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Cernunnos is the horned god of Celtic mythology. He is represented as a bearded man with anders sprouting from his head. He is often considered the god of hunters, as well as the lord of the animals.
Although Cernunnos is now associated primarily with the Celts and Ireland, images of Cernunnos have been found throughout Europe. Before the rise of the Roman Empire, Celtic tribes covered a large area of Europe, including parts of France, Italy, and Germany. One of the earliest known depictions of Cernunnos was found in northern Italy and has been dated to the fourth century bce.
A cave painting discovered in France may suggest that Cernunnos is much older than that. The painting, popularly known as “The Sorcerer,” depicts an upright figure with antlers that resembles Cernunnos. It is not known whether the painting is meant to show a horned god, or whether it simply shows a person wearing the skin of a deer. The painting has been estimated to be around fifteen thousand years old—more than twelve thousand years older than other existing images of Cernunnos.
My journey to Cernunnos
I discovered witchcraft and paganism in the late ’90s, early ’00s. Our household didn’t have internet yet (gasp! I know!) so all I had available to me were books and the computer in the school library. Back then the only books we could get, especially here in the Netherlands, were wiccan. Wheel of the Year, God and Goddess, circle of protection, wiccan rede, the whole shebang.
The Lord and Lady. I found the idea of that duality fascinating. (Not so much anymore, but that is for a different post) I didn’t come from a Christian background and the times that I’d been to church had been overall a pleasant experience, though not for me. So I didn’t have a problem with a male deity in my path. And, on the other hand, while I found the idea of a female deity empowering and logical, I didn’t have the feminist revelation that most other Goddess-worshippers seemed to have. (That has also changed quite a bit) So for me it was logical. A man and woman, mother and father, who together create all life. Sure, their progression through the wheel of the year seems a bit wonkey, but that’s minor hiccup, right? (Oh how times have changed)
I named my God Cernunnos, the Horned One, Lord of the Wild. And the antlered figure was something that I was very drawn to. The untamed, the wildness of nature, all things that called to me. The Goddess changed for me, many times, but Cernunnos stayed.
the Horned One on my altar
Then, I started learning. I learned that the Lord and Lady were actually supposed to be named Gods, but probably not Cernunnos, but Pan. I learned that we didn’t know anything about Cernunnos, except for the pillar where his name appeared on once, and that’s it. I learned that the aspects that wicca had placed on him: masculinity, virility, sexuality, the forest and woodlands, were not per se for Cernunnos at all. Instead they were for this Horned One, who might be Pan, but who had become this melting pot of all antlered and horned deities who were tied to nature.
But then who had I been calling upon? Who had I been talking to and who had I seen in meditation after meditation? I stepped away from the name Cernunnos, found it not fitting. I didn’t read further into His lore either. My mistake. It also bothered me that everyone seemed to have this Horned One as their male deity. Did I then really have a bond with this deity, or was it just because it was what’s done? Did I even want a bond with a God that allll the other pagans and witches worshipped? (I had a bit of a problem with “popular things”) I started doubting the experiences that I’d had. My second mistake.
My path changed and changed again. I became an atheist secular witch, not believing in the Gods at all. Later I began to see them as Jungian Archetypes, as aspects of myself that I drew to the front when I called upon the Gods. But neither felt right. I realized that even though my logic was saying that they couldn’t be real, that they couldn’t have influence on this reality, our reality, that my heart didn’t care. I believed again. I found two Goddesses whom I am both devoted to Nehalennia and Baduhenna. I reconnected with whom I had called Horned One for years and restated my devotion to Him as well.
The fact that the Horned One remained nameless started to grate. I had names and titles for my Goddesses, but not for Him. I also had finally truly disconnected Him from the wiccan version of the Lord. This after doing quite a bit of shadow work on, amongst other things my wiccan roots, and gender and deity. The realisation that masculine- and feminine energy meant nothing when talking about deity. That even though the Horned One was a sexual creature, sexuality and masculinity were not the things that I, personally, associated Him with. (Again, this is for a different post) So I started looking into antlered deities again.
Cernunnos by Iren Horrors
I came upon Cernunnos, of course, but this time I stayed. I read and listened. I learned about who He might have been, what the scholars and historians think based upon His imagery. What other pagans, those not so influenced by the dogma of duality thought of Him. And I read. And I read it again and again until finally that one thing registered in my brain.
Cernunnos, meaning “Horned One”.
I reached out to Him, my antlered Lord of the wildness and hunt. “I’ve been calling you by this name the whole time, haven’t I?”
“Yes. It doesn’t matter in what language you say it, I’ve always heard you.”
And so He is named once again. Cernunnos. But not after the masculine half of the wiccan duality. Instead after the ancient, antlered God that has been worshipped by many, many names all over the continent, if not the world. The Gaulish Cernunnos with the horned serpent and torc. God of the forest and the hunt, Dweller in the liminal, Lord of animals and the chthonic roots. And so He is named…
A Prayer to Cernunnos
God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.
You are the man in the trees,
the green man of the woods,
who brings life to the dawning spring.
You are the deer in rut,
mighty Horned One,
who roams the autumn woods,
the hunter circling round the oak,
the antlers of the wild stag,
and the lifeblood that spills upon
the ground each season.
God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.
"Cernunnos" is widely believed by Celticists to be an obscure epithet of a better attested Gaulish deity perhaps the God described in the interpretatio Romana as Silvanus or Dis Pater,  which are considered to share the horned God's woodland and chthonic attributes. The name has only appeared once in writing, when it was inscribed on the Nautae Parisiaci (the sailors of the Parisii, who were a tribe of Gauls). 
The Proto-Celtic form of the theonym is reconstructed as either *Cerno-on-os [ dubious – discuss ] or *Carno-on-os. The augmentative -on- is characteristic of theonyms, as in Maponos, Epona, Matronae, and Sirona.  Maier (2010) states that the etymology of Cernunnos is unclear, but seems to be rooted in the Celtic word for "horn" or "antler" (as in Carnonos). 
The Gaulish word karnon "horn" is cognate with Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *k̑r̥no- .  The etymon karn- "horn" appears in both Gaulish and Galatian branches of Continental Celtic. Hesychius of Alexandria glosses the Galatian word karnon (κάρνον) as "Gallic trumpet", that is, the Celtic military horn listed as the carnyx (κάρνυξ) by Eustathius of Thessalonica, who notes the instrument's animal-shaped bell.  The root also appears in the names of Celtic polities, most prominent among them the Carnutes, meaning something like "the Horned Ones,"  and in several personal names found in inscriptions. 
The name has also been compared to a divine epithet Carnonos in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters at Montagnac, Hérault (as καρνονου, karnonou, in the dative case).  A Gallo-Latin adjective carnuātus, "horned", is also found. 
The Nautae Parisiaci monument was probably constructed by Gaulish sailors in 14 CE.  It was discovered in 1710 within the foundations of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, site of ancient Lutetia, the civitas capital of the Celtic Parisii. It is now displayed in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris. 
The distinctive stone pillar is an important monument of Gallo-Roman religion. Its low reliefs depict and label by name several Roman deities such as Jupiter, Vulcan, and Castor and Pollux, along with Gallic deities such as Esus, Smertrios, and Tarvos Trigaranus. The name Cernunnos can be read clearly on 18th century drawings of the inscriptions, but the initial letter has been obscured since, so that today only a reading "[_]ernunnos" can be verified. 
Additional evidence is given by one inscription on a metal plaque from Steinsel-Rëlent in Luxembourg, in the territory of the Celtic Treveri. This inscription  read Deo Ceruninco, "to the God Cerunincos", assumed to be the same deity. [ citation needed ] The Gaulish inscription from Montagnac  reads αλλετ[ει]νος καρνονου αλ[ι]σο[ντ]εας (Alletinos [dedicated this] to Carnonos of Alisontea), with the last word possibly a place name based on Alisia, "service-tree" or "rock" (compare Alesia, Gaulish Alisiia). 
The god labelled [C]ernunnos on the Pillar of the Boatmen is depicted with stag's antlers, both having torcs hanging from them. The lower part of the relief is lost, but the dimensions suggest that the god was sitting cross-legged, providing a direct parallel to the antlered figure on the Gundestrup cauldron. 
In spite of the name Cernunnos being attested nowhere else, it is commonly used in Celtological literature as describing all comparable depictions of horned/antlered deities. 
This Cernunnos type in Celtic iconography is often portrayed with a stag and the ram-horned serpent. Less frequently, there are bulls (at Rheims), dogs and rats.  Because of the image of him on the Gundestrup Cauldron, some scholars describe Cernunnos as the Lord of the Animals or the Lord of Wild Things, and Miranda Green describes him as a "peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness"  who seems to be seated in a manner that suggests traditional shamans who were often depicted surrounded by animals.  Other academics such as Ceisiwr Serith describes Cernunnos as a god of bi-directionality and mediator between opposites, seeing the animal symbolism in the artwork reflecting this idea. 
The Pilier des nautes links him with sailors and with commerce, suggesting that he was also associated with material wealth as does the coin pouch from the Cernunnos of Rheims (Marne, Champagne, France)—in antiquity, Durocortorum, the civitas capital of the Remi tribe—and the stag vomiting coins from Niedercorn-Turbelslach (Luxembourg) in the lands of the Treveri. The god may have symbolized the fecundity of the stag-inhabited forest.
Other examples of Cernunnos imagery include a petroglyph in Val Camonica in Cisalpine Gaul.   The antlered human figure has been dated as early as the 7th century BCE or as late as the 4th.  Two godesses with antlers appear at Besançon and Clermont-Ferrand, France. An antlered god appears on a relief in Cirencester, Britain dated to Roman times and appears depicted on a coin from Petersfield, Hampshire.  An antlered child appears on a relief from Vendeuvres, flanked by serpents and holding a purse and a torc.  The best known image appears on the Gundestrup cauldron found on Jutland, dating to the 1st century BCE, thought to depict Celtic subject matter though usually regarded as of Thracian workmanship.
Among the Celtiberians, horned or antlered figures of the Cernunnos type include a "Janus-like" god from Candelario (Salamanca) with two faces and two small horns a horned god from the hills of Ríotinto (Huelva) and a possible representation of the deity Vestius Aloniecus near his altars in Lourizán (Pontevedra). The horns are taken to represent "aggressive power, genetic vigor and fecundity." 
Divine representations of the Cernunnos type are exceptions to the often-expressed view that the Celts only began to picture their gods in human form after the Roman conquest of Gaul.  The Celtic "horned god", while well attested in iconography, cannot be identified in description of Celtic religion in Roman ethnography and does not appear to have been given any interpretatio romana, perhaps due to being too distinctive to be translatable into the Roman pantheon.  While Cernunnos was never assimilated, scholars have sometimes compared him functionally to Greek and Roman divine figures such as Mercury,  Actaeon, specialized forms of Jupiter, and Dis Pater, the latter of whom Julius Caesar said was considered the ancestor of the Gauls. 
There have been attempts to find the cern root in the name of Conall Cernach, the foster brother of the Irish hero Cuchulainn  in the Ulster Cycle. In this line of interpretation, Cernach is taken as an epithet with a wide semantic field—"angular victorious prominent," though there is little evidence that the figures of Conall and Cernunnos are related. 
A brief passage involving Conall in an eighth-century story entitled Táin Bó Fraích ("The Cattle Raid on Fraech") has been taken as evidence that Conall bore attributes of a "master of beasts."  In this passage Conall Cernach is portrayed as a hero and mighty warrior who assists the protagonist Fraech in rescuing his wife and son, and reclaiming his cattle. The fort that Conall must penetrate is guarded by a mighty serpent. The supposed anti-climax of this tale is when the fearsome serpent, instead of attacking Conall, darts to Conall's waist and girdles him as a belt. Rather than killing the serpent, Conall allows it to live, and then proceeds to attack and rob the fort of its great treasures the serpent previously protected.
The figure of Conall Cernach is not associated with animals or forestry elsewhere and the epithet "Cernach" has historically been explained as a description of Conall's impenetrable "horn-like" skin which protected him from injury.
The Lost God Cernunnos
Cernunnos is a popular figure in early Celtic religion, but the truth is that very little is known about him.
The name Cernunnos comes from a single Roman-era inscription found beneath Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The ruins of a former Roman temple on the site were used to shore up the riverbank and reinforce the foundations of earlier Christian churches on the site.
Construction of a crypt in 1710 uncovered a number of these pieces, including a column commonly called the Pillar of the Boatmen. Commissioned by a shipmakers’ guild in the 1st century AD, the pillar includes the only written reference to a god identified as Cernunnos.
The Pillar of the Boatmen, like many monuments from Roman Gaul, honors both native and Roman gods. Cernunnos appears alongside other Gallic deities like Esus and Smertrios as well as familiar Roman deities such as Jove (Jupiter), Fortuna, and Vulcan.
A similar name found in Luxembourg, “Deo Ceruninco,” is usually thought to refer to the same god. While there is no image on the plaque that mentions this god, it is seen as evidence that the name was known beyond the region of Paris.
Because both the Pillar of the Boatmen and the Luxembourg plaque only include the god’s name, nothing survives of his mythology or any titles or epithets that would further identify him. While Roman writers mentioned other Germanic gods, no one seems to have ever mentioned Cernunnos.
It was common in the ancient world for dominant cultures, like the Romans, to liken foreign gods to their own. They would liken gods who had similar domains or attributes, for example calling local fertility goddesses by the name Ceres or thunder gods Jupiter.
This was not the case with Cernunnos, however. This means that historians cannot use similarities between him and more familiar Greco-Roman gods to determine how he was seen in the ancient world.
Despite this, however, some interpretations can be put forth based on his iconography. While the Pillar of the Boatmen is the only record of the god’s name, his image was much more widespread.
The Horned God
Archaeologists have discovered at least fifty examples of the god they identify as Cernunnos. These are all from the Roman period and have been found in both northern Gaul and in the lands of the Celtiberians, early Celtic people who lived in what is now eastern Spain.
Although these images do not have inscriptions that identify them by name, similarities to the figure depicted on the Pillar of the Boatmen make many historians confident that they are of the same god, or at least of the same archetype.
The Pillar of the Boatmen featured a male deity with stag-like antlers. Each antler had a torc, a gold neck ring that was a symbol of status to the Celts, hanging from it.
Damage to the pillar left the lower part of the god’s body missing, but based on the size and position of his head, it is usually assumed he was seated. This is in keeping with many other images found throughout the region.
Similar gods with horns or antlers appear relatively often in Gallic and Celtiberian art. Often they are sitting in a cross-legged position and most either wear torcs on their horns or hold them in their hands.
Often, similar figures are shown alongside animals. Many images identified as Cernunnos also feature stags, snakes, bulls, or dogs.
A possible earlier example of this is from an elaborate silver cauldron found near Gundestrup, Denmark. Usually dated to the 1st century BC, it shows a seated figure with antlers holding a torc and a snake, surrounded by deer, bulls, and canines.
While most figures of this type come from the Roman era or slightly before, archaeologists believe it may be far more ancient in the region. A similar horned man, for example, is shown in a petroglyph, or rock carving, from the Italian Alps that may have been made as early as the 7th century BC.
The torc included in most horned god images was a symbol of status and wealth in ancient Gallic tribes, but it was not the only such symbol pictured with Cernunnos. Some images also included the god with the type of purse that would have held gold coins.
One such image is not of the mature man usually identified as Cernunnos, but of a child. His antlers, coin purse, and the serpents that flank him, however, lead most historians to identify this as a version of the same god, either from a local variation or from an unknown myth.
Other images identified as Cernunnos do not have the distinctive horns, but there is evidence that they were still important. Some pieces have empty spaces on the head that may have once held either real antlers or ones made of precious materials like gold that have since been lost.
While the name Cernunnos is rarely attested, the similar images found throughout Europe show that this god was likely worshipped by many Celtic tribes in the Roman period. His horns, pose, animals, and symbols of wealth identify him as an important, if forgotten, god of the Celtic world.
The Etymology of Cernunnos
One tool historians can use to interpret ancient figures is linguistics. By understanding the name of a god or heroic figure, they can sometimes pinpoint its origins and possible meaning.
In the case of Cernunnos, his name seems to be a reference to the familiar imagery.
Most historical linguists believe that the name on the Pillar of the Boatmen comes from a common root for “horn.”
Greek sources from the time tell us that the Gauls used karnon as the word for their military trumpets. Like English, most languages of Europe use the same words for this type of horn as for an animal’s.
While the English word “horn” is derived from the same ancient root, we are also familiar with other related words. English words derived from both Greek, such as unicorn, and Latin, like Capricorn or cornucopia, include a similar sound to karnon.
Scholars have also noted that the os sound in the god’s name is typical of Gallic and Celtic gods. More well-attested deities such as the Matronae, Maponos, and Epona all include this element.
Naked warriors wearing only a sword belt and neck torc were a common subject for Celtic sculptors. A rare piece for its size, and one of the earliest surviving Celtic figure-sculptures, is the life-size figure of an ithyphallic warrior from Hirschlanden near Ludwigsburg, Germany. Made from sandstone, the piece likely stood on a nearby hilltop. It possibly dates to the 6th century BCE and shows an Etruscan influence. The nude figure wears only a belt with a dagger and a neck torc. Of particular interest is his headgear, likely a hat made from birch-bark, examples of which were found in a nearby tomb. The statue is now in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart.The so-called “Prince of Glauberg” is a life-sized sandstone statue of a Celtic ruler from modern day Glauberg, Germany. The “Prince of Glauberg” is depicted with a mail tunic, a wooden shield and a sword, indicating his status as a warrior. Typical of the ancient Celts, the Prince also wears a moustache, trousers, and a torc necklace. / Wikimedia Commons
A life-sized sandstone statue of a Celtic warrior, sometimes called the “Prince of Glauberg’, was excavated from Glauberg, Germany. The warrior, who carries a shield, is wearing a mail tunic and a torc necklace with three pendants. He also wears an elaborate headdress of the ‘leaf crown’ type. The statue was found in 1996 CE near an already excavated Celtic tomb which dates to the second half of the 5th century BCE, and the jewellery worn by the statue is similar to that worn by the deceased warrior in the tomb. The statue is on display in the Glauberg Museum.
A celebrated terracotta figurine of a Celtic warrior was found and made in Egypt and dates to the period 220-180 BCE. Likely a Gaulish mercenary in the service of the Ptolemaic army, the figure wears nothing except a cloak and a sword belt while he carries the long oblong shield familiar to Celtic warfare. The figure is hollow and was made using a two-piece mould. Today the figurine is on display in the British Museum, London.The Strettweg Cult Wagon. This bronze work, which dates to the 6th century BCE, was found in a tomb in Steiermark, Austria and is a fine example of the Celtic love of small figurines. The larger central figure is female and she supports a base upon which a large cauldron would have been placed. (Archaeological Museum of Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, Austria) / Photo by Thilo Parg, Wikimedia Commons
A much more dynamic figure than those already mentioned is the warrior wearing a horned helmet and about to launch a lance which is now in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin. The bronze figurine wears nothing but a sword belt and torc. Even smaller still, but no less impressive, are the group of warrior figures which make up the base for the Strettweg Cult Wagon. This bronze work, which dates to the 6th century BCE, was found in a tomb in Steiermark, Austria, and is a fine example of the Celtic love of small figurines which can adorn anything from furniture to chariots. The larger central figure is female, and she supports a base upon which a cauldron would have been placed for ritual use her elongated limbs, and those of the warriors around her, are reminiscent of Greek pottery figures. The wagon is on display in the archaeological museum of Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, Austria.
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Cernunnos, (Celtic: “Horned One”) in Celtic religion, an archaic and powerful deity, widely worshipped as the “lord of wild things.” Cernunnos may have had a variety of names in different parts of the Celtic world, but his attributes were generally consistent. He wore stag antlers and was sometimes accompanied by a stag and by a sacred ram-horned serpent that was also a deity in its own right. He wore and sometimes also held a torque, the sacred neck ornament of Celtic gods and heroes. The earliest known depictions of Cernunnos were found at Val Camonica, in northern Italy, which was under Celtic occupation from about 400 bce . He is believed to be portrayed on the Gundestrup Caldron, a silver vessel found at Gundestrup in Jutland, Denmark, and dating to about the 1st century bce .
Cernunnos was worshipped primarily in Britain, although there are also traces of his cult in Ireland. The Christian church strongly opposed him because of his powerful pagan influence. He was used as a symbol of the Antichrist and as such figured in Christian iconography and medieval manuscripts.
Who is Cernunnos?
Anyone who has encountered Wiccan theology will be familiar with the concept of one goddess and one god of whom other goddesses or gods are but aspects. The god is generally pictured principally as horned, and usually called Cernunnos. But many pagans may be surprised to discover that this specific concept of the horned god appears to be a little more recent than many might think, as it derives from the writings of Margaret Murray.
Following the success of her popular book The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), Murray published The God of the Witches (1931), in which she popularised the idea of a Horned God whose worship dated back to Palaeolithic times. Although the book was discredited at the time by her academic colleagues for its lack of any critical analysis of source material, it gained popularity after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in the 1950s.
In the book, writing about Cernunnos, she states "in spite of his Latinised name, [Cernunnos] was found in all parts of Gaul. It was only when Rome started on her career of conquest that any written record was made of the gods of Western Europe, and those records prove that a horned deity, whom the Romans called Cernunnos, was one of the greatest gods, perhaps even the supreme deity, of Gaul. Cernunnos is recorded in writing and in sculpture in the south of Gaul." The purpose of this article is to make a brief survey of the existing pre-Christian evidence for a cult of Cernunnos, and to discuss what that evidence tells us.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that there is no evidence that the idea of gods being other than separate individuals was popular until possibly the rise of Neo-Platonism in the third century common era. Classical literary sources, such as the Greek dramatists, Hesiod and Homer, and insular works such as The Book of Invasions, The Mabinogian, and the Icelandic Eddas, all treat the gods they describe as individual. This article is written on the same basis, rather than one which assumes that one horned god might be the same as another - or, indeed, the same as any god, whether horned or not.
There are less than two dozen known artefacts that display images which might be taken to be Cernunnos, and four inscriptions mentioning him by name. These are spread over the UK and Western Europe, with by far the greatest number originating in ancient Gaul. It is not know whether Murray's confident claim that Cernunnos is recorded in writing implies contemporary literary sources other than the inscriptions but, if it does, none have been discovered. Although the number of finds (when compared to the evidence for other pre-conquest Gallic gods) is quite large, and probably supports the claims for a widespread cult, there are parts of France that contain no finds. It is unclear why Murray says "Cernunnos is recorded in writing and in sculpture in the south of Gaul" because only one inscription is from the south of Gaul. Most are in the northeast. If there is a cult centre then, based on the evidence we have, it lay in central and eastern Gaul. But Gallo-Roman religious sculpture of all kinds, and not just of Cernunnos, is concentrated in northeast and north-central Gaul.
The next problem lies in identifying when an artefact is, indeed, meant to represent Cernunnos. The name is only given on three or four inscriptions, of which one, the Parisian pillar, includes a carved image. This Pilier des nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen) provides the earliest written record of the name 'Cernunnos'. Although the first letter of the name is defaced, it is probable it was 'Cernunnos' on the basis of linguistic and other archaeological evidence. The Gaulish word carnon or cernon means 'antler' or 'horn'. This can produce the names Carnonos, 'Deer-Hoofed One' or Cornonos 'Horned One'. The central syllable '-on-' denotes a deity, as in Epona or Maponos, and would only have been replaced by '-un-' to provide a Latinised form of the name for inscriptions. Latin was the common language of Roman Europe and names mentioned in Latin texts are converted to a Latin form. This does not imply, as Murray seems to indicate, that a god with a Latinised name was commonly recognised by the Romans. Of the remaining inscriptions, two on metal plaques from Seinsel-Rëlent (Luxembourg) give an alternate rendering of Deo Ceruninco, 'to the God Cerunincos'. And the last, a Gaulish inscription written in Greek letters from Montagnac (Hérault, Languedoc-Roussilion, France) provides a Hellenistic form of the name: Karnonos. These inscriptions provide us with no further information about the god. It was common at the time to have a statue or relief made in devotion to a god, usually in fulfilment of a vow. Many examples of this can be seen at the Roman baths in Bath, Somerset. The Parisian pillar was erected by a Gaulish guild of boatmen who lived among the Celtic tribe of the Parisii and controlled trade along the Seine.
The image included on the Pillar of the Boatmen also introduces other features, such as torcs hanging from the horns. Reconstructing the lost lower half of the relief, it is probable that the deity is pictured sitting cross-legged. Although one face of the pillar includes this image of Cernunnos in its top half, others feature other gods, and the inscription mentions many gods, some Roman, some Celtic.
In all the undisputed representations found, several features recur continually, although not all are to be found in any one image: horns torcs (which are often pictured on the necks of Celtic divinities) a purse or cornucopia three heads or faces the ram headed snake animals, principally stags and a seated position, usually cross legged. The more of these features an image has, the more likely it is to be of Cernunnos. The modern tendency to depict Cernunnos with a prominent erect phallus is not reflected in the ancient artefacts. No Gallo-Roman sculptures of Cernunnos have this feature, although it figures in Gallo-Roman iconography for other deities. Despite this, the popular conception of Cernunnos with an erection is so widespread that one online encyclopaedia has seen fit to insert a gratuitous phrase about it into what is a fairly standard entry to be found describing Cernunnos on many websites:
Horns are generally the pre-eminent symbol most people would associate with Cernunnos. Although at least one image (which contains other features, such as sitting cross legged and arms raised in the 'orans' position familiar from the Gunderstrup Cauldron) has what appears to be ram's horns, Cernunnos is more usually associated with antlers, especially of the red deer. The difference between the two is profound, as antlers are shed seasonally, whereas horns are not. This is clearly a difference which is significant as the statues from Etang sur Arroux, Condat and Sommerécourt all have holes as though to fit removable antlers, and separate antlers have been found elsewhere. This indicates that the seasonal nature of the god was sufficiently important for some devotees to have the means to alter the image to reflect that. But what did antlers mean to the ancient Celts? Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to assign precise meaning. We might guess that virility was part of the symbolism. However, at least two images of antlered goddesses have been discovered, and the removal of horns would argue against the symbolism of a personal aggressive male sexuality being the pre-eminent image. On the other hand, the bull as well as the stag appears on the reliefs from Saintes, Reims and Les Bollards. Among other theories, one of the most popular is that Cernunnos was Lord of the Hunt, and the bulls may represent the wildness of such animals as the boar and the stag existing within some domesticated settings. The common position of cross-legged poise, seen on the images from Etang, Saintes and Vendoeuvres, especially when associated with the arms raised in a Buddhic style, as seen on the Gunderstrup Cauldron, seems to contradict this wildness. In at least three other images Cernunnos is seated on a bench, in a style familiar to those who have seen images of The Matronae, and we gain an impression of a more peaceful deity. It has been pointed out that sitting cross-legged might be a normal position for a Celt who was hunting. Without more evidence it is hard to judge. However, in at least three of the artefacts in which he assumes this pose, Cernunnos is also accompanied by the ram-headed snake, and this may tell us something more.
There is some conjecture about the meaning of the symbol. Snakes were commonly associated with a number of symbols: fertility, death, the underworld and regeneration (the last through the sloughing of the skin). The Graeco-Roman god associated with healing, Asklepios, used the snake as a symbol of healing and the underworld. The snake also appears with the Celtic goddesses Sirona, who is associated with healing, and Damona, who is associated with farming and the sleep of healing used at shrines and springs. The ram is associated with Mercury and battle. Miranda Green suggests it is also a symbol of aggressive virility. Miranda Green also notes that this ram-horned snake symbol is found mainly in northeastern Gaul, which also produces a lot of the evidence for the cult of Cernunnos. Three of the images fall within this area, with at least another two, of ordinary snakes, falling outside it. And two ram-horned snakes - including the two earliest images - fall outside of France. One of these is the Gunderstrup Cauldron, which is dated to the 1st or 2nd century BCE, while the other is the earliest find, from the Camonica Valley in Italy and dated to around the 4th century BCE. Although a number of online articles claim there is a unique association between Cernunnos and the ram-horned snake, this is untrue. It is found in conjunction with other gods, especially the Celtic Mercury and Mars. According to Green, the Celtic Mars was a protector and healer as well as a warrior. He is accompanied by the ram-horned snake on an image found at a healing spring. This snake also appears twice with the Celtic Mercury, associated with wealth and healing - one of these finds again being at a healing shrine. Mercury also shared with Cernunnos a direct association with wealth, and a less direct association of triplicity by his iconography being found, on several occasions, associated with triple headed figures. Mercury is found alongside Cernunnos on the Reims relief.
The cult of the head amongst the Celtic peoples is commonly known and the triplicity of heads or faces seems to denote a sign of wealth, or an intensifying of something or, occasionally, a multiplicity of interests. It is difficult to be prescriptive, as it appears to have a number of possible meanings. Among other suggestions for Cernunnos has been a Celtic triad of fertilization, maturation, and harvest, or birth, life, and death. But as there is no indication on the images we have of what this meant, it is impossible to be certain. However, it seems to be a common feature of most representations and occurs in those found at Nuits St George where he is triple faced, Beaune, where his companion is triple faced Etang sur Arroux, Langres, Condat, Denevy and on the Les Bollards relief. Although he has only one face on the Reims relief, he is flanked there by the two figures of Apollo and Mercury, and by two boys on the find from Vendoeuvres.
I have mentioned wealth in connection with the triplicity of heads or faces, and this may well be an emphasis of the wealth which is expressly associated with him in numerous images through sacks of coins, torcs (two on the horns in the Paris image, or one on each arm in the Italian one), feeding snakes, or, fairly explicitly, a stag vomiting coins in the representation from Niedercorn-Turbelslach in Luxembourg. The Pillar of the Boatman links him with sailors and commerce and, again, one recalls the association with Mercury in the Reims relief. As mentioned, Mercury is associated with healing and holds his caduceus of entwined snakes he is also usually identified with the Greek Hermes, who, amongst other things, was a psychopomp, who escorted the dead to the underworld, as well as being a divine keeper of herds. Apollo has a strong association with healing, and fathered Askeplios, as well as being associated, in the Celtic world, with the goddesses Sirona and Damona.
The last great symbol of Cernunnos, of course, is that of animals. Pre-eminently the stag, although other representations include bulls, a boar, rat, hare, dog, dolphin and lions. As mentioned, this gives rise to the commonly held attribution of the god as Lord of the Hunt and, since hunting involves death, a connection with the underworld. The image of the Gunderstrup Cauldron is often compared to that of Shiva Pashupati, the Yogic 'Lord of Beasts', as shown on at least one well- known image, the Marshall Harappan seal. In this, the horned Pashupati is surrounded by animals and has his legs crossed. The resemblance is striking and may have influenced the design of the Cernunnos plate of Gunderstrup, which may have its origins in Romania or Thrace, which stood between Greece and the east.
If there is a connection with the underworld, does this raise a possible connection with the Celtic god Dispater? When Murray writes that "one of the greatest gods, perhaps even the supreme deity, of Gaul, Cernunnos is recorded in writing" she may have been referring to Caesar's words in The Gallic Wars. Of the Gallic gods, "They worship chiefly the god Mercury. After him they worship Apollo and Mars, Iuppiter and Minerva. About these they hold much the same beliefs as other nations. Apollo heals diseases . . . All the Gauls assert that they are descended from Dispater, their progenitor." Unfortunately, we have little evidence to help us with Dispater, other than that his name is obviously a reference to a god of the dead, and to wealth, which comes from the earth. The Roman god most commonly identified with Dispater was Iuppiter (Jupiter), and, although this name also appears on the Piller of the Boatmen, it is in addition to the names of several other gods. The identity of Dispater remains elusive, and some people more readily identify him with the Irish gods Donn or the Daghda.
So where does all this take us? The first and most obvious comment is that we cannot be certain. However, it seems fairly safe to say that it appears, on the basis of what we have evidence for, that Cernunnos was directly associated with divinity, wealth and animals, and potentially indirectly associated with regeneration, healing, fertility and death. We have little to explain the cross-legged pose so characteristic of many images, although it may relate to either a common Celtic position of a hunter, or to something more akin to Buddhic calm. All of which is not only far from Murray's certainties, but also from some of the symbology commonly associated with the Wiccan 'horned god'.
Cernunnos figurine possibly found in Cambridgeshire, England
The National Trust’s Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, which now comprises a working farm and a Georgian mansion house, also boasts its fair share of late Iron Age and early Roman history (circa 100 BC – 150 AD). Pertaining to this incredible legacy, archaeologists (from the National Trust), conducting their excavation on the site, came across a 5 cm long copper alloy human figurine, probably dating from 2nd century AD. And while the statuette, holding a torc (high-value Celtic neck ring) is seemingly ‘faceless’, researchers have hypothesized that it represents Cernunnos – the ‘Horned One’, the Celtic god of animals, forests, and fertility. Quite intriguingly, if the object indeed portrays the ancient Celtic deity, this would be the first that a metal figurine of the ever-enigmatic Cernunnos has been found in Britain.
As Shannon Hogan, National Trust Archaeologist for the East of England, said –
This is an incredibly exciting discovery, which to me represents more than just the deity, Cernunnos. It almost seems like the enigmatic ‘face’ of the people living in the landscape some 2,000 years ago. The artefact is Roman in origin but symbolises a Celtic deity and therefore exemplifies the continuation of indigenous religious and cultural symbolism in Romanised societies.
On the historical side of affairs, there is only a single known evidence for the full name Cernunnos, and it comes from the Pillar of the Boatmen carved by the Gaulish sailors in circa 14 AD. Considered as one of the important reliefs of the Gallo-Roman religion, the pillar additionally depicts other Roman deities like Jupiter and Vulcan. However, interestingly enough, the visual representations of the horned deity (as one of the Celtic gods) predates such inscriptions and names by centuries.
Artist’s conception of Cernunnos. Source: Pinterest
To that end, one of the apt examples would pertain to an antlered human figure featured in a 7th-4th century BC dated petroglyph in Cisalpine Gaul and other related horned figures worshipped by the Celtiberians based in what is now modern-day Spain and Portugal. And the most well-known depiction of Cernunnos can be found on the Gundestrup Cauldron (circa 1st century BC).
As for the site itself, its potential as a Iron Age/Roman era ‘trove’ was revealed by a geological survey conducted by the Oxford Archaeology East in 2016, and it was then followed up by trench digging that yielded pottery from the period. Over the period of two years, the estate further yielded around 300 metal objects, including coins, cosmetic implements, horse harness fittings, Roman military uniform fittings, a spearhead, an axe head, key handles, brooches, a ring as well as scrap lead, and a number of iron nails. Most of these items are planned to be preserved and catalogued for exhibition at the Wimpole estate itself.
The Portrayal and Symbolism of Cernunnos
In Celtic mythology, the horned god was associated with wild animals and places, vegetation, and fertility. He’s seen as the protector of forests and leader of the hunt, representing life, animals, wealth, and sometimes the Underworld.
He’s most commonly depicted as a man sitting in a meditating position with legs crossed. He has stag’s antlers emerging from his head like a crown and is usually surrounded by animals. In one hand, he usually holds a torque or torc – a sacred necklace of Celtic heroes and gods. He also holds a horned serpent in the other hand. Sometimes, he’s portrayed carrying a bag full of gold coins.
Let’s take a closer look at these elements and break down their symbolic meanings:
In many ancient religions, horns or antlers on a human head were commonly symbolic of high wisdom and divinity. For Celts, the stag’s horns had a certain grandeur and captivating appearance, representing virility, power, and authority.
In the animal world, horns are used as both weapons and tools, and the beast with the largest antlers would usually dominate over others. Therefore, the horns also symbolize fitness, strength, and clout.
Due to their properties to grow during spring, fall off during fall, and then regrow, the horns are seen as symbols of life’s cyclical nature, representing birth, death, and rebirth.
Torc is an ancient Celtic piece of jewelry worn to demonstrate the person’s status – the more elaborate and decorated the necklace, the higher the rank in a community. Cernunnos is usually portrayed holding a torc or wearing it around his neck.
The tork itself is also depicted in two different ways. The circular torc represents wealth and a higher class, and it also signifies being worthy of respect. The torc can also be in the shape of a half-moon or crescent moon, symbolizing femininity, fertility, the unity of genders, and the balance in life.
Cernunnos is sometimes depicted with a purse full of gold coins, the symbol of being rich in power and wisdom. The generous god shared his riches and was thought to provide wealth and abundance for those who deserve it.
For the ancient Celts, the serpent symbolism was mysterious and mixed. Serpents often represented both genders, symbolizing the unity of polar energies, cosmic balance, and life.
As snakes shed the skin and emerge renewed, they also represent transformation, transition, rejuvenation, and rebirth.