Does the Iconic Plate on the Gundestrup Cauldron Depict an Ancient Poem?
Amid the vivid imagery adorning the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron lies an enigma that has captivated successive generations of scholars. The question lingers: What lies behind these scenes, so meticulously crafted by ancient silversmiths? What messages are being conveyed through these artful, mesmeric images?
The subject of unsettled controversy for over a century, the mysterious object known as the Gundestrup Cauldron was discovered by chance in a disassembled state in a Danish bog in 1891. Shortly after its discovery, the twelve plates were taken to the National Museum of Denmark, where it remains today, reassembled in cauldron-form.
In this exploration, we turn our attention to just one of the twelve remarkable plates of this cauldron. The plate that is our singular focus is dominated by a serene but enigmatic figure, who sports a pair of antlers and is surrounded by a menagerie of lively animal-forms.
This striking humanoid figure is often presumed to depict a Celtic god, Cernunnos, although the exact identity of this entity remains disputed. Many authorities on the Cauldron have shied away from any such ascription, leaning instead towards vague terms such as the Master of Animals.
Below, we will propose a plausible resolution to the precise nature of this strange figure.
In our pursuit for an answer to this enigma, we will turn to an unexpected source: an old, and rather peculiar poem.
Here, we argue that the imagery on this plate of the Cauldron represents a pictorial rendition of a primordial version of a medieval poem, known as Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos.
Tuan Mac Cairill Ro Clos
The old Irish poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos – the name of the poem is taken from the poem’s first line- relates a story of the remarkable transformations of a strange and mysterious figure known as Tuan Mac Cairill.
The figure of Tuan Mac Cairill doesn’t have much resonance in contemporary popular consciousness. He crops in Irish folklore, and appears in a classic work of Children’s literature, Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens .
The Stephens adaption is a retelling of an old medieval version of the story, although, it is likely that the story was very old even when it was first committed to paper, noted Arbois De Jubainville. This Medieval rendition, as related by Stephens, was almost certainly based on the aforementioned poem, and it is presumed that the poetic version is probably closest to the oldest, spoken-word form of the tale.
The poem chronicles a remarkable series of transformations undertaken by Tuan, who first transforms from his human form into that of a stag-deer, then into that of a boar, next, taking on the semblance of a bird, and thereafter taking on the form of a salmon.
This salmon, ensnared in a fisherman’s net, is presented to a Queen. The Queen eats the fish, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Tuan, who remerges on earth in human form once again.
An English translation of the poem, Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos:
“Tuan son of Cairell was heard:
Jesus gave to him in his sin,
That he spent an hundred long years
In the form of a man under good appearance
Three hundred years had he, in the form
Of a stag deer in the wilderness,
He spent an hundred good years
In the form of a wild boar
Three hundred years had he on flesh
When he was in the form of a lonely bird
Then he spent an hundred tuneful years
In the form of a salmon under a flood
A fisher took him in his net,
Carried him to the king’s fortress:
When she saw the pure salmon
The queen desired him
So that it was assigned to her, a good course
And she ate it all by herself:
The very noble queen became pregnant,
And thence Tuan was conceived.”
From man into stag, transiting through a series of animal forms, only to be reborn anew in human form, Tuan’s journey comes full circle.
A man, transforming into a stag? This element of the poem brings to mind the prominent stag-flanked figure on that famous plate on the Gundestrup Cauldron.
Could this plate be depicting a scene of metamorphosis – akin to Tuan’s transformative bout- where a man is wrenched from one form to another, effectively mutating into a deer?
This, of course, this would go against the popular ‘Cernunnos’ attribution, which holds that this figure represents a horned divinity.
However, as will be detailed below, the transition-in-motion interpretation carries considerable weight when we evaluate the various adornments on and around this figure.
The strangely serene, antlered figure takes center stage on this plate. As well as his conspicuous antlers, the figure is notable for two objects he bears: In his right hand, he holds up a torc, or neck-ring, and in his left, he clutches a snake. He also wears a second torc about his neck, and a belt around his waist.
These details are far from immaterial, as scattered about the antlered hominoid are three clues, which together indicate a scene of a change in motion.
The first of these is the twirling foliage in the background, where vines or plant stems gracefully arc around the man’s forehead and the antlered quadruped in the backdrop. As has been previously noted in research on the cauldron, (Summer. Pg. 103) the plant stems or vines that intertwine between the antlers of the stag-man and the stag-deer seem to indicate some manner of affinity between the man and the animal.
Detail of Gundestrup Cauldron’s inner plates (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
But this interweaving foliage also draws attention to the antlers atop the head of the man and his kindred beast, and these antlers contain an important detail.
A close inspection of the antlers of these two forms reveals a small but significant difference. The antlers of the seated man have fourteen points or tines – seven on each antler- whereas those on the stag have eight points per antler, or sixteen in total.
The number of tines on the antlers of a stag roughly corresponds to the age of the animal, and so it would appear that the artisan’s purpose here is to indicate that the deer is older than the antler-bearing humanoid.
The difference in the number of tines is surely deliberate. Much like how one chapter follows another in a book, the increased number of tines alerts us that we are witnessing a new stage in the story -or, to be more precise, a new life-stage.
In other words, what seems to be being depicted here is something akin to Tuan’s transformation in the poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos. In the image of antlered-man, we are seeing the transformation underway, and in the representation of the stag, we see a transformation, now complete.
On this plate we would thus seem to have two clues – the intertwining background foliage and the number of tines on the antlers – that indicate that the two antlered forms on this plate are not meant to be viewed as isolated, static figures, but rather, as a representation of a kind of kinetic entity, a man in the process of becoming a stag.
However, if this message wasn’t yet entirely clear, the ancient artisans have inserted a third, carefully hidden clue in the panel to cement this point.
In his right hand, the dominant, antlered figure grasps a peculiar horned snake.
A closer inspection of this creature reveals that the scaly skin of the snake has been rendered by the ancient silversmith via a pattern of tiny, circular punch marks.
The same technique is found employed on one other element on this plate. When we scrutinize the belt of the antlered man, we find the same pattern. The central figure, it would seems, is wearing a snake-skin belt.
Close-up of the snake-belt on the central figure. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
A snake’s skin is a potent allegorical device. The snake, which periodically sheds its skin, symbolizes change.
Like a snake, the antlered-man is also shedding his skin, in a manner of speaking. He is shifting from his human form into that of a mighty stag.
As outlined above, there appear to be a series of clues on this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron that reveal that the dominant figure of this scene is undertaking a dramatic mutation, which has echoes of the transformation undergone by Tuan in the poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos.
Of course, in the old poem, the transformation into the deer is just the first of a series of transformations that the protagonist endures in the narrative.
This invites a question.
We have reasonably established that the antlered anthropoid dominating the plate likely represents a figure in a state of flux- a man transforming into a beast.
But is this similarity to the poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos merely incidental? Could it be that this figure is indeed intended to represent Tuan Mac Cairill?
If this was the case, we might expect to find other episodes from the poem depicted on this plate.
Let us closely examine the other elements of this plate in pursuit of this line of enquiry.
The Torc and the Boar
Our previous investigation ended with the stag directly to the right of the antlered-figure, seemingly a representation of a transformation now complete, and thus it would seem logical to shift our focus to the animal positioned directly opposite the stag, and to the left of the antler-sprouting man.
This beast is positioned in the exact midpoint of the plate, gazing intently towards the stag. The eyes of the two animals seem to be level, and are also in line with the eyes of the antlered figure who sits or crouches in between them.
The boar or torc. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Both in its form and its positioning, this creature seems to mirror the stag across from it, which would seem to hint at some manner of synergy between the two.
But at this point, we run into a quandary. What, exactly, is this creature meant to be?
It is a strangely amorphous animal, and researchers have been at odds over its exact nature, although it is usually identified as a wolf or a dog. This is probably because of the long tail of the animal, which seems superficially similar to that of a canine.
However, as will be outlined below, a craftily concealed clue is hidden within the tail of this mystery beast, revealing its true nature.
There is something strangely amiss about this creature’s tail. It seems too long even for a dog or a wolf, and oddly out of place with the rest of this animal’s form.
But while this seemingly superfluous feature appears strangely askew upon first glance, a closer inspection reveals that there has been some method in the madness of the ancient silver smith.
The tail of the creature has been decorated with a distinctive helical pattern. We find this same pattern in one other element on this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron: that of the torc that is borne by the right-hand of the antlered man.
Looking closely, the boar’s tail shares the same helical pattern as the torc. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
This is a critical clue, because in the ancient Celtic tongue, the word torc carried dual meanings. On the one hand, it meant an item of jewelry that was worn about the neck, a meaning that is retained in English today. But it was also the Celtic word for boar.
This crafty word-association reveals the nature of the beast: this is a boar, or perhaps more likely, a boarlet, given it lacks the characteristic tusks of the fully-grown animal.
Perhaps fittingly, the boar or torc has been depicted with a torc-tail. The word association has been artfully incorporated into the plate, and the tail, which at a glance seems out of place, is in fact an emblem of the creature’s identity.
Besides the boar’s torc-tail and the torc held in the hand of the man, there is another torc featured on this plate, worn around the neck of the same torc-bearing man. The purpose of the worn torc is to signify the seated man’s affinity with the boar, akin to how the antlers atop his head denote to his connection with the stag-deer on his opposite flank.
The three forms that lie at the focal point of this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron thus concur with the first two transformations of Tuan in the old poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos.
To the right of the presumptive Tuan is a fully-formed deer, and to his left is a boarlet, which Tuan will transform into once his life as a stag is spent.
The Leaping Lioness and the Fish-rider
So, it would seem two of Tuan’s changes are depicted on this plate. Are any other elements of the poem discernible on this plate?
Let us now turn our attention to some of the lively animal forms that surround the boar.
From the boar, the eye is drawn upwards, to a creature that seems to be leaping into action. It is a ferocious-looking beast, and thus it has sometimes been labelled as a carnivore.
Directly to the right of this carnivorous beast is a fish, on which is mounted a small human figure, who has a noticeable resemblance to the dominant Tuan-esque figure of the plate. Possibly, the small-size of figure signals that it is intended to represent an infant.
The hungry lioness. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Below the fish-rider, and under the boar’s tail and hind-legs, are two more carnivorous creatures, who appear to be entangled in a melee. These two creatures are stylistically similar to the leaping carnivore above the boar, apart from a couple of small details.
The most notable of these is that the two dueling beasts appear to have been depicted with manes of hair around the back of their heads and neck. For this reason, these animals are generally considered to be representations of lions.
It is reasonable to thus conclude that the stylistically similar, leaping animal directly above the boar is intended to represent a lioness, on account of its lack of a mane.
In traditional iconography, a lion symbolized kingship. So, perhaps the pair of fighting lions positioned below the boar might be intended to represent rival warring kings.
And following on from this logic, the lioness above the boar might be taken to be a representation of a Queen.
Of course, a Queen crops up in the final stages of the poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos. The Queen eats Tuan in his salmon form, and thereafter gives birth to a brand-new Tuan, who reemerges in human form.
And, so, we see the elements of this scene of the poem also on display on this plate of the cauldron: The lioness, hungrily eyeing off the large fish to her right, representing the Queen who makes a meal of the salmon in the narrative; and the fish bears a child-like human rider, a nod to Tuan’s rebirth, following on from the Queen’s devouring of the fish.
Three of the animal forms depicted on this plate – the stag-deer, the boar, and the fish- would seem to align with three of the changes that take place in the poetic narrative Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos. This accordance logically suggests that the dominant figure on the plate is intended to represent an ancient version of Tuan Mac Cairill.
It is worth noting that the idea that the Gundestrup Cauldron may depict a tale associated with Ireland is not entirely novel. In the 1970s, Garrett Olmsted, a noted authority on the cauldron, asserted that many of the plates corresponded with episodes in the Irish epic poem, the Táin.
This serves to remind that ultimately, interpretation of the scenes that adorn the plates remains subjective, and any reading needs to be examined with circumspection. Just as the human imagination can discern all manner of forms in patterns in the clouds, the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron invite divergent interpretations.
Perhaps this is inevitable, given that the ancient vessel doesn’t exactly come with guidelines to elucidate how the scenes were intended to be read.
Or does it?
In our concluding passage, we will highlight one final detail on this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron, which may indeed function as a kind of key, with the apparent purpose being to delineate the intended story-arc.
Tracking Tuan’s transformations
In a 2019 Ancient Origins piece, Niels Jorgensen observed that the plant stem or vine patterns that appear in the backdrop of many of the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron are not merely decorative in nature, but rather, seem to serve a distinct functional purpose.
One such example was highlighted earlier in this article: the foliage interspersed between the antlers of the Tuan-like figure and the deer, indicating a connection between the two.
Other foliage-patterns depicted on the same plate likewise appear to serve a functional purpose.
Of the eight foliage-clusters distributed across this plate, two distinctive patterns are evident.
In five designs, all the stems terminate in leaves. In the other three, one stem in each cluster forms into a flower-like shape.
Each floral motif is accompanied by a different number of leaves: the first has just one, the second has two, and the third, three.
Three flower-like motifs (circled) adorn the background patterns. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The flower motifs seem to be strategically placed to serve as directional way-points, guiding the narrative’s intended course. The single-leaf is positioned near the Tuan figure, as he metamorphosises into his first form, the stag; the two-leafed flower is situated under the boar, highlighting the second life-stage of Tuan; and the three-leaved flower marks the story’s culmination, representing Tuan’s transformation into a fish, and his return to human form.
So, it would appear that an ancient notation system has been worked into the plate, and these markers indicate that the depicted narrative follows the course of the old poem Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos. Perhaps the flower motifs are intended to symbolize the protagonist ‘blooming’ into each of his new forms?
In only one notable respect, the poem would seem to diverge from the course of the narrative that is depicted on the plate. In the Irish story, Tuan undertakes one more transformation, morphing into a bird, in an intermediate stage between the boar and the fish.
However, given that there was a gulf of one thousand years between the crafting of the Gundestrup Cauldron and the earliest known Irish manuscript containing the Tuan narrative, one would naturally expect the story to have grown in the telling over the intermediate centuries.
But this aside, the elements of this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron would seem to accord remarkably well with Tuan Mac Cairill ro clos, and as has been argued above, it is possible to convincingly interpret the scene as a primordial version of the old Irish poem.
Supplement diagram. (Patrick Fresne/Gold and Revolution)
Top Image: Scene on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Source: British Museum
By Patrick Fresne
Arbois De Jubainville, H. 1903. The Irish Mythological Cycle and Celtic Mythology. Hodges, Figgis and co, Dublin, p 29.
Macalister, R.A.S. 1940. Lebor Gabala Erenn: The book of the taking of Ireland. Vol 3, Dublin University Press, Dublin, p 80
Olmsted, G. 1979. The Gundestrup Cauldron: Its Archaeological Context, the Style and Iconography of its Portrayed Motifs, and their Narration of a Gaulish Version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, Latomus Bruxelles, p 216.
Summer, L. 2018. The Origins of the Gundestrup Cauldron- A smorgasbord of elements, scenes and cultural influences of Eurasia, from the Indus Valley to Gallia, p 103.
Vendryes, C.J, 1959. Lexique etymologique de l’Irlandais ancient, Vol T-U, Paris, p 115.
Summer, Lukas, 2018. The Origins of the Gundestrup Cauldron- A smorgasbord of elements, scenes and cultural influences of Eurasia, from the Indus Valley to Gallia, p 103
Jorgensen, Niels Bjerre, 2019. The Gundestrup Cauldron Decoded- With a Tantric Twist. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/gundestrup-cauldron-0012935>