I am a horrible blogger, aren’t I. So much for upholding the “post once a week” goal (and I keep ignoring that series I started earlier), but I guess that goes with the territory of being a bio major. If everything goes as planned and I get into one of my choice grad schools, it’s going to be even harder to get any free time due to the nature of my fields (arachnology- hence my username, and ecology).
But it’s not like I’m giving up this blog completely, as I do love history and culture (I’m so well-rounded person :P). It’ll just continue to be sparsely populated with posts for a while.
Now on to today’s little topic before I potentially disappear for the next 4 months…
Or a couple of key pieces from or near Austria and Hungary at least, for now. Hey, at least it’s not dead people again, though that’ll sure to be a topic soon once I get my hands on Eva Pocs “Between the Living and the Dead”. But I digress.
While I haven’t been able to confirm much of it for my personal satisfaction, the Hallstatt dig site located near Hallstatt, Austria is popularly considered to be a homeland of sorts for the Celts or proto-Celtic people. As a result, a lot of these following sculptures are considered to be Celtic art.
One of my favorites is the Strettweg cult wagon, found near Strettweg, Austria and dated to be from the 7th century BCE.
The sculpture consists of a central female figure holding the plate that’s further supported by rope-like sticks, with the smaller figures being women and soldier-like men holding shields, horses, and a fully-antlered stag at each end, all situated in an almost symmetrical fashion on top of a flat wagon. It is assumed that the top plate is meant to carry larger objects, such as a jar, though the exact use is not certain. My guess is that offerings and the dead (as ashes in an urn) were the objects that sat on the plate.
The reason why I love this is that, A) the woman literally takes center stage, B) wagon-cults are interesting in general, and c) Stags. Anyone familiar with folklore and symbols of Austria and Hungary should know that the stag appears rather often, and in what I would consider to be prominent positions. I take the appearance of such animals on the sculpture to support the idea that they were important to my ancestors as a symbol. Same with the horse and the shields, they fit the idea of wandering, warrior-like people that goes with being steppe nomads and herdsmen of cattle. That, and I just find this one to be the most aesthetically pleasing out of all the wagon-cult objects due to the detail.
The next one is less fancy, but contains the bird-head detail (seems to be waterfowl in specific) that seems to be typical of the era and location: The bird wagon.
Both the Urnfield and the Halstatt cultures/eras had examples of wagons and urn-wagons with birds decorating them. Why the birds are there are speculative at best. Since most of them seem to be waterfowl (because of the broad, flat beaks), there may be associations with lakes, marshes and bogs, which could have been a site for various traditions. Bodies or ashes could have been dumped in them similar to the later (and further north) bog mummies that were discovered in Denmark. Maybe they were symbols of a nameless deity (or to many deities) that was important to people during those times. Perhaps, because of their ability to fly, they were somehow messengers, being able to travel to places that humans can’t. Having them as part of the wagon’s decor could then symbolize the travel of whatever the wagon carried to its intended target. I’m sure scholars have come up with more concrete and better-supported ideas, and I intend to find those, but that’ll have to wait until I manage to get my hands on some more obscure and expensive books later on. One of those is Wagons and Wagon-Graves of the Early Iron Age in Central Europe by Christopher Pare.
I’ve only recently started to become interested in these cult wagons after learning about some heathens trying to bring back the practice of wagon processions as a means to honor the god of the occasion. Some inspiration came from Tacitus’s description of Nerthus being pulled around by wagon in his Germania, though Nerthus is not the only deity to be receive this treatment by contemporary groups.
Like with many aspects of pre-Christian European life, the use of the wagon in apparently religious ways was likely because of its importance in the “mundane” lives of people. It provided a practical way to carry items around for long distances, so it’s not too much of a leap for that travel aspect to be used symbolically as well.
More to come later. Someday, much much later, hopefully with better references.
Ninomiya, M. (1998). Wagons in Hallstatt Period: Its Technology and Use. http://www.unc.edu/celtic/catalogue/chariots/index.html#Strettweg (click on images for description)