av Thomas Cahill

    The Celts have left us two cups-perhaps the two most 
    famous cups in all of history-which beautifully reveal the 
    story of the transformation of Irish imagination from its fearful
    and unstable pagan origins to its baptized peace. 

    The first cup is the Gundestrup Cauldron, found in a Danish swamp where it 

    was thrown as a votary offering by a Celtic devotee a century or 
    two before Christ. We know it was intended as an offering 
    because it was newly forged and, in accordance with Celtic 
    custom, broken into pieces before it was offered: it was never 
    intended for normal, human use. (All sacrifices, even the com-
    munion bread, must be set aside and somehow broken, con-
    sumed, or transformed in order to be authentic. This is part of 
    the "logic" of sacrifice.) The Cauldron is a dazzling feat of 
    silversmithing, its panels alive with gods and warriors. Several 
    panels refer to sacrifice, both animal and human. One panel 
    depicts a gigantic cook-god who drops squirming humans into 
    a vat as we might lobsters. Another, though, depicts a horned 
    god-a figure often referred to as Cernunnos, a god found on 
    coins from India to the British Isles-a lord of animals, sur-
    rounded by goat, deer, snake, dolphin, and other members of 
    the animal kingdom, as well as by trefoils of plants and flowers. 
    Against the violence of the warriors and the carnivorous, can-
    nibal gods is set this prehistoric Saint Francis, ruling his peace-
    able kingdom. The image serves almost as a bridge between the 
    angry Celtic gods, demanding sacrifice, and the Christian God, 
    who offers himself.

    The other cup is the Ardagh Chalice, found in a Limerick 

    field and dating to the end of the seventh or the beginning of
    the eighth century-the same period in which the "Breast-
    plate" reached its final form. It is the most extraordinary metal-
    work of the early Middle Ages, both barbaric and refined, solid 
    and airy, bold and restrained. Like the Cauldron, it was forged 
    for ritual, but it makes a happier statement about sacrifice, for 
    the God to whom it is dedicated no longer demands that we 
    nourish him and thus become one with his godhead. The 
    transaction has been reversed: he offers himself to us as heavenly 
    nourishment. In this new "economy," we drink the Blood of 
    God, and all become one by partaking of the one cup, the one 
    destiny. The silver Cauldron was made in thanksgiving for 
    some great favor: it was not meant to be seen by human eyes 
    but was made for the sole delight of the swamp god. The silver 
    Chalice, on the other hand, was meant to delight and refresh 
    the humans who drained its mystical contents. Its elegant bal-
    ance, its delicate gold filigree interlacings, its blue and ruby 
    enamels beckoned from afar. As the communicant approached 
    the Chalice, he could admire more fully its subtle workman-
    ship; and as he lifted it to his lips, he would be startled to see, 
    debossed in a band beneath the handles, the almost invisible 
    names of the Twelve Apostles. As he drank the wine at the 
    very moment of communion-he would briefly upturn the 
    base toward heaven and there would flash skyward the Chalice's 
    most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant 
    to be seen by God alone. This secret pleasure connects the 
    Chalice to the Cauldron and to all the pagan ancestors of the 
    Irish. But the pagan act of pleasuring the god is now absorbed 
    completely into the New Imagination and to all that will fol-
    low. The smith is still a "man of art," a poet or druid, but he is 
    no longer one of those whose evil craft and power Patrick had 
    to protect himself against: