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.
Cernunnos does not have any known connections to other Celtic gods. Because Celtic mythology was transmitted orally, or by sharing stories out loud instead of writing them down, it is possible that many tales about Cernunnos have been lost over the centuries. No tales associated with Cernunnos's actions survive.
Cernunnos in Context
In ancient cultures, before the rise of successful farming practices, hunting was of vital importance to a community. People relied on animal meat as a source of protein and animal skins and bones for a variety of purposes. Early hunters lacked guns and sophisticated bows and arrows. Hunting was an incredibly difficult and dangerous task undertaken by groups of men who might spend many days tracking their prey, eventually overtaking it on foot and killing it at short range with a spear. The ability to kill a large animal and provide for the community came to be associated with male power. The kingly Cernunnos can be seen as a depiction of man as the ultimate predator.
The origin of the Celts is uncertain. Archaeological evidence suggests that they came originally from the area around the Black Sea and spread west. It is possible, though, that some Celts spread east, too. The god Pashupati of northern India bears a striking resemblance to Cernunnos— he is a horned hunter and represents untamed male power.
Some scholars have suggested that Cernunnos may be the source of traditional representations of the horned Christian devil. As Christianity spread into Celtic territory, Cernunnos was still a popular deity. It is possible that early Christian church leaders, unable to force the Celts to abandon Cernunnos, reinterpreted the god in a Christian context. His wildness and darkness became connected not with animals and nature but with evil.
Key Themes and Symbols
The main symbol of Cernunnos is his horns or antlers, which represent male fertility. Cernunnos is also usually depicted with tores, or rings that signify Celtic nobility. He is almost always shown to be among animals, especially stags or deer, which indicate his importance to hunters and nature. Cernunnos is also associated with the oak tree, a symbol of wisdom and stability.
Cernunnos in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The two most famous depictions of Cernunnos are from the Gundestrup Cauldron and the “Pillar of the Boatmen” monument. The Gundestrup Cauldron, created in the first or second century bce, is a large silver bowl that was rediscovered in 1891 in a peat bog in Denmark. One decorative panel of the cauldron shows Cernunnos, along with deer, a snake, and other wild animals. The “Pillar of the Boatmen” was created in the first century CE by sailors as a monument to various Roman and Celtic gods. The monument originally stood in a temple in what is now Paris, on the site where Notre Dame Cathedral was later built.
Although familiar to those who study Celtic mythology, Cernunnos is not very well known in modern times. He was featured in an episode of the television show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and has appeared as a villain to be fought in video games such as Folklore for PlayStation 3. A version of Cernunnos appears in Susan Cooper's fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising (1973)—as Herne the Hunter, a mounted leader of the hunt with great antlers who, like Cernunnos, is associated with the oak tree (in this case, the oak tree is in Windsor Forest).
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Although depictions of Cernunnos have been found across Europe, very litde is known about his place in ancient Celtic mythology. Based on what you know about Cernunnos, try writing your own short myth about him. Explain where he comes from, how he became associated with deer and other animals, and what relationship he has to other Celtic gods and goddesses.
SEE ALSO Celtic Mythology