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CERNUNNOS: THE CELTIC HORNED GOD
© Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.
I have long been a devotee of the Horned God; Cernunnos my Stag. In this article I explore the history of this elusive and interesting deity, and then delve into some of the mysticism surrounding him: (1) His traditional titles and (2) how he appears to those who encounter him, (3) how the Stag God presences to us at different times of the earthen year and (4) three sacred days connected with his cult. Finally I explore what it might mean to ‘follow’ Cernunnos today, adventuring through the Wildwoods and Fields of Life under his mystic spell.
Deer are fascinating, mysterious animals. Quiet, stealthy, strong; they represent something haunted about Nature. Whole families of deer can be near us in the woods without our even knowing it; hidden amongst the bushes or so camouflaged that they just blend into the background. As such, we can be startled when we finally ‘see’ them, their form and coloring suddenly ‘emerging’ from the backdrop of twigs, leaves and mulch as though they were losing some cloak of invisibility and ‘revealing’ themselves to us.
The ancient Celts were also fascinated with deer. They hunted them, ate their meat and used their hides for clothing, all the while reverencing these seemingly peaceful yet strangely powerful creatures. Deer thus came to play a role in Celtic spirituality and mysticism, often being featured in stories that became legendary. The great leader of the Fiana – Fionn mac Cumhaill – for instance, married a woman who was originally a deer (or was she a woman who could shape-shift into deer form?). Their son, Oisín, could change back and forth between animal and human form, and is said to have been in the habit of following either a hart or a stag through the woods until it led him across the sídhe into the Otherworld!
The Celtic fascination with deer came to a focus in the great Antlered God Cernunnos. Though his name is not recorded anywhere until historic times, Cernunnos may well have been worshipped and followed by mystics, hunters and magicians since Paleolithic times (c. 40,000 – c. 10,000 BCE). Thus his cult and the mysticism surrounding him pre-date the advent of Celtic culture and religion. We can now view Paleolithic etchings in stone as well as cave-paintings of deer and a stag-like deity (or perhaps it’s a shaman dressed up in deerskins with antlers on his head) in many texts. Does the cult and do any of the rites associated with the Celtic Horned God descend from this much earlier time?
Icons of Cernunnos in stone, paint and engravings have been found throughout the territory of the ancient Celts, from Spain to Romania and from N. Italy up to Ireland and Scotland. He has long been associated with druids, mystics and magicians in Celtic traditions. He is the horn and primary icon of power for male Celtic mystics, just as the Goddess – in any of her many manifestations – is the primary source, fount and wellspring of power for female mystics. Druids, magicians and mystics have long witnessed Cernunnos under two aspects: (1) first, as a passive icon of Earth-Peace, standing in a clearing or near a well or spring at the edge of the wilderness, and (2) second, as the virile, potent, wild representative of the masculine side of Earth-Power, raging into our circle and our imaginations from somewhere other than ‘here.’
Cernunnos has long been recognized under several related titles. As he was one of the central gods in ancient as well as mediaeval Celtic mysticism, he was given a wide scope of powers, influences and domains. The Celtic reverence for him can be deduced from the number of his titles and the variety of the realms over which he was given sway. By exploring these titles and attributes we might come to a better understanding of the Horned God and thus be better prepared to encounter him today.
Cernunnos was primarily known as the Lord and Protector of Wild Animals. He is often depicted with other wild animals – foxes, wild boars, snakes, wolves, etc. – gathered around him, as though they were basking in his aura or perhaps even being ‘restored’ by his presence. Wounded animals were said to be in his charge; they would either (1) be healed by him and returned to their full vigor or (2) they might be led across a sídhe into the Otherworld. (In Celtic cosmology, animals are also en-souled beings. If they have developed a distinct personality and individuality in their lifetime, they quite easily survive death as separate entities, going on from this life to live in the Wildwoods and Fields of the Otherworld). Cernunnos is said to be able to influence the winds and rains that refresh and water the wood and field, valley and heath, keeping them verdant and life-engendering.
All deer are the emissaries of Cernunnos. I have often thought of the deer in this way, especially when looking out into the darkness from the circle of light established by a campfire. When I see those large yellow eyes glinting back at me, I understand Cernunnos to be our guardian and guide as well as the Lord of Wild Animals. When you see a deer standing in the shadows in the woods or walking along the edge of a field near where you are celebrating, meditating or just relaxing, either alone or with friends, chant his name to yourself, allowing that Cernunnos is nearby, in spirit if not in the flesh. If you are meditating, you might say a series of his names, such as “Herne—Cernunnos—Bok—Dumas.” In this way you participate in his enigmatic power and benefit from his elusive presence.
Cernunnos is also the Wild Lord of Virility and Abundance. Though the deer are normally quiet and move with a strange finesse through forests and along open fields, when they are angered or when provoked they can fly into a deadly rage. They may kick to defend themselves; they can deliver quite a blow with their front legs. Male deer – harts and stags – can also do great harm with their antlers, if they so chose. Cernunnos, as the ultimate embodiment of stag-nature, is the manifest icon of male virility, sexual prowess and power. By analogy, he has also been imaged with a bag of gold or silver coins at his feet, or with small leather pouches of valuable objects hanging from the tines of his antlers, as “abundance” is just a few metaphorical shades removed from virility.
Cernunnos is also known as Guide of the Dead; a title he is probably bestowed with on account of the stealth and grace of his movements. In Celtic traditions, those who can walk through the thickets and off-path in the woods without being seen or heard are thought to be capable of walking between the worlds. Those who make too much noise in the wilds of Nature are thought to be too boisterous to ever find the pathways between Here and There. Those who are quiet, however, can ‘hear’ the Otherworld, and by following these sounds they may find the sídhe (i.e., ‘doorways’) and crossEover.
As such, Cernunnos presides over various kinds of journeys into the Otherworld. He leads mortals across the sídhe after death, and guides them to the trailhead of new adventures, encouraging them to carry on with the quest for wisdom, truth and beauty that was already begun in this life. He can also lead adventurers into the Otherlands while still in their coích anama (“soul house”; i.e., the body), if they need to see something there, or if they are looking for someone. Following Cernunnos through the Veil between the Worlds is one of the surest ways of making the journey and returning unscathed, as he generally won’t abandon those who follow him with good purpose.
Cernunnos – in his role of Guide of the Dead – often appeared near dolmens and barrowsídhe in ancient Celtic times. Dolmens are stone structures; the remains of pre-Celtic, Neolithic burial sites. They usually consist of three upright stones across which a ‘table stone’ has been laid. Neolithic peoples created these structures and then placed their dead in the ‘chamber,’ after which they covered the stones over with earth. By the time of the Celts, all the dirt had been eroded away, leaving the standing stone structure. Many dolmens are large enough for a person to walk into. They mark places of intersection between the worlds. Ghosts, deities, the Faeryfolk and later Christ and Mary and their saints were all thought to appear to mortals at, near or in dolmens. Barrowsídhe are long burial mounds; called ‘ sídhe’ because they were also thought of as places where one world opened into another, creating a place of synergy between mortals and immortals; between the incarnate and discarnate realms. Cernunnos has long been among those beings who appear to mortals at dolmens and barrowsídhe.
Today, following in this tradition, Cernunnos may appear to his mystics at graveyards and near tombs. Lonesome graveyards near patches of woods and cemeteries where the Yews and other foliage have been let grow wild are the best places for such apparitions, as is a site of a single burial off in the woods or near a body of water, where the marker has either been decimated or destroyed by the elements, or where there never was one in the first place. If you see a deer near a cemetery during the day of a New Moon, chant the names of Cernunnos, and he will lead you toward the tines of “new birth,” in spiritual terms. If you encounter a stag near a lonesome graveyard on a Full Moon night, say his name thrice to yourself, quietly, and then say the name of someone who has crossedEover of whom you would like to dream. Cernunnos will usually oblige us with a memory of the dead if we ask with an open heart.
When I was thirteen, I encountered Cernunnos near an old 19th century mausoleum in the woods near the town where I grew up. It was October, and while ascending a well-frequented path up into the multicolored cathedral of trees, I was arrested by the sound of a snort accompanied by the sudden awareness of something very powerful quite close by! I looked up and there, above me to the left, on the bank above the trail, was the largest animal I had ever seen close up and in person; a stag with a rack of antlers on his head! He didn’t seem dangerous; merely powerful.
I saw his black eyes and nearly lost my sense of place in his gaze. The stag snorted again and backed away, and then turned and bounded up the hill. Stunned, I pathed on up the little foot-trail toward the mausoleum; my intended destination. There I saw the stag again, standing by the old wrought-iron fence that still surrounded the moldering single-chambered sandstone block edifice in those days. Whenever I think of Cernunnos, now, I often remember that scene – the stag at the iron-fence next to a ruined mausoleum out in the woods. I had begun learning about Cernunnos shortly before this encounter, and so in my adolescent imagination I ‘knew’ that this stag was old Downie Hornie appearing to me.
Ever since that time I’ve always had an epiphany whenever I happen to encounter deer and especially an antlered stag in wilder than usual places. Though what I encountered that day was, I have no doubt, a flesh and blood animal, I have always believed that the Horned God became present to me, poetically and sensuously, via this wondrous animal that I happened to cross paths with at the trailhead of my adolescent journey.
Cernunnos can ‘appear’ under a variety of guises – he is not confined to the form of a stag – and in Celtic traditions there are several classic images of him. The most mysterious is perhaps the “three headed visage,” in which the Stag is “three-faced,” as if just having looked to his right and to his left. As if in time-lapse photography, you ‘see’ both of the partial profiles as well as the head-on view in the same instant of the vision. This visage of the Horned One alludes to something very unusual about him; that he is triple in himself. Many Celtic deities appear to us in triads, each ‘person’ in the triple manifestation having its own name, aspects or characteristics. Cernunnos is unusual in that he is a single deity, yet he can suddenly appear in this three-headed aspect.
Some believe that this evinces his connection with the Triple Goddess, whose lover he is. Just as She is Goddess of Earth, Moon and Water, so he is connected with these three realms of Nature in turn; being an inspiration to poets (lunar), magicians (earth) and healers (water). Others mystics have suggested that this merely proves what should be obvious about Celtic consciousness; that whenever it thinks of the divine or that mysterious ‘otherness’ which exists just beyond our human ability to comprehend the world, it always thinks and imagines in threes.
Cernunnos can also appear in human form, usually as a man with horns or antlers growing from his head or on a helmet that he wears. Occasionally he is imaged as having a man’s body and a stag’s head. At other times he seems entirely human, until you see those two small horns growing out of his head just above his brow, mostly hidden under his crop of long, matted and quite straggly black or dark brown hair. When appearing as an adult man, he is in possession of his full powers. In this manifestation he is often accompanied by two younger men, both of whom are naked and ithyphallic. Their condition of arousal speaks to the fecundity of the god; no one comes into the Horned God’s presence without feeling empowered and enervated in some way. The power of Cernunnos is exemplified in sexual potency as well as in the sudden arousal of poetic creativity.
When in human form, Cernunnos may also appear with a strange horned serpent. Sometimes this animal is held in both hands while at other times the serpent will be seen entwining the god’s antlers. This serpent is a mystical symbol of the god’s power to move back and forth across the side; it is an animal that slithers back and forth between worlds. It burrows in the earth, evincing its connection with the Celtic Earth Goddess Tailtiu. It can also travel subtly across water, suggesting its primordial connection with the Celtic Source-River-Spring Goddess Danu. It can also climb trees, thus evincing its connection with the Cosmic Goddess Anu in Her transcendent aspects. As the serpent represents these connections, it embodies Cernunnos’ relationship with the Triple Goddess.
Finally, Cernunnos can appear with vines and mosses strung from his antlers. This is evidence of his adventurous nature, his wildness and his wisdom quest. As Cernunnos seeks Wisdom in the Wildwoods and Fields of Life, so we should seek it in ourselves, in Nature and in one another. The “Vined Cernunnos” (as this visage of him is sometimes called) is the icon of Celtic Philosophers and Poets, whose quest in life is for the kind of awakening that gives rise to ever-deepening glimpses of Wisdom. By following Cernunnos in this guise, one may be led out on wild expeditions – imagined or otherwise, intellectual, emotional or experiential – into strange lands where the soul is educated in ancient archetypal legends by trial, initiation and endurance. To follow the Vined Cernunnos is to seek the inebriation resulting from earthy illumination and lunar enlightenment.
Celtic mystics also experience Cernunnos under different guises at different times of the year. For instance, in the vernaltides he is often manifest as a young man – often adolescent – with horns. In this guise he is similar in aspect to Herne the Hunter or a very young Green Man who is not yet sexually or poetically mature, yet vigorous and enthusiastic. It is in this form that Cernunnos and the Triple Goddess make the fields fertile by their union. At Summer’s Solstice the Horned One becomes known through the presence of the Green Man. Then, in August, after Lughnassadh, as the sun begins to wane, he shifts form again, coming to us as the ever-pesky Puck. At the autumnal equinox he appears as the Old Antlered One, Downie Hornie, in which guise he haunts us until Samhain. After this turnstile in the earthen year he usually withdraws his presence from mortals, disappearing until he is reborn during the Season of the Winter Solstice as the Gifting Stag; a young hart whose virility and strength will enable him to survive the long winter months ahead while the rest of Nature sleeps.
There are also holy days and nights connected with Cernunnos, especially in the pattern of Celtic Lunar Spirituality that I have created over the last 20 years, wherein each Full and New Moon of the year is given a name that connects it with particular legends, themes, symbols and rituals. The Celtic year begins on 1 November, after the long night of Samhain, which is often spent in adventuring between the worlds. The calendar that my students and I now use is set within the bounds of the solar year, the first Moon of the year being either the first Full or New Moon after dawn on the 1st of November. In any given year, there are 12 or 13 New Moons and 12 or 13 Full Moons.
The Ninth Full Moon in this Lunar Calendar is called Cernobogmas and is dedicated to the “Hunt for the Black Stag.” The night usually begins with a symbolic meal, at which fresh and baked apples, fresh nuts and fruits (especially grapes, blueberries and strawberries, which are often in season at this time of the year) are served. At this meal, participants relate stories about Cernunnos and any encounters they may have had with him. Then, as the Moon rises, they venture out to the edge of a wooded area or some other place where deer are often seen and where they will be able to tarry for a while without trespassing or attracting attention to themselves. Here they will prepare themselves for an encounter with Cernunnos.
Participants – the “hunters” – may stay in one place, hoping to see the deer pass by; coming out into the open as night falls. They might also go hiking along the edge of a wood or down a field path, stealthily like the deer themselves, anticipating seeing a stag or at least the spoor of one. This “Hunt for the Black Stag” may go on for hours, depending on what kind of encounter the hunters are seeking. If all they want is a glimpse of a deer, then the night’s ‘hunt’ need not be long and drawn out. Some mystics of Cernunnos, however, are never satisfied until they have seen an antlered stag or hart. If such is their quarry, the quest may well take most of the night; patience will be required for their vigil.
The “Black Stag” of this hunt is Cernunnos in his most mysterious presencing. The black fur of this beast indicates that he is at least 500 years old – so the old legends say – and to see Cernunnos in this guise is to run the risk of being gifted with a dose of all his aspects; abundance, virility, sexual prowess, potent inspiration and poetic creativity. While preparing for the hunt and also while out on the witch for Cernunnos, participants may chant the follow invocation:
- Hail Cernunnos, Stag of the Woods
- come to us we pray you!
- Inspire us with an earthen faith
- and an adventurous love of life!
- Lead us and we will follow you
- through the wildwood and to the heath
- where the haunted ones of the Sídhe
- worship in the dark night
- of Mystery’s embrace! Nema!
If Cernunnos or any of his representatives is sighted, consider yourself blessed. In whatever form you catch a glimpse of the god – whether in the form of a yearling male, an antlered hart or as a full-grown stag with a rack that is about half-grown (as Cernobogmas often falls during July, he won’t usually have a full rack by this time) – thank him for the ‘hunt’ you have had and anything else you may have experienced along the way. Often, when I am in the woods seeking Cernunnos, I am aware of his presence, even if I never see a tine, black eye or white-tail of him. Ultimately it is this sense of nearness that you are seeking, of which the physical animal is but a fortunate icon. After the hunt, those who have gone out seeking Cernunnos might want to share their accounts of spurious and more arcane sightings before bidding one another “merry meet and merry part” and returning home.
The ninth New Moon of the year – called Cernunnos-Togen – is a day for “the Mediation of the Stag.” As New Moons are days of solitude and anal- duccaid (“breath prayer;” meditation) in my Poet’s spirituality, anything you do will either be done alone or with one other person. If the year began with a New Moon, then Cernunnos-Togen may well come before Cernobogmas. If it does, use this day to tell stories of Cernunnos and reflect on his myths and any stories you may know about him. If the year began with a Full Moon, Cernobogmas will usually come after Cernunnos-Togen. If so, use this day to reflect on your Hunt for the Black Stag, going back over any significant encounters you may have had, either in the woods or imaginatively. The day should be marked by the eating of apples (perhaps in a piece of apple cake or in an apple pie) or by the imbibing of apple juice with one of your usual meals.
Cernunnos is also associated with the Season of Yule (13 – 25 December) that I have developed, during which time the Antlered God is known as The Gifting Stag; a mystical animal whose antlers symbolize all of the strange powers of the Winter Solstice Season. The myth of the Gifting Stag arose out of Cernunnos’ role as the guide of those devoted to earthen wisdom. As one task in this role, he aids those who are seeking spiritual and psychic rebirth as they experience the death of Old Sun on 21 December and then the birth of New Sun at dawn the next day.
The Gifting Stag inspires us to put into practice whatever insights we may have gleaned from pathing wisdom in and through the Winter Solstice Season. He has been known to appear on the 26th of December, sometimes inspiring those who have kept the Yule well to give away certain gifts they have received to those who are less fortunate than themselves. During the days after Yule this strange Stag may be glimpsed here and there as the celebrants return to their daily routines. [For a more detailed description of this day see my book, The Fires of Yule: A Keltelven Guide for Celebrating the Winter Solstice (2001)].
It is through his titles and guises and via the rituals through which we adore and admire him that we can come into contact with the Celtic Horned God today, in the ordinary-yet-always-haunted course of our daily lives. If you want to encounter Cernunnos, take a little time at the New Moon each month to (1) meditate on his visages, (2) reflect on the meaning of his titles, and then (3) chant his names. What I’ve provided you with in this article should be sufficient, at first, to gain some acquaintance – imaginary at least, psychic at best – with the Antlered One.
After you have reflected and meditated at the time of at least one New Moon, take a little time the next time the Moon is about to be reborn and hike out to the woods to a cemetery or to a grave in some lonesome spot. There keep a vigil. The best time to look for deer is at dawn and dusk. Find a somewhat secluded place, perhaps up in a tree or amongst some bushes at the edge of the wood, graveyard or a field, and wait. [Always respect graveyards. Do not trespass in them after hours unless you have permission from caretakers or the institution with which they are connected. If the graveyard is out in the woods and is untended, the place will have stored up a great deal of shunnache. Always treat graves with deference, as they are “thin places” between the worlds.] Engage in anal-duccaid (“breath-prayer;” meditation) and, chanting the names of the Antlered God, imagine him coming to you or sending you one of his emissaries. If you are led, take a couple of apples with you – one for you and one for any deer that might show up. If a deer comes near, toss the apple – in as unthreatening a way as possible – toward it. If you don’t frighten it too badly, you might well foster a more prolonged encounter, as the animal will perhaps hang around to see if there’s any more food to be had! Deer rarely ever turn down apples.
While you wait, engage in imaging exercises. You might – after you have practiced breathing and chanting for a few minutes – imagine Cernunnos in all of his glory and majesty, off roaming through the Wildwoods and Fields of the Otherworld. See him, shaggy-furred and downy horned. He is beautiful, strong and ever-masculine. His eyes are often yellow, reflecting the light of the Moon, as he is the servant of the Moon Goddess, Ceridwen, and is her duly chosen emissary to poets, artists, musicians and other people with a creative vocation. He may be placid and quiet or ready to rage. If in this last aspect, know that if you are seen by him in your imaging you may encourage him to share his virility, abundance and strength with you! He snorts. He rears up, and then he bounds off, charging through fields or into strangewoods or vales. Follow him! Ride the wind and know that you could ride him, if he were to let you! If you allow yourself to see him coming out of the woods or along a path near where you are keeping vigil, this in itself may summon him to your aid.
Whether or not the deer come near, keep your vigil, but only so long as you are led; then get up to leave. Accept whatever you have been given during this vigil. If you don’t have an encounter with Cernunnos this month, perhaps it will happen next month. By imaging him on each of the New Moons, you will be better prepared for the Hunt for the Black Stag on Cernobogmas. An encounter with the Antlered One, however, may well happen anytime, especially when you least expect it!
As the purpose of spirituality is to awaken us to what is already all around us; not only to the visible dimension but the invisible ones as well – we must be ready to experience whatever Nature has in store, and not be downcast if we don’t get what we want, like some petulant child. The magic and wonder of encountering the deer will be its own reward and will, eventually, make all of the waiting and chanting and mystical ‘hunting’ worthwhile.
© Copyright 2002 Montague Whitsel, All Rights Reserved.