The Gundestrup Cauldron - Mythology and Cosmology

The Native Way of understanding Cosmos

Gundestrup Cauldron Peat bog, Gundestrup (Denmark) First century B.C.E. Silver partially gilded. Diameter 69cm., Height 42cm.Copenhagen, Nationalmuseet.

The Gundestrup Cauldron is a religious vessel found in Himmerland, Denmark, 1891. It was deposited in a dry section of a peat bog, dismantled with its five long rectangular plates, seven short ones and one round plate. Each plate is made of 97.0% pure silver and filled with various motifs of animals, plants and pagan deities. Sophius Müller(1892) reconstructed these plates into the present form of the cauldron: five rectangular plates are placed in the inside of the cauldron leaving 2cm of space between each, and the seven (originally eight) plates form the outside of the cauldron. The round plate is assumed as the base of the cauldron. The reconstructed cauldron with its spherical base and cylindrical side is 69cm. in diameter and 42cm. high; both the inner and outer plates are almost of the same height ( about 21cm) forming the cylindrical side of the cauldron.

As the largest surviving piece of Europian Iron Age silver work, the Gundestrup Cauldron has been given a special interest by many scholars. Especially, its high quality workmanship and iconographic variety have generated an incessant inquiry into the origin of the cauldron. Though the date of the cauldron is generally attributed to the 2nd or 1st century BCE (La Tène III), there still remains much room for controversy concerning the place of its manufacture. The main problem comes from the fact that its style and workmanship is Thracian rather than Celtic despite its decorative motifs manifestly Celtic. So far, scholastic opinions have been largely divided into two groups: those who argue for the Gaulish origin and those who argue for the Thracian origin. The former locate the manufacture of the cauldron in the Celtic west while the latter opt for the Lower Danube in southeastern Europe.

The Vessel

The whole vessel represents the Whole World as known from the ancient 3 World division and dimension of Earth, the nearest Celestial World and the farthest celestial world of the Milky Way.

- Maybe the Vessel also once have had a lid in order to show some details regarding "the top" of these 3 Worlds? In that case the imagery would have shown some mythological "world axis" imagery.


In Norse Mythology these 3 worlds is mentioned: Midgaard for the humans; Asgaard for the nearest celestial world where the Sun, the Moon, the (5) Planets and for the Star Constellations and Udgaard (Out-Yard) for the farthest world representing the Milky Way galaxy where the Giants (Jaetter) live.

The interactive Mytho-Cosmological plays between these 3 worlds must be incorporated in the telling of vessel imagery. That is: We are dealing with the cosmological creative and interactive forces in these 3 worlds and we are also dealing with the Mytho-Cosmological geographical and celestial locations of these 3 worlds.

- Some knowledge would be of an obvious physical character as for instants day and night observations and the Seasons, and even the immediate knowledge of the "Udgaard", the Giant Milky Way contours. But the fully knowledge beyond the Milky Way, could only have been collected by spiritual means i.e. by Shaman travelling gathering intuitive, non verbal knowledge. It is the intuitive travelling knowledge "beyond" the Milky Way, that is incorporated in the Worlds Creation Myths.

The Plates

  1. The Base: A Bull in the center. A Woman with a Sword, Bull and 2 Dogs
  2. 5 inner plates.
  3. 7 outer.
  4. The plates on the outside show 4 male and 3 female busts.
  5. (Maybe there once also was a Lid?)

The Base

In the Norse Mythology Creation Story,  the Giant Audhumbla Cow/Bull, located in the southwards warmer and lighter Muspelheim, "licked forward" the Milky Way Giant of Ymir, the northern hemisphere Milky Way figure.

The logical choice of a Bull/Cow comes from combining the Bull's roar with the thundering sound of creation in the Milky Way galaxy center. And of course when also choosing a Cow and the Utter milky symbols, this gives the natural associations to nourishing and to the white river of the Milky Way and thereby building op the the telling of how all life once began in the center of our galaxy. 

On this base plate, the Bull/Cow is centered southwards as in the Milky Way center in the Star Constellation of Sagittarius, and Ymir is hovering above as the northern Milky Way contours on the Northern Earth night hemisphere. (A physical observable symbol)

Inner Plate A


This plate shows a variety of animals around the horned figure in the center. The horned figure is presented with his legs folded and wears a torque around his neck. he holds another torque in his right hand and a horned serpent in his left hand. This torque-wearing god with stag antlers is generally identified as the Celtic god, Cernunnos. Cernunnnos is the Lord of the animals and the torques he wears are the symbols of wealth and prosperity. Cernunnos was first recognized by the inscription of the Paris monument which, along with the inscription, shows a horned deity wearing torques on his antlers. Because of this antlered deity, this plate has often been cited by those who argue for the Gaulish origin. However, this general identification of the central figure with Cernunnos has been challenged by some scholars. As early as 1971, Powell noted that there is no ground for believing that every Celtic horned god should be called "Cernunnos depending solely upon the defective inscription in Paris. In agreement with Powell, Olmsted(1979) suggests that the figure be classified as "Dieu Accroupi." According to him, all of the "accroupi" figures with antlers, torques and serpent come from north central Gaul, while only a quarter of the "accroupi" figures with one or two attributes come from outside the region.

Apart from the identity of the horned deity, it is recognized, however, that the posture and dress of the figure are not necessarily Celtic. His folded legs seen from above hint at the possible link with Buddhism in the East and his costume - tight-fitting breeches and coat fastened by a belt at the waist - is often matched by the costumes of horse-riding races from southeastern Europe. More recently, Anders Bergquist found that the shoes of the deity with zig-zag bindings are exactly the same type as those found in Thracian silver repoussé from Sãlistea and Durentsi. His discovery seems to confirm the eastern influence on the Gundestrup Cauldron for no such examples have been found in the Celtic West.

Although, as in the identification of the central figure, scholars have difficulties in identifying some animals surrounding the central figure, it is generally accepted that beside him on the left and right are a hound and a stag. On the back of the stag is depicted a bull which repeats itself on the upper left corner of the plate. The bull on the left is followed by two other animals: a dolphin with a rider and a lion. However, the identities of these animals have been occasionally refuted. For example, Powell argues that the dolphin is actually a sturgeon. Also, the lion right behind the dophin is identified as a boar by some scholars. Finally, a confronted pair of animals in the lower left part of the plate are generally considered as lions. These diverse animals are given special interest by those who argue for the Thracian manufacture of the cauldron. Powell claims that the stag and bulls have the "stolid look" that seems to have come from eastern Europe and that the confronted pair of lions are typically oriental.

Concerning the iconography of the plate, many scholars assume that the plate has a coherent narrative. Klindt Jensen notes that the eyes of the three figures- Cernunnos, the stag, and the hound- are level, thus suggesting a striking connection between them. Most notably, Olmsted identifies the central figure as a Gaulish prototype of later Irish Cú Chulainn in Táin and reads the whole plate as a combination of episodes from the same tale. According to him, the sequence of the three figures on the upper left corner describes the various transformations (shape-shifting) of the two Irish bulls: Donn Cuailnge and Finnbennach. He calls attention to the fact that the sequence of animal transformations ending in the two bulls occurs in the same order in both the tale and the plate.

            (Paris Cernunnos)                

When one observe a man riding on a Dolphin, one cannot possibly think of a scene of Earth. This stage is not set and played out in the human Norse Midgaard area. The dear-horned younger man hold the Torque symbol of Life in his right hand, and also around his neck, and the Serpent symbol of creation in his left.

Inner Plate B

This plate shows an antithetical arrangement of animals around a bust of a goddess. The goddess is presented in the center with a six-spoked rosette wheel on either side of her. She is flanked by two elephants confronting each other. Below them are two griffins arranged in the same antithetical manner and a hound is placed in the lower center of the plate, between these two griffins. The goddess seems almost identical with the goddess on plate (g): she has S-curve hair strands and curvilinear eye-ridges forming a T-shape with her nose. The rendering of her arms is also similar to that on plate (e). Though it is not certain that the six-pointed wheels represent a wagon, the goddess is usually interpreted as riding a wagon. Actually, a chariot is often represented by a single wheel of the same type in Gaulish coinage. Olmsted suggests that the presence of the elephants on either side of the wagon could have resulted from the influences of the Roman coinage which portrays elephants pulling a chariot. Olmsted also identifies her with the Celtic Goddess Medb. She is a god of war and rulership; diverse animals and the chariot represent her war-like nature as a territory goddess.

Though elephants are also depicted in the Celtic west, the fantastic characters of the animals are often explained in the oriental context. Especially the griffins with their segmented wings and rounded bird heads are similar in concept to those imaginary animals often observed in Thracian metal works (Phalerae). Even the elephants suggest an oriental influence. Olmsted notes that the elephant is less a manifestation of the actual animal than a synthetic creature incorporating diverse parts of other animals: the body of the elephant shows the rear leg and tail of the bull on the plate (D) and the trunk of the lion on the plate (C). Its head is also same as that of the bull except its trunk, clumsily added to the head. Thracian characters of the animals are more clear in their hanging feet: the feet of the griffins are literally hanging in midair, not wearing any weight of the body. The bodies of these animals are decorated with interspersed large and small dots and lines. This also can be read in the context of Thracian workmanship for the decorative techniques of hatching and punch marks are characteristic of Thracian silver smithing.
(Phalera from Stara Zagora)

Inner Plate C

This plate shows an intriguing iconography of two deities with a broken wheel: in the center of the plate, a bust of a bearded deity is depicted with a half-shaped wheel on his right side and a full-length leaping figure is holding the rim of the wheel from the right. Under this leaping figure, a horned serpent is presented. The rest of animals are placed clockwise around this group of two deities: in the upper part of the plate, two identical beasts are depicted on either side of the group, both facing the left side of the deities and in the lower part, three griffins are depicted in parallel, all facing the right side of the deities. The space between the upper and lower group of the animals is filled with some botanical patterns which are usually identified as ivy tendrils.

The bust of a bearded god in the center is almost identical with the small bust on the right shoulder of the goddess on plate (e). On the other hand, the leaping figure holding the wheel on the left is similar to the gods of the plate (A) and (E) in its size and dress. He wears tight fitting, short-sleeve clothes and a horned helmet ending in knob like terminals. Drawn on these similarities, Olmsted reconstructs the narrative of this plate in relation to the other plates; according to him, the gods on plates (A), (C), (E) are different representations of the same god, the Gaulish version of Cú Chulainn in Irish tale Táin Bó Cuailnge. Like Cú Chulainn in the Táin, the young god wearing the horned helmet uses a broken wheel in confrontation with the bearded god, Fergus who, on plate (e), accompanies the goddess sharing traits with Irish Medb. The horned serpent under the feet of the young god can be read as the Irish goddess Morrigan who, in another anecdote from the tale, disguised herself in the shape of an eel and finally had her ribs crushed under the feet of Cú Chulainn.

Indeed, the unique presence of a broken wheel suggests that this plate may be a description of a particular narrative. Yet, there is no guarantee that this half shaped wheel was meant to be a broken wheel. Ellis Davidson notes that the wheel was a familiar Scandinavian symbol in the period of the late Bronze Age, a basic motif in the rock carvings which continued to appear throughout the Iron Age. On the other hand, some scholars identify the bearded deity with Jupiter Taranis of the Celts whose traits are wheels. Besides, Olmsted fails to explain the existence of the fantastic animals such as lions(?) and griffins. Even if we accept his argument that the beasts in the upper part of the plate are variants of the wolf, the griffins are completely inexplicable in the context of the Irish tale, Táin, for griffins are unknown in early Irish tradition. Actually, these griffins are all the same with their segmented wings, rounded bird heads and hanging feet as those on plate (B). As manifest examples of Thracian style, they are often compared with the fantastic animals of Sark, Helden, Paris phalerae of Thracian origin and the Agighiol vase (belonging to 4th BC Thracian style). Especially the Agighiol vase shows the parallel expressions of the hanging feet depicted on plate (B) and (C): the deer with their legs dangling in midair as well as griffins and lions.

   (Agighiol Vase)


Inner Plate D

This plate is generally interpreted as a bull-slaying scene. Three bulls are placed in a horizontal line, facing the same direction. They have massive, ham-like rumps and short but thick necks which resemble those of a bull on the Sark phalerae. Focusing on their shape and hatching patterns of the bodies, Powell traces their origin back to Anatolian and earlier Urartian tradition. On the lower right side of each bull, a man is standing in the posture of attacking the bull with a sword. Under the feet of each bull, by the side of each man, a dog is depicted as running toward the left while a cat-like creature is running in the same direction over the back of the bull. These cats as well as the dogs have the same hanging feet. As shown in other plates, the spaces between each figure are filled with tear-drop shaped leaves.

The three fold composition of this plate is often related with the Celtic triad in which the actions of heroes and the slaying of monsters are set in groups of three. Here, the figures are not completely identical; the middle man wears a jacket and the other two do not. However, the basic concept of the composition seems to have a strong connection with the Celtic tradition. Since all the bulls and human figures are represented in a highly stylized, static, monumental posture, Ellis Davidson concludes that the scene depicts a ritual killing with "no attempt at realism."


Inner Plate E


This plate is horizontally divided in the middle by the Tree of Life.

On the left-most side of the plate, the standing god wears what seems to be a pigtail or a tight-fitting knitted cap with a tassel. He is much larger than the rest thus dominating the whole scene. He holds a small man upside down over a bucket-shaped object; he seems to be either plunging the man in the bucket or pulling him out. Before the god, under the bucket, a dog is depicted in midair as if leaping up. The rest of the scene is filled with two rows of warriors vertically arranged along with the dividing stem of a tree in between: the upper warriors are horse-riders and the lower warriors are foot-warriors holding spears and shields. The last three men in the lower row are blowing musical instruments which are safely identified as the Celtic instrument, carnyx. Over the carnyx in the far right corner is depicted a ram-headed serpent similar to that on plate (A).

Along with the plate (A), plate (E) is said to be the most Celtic in its iconography because of the presence of the carnyx. It consists of a long thin tube at the top of which is added a boar’s head with jaws wide open and a projecting mane on the back. The decorated helmets of the warriors in the upper row are also Celtic. Here, we have five different types of helmets: one has a boar on top, one a pair of crooked thin horns ending in knobs, one a crescent shape with concave side down, one a bird with its wings folded. These helmets with various adornment fit with Poseidonius’s description. Besides, Olmsted notes that the weapons of the soldiers such as shields with circular bosses are those of western and central Europe.

However, there are some details which are not apparently Celtic. For example, the distinctive costumes of the men, of the same type as those elsewhere on the bowl, are not characteristic of Celtic Gaul, as Müller observed long ago. Most notably, the round disc securing the straps on the horse is exactly the same type as an iron phalera from southern Europe. Both discs consist of a round central decoration surrounded by smaller circles at the circumference. Based on this observation, Bergquist argues that it points to the eastern origin of the cauldron: he quotes from Allen(1971: 24) that the auxiliary horsemen of the Romans, many of whom came from Thrace rode on horses "plentifully decked with phalerae" and that such cavalry are possible agents of the transmission of the phalerae across Europe. Also, the similar arrangement of figures and plant pattern is found in the Thracian helmet from Agighiol on which the horse riders are depicted in parallel below the horizontal line of ivy pattern. (Bergquist and Taylor:14)

Concerning the symbolic content of the scene, quite a few interpretations have been made. The most widely accepted one is that the scene portrays a ritual dipping and that the bucket-shaped object is a cauldron of rebirth. This cauldron of rebirth is associated with Celtic gods, particularly the Dagda in later Irish literature. Since the scene depicts the warriors and the idea of the dead being reborn into an after life is common to Celtic mythology, the theme of rebirth seems quite convincing. In favor of this interpretation, Ellis Davidson reads the dog and the horned serpent as symbols of the Other world. On the other hand, Gricourt (1954) suggests that the scene depicts the dead warriors marching in as spear men below and riding away alive as horsemen above. However, there seems to be no guarantee for his interpretation. Olmsted challenges this usual interpretation by asking why the resurrected warriors rise in rank, marching up as dead foot soldiers to ride off as horsemen after resurrection. Furthermore Olmsted argues that the bucket shaped object is not a cauldron and that the scene depicts a death by drowning which is often found in Irish tales such as Aided Muirchertaig maic Erca and Aided Diarmada. Another quite interesting interpretation is made by Kimmig (1965). He suggests that the foot soldiers are carrying a tree which is to be placed as a votive offering into one of the sacred pit shafts which have been excavated on Celtic territory.

 (Agighiol helmet)

The Outer plates show 4 male and 3 female busts.

Outer Plate a

Though many scholars since Müller believe that there are at least two artists involved in the manufacture of the cauldron, the outer plates share some basic characteristics. Most of all, as Sandars points out, all the gods are represented in a static posture and the scenes show almost symmetrical arrangements of the figures. Other common features of the gods include the stylized or patternized hair with the top of the head left bald, no ears, small mouths, T-shaped line of eye brows and nose, and the insetting of eyes with glass.

The basic iconographic concept of the outer plates - arrangement of human busts around the cauldron - has been often compared with that of Rynkeby cauldron and Bavai calendar vase from Belgium though the letter is assumed to post-date the cauldron; it is assumed to be of the early Roman period. Recently, Bergquist and Taylor suggest that the arrangement of the human bust may indicate southeastern origin because faces are arranged around bowls in Southeast Europe too. They also notes that human busts are often observed in the later Thracian style metal works.

On plate (a), a bearded god holds a small man in each hand over his shoulders. He is in so-called "orans position"with his arms raised. Like another male god on plate (d), he doesn’t wear a torque; instead he has long whisker-like strings. Each of the two men seems to hold a boar with one of their arms. However, from a closer view, one can recognize that each one reaches his hand upward to a boar and just touches it. The one on the right has a dog below him while below that on the left is a horse with wings, a so called "Pegasus." As shown in the inner plates, the identifications of the scenes on outer plates have not been very successful either. Olmsted, who reads the whole scene on the cauldron as a manifestation of the Irish tale, Táin, identifies the central god with Gaulish equivalent of Cú Rói who judges between the heroes in the Irish myth. Here, according to his interpretation, the Gualish Cú Rói judges the champions competing for the boar.
             (Rynkeby Cauldron)                          (Bavai Vase)

Outer Plate b

Plate (b) shows a male deity holding two sea horses or dragons. These two animals have the mixed characters of horse and dragon; they have a long, serpentine body of a dragon and a horse-like head and two front legs. Their ribs are prominently fluted and the tails and wings are swirled. Below the god is a double-headed monster attacking small figures of fallen men. This double headed creature has been given a special interest by many scholars. Jacobsthal associates it with the Early La Tène beast from Cuperly and a two headed beast on a coin from the Jersey hoard. This monstrous figure, which continued to appear until late in the Middle Ages, is also said to be an animated fire-dog, representing the metal frame set frontally across the fire on an open hearth, with bull or ram heads at either end.(Davidson: 498) A number of such fire-dogs have been recovered from rich Celtic graves in England and on the Continent. Based on this interpretation, Ellis Davidson assumes that the men reclining beside it are feasting beside the hearth and that this iconography may indicate a possible link between this deity and the Other World in the feast of which the dead join their ancestors. On the other hand, as early as 1913, Hubert suggested that this scene should be related to the sea or water since the god holds the sea horses. As for the central god, he drew parallel to the Welsh and Irish god of the sea and the other world: Manawydan and Manannan. As an extension of Hubert's interpretation, Olmsted relates the god to the Irish character Froech who fights with water monster in Táin Bó Fraích.


Outer Plate c

This plates shows a deity with his upraised hands in "orans position" as the other male gods on the outer plates. However, unlike the others, his hands are empty. He has a boxing man at his right and on the left is a leaping figure with a small horse rider below it. The leaping figure is similar to the one on the base with his upturned queue of hair, which is also found in plate (g). The two men are dressed in the same type of garment as that shown on the inner plates, a close fitting jacket or vest with tight trousers ending at the knee. Since this kind of dress is commonly observed in horse-riding races, there are no iconographic details characteristically Celtic or Thracian on this plate. Hence, the depicted scene has found no parallel either in Celtic mythologies or Thracian image repertory.


Outer Plate d

The iconographic details of this plate are comparatively clear: a bearded god is holding two stags in each hand. Stylistically, this plate share some characteristics with the plates (e) and (g): all of them have a dotted background which ends in a zig-zag boundary at the top of the plate and ivy tendrils which fill the empty spaces between the figures. Since boars and stags were the major animals revered by the Celts, one may argue for the Gaulish character of this plate. But they were sacred animals also among the many other peoples of central and southern Europe. Olmsted identifies the animals as deer and the god as Gaulish equivalent of Irish Segamain, who is prominently associated with deer. However, he admits that deer hunting is a common feature in the saga literature.

Outer Plate e

Plate (e) shows a bust of a goddess in the center and the smaller busts of two male gods on her shoulders. She wears a torque and has a typical mask-like face with her small mouth and T-shaped eye brows and nose. The bearded deity on her right shoulder is almost identical with the central god on the inner plate (C) even in their round shaped pattern beneath their beard. They may represent the same god in a different context or just two different gods. If the former is the case, this means that the decoration program of the cauldron is based on a certain kind of narrative or a group of narratives and that each plate is interconnected with one another iconographically. In favor of this view, Olmsted identifies the central goddess with Irish Medb and the two gods with her husband Ail and her lover Fergus. The tale says that because of her many sexual partners, she "never had one man without another waiting in his shadow."  Based on this passage, Olmsted suggests that this scene may represent sexual relationships of Medb. The background of the figures is dotted and filled with ivy-tendrils as shown on the (d), (g).

Outer Plate f

Plate (f) shows an interesting iconography. The central goddess holds a small bird in her upraised right hand while her left arm is placed across her chest. Crossed over her left arm is lying a small man and on the opposite side to the man is a dog upside down. Some have suggested that the goddess is cradling the two figures on her chest. But this would hardly be the case because the figures are depicted as fallen rather than cradled.(Davison: 498) The goddess has two birds of prey - which may be eagles or ravens - on either side of her head. On her right shoulder is seated a small female figure, over whose head is a lion-like animal runs. On the left side, another small figure is holding the hair of the goddess as if plaiting her hair. Olmsted notes that the small bird in her right hand is same as that on the helmet on plate (E): both are seen from the side with a head like those of the larger birds but with a straight beak and their almond shaped wings are folded. Though the narrative of this scene is not known, Bergquist and Taylor associate its iconography with silver phalera of Galiche; both show a female bust with a bird above each shoulder. Since the two plates are of distinctively different style, their claim does not seem plausible. However, they argue that both are, nonetheless, in the same technical tradition - high repoussé silver smithing- and in the same structure of iconography.

  (Galiche phalera)

Outer Plate g

The goddess is crossing her arms on the chest. On her right shoulder is a man struggling with a lion and on the left is a leaping figure who is almost identical with the one on plate (c) and base plate. The man on the right is often associated with a motif borrowed from the theme of Heracles and the Nemean Lion. However, it is a widespread motif of ancient times which can be traced back beyond classical art to Near Eastern and oriental prototypes. Bergquist and Taylor compare this plate with that of a silver jug from Orlovo in south Russia. In the latter, a female face is flanked by figures of men: the man on her right is wrestling with an animal and the other on the left is standing alone. They also have flower blooms around their bodies as shown on this plate. On the other hand, Olmsted associates the head of the goddess with that on the Marborough Vat found in Britain; he notes that the technique of rendering the eye, nose, eye ridges, and hair is similar.

         (Orlovo Jug)                         (Marborough Vat)

(A)                      (B)                      (C)                    (D)                     (E)
(aa)             (bb)             (cc)            (dd)            (ee)            (ff)              (gg)

The proponents of the Gaulish origin put emphasis on the Celtic motifs depicted on the cauldron such as a horned deity, torques and musical instruments called carnyx. Most representative of all, Klindt-Jensen (1959) sees a horned deity as Cernnunos, the Celtic god and argues that it points toward northern Gaul as the area of its origin. However, even among those scholars who opt for the Gaulish origin, iconographic interpretations largely vary with one another. Instead of reading the horned figure as Cernunnos, Olmsted (1979) suggests that it is related with the Gaulish Mercury and its Irish counter part Cu-Chulainn. Actually Olmsted reads the whole iconography of Gundestrup Cauldron as an illustration of a prototype Tain Bó Cuailnge, the Irish tale. Though his interpretation is no more secure than those of the others, Olmsted makes a notable case for the coherent narrative of the cauldron.

Those who argue for the Gaulish origin usually locate the cauldron in the final stage of late La tène period, because by this time, such non Celtic elements as fantastic animals began to appear in the diverse representations on the Celtic coinage. They also draw analogy with other bronze cauldrons of Late La Tène period from central and western Europe. The Rynkeby Cauldron which also comes from a Danish bog is the closest example to the Gundestrup Cauldron: they are almost of the same size; both have decorative plaques forming the interior of the upper cylindrical wall; they share some motifs such as a human bust on the outer plates. Since the Rynkeby Cauldron is assumed to be made around 1st century BC, in northern or central Europe, Olmsted argues that the Gundestrup Cauldron, like the Rynkeby Cauldron, has a La Tène III origin.

On the other hand, proponents of the eastern view base their arguments on the cauldron’s silver smithing techniques and its portrayal of fantastic animals which are commonly observed in Thracian metal work. Powell(1971) claims the Thracian heritage by demonstrating a strong stylistic analogy between the Gundestrup Cauldron and Thracian phalerae. The techniques of decorating bodies of animals with hatching lines and punched dots are common in both. Most recently, Bergquist and Taylor further developed his argument. By locating the cauldron in late 2nd century BC, they claimed that silver-smithing techniques used for the cauldron such as high repoussé, pattern punches and tracers, partial gilding, and insetting of glass are as yet unknown from the Celtic West.  Bergquist and Taylor divide the Thracian style into two periods: earlier style by the fourth century BC when, after Persian invasion, distinctive and original animal style art had emerged in Thracia, and later style at the turn of the 2nd and 1st century when the hoards of silver vessels reappeared after two hundred years of absence. They consider that the two styles are basically homogeneous except that in the later style, human figures are emphasized and usually rendered in high repoussé and they conclude that the Gundestrup Cauldron shows the traits of both styles.

If the Cauldron was made elsewhere than Denmark, then how did it make its way north to Jutland ? To explain its discovery in Denmark, several options are brought up.  Klindt Jensen assumes that the cauldron was a Celtic object imported into Denmark. Olmsted suggests that it was a war booty because the Romans employed Germanic cavalry in Gaul. Bergquist and Taylor propose that it was made in southeast Europe by a Thracian silver smith, possibly commissioned by Celts (Scordisci) and transported by Cimbri who invaded the Middle lower Danube in 120 BC and looted the Scordisci. They make conjecture that since the cauldron takes the 4th century BC Thracian style and lacks the Roman tradition, it was made between fourth and first century BC.


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  • Klindt-Jensen, O., "The Gundestrup Bowl-a reassessment," Antiquity, vol.33, pp.161-9.
  • ---------------------, Gundestrupkedelen, Copenhagen, 1979
  • Laet, S. J. and P. Lambrechts, "Traces du culte de Mithra sur le chaudron de Gundestrup," Actes du troisième Congrès International des sociétés pré- et protohistoriques, Zurich: City-Druck, 1950, pp. 304-6.
  • Megaw, J. V. S., Art of the European Iron Age, Adams & Dart, Bath, 1970.
  • Meyers, p., "Three silver objects from Thrace: a technical examination," Metropolitan Museum Journal 16, 1981, pp.49-54.
  • Müller, Sophus, "Det store Slvkar fra Gundestrup i Jylland," Nordiske Frotidsminder, I, 1892, pp.35-68.
  • -------------------, Nordische Altertumskunde, vol. 2, Strasburg, 1898.
  • Nylen, E., "Gundestrupkitlen och den thrakiska konsten," Tor 12, Uppsala, 1967, pp. 133-73.
  • Olmsted, G.S., "The Gundestrup version of Táin Bó Cuailnge," Antiquity, vol.50, pp.95-103.
  • -----------------, The Gundestrup Cauldron, Collection Latomus, No. 162, Brussels, 1979.
  • Petersen, E., "A Gundestrup edény és a Csórai dombormu," Archeologiai Ertesito 13, pp.199-202.
  • Piggott, S., "The Carnyx in Early Iron Age Britain," The Antiquaries Journal XXXIX, 1959, pp.19-32.
  • -------------, "Supplementary notes on the illustrations," The Celts (T.G.E. Powell, 2nd ed), London: Thames & Hudson, 1980, pp.210-217.
  • Pittioni, R., Wer hat wann und wo den Silberkessel von Gundestrup angefertigt? Veröffentilichungen der keltischen
  • Akademie der Wissenschaften 3. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Asademia der Wissenschaften, 1984.
  • Powell, T.G.E., "From Urartu to Gundestrup: the agency of Thracian metal-work," The European Community in Later
    Prehistory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971.
  • Ramskou, T., "Gundestrupterrinen," Skalk 4, 1977, p.32.
  • Reinach, S., "À propos du vase de Gundestrup," L’Anthropologie 5, 1894, pp.456-8.
  • --------------, "Zagreus, le serpent cornu," Revue Archéologique, XXXV, 1899, pp.210-217.
  • --------------, "Les Carnassiers androphages dans l’art gallo-romain," Revue Celtique 25, 1904, pp.207-24.
  • Reinecke, P., "Autremont und Gundestrup," Praehistorische Zeitschrift 34-5 (1), 1950, pp.361-72.
  • Rusu, M., "Das Keltische Fürstengrab von Ciumesti in Rumänien, Bericht der Römisch-germanischen Kommission 50, 1969, pp.267-300.
  • Sandars, N. K., Prehistoric Art in Europe, Bartimore, 1968.
  • ------------------, "Orient and Orientalizing in Early Celtic Art," Antiquity XLV( no.178, 1971), pp.103-112.
  • ------------------, "Orient and Orientalizing: recent thoughts reviewed," Celtic Art in Ancient Europe (C.F.C. Hawkes and
    P.M. Duval ed.), London, 1976, pp.41-57.
  • Willemoes, A., Hvad nyt om Gundestrupkarret, Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark, Copenhagen, 1978.

Timothy Taylor theorises that Thracian silverworkers were an itinerant class (who he compares to present-day Romani people) who were valued for magical and ritual services as well as for their metalworking (itself an important ritual occupation), and who, though living in southeastern Europe, would not have considered themselves Thracian. He suggests they may have been a feminised caste of men fulfilling functions of priesthood and seership, like the Enarees of Scythia and similar groups attested across Eurasia in the Iron Age. The figure on the cauldron typically identified with Cernunnos is unbearded, in contrast with all the other male figures, and the similar Mohenjo-Daro figure, though having male genitalia, is dressed in female clothes, his posture resembling a yogic posture for channeling sexual energy still used by a caste of Indian sorcerers.[5] Taylor speculates that the "Cernunnos" figure, of ambiguous gender, may have been a deity of particular importance to the Thracian silverworking caste, part of a magical tradition common across Eurasia and still surviving in tantric yoga and Siberian shamanism.[2]


Gundestrup cauldron

A photo of the Gundestrup cauldron
Detail of the antlered figure depicted on plate A of the cauldron

The Gundestrup cauldron is a richly-decorated silver vessel, thought to date to the 1st century BC, placing it into the late La Tène period.[1] It was found in 1891 in a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup, in the Aars parish in Himmerland, Denmark (56°49′N 9°33′E / 56.817°N 9.55°E / 56.817; 9.55). It is now housed at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

The Gundestrup cauldron is the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work (diameter 69 cm, height 42 cm). The style and workmanship suggest Thracian origin, while the imagery seems Celtic. This has opened room for conflicting theories of Thracian vs. Gaulish origin of the cauldron. Taylor (1991) has suggested Thracian origin with influence by Indian iconography.




The cauldron was discovered by peat cutters in a small peat-bog called Rævemose, at Gundestrup, on May 28, 1891. The Danish government paid a large reward to the finders, who subsequently quarreled bitterly amongst themselves over its division.[2][2][3] The cauldron was found in a dismantled state, with five long rectangular plates, seven short ones, one round plate (normally termed the 'base plate') and two fragments of tubing stacked inside the curved base. Palaeobotanical investigation of the surrounding peat showed that the land had been dry when the cauldron was deposited, and the peat had since gradually grown over it. The manner of stacking suggests an attempt to make the cauldron inconspicuous and well-hidden.[3]


The original ordering of the outer and inner rectangular plates is uncertain, although in two places a sharp object has apparently pierced through both an outer and an inner plate, which can thus be aligned with some certainty. The plates retain traces of solder, but since they seem to have been separated by 2 cm strips of metal (now missing), rather than soldered directly together, these traces do not help in matching adjacent plates. One of the eight original outer plates is missing. The circular 'base plate' originated as a phalera, or horse's bridle decoration, and it is commonly thought to have resided in the bottom of the bowl as a late addition, soldered in to repair a hole.[2] By an alternative theory, this phalera was not initially part of the bowl, but instead formed part of the decorations of a wooden cover.[3] The cauldron has been repaired, and possibly even dismantled and reassembled, multiple times, and the repair quality is inferior to the original craftmanship.[2]

The silversmithing of the plates is very skilled. The bowl, 70 cm across, was beaten from a single ingot. For the relief work on the plates, the sheet-silver was annealed to allow shapes to be beaten into high repoussé; these rough shapes were then filled with pitch from the back to make them firm enough for further detailing with punches and tracers. The pitch was then melted out. Areas of pattern were gilded, and the eyes of the larger figures were probably inset with glass. The plates were probably worked in the flat and then bent into curves to solder them together.[3]

Using scanning electron microscopy Benner Larson has identified 15 different punches used on the plates, falling into three distinct groups. No individual plate has marks from more than one of these groups, and this fits with previous attempts at stylistic attribution, which identify at least three different silversmiths.[3]

The plates show wear and buckling, mostly consistent with having been forcibly torn apart at the seams. Some of the wear may, however, hint at an even earlier arrangement of the plates and subsequent reconstruction.[3]


For many years scholars have interpreted the cauldron's images in terms of the Celtic pantheon. The antlered figure in plate A has been commonly identified as Cernunnos, and the figure holding the broken wheel in plate C is more tentatively thought to be Taranis. There is no consensus regarding other figures. The elephants depicted on plate B have been explained by some Celticists as a reference to Hannibal's crossing of the Alps.[2]

The silverworking techniques used in the cauldron are unknown from the Celtic world, but are consistent with the renowned Thracian sheet-silver tradition; the scenes depicted are not distinctively Thracian, but certain elements of composition, decorative motifs and illustrated items (such as the shoelaces on the "Cernunnos" figure) identify it as Thracian work.[3]

The silver in the cauldron cannot be tracked to an individual mine by lead isotope analysis, since the melted coins such artifacts are normally made of can originate in many mines. The variety of coin used has, however, been determined with some certainty, by careful analysis of weights: a total weight of 9445 grams was reconstructed for the entire cauldron, and 4255 grams for the bowl alone, and these were found to be nearly precise integer multiples of the weight of the Persian siglos, a coin weighing 5.67 grams. By this calculation 1,666 coins were used in total, 750 of them in the bowl. This supports an origin in Thrace, where Persian weights were in common use. The phalera base plate, added to the cauldron at a later date, also originated in Thrace.[2]


Base Plate

The circular base plate depicts a bull, above its back a female figure wielding a sword, and two dogs, one over the bull's head, and another under its hooves.

Exterior Plates

Each of the seven exterior plates centrally depicts a bust, probably of a deity. Plates a, b, c, and d show bearded male figures, while the remaining three are female.

  • On plate a, the bearded figure holds in each hand a much smaller figure by the arm. Each of those two reach upward toward a small boar. Under the feet of the figures (on the shoulders of the god) are a dog on the left side and a winged horse on the right side.
  • The god on plate b holds in each hand a sea-horse or dragon. In Celtic-origin theories, the image has been associated with the Irish sea-god Manannan.
  • On plate c, a male figure raises his empty fists. On his right shoulder is a man in a "boxing" position, and on his left shoulder a leaping figure with a small horseman underneath.
  • Plate d shows a bearded figure holding a stag by the hind quarters in each hand.
  • The female figure on plate e is flanked by two smaller male busts.
  • On plate f: the female figure holds a bird in her upraised right hand. Her left arm is horizontal, supporting a man and a dog lying on its back. She is flanked by two birds of prey on either side of her head. Her hair is being plaited by a small woman on the right.
  • On plate g, the female figure has her arms crossed. On her right shoulder, a scene of a man fighting a lion is shown. On her left shoulder is a leaping figure similar to the one on plate c.

Interior plates

Plate A: Antlered Figure

Plate A.

Plate A centrally shows a horned male figure in a seated position. In its right hand, the figure is holding a torc, and with its left hand, it grips a horned serpent by the head. To the left is a stag with antlers very similar to the humanoid. Other animals surround the scene, canine, feline, bovine, elephant, and a human figure riding a fish or a dolphin. The scene has been compared to a similar seal found in the Indus Valley. In theories of Celtic origin, the figure is often identified as Cernunnos and occasionally as Mercury.

In his 1928 book "Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain" Donald Mackenzie proposed the figure was related to depictions of the Buddha, and of the Western Buddha-god Virupaksha.[4]

Plate B: Female figure with Wheels

Plate B shows the bust of a female, flanked by two six-spoked wheels and by mythical animals: two elephant-like creatures and two griffins. Under the bust is a large hound.

Plate C: Broken Wheel

Plate C: the broken wheel

Plate C shows the bust of a bearded figure holding on to a broken wheel. A smaller leaping figure with a horned helmet also is holding the rim of the wheel. Under the leaping figure is a horned serpent. The group is surrounded by griffins and other creatures, some similar to those on plate B. The wheel's spokes are rendered asymmetrical, but judging from the lower half, the wheel may have had twelve spokes, which has been compared with with chariot burials excavated in East Yorkshire.[citation needed] In theories of Celtic origin the figure has been associated with the Irish Dagda.

Plate D: Bull Hunting

Plate D shows a scene of bull-slaying. Three bulls are depicted in a row, facing right. Each bull is attacked by a man with a sword. Under the hooves of each bull is a dog running to the right, and over the back of each bull is a cat, also running to the right.

Plate E: Warriors and Cauldron

Plate E: initiation ritual

In the lower half, a line of warriors bearing spears and shields, accompanied by carnyx players march to the left. On the left side, a large figure is immersing a man in a cauldron. In the upper half, facing away from the cauldron are warriors on horseback. This has been interpreted[who?] as an initiation scene.


The Gundestrup cauldron is the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work.

Despite the absence of any known tradition of sheet silver repoussé in Celtic Gaul or north-western Europe, the decorations on the walls of the cauldron have been widely identified with Celtic deities and rituals. The appearance of torques around the necks of some of the figures on the cauldron also suggest a connection with Celtic culture. Because of these, and because of the size of the vessel (diameter 69 cm, height 42 cm), it is said to have been used for initiatory or sacrificial[citation needed] purposes in Celtic polytheism.

Bergquist and Taylor propose manufacture by a Thracian craftsman, possibly commissioned by the Celtic Scordisci and fallen into the hands of the Cimbri who invaded the Middle lower Danube in 120 BC. Olmsted interprets the iconography as a prototype of the Irish myth of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, associating the horned figure with Cú Chulainn rather than with Cernunnos.

Timothy Taylor theorises that Thracian silverworkers were an itinerant class (who he compares to present-day Romani people) who were valued for magical and ritual services as well as for their metalworking (itself an important ritual occupation), and who, though living in southeastern Europe, would not have considered themselves Thracian. He suggests they may have been a feminised caste of men fulfilling functions of priesthood and seership, like the Enarees of Scythia and similar groups attested across Eurasia in the Iron Age. The figure on the cauldron typically identified with Cernunnos is unbearded, in contrast with all the other male figures, and the similar Mohenjo-Daro figure, though having male genitalia, is dressed in female clothes, his posture resembling a yogic posture for channeling sexual energy still used by a caste of Indian sorcerers.[5] Taylor speculates that the "Cernunnos" figure, of ambiguous gender, may have been a deity of particular importance to the Thracian silverworking caste, part of a magical tradition common across Eurasia and still surviving in tantric yoga and Siberian shamanism.[2]


  1. ^ Encylopedia Britannica [1]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Taylor, Timothy (1992) "The Gundestrup Cauldron" in Scientific American March 1992, pp. 66-71.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Bergquist, A. K. & Taylor, T. F. (1987) "The origin of the Gundestrup cauldron" in Antiquity Vol. 61, 1987. pp. 10-24.
  4. ^ "Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain", Donald A. Mackenzie, p45
  5. ^ This was first pointed out by Thomas McEvilley of Rice University, in "An Archaeology of Yoga" in Res Vol. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 44-77.
  • Kaul, F., and J. Martens, Southeast European Influences in the Early Iron Age of Southern Scandinavia. Gundestrup and the Cimbri, Acta Archaeologica, vol. 66 1995, pp. 111-161.
  • Klindt-Jensen, O., The Gundestrup Bowl — a reassessment, Antiquity, vol. 33, pp. 161-9.
  • Olmsted, G.S., The Gundestrup version of Táin Bó Cuailnge, Antiquity, vol. 50, pp. 95-103.
  • Cunliffe, Barry (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994, 400-402.
  • Green, Miranda J., Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. (NY: Thames and Hudson, 1992, 108-100.

See also