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Cataclysm and Renewal on British Celtic Coins

By Ryan Sullivan for American Numismatic Society (ANS)……

Figure 1. Catuvellauni gold stater depicting horse, chariot wheel, and astral imagery. (ANS 1944.100.78360)
Figure 1. Catuvellauni gold stater depicting horse, chariot wheel, and astral imagery. (ANS 1944.100.78360)

British Celtic coins are perhaps best-known for their depictions of horses, chariots, and sun gods (Fig. 1). While these motifs appear on the vast majority of coins, they were far from the only subjects selected by the ancient Britons. Boars, bulls, stags, wolves, ravens, waterfowl, and cranes all make appearances. Humanoid figures, sometimes even antlered or horned, appear in greater numbers as the kingdoms of Southeastern Britain had more direct and frequent contact with the Roman world.

Importantly, these images did not exist in isolation. Contextualizing the imagery on the coins not only allows us to better consider what they might communicate, but also expands the available evidence for understanding ancient Celtic cosmologies.

Figure 2. Reverse of a gold “Norfolk Wolf” stater depicting a wolf surrounded by astral motifs. (ANS 1976.253.1)
Figure 2. Reverse of a gold “Norfolk Wolf” stater depicting a wolf surrounded by astral motifs. (ANS 1976.253.1)


The Iceni, a tribe located near present-day Norfolk, had a particular fondness for wolves. A gold stater in the Society’s collection (Fig. 2), for example, depicts a wolf baring its fangs and raising its hackles. A silver unit from nearby Lincolnshire again portrays the animal with raised fur and sharp teeth, but the artist added long claws to its feet and a lolling tongue hanging from its mouth.

Wolves were not only associated with warfare in the Celtic world (as evidenced, for example, by Celtiberian carnyx bells in the shape of a wolf’s head), but also with the forces of death. A plate on the Gundestrup Cauldron, for instance, shows a wolf biting into a dismembered torso. Even grislier, the Tarasque of Noves, a second–to-third-century BCE sculpture from southern Gaul, depicts a wolf holding a dismembered human head in each of its forepaws and a severed arm in its jaws.

While sculpture and other forms of art highlight the mortal danger that wolves present, the imagery on the coins suggest that wolves may have posed a more cosmic threat.

A coin produced by the Armorican Unelli tribe depicts a large wolf with its head turned back over its body. Its jaws are clamped around a solar wheel and there is a small eagle and a snake between its legs. Paul-Marie Duval associated this imagery with a Teutonic legend that may be applicable to the British issues as well:

“Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon and he shall also work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens … and the earth will tremble.”[1]

The silver unit from Lincolnshire does depict its wolf looming over a small spiral, while the crescent and dot motifs on the gold stater have been interpreted as possible depictions of an eclipse.[2] Tentative though these identifications may seem, the druids were well-regarded for their observation and knowledge of celestial events. Tree-ring dating of timbers from a ceremonial causeway in Fiskerton even suggests that the trees used were cut down during years and seasons with mid-winter total lunar eclipses.[3] The ancient Britons were keenly aware of their environment and it would not be surprising to find such momentous events depicted on their coins. Wolves, then, were not only reminders of danger and the finality of death, but also representations of cataclysmic events that could one day end their world.

Figure 3. Reverse of a silver unit depicting an eagle and snake issued under Epatticus of the Atrebates tribe. (ANS 1977.22.1).
Figure 3. Reverse of a silver unit depicting an eagle and snake issued under Epatticus of the Atrebates tribe. (ANS 1977.22.1).

Eagles and Snakes

As discussed above, the wolf on the Unelli coin stands over an eagle and snake. This same pairing of raptor and serpent occurs on several ancient British Celtic coins.

A silver unit issued by Epatticus in Southern Britain, for example, shows an eagle with outstretched wings grasping a snake between its talons (Fig. 3). A similar silver unit, this time produced under Tincomarus, depicts the snake rising up and defiantly staring the eagle in its face. The relationship is clearly adversarial, although the eagle would seem to have the upper hand.

Similar to the Classical world, the eagle was linked with the cult of the sky god. Unlike the Classical world, however, the sky god was also a solar deity who had control over the life-giving powers of the sun. A pellet-in-ring motif, reminiscent of the sun and its halo of light, hovers above the eagle on Epatticus’ coin. A bronze unit, commonly known as the “Chichester Cock”, intensifies this connection as it shows several concentric circles accompanying an eagle or cockerel menacing a snake.

The eagle itself may even have functioned as a solar symbol. Gallo-Roman pipeclay “Jupiter” statuettes, for instance, sometimes include images of wheels (the quintessential Celtic symbol of the sun) and eagles in a way that suggests they were interchangeable.[4]

Snakes, on the other hand, held a dualistic symbolism similar to that of the Classical world. While their regenerative powers led them to be associated with Celtic healing deities, such as Borvo or Sirona, they were also linked with the powers of death and the underworld.

Given these associations, the depiction of the eagle and snake on British Celtic coins likely refers to the victory of light over dark, life over death, and a number of other dualistic pairings. In fact, statues portraying an eagle clasping a snake have been found in two burial tumuli in Trier and in a mausoleum in London, ostensibly as wards against the forces of darkness and obliteration.

However, the fact that these themes sometimes take anthropomorphic form suggests that they held a wider cosmological significance. Romano-Celtic Jupiter columns, for instance, occasionally portray a celestial horseman riding down a giant. The horseman is armed with lightning bolts and a solar wheel, while the giant, who is grimacing in pain, has snakes for legs. A bronze figurine found near Wiltshire, meanwhile, depicts a Mars-like deity grasping two ram-headed serpents by their necks. His helmet is topped by a headless bird, perhaps an eagle, and the snakes’ bodies are twined around his limbs.

While nuanced differences likely exist between the different representations, the adversarial relationship and dominant position of the solar cult mirrors that portrayed in the coins.


As we have seen, contextualizing the imagery on British Iron Age Celtic coins allows us to better consider what they communicate. The image of a wolf might not be used simply because it is a ferocious animal, but rather because it has associations with eclipses, apocalyptic myths, and, thus, societal disruption. The depiction of an eagle and snake is not merely a reflection of their relationship as predator and prey in the natural world, but rather a motif steeped with cosmological significance related to conquest, renewal, and the victory of the solar cult.

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[1] Duval, Paul-Marie. Monnaies gauloises et mythes Celtiques. Paris: Hermann, 1987.

[2] Nash Briggs, Daphne. “Reading the images on Iron Age coins: 3. Some Cosmic Wolves”, Chris Rudd List 3/110 (2010): 2-4.

[3] Welch, Chris. Later Prehistoric shrines and Ritual Structures: Introductions to Heritage Assets. Swindon: Historic England, 2018. https://doi.org/10.5284/1108862

[4] Green, Miranda J. The Gods of the Celts. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1986.

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American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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