Thanks to Marianne Lines of Findhorn, who sent me Ken Porter's poster reproduced here by kind permission;
thanks for Rebecca Gilbert's stounding
piece on page 107 : to Paddy Graber and to John Bartlett, not only for John's
indispensable notes to Paddy's material, page 109, but also for permission to
reprint both articles which first appeared in Come All Ye: The Vancouver Folk Song Society
Journal, Vol.3., No. 11: November 1974.
The reason why I was so taken with these articles were the references, both in
children's rhymes and in folklore to the animals which appear in the book of Kells,
namely, the otter and the fish, the hound and the hare, the cat and the mouse. These
articles provide an insight into the animal symbolism of the early middle ages, to which
folklore and nursery rhymes are often found to have preserved long forgotten references.
Comparitive studies such as these can sometimes shed unexpected light on the meaning of
otherwise baffling images in Celtic art.
The Otter of the Book of Kells, a Footnote.
"But we shall follow as otters swift
And snare thee fast ere thou canst shift;
But we shall go in our master's name
Until we fetch thee home again."
The otter is a very rare animal in the illuminated manuscripts. It is a startling image
to find in a page of sacred scripture. It is not necessarily a vestige of pagan belief,
even if the image of the hunt is indeed a universal metaphor. Being universal, the
allegory of hunting and fishing is not strictly religious either. But the image of the
otter with a fiah in its jaws is unusual. Its very rarity is intriguing, but it can be
compared to other symbols of hunter and prey, such as that of the eagle and fish or
a heron with an eel.
Pictures of animals in the Book of Kells were more likely intended as religious
symbols, to be contemplated, or to be reflected upon by monks, by whom, after all, the
pages were intended to be read. As a catcher of fish, the icon of the otter is a
distinctly religious symbol, especially in the context of the illuminated gospel book.
Elsewhere in the manuscript decoration, the fish appears in the talons of a bird, most
often an eagle. Apart from being fishers, the otter and the eagle both inhabit two worlds,
and therefore are metaphors for the interchange of body and soul. Consider the eagle in
relation to the waterbirds, such as the heron and the crane, which, like the otter, pass
from air into water and back again. Although the eagle is normally considered to be a
solar emblem, as king of the heavens and rider of the winds, it catches the fish on
the wing, and has long been taken as a metaphor for salvation, lifting the fish from its
submarine world into the upper world of light and air. Note that the otter is poised
as if perched on a bank, its tail outstretched behind for balance as it lift the fish out
of the water. This otter has been sitting above the water, looking down into it, seeing
the fish but unseen by it, until struck and hoisted up, not knowing what has happened to
it. This is surely a mystical image, to be so ravished by an unseen force,
transported out of one's element into a different world. Another point to
note about this the otter is that it is painted black, which is very unusual in Celtic
art. Bodies are usually painted with light colours. The darkened body could have some
significance - the unknown, unseen, invisible aspect of the one who watches from above,
and strikes without warning. The things that change us in the most drastic ways are often
hidden from view, unexpected, and impossible to foresee. Perhaps the otter is painted
black to indicate the obscure nature of the force that siezes hold of a person -
symbolised here by the fish - who is called "out of this world" by the
"philosophical death". It could refer to the "little death" of
love, of course. Or death itself. It can mean all of these things, and more, all at the
same time. Iconography is a way of thinking, like poetry, or dreams. On a more mundane
level, the dark paint is surrounded by an empty contour separating the paint from the
outline of the drawing. This is a convention of Celtic art, partly to emulate champlevee
or cloisonne enamelled jewellery, partly to expedite the drawing, as, by leaving a little
space between them, you can apply the colour immediately, without worrying if the colour
will be contaminated by the wet ink of the outline. Coincidentally, the effect is that of
otter fur, the wet velour slicked back, gleaming all along the edges,
Images of animals that can pass from one world to the other, such as the serpent that
can swim across the surface of water, or the eel that can cross between streams, or the
salmon that can climb the unbelievable force of a waterfall, or the otter that dives for
its dinner and is almost as at home in water as a seal, provide food for contemplation,
and speak of the possibility of transcending the world we have been born into, and of
journeying beyond the conditions that surround us.
There is a world-wide use of the water bird as a symbol of meditation, the go-between.
The fish itself, as food, can be considered as the object of the otter's quest. Or,
being caught and lifted up out of its own element onto the land or into the air, it may
symbolise the mortal soul being acted upon, lifted up and absorbed into the agency of its
The predator can signify either the divine or the human being. If the hunter is taken
to represent the action of transformation, of all-encompassing change of perspective, then
the fish may represent the human soul. Or, if the sacrificial "victim" is the
active element in the equation, the target of the quest, then the hunter may signify the
seeker. In that case, the fish may be wisdom itself.
Even more than the fish, the eel appears in the Book of Kells in association with birds
and cats, both of which prey on fish. But the eel - represented most often with elongated
gills, its face seen from above, and its body ending in a fishtail - is also partly
amphibious, like the otter, and travels over land for surprising distances, especially
through wet grass, returning to its very own source.
As with the salmon, the image of the eel is a reminder of overcoming obstacles,
such as attend the return journey. When an eel comes up from beneath the water and
swims through the grass to get to a nearby stream, it is enveloped in air, but does not
breathe on land. So too, the otter dives into water, but is not of it, nor does it stay
there for long, but must return to the bank of the river, where it lives and sleeps.
The beauty of this symbol is that it facilitates contemplation, the more you think
about it, the more you find yourself thinking about the things that mean so much to us,
but which are so difficult to pin down with mere words. The person who painted this
perfect cameo of the otter was not an observer of nature in an artistic or scientific
sense, but more as one who looks for clues as to the meaning of life in life itself, in
which natural events are approaches as metaphors for hidden meanings. In later times, such
allegorical associations were conventionalized into a kind of language, as in the
bestiaries of medieval manuscripts, but this otter does not belong to that class. There is
a purity in the perception here, which portrays the symbol so eloquently that we can
mistake it for naturalistic representation. That is our mistake.
We can nolonger see the world around us with the eyes of that painter, to whom the
actions and behaviour of familiar animals were shining letters on the page of nature, in
which everything was meaningful. We place our value on other things, so much that if ever
we are arrested by the elemental vision of an eagle plunging under the water, and swimming
back up and into the air again, in a spray of water being shaken from its wings as it
purchases the air again, all without losing a wingbeat, such a sight is an astounding
revelation. But in earlier times, every glimpse of nature was equally a revelation, and
the world was literally a sacred book, to which we turned for meaning and guidance through
the mysteries of life. Because we have lost that vision, we see an image of the otter with
a fish, and can only "read" it as a picture of an otter catching a fish. To the
man who placed it on the most gorgeously decorated page in the book of Kells, it was a
profound statement, a sermon. That is why it is there. We have to look past the surface of
the image, to shatter the surface, to get at the pristine vision underlying the appearance
of things. I
t is not so much that this is such a well-drawn depiction that we recognise the
creatures represented, but that it only represents an otter catching a fish. Our
difficulty lies in the fact that to the painter, the otter and the fish together are a
symbol. To the painter, life was a metaphor. He refers us to the symbol without any
elaboration, assuming that we, too, see life as a metaphor. He refers to the language of
symbolism, in which the otter and the fish symbolise themselves alone, in which fishing is
a symbol, a fish is a symbol, the otter is a symbol, and taken together, they unfold a
great truth, such that he felt moved to place this truth side-by-side with the
chrismonogram, on the great Chi-Rho page.
The only conclusion that I can draw from this is that here we have a testimony to a
kind of thinking that we no longer have, in which nature was a spiritual source, and
spirituality was a natural thing, an intensity of worship through nature - without the
slightest contradiction between the two, neither one taking anything away from the other -
that we can only guess at now.
Aidan Meehan, 24th October, 1999