Cernunnos in Celtic Mythology—Celtic God of the Forest

Cernunnos in Celtic Mythology—Celtic God of the Forest

Who was Cernunnos in Celtic Mythology?

Cernunnos was a Celtic god worshipped in both France and Britain. He is usually depicted sitting cross-legged and wearing a sleeveless tunic and bead necklace. He has an impressive pair of antlers, and the name Cernunnos means “the Horned One”, which suggests that he was a god of the wild animals and forest, although he has also been seen as a god of plenty.

The Romans identified him with their god Mercury, the messenger god and guide of the dead to the underworld. In medieval Ireland, the antlers of Cernunnos were transferred to the Devil.

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 a 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.

The Origin of Cernunnos

The Origin of Cernunnos

The name Cernunnos was one given to an extremely powerful and ancient deity that was widely worshipped throughout the world and still lives even to this day. Cernunnos can be translated to mean “Horned One” in Celtic, and “the Horned God” was just one of the many names that the deity went by.

His origins can be traced back to nearly every culture throughout time, but the name and appearance changes. Cernunnos, as known in Celtic mythology, is perhaps the one we’re most familiar with.

He often appears as human or at least human-like, with the antlers of a stag; sometimes even with horns that we associate with Satyrs and Fauns, resembling the Greek god of the wild Pan and much like the Greek god, Cernunnos was seen to be a call of the wild, nature and fertility, amongst many other things.

Symbols of Cernunnos

Being the deity so heavily associated with nature, he was often accompanied by a group of animals that were thought to be symbolic of the god—the Stag, the Bull and the Ram. He was also often seen holding a horned or spotted snake.

Despite appearing as somewhat human, many believed that he wore a human face and did not take a particular interest in the concerns of humans. He was a protector of animals, often called the Lord of animals, and it’s very likely that few hunted in his woods without appeasing the god first.

Those who saw his connection with animals have also been connected to our own deeply buried, instinctual and animalistic natures.

The Depiction of Cernunnos

The earliest known depiction of Cernunnos was found in northern Italy, within Val Camonica, which was under Celtic occupation from around 400 BC. His worship continued to grow in the region of Gaul, which covered a host of countries in Western Europe, and the images of the Holland God can even be found in the French capital of Paris.

While digging under the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, an ancient pillar was found. It was named the Pillar of the Boatmen, and it contains 16 carved images from the Greco-Roman Pantheon and some Celtic inscriptions.

There is a carving of a man with horns, which has led many to believe that it was indeed the horned-god Cernunnos. Some would argue that the image could have also been a depiction of the Greek god Pan.

Part of the Pillar of Boatmen

It’s fairly difficult to read because of the tablets age and the erosion and damage caused over time but inscribed above the image in Latin is the word Arnuno, which we can assume refers to the Celtic interpretation of the horned god.

The Depiction of Cernunnos

It’s impossible for us to identify every horned god as Cernunnos, but an image on the pillar shows a Torc—a piece of jewellery common amongst the Celtic people. It was often used to show a person of high status, and in some other cultures, Torc is thought to have mystical powers, being able to ward off curses and provide the wearer with protection during battle.

With Cernunnos being a god that was thought to protect all animals, he can be found wearing a talk around his neck or hanging from his antlers; sometimes, even just holding the piece of jewellery in one hand with a snake in the other.

One of the most noticeable depictions of the horned god can be found on a Gundestrup Cauldron. We see him holding a talk in a serpent surrounded by numerous creatures—a Dog, a Raven and a Stag—creatures that we often see appear in mythology and folklore tales.

The Worship of Cernunnos

The Worship of Cernunnos

Cernunnos was a God worshipped in both Pagan and Wiccan practices. The cycle of the seasons, in some Wiccan practices, followed the relationship between the horned god and the goddess, with Cernunnos representing male energy.

The fur symbolized the death of the Horned God as the land and vegetation became dormant during the autumn and winter. However, in the spring, the Horned God was resurrected where he would impregnate the fertile goddess of the land. This interpretation of the Horned God and his relationship or marriage with the mother goddess is a relatively recent pagan and Wiccan concept and was likely not celebrated by the Celtic people.

The ancient Celtic people would have seen and worshipped Cernunnos in a different manner. They would often attempt a commune with the god, seeking to receive some of his power, dressing in animal skins and adorned in skulls to honour fall in wildlife.

There are theories that the Celtic interpretation of the Horned God could have evolved into what the pagans believed to be the “Green Man” —a spirit associated with nature and man’s reliance on a cycle of growth that comes with spring.

The green man sometimes appears as an ordinary man covered in leaves, but sometimes he takes the form of a walking tree, similar to the race events that we see in Tolkien’s middle-earth.

Cernunnos, at times, is a very misunderstood God for several reasons. Naturally, because of his homes and the occasional depiction of a large erect phallus. Images of Cernunnos can be misinterpreted as a symbol of Satan.

With the Christian Church not taking kindly to the worship of other deities, they quickly labelled the pagan following of Cernunnos as devil worship, and they did their best to discredit all aspects of the Horned God’s character, constantly comparing him to Satan as an attempt to make it almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

The depictions of Satan at a time included horns that resembled the Celtic deities. We can assume that this was done deliberately, and it certainly created confusion amongst those who had never heard of the Celtic interpretation of the Horned God.

The Roles and Abilities of Cernunnos

The Roles and Abilities of Cernunnos

Some accounts associate Cernunnos with the underworld—being somewhat of a guide to the dead. He was able to move with amazing stealth and grace, being able to walk through thickets and woods without being seen or heard.

It’s likely the way he moved was considered otherworldly, and thus, he was thought capable of walking in between the veil that separated the realm of the living from the realm of the dead.

He was known to help guide the dead from their previous life to their new one, where he encouraged them to continue the pursuit of wisdom and happiness. Cernunnos has been seen as a prosperous god, which ties in with his association with the Yule season—the 13th of December until the 25th—what many of you will consider Christmas Day.

During this period, he was referred to as the gift in Stag, a mystical creature whose antlers were thought to symbolise the strange powers of the winter solstice season. It was thought that sometimes he would appear on the 26th of December, where he would encourage those who receive gifts to give them away to those less fortunate than themselves.

In Conclusion

There isn’t much if any Celtic literature surrounding Cernunnos, which leads to a lot of confusion around the god. However, we know for sure that he was a God who went by many different names in many different cultures.

Over the years, he’s been associated with a host of different things; he was the god of the wild, fertility, wealth, life and death, the hunt, and of course, animals.

Whether you believe Cernunnos was one of the many interpretations of the Horned God or the original, his influence and aspects can be seen in many different cultures— from Herne, the English god of the wild hunt, to Pan, the Greek god of the wild in Greek mythology; Pashupati, the lord of animals in Hindu mythology, and even Veles, the god of the forest in the Slavic pantheon.

Sadly, Cernunnos is a god that we don’t know much about, and the majority of that falls on to the Christian Church attempting to erase him from existence. As someone who is quite fond of the Greek god Pan, Cernunnos is also a deity that is naturally drawn to.

Images Sources: Scebiqu, IrenHorrors, Oione.

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