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Scene on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Source: British Museum

The Gundestrup Cauldron Decoded - With a Tantric Twist

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All the hammered figures on the silver vessel known as the Gundestrup cauldron obviously mean something. Found dismantled in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891, this mysterious vessel continues to puzzle researchers. The figures tell a story, but no one is quite sure what that story is meant to be.

Stylistically the figures seem to be clearly Gallic in origin, but the presence of elephants, lions, and apparently meditating figures points more towards an eastern origin. Thus, the most accepted explanation is that it was made in an area where both Gallic and Thracian cultures met - in today’s northwestern Bulgaria. Most likely it was the Cimbri people who brought it home to sacrifice it in the bog in the Cimbri part of Denmark.

The Gundestrup cauldron. (British Museum)

The Gundestrup cauldron. ( British Museum )

Just looking at its plates reveals a lot: that it is a fine and detailed tantric piece of art. Take for example the vines. When you study them it becomes clear that they are not just decorative and filling empty space. They are pointing arrows , indicating direction.

Another important hint is given by the raised or crossed arms of the figures. If you try the poses yourself you will feel the difference between an outward display of strength (arms up) and turning inwards (crossed arms). The raised-arms pose has generally been misread as a worshipping pose. It is not. Imagine a victorious athlete instead.

Four of the five inner plates can be paired into two and two. Let us have a look at them first.

A God Mother and God Father on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Two plates both display two horizontal layers of animals. The upper-layer animals have dotted skin, whereas the lower-layer animals have wings. My guess is that logically the winged animals depict wind(s), and the dotted-skinned animals depict stars.

So what we see in these two plates are actually images of the cosmos. The male with the stretched-up arms is likely a god in the act of creating the turning of the spheres (thus the half-made wheel) - a ‘God-Father.’ The legs of the running star animals push onto the lower layer, creating movement in the opposite direction, shown with those pointing vines.

The ’God-Father’ (top) and ‘God-Mother’ (bottom) plates. (Author provided)

The ’God-Father’ (top) and ‘God-Mother’ (bottom) plates. (Author provided)

On the northern hemisphere, we turn south to watch the star signs of the Zodiac moving from left to right (east to west, the same way the sun moves), caused by earth’s rotating eastwards. This is an ancient way of picturing it.

The second human figure on the same plate is apparently supportive in the creation of the major Zodiacal wheel. The ram-headed snake below this figure may be a substitute for a text naming him. Maybe the snake depicts lightning ? If you look closer, the figure emits something from his behind, shown with a vine. He actually farts! Could this be the thunder-sound of lightning visualized as a humorous image?!

The other plate is also interesting because it shows a female counterpart to the expressive rotation-creating male god - a ‘God-Mother.’ Her arms demonstrate how she has turned her attention inwards. She almost sucks the animals towards her and the vines show that the movements now shift to go upwards instead of to the sides.

Notice that the vines have a fine punctuated background, as have the two flowery wheels. This background reappears on most of the female plates. Probably this goddess was thought to reside in the sky at heaven’s North Pole.

This explains why the star signs encircling her are slower elephants compared to the Zodiacal star beasts, which each night race over heaven’s equator from east to west. She may also be the reason why the wind doesn’t always come from the west. The beast below her can be compared to the snake on the male plate: an image caption denoting her power as just as strong as the running beasts of the Zodiac.

The images on the cauldron provide guidance to meditation as a means of refining our minds. We must turn to the female god first because it is necessary to turn inwards to be able to balance our male and female sides; which is imperative in the tantric process.

Our Thoughts and Meditation

The next two plates have similar meanings as the macrocosmic ones, only here we must look into ourselves. Each of us contains the two major gods’ powers within. The male power (top plate) is the more physical acting power, the one with the sideward movements. Here we have three layers: higher spirit (heavenly star-dotted skin), mundane thoughts, and animal-like instincts, e.g. sexual (also untamed beasts).

Exploring the physical and mental sides. (Author provided)

Exploring the physical and mental sides. (Author provided)

The male plate therefore depicts the hard work in trying to learn how to meditate. You have to stop the everyday thoughts, which is no easy task. They keep coming. You have to try again and again. The ‘bull-fighter’ is standing in the lower two layers because at the moment higher spiritual inspirations are out of your reach. That will change.

The next plate (bottom plate in the image above) shows what happens once the thoughts stop. The bulls halt, seemingly confused, and the layers are broken. A big fish carrying a figure (you) swims between the layers. Now everything is possible. The vines grow in multiple directions. The meditating figure has antlers growing on top of his head, similar to the ones the curious stag wears.

In tantric belief it is a goal to refine the coarse physical energy – beginning at the bottom of the body, where it, as a coiled-up snake, starts to unroll. It ends as pure spiritual energy spreading to the top of the head. In the image, the snake in his hand is unrolling. On its way to the head, the snake energy ( kundalini) passes through several energy centers, but only if the male and female energies at each center are balanced.

It is a way of saying that the female energies must be thoroughly incorporated if you are a man (and vice versa for a woman). The torque he holds in one hand is an open ring with two ends turned towards each other. It can be interpreted as tantric – as two opposites are balanced, although the torque is well-known as a Gallic feature.

Depiction of the Chakras

The fifth inner plate shows a plant on its side, but it ought to be standing. I believe it represents the Indian system of centers in the body, with three channels or tubes (called sushumni), through which the male, female, and balanced energies must pass. Those are drawn as three carnyx horn blowers to the right, with the ram-headed snake above, labeling the energy. By now, the snake in the first male god plate can be given an additional meaning as god-energy, the force we wish to experience and master ourselves, comparable to lightning.

The person which appears to be dipped into a vessel is actually being reborn. The vessel represents the vagina out of which the person is emerging. When he starts his quest to become godlike a whole new personality is born.

The animal on the other side of the vessel may be put there to demonstrate how the person used to act like an animal – on instincts we would say today – before the transformation started. Such a state is namely depicted on the first of the outer plates.

There are seven soldiers along the stem, equal to the chakra-belief which operates with seven psychic centers/chakras in the body. The seventh center at the top of the head is the point where your energy combines with universal energies, in a way leaving the body. The seventh soldier is carrying his spear on his shoulder – it doesn’t touch the stem.

The seven tantric centers and the three channels. Indian, c 1820. (Author provided)

The seven tantric centers and the three channels. Indian, c 1820. (Author provided)

The four riders on the upper side of the stem are of a higher nature than a single person’s chakras (since cavalry usually is superior to foot-soldiers). My guess is that they symbolize the four elements, which are believed to influence the four lowest chakras. One rider has a four-legged animal on his helmet (earth), another a bird (air), and one seems to have something resembling the rising sun (fire). The last one is difficult, with branches or lines, to symbolize water.

Chakras and rebirth are depicted on this plate of the Gundestrup Cauldron. (Author provided)

The Bottom Plate

The plate which lays in the cauldron’s curved outer bottom is a lovely piece of art. Originally the bull had horns, but they perished a long time ago. Decoding this plate is not that difficult when you understand the other plates. We recognize the three layers and notice that the ‘bull-fighter’ from one of the first plates has shifted his position.

Now he operates from the spiritual layer. His change in appearance suggest he has become a knight now. The bull (thoughts) as well as the lower beast (animal-like nature, e.g. sexual desire) is tamed, resting.

The bull is tamed in this plate. (Author provided)

There is still movement. The vines that grow into the plate from the left demonstrate how all three layers now face the same direction - against time. A transformation of the bull and the lower beast is undergoing. The old skin of the lower beast has been cast off and disappears to the right. New small-punctuated skin appears on the bull’s front leg, whereas the old skin begins to glide off behind the tail. These are not the details of a confused artist; they are precisely following instructions.

The vines growing out of the transformed person (his spiritually-guided mind) and out from the bull’s genitalia (his thoughts) now appear to be more fruitful, as they are now composed of three leaves instead of one.

The Outer Plates

Sadly, one of the outer plates is missing. Some hints to what it looked like are provided from understanding the system that forms the known plates. It comes as no surprise that the plates illustrate the levels of the mind’s development, i.e. the psychic centers or chakras.

The male-female balance is more prominent than in Tantra today. Apparently a center was seen as either male or female, but an equal amount of each side was intended. These plates too can be paired two and two. Maybe that is why there are eight plates, whereas the Indian belief as we know it today only operates with seven chakras. As I see it, the extra plate illustrates the mind before the transformation begins, to emphasize the difference.

The Former Self and First Level

The first plate shows a male figure holding a dragon in each hand. The beasts’ heads are turned upwards (as opposed to the ones we shall see later). On his chest we see restriction on both his right male/extrovert side as well as his female/introvert side; meaning that the energies cannot move upwards.

The female figure on the next plate has her arms almost crossed in front of her in a more passive gesture. She can be paired with the male figure – at least their torques can: his neck-ring has vertical lines, hers has horizontal. Her punctuated background ends in a right-angled wave, as on almost all the female outer plates. It shows more introverted or psychic activities, originating from the female god of the inner side plate.

The first level depicted in male (left) and female (right) plates. (Author provided)

She belongs to the lowest level/chakra. Apparently the important insight at this level was acceptance of equality between the male and female sexes. The two small figures above her shoulders have raised arms, even the one on her left/female side – both sides must be exposed. The vines indicate both upward and sideward movements. In Indian belief, this level is associated with the material element earth; the male plate expresses the lower instinct sides of this.

The Second and Fourth Levels

The following two images form the next couple. They can be paired by their torques too: slanting lines in opposite directions (which is difficult to see in the photos). Besides this, they are comparable because of the small figures - just look at the sleeping figure over their left shoulder. The female plate depicts the second level/chakra, which concerns passive processing.

There is a connection to feelings here, like wanting to ‘get on the same wavelength’ as another person (e.g. to sympathize or fall in love). In the body, this level is where your intestines process food. It is also connected to the water element. Over her right shoulder we see how the mind either struggles with or caresses a star-dotted animal ( spiritual powers ) - wishing to get acquainted with this new world. Over the left shoulder a figure is passively sleeping, regenerating.

The female second chakra plate (left) and the male fourth chakra plate (right). (Author provided)

The male plate actually belongs to the fourth level/chakra (we’ll see number three in a moment). In the body, we are at the level of the heart. This fourth level is connected to the element air, communication, and thoughts (complementary to feelings). This is why the little sleeping figure over the left shoulder is characterized by an even smaller figure: a horseman, expressing dreams; a way of communicating. Even when you are asleep, your mind rides out and visits strange places. The figure over his active right shoulder looks like he is talking or explaining something.

Levels Three and Five

The third level/chakra concerns life energy (the fire element ). In the body it is at the solar plexus. Your physical energy depends on a well-functioning solar chakra. This plate breaks up what was beginning to look like rules: the female figure has one arm in the air, and one in front of her, and she has no punctuated background.

Apparently the makers of the Gundestrup Cauldron thought that life energy comes into the body through the air. This plate depicts breathing in and out, therefore she has one arm introverted, and the other extroverted: life energy comes into the body on the left side as something in the air (the eagle-like bird). It is transformed (the figure braiding the hair) to nourishing energy (the figure lying as a baby on her arm). This is showing the in breath.

The third chakra plate and the author’s interpretation of what the missing plate may look like. (Author provided)

Next comes breathing out, which is pictured on the figure’s right side, where the now-used energy is transformed from physical (four-legged animal) to airy (the small bird in her up-stretched hand), whereupon it leaves the body in the same form as it came (the second eagle). We normally think breathing is a process of the lungs, and of course it is. But when you breathe deeply, it looks and feels as if your stomach is filled with air. Combining breathing with the life energy center at the solar plexus is understandable.

The figure’s right shoulder is prolonged past the arm. A small figure is sitting there. She illustrates the final breath , where the spirit leaves the body into the sky with its tail between its legs. Her left hand is placed on the solar plexus to show the seat of the life energy. The missing punctuated background is noteworthy. It must be because breathing is a physical activity.

The one she should be paired with is not easy to show because it must be the missing plate. However, knowing the other plates and the system of pairing, we can deduct that the plate must have displayed another female figure, since the last two plates have bearded men on them. This time the figure probably has the punctuated background to make the numbers even.

She might even have one arm up and one crossed like the life energy figure, because this level/chakra is the fifth, which in tantric belief is placed in the throat - a transformation center too. This is where food comes in, is tasted, and swallowed, and the voice leaves. The physical matter is transformed to non-physical. Also, the head/mind is connected to the torso/body through this center.

The drawing above is my guess on some of the missing plate’s features. I gave her a thin torque like the life-energy figure, although I’m not sure there should be one.

Sixth and Seventh Centers: Triumph!

Finally we come to the head centers. The figures are bearded males. Notice that neither of them wears a torque; balancing is clearly mastered, with almost the same figures on each side of the head. These plates can be paired by their hair, which curls in different ways.

The first head center is often called ‘ the third eye .’ It is often painted as an eye on the forehead – exactly where the hairline curves on the plate to the left in the image below, which gives an impression of a third eye. The idea of the extra-eye relates to when your kundalini reaches this level and you obtain clear-sightedness; a spontaneous ability to ‘see’ things the way they really are.

The small figure over his right shoulder stands with an apparently wild dog below his feet and another in his hand, held high in the air. This could be symbolic of the fact that he now is able to rise above any problem or impulse and overcome it (his hand holds the figure’s arm).

On his left, passive side, we see the same uplifting pose. The animal below him is a winged horse. This is similar to the rider on a horse expressing dreaming (the mind traveling) on the ‘communication’ plate. But now his mind doesn’t ride away with the horse – he is awake - and the horse is much faster with its wings. In his uplifted state his mind immediately collects and understands the information needed to solve any problem.

The ”triumphant” plates. (Author provided)

The ”triumphant” plates. (Author provided)

The final plate is the one on the right in the image above. It shows a male figure, but has the female punctuated background. He has fully assimilated his female side -his right and left sides are equal. The energies (vines) are quickly moving upwards, pushed by the antlered stags turned upside-down in contradiction to the dragons of the first outer plate.

The tantric belief claims that when you develop this far your mind becomes one with the universe; you experience unity with all things in an overwhelming feeling of happiness. You have become godlike.

Top Image: Scene on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Source: British Museum

By Niels Bjerre

References

K. Flemming ’Gundestrup Kedlen.’ Nationalmuseet, Denmark, 1981.

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