Ancient Spiral Patterns (Celtic and Pictish) as Body Art

These are a series of designs done with woad to illustrate the major types of spirals and circles executed in ancient Northern European art. The sitting took seven hours (many thanks to Bek from the Children of Albion for her patience) and the woad lasted for about three days before it was too faint to be seen with clarity at any distance. See my Make your own Woad page for a quick guide on destroying your kitchen and preparing the original temporary body art (or was it a tattoo medium or an astringent for drying wounds? See HERE).

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All ancient cultures share a common series of circular geometric devices. They can certainly be counted amongst the earliest devices that humans ornamented with. All the five populated continents have examples of circular devices within their ancient artwork and can all trace the intricacies and nuances of their later developments to these elements. The polynesian style of ornamentation so popular today with body art designers is an excellent example of this.

I recently helped to look after a two year old for a weekend, to entertain him/me, we happily spent some time scribbling with big wax crayons over scrap paper. While I was drawing circles, squares, triangles and other simple stuff, Jake was merrily hammering out spiral after spiral after spiral, thick and overlapping , chuckling away to himself and occasionally shouting out 'Washing machine!!!'. I'm sure by the look of pleasure on his face that he had not suffered any trauma at the mechanical hands of a washing machine and that he drew the spirals as the easiest way to express himself. Was Jake experiencing the same feeling as fellow artists from the dawn of time who had not yet been shackled by pre-concieved 'artistic' methods and forms?

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In this series I have included both open ended spirals and enclosed circles. Without a desired overall scheme in mind I started with a plain enclosed circle between the model's shoulder blades. This I filled with two further enclosed circles then I took a potato (I suppose I could have used a more authentic root vegetable or possibly carved either wood or chalk) I had carved earlier and surrounded the first circle with open spirals. I did find it useful to mark the potato on the side which was always to be facing to the centre after the first few applications.

Next came the large open spiral which forms the lower half of the back piece. When I stood back to see how the closed and open circular devices looked together it came to me to turn them into a figure. I used two small enclosed circles for the neck and four open spirals for the limbs.

On the left shoulder I added four concentric circles. Unfortunately the woad had started to 'turn' at this point and the circles are much thicker than I intended. After reheating the mixture I added the open spirals around the shoulder. Unfortunately the potato spiral started to fall apart at this point and I was unable to finish the underside of the device which went onto the arm with matching spirals. The base ornamentation on the left arm is based on a design found on grass fired unglazed neolithic pottery at Windmill Hill near the splendid Avebury complex (circa 2000BCE).

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Group 1, concentric circle devices:

Anthropologists have recently associated this symbol to a drug influnced vision of a shamanic gateway between worlds. It occurs in all regions where these practices have pervaded, notably amongst the peyote consuming native tribes of the Americas and some Australian aborigine groups. The circles are supposed to represent the divisions betweens the real world and the dream worlds that the shamans visit while under the influence of their narcotics. The anthropologists cite the effects of the hallucenogenics on the optic nerves to support their theories. The colour defining cones within the eye become inflamed and the viewed image seems to radiate light. This distortion, they say, is evidence of 'otherness'. But surely any image viewed under the influence of these drugs would have the same effect. I think the 'gateway' theory is too easy an answer. I suspect something that relates more to astral figures such as the sun or moon but that's only my opinion.

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Group 2, spiral devices:

In Celtic and Pictish folklore the direction that a spiral takes will have implications as to it's meaning. A right handed turn from the centre would be considered to be travelling in a sunwise direction (such as the outer spirals on the design above). This is considered to be a design which illustrates harmony and success. A left hand or anti-sun wise direction would indicate a struggle or conflict.

This is why the Highland sword dance for the most part proceeds in an anti-sunwise direction. This is to show the struggle and conflict within a battle. The dance ends with a flourish of right hand turns, a sunwise direction, to show eventual victory.

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Spirals have also been associated with shells that have provided a basic food staple for hunter/gatherer communities. These all share a right hand, or sunwise direction, in their construction. No wonder that many ancient societies associate a right hand turn with propitious events and eventualities.

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