, not to draw on their power.

It was overwhelming. I wanted to drink from the Cauldron, but I didn’t have to physically consume anything to be filled with its magic, its power, and its holiness. I don’t know how long I stood there taking it all in.

Eventually it was time to move on. The exhibit wasn’t crowded, but there were others who wanted close access to the Cauldron and while I was honored to share this experience with my traveling companions, I didn’t particularly want to share it with strangers.

I’m reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions based on this one experience, particularly in light of the experiences I had and the work I did in Orkney. But if nothing else, this serves as a reminder that magic and holiness can often be found in ordinary places, even (especially) when surrounded by extraordinary beauty.

If you can get to Edinburgh before the end of September, go see Celts, and experience the Gundestrup Cauldron for yourself.

The Gundestrup Cauldron. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Gundestrup Cauldron. Image via Wikimedia Commons
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