The concept and symbolism of sacrifice among the Celts were not so different from other contemporary cultures: dolphins, horses, heads, and processions, apart from the gruesome glorification of the cauldron.
We know that it was discovered in a peat bog in the danish Jutland; it has been thought to be manufactured by Cimmerian people between the second and first-century b.c. Cimmerians used to settle mainly in the region of the low Danube, but they were known to be spread from Himmerland, where the cauldron was found, to Pontic-Caspian steppes, where sometimes they clashed with Scythian people. Similar ritual cauldrons were discovered in Scythian and Pazyryk burials, called Kurgan, scattered in a vast area comprising Southern Russia, Ukraine, southern Siberia, Central Asia, and Mongolia.
The very symbolism of the cauldron is scarcely used in Greek mythology and the less sophisticated Roman one; in fact, other analogies replace it. In contrast, the Celtics were not afraid to adopt all the profound and raw meaning of immolation.
The Gundestrup cauldron looks like a magnificent silver bowl, 42 cm. high and 69 cm. diameter, composed of thirteen finely embossed panels: five inner rectangular, seven outer square, and a circular one at the bottom. Although the beauty does not tell us, it is more than a large sacrifice bowl, whose primary practical use was probably to gather the blood from a bull’s slaying, as we can see from the circular panel bottom, which designates bull immolation. The bull was not a random victim but a symbol of the union between sky and earth.
As Homer recounts, and as probably also happened among the Celts, archaic exchanges took place within group relationships governed by a system of gifts initially ordered on sacrificial, ritual, and ceremonial values.
The first detail that can be noticed on the bowl side panels suggests scenes of immersion in a regenerating substance, whose remembrance alone bestowed upon celebrants a powerful allure since it was probably used in religious ceremonies connected to ruling functions. Surprisingly, many figures indicate, if not a direct marine environment, at least the preponderant presence of a flow.
Among a whole Pantheon of Celtic deities embossed on the Gundestrup panels, especially the god Cernunnos is related to water. In Celtic mythology, Cernunnos was the deified spirit of horned male animals, especially deer; and, surprise, deer too, in the imaginary of the ancients, is closely related to water, in fact, as astonishing as it may seem to us, the Ancients consider it an animal very familiar with the liquid element, amphibious, able to walk in the middle of the waves, travel on the waters, and cross the seas. The deer, therefore, appears, in reality, to be comparable to the seal in the spatial perception of wild animals, which was that of the men of ancient Europe.
Cernunnos is seated full-face cross-legged, wearing a coat, and surrounded by an animal procession. In the upper right plane of this composition is a child wearing a coat identical to the one worn by the deity, a small figure astride a dolphin’s back. About the dolphin, this skilled dancer of the sea, we have already seen how, according to Greek mythology, it is dear to Apollo and Dionysus for his good attitude to rescue men to safe shores. And for this reason, he was taken as a symbol of the passage from life to life after death and became a psychopomp fish.
A procession of animals also surrounds the deer god, and this shouldn’t be surprising as Cernunnos is a nature deity; even trees are sacred to him. But there are not only processions of animals among the cauldron decorations: warriors on horseback and foot seem to be in a military parade.
If a procession is a multiplication in Alchemy, in ancient philosophy, it was regarded as a list, a succession of individuals. A multiplication, indeed.
Neoplatonist Damascius’s main work is entitled Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles or Treaty of First Principles. It is divided into three parts: of the Ineffable and the One; of the Triad and Unity; of the Procession of Unified. This book examines the nature and attributes of the deity and the human soul or, better of souls. This concept was likely to be widely extended.
Back to Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god is often compared to the Greek Dionysus, even him multifaceted and of rare complexity. Not only can the theme of reduction to ashes and immersion in the aquatic environment correspond to the idea of an initiatory passage preceding a rebirth, but the Dionysian parallel here again proves to be full of lessons. According to Orphic tradition, during his first existence, the Titans captured the little Dionysus-Zagreus, who covered his face with plaster dust (gypsum). The divine child is then dismembered and devoured, partly raw and partly cooked, by his murderers, who Zeus, his father, immediately strikes down. The human race is born from their ashes mixed with the earth, while Dionysus experiences a new birth after this disastrous episode. Therefore, we note here that, on the theological level, the passage through the state of ashes does not imply a definitive disappearance.
Not only is Dionysus-Zagreus ritually dismembered, but he is given the attribute of the sacrificer among the gods since he is known with the epithet of “hammer of humans” (with the hammer that Hephaestus uses to forge Achilles’ shield). And this last detail shouldn’t appear irrelevant: the ritual cauldrons had to be oriented towards the north.
We know that Homer describes the shield of Achilles as a real map of the northern constellations. In the end, I have to mention the “sacred meal” corresponded to a symbolic union with the gods, also known as the perilous Journey to Hades: the only place of regeneration and rebirth.
See also Pompeii Mysteries Villa: a Gentle Flowing with Mystica Vannus ; Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon ; The Aldus Manutius’ Dolphin at Anchor ; The Pythagorean Thigh in the Northern Sky ;