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Cernunnos: The Celtic Horned God

featured image of cernunnos

There are very few surviving details about the horned Celtic god, Cernunnos. But what little we know about the origins of this horned god we make up for by using the name “Cernunnos” to refer to many similar Celtic horned deities whose names and mythology have disappeared under the sands of time.

While still a mystery, Cernunnos has experienced a kind of modern revival since the 19th century as he makes appearances in Wicca symbolism and has been featured in pop culture, artwork, and music. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Cernunnos we know today is anything but an imitation of the original horned god of the Celtic religion.

Origins

Cernunnos’ origins remain a mystery, as there’s no surviving literature to inform us of the deity’s mythology. In fact, the only piece of evidence around today is known as the Pillar of the Boatmen, a column erected in what is now Paris in the 1st century AD.

Pillar of the Boatmen

On this Roman column there remains the image of a horned deity, one torc hanging from each of its two antlers. The inscription “–ernunnos” is present, the “C” having been erased by time and damage. The inscriptions on the pillar are written in Latin and feature some Gaulish language.

Although only the top half of this horned deity remains visible, scholars familiar with other (presumed) depictions of Cernunnos posit that he was likely seated in a cross-legged position as there was no room on the pillar to have him depicted seated in a chair or standing.

The Pillar of the Boatmen is the only place where this horned god appears in tandem with the name “Cernunnos” from that time period. Although there are other similar beings depicted in Celtic mythology and, in fact, many other ancient religions, there’s no empirical evidence that they are depictions of Cernunnos.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

Perhaps the most well-known depiction of what is thought to be Cernunnos is on the Gundestrup Cauldron, which is estimated to date from somewhere between 150 BC and 1 BC. It is the largest known artifact from the European Iron Age. Found in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891, this incomplete silver cauldron features a horned figure sitting cross-legged and surrounded by animals.

The figure is holding a snake in one hand and a torc in the other. He also has a torc around his neck. There are various animals surrounding him on this silver cauldron, including an antlered deer, with which he is often associated.

Although the Gundestrup Cauldron was found far outside of Gaul, some experts believe its workmanship is Gaulish or Thracian in origin. The depictions of the figures in the metalwork are thought to be characteristic of Celtic polytheism, although some find this unproven assertion controversial.

Appearance and Abilities

Cernunnos is thought to be a god of the wild, always appearing with horns on his head and often appearing around wild animals in various depictions. As the ruler of the wild things, Cernunnos could very well have been the god of the hunter for some ancient Celts, while also being the god of fertility, since the wilderness was often believed to be the birthplace of all life.

Likewise, some posit that this Celtic deity could have been seen as a god of the underworld, since hunting ends in death for the hunted. However, there’s no evidence in ancient Gaul texts or objects that this was the case.

Although called the horned god, Cernunnos is often depicted with stag antlers and a great beard, further emphasizing his wild, animal-like visage. Building on this image, modern pagan groups have given Cernunnos the name “Lord of Wild Things.”

Several depictions also place this antlered god in the presence of torcs, or rigid metal necklaces. In the Pillar of the Boatmen mentioned above, Cernunnos appears with torcs around his horns, but in other depictions he’s seen wearing them or holding them, as in the Gundestrup Cauldron.

His appearance is also associated with the horned serpent and the stag. He may also be associated with dogs, rats, and bulls.

Cernunnos Myths

While there are no specific surviving myths that relate directly to Cernunnos, there are Celtic myths relating to horned gods that may or may not refer to Cernunnos.

Cernunnos and Shakespeare

There’s a character in Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, that some scholars have attributed to Cernunnos. The character’s name is Herne the Hunter and, in the play, he kills himself rather than live in shame after committing a grave offense. He then haunts the forest, terrorizing any wild animals unlucky enough to cross his path.

Some insist that this depiction of the Cernunnos-like character was around long before Shakespeare wrote the play, but there’s no strong evidence of this. The similarities could be coincidental or based on another horned deity.

Serpents and Etymology

A character from Irish mythological tales, namely the Ulster Cycle stories, shares certain minor similarities with Cernunnos. The appearance of a snake in the tale is one similarity, as the protagonist Conall Cernach faces off against the serpent, who is blocking the way to a treasure.

But it isn’t just the serpent that has made some think of the god Cernunnos. The name, Cernach, could be referring to horns as “prominent growths.” Conversely, it could simply mean “angular” or “possessing corners.” Other translations say it could mean “triumphant.” There seems to be little evidence that the Cernach and Cernunnos are the one and the same.

Modern Depictions and Revival

Starting in the 19th century, Cernunnos has seen a rise in popularity, mainly thanks to the rise in European Pre-Christian beliefs. Perhaps the most famous example, and the one most responsible for bringing Cernunnos back into the limelight, is Margaret Murray’s book The God of the Witches. Murray, an anthropologist, folklorist, and historian, posited in her 1931 book that all the evidence of various horned gods throughout Europe and India were not several different deities, but one singular god that enjoyed widespread worship. As such, Cernunnos was considered to be one version of this same god.

This theory was in support of her larger supposition that the Christian church had declared the horned god “the devil” and that European witches from the early modern period were remnants of a cult that secretly continued to worship the horned god during the rise of Christianity.

However, the fact remains that there’s little evidence to support any of this. For this reason, Murray’s suppositions were and are widely criticized. But this criticism did little to dissuade Cernunnos’ rise in popularity among modern neopagan groups.

The Wild God of Birth and Death

The modern version of Cernunnos is still the god of wild places, signifying the birth and death cycle of the seasons. In spring, the antlered god signifies the birth and fertility as the land awakens. In this sense, Cernunnos exists as one with the goddess of fertility and the divine feminine, which some say he draws his powers from.

The Horned God grows older as the year does the same, dying in winter only to be reborn again in spring, awakening the land once again with the mother goddess.

Although some ancient Celtic religions may have worshiped a horned god in a similar manner — at once the god of the underworld and the spirit of rebirth — there’s no evidence to suggest that Cernunnos was worshiped as such by any Celtic tribe.

Modern neopagan traditions borrowed heavily from Murray’s suppositions in what was known as “Witchcraft” in the 1950s but is now typically referred to as “Wicca.” This is why horned deities today are often associated with neo-paganism and the occult.

Baphomet, Pan, and Other Horned Deities

There are easily recognizable horned deities that are around today. One of these is Baphomet, a god whose first recorded mention comes thanks to the Knights Templar in 1307. But the symbol most recognized today and called by the same name was drawn by Eliphas Levi in the 19th century. The original drawing was of a cross-legged figure with a goat’s head and horns. Between the goat’s horns sat a torch, and on the goat’s forehead was a pentagram.

According to Levi, the Sabbatical Goat was meant to represent balance through opposites, is in the half-animal half-human figure, the male and female features (the figure in the original drawing had breasts), and the figure’s hands pointing in opposite directions. It’s not hard to see the similarities to Cernunnos. In fact, Murray used Baphomet and some of Levi’s writings to support her theory that all the horned gods were essentially the same and that the church decreed any worship of them devil worship.

The horned goat head and pentagram have since been adopted by Satanist groups. There are even modern statues of Baphomet, although some details have been changed from Levi’s original concept.

The horned gods Pan and Silvanus from Greco-Roman mythology are another couple of well-known examples. These were also gods of wild places, and they were most often depicted with goat horns, as opposed to antlers.

Wotan, a horned god of Germanic origin, is thought to be a version of the Norse god Odin. Wotan was a god of the wild hunt, and may have even been believed to rule over wild animals.

We’ll never know if all these gods were based on one or, as is more likely the case, their similarities are coincidental. But one thing is sure: horned gods have been a staple of many religions over the years. And their symbolism, although transforming, won’t likely be waning any time soon.

Appearances in Popular Culture

  • The musical group Dub Trees released an album in 2016 called “The Cerronnos Dub Rituals.” They use Celtic Galician and Sumerian pipes on the album.
  • Faith and the Muse, a gothic rock band, produced a song called “Cernunnos.” One of the band’s founders, Monica Richards, also released a solo album titled “The Antler King,” which includes a song about the deity.
  • An Argentinian folk metal group named their band “Cernunnos” after the horned god.
  • Cernunnos has appeared as a character in several video games: SMITE, Folklore, Perennial, the Etrian Odyssey video games, and Megami Tensei.
  • The comic book series Sláine features a character, Carnun, based on Cernunnos.
  • Cernunnos was a minor character in the Marvel Comics universe, first appearing in a Doctor Strange comic in 1993.
  • The Dawn comic series features Cernunnos as the god of death and change and the last of the Elder Gods.

Conclusion

The mysterious origins of Cernunnos haven’t kept people from guessing at his mythology. While most everything about him at this point is conjecture, the fact that he still exists as a horned figure, often with animal features, is a good indication of how ubiquitous the horned god figure was throughout history. Whether known by the name Cernunnos or not, it’s clear that wild horned deities were widely worshiped and were often associated with animals and the wilderness. 

Bibliography and Further Reading