The Gundestrup Cauldron is a richly decorated silver vessel attributed to the late La Tène period or early Roman Iron Age (1st or 2nd century BCE). Its plates are etched with many mythological and ritual scenes from the pagan world. It was unearthed in a peat bog in 1891 near Gundestrup, in Himmerland, Denmark. The vessel had been dismantled into several pieces and deposited in the bog, most likely as a religious sacrifice.
It is the largest surviving piece of European Iron Age silver work ever found. Although comprised almost entirely of silver, it also contains gold gilding, tin solder and glass decorative pieces. It is thought that the cauldron is the work of several artisans over the span of several hundred years.
Scholars continue to argue as to the origin of such a magnificent vessel. The decorative style suggest a Celtic or Gaulish origin, such as the presence of Celtic torcs/torques, helmets and the Celtic war trumpet, the carnyx. However the workmanship and metallurgy suggest an origin in Thrace, the Middle Danube. This could suggest the Gundestrup Cauldron was made where La Tène Celts and Thracian people lived in close proximity, such as Bulgaria or Romania.
Regardless of its origin, the Gundestrup Cauldron displays magnificent decorative motifs, with scenes associated with life, fertility, and even death and destruction. Exotic animals such as elephants, lions and griffins are also depicted on the cauldron plates, suggesting that the scenes relate to several cultures rather than just one.
One of the most famous plates shows an antlered figure, most commonly associated with the Gaulish god Cernunnos. The horned figure is seen wearing a torque around his neck with his legs folded holding a serpent. However another interpretation is the antlered figure is a Gaulish version of Cú Chulainn from the Irish tale Táin Bó Cuailnge.
Another plate shows a bearded figure holding a broken wheel, which is often associated with the Gaulish god Taranis, however again this could be associated with the Gaulish version of Cú Chulainn, the Celtic god Dagda, or even the Roman god Jupiter.
The warrior plate shows a line of warriors bearing spears and shields marching along with carnyx players. These warriors have fallen in battle and are waiting to be immersed into the ‘cauldron of fate’ which will allow them take their position in the Underworld.
The female figure below holds a bird in her upraised hand, and is flanked by two birds of prey. This goddess could be interpreted as Rhiannon, whose birds of the Underworld could awaken the dead or lull the living to sleep. However she could also represent the Morrigan or Medb, both associated with birds and the Underworld.
Although its origins are debated, and the story as to how it arrived in a peat bog in Denmark is still a mystery, the Gundestrup Cauldron is an important showpiece of Iron Age skill and craftsmanship. Its decorative motifs record scenes of early Celtic and Gaulish pagan mythology.
The Gundestrup Cauldron is housed at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, however an exact replica can be found in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
© The New Pagan (2014)