Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A 1st-Century BCE Gold Cernunnos?

The Horned God is hot right now.

So call me a skeptic if you like, but I'm sorry: some things are just a little too convenient. How do you say "Too good to be true" in Witch?

An item that turned up on E-bay some while back was identified by the seller as a 1st century BCE golden La Tène phalera (harness decoration) depicting the god Cernunnos. Unprovenanced, supposedly from a private collection, it was priced at $7400.

Sorry, I'm not convinced. How convenient that a piece of art—previously, so far as I can tell, unknown to any art historian—depicting this god and none other (arguably the most identifiable god in Keltic mythology) should just happen to turn up in a "private collection."

If genuine, it's a pretty significant artifact, of intense interest to scholarship. If not...well.

The supposed phalera depicts the god in bust, with raised arms and branching (and intertwining) antlers. In his hands the god holds two items identified by the seller as torques, but which look more like curvilinear swastikas. If what he's wearing around his neck is supposed to be a torque, it doesn't resemble any other torque that I've ever seen in Keltic art.

And there's something wrong with those antlers, with their wavy tines on both sides of the beam. Image-search "Deer in Keltic art" and see if you can turn up anything like them.

More than anything else, the piece looks like the famous Gundestrup Antlered re-rendered in the form of the god-busts on the same cauldron, made by an artist not quite fluent in Keltic style. It's an interesting coincidence that, of all the "Cernunnoi" known from Keltic antiquity, only this one and the Gundestrup god are unbearded.

Art forgery is a profitable business. Within months of the initial excavations at Knossos, Minoan fakes were readily available on the European art market. Demand was high, and money good.

But, as Kenneth Lapatin observes in his 2003 book Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History, though forgers make art that may look genuine to contemporaries, the passage of a few years usually leaves the forgeries with that "not quite" look to them.

And I'm afraid that may be the case here.

When last I was in the Middle East, I bought a couple of "Astarte" figurines from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. Before I bought them, I asked myself: If I knew for sure that these were both made last week, would I still be willing to pay this price for them?

And in both cases, the answer was, Yes.

It's unclear from the original listing whether or not the piece on E-bay ever sold. If it did, I hope that the buyer asked him- (or her-) self the same question, and got the same answer.

Ancient or modern, it's nice to know that Himself, god of my heart, is still a going concern, enough so to make forging antiquities in his image worth the work.

So don't get me wrong. I think it's an authentic piece of Horned God art, all right.

I just don't think that it's ancient.







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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Mab Nahash
    Mab Nahash Saturday, 14 January 2017

    The biggest giveaway is the squashed nose and right side of the face. Clearly that's an attempt to render the battered look of the gundestrup cauldron. The problem, though, is that the cauldron is a repousse piece (hammered from behind to project forward) that would squash relatively easily. Ancient coins are stamped, so the higher parts are just thicker. They don't squash- they wear down. This just isn't how coins age. Nonetheless, were it affordable, I would buy it. It would make a beautiful necklace. I have no interest in being a first century Celtic pagan. I am a twenty first century pagan, and twenty first century art will suit me just fine.

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