Research: Honour's thesis. Triplism in Celtic Iconography

Updated: Jan 20

Triplism in Celtic Iconography

McGill University honour's thesis

« The main objective of this iconographical analysis is to shed light on the causes of the pervasive triplism found in Celtic representations. The number “three”, under the form of triple deities, heroes, animals and symbols seems to have held a primordial place in the mythology, cosmology, theogony and the art of the Celtic people.

Established throughout Europe, the Celtic people, were divided into independent tribes that shared similar social organization, languages, mythology, cosmogony and art styles. However, their constant tribal feuds and lack of political unity made them vulnerable to the well-organized Roman Empire which was expanding its frontiers to Gaul, conquered by 52 B.C. Furthermore, Julius Caesar pursued his invasion to Britain whose people were allies of the Gauls against the Roman invasion. It is only in 43 A.D. however that the Claudian invasion added Britain to the Roman Empire.

This slowly transformed the Celtic culture and art styles of Britain. Most of the Celtic people adapted to the Roman culture, while others, more rebellious, refused Roman ascendancy and joined other groups in Wales or Cornwall, at the frontier of which Roman garrisons were established.


The concept that links all the iconographical material that we have analyzed is the triplication of Celtic deities. We have tried to understand the reason for this triplication. The tetradic scheme proposed by Lyle, that encompasses the triple function scheme of Dumezil, emphasizes the discrete fourth dimension of Celtic society, that is, the role of females, as women and deities, symbolizing the people belonging to all three estates.

I believe that a pattern of polarity emerges from this analysis of the material. On one hand, the mother goddesses, symbolizing fertility, nurturance and earthly abundance, protected the people throughout their lives and were responsible for their destiny. On the other hand, the war goddesses were responsible for the protection of the territory and soldiers against the enemies.

These female deities (mostly the mother goddesses) are seen accompanying deities who correspond to the functions of Dumézil, that is, the genii cucullati, associated with the fertility of the land and healing; thus, with the third function related to food producers and bodily comfort. Secondly, the mothers are also associated with what seem to be war deities or warriors, maybe heroes of the mythologies corresponding to the second function of Dumézil. Interestingly enough, no female deities accompany deities related to the first function of rulers and priests.

Three possible explanations can be provided for this occurrence. Primarily, it is possible that the representatives of the first function are not made clear to us and they could be symbolized under the form of either the Cernunnos god or the tricephaloi. Secondly, since women were not associated with the positions of rulers and priests, they would not be represented in their company. Thirdly, it is possible that the unification of the leader or ruler deity, with his female counterpart, was not depicted in a triple form. We know from the Celtic calendar that at Samain, at the beginning of the Celtic year, the king celebrated his nuptial feast. This could have been the symbolization of the marriage of the leader with its territory or land, symbolized by a female deity, a concept that is often celebrated in Irish mythology.

It should be kept in mind that, as Sjoestedt mentions, deities were not necessarily titular deities but were representations of religious and societal values that were depicted differently in different times and localities. Sometimes, the actual name or features of these deities differed but the symbolic attributes or values remained, as if coming from "the same generative impulse" (Sjoestedt, 1982, p.39).

The study of symbolism in culture is mostly tackled by post-processualists. Those who try to find a common ground between processualism and post-processualism propose direct historical approach as a possible solution to this question of the meaning/role of symbolism in a society. We cannot however use this solution since modern European society has changed greatly since Celtic times. Therefore, one is left with two possible viewpoints on the purpose of symbolism. Either, the iconographical symbolism reflects cultural and religious values or on the contrary, as Hodder proposes, symbols are a mask, an exaggeration or a contradiction of the societal values. The analysis of the material does not permit us to support either of these viewpoints exclusively. On the contrary, we are tempted to see these two viewpoints as complementary since symbols can play different and complex roles in a society. Some serve as regulators/reflectors of societal values and others seem to contradict or mask these same values.

I am conscious that the majority of hypotheses proposed within the Celtic iconography rely mostly on inferences derived either from ancient texts that have their own biases or on the analysis of a limited bank of archaeological material. Thus, I believe that it is mostly through the recovery and analysis of new iconographical material that we will be able to have a clearer picture of the symbolism of this triplication. »

(2001) Abigaëlle Richard. Triplism in Celtic Iconography, B.Sc. honour’s thesis, McGill University, Montreal.

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