Images in Opposition: Polarity, Ambivalence and Liminality in Cult Representation

By Green, Miranda J. | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Images in Opposition: Polarity, Ambivalence and Liminality in Cult Representation


Green, Miranda J., Antiquity


The concept of 'Celtic' is fittingly ambiguous, ambivalent and disputed in its archaeological definition: 'fittingly' because later prehistoric and Roman iconography in temperate Europe is ambiguous and ambivalent. And ambiguous and ambivalent things are hard to understand unambiguously!

The focus of the present enquiry is iconographic representation in the later prehistoric and Roman periods in Britain and parts of temperate Europe. It examines particular forms of cult-image, depictions which cross natural boundaries, either in terms of gender or species. These images reflect a hitherto neglected symbolic structure, in which deliberate ambiguity and ambivalence built into a representation open up the image to allow for multiple interpretations from a single image (Gombrich 1987: 181; Jope 1987: 97-123). Additionally, ambivalence generates a tension and energy which serve to empower both the image and what it represents, the 'signifier' and the 'signified' (Preucel & Hodder 1996: 299).

The images addressed by this paper present elements of 'ambiguity' and 'ambivalence', but the two words do not carry identical meaning. 'Ambiguity' means a blurring of the edges, in what is being expressed iconographically, a confusion of identity, and the possibility of interpretative choice. 'Ambivalence', if correctly used, means the presence of depictive elements which endow the image with a duality of symbolic power. A given image may present characteristics of both ambiguity and ambivalence: a youthful, beardless face exhibits an ambiguity of gender; but a hermaphrodite image expresses ambivalence. Whilst the two terms are close in meaning, they are not synonyms.

Imagery that expresses ambiguity and/or ambivalence may evoke other symbolism associated, for example, with polarity and the 'boundaries of difference' (DuBois 1982: 27): the violence engendered by chaos and equivalence; the dissonance between opposites such as female/male; animal/human or culture/nature (Preucel & Hodder 1996: 303; McGhee 1994: 59-66; Yentsch 1996: 326); or totality, the encompassment in one image of the whole spectrum of species or gender. Additionally, boundary-crossing in image-making involves liminality and mutability, which can themselves be agents of empowerment. Thresholds and boundaries are vulnerable (Davidson 1993: 9): the entrances to houses, temples, settlements or strongholds may be specially guarded, physically or symbolically, to protect them from harmful forces. But thresholds are also powerful inasmuch as they belong both to 'inside' and 'outside' on the one hand, and to neither on the other. This state of 'being and not being' may apply to images which appear deliberately genderless; these can be interpreted as anthropomorphic representations which transcend the normal confines of male/female form. In Irish mythology, liminality between the earth and spirit worlds was symbolic of risk and of potency: at the festival of Samhain (the ancestor of Hallowe'en and of All Souls Day), held at the end of October and heralding winter, time was suspended and different planes of being could mingle, enabling the inhabitants of the Otherworld to enter and interfere with the world of humans (MacNeill 1962). Samhain was an occasion of both extreme peril and intense energy, where the dislocation of order led to tension and chaos. Mutability involves both risk and a dynamic potency: a hybrid image may evoke the process of change, a shifting of constants which can itself be empowering. Puberty, a major signifier of change in human status from childhood to adulthood, is such an important milestone it is hedged about with ritual in most societies, just as other states of human transition are marked by rites of passage which acknowledge simultaneously the new status, the process of change itself and the abandonment of the previous condition (Richardson 1993: 91-102).

Perhaps the most important element in hybrid imagery is its dislocation from realism, an expression of 'otherness', itself significant in symbolic terms. …

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Images in Opposition: Polarity, Ambivalence and Liminality in Cult Representation
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