Tag Archives: celtic

The Living Cross

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The main thrust of this article is to discuss the origins of the symbols found in a range of metalworking patterns that have been continuously employed in Ethiopian crosses, so you can enjoy the complexity they display.  Ethiopian crosses are possibly the most interesting crosses on earth, because each one looks completely different, of the finest examples no two are made the same, by tradition.  This is a rare rule in ornament, and there is an interesting story in African art history behind it.

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As head pieces for processional staves, pendant necklaces, and hand-carried objects, the Ethiopian cross is distinguished for its stylistic variety and complexity, and also for its unique ability to escape being locked into an isomorphic form.  Through tradition the precedent of variation has been preserved, allowing artisans to take liberty with the shapes and patterns of their choosing.  Creative license with the cross is more rare in modern formulations of Christianity, where the symbol, particularly the Roman cross, has a standardized form.

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Historians are unable to agree when the the cross was adopted as the primary emblem of Christianity.  It is generally thought to be no earlier than 200 AD, becoming widespread in the 3rd century.  The use of a cruciform for religious, talismanic, and decorative uses dates to neolithic times.  The stellar cross – a simple plus sign, the solar cross – a circle sectioned by an equilateral cross, which is also used as a symbol of the earth, and the swastika – the rotating cross or spiral, are early forms found in nearly all ancient cultures.  This includes cultures likely to not have communicated, and draws attention to the features of balance, symmetry, and the effect of diffraction creating rays around any light source, when you squint your eyes, as inspiring mysteries and sources of graphic inspiration common to human perception.  One of the marked interests in Ethiopian designs is the combined use of all these ancient forms.

Note: all images without captions are Ethiopian.

The Ankh

In Coptic Egypt, the ankh or crux ansata (Latin, “cross with a handle”) was still in active use, found etched into any of the mounds of stone temples old and new, perhaps for of its usefulness as the graphic symbol of life itself.   The ankh symbol is linked with a range of earth and fertility goddesses from a variety of cultures, and its use as our modern symbol for the female survives to this day, along with its use in science for identifying the planet Venus in astronomy.

 

Ankh amulet

Egypt, Ankh amulet, faience, 1700 BCE

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The symbol can be found in neighboring cultures that shared economic ties.  One example being Herod the Great, like many local lords of the time a self-styled philosopher king after Alexander (and unfairly confused with his more evil son Herod Antipas), was known as the builder of a temple for every religion, though we don’t have a complete list of which ones.  He used the ankh as part of his personal seal in coinage, dying four years before “A.D.” begins, and shared interest in the bitumen trade (raw oil seepage useful for waterproofing and embalming) with the Cleopatras of Ptolemaic Egypt.

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Herod the Great Coin 1st Cent. BCE, Obv: Celtic Helmet, Rev: Tripod of the Delphi Oracle and Ankh

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Herod the Great Coin – Obv: Solar Cross, Rev: Delphic Tripod

The ankh is sometimes described as a cosmic tree of life, like a pillar which supports the sun.  This bears out well in the earliest imagery found in Christian manuscripts, where ankh style crosses are shown flowering, sprouting, drawn as a living thing.

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Coptic Egypt, Codex Glazier, Acts of the Apostles, 4th Century

In former times, a glyph related to the ankh was a kind of knot, which has specific fertility associations, and happens to resemble the configuration of a woman’s reproductive organs – the womb, ovaries and vagina.   It also happens to look a bit like a rope person, and more practically, is likely depicting a kind of tampon.  Its name, Tyet or Tet, called the Blood of Isis, is frequently found in red materials, a reference to menstruation, and like the ankh, standing for well being and life.  The ankh is also described as the pillar that holds up the sun, drawn as seen when it sets.  The sun rests on a T form, the horizontal line for the horizon, the vertical line its reflection in the sea, and always points towards the viewer no matter how you move.  The related Phoenician symbol of the earth goddess drew this phenomenon as a circle resting on an inverted triangle.  Many of the Ethiopian crosses also have as a central motif a shape resembling a woman’s sex.

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Nubia, 6th Cent. BCE, Tet, Isis Knot

A little language-object background helps to explore the relationship between the simple and complex versions of this symbol.  Writing is a kind of drawing, used to link to meaning, verbalized sound, and image.  Ancient people like moderns had great fun with visual puns, and symbols that had multiple meanings.   Both Greeks and Egyptians were champions at it, and often found mystical significance in the patterns formed by usage.  In the Greek alphabet the letter chi, written X, has a matching phonetic sound to ankh, –kh.   This meant the sound of the two symbols matched their visual compatibility.  With ankh (kh) and tet (t), you have two glyphs that both look like each other, and sound like the respective Greek letters Chi (x) and Tau (+).  So the word cross takes the same sound as this old word for life, which is -kh, and also describes the way it is drawn, though it is no longer first symbol most would used when asked to draw life.  The cross has for a large part of the world, become a signifier of a specific religion, and its branches, while in symbolism represents a specific crucifixion story.   But in the Ethiopian cross, we can argue it is also still drawn in a way that also asserts life itself as one possible meaning.

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The Knotwork

Knotwork is a key element appearing in the earliest Christian uses of the cross.  Crosses used in key patterns for architectural decor were already staples in ancient culture.  The intertwining of the caduceus snakes are prehistoric and point to life, creative power and health, knotting together being the way snakes are found coupling.  These old creative associations can be traced far beyond the cultural regions in discussion.  But the development of knot-work fields as a motif appears as an innovation of this syncretic time period, one that quickly spread to a number of cultures.  Some argue for an origination in the knotwork animal motifs of the northern horse tribes of the Steppes, it is a regular Byzantine feature, and Armenian crosses, some of our earliest formal examples in the new context, are heavily invested in the use of it.

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Knotwork also remains the central motif in the religious artwork of Islam, rooted in a close proximity of time and place, and in some cases was the only permitted form of representation besides writing.  Throughout Europe, the Celtic and Germanic cultures adopted it intensively, and its proliferation reveals how quickly communication was made.  One reason for the fast adoption in Europe may be that Herod the Great’s personal army consisted of Anatolian Celts, with broad trade connections; in the centuries that follow, the use of knotwork, spread to the reaches of the far northern cultures through Viking networks, visually merging neolithic spiral art that still survived there with the new universal literary religion.

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Crosses as elaborated trees of life, foliated or filled with knot-work are not only the first such illustrations in Christian books, but found in the earliest sculpted versions as well:

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Armenia, Kachkar

 

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India, the Cross of Thomas

 

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England, Lindisfarne Gospels

 

A Compound Talisman

Ethiopic crosses are emblematic trees whose branches touch on many meanings.  The incorporation of solar discs radiate in broad variety, interspersed with stars of David, tree birds, all varieties of this type of cross point to an intentional talismanic concentration of multiple symbols.

Ethiopian cross

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Incorporated into many of these crosses are essential graphic elements that, like the cross itself, point backwards in time to pre-history, and underline the role as a broad symbol of life itself.  The cross is sometimes growing from a significant point, the peak of a holy mountain.  This is usually symbolized with a three-stepped pyramid, a base motif also found in many cultures.  Other times, a simple trident serves as the base, a symbol of creation found in very different cultures far to the north, and the east.  This abstracts the frequent presence of ‘twinning’ elements, symmetrical serpentine forms representing life force, that belong together in a class that includes caduceus, cherubs holding a wreath or curtain, the torc, and horns and antlers.  In simplified form, like the trident, this twinning is found within the Om symbol, and the triratna (three jewels), equally ancient symbols of creative power and life force, and all cognates of the tree of life, the ankh, and breasts.  We also find the early cross combined with images of the arch and pillars, doorway symbols of fertility culture and creative force, while the pillars are yet another symmetrical presentation of the ever-present twinning, branching, division and symmetry.

India, Saanchi, a triratna

India, Saanchi, a Buddhist triratna from the 3rd Century BCE

Processional_cross_Old_Lalibela_closeup Two Nagas

So we find in the Ethiopian record of the cross, the survival of a wide range of symbols for creative power, from earth goddesses, to the sun, to sprouting plants, regularly compounded into concentrated, syncretized forms.  The use of the knot-work can be easily understood in this context, as representing the entangled similarities of primary, multicultural symbols for life, woven into union.

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Survival as a Symbol of Life

A very interesting distinction about the Ethiopian cross can be made, that sets it apart from the rest of the modern Christian world: the cross is an object of worship in itself, and has texts devoted to it that did not survive elsewhere, considering it a symbol in its own way alive, and able to bestow the power of life and healing.  In the world beyond Ethiopia, the cross lost all of its feminine, life-giving associations long ago, becoming something we are more likely to find familiar today, a memorial symbol of an execution, and a grave marker, referring to new life for a single historic personage in the distant past, rather that a broad conceptual emblem.  For most of the Christian world today, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion story, but is no longer seen as a force of life in itself as frequently.

Armenian Kachkar

Armenian Kachkar, a fascinating fusion of emblems of creation from all directions.  Each is also traditionally quite unique.

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China, Beijing - Nestorian Tombstone, 7th Century

China, Beijing – Nestorian Christian Tombstone, 7th Century resting on a lotus, another creative emblem also found in late Egyptian art.

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You can see in this Ethiopian processional design several things – the tradition that the direction of the spiral cross has a fixed meaning in time is false, it is like all graphic symbols simply a drawing first – and the fact that the Nazi claims on these symbols was nothing more than appropriation resulting from poor attempts at science. Had they known it pointed towards a total interconnection of life, and unity, rather than their notion of some mythic ancient superiority, they would have used something else I imagine.

 

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Mongolia, Nestorian Pin, 7th Century

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As an ancient literary empire closely linked to trade, and a historic part of the Egyptian sphere, Ethiopia’s connection to the Mediterranean dates to Solomonic times during its height, preparing a home for the arrival of converts to Christianity during much later Coptic times.  This would form a bloc that was deep enough into the African continent to avoid the coming torches of the Roman Empire.  Rapid changes in climate had a strong role in this, and reduced their ancient trade position by surrounding the country with desertification.  This helped the Ethiopians rebuff the Arabic conquest, which had spread east along the Silk Road and west by the North African coast, gradually causing the disappearance of many other cultures and languages.  As its ancient power quietly started to nod off, Ethiopia was effectively cut off from the later debates, mergers and conflicts that developed in the Christian world, sweeping changes would bury much evidence of this symbol’s highly syncretic character.

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Preserved then in the many Ethiopian languages (there are more than 7 with both Semitic and Nile rooted flavors) are rituals, emblems and books that still provide glimpses into what the first distillations of Christianity from Coptic Egypt would have looked, survivors in remote cliff-top monasteries, some only approachable by climbing rope.

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Despite the removal and this symbol’s character, Ethiopia did not escape any better the demotion of the goddess and the feminine in general that clearly defines the more recent religions – especially in the essential removal of women as people of leadership, which was never particularly universal, but suffered greater losses before what gains have been made in modern times.  But in some way, the cross there has retained a mothering, feminine presence, as a living symbol, in terms of the interwoven, multicultural history it displays.

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As surviving symbols of a reverence for life, you could imagine there is just a hint of what was once more widely felt to be an essentially feminine concept of power.  And it makes sense that their individual patterns vary and change, each unique like a living thing, formed as though from a tangle of roots and branches.  Perhaps by preserving the lore as a living symbol, they have yet to collapse into uniformity, limited to a specific story, being overcome by text.

But the change in symbols, of female to male, from a sense of the renewal of creation, to a symbol of suffering  and death, should also serve as a warning of the dangers that a monopoly on belief poses to human cultures.  The loss of power for half of the people, to serve the power of another, and the past reshaped to delay, disable and divide people, is the mark of empire.  It is an immense privilege, using modern eyes, to be able to choose our beliefs, and pass up any that do not promote the belonging and creative potential of all individuals.  The returning of women into the fold of secular and spiritual leadership, in all aspects of society, is the restoration of some of what has been lost; the achievement of true balance and equity however would be a modern accomplishment without comparison, something new on this earth.  Restoring (or simply rediscovering) a reverence for life seems like a fitting step forward.   While there are losses we can lament in the past, beyond the necessity of a spiritual reverence for all living things, whatever chances we have for survival as a whole now depends on a major departure from days before science, when mystery and fear could be easily used to control the understanding people had of their world, and of their options.

The Ethiopian memory of the cross as a vital, living thing has something for anyone that can read the symbol, and while tied to place and time the tradition of depicting each one as distinct gives them individuality as well – as each person forms their own matrix of experiences and roots, each their own manifestation of life, both the fruit of the tree and the seed of what grows next.  We can all benefit from our woven nature, and find some direction by avoiding the erasure of becoming just another isomorphic expression of symbol and myth.

Click for a 1974 documentary that shows manufacturing methods and further history of Ethiopian Crosses.

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century.  Note the star above, and the trident underneath.  Sky and sea, above and below?  Added to the four directions, is this a 3D compass rose?

Scottish Petrospheres

In stark contrast to the previous article in which claims are made to know crescents more intimately than we might first imagine, it is worth mentioning the discovery of rare objects of ornament that have no clear explanation at all.

Exclusively in Scotland, with uncertain dating but believed to be over 2,000 years old,  exquisite little hand held works of art have been found in the form of unusual, ornamented stone spheres.  The very best of them, the Towie Ball, is meticulously engraved with some of the earliest known examples of an undeveloped predecessor to the Celtic spiral style that would ultimately develop in the region.

Towie Ball 10th C. BCE

Towie Ball, Aberdeenshire, 10th C. BCE, may be 3,000 years old.

Beyond the skill and care placed in these small, hand-held objects from a people who left little but piles of stones, the occasional rock carving, and circles of standing stones, what is striking about the petrospheres is their curious variety.  They have been compared to cells, atoms, and other things, but the real coup is how peculiarly unique they are in the scheme of world art.  Nothing quite matches these, making them an apparently completely regional innovation.

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No two it would seem are alike, and so this must be one of the defining features of these unique objects.  It is said that for every one petrosphere in a museum, there are a hundred hidden away in private family collections, suggesting a tradition of secretly passing on these relics of the Scot’s pre-historic peoples.  The Scots are well known for preserving aspects of the language and customs of a once expansive culture.

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Many speculations have been made as to their use, from cooking stones to weapons, but scientists have found these speculations to be without evidence.  Due to the unique character of them, it is fair to say that they were made by inventive, creative people with manual skill.  And in their variation, we can guess that the makers sought to individualize them.  What can be said, from a maker’s perspective, is that with the exception of the engraving done on the most exceptional, the balls all have in common the fact that they are made by filing.

Ashmolean Museum, discovered 1927

Ashmolean Museum, discovered in 1927

We have observed in surviving shamanic cultures around the world today that one of the major roles of a witch, magician or healer, and a central part of material trade for them, is the production of amulets.

Amulet objects are visually crafted to possess unique, curious appeal, and this is the physical aspect that will be blended with reverence for the individual’s perceived power, with just as much invested presence as the physical and implied symbolic references the object might include. It follows that forms of amulet could possibly gain in popularity for similar reasons – because of the unique beauty of interest of the object, or because the place, or person is particularly admired, and another possibility is inherent, that the object is believed to be associated with some great or miraculous event.  Much the way fans today seek to dress like their pop star idols, amulets are arguably more a matter of fashion than tradition or origination.  In this way they are more like art objects than artifacts of cultural concreteness.

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It is enjoyable to find something that has no clear explanation at all.  The balls have no direct relation to anything left in stone carvings, the only record of the people who made these.  The scientists can only go so far as to call them “status objects”.  They have never been found in burials, which anthropologists suggest made them objects that did not belong to individuals.  Much later than the dates of any of these spheres, we have examples among the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish peoples the practice of wearing smooth rock crystal spheres as amulets.  These have been found in graves, and are known to have been worn by women, suspended from the belt on a chatelaine.  Though the time and distance does not draw any direct correlation, these are examples of how a spherical amulet might be worn.

Anglo Saxon VII C. Crystal Sphere, Warminster

Frankish, VI C., Crystal Sphere, Cologne

For now, the mystery of the petrospheres remains intact, the subject of household whispers and amusement, something to enjoy for not having a clear reason to exist, and connecting our own modern ideas of creativity to the impulses of people in the distant past.

Pages with more detail from Joseph Anderson’s Scotland In Pagan TImes:

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Into The Brooch

Everyone knows what a brooch pin is.  But what is it?  For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece.  It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand.  All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.

Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe.  A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans.  The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe.  We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense.  Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing.  It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.

Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors.  From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone.  At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform,  a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.

The Treasure of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Burial Ground

This is a story about humility.   And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes.  I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information.  This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture.  Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.

Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem.  Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another.  It was unbelievable.   Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs.  I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.

Herbert Maryon Metalwork & Enamelling

 

In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice.  Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling.  I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels.  I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential.  Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral –  as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent

This wasn’t far from the truth.  Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered.  The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned.  One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth.  Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them.  Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith.  The gold work is expertly enameled  in a champleve manner.  In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.

Sword

Sword, signed "Scott"

This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing.  As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how.  Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work.  In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp.  It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own.  Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer.  Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools.  And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.

Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches.  Barbarians?  Hardly.

The Great Buckle

Shoulder Clasp

 How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?

Purse

How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?