Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Concerning Cernunnos Part 2: Accessing the Fruits of the Wild

(Part 1 can be found here)

So Cernunnos, as a god of the in-between, a conduit, is able to deflect the destructive power of nature away from humankind and give nature’s gifts of food and wealth. Does he do this for us out of the kindness of his heart? No, Anne Ross explains:

“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society. By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat-bogs and all watery places, no doubt with solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind – including no doubt, security against their own hostility.” (Anne Ross: Ritual and the Druids, in The Celtic World edited by Miranda J Green, Routledge, London,1995, p.441)

To understand the system of reciprocal gifts, if you haven’t already I urge you to read The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss.It’s a ground-breaking book, first published in 1950, and still a classic text on reciprocity. It doesn’t give examples from the Celtic past but does look at Indo-European forms and asserts that the family of Celtic people ‘has certainly known such institutions’. After reading it I had a much deeper understanding of the system underlying early Celtic society, some later folklore and even some fairly recent Welsh customs. For me it brought into greater depth of understanding such things as fosterage; the contract between the warriors and their lord in the Gododdin; why you must not eat anything when you visit the sidhe, what lies behind the deposition of valuable items, sometimes deliberately broken, into bogs and watery places; the almost obscenely sumptuous great cattle-feasts; and possibly put Medb’s distress that Ailill had one more bull than she did in a new light….

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

'In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never "free". Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: "What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?" (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a "total prestation", imbued with "spiritual mechanisms", engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term "total prestation" or “ total social fact” (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim’s social fact.). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost "magical". The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them" (1990:31).

Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one's spiritual source of authority and wealth.

Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving - the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one's own liberality, honour and wealth.'

In order to enter into a fruitful relationship with Cernunnos then, he would be given offerings and in exchange he would be obliged to return his gifts: to deflect the negative forces of nature, give fertility, food, and, since wild nature is ultimately the source of all material, wealth, even in the form of money. God and humankind are bound in a system in which honour and the spiritual source of authority and wealth are at stake.

As Celtic society moved beyond the gift economy - seen by Mauss as an early system of exchange in probably all human societies, eventually superceded by the market and the money economy (and of course now, by the global economy) – Cernunnos’ domain began to extend beyond the forest and the wild - the primal location for the transfer of goods from Nature to humankind - to all venues of civilisation where trade took place.

Cernunnos, Lugus and Lúgh

At this point I started to think about the god Lugus. Wasn’t also he a god of trade and exchange, didn’t he win the fruits of the wild in the form of the harvest for the Tribe and wasn’t he a hybrid figure and associated with Mercury? I found all this addressed in Alexei Kondratiev’s article Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord. Alexei  lists the attributes they share as the tendency to tricephaly (having three heads) and the association with money and with twin serpents. “Both are threshold figures, facilitating the passage from life to death and back again”. However, he points out that as they are often depicted together they are clearly not meant to be identical.

For me, another similarity between them is that Lúgh, the Irish reflex of Lugus, is a hybrid figure like Cernunnos. Not part animal/part man but, because his mother is of the Fomóirí and his father of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he is half Fomóirí, half Tuatha Dé Danann. The Fomóirí represent the powers of the Land and the Tuatha Dé Danann are the gods of the Tribe who represent human social functions and support and nurture humankind.The opposition and conflict between the two has its roots in Indo-European mythology and is clearly of pre-Christian origin.

So Lúgh is, like Cernunnos, both of the Wild - the powers of Nature and the Land, sometimes referred to as the forces of 'Chaos’ - and of humankind - of Culture and civilisation. The ram-horned snake of Cernunnos is the equivalent to the Fomóirí, (and particularly to Bres, their chief), both representing the dual aspect of the Land, benign and malign, having the power of the harvest but also the power to withhold it. But whereas Cernunnos is simply holding the snake in check, Lúgh has a different solution: he is a warrior (among his many other skills) and he does battle with the Fomóirí.

According to the Cath Maige Tuired (a 16th century text using material which may go back as far as the 11th centry and obviously draws upon IE material), Lúgh defeats them partly by magic, partly by his skill with the slingstone, and is ready to kill Bres. Bres became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann because he has a Tuatha Dé Danann mother and a father of the Fomóirí. Thus he is the mirror-image of Lúgh, a dark twin. (His succession is flawed since the Tuatha Dé Danann are a patrilinear society; the 'rightness of things' is therefore compromised.) Bres proves to be his father’s son, exhibiting the malign powers of the Land and withholding the fruits of the Land from the Tribe which leads to the conflict. However, Lúgh spares Bres who bargains for his life by revealing the secrets of successful agriculture to the Tuatha Dé Danann:

‘If I be spared’, says Bres, ‘the kine of Erin will always be in milk’. ‘I will set this forth to our wise men’, says Lúgh.
Hence Lúgh went to Maeltne Mór-brethach, and said to him: ‘Shall Bres have quarter for giving constant milk to the kine of Erin?’
‘He shall not have quarter’, saith Maeltne; ‘he has no power over their age or their (offspring) though he can milk them so long as they are alive’.
Lúgh said to Bres: ‘That does not save thee: thou hast no power over their age and their (offspring) though thou canst milk them’.
Said Bres: ‘Forbotha’, etc. [...]
‘Is there aught else that will save thee, O Bres?’ says Lúgh.
‘There is in sooth. Tell your brehon that for sparing me the men of Ireland shall reap a harvest in every quarter of the year’.
Said Lúgh to Moeltne: ‘Shall Bres be spared for giving the men of Ireland a harvest of corn every quarter?’
‘This has suited us’; saith Maeltne: ‘the spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for the end of the strength of corn, and the beginning of autumn for the end of the ripeness of corn and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.’
‘That does not rescue thee’, saith Lúgh to Bres. ‘Forbotha’ etc., [...] saith he.
‘Less than that rescues thee’, saith Lúgh. ‘What?’ says Bres.
‘How shall the men of Ireland plough? How shall they sow? How shall they reap? After making known these three things thou wilt be spared’. ‘Tell them’ says Bres ‘that their ploughing be on a Tuesday, their casting seed into the field be on a Tuesday, their reaping on a Tuesday.’
So through that stratagem Bres was let go free.

(The Second Battle of Moytura, translated by Whitley Stokes, pp 106-107)

Here it is Lúgh who wins the harvest for the Tribe, conquering the malign elements of the Land. Yet we should remember that Lúgh is half Fomorian and so, in a sense, is in conflict with himself and has subdued an essential part of himself. Something we may return to later.

The Irish festival of Lúghnasadh, the assembly of Lúgh, on August 1st was said, according to one account, to have been instigated by Lúgh to commemorate his foster-mother Tailtiu, whose name, according to Alexei, means Great One of the Earth from Old Celtic talantiu. Tailtiu is renowned for having cleared the plain in the centre of Ireland for agriculture. The festival was originally a time when the people of the tribes gathered, when contracts were made, trade undertaken, artists and craftsmen displayed their wares and there were sports and competitions.

More recently the agricultural aspect of the festival was all that survived and a prime part of the proceedings was an enactment of the myth of the triumph of Culture versus Nature, where humankind, the Tribe, win the harvest from the malign powers of the Land.

The classic work on this is, of course, The Festival of Lúghnasa by Máire Mac Néill, London, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Culture versus Nature: An Irish Folktale

A later development of the theme of Nature v Culture is found in several Irish folktales which feature the Cailleach Bhearra as a corn goddess figure who teaches the people the secrets of the harvest, often being tricked into doing so by a young hero. One set of tales concerns how the Cailleach cannot be matched in the reaping of the corn and kills various reapers by sweeping their legs from under them when they fail to beat her in reaping contests. One such tale was recorded by Douglas Hyde in 1901 ( hÍde, Ceithre sgeulta tarraingte as an "Sgeuluidhe Gaedhealach”, Baile Átha Cliath: Gill, 1901).

In it the Cailleach Bhéarra and her daughter started farming in an area called Gleann na Madadh. None of the male reapers who worked for them were able to match the Cailleach in her reaping contests and she killed them all by cutting their legs off with her scythe. A warrior called Donnchadh Mór boasted that he could beat her and came to work for her. Although he was strong and fast he was exhausted after his first day’s work digging. However, the Cailleach’s daughter took a fancy to him and told him that if he dipped his bread in the milk of her mother’s hound he’d gain superhuman strength. He did so and won the digging contest. Before the haymaking contest, the daughter gave Donnchadh steel spikes to put in the field which made the Cailleach blunt her scythe so that he won again. Before the reaping contest the daughter told Donnchadh that her mother had a magic beetle in the handle of her sickle which gave her her powers. Donnchadh destroyed the beetle, was able to win the reaping contest and as a result the Cailleach revealed secrets to him. Her power was eclipsed and later she and her daughter and dog were killed in a storm.

Now Donnchadh is not Lúgh but obviously they share some characteristics since he is strong and skilled but also gains victory and wins the secrets of the harvest for the people by trickery. In this story the fertility of the land is female, the Cailleach being the malign but powerful aspect and her daughter being the benign but less powerful aspect (and she is killed in spite of her assistance to the young hero – a poor recompense!)

Coming next: Part 3: Cernunnos and Lúgh - Nature and Culture 


  1. I'm really getting a lot out of these articles, Hilaire - they are so learned and so thoughtful. Thank you for writing them.

  2. Firstly may I congratulate you on an intersting thread and I look forward to the next part of this. I am, however, having some problems relating Lugh to Cernunnos through a combination of currently developing UPG and the link you gave from Kondratiev. Cernunnos classically may have been viewed as a deity that provides a link between humanity and the wild (nature) whereas Lugh, as Kondratiev observes "the concept of Lúgh as the archetypal power behind rulership" relates mainly through a cultural role with his consort, Rosmerta, representing the sovereignty of the land (a basis for some shared UPG now that is suggesting to us that the Godessess were mainly tied to sovereignty of the land and the Gods being much more in a cultural role providing dominion to a favoured culture).
    I may be jumping the gun with this comment, so I'll see how your next part develops, but thought it was worth raising at this early stage.


  3. Thanks Elizabeth and Red Raven for your positive comments. I've given myself a sort of brain fever over the last week (headaches!)writing these so it's good to know they are of interest.

    RR: I'm not suggesting that Cernunnos and Lugus were the same, they were both, separately,important gods. I'm just intrigued by their similarities and the different treatment of similar themes - and I'll be going on to speculate about it. Some of your difficulty might be ironed out in the next one.If not, it would be interesting to discuss it further :-)

    There is very little evidence (if any) of Lugus/Mercury in Ireland, whether associated with Rosmerta or not - there is a general lack of iconography (not having had the Roman influence), just some stone statues and carved pillars which don't have inscriptions so we can only speculate who the figures are.

    The Irish Lugh is known to us through these quite late stories and figures in CMT2 as one of a tribe of supernatural beings at war with another - like other IE myths: Gods/Titans, Aesir/Vanir, Devas/Asuras - and clearly in CMT2 he is winning the knowledge of how to reap a successful harvest and deposing the niggardly king.

    The fact that he inaugurates the festival of Lunasa in honour of Tailtiu, the Great One of the Earth (or his wives in other versions) gives a nod to the Sovereignty idea you mention and might suggest that his relationship with them gives him another advantage in the battle.

  4. WOuldn t it be reasonable, since the Celtic culture was so non-canonic (ie lack of uniformity) that the tribes/region adapted what they saw fit an transfered to their prefered/most fit in similarities god ?

    1. Yes, I think that's possible. The tribes would have had their own local gods and may not have known about the gods of other tribes. There were hundreds of dedications to gods which only appear once. As certain gods attained prominence and fame by various means (trade? travel? a developing centralisation of the druids?) they may have seen reflections of their own gods in these and been content to adopt them. Only a few gods appear more widely in the surviving archaeological record.