Cernunnos

By Edorix

In part due to his adoption in Wicca, the largest Pagan cult, and in part due to the simple appeal of the figure, Cernunnos is one of the most well known of the Celtic gods. He is always depicted with the antlers of a stag, often in association with various animals, frequently wearing or holding a torc (the symbol of a warrior or nobleman), and sometimes holding bags of coins (or possibly grain). He is associated with prosperity and fertility (hence the coins or grain), and animals and forests (hence the antlers of a stag and his frequent depictions surrounded by animals). This article is an attempt to collect all the information we know about him, with particular reference to the various later legends that can be linked to him.

He has been associated with hunting, for he is often depicted kneeling, a posture which supposedly the Celts adopted when hunting. Hunting was a fashionable and manly pass-time among the Celts, as evidenced from the surviving literature, and it is likely that game contributed a not insignificant fraction of the average Celt's diet. The torcs he bears, also, either round his neck or in his hand or hanging from his antlers, could suggest not just his own divine kingship over some realm or other, but also perhaps sacrifices; were kings or chieftains sacrificed to Cernunnos if they were deemed no longer worthy of the title? It is very likely that the Celts did practise human sacrifice; human sacrifice is attested, in fact, for all known Bronze Age societies: and some burials suggest that noblemen may also have been victims of sacrifice. It is a possibility that cannot be dismissed.

No more can be said about him from the archaeological evidence alone. The purpose of this article is to collect all the information we have about him from the archaeology and scraps of written texts, but also find clues in later legends which may give us a better picture of who this god was.

There are four known inscriptions which definitely bear his name: one from the vicinity of Paris, two identical from Luxembourg, and one from Montagnac in the South of France. These give us variously the forms [. . .]ernunnos; Ceruninco (in the dative); and Καρνονου (Karnonou, also probably in the dative). There are many other artistic depictions of this antlered god without captions, and at least as many that are possibly of him: the earliest probable depiction comes from the Val Carmonica in Northern Italy and dates to the fourth century BCE, while the most famous is that on the Gundestrup Cauldron dating to the first century BCE, found in a bog in Denmark.

The legend most commonly ascribed to Cernunnos is that of Herne the Hunter, an English folk-tale. Herne was a forester in the employ of King Richard the Lionheart in Windsor Forest. Out hunting one day, the king was attacked by a cornered white hart but Herne saved his life, although he was mortally wounded in the process. A wizard healed Herne in a magic ritual; this involved the antlers of the hart being fixed to Herne's head, and Herne also had to give up hunting. Later, the other huntsmen, jealous of the king's favour, framed Herne as a thief, and as a result he lost the king's favour. The next day he was found hanging from an oak-tree. The ghost of Herne, according to the story, is still to be glimpsed at certain times of the year prowling around the oak-tree where he died bellowing like a stag.

Undertones of Celtic religion are rife in this legend: a white hart or deer often led stray hunters to the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh legend, the wizard-healer is strongly reminiscent of a Druid, and the oak-tree was also of special religious significance to the Celts. In reconstructing a mythology then, these elements should all be retained. However, many dispute a link between Cernunnos and Herne: after all, Cernunnos is only directly attested from Gaul not Britain, and he appears to have been a protector of animals rather than a hunter- but these are easily refuted, as the Gauls and Britons clearly shared almost all aspects of their religion, and the other legends which may refer to Cernunnos also have him in an active hunting role. Herne has also been linked with the Germanic god Woden, one of whose epithets was Herian or Einherjar: he also had a role as a hunter, and he hanged himself from an ash-tree to learn the runic alphabet. However, the details are lacking, and after all Woden had no antlers. Personally I think it is safe to identify the origins of the legend of Herne with Cernunnos.

Another legendary figure which I would link with Cernunnos is the Welsh character Arawn, king of Annwfn (Annwfn was the Celtic Otherworld, and the word derives from the Common Brythonic *Andubnos meaning not-world or under-world). There is a clear etymological similarity between Cernunnos (or, better, Carnonos) and Arawn (compare the Brythonic Cassiwellaunos with the Welsh form Caswallawn). Arawn too was associated with the hunt: in the First Branch of the Mabinogion, he is hunting a stag with his hounds (the Cŵn Annwfn, the "Hounds of Hell", which chased or guided (or were) the souls of the dead to the Otherworld) when he meets the hero Pwyll. Arawn is the enemy of one Hafgan who is a rival king or chieftain of the Otherworld, and Arawn requires the aid of a mortal (Pwyll) to defeat him. The two characters switch places for a year to allow Pwyll to accomplish this, using Arawn's powers of shapshifting: Arawn becomes king of Pwyll's kingdom, Dyfed, in Pwyll's form, and Pwyll becomes king of Annwfn in Arawn's. Although Arawn explicitly says Pwyll is to sleep with his wife, Pwyll does not make love to her. He strikes Hafgan the fatal blow on the agreed date which is all that was required of him but spares Hafgan's life, and then he and Arawn return to their own respective kingdoms. Arawn, then, like Herne, is associated with death (or the Otherworld) and the hunt.

In another Welsh legend, that of the Cad Goddeu (*Catu Cetôn, the battle of trees), Amaethon (*Ambaxtonos, "the great worker") son of Dôn stole from Arawn a white roebuck, a dog and a lapwing. The white roebuck is reminiscent of the white hart in the Herne legend and is to do with the Otherworld; the dog must be one of the Cŵn Annwfn; and so the lapwing must too have some special property associated with Cernunnos- perhaps its wailing call, likened to the wailing of tortured souls? At any rate, Arawn attacked Amaethon with an army, but Amaethon called on his brother Gwydion (a powerful magician in the Welsh legends but also quite an immoral character; his name probably means "son of trees", from Gwydgen) to help him, and Gwydion turned all the trees into warriors. In this way Arawn was defeated. It is possible that this tale suggests a certain enmity between Cernunnos and the goddess Dôn (Danu) and her sons.

This is as far as we can safely go with Cernunnos in surviving Celtic legends; it might be possible to reconstruct from this a mythology of sorts, but there is one more key aspect of his character which is lacking. We turn once more, as is always the case it seems when dealing with the Celts, to Caesar. In a digression on the religion of the Gauls, he says: Galli se omnes ab Dite Patre prognatos praedicant idque ab Druidibus proditum dicunt. "The Gauls claim all to be descended from Dis Pater, declaring that this is the tradition preserved by the Druids." This is a typical example of interpretatio Romana as it is called; in Caesar's day, it was popular to identify the gods of foreigners with Roman gods: so Lugus was Mercury, Taranis was Jupiter, Belenos was Apollo etc. Dis Pater was originally a Roman god of riches, land fertility, mineral wealth and the Underworld; he was later equated with Orcus and Pluto, but originally he was a god in his own right. These associations with prosperity, fertility and death clearly mean that the Gaulish god whom Caesar identifies with Dis Pater was Cernunnos. So here then is another element of the myth: Cernunnos was a father figure in the Celtic Pantheon, and if not the Creator, certainly father of the Celtic people.

Dedications to Dis Pater are frequent in many parts of the Celtic world after the Roman conquest. In Celtic lands, he appears to have the goddess Aericura as a consort, who can be identified with the Roman Proserpina (or Greek Persephone). Inscriptions naming Aericura are found mostly on the Upper Rhine, but also near Aduatuca Tungrorum, in Dacia, in Raetia and in Northern Italy. However, she is never once associated with Cernunnos under his own name, and she does not appear prior to the Roman conquest. It is not so far-fetched to suppose that Aericura was a goddess of Germanic origin rather than Celtic. In one inscription from Brigantium (in Raetia), she appears alongside Ogmios and Dis Pater; but remember that Raetia was sandwiched between Celtic and Germanic lands, so it is not unlikely that some Germanic elements would have crept into the religion of the Raetians. The geographical distribution of inscriptions bearing her name could also indicate a Germanic origin and later Celtic adoption: apart from the inscriptions from Geneva and Aquileia, and one to a male counterpart from Britain (Aericurus), all of which can be explained by the diffusion of Roman soldiers throughout the provinces, most of the finds bearing her name are from lands bordering with the Germanics.

It is also possible that this goddess (if Celtic in origin or indeed not) became the consort of Cernunnos, if she ever did, only under Roman influence, as an equivalent of Proserpina since Cernunnos had been equated with Dis Pater. But this seems strange, for while Cernunnos began to appear under his Roman name his consort began to appear under her non-Roman (Germanic or Celtic) one. Whatever the case, it is more likely that Cernunnos, as progenitor of the Gauls, originally had a mother figure as his consort, and Aericura seems to lack this dimension.

Who this mother figure was then it is difficult to say; not Rigantona (Rhiannon), as she was the wife of Pwyll in the Welsh legends, and Pwyll had explicitly not made love with Arawn's wife when given the chance. Indeed, Cernunnos tends to appear alone; but from the surviving depictions, he does seem to have a close affinity with a snake with ram's horns, probably a horned viper. This could well be an element of mythology; however, few Celtic folk-tales survive involving snakes, so we cannot know which goddess should be associated with the snake. I came across a reference to a goddess named Tenau who was associated with snakes (which may be a corruption of Donau, or Danu); but the claim was unsourced, and if Tenau is not Danu, then I could find nothing else about her. I came across another Irish goddess associated with snakes named Corchen; but again, I could find nothing besides the name, and the reliability of the source is highly contestable. This snake is the last major part I can see missing from the mythology of Cernunnos; and although it is the aspect of his character about which I am least certain, I am tempted towards associating it with Danu. She certainly has the motherly aspect, and could well have been queen of the Otherworld (the Tuatha de Danann in Irish mythology, the fairy folk, are, after all, named after her). She also seems to have a place in the domain of wisdom and cunning, and this was a universally accepted attribute of the snake in Indo-Europen folklore. However, the tale of the Catu Cetôn, depending on whether it was Pagan or Mediaeval in origin, could imply some sort of enmity between Cernunnos and the House of Danu- although perhaps this enmity could have come later, and could also explain why Cernunnos usually appears alone and why the descendants of Danu in the Welsh legends are known as sons of their mother rather than sons of their father (which was unusual, although not unheard of). I am suggesting some sort of divine divorce. If Danu is refuted though, Brigantia could also be a possibility, as she too has the motherly dimension and the role of wisdom which is an attribute of the snake. It seems that here, nothing can be certain. The snake is the final big piece of the puzzle in reconstructing the mythology of Cernunnos, but until more comes to light, reconstruction in this area is almost pure speculation. It may well be that the snake was in fact Cernunnos's enemy rather than mate; we may never be sure.

In any case, I hope I have established Cernunnos as the basis of the legends of Arawn and Herne the Hunter, and the Gaulish Dis Pater to whom Caesar refers. I have suggested a degree of enmity between him and the children of Danu, and I have tried to emphasise his affinity with this mysterious horned viper, which I am convinced holds the key to some of the most important elements of the mythology of Cernunnos. We still can say nothing for certain about his character; although, as a father figure, he likely shared some of the same traits as other Celtic father figures such as the Daghda in Ireland and Bendigeidfran in Wales: dignity and protectiveness, but also a tendency towards warlike solutions. I would like to highlight one last time that almost nothing discussed here is certain; for not only are we handling mere fragments of information scrapped together from less than a dozen archaeological finds and throwaway comments by classical authors and speculating quite wildly in the absence of further evidence, we are also dealing in the realms of myth and mystery, and a religion that it was forbidden to write down.

References:

Special thanks to Terikel for reminding me about a whole host of sources I used and putting me on the right track for the torcs question; also to C. Julius Caesar for his sidetrack on the religion of the Gauls in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico.

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