Cernunnos is the Gallic god of beasts and wild places. He is the Horned One, a mediator of man and nature, able to tame the wiles of predator and prey so they could lie down together. He is a mysterious deity, largely lost to history.
Though he appears primarily in Ancient Gaul, similar characters can be found across the world, including other Celtic regions.
Cernunnos is an ancient Gallic word meaning “horned” or “horned one,” which gives way to his popular title. This etymology leads to similarly-named words across the Celtic world, including several Gallo-Roman cognates. The use of cern for “horned” is common in Indo-European languages, such as the Greek corn (the word unicorn, referring to the one-horned horse-like creature) and several Latin taxonomic terms for antlered animals.
In contemporary scholarship, Cernunnos has become a name used for other Celtic horned gods whose names have been lost to history. There is little evidence that the name Cernunnos was used outside of Gaul, yet scholars, both academic and religious, have used the name Cernunnos as a kind of catch-all for Celtic horned gods, and sometimes other areas of the Indo-European world, such as India.
Other titles have been added to Cernunnos over time, often by modern neopagans, such as Lord of the Wilds or God of Wild Places. These have no historical basis, but have come into popular usage due to the rise of neopagan traditions.
Little is known of Cernunnos, for almost nothing was written about him. He was a god of wild places, appearing as a bearded man with antlers. Scholars have attributed his name and character to other horned gods and mixed them together, borrowing some traits of Greco-Roman deities of similar appearance. In most cases, it is best to remember that these gods are not necessarily the same, but stem from a similar cultural origin.
Cernunnos is a god of the wild: he rules over pristine nature and uncivilized ways. Animals are his subjects, free-growing fruits and vegetable his bounty. Depictions show gatherings of animals together, whether they are elk, wolves, snakes, or aurochs, gathered around him. He holds foes apart, bringing them to peaceful communion. In this sense he may have been important to rural tribes and hunters, helping to protect them and pacify wild beasts, as well as making sure that hunters had enough bounty.
Similarly, he may have been a fertility god or god of life. In some classical societies, the natural world was the origin of all life, and as such, the god of the wilds would be a god of life and creation. In this, the god of the wilds would also be a god of fertility, as nature is ever-bountiful and cyclical, given to seasons of birth, growth, and reproduction.
He is often shown with a torc, a traditional Celtic necklace of metal. In some depictions he merely holds one, while others he wears them on either his neck or his antlers. Some scholars have also connected him to oak trees, a prominent tree in Celtic lore and to druidry itself.
Cernunnos has lived a particularly active second life beginning in the 19th century, with the rise of revivalist movements to return to pre-Christian European beliefs. He appears prominently in Margaret Murray’s The God of the Witches as the embodiment of horned deities, which she states is the god of witches that predated Christianity and continued in secret pockets throughout Europe. Though this is a highly problematic book with vast generalizations regarding Cernunnos, the book’s prominence cannot be understated.
Cernunnos, or the Horned God of neopagan traditions (who is an embodiment of male divinity) is a god of life and death, growing old as the year progresses before his rebirth. He exists in tandem with the divine feminine, the Goddess, who is at once lover and mother in the yearly cycle, and in many traditions, his power stems from her. This is not necessarily a reflection of pre-Christian European beliefs, merely of neopagan attributes given to Cernunnos.
Cernunnos is a particularly mysterious deity who has no confirmed myths about him, as his name only appears once. Others have attributed tales to him, however.
The name Cernunnos only appears once, on the Pillar of the Boatman. Dating back to the 1st century CE, this pillar comes from what is now Paris, and depicts a number of Roman and Gallic gods, including Cernunnos. Here the torcs hang around his antlers, rather than his neck or in his hands. It is unknown which tribes might have worshiped Cernunnos, but horned gods are prominent across the Celtic world.
The most famous image of Cernunnos, which may not depict him at all, is the Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found in Denmark. Dating to the 1st century BCE, it is believed to have come from Gaul, or Thrace, near Greece, due to the images and metallurgic practices required to create it. Similar horned gods can be seen on stones, statues, and books depicting Celtic myths during the early Christian period.
While not a deity, a character in Irish mythology with a similar name is Conach Cernach, from the Ulster cycle. Conach Cernach’s name may simply mean “triumphant,” or could mean “angular” or “cornered,” given its similar etymology to Cernunnos. From there little else is obviously similar, and their names may be related simply by chance.
Herne the Hunter
Some scholarship connects Cernunnos to the legend of Herne the Hunter, a character who appears first in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The character is a ghost of a suicide who, after committing some great offense, kills himself in order to avoid his dishonor and now haunts the forest, terrorizing animals.
Scholars since the 19th century have attempted to find verifiable evidence that this story predates Shakespeare and some claim it does exist, in the form of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and perhaps merely a local legend near Windsor.
Other Horned Gods
Horned gods are a popular image across the world, as many shamanic cultures use sympathetic magic to appear as the animal whose attributes they wish to take: these include deer and elk, with the shaman wearing the fur of the animal and its antlers.
In an Indo-European context, the most closely connected gods are Pan/Faunus and Silvanus from the Greco-Roman world. They are horned gods (though more commonly related to goats than deer) who rule the wild places of the world, and thus the Romans and Greeks would have closely associated the two.
Another close connection is the Germanic Wotan, the German-regional version of the god Odin. Here, Wotan is the leader of the wild hunt, a horned god who leads spirits on hunts, sometimes for powerful warriors, sometimes for the spirits of the dead. Wotan is also closely related to animals and is their lord, in some cases, and appears very closely to Cernunnos.
Some scholars believe that Cernunnos, along with Pan, may have inspired the enemies of the Knights Templar to create Baphomet, the false deity/demon they were accused of worshiping when they were destroyed by the Catholic Church and their allies. Baphmet displays physical similarities to these deities, and is a corruption of a Latinized form of the name Muhammed. Since then Baphomet has become a prominent figure in modern witchcraft and Satanic religion.
An unknown figure from the ancient Indian city of Mohenjo-Daro depicts a character in striking similarity to Cernunnos, a horned bearded figure surrounded by animals. Appearing on the Pashupati seal, dating to around 1900 BCE, may depict the god Shiva or Rudra, or simply an archetypical Middle Eastern god of the wild who shares a similarities to Cernunnos.
Cernunnos appears often in popular culture, despite (or perhaps because of) his mysterious nature:
- In Marvel Comics, Cernunnos is one of the most prominent figures of the Celtic pantheon. Unlike historical depictions, he is depicted as man-like, but has the face and antlers of a deer rather than simply the antlers;
- The band Faith and the Muse has a song from his perspective called “Cernunnos”; singer Monica Richards includes a song about him on her first solo album, called “The Antler King”;
- The band Borean Dusk uses a horned figure drawing from Cernunnos on their self-titled album, Boren Dusk;
- Cernunnos appears in several video games: as a playable god in SMITE; as a demon in the Megami Tensei series; and as a monster in Folklore;
- Cernunnos is a popular figure in modern art, often tied to the neopagan depictions of him rather than the classical figures; similarly, he is a common figure in neopagan literature, both fiction and non-fiction in variety.