Cernunnos – Celtic Horned God
Cernunnos was a horned god worshipped by the Gauls, a Celtic people who lived in what is now France and Belgium (that’s Asterix and Obelix land!). His popularity didn’t end there. This horned god was also revered by other Celtic tribes across Europe and the British Isles. It’s fair to say that back in the day, he was a pretty big deal throughout the Celtic world.
Depictions of Cernunnos usually show him as a man with stag antlers sitting with his legs crossed beneath him and holding or wearing a torc – a traditional metal necklace that symbolises status and power.
As Celtic gods go, he was certainly an intriguing figure but also rather mysterious and enigmatic, as we will see.
A Brief History
Cernunnos was probably a very ancient god, dating back to the Bronze Age or earlier. He may have originated as a Celtic deity, or alternatively been influenced by other horned gods from neighbouring lands and significant cultures.
Cernunnos appears on many coins, sculptures and metalwork from different regions and time periods. These include the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark, the Val Camonica Rock Art from Italy and the famous high altar in Reims in France.
The name Cernunnos comes from a Latin inscription found on a pillar in Paris; it means “antlered” or “horned one” in Gaulish.
Cernunnos – what kind of god was he?
What or who was Cernunnos the god of? Our Celtic deity had quite an impressive portfolio. As Mythopedia explains, he was considered a god of nature, fertility and life force. He mediated between humans and animals and between this world and the underworld. His power and abilities “cast Cernunnos as a protector and provider among rural tribes and hunters”.
His main claim to fame was being “Lord of the Wild Things” and leader of the Wild Hunt. He held power over the animals and could make the predator lie down with its prey. Mediating between man and beast was all in a day’s work. Fully attuned to the forest and its fruitful bounty, he was also thought to be a fertility god.
He was associated with the cycle of life and death. Those stag antlers were thought to symbolise not only his dual nature, but also his ability to traverse worlds. Celtic mythology suggests he guided many a soul from the natural world through the afterlife.
And there’s more… he sometimes held a bag of coins or a cornucopia. This swag apparently showed that he was a god of abundance and wealth on top of everything else.
Myth And Influences
The Ancient Celts weren’t renowned as the world’s best scribes on religious matters. This is possibly because they were too busy fighting the Romans. Gaulish literature and the Celtic pantheon don’t offer a great deal in the way of authorised or even unauthorised biographies of the subject.
Influential gods in Cernunnos mythology
There are a bunch of Greco-Roman deities and gods from further afield who may have inspired and had a connection to our Celtic god.
- According to some scholars on the Celtic religion, Cernunnos may have been a Celtic version of the ancient Mesopotamian god Enki who was also associated with horns, water, fertility and the underworld.
- Cernunnos was possibly also linked to other deities such as Esus, Taranis or Lugus, but the exact relationship is unclear.
- The horned deities Pan from Greece and Shiva from India may also have influenced the mythology of this Gaelic god.
- Cernunnos is thought to have a connection to the Germanic Wotan and the Norse god Odin, the god of war, death, wisdom and poetry (and father of Thor).
The love life of an antlered god
The love life of Cernunnos is also obscured in some mystery. Many believe he was married to Beltane, the goddess of Spring. It must be said there is no unanimous agreement on this holy matrimony.
Some modern pagans will tell you that Cernunnos was in a relationship with the goddess Danu, the mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mythical ancestors of the Irish people. So, was he married and having an affair? Well, he was clearly a multitasking deity.
Folklore Around Cernunnos
Folklore tells tales of Cernunnos presiding cross-legged over gatherings of snakes, dogs, elk, wolves and other beasts, all in calm communion with each other. Creatures great and small sensed he was their protector and patron. Though he was also a patron of hunters. There’s his dual personality coming through again.
Herne The Hunter
Cernunnos is sometimes associated with Herne the Hunter, a legendary figure from English folklore who haunts Windsor Forest with his pack of ghostly hounds. Herne is said to be a former royal huntsman who was cursed by a witch after he killed a stag sacred to Cernunnos.
The Green Man
The Green Man is one of the most ancient pagan symbols found in the Christian Church. This symbol of a human face surrounded by foliage represents the spirit of nature and the cycle of life, death and rebirth. It is present in churches and cathedrals across Europe.
Scholars point to many similarities with the Celtic god and suggest that the Green Man originated from depictions of Cernunnos or other horned gods.
Cernunnos has inspired many artists and writers in modern times.
J.R.R. Tolkien may have based his character Tom Bombadil on him. You can see the similarities. Tom is an apparently benign and mysterious fellow who lives in the Old Forest, where he has power over the land and its creatures. He is also immune to the influence of the One Ring and assists Frodo and his gang when they encounter dangers in the forest and the Barrow-downs.
Cernunnos also appears in various comics, novels, games and movies, including:
- The Wicker Man
- American Gods
- The Mists of Avalon
Is Cernunnos always sitting with his legs crossed?
Cernunnos is most famously depicted sitting cross-legged. However, there are other images of him where he is standing or kneeling. For example, on the Reims Altar, he is shown kneeling with a stag and a bull. On the Val Camonica Rock Art, he is shown standing with a horned helmet and a spear. These different postures may reflect different aspects of his role as a god of nature, fertility and life force.
Who are the most famous horned gods?
Pan, Faunus, Shiva and Cernunnos are among the best-known horned deities. Baphomet, who was worshipped by the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages, is a more demonic example of a horned idol.
The horned god Cernunnos once occupied a sacred place in Celtic lore and religion. When the Romans conquered much of the Celtic world, they introduced their own gods, traditions and belief systems. Consequently, the myth and lore of Cernunnos faded somewhat into the mists of time.
Fortunately, there are enough breadcrumbs to tell us this antlered god was a fascinating and influential force in a pagan world that is perhaps unfairly demonised by the Romans, Christians and others responsible for writing some of its history.