Gaulish zoömorphic god.
Usually depicted as a man with antlers, sitting crosslegged, holding a torque in his right hand or wearing a torque on his antlers.
Name and Inscriptions
It's likely that Cernunnos was rediscovered in 1790, when the Sailor's Pillar was discovered at Notre Dame (CIL XIII 03026). One of the broken blocks features the head of a bearded man with antlers; on each antler is a torque. Above his head is carved ERNUNOS, which has been reconstructed as Cernunnos, from the Gaulish cornu/cernu "horn", with the theonymic -on- and masculine ending -s.
There are three other occurances of the name, which give us the reconstruction of "Cernunnos":
Beyond the name, there are several instances of his image found in Gaulish art, ranging over a fairly wide area.
The most famous image is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Cernunnos sits crosslegged, eyes closed. He holds a torque in his right hand, and a ram-headed serpent in his left. To his right is a stag, and to the left a dog. There are other animals surrounding him, but these three animals are the most important, as they appear in other places. For instance, the Lyon bowl gives a highly-Romanized varation of this scene, replacing the snake with a cornucopia, and placing the snake on a tree, encircling it.
Another similar scene is that of the Rheims stele. Cernunnos sits crosslegged again, with a bag of either coins or grain spilling onto the ground; a torque is around his neck. On his right is Apollo, on his left Mercury. At Cernunnos' feet is a small deer and a small cow. Above him is a rat.
What role Cernunnos played in Celtic religion is a matter of debate. The most obvious role he may have played is that of a Lord of the Hunt. The use of sympathetic magic in hunting ritual--including the wearing of animal skins or head dress--is fairly commmon to cultures wherein hunting provides a main source of food.
Ann Ross and others identify him as a "Lord of the Animals" type of god, based on the image of the Gundestrup Cauldron, and a comparison with the Pashupati seal of Mohenjo Daro, which shows Siva--with something that appears to be horns on his head--in his role as Lord of the Animals.
However, he may not be only Lord of Animals or even Lord of the Hunt, but also a god of liminality, like the Roman Janus. The most obvious evidence is his stradling of the human and animal words. Another is found on the Gundestrup image: the stag on his right might be a symbol of wild life, while the dog and snake are on his left--the sinister side--might be associated with the underworld. Elsewhere, on the Rhiems stele, the deer and ox are in some sense opposites--one wild, the other domestic, with Cernunnos feeding both. Fickett-Wilbar makes an interesting argument that the images we have of Cernunnos often follow the typical Indo-European pattern of "positive" symbols on Cernunnos' right (our left) with "negative" symbols on his left (our right). For instance, on the Gundestrup cauldron, the deer is on his right, and on the Rhiems stele, Apollo. On his left, the dog and snake, and on Rhiems, Mercury, the Roman psychopomp, which would back up the idea of the dog on Gundestrup being a dog of the underworld, while the snake is almost always an underworld symbol. The Lyon bowl can also be interpreted in this way, as the cornucopia, held in his left hand, is filled with the bounty of the earth.
Relationship with Herne?
In Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor we see the first mention of Herne, a spectral gamekeeper at Windsor Park. In the play, Falstaff, disguised as a stag, goes to meet what he thinks is a willing lover, but instead is being lead into a trap.
There is no reason to associate Cernunnos and Herne:
Moreover, there's no association with Herne and Cerne Abbas. Herne is only associated with Windsor Forest.
Fickett-Wilbar, David. Cernunnos: Looking a Different Way. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 23, 2003 (2009), 80-111
Olmstead, Garrett. The Gundestrup Cauldron.
Ross, Ann. Pagan Celtic Britain
Back to "C" | Back to JCE
Mary Jones © 2007