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Jan 22, 2014

Mythology of the Schattenreich: Cernunnos

Pan-Celtic Lord of the Hunt(?)

The Horned One and his bestiary
I used the question mark at the end of the subtitle because including Cernunnos as one of the figures associated with an overarching Celtic pantheon, may not be entirely correct. According to John T. Koch, in Celtic Culture, A Historical Encyclopedia , there exists only a single written reference to Cernunnos, a statuary. His name is listed (with the 'C' missing) along with other Gallic, Romano-Gallic, and Roman deities. He is depicted as having a stag's horns decorated with what look like Gallic torques. This depiction of Cernunnos is in keeping with many other carvings of a similar deity figure, the most famous of which is the seated figure on the Gundestrup cauldron (at right), found in a Danish peat bog. This image is also purported by many Celtic archeologists and ethnohistorians (e.g., Miranda Green and Arnulf Krause) to be of Cernunnos.

The figure on the cauldron sits with legs crossed - a lotus-like pose - his antlers prominent, holding a ram-headed snake in one hand and a torque in the other. Other similar images of him have been found in locations throughout the former continental Celtic provinces, leading some Celtic historians to conclude they represent the same deity. Interestingly, the Cernunnos figure is often cited as evidence that the Celts apparently did worship their gods in a semblance of human form and even suggests the idea of deities that can shape-change, alternating between human and animal.

Medieval misericord; Vendôme, France
Many people have made connections with Cernunnos and other, more modern versions of Wild Men (e.g., Herne the Hunter, The Green Man), most of which apparently have no real documentation to support any congruence, despite similarities in a few of the names. Some researchers also postulate that conflation of Cernunnos and (Greek deity) Pan by recalcitrant Pagans resulted in the Christians demonizing him, although Elaine Pagels in her excellent but dense book The Origins of Satan argues convincingly that this is not the case. 

 Whether all or any of the assumptions and claims about the importance of Cernunnos to the conglomerate of tribes that comprised the continental Celts was true will likely be forever beyond our reach. Since he was apparently never romanized (interpretatio Romana), the Roman chroniclers never paid him much heed. That doesn't stop us from wondering just who Cernunnos was and how he was worshipped among the early Celts.

And that doesn't prevent fantasists such as myself from using the figure of Cernunnos for fictional purposes. Indeed, at least from what I've gleaned from the literature, Cernunnos fulfills - with a high probability - the idea, if not the reality, of a pan-Celtic deity . He was worshipped for fertility, prosperity, hunting, and his affinity for wild animals including (most often on depictions) stags, boars, ram-headed snakes, and, less frequently, bulls. It makes sense. What's not to like?

I knew I needed to use him. How to depict Cernunnos was my first dilemma. I chose a fairly subtle combination of traits taken from many sources that hint at a tripartite nature: fertility+prosperity, cthonic tendencies - but not truly Underworld, and Oracular wisdom. But there isn't much subtle about The Horned One himself. The Cernunnos of the Schattenreich series dwells in Ande-dubnos, the Breton version of the Otherworld where he commands his hunting hounds and his loyal Folk - which I refer to as the Tud, the Breton word for people or tribe.

He rules a significant thickly forested territory therein of Brocéliande, roughly equivalent to an ancient forest (according to Jean Markale) that spread across the center of Brittany. The modern-day forest of Paimpol in Brittany is often referred to as the real-world version of the legendary Brocéliande, but its provenance is confused by the, in some cases rather tawdry, connections to Arthurian legend that date back to the middle ages.

There is magic in Brocéliande, but...

This beautifully painted wall is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Cernunnos has the ability to shift his shape to a certain extent (for example, his horns), but his Tud followers even more so. It is questionable whether the hounds can change form or whether they are truly hounds at all. Since no actual animals populate Ande-dubnos in my version of the Otherworld, this suggests that the hounds are not really, well, hounds.

 The torque and the ram-headed snake have been incorporated into my interpretation of Cernunnos. He wears the torque, of course, but it can also be wielded as an elemental even infernal weapon, forged as it is of gold and iron. Melusine, his mate (more on Melusine in a future post), has the head of a ram, the body of a serpent - a wyrm of old - and the face of a woman. She provides Cernunnos a channel, a direct link to her domain, the Dreams, which places the God of the Hunt firmly into the Jungian realm of the deep unconscious.

This pairing is what augments his masculinity, his power - his animus - and makes The Horned One a force to be feared for an unwary wanderer, especially of the female variety, in Ande-dubnos at certain times of the year when the veil between the Otherworld and the waking world is thin. Traveler beware.

Gundestrup Cauldron by Bloodofox (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Green man photo by Simon Garbutt

Photos from Paimpol, France by Klaus-G. Hinzen