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 3: Cernunnos and Lugh; Nature and Culture

(Part 1 is here)  (Part 2 is here)

Cernunnos and Lugus/Lúgh: What is the Relationship?

So how do these two gods relate to each other? Rather tantalisingly Alexei suspects that the answer lies in a now-vanished element of Gaulish mythology. But looking to the later insular literature, he notes that Manannán is Lúgh’s foster-father and in the Welsh Mabinogi, Gwydion is Lleu’s foster-father and says that if we observe that “both characters are older versions of the young hero in their talents and attributes, and indeed very “Mercury”-like [the Celtic Mercury which he equates with Lugus] – we may indeed come very close to understanding the nature of the relation.”

(As an aside, note that in the third branch of the Mabinogi there is another nature versus culture myth. But this time it is Manawyddan fab Llyr, who is related to the Irish Manannán, who takes on the role of the character who defeats the malign powers of the Otherworld, an army of mice who eat the crops, and he uses trickery to defeat them and restore the Land for the tribe.)

Now I am not very sure what understanding Alexei thinks we may come to by considering these older versions of the young hero. Possibly it relates to my own speculation - that, of  ‘the Old Gods’, Cernunnos is a Very Old God, a kind of precurser to Lúgh from the age of the hunter.

Consider the rock carvings at Val Camonica  which give us the earliest depiction of an antlered god in a Celtic context. These petroglyphs are amazing in that they span a period of about 8,000 years and show a development of ideas through the different ages. The earliest carvings, well before the rise of the Celts, are from the Mesolithic period (8th –6th millenium BC) and were made by nomadic hunters. They depict their prey - typically deer and elk.

In the Neolithic period, with the beginning of agriculture (5th – 4th millennium BC), human figures and geometric patterns, rectangles and circles among others, appear, giving perhaps the idea of fixed settlements. By the Bronze Age, roughly the 2nd millennium BC, weapons began to appear, along with the geometric shapes, and in the Iron Age (1st millennium BC), where our first depiction of ‘Cernunnos’ comes from, the Camunni people carved symbols of “heroic masculinity and superiority. Dominant themes include representations of duels and human figures…flaunting their weapons, their muscles and their genitals. There are also figures of cabins, labyrinths, footprints, hunting scenes and other symbols.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The point I want to make here is that humankind’s relationship with stags goes far, far back into the Mesolithic age when they were hugely important as prey. It's true that it wasn’t until the Iron Age at Val Camonica that a depiction of a hybrid stag/human appeared but the interaction of human and stag was a vital one going back into human prehistory and humans were hunters before we were farmers. Therefore it would not be surprising if one of the early Celtic gods, perhaps inherited from the pre-Celtic tribes, was of the stag/human form and related to food/fertility/hunter/hunted/the wild/ the human.

The authenticity of the antlers on the human/animal figure known as “The Sorcerer” from the cave of the Trois Frères in the French Pyrénées (much later to become a Celtic region) and dated to the Palaeolithic age (c. 13,000 BC) is the subject of some dispute although it now seems to be vouched for. (See here - and read right to the end for additional comments.) If indeed authentic it illustrates what I'm suggesting here. We don't know of course what it represents, if it's a god or a shaman or something else, but it does show, I would argue, the importance of the relationship between human and stag.

In the Le Tène period, starting around 500 BC, there was an expansion of the Celtic tribes, an accumulation of wealth and territory, and, according to Alexei, this period gave rise to depictions of a god, (often with mistletoe leaves around his head like horns or ears) whom Alexei identifies with Lugus. This god appears in the Roman period as a Celtic “Mercury” and Julius Caesar writes in his Gallic Wars (Book 6, 17):

“They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions.”

However native depictions of him show certain other traits as well, namely triple forms, and a role as sovereign protector with warrior attributes. (See Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord)

Going back to the Val Camonica carvings, we can see the development of human organisation and values and the increasing importance of weapons, male virility, and conflict. It makes sense to me that ideas about the way to obtain the fruits of the wild evolved from a hunter/hunted model - at a time when humans had less effective weapons to defend themselves and when they may have facilitated the exchange of goods and services through reciprocal gift exchange as Mauss outlines – to a model of wresting food from nature by conflict and manipulation as they moved into agriculture and a martial, warrior-centred state of organisation which used  trade and the money economy as its form of exchange of goods and services.
Because of the huge importance of the Cernunnos-type god, it would not be surprising that he existed side by side with another, more recently popular god who embodied the current concerns and values of an agricultural, warrior élite; a god whom we see echoed in the warrior Lúgh in the Cath Maige Tuired.

Lugus/ Lúgh

In some ways we could say that Lúgh combines in himself the attributes of the antlered god and the horned god, as a powerful fighter and protector of the food resources of the tribe. Certainly many modern illustrations show him horned by virtue of his helmet, such as this…

'The Coming of Lugh the Il-Dana', © 1979, Jim Fitzpatrick

But he is, of course, more than simply a warrior god and the illustration at the top of this post gives a better idea of the way he combines attributes as a deity of the arts and intellectual skills, music and poetry; an associate of ravens as well as the owner of the spear, a practitioner of magic and champion of the harvest.

The Reconciliation of Opposites

I said earlier that being part Fomorian, part Tuatha Dé Danann, Lúgh is in a sense fighting against himself. Because of Cernunnos’ dual nature as stag/human, the same may be said of him. He is both hunter and hunted; the human hunting the stag and the stag being hunted. Both parts of these gods are in opposition to each other and, to avoid annihilation or perpetual conflict, must find a way of accomodating one another. They both must become a reconciler of opposites in order to keep these opposing forces in balance. How do they do this? I believe it is by negotiation and reciprocity. In the story of Lúgh and Bres, they negotiate so that in the end Lúgh does not harm Bres but exchanges his life for knowledge of how to improve the harvest and therefore the lives of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

We don’t know how Cernunnos has gained power over the ram-horned snake, who like Bres and the Fomóirí represents the powers of the Land, benign and malign. It is possible that he promises not to kill the snake in return for access to the fruits of the nature. In the end, some sort of quid pro quo, some exchange of goods or services must have been enacted – if only an exchange of mutual respect for the spiritual source of each other's honour and power. In this way, disaster is averted. Wild nature and the human world are kept in a healthy balance.

Nature v Culture in the 19th Century to our Time

However, by the nineteenth century, when Western society began to become more industrialised, I think we began to lose contact with the meaning of these gods.

Taking the folktale of Donnchadh Mór (which I wrote about in Part 2) as an example, we can see by the ending that the essential truth of Lúgh’s story has been lost. Donnchadh should have married the Cailleach’s daughter, representing the benign power of the Land, who helped him, and together they could have kept in check the malign powers of the Cailleach. Instead mother and daughter die and the hero is seen as the winner, the conquerer.

It’s easy to see why this is so. In the 19th century the success of the harvest was crucial but still uncertain. Yet humankind was beginning to develop, with a Lúgh-like ingenuity and skill, more effective means to secure it. Humans were beginning to control and tame wild nature.

But now, by the 21st century, we have moved on from there. In ancient times Tailtiu could be praised and celebrated for clearing the forests to make plains for agriculture; now we have lost too much of our forests and need to plant them again, since lack of them is having a negative effect on the suitability of the environment for humans. Nature has been tamed to the extent that now the fertility of the land is being compromised.

What we have forgotten is that, like Cernunnos and Lúgh, we too have a dual nature: like Cernunnos we are human and animal (mammal), we were once hunter and hunter, now, perhaps, in the almost complete absence of natural predators, we are preying on each other. Like Lúgh we are both beings with social organisation and culture, needing sustenance from the Land, and we are a part of nature, with its benevolence and its cruelty. We cannot harm one without harming the other, part of ourselves.

Alexei concludes his article on Lúgh with this statement:

"Even today, the spirit of Lúgh pervades the Celtic world… Trickster, psychopomp, experimenter, mover between worlds, granter of success and wealth through intelligent manipulation, and granter of continuity through change, his many gifts remain at the disposal of those who trouble to seek him out."

I can’t help thinking that this spirit pervades more than the Celtic world. Trickster, experimenter, granter of wealth through intelligent manipulation – couldn’t we apply these attributes to the practices of the world’s bankers which have led to the banking crisis?

Isn’t the desire to control and manipulate in the practice of agriculture on an industrial scale leading to an impoverishment of the Land? Unlike an organic style of agriculture which gives back to the land to ensure fertility – a sort of reciprocity – modern chemical fertilisers take from the Land and leave it depleted. We are following a model of taking in order to take rather than giving in order to be given to. Some of the practices of the huge multinational agribusinesses surely display the worst side of Lúgh’s attributes: control, conflict (aggressive litigation), genetic manipulation, the accumulation of wealth through the commercialisation of seeds.

Whereas for Lúgh, concern for and sacred duty to the well-being of the Tribe, the paramount importance of the fertility of the Land (a lack of which would undermine kings) and the value of honour would have provided a check on the negative side of his attributes - the dangers of an excess of them - we no longer have such checks.

If the gods rise and fall in prominence as human society and its values and concerns change, the value and relevance of Cernunnos and Lúgh have never been more essential. We need, I would argue, to balance conflict, skill and manipulation with the recognition that we need honour, respect and reciprocity in our dealings with Wild Nature – because it is our Other Self.

I'll end this section with the image of Cernunnos from the Gundestrup cauldron, holding in one hand the symbol of wealth and prosperity, the torque, and in the other the ram-horned snake, the power of Nature and the Land, benign and malign – and neither Cernunnos nor the snake doing harm to the other.

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 

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Concerning Cernunnos Part One: Introduction

Cernunnos by Valerie Herron at Mystic Media

Personal Experiences

Having a connection with stags it was inevitable that I would be attracted to the antlered god, Cernunnos, when I first heard about him. In my old house he had a separate shrine to Brigit in a different room, but in my present house, as I described in a previous post, he shares what I think of as the household shrine with her.
Having the two deities side by side made me realise how much, for me personally, they complement each other. Brigit’s domain is in the human realm: a culture goddess, presiding over the arts, a guardian of the hearth, a protector of flocks. Even as a sovereignty figure and tribal protector her concern is with the human world. Cernunnos on the other hand is part stag, part human and therefore his domain is the human in the wild - or the wild in the human.

There again, Brigit is strongly female; Cernunnos is strongly male. I had some encounters with him several years ago when I was having a difficult relationship with someone. It was very good and satisfying in some ways but totally lacking in verbal communication – and then there were the other women! I met with Cernunnos a few times in deep meditation… Now I have to say that I’m not sure where the images of the gods come from in this type of state. I encountered Brigit in deep meditation over a long period of time and the image of her certainly didn’t come from my conscious mind; she wasn’t how I consciously imagined her. For one thing she was young, younger than me, which was a surprise and felt rather strange to begin with. But another Brigit came to me one night, unbidden, a huge and powerful entity with a somewhat different character and in a non-human form (although thinking about her later my mind began to give a human shape and face to the experience). So I tend to think that the gods I encounter in meditation have something more to do with archetypes perhaps on a subconscious level than the gods that appear as Visitations. But I don’t know – I’m still collecting, or awaiting, experiences with which to test hypotheses.

The antlered god I encountered was very much like the picture at the top of this post – in his prime, agile, virile, at one with the forest and the wild. To me, as a woman, he was very much Other in his maleness. Unlike the man I was having the affair with, however, he was an excellent communicator and was able to tell me things about myself and the way I appeared that I couldn’t have seen for myself: through his eyes I was able to view myself from the outside as it were. The affair ended as messily as it had begun, but re-reading my journal of the time recently, I thought again how insightful and useful what he told me was and actually still is.

Lately I’ve been thinking about him more and more. What do we know about him? Who is he? Why am I feeling his presence again? What is his relevance today? I’m going to outline some of his iconography and the current thinking about him and then follow on to my own speculations about him – taking in how the fruits of the wild are mediated into culture, comparing him with Lugh, and finally considering how we - or I - might honour him and engage with him now, in the 21st century.

Some Facts and Scholarly Opinions

First, a quick recap of some of what we know about the antlered god. The earliest representation in a Celtic context comes from Cisalpine Gaul, Val Camonica, in present day Italy. It dates to the middle of the fourth century BC and shows a tall figure with antlers, having a torque on each arm and a (possible) serpent underneath his left elbow. To his left is a smaller ithyphallic figure also with upraised arms ( in the ‘orans’, praying position). 

The name, or possibly title, Cernunnos, actually only appears once, carved on the so-called Pillar of the Boatmen – a monument set up in the early first century AD by Gaulish sailors and found under the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It depicts several deities, Roman and Gaulish. In fact the inscription is now obscured and only reads ‘ernunnos’ but has been reconstructed to Cernunnos which probably means ‘the god with horns’. It shows a figure with small antlers having a torque hanging on each one.

The most famous image thought to be that of Cernunnos though is, of course, the one on the Gundestrup Cauldron, found in Denmark, dated to the 1st century BC and probably of Thracian design but depicting mainly Celtic images. Here he is seen wearing a torque, carrying one in his right hand and holding a ram-horned serpent in his left. He is sitting in something similar to the lotus position and other images of an antlered god found in other contexts are also sitting. Surrounding him are various animals.

He is often seen elsewhere in association with animals, especially the stag. At Reims he is shown with antlers; he is balding, bearded and cross-legged, wearing a torque. Above him is a rat and on his left arm is a bag containing corn or coins which are streaming down between a bull and a stag. He is flanked by Apollo on his right and Mercury on his left.

The Bull or Ram-Horned Gods

A distinction must be made between the antlered god and the horned god. The bull-horned or ram-horned gods share some attributes with Cernunnos and they are both sometimes associated with the Roman Mercury or with the Celtic Silvanus. However the bull or ram-horned god is a war god, often depicted as a phallic warrior with sword and shield. Ross describes him as “a god of ceaselessly warring pastoral tribes… a fitting expression of their fundamental attitudes and desires – a powerful fighter, a protector of flocks and herds, a bestower of virility and fertility on man and beast”.  (Anne Ross: The Pagan Celts, Ruthin, North Wales, 1998, p 163-4).

Horned God, Maryport, Cumbria

Attributes of the Antlered God

What then are the attributes of the antlered god, Cernunnos? Ross says “he is always portrayed in a pacific role, and his whole cult is suggestive of fertility and agricultural and commercial prosperity.”  (Ibid, p. 163) Miranda Green observes that “the overall symbolism is distinctively that of prosperity and well-being: "Cernunnos is lord of nature, of beasts, fruit, corn and even plenty as symbolised by money. The underworld aspect to the snake and perhaps the Cernunnos-cult is suggested by the rat – a burrowing, carrion-feeding and therefore chthonic [of or relating to the underworld] beast – on the Reims relief. The main feature of the iconography is the close link between man/god and beast. The stag-symbolism is very potent in that often stag and stag-god are present together; it is tempting to see here an example of Celtic shape-shifting, Cernunnos changing at will from beast to man-form.”  (Miranda Green The Gods of the Celts, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud, 1997, p. 197).

David Fickett-Wilbar gave a very interesting paper at the Celtic Harvard Colloquium in 2003. You can read a version of it here: Cernunnos: Looking a Different Way.

His conclusion is that “The consensus opinion of the Gaulish Cernunnos as 'Lord of the Animals' is based almost solely on his antlers and the depiction of such a horned figure on a panel of the Gundestrup cauldron. A close inspection of the panel, and comparison of it with the other panels and the Lyons cup, shows, however, that it cannot support this interpretation. Other representations present a number of paired opposites, leading to the conclusion that he is, rather, a god of bidirectionality, and cognate with Mercury. This connects Cernunnos with prosperity (as a god of merchants) and explains the antlers as a display of one more set of opposites, that of man and beast…
In summary, then, although… Cernunnos was considered a god of material prosperity, he was so by means of his nature as a god of the in-between, of bi-directionality, of the reconciliation of opposites. He was both wild and tame, god of healing and god of death, of the hunter and the hunted, of nature and of culture, and in his very person human and animal. Under this interpretation, his iconography seems ambiguous because it was meant to be. He is an ambiguous god, and always was. Ambiguity does not conceal his nature; it reveals it.”

Finally, Alexei Kondratiev has contributed further insights into Cernunnos and his manifestations. Since what he has to say is particularly relevant to my future speculations, I'll quote at length. This is from the article known as Basic Celtic Deity Types :

The Celtic 'Silvanus' or God With Antlers (Karnonos/Cernunnos).
"He is the god who crosses boundaries, and the god of change. He is the interface between Tribe and Land and between our world and the Otherworld. Through him goods can be passed from one realm to another (hence his association with money), and valuable things can be gotten from raw Nature. He also manifests change as adaptability, as expressed by his antlers that drop off and grow back according to the season. Because some of his functions overlap with those of Celtic "Mercury" they are often shown together, although neither replaces the other, since their basic characters are quite different.“

He expanded further on the Imbas list between February 15th and 27nd, 2008, topic: Ram-headed Snake:

"A lot of scholarship in recent years (notably David Fickett-Wilbar's paper on Cernunnos at the Harvard Celtic Colloquium a few years ago) has made the origin and nature of this image [the ram-horned serpent]pretty clear. [It]... is first found in Bronze Age China -- in pretty much the same form it would later have in Celtic art. The image then evidently was carried westward by the equestrian cultures of Central Asia and entered the Celtic world in the middle Iron Age, presumably by way of the Celts' Scytho-Sarmatian neighbours. The serpent represents the powers of the Land (a widespread and deeply entrenched Indo-European motif, also widespread outside the IE world), and the ram's horns indicate its dangerous aggressive and destructive aspect. Holding the serpent, Cernunnos indicates that he has power over it: he can deflect the destructive potential of wild Nature. The torc he holds in his other hand indicates that he gives gifts: he promotes wealth and material well-being. These are themes that are developed in all the other representations we have of the antlered god…"

“Connecting Cernunnos with the Dagda [as an article 'Cerre - An Archaic Epithet of the Dagda/Cernunnos' does in the Journal of Indo-European Studies - Fall/Winter 1988 by William Sayers] brings out the attributes they share as "Lords of Riches" and as beings who can bridge opposite realms in a way that is beneficial to humans. The vast majority of the "Celtic Mars" figures (like Uellaunos) are closely associated with the imagery of Fiannai/ocht, which is also about the interface between nature and culture. David's paper provides additional information on the origins of the symbolic motifs associated with the figure while continuing to see how it all relates to the nature/culture interface and the ability to cross boundaries (which naturally includes a patronage of trade). Taking all these insights together leads to an overall insight into how centrally important this boundary-crossing attribute was to the Celtic theological imagination, so that Graeco-Roman observers could come to the conclusion that "Mercury" was the main god of the Celts…”

”One should also remember that there was no single, normative pantheon throughout the Celtic world, or even throughout what we would consider a single Celtic country (like Ireland) -- although the druids seem to have been working towards that goal at the height of the Iron Age. Each Celtic community inherited a basic mythological and theological vocabulary from their Indo-European past, but freely assembled the pieces on their own terms, leading to very individual expressions. The Dagda is one example we know of from Irish literature of how a certain group of basic Celtic mythological motifs were put together in Ireland (or at least in the Boyne Valley and adjacent parts of the North); Sucellos is a similar expression from the peoples who lived along the Saone and the Rhone; Cernunnos yet another one from the Belgic peoples. They're all related, without being identical: what they have in common helps us understand what the pre-Christian Celts considered important in their deities and how they related to them.”

"I don't see that there's any direct and explicit link [between Cernunnos and the Otherworld]. However, as a figure who always stands on the boundary between opposing realms or concepts, he would be on the boundary between this world and the Otherworld, or the Upper World and the Lower World, and be able to pass from one to the other. " "He isn't the embodiment of the spirit of wilderness the way [Finnish] Tapiola is. Since hunting and gathering is the most primal way humans take resources from nature into culture, Cernunnos is certainly the patron of such activities (whence the many Cernunnos-like motifs found in Fiannai/ocht); but his role extends far beyond hunting…”

"This is the view of Cernunnos [as Lord of the Forest] that prevailed in older writing but... it's been largely superseded by more modern scholarship, which offers a more all-inclusive and convincing explanation of all the features of the figure. In a way, one could still say that Cernunnos is "Lord of the Forest", but he's more precisely the guardian of the forest's edge, regulating what passes across the border between nature and culture."

An Aside concerning Snakes, Brigit and Conall Cernach

As somewhat of an aside, regarding the significance of the serpent, Alexei also pointed out that those deities, especially healing deities, who grasp poisonous snakes with impunity, mediate the power of the Land to people so that the potentially harmful influences are neutralised or become positive. He puts Brigit in this category as well as Cernunnos, based on the charm in the Carmina Gadelica about the snake coming out of the hole on Brigit’s Day:

Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me

and observes that the same formula is used of Conall Cernach in the Táin Bó Fraích:

"We will go truly," says Conall. They attack the Liss; the serpent darts into the girdle of Conall Cernach, and they plunder the dun at once. They save then the woman and the three sons, and they carry away whatever was the best of the gems of the dun, and Conall lets the serpent out of his girdle, and neither of them did harm to the other.”

There has been some speculation that the epithet Cernach in the name Conall Cernach, the foster-brother of Cuchulainn, is related to Cernunnos however it seems more likely that it means ‘the victorious’. Alexei suggests that the storyteller used some motifs connected with Cernunnos because he had noticed  the similarity of the name.

Next:  Part 2: Accessing the Fruits of the Wild 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


The month of July, the hay is under cover,
the sunshine is hot, the hailstones melt;

Mis Gorffennaf, hyglyd gwair,
taer tes, toddedig kessair;

Verses of the Months, Welsh c 15th century

I had an unexpectedly nice morning on July 1st repotting some sunflowers for a friend as well as some fennel which had seeded itself - just as well because the parent plant didn't survive the harsh winter. I also dug up my purple sage and put it in a pot for the time being. It has been nibbled by something again this year and isn't thriving - the same with a lungwort. I'll let them get to a good size in the pots and then find a congenial place for them. They are already perking up and taking more of an interest in life.

I've also  repotted one of the small hazel sapling which seeded itself in a friend's vegetable patch. There were two and I've put the other,bigger one at the top of the garden next to the plum tree where it's doing well. I'm still not sure where to put this one and it was complaining about its confinement. So now it is in an old split bucket giving me a chance to decide.

Lest you think all in my garden is lovely, here is a rather ugly,untidy, dirty corner. But of course if it were not for this, the growth and healing and blossoming could not take place.

There are less than pleasant areas of my life too... and I often think that in spite of them, something lovely grows and blossoms. Perhaps it is not in spite of, but because of?

Oh, the dwarf beans have perked up too and seem to be thinking about fulfilling their potential.