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

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 


  1. Just a wee note - there are four known inscriptions now. This post describes them and gives some good references:

  2. Thanks Seren, that's a useful link.

  3. I was really enjoying reading this post so I'll look forwards to reading the next section :)

    "although the druids seem to have been working towards that goal at the height of the Iron Age." Why is this thought to be so? Would appreciate any reading you can point me towards ^_^

    ~Nellie @abitofgardeningspirit

  4. Yes, that is an intriguing comment, isn't it? I'm not sure what Alexei is basing it on. (Anyone?)

    Possibly Ceasar's description of the organisation of the druids and the control they wielded in Gaul may be part of it, since it could have led to greater uniformity in worship of the gods. But there must be something more. See:

    You also might like to read Alexei's article, from his Lorekeepers course, on Priesthood and Ritual here It doesn't shed any light on the comment itself though.

  5. That's fascinating. I prefer just to experience 'gods' (if that's what they are)rather than try to define them. But it's interesting reading stuff like this.

  6. Given that Cernunnos means 'horned one' I've always assumed that the appelation could be applied to any god with horns, much in the way that modern wiccans refer to 'the Horned God'. I think this gets into the territory of god names and their significance. The appearance of Cernunnos between Apollo and Mercury reminds me of the comment on the story about Apollo and Pan competing to see who could play the best music. I'm not sure who said it - possibly Robert Graves, but it was to the effect that Apollo was in effect competing with his past self. If gods can evolve it is possible that a horned fertility god can take on more sophisticated attributes while still retaining their old ones. As Cernunnos is between Apollo and Mercury in the representation you show, could there perhaps be an element of this ambiguity of function?

  7. Hamadryad: Yes, sometimes knowledge detracts and dilutes experience. But it may also deepen and make sense of experience or even act as a portal to new sensations and experiences. Double-edged, like most things of any value...

    Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  8. Greg: Because, of the few inscriptions to Cernunnos, there is only one accompanying depiction and that is of an antlered god,I think I'm right in saying that in academia Cernunnos applies specifically to an antlered god - even if it applied more widely originally. Ross says that the bull-horned god is 'nameless'.

    I think myself that there was a distinction although, as now, people sometimes did conflate the two types of horns and horned gods. In general the iconography of the bull-horned and stag-horned gods is different. The antlered god is characteristically sitting, with animals and symbols of plenty. The bull-horned god is often naked, armed and standing.

    I know David F-W has argued that the reason the stag god is shown sitting is for practical reasons - the problem of having to have a large piece of material and wasting the parts round the antlers or showing the figure the same size as other figures on the same piece of material but I'm not really convinced. The artist of the Reims carving has got round that by having the antlers going off to the side and Cernunnos could have been the same size as Apollo and Mercury (and they smaller) to make the point of his eminence.

    I think the reason he is sitting is to emphasise his peaceful nature; it's difficult to fight when you're sitting down and that he is sitting shows he is not adopting an aggressive stance, unlike the bull-horned god.

    If you think of the association of ideas around bulls (and rams) and stags you can get an idea of the different character of the gods:
    stag->forest -> the wild, hunting -> food, fertility and bull ->fertility but aggression and, I think,competition between men/warriors(bull-fighting/leaping over the bull's horns), and war (think of bull horns on the helmets of warriors. I accept it might not be so easy to put stag-horns on helmets! but it just doesn't have quite the right associations either.)

    There are some common attributes and Ross thinks the two cults might have overlapped at some points. They are both related to Mercury which brings them together. (And I think it's possible that the figure of Lugus/Lugh combines characteristic of both types of horned gods - but more of that later.)

    Cernunnos is shown three-times flanked by Apollo and Mercury. David F-W sees the attributes as Apollo= light and healing opposed by Mercury = psychopomp leading the dead into the dark. But there could well be other meanings and it's an interesting suggestion that in a sense Cernunnos could evolve to take on some of Apollo's other artistic attributes. More of my thoughts on that later - must get on with it!

  9. Oh, and because antlers are not fixed like horns and look like tree-branches there are also, I think, associations of seasonality with Cernunnos which you don't get with the bull-horned god. Some of the statues had holes so that antlers could be put on and removed, perhaps at different times of the year. I know David F-W again thinks this was for practical reasons, but again, I'm not convinced.

  10. Nellie: going back to your question about Aexei's comment "although the druids seem to have been working towards that goal at the height of the Iron Age" I happened to come across something in Ross's Pagan Celtic Britain while looking for something else:

    "It cannot be doubted that the Druids were pre-eminent in Celtic society and that their duties went beyond those of mere arbitrators and priests. Their political power may have been on the increase during the years preceding the Roman occupation of Gaul, and it may be, that had this military defeat not occurred, they would have formed the nucleus of an organisation that Celtic society has never evolved sufficiently to achieve, namely a central government. It is also not impossible that certain gods were especially venerated by the Druidic order, and the popularity of such deities as Taranis, Esus, Teutates, Lugus and Cernunnos may have been due to a deliberate policy of the Druids to establish national gods rather than purely local and tribal deities." p. 80

    She goes on to discuss what Caeasar said about the druids. This must be what Alexei was thinking of, I'd assume. :-)

  11. Wonderful post! I know I'm coming into it late, but some quick thoughts.

    Cernunnos is usually depicted in a seated pose because Gaulish hunters used that posture while hunting. While it looks uncomfortable, it actually allows for a "quick spring up" if you are hunting for game.

    While Cernunnos does simply mean "Horned One," there is enough iconography repeating the same motifs to assume that their was a specific deity to attribute it all too. While those motifs are not all that exciting they are pretty consistent. Almost every image of Cernunnos depicts him seated, with a torque, stag horns, and a bag of coins (or perhaps grain).

    As for Druids, I'm not sure they existed in the way we think they did. While Caesar writes about their important role in Celtic Society, it's weird that he never interacts with one. If they had been as important as he implied, you think he would have come across one acting as he describes in his writings.

  12. Caesar did know Divitiacus of the Gallic Aedui. Cicero also knew him and said he was a druid, knew natural philosophy and predicted the future.(Cicero: De Divinatione, 1,41)He was also a magistrate. Divitiacus was pro-Roman and assisted Caesar but apparently also urged him to pardon some of his enemies.

  13. Fantastic post. Thanks for all of the quotes, great to see them all in one place. There are also some interesting comparatives in other 'unconnected' cultures, such as Yum Caax in South America:

    (not the best write-up but what I found with a quick search). He seems to be in lots of places.

    Thanks very much and looking forward to more.

  14. google cernunnos and my moniker ... you may be suprised ..