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Cernunnos: Looking a Different Way


[This is a draft version, with a fair amount to be done. Since that's primarily on making it look pretty, however, I thought I'd put it up in the meantime. I will also be reducing the file size by creating thumbnails for the images, but first I have to figure out how. I'm continuing to try to find the original sources of the images, so if anyone can help me that would be great.]


Of the many deities worshiped by the ancient Celts, Cernunnos is certainly one of the more enigmatic. This god with the antlers, sitting so calmly, seems at once civilized and savage, and the contradiction poses a challenge that is hard to resist.

The academic literature, however, doesnít make him out as enigmatic at all. To Anne Ross, he is "lord of wild beasts," and "patron of commercial prosperity" (1967, p. 138); to Proinsias MacCana he is "lord of the animals" (1983, p. 42); to Udo Strutynski "Lord of the Animals" (1983, p. 45); to David Rankin, "lord of living beings" (1986, p. 184); and to Miranda Green "lord of beasts and fecundity" (1986, p. 184) and "a fertility-image" (1986, p. 194). The case seems closed.

This almost exact agreement makes me nervous, however. When such conclusions are repeated from source to source in almost identical language I have to wonder if the authors are simply passing on received tradition. Now we certainly do not have to reinvent the wheel, but there is sometimes a need for taking a fresh and deeper look at something long thought settled.

My disquiet is heightened by the lack of evidence generally presented for identifying Cernunnos as Lord of the Beasts. Except for the ubiquitous panel from the Gundestrup cauldron (Fig. 1), the attitude seems to be that the mere fact that Cernunnos has antlers is sufficient to prove the case.



Fig. 1. The Gundestrup Cauldron

What arouses my suspicion even more is that not only did an in-depth study conducted by Phyllis Fray Bober, in 1951, conclude that he was to be connected to the Underworld rather than the forest, but even when she is referenced her primary conclusion, that Cernunnos was identified with Pluto, is not often mentioned. True, we read that Cernunnos was perhaps the Dis Pater mentioned by Caesar (Ross, 1967, p. 149), or that he was "lord of death" (Rankin, 1996, p. 265). The often noted connection between Cernunnos and prosperity is also relevant. However, in general writers on Cernunnos seem unaware of Boberís work. Since it has been fifty years since Bober, it seemed worth while to open the case again.

The name "Cernunnos" is only found associated with an image in one inscription, on a block found under Notre Dame in Paris (MacCana, 1970, p. 42) (Fig. 2). (The inscription "Jupiter Cernunus" also appears once, on a "little book" (libellus) from Dacia, dedicated by the president of an association of Jupiter Cernenus (magister Iouis Cerneni; Dessau, (1962m no. 7215), which, however, tells us nothing about the deity other than his name, so it will not be part of this discussion.) Discernible on the block is the relief of a bust of a balding man with antlers on which are hung torcs. As well as antlers, he has the ears of a deer. Over his head is the inscription generally read as "Cernunnos." Whatmough (1970, p. 172) will only allow "ern nno" for it, in its present condition. The block is indeed much worn, and was only in slightly better condition when it was found, but based on eighteenth century drawings of the piece we can say with fairly good confidence that it did once say "Cernunnos" (Ross, 1967, p. 135). The bottom of the block has been lost, but the original size may be determined by the figures on the other sides of it. From the proportions of the figure of Cernunnos it is clear that originally the block included the entire figure and that he must have been sitting. It is important to note that this "altar" was set up by sailors, which must be taken into consideration in any attempt to unravel the sort of deity we are dealing with.



Fig. 2 The Paris Altar

The title itself appears to come from the Proto-Indo-European root *k(e)r-n(o), "horn or antler," (which changes in Celtic to *kornu/kernu) with the theonymic *-no- and the first person singular ending -s. The full meaning of the name would thus be "The god with antlers" (Ross, 1967, p. 135).

It is often stated that since the name occurs only this once it would not be appropriate to say that it represents the "name" of the deity represented. There are three difficulties with this, however. First is the possibility that there are indeed other inscriptions which refer to Cernunnos

Second, the labels above the other divine images on the pillar are [Iovis, Vu]. The labels of the Roman gods are, of course, names, and those of the Celtic deities, other than Cernunnos, have been universally accepted to be names as well. To hold that this one deity of all those mentioned is given a title rather than a name does not seem to me to be reasonable.

Finally, the suggestion requires that there be a difference between a "title" and a "name." Now it is certainly true that there are cases where we can identify a title as opposed to a name, such as Apollo being called "Son of Leto." One thing used to define the difference seems to be etymological transparence; if we can say what an appellation means, itís a title rather than a name. Since "Cernunnos" can be "translated" into the language of those who inscribed it, by this reasoning it has to be a title.

The problem with this reasoning is that all deity "names" seem to have been originally titles. "Jupiter" is "Shining Sky Father," "Agni" is "Fire," etc. And, to take an example from the pillar of the sailors itself, there has been much speculation over the etymology of "Esus." This presupposes that something recognized as the name of a Celtic god must have been originally something that we would more commonly term a "title." This requires us to ask the question of when a title is promoted to the status of a name. When it is used often enough? When it has become etymologically opaque? If a child in an English-speaking country is called "Faith," does she have a title rather than a name because the word is both etymologically transparent and found more frequently as a common noun?

All in all, then, it seems odd that this one appellation has been denied the status of a "name." I think it best to consider it to have that status.

It may therefore be said that there exists a group of representations of Gaulish deities that seem to represent a single deity, with the name "Cernunnos." The majority of these images come from a fairly restricted area around Paris and Reims. Two, from Val Camonica and Gundestrup, images are glaring exceptions and will need to be explained.

These images are of figures that are connected with certain attributes: deer's antlers; arms in the orans position or in the lap; a container of coins or grains in the lap; a serpent or serpents with a ram's head, which he grasps behind the head, or encircle him, or both; torcs, both worn and held; and crossed legs. It must be remembered that not all depictions that can be identified as Cernunnos will have all of these attributes. Some of these, such as the torc and ram-headed serpent, are also found in conjunction with other deities. Of the over thirty examples, I will examine those which seem to me to hold the greatest amount of information. In short, those which are identifiable as Cernunnos only on the basis of other monuments but supply no further data have been excluded. I have limited my investigations further to the ones from Val Camonica, the Gundestrup cauldron, and Gaul, but there have been suggestions that his images are found in England and Ireland, and I will deal with them first.

There are three images that come from England that have been claimed to be of Cernunnos. A coin that found near Petersfield, Hampshire. (Fig. 3; Boon, 1982)) depicts what appears to be an antlered head, with a ladder and wheel between the antlers.



Fig. 3. Coin from Petersfield

I am not convinced that what he wears on his head are indeed antlers, since they have no times. It is also unsure whether they are growing from his head, or are part of a crown. Rather than comparing this image with Cernunnos, it would seem more appropriate to relate it with the horned helmets from the Tiberian Arc díOrange, France, illustrated by Ross (1967, p. 159, fig. 109) and Boon (1982, fig. 9, p. 279), which also bear wheels between their horns.



Fig. 4. Triumphal Arch at Orange

This complex of horned helmet and wheel can be found as well on the panel of the Gundestrup cauldron depicting a god holding a wheel; he is aided in this by a smaller figure who wears a horned helmet (Fig 4). I would suggest the possibility of a deity connected with wheels, horns, and serpents, which overlaps the Roman equivalents of Mars and Jupiter, but to investigate this further would take us too far afield.



Fig. 5. Wheel God from the Gundestrup Cauldron

A better case can be made for an image of Cirencester (Fig. 5; Ross, 1967, plate 43a), which shows a man grasping two horned serpents by the neck. They seem to grow from the ends of his legs, or else his legs are folded under him. His arms are bent into a semi-orans position, which may simply be necessitated by the height of the snakeís necks. On either side of his head are rings with ovals in them which are generally interpreted as baskets of grain, coins, or eggs. He doesnít clearly have antlers; it does seem as if something is growing from his head, but the piece is broken off. However, if the arc the broken piece would have formed is completed, there doesnít seem to have been room for antlers. Although this piece is strongly probable, then, a definite identification of the image as one of Cernunnos is not possible.



Fig. 6. Relief from Cirencester

A suggested image from Clonmacnois, County Offaly, in Ireland is even more problematic, being less clearly an image of Cernunnos (Fig. 6) (Ross, 1967, p. 147). It depicts a figure whose crossed legs are interlaced with his arms. Something growing from his head is intertwined as well, but this is as likely to be hair as antlers. On the whole, the apparent antlers and crossed legs might better be interpreted as ornamental motifs. Despite Anne Ross's confidence, I have my doubts that this figure has antlers; in any case, again none of Cernunnos' other identifying characteristics are present. (Ross, 1967, p. 147).



Fig. 7. Clonmacnois Pillar

It has been suggested by some (e.g., Ross, 1967, pp. 149-151) that the Irish hero Conall Cernach is related to Cernunnos in some sense. She bases this in part on the name "Cernach," which is usually translated "victorious," but which she suggests could have been a homophone which has the meaning "angled, having corners." More important, she sees a similarity with the iconography of Cernunnos in a scene from the Táin Bó Fráich, in which, when Conall approaches a poisonous serpent, the serpent slides into his belt, and is later released without harm to either (Anderson, 1903, p. 142) That does indeed sound similar to the images of Cernunnos is which a snake or snakes encircle the deityís waist. Ross also identifies Cernunnos with Dis Pater, and notes that Conall Cernach is an ancestral figure.

However, Conall Cernach is described as the best warrior in Ireland (<**), for whom "victorious" would be a considerably more appropriate name than "having corners." The total lack of martial imagery in the representations of Cernunnos make the connection between the two unlikely. Finally, that Cernunnos is Dis Pater is questionable, and therefore can not be used to identify him with other figures.

Explaining the religious meaning of Cernunnos is difficult because there is no mythology clearly associated with him. Any conclusions about his nature must therefore come from the images which can clearly be deemed as of him, and therefore it is to those images that we now turn.

The oldest depiction is from the Val Camonica in Italy, one of a number of rock carvings made by a people who were likely Celts. The figure that has been identified with Cernunnos was carved in the fourth cent. BCE. It is a figure of a man with antlers, who wears a long robe, and has his arms raised in the orans position. Around his right and possibly his left arm are loops which may represent torcs, while underneath his left arm is a curved line which may represent a snake (Anati, 1961, p. 172).



Fig. 8. Val Camonica Rock Drawing

The other images are from the Roman period, with the exception of that found on the Gundestrup cauldron (Fig. 1). This silver and gilt cauldron was discovered in Jutland and while its workmanship appears to be Thracian (as Bergquist and Taylor, 1987, have shown), the figure on the Cernunnos panel is clearly Celtic.

This panel, from the inside of the cauldron, depicts a cross-legged man with a torc in his right hand and a ram-headed serpent in his left. His arms are in the orans position, and there are antlers with seven tines on his head. To his left are numerous animals: two lions opposing each other; a single lion, a boy riding a fish, and a bull, all facing away from the main figure, and a dog facing him. (The dog has sometimes been identified as a boar, but it lacks the bristles of the typical Celtic boar and its tail is far too long. Bober (1951, p. 19) identifies it as a hyena.) To his right are a large stag whose antlers are duplicates of his, and a smaller bull, both of which face him. The bull matches the one on the other side of him; they both face to Cernunnos' left. (This panel is illustrated in almost every book about the Celts. A particularly good reproduction is in MacCana, 1970, pp. 38-9.)

Closely paralleling this is a depiction on a silver bowl from Lyons.



Fig. 9. Lyons Bowl

The head of the main figure is unfortunately missing, so there is no proof that he wore antlers. He is, however, wearing a torc and holding one in his right hand; in his left is a cornucopia. To his right is a stag, and to his left is a dog, and a tree with a snake wrapped around it (Weullenier, 1936; Olmsted, 1979, plate 63.2; Ross, 1967, fig. 98). The similarity of the composition with the Gundestrup cauldron is striking. On the other side of the bowl is Mercury, with his money bag, counting out money on an table, and with a tortoise by his side. This Cernunnos figure is the most Romanized of all his depictions, being draped like a classical god and reclining rather than cross-legged. Here he holds a cornucopia in his right hand, which was likely a means of expressing in Roman symbolism the wealth represented by the torc. The snake has therefore been displaced from his hand, and is instead shown wrapped around a tree, a motif which would have been in the repertoire of a Roman or Greek silversmith, since it was the canonical way of representing the snake of the Hesperides. It has likely lost its ramís head for the same reason.



Fig. 10. The Snake of the Hesperides

Perhaps the most impressive depiction comes from Reims. This relief shows a balding and bearded cross-legged man, sitting in front of what appears to be a Roman-style temple. On his head are the broken stubs of antlers. On the bottom of the pediment above his head are the remains of the tips of their tines, four to each antler; on the pediment itself is a rat. Cernunnos wears a torc around his neck and an arm ring on his right arm. Over his left arm is a bag from which he is pouring out what are most likely coins, which stream down to pass between a bull and a stag. To his right is Apollo and to his left is Mercury. (See MacCana, 1970, p. 43.)



Fig. 11. Reims Stela

The most defining characteristic of Cernunnos is his antlers. I will deal with them in greater detail later; for now I wish simply to observe that because of them it is quite logical to presume that he originally was a hunting deity or god of the forest (Duval, 1981, p. 151 ). The dog that is sometimes found with Cernunnos may provide another link with hunting.

Hunting was important to the inhabitants of Val Camonica (Anati, 1961, p.173; however hunting did not form a major part of the Gaulish economy in the historic period, so it is unlikely that a god who maintained only that meaning would have continued to be worshiped. Further, other than the antlers, the iconography does not suggest hunting. There is one possible representation in which there is any obvious connection with hunting. In this statue from La Celle-Mont-Saint-Jean, an upright man with the remains of antlers on his head holds a bill in his left hand and a bow in his right (Fig. 11; MacCana, 1970, p. 67.) The presence of the bill is enough to show that if this deity was associated with hunting, it was not with hunting alone. In fact, he is here shown as holding a tool connected with the wild and animals, and a tool connected with the domestic and plants.



Figure 12. La Celle-Mont-Saint-Jean

Connected with theories of Cernunnos as a hunting god are the descriptions of him as Lord of the Animals. As I have already stated, this view is based largely on the Gundestrup cauldron, on which he is surrounded by animals. However, the majority of the animals are insignificant from an iconographic point of view. Two of the animals are lions apparently fighting each other, and two more are the bulls which form a matched set, one at either side of the panel. Finally, there is a boy riding a fish, a rather unlikely figure for a hunting god or lord of the forest to have attending him. It is only the stag and the dog which are paying any attention to Cernunnos, which, as we have seen, are found on the cup from Lyons, but without the other animals (excepting the serpent); we may therefore conclude that it is those animals alone which are significant.

Further, there are other deities on the cauldron who are surrounded by animals (e. g., the wheel god shown in Fig. 4). If the animals represented around Cernunnos show that he is Lord of the Animals, I do not think it unfair to say that the animals represented with the other deities declare them to be Lords of the Animals, and to ask the question of just how many Lords of the Animals the commissioners of the cauldron had. Even more so, and I say this only slightly flippantly, if the animals show that Cernunnos was Lord of the Animals then doesnít the boy on the fish show that he was the Lord of Boys on Fish?

Except for the stag and dog, then, the surrounding animals appear to be more decoration than iconography, a case of a silversmith filling space.

The ram-headed serpent is the most unusual of Cernunnos' attributes, so unusual that Miranda Green writes that it is quot;too idiosyncratic a beast to belong to more than one culture" (1986, p. 26). It is not, however, an attribute of Cernunnos alone. On the Gundestrup cauldron it is found in the company of a deity on the interior plate we have already seen (Fig. 1). There are other animals surrounding the deity, three griffins and two dogs, and the serpent does not seem to be more important than any of the others. (MacCana, p. 28; Davidson, fig. 29.2 c). It is also found on another plate, where it accompanies a group of warriors.

What is it, then? Attempts to divine its meaning have relied on analyses of the symbolism of snakes and sheep in Celtic religion. Thus, the snake portion has been interpreted as chthonic (Bober, 1951, p. 26). Ross (1967, pp. 151-152) finds the widespread European belief in snakes as guardians of treasure to be relevant, which is not unreasonable in light of the wealth that is shown with Cernunnos. The ram has been seen as either an animal of fertility or a sacrificial beast (Bober, 1951, p. 26). The combination of the two is seen by Green (1986) as creating an animal in which the fertility aspects of snake and ram are combined.

Coe, on the other hand, (1995, p. 354) would find it as early as a bronze bowl from the Urnfield culture, found at Biesenbrow, which depicts a figure which Sprockhoff (1955, p. 274) sees as a swan "horned like a young deer with its first yearís antlers." Coe considers it as not possibly a swan because it has no beak. I am puzzled by this opinion, because the dipping extension beyond the figureís eyes seem beak-like; at the very least it is not snake-like, nor does the figure have ramís horns. It must therefore be considered irrelevant to the question of the origin of the ram-headed serpent.



Fig. 13. Biesenbrow image

All these speculations might be unnecessary, however, or at least misdirected, because the ram-headed serpent is not, in fact, unique to Celtic culture. It is found as far way from Gaul, and even Gundestrup and Val Camonica, as China, where it is a common motif on Shang Dynasty (1523-1027 BCE) bronzes (Fig. 11) (e. g., Hentze, 1965, fig. 25).



Fig. 14. Shang Dynasty Bronze Ritual Vessels

That such an unusual combined creature is found so distant in time and space from our area of interest is at first startling, but not unreasonable. We need only think of the silk embroidery from a grave at Hochmichele (Frey, 1991, p. 87) to know that there was a link between China and Celtic Europe. Bober, as far back as 1951, had noticed this, observing, "In all likelihood it is to be added to the long list of motives from the art of the steppe peoples which were accepted by La Tène craftsman," but this hint appears not to have been followed up on.

The large gap in time and space between Cernunnos and the Shang dynasty is bridged in part by a piece of a horse harness from Great Tsimbalka in Scythia (Artamonov, 1969, plate 186; pp. 57 Ė58), dated to the 4th century BCE (Fig. 12). There we see a woman from whose waist grow serpents that curl up to be held in her hands. Artamonov identifies their heads as those of lion-griffins, but they bear a remarkable resemblance to ramís heads, and at least establishes a steppe motif of snakes with the heads of other animals.



Fig. 15. Scythian Horse Harness

The bridge to Cernunnos is completed by a greave from Vratsa, in Thrace, dated to the fourth century BCE (Fol and Marazov, 1977, p. 87). On this silver and gilt greave, made in the shape of a woman, appear two, and possibly four, ram-headed serpents. (Megaw (1970, p. 133) points out that the ivy leaves on the inner panel of the Gundestrup cauldron also appear on the greave.) We can therefore bring that animal close to the Gundestrup cauldron.



Fig. 16. Thracian Greave

We can, in fact, bring it very close. Bergquist and Taylor (1987) have argued convincingly that although the cauldron may contain Celtic imagery, it was made by Thracian silversmiths, most likely in northern Thrace itself. It can therefore be shown that the ram-headed serpent existed as an artistic motif in the very area in which the Gundestrup cauldron was created. The Val Camonica snake doesnít have a ramís head; the Gundestrup snake does. It is reasonable to conclude that the ramís head was added to the iconography of Cernunnos by the Thracian makers of the Gundestrup cauldron. We might therefore say that at least as far as this one attribute is concerned Cernunnos is not a purely Celtic deity, but that his iconography is a combination of Celtic and Thracian elements.

This solution of the origin of the ram-headed serpent doesnít necessarily answer the question of its meaning, but it suggests a direction to look. Since the creature was not an invention of the Celts, it is less important to look at the Celtic associations of the animals from which it is formed, than at the ram-headed serpent as already a composite being when it entered Celtic symbology.

Hentze does not deal directly with the ram-headed serpent, dealing instead with the other symbols on the vessels. He nonetheless deals with ram and serpent symbolism found there, linking them into a complex related to the moon, renewal, the calendar, and water.

On the Thracian greave and in Scythia, however, there is none of this. Rather, the ram-headed serpent appears here as a decorative motif. That this free-floating motif was used by the Thracian silversmiths of the Gundestrup cauldron to depict the serpent present in the Val Camonica style Cernunnos could well have been a purely artistic decision, but even so it clearly struck a chord in the minds of the Gauls who worshiped Cernunnos.

What chord could that have been? We have already seen how serpents have chthonic symbolism. One way in which cultures interpret this chthonicism of snakes is to see them as monsters; indeed, as the worst of monsters, who perversely hoard wealth that should instead be distributed to bind society together. We see this in India, for instance, where the great monster whose death is necessary for the world to come into being is Vrtra, a serpent (Macdonell, 1974 (1897), pp. 54 - 66), who imprisons cows. If a serpent is ideologically an opponent of order, a monster made of two animals is doubly anomalous. A creature that had its origin in China as a combination of lunar symbols might have struck the Thracian silversmiths (or their Celtic clients) as instead a simply more grotesque version of the monstrous snake.

This, then, would be the meaning of the ram-headed snake: it is the archetypal monster, associated with the underworld, death, and disorder, which withhold treasure. It is significant that Cernunnos is usually shown subduing the serpent; even in cases in which he is described as feeding them, there is no question of who is in charge.

Cernunnos' crossed legs have been used to support theories of eastern influence (Bober, 1951, pp. 21-5), but the most common suggestion is that they may simply represent the normal sitting position of the Gauls, as reported by Diodorus (28) that the Gauls "do not sit in chairs when they eat, but sit on the ground using the skins of wolves and dogs" (Koch, 1995, p. 11; tr. Philip Freeman). Strabo (4.4.3) concurs with their not sitting in chairs, but tells us that they "eat sitting on beds of straw" (Koch, 1995, p. 17; tr. Benjamin Fortson). Both are drawing from Posidonius, who, as quoted by Athenaeus (4.36), also mentions the straw, writing that "the Celts place dried grass or straw on the ground when they eat their meals" (Koch, 1995, p. 9; tr. Philip Freeman). (Something which I have not seen noted is that none of these authors claim that the Gauls sat on the ground at any time other than eating; this at least should make us doubt whether the cross-legged posture can be said to have been, in fact, their normal sitting position in general.)

The "sitting on the ground" theory can not be maintained, however. The cross-legged posture is specifically significant to Cernunnos. Of the more than thirty of his images, I am aware of only four which are standing. Further, of the statues which are cross-legged, there are only a small number which we can identify as not being Cernunnos. Of these, the oddest may be three female figures, one of which is lost (Bober, 1951, p. 23, fig. 6) (Fig. 14). These, however, seem to be connected with Cernunnos in some way by their antlers. I donít believe them to be female versions of him, however, since the only elements of his imagery which they possess are the crossed legs and antlers, the latter of which are without tines.



Fig. 17. Bronze Statuette from the British Museum

More closely connected with Cernunnos is the bronze statue from Bouray (Bober, 1951, p. 17, fig. 2) (Fig. 15). Here, besides the posture, the figure, while not possessing antlers, is partially a stag. He may therefore be either a being connected with Cernunnos, or Cernunnos himself, depicted in an idiosyncratic way.



Fig. 18. Bouray Bronze

An image from Quilly also includes elements from the Cernunnos complex. He is accompanied by a dog, which we already seen at Gundestrup and Lyon, and a cock, the significance of which will be seen later.



Fig. 19. Quilly

Even more indicative of the close identification of Cernunnos with crossed legs is that even when he is paired with a goddess, as at Sommerécourt (Bober, 1951, p. 32) and Saintes (Bober, 1951, p. 29), the goddess sits on a chair, but he sits cross-legged.



Fig. 20. Saintes

We see, therefore, that the cross-legged posture is strongly identified with Cernunnos in a way not shared with other deities.

At Val Camonica, Cernunnos is shown standing; the next time we see him, on the Gundestrup cauldron, he is sitting. What has happened?

I would like to suggest that the position was assigned to Cernunnos for purely practical, artistic reasons. We have already seen how the inhabitants of Val Camonica depicted divine beings as busts, but Cernunnos as standing. If we now turn to the Gundestrup cauldron, we find that all of the figures which strike us as deities (with perhaps the exception of the being who is putting men into or pulling men out of some vessel) are in the same bust form as at Val Camonica. In this, we have a simple transference of iconographic tradition from Val Camonica to the Gundestrup cauldron. (As an aside, this provides a new piece of Celticity for the cauldron.) Cernunnos, however, was traditionally depicted standing. The size and shape of the cauldron panels meant that if the bust deities were to be depicted in a way that filled the space, they would be considerably larger than a Cernunnos depicted in full; there simply wouldnít have been enough room for him. His body would have been shrunken in significance, and with it his own. The solution was to still show him in full, but to fold his legs under him so as to be able to make his proportions bigger.

We have already seen how the ram-headed serpent is likely to have entered the iconography of Cernunnos through the Gundestrup cauldron. It is therefore not unexpected for this other artistic motif to have been applied to Cernunnos in the same way, again through the cauldron. Because of the presence of these two motifs and their seeming origin in the Gundestrup cauldron, I suspect that the cauldron was in fact known by the Gauls who worshiped Cernunnos. Based on its artistic merits, size, and value, it could have become a model for Gaulish religious depictions. The bust style of representation would not have had a parallel in Gaul, but the crossed legs of Cernunnos could have been seen as part of his nature and adopted into Gaulish representations of him. There is even the possibility that the god himself was adopted in this way, explaining the limited distribution of his worship, the consistency of the way he was depicted, and the strong identification of him as having crossed legs.

An obvious objection to this theory would be the images from the sanctuaries of Entremont and Roquepertuse. These images, dated variously from the fourth to second century BCE (Ross, 1967, p. 65; MacCana, 1983, p. 109), include cross-legged men. There are, however, a number of reasons to dismiss this possibility.



Fig. 21 Roquepertuse

One of the images from Entremont (Brunaux, 1988, p. 37) still possesses its head. This head has no antlers. It may, of course, represent a priest sitting ritually in the position of his god.

There is also the case that Entremont and Roquepertuse are examples of the Celto-Ligurian type of temple. In fact, they are the two examples of this style. It is so unusual that in his classification of Celtic temples Brunaux (p. 11) lists four types; Belgic, Vierecckschanzen, spring sanctuaries, all of which have numerous examples, and Celto-Ligurian; that is, Entremont and Roquepertuse. He further points out a strong Greek and Iberian influence. We are thus put on warning that we are likely to be dealing here with "aberrant" imagery.

The deity or deities worshiped at these sanctuaries have no other iconography in common with Cernunnos. The sanctuaries contain not only images of severed heads, both in the round and in relief, but niches for actual ones. There is a particularly artistic engraving in stone of horsesí heads (MacCana, 1983, p. 108). Most striking of all is a large bird, most likely a goose, that sits overlooking the portico from Roquepertuse, the pillars of which contain niches for severed heads or skulls (MacCana, 1983, p. 100). The aggressive goose, severed heads, and horses would indicate either a god of war (Ross, 1967, p. 65), or a shrine to the honored dead (Brunaux, 1988, p. 38).

Finally, we must remember that the earliest image that can be identified with confidence as Cernunnos is from the Gundestrup cauldron, made in Thrace several centuries later. In order for the Celto-Ligurian artistic tradition to have influenced Cernunnosí iconography, it would have had to travel from southern Gaul to northern Thrace without leaving a trace in between, and then to reappear in central Gaul by way of Gundestrup in Denmark. That seems unlikely in the extreme.

Cernunnosí arms are generally either in the orans position or in his lap. They are in the orans positions in the two earliest images, those from Val Camonica and the Gundestrup cauldron. The orans is a very common one in Val Camonica, where, as we have seen, it is particularly closely linked with deities or other numinous beings. It may have had a specific meaning in that culture, such as receiving, giving, or protecting, or even as an expression of presence. Whatever its meaning, however, that meaning was not peculiar to Cernunnos in Val Camonica. The orans position on the cauldron may be a continuation of the symbology from Val Camonica, as with the other deities, or simply used by the silversmiths as an effective way of showing Cernunnos holding two objects. Even on the cauldron this position is not confined to Cernunnos; all of the male figures are shown this way. (All of the females have at least one arm across their breasts.)

In the later representations, he has his hands in his lap. This has a clear reason; the torc has been replaced or supplemented by a filled bowl or bag, and Cernunnos is therefore holding that symbol.

The torc is early on one of the major attributes of Cernunnos, appearing with him on the Val Camonica image. While many deities are shown wearing one of them, it is Cernunnos who is typically equipped with at least two, wearing one and carrying the other in his hand or on his arms or antlers. He is therefore associated with it in a way not shared by other deities.

The fact that other deities often wear torcs indicates a possibility that one of their meanings might be as an emblem of divinity. Alternatively, since it is also a common attribute of warriors, both in statues and classical accounts, it could be a symbol of power in general. Based on the value of many of the actual torcs which have been found and the presence of them in hoards and depositions, along with coins (Fitzpatrick, 1992, p. 396), however, they may serve as well as indicators of wealth. That this is the case with Cernunnos is shown by the torcís being replaced in some of his images by a purse, or the two being represented together. That this is the case is further shown by the fact that when Cernunnos carries it in his hand or wears it on one arm, it is in his right hand or arm. When the serpent is found on only one side, it is on his left.

In Indo-European symbology and language, the left is associated with the dark side of existence and the right with the bright. In English this is reflected in the words "sinister" and "dexterous." If, therefore, the torc is representative of wealth, with that which is positive, and the serpent with death, that which is negative, those are the appropriate sides for them to be. Cernunnos is therefore seen, in this symbolism, to sit or stand between paired opposites.

The stag and bull, found on the relief from Reims, may be seen as opposing symbols as well. Cattle are the archetypal Indo-European symbol of domesticated wealth. This is seen as far back as in Proto-Indo-European, from which the fact that a sentence can be reconstructed *peH2- wiH2ro- pekwu-, "protect men and cattle," shows both the importance of cattle and the fact that cattle can stand for everything one owns. Deer, on the other hand, are the logical animal to also serve as representatives of wealth, this time of wild rather than tame.

To the left of the Cernunnos figures from Gundestrup and Lyons is a dog. This animal is not frequently discussed in relation to Cernunnos, but its importance is made clear on both vessel; at Lyons it is one of the three animals connected with him, while at Gundestrup it is the only animal other than the stag and bull that is looking towards him. Since the bull should be considered to be merely part of the background, the stag and the dog form an opposing pair at Gundestrup as well as at Lyons.

Dogs are frequently associated with the land of the dead in Indo-European mythology (Lincoln, 1979, p. 274). The interpretation of the dog with Cernunnos as a "hellhound" would explain its position at the left of Cernunnos as well as its connection with the ram-headed serpent. If we interpret the dog in relation to the stag at which it looks over Cernunnos, the two may be seen as a linked pair, as the hunter and the hunted.

The panel on the Gundestrup cauldron is thus seen as a very carefully constructed system, as laid out in Table 1. We see here that this symbolic system is composed of four elements, arranged in a square around the figure of Cernunnos. These may be considered as columns or as row. When the columns are compared, we find opposition, whereas the rows give us equivalences.





Table 1: Gundestrup Cauldron
Torc:
Culture
Wealth
Positive
Mediator
between Positive and
Negative
Snake:
Nature
Hoarder of Wealth
Negative
Mediator between
Culture and Nature
Cernunnos Mediator between
Nature and Culture
Stag:
Nature
Wealth
Hunted
Mediator
between Positive and
Negative
Dog:
Culture
Death


The symbols on the right side of Cernunnos are positive symbols, and those on the left are negative. We have already seen the significance of the right-left opposition. In addition, there is a representative of nature and one of culture on each side, making each complete in that opposition. Between these sets of opposing symbols sits Cernunnos, who serves as mediator between opposites; in fact, as a reconciler of opposites in his very self, as a combination of man and animal.

A similar set of oppositions is found, as we have seen, at Reims, in the figures of the stag and bull. Here the stag has a negative value, as the wild animal compared to the more beneficent domestic bull. There is a further set of opposites: Apollo, god of healing and light, and Mercury, the psychopomp who leads the souls of the dead into the dark. Again they are found on the appropriate sides, and again they are part of a system of four opposites arranged in a square, with the added opposition and completion of a human (godly) figure and an animal on each side. (This system is charted out in table 2.) And again Cernunnos sits between, reconciling human and animal in his very nature.

Table 2: Reims
Apollo:
Healing
Bright
Human form
Mediator between
Life and Death
Mercury
Psychopomp
Dark
Human form
Mediator between
Human and Animal
Cernunnos Mediator between
Human and Animal
Bull:
Tame
Animal
Mediator between
Tame and Wild
Stag:
Wild
Animal


Fewer symbols are found in the image from La Celle-Mont-Saint-Jean, but the system is still relatively complex. In one hand we find a bow, which is connected with the wild and animals, and in the other a bill, connected with the tame and plants.

Table 3: La Celle-Mont-Saint-Jean
Billhook:
Tame
Plant
Nurturing
Mediator between
Three Pairs
of Opposites
Bow:
Wild
Animal
Death-dealing
In these three representations, then, we find a complex system of images, representing balanced opposites on each side of an image who contains opposites within his very self, with Cernunnos serving as mediator between opposites, both externally and internally. This is, then, is his role, a god who reconciles opposites.

This view of Cernunnos sheds light on another enigmatic deity, the tricephalous. The area in which these gods were worshipped was essentially the same. (See maps 12, 13, 14 in de Vries, 1961, pp. 159, 164, and 168). Because of this, their worshippers were also likely to have been the same.



Fig. 22. Tricephalous from Reims

There is strong evidence for a close relationship between the two. There are a number of representations in which the two are conflated, such as on a planetary vase from Denevey (MacCana, 1983, p. 44), a relief from Bolards (Duval, 1981, p. 151), and the statues from Autun and Condat.

  

  Fig. 23. Bavay                                                               Fig. 24. Denevey

  

  Fig. 25. Autun                Fig. 26. Condat

In the case of the latter two, the antlers are removable. This has been interpreted by some (e.g. Green, 1981, p. 401) as indicating the possibility of seasonal rituals, in which the antlers of Cernunnos were added and removed so as to correspond to the pattern of deer in nature. While this is possible, there is a more parsimonious explanation, namely that making statues in the round with antlers that arenít detachable is a difficult operation, likely to fail by the breaking of the antlers, either in the carving or after (a fate which befell the Celle Mont-Sainte-Jean statue at some point), and, in the case of stone figures, requiring a large amount of stone, much of which would simply be wasted. It can also be argued that if Cernunnosí antlers were removed seasonally, so would his animal nature, thereby defeating his meaning and even nature.

The three heads of a Gaulish tricephalous arenít spread equally about the figure; rather, one looks forward and one to each side. This is, of course, an obvious way of depicting a tricephalous in relief, such as on the planetary vase, but as we see from Autun and Condat three-dimensional images are also depicted in this way. At Autun, this is made clear by the two heads that look to the side being much smaller than the one which faces forward, while at Condat it is the center head which wears a torc and has antler holes.

Rather than the tricephalous having three individual heads, then, it has one primary one which faces forwards, and two secondary ones which face left and right. The tricephalous, identified in part with Cernunnos, is therefore the god who looks both ways; i. e., the god who sits between, a god who unites opposites, and a god of bi-directionality.

It is easy to see how a deity with the nature of Cernunnos as I have set forth here might be spiritual satisfying. However, all people, including sailors on the Seine, have other, more worldly concerns, and any deity that does not address them in some way is unlikely to be worshipped. It is therefore necessary to ask what role Cernunnos could have played both in society and the life of the individual. Lacking texts, and even generally the context for our images, we can only investigate whether Cernunnos can be associated with other deities whose roles are better understood.

The obvious place to look for equivalent deities is, of course, through the interpretatio romana. Before turning there, however, I would like to deal with an image from the Indus valley civilization which is often compared to that of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron.

This seal, from Mohenjo-Daro, a city of the Indus Valley civilization, and dated to the second millennium BCE (Taylor,1992, p. 89), shows a man with growths from his head sitting in a cross-legged position surrounded by animals (MacCana, 1970, p. 38). We have already seen, from the case of the ram-headed serpent, that the distance in time and space between the two does not permit us to rule out a connection out of hand. There are, however, significant differences between the two that make any such connection highly unlikely.



Fig. 27. Indus Valley Seal

There are first aspects of each which are lacking on the other. The most typical attributes of Cernunnos, the torc and the ramheaded snake (or any snake at all), are absent from the seal. The horns on the head of the figure on the Indus Valley seal can easily be seen not as horns growing from his head, but as parts of a headdress. In fact, since they join seamlessly into the fan-shape between them, they are not actually two horns. (It is particularly ironic that the triplicity of the headdress is used by some Indologists to identify the figure as a proto-Siva (Sir John Marshall, referenced in Sullivan, 1964, p. 119), while Celticists are using the two horns to identify it with Cernunnos.

Even more damaging to the theory of an identity between the two is that the figure on the seal is most likely female. Herbert Sullivan (1964, p. 119) has argued strongly that what has been identified by some as a phallus is in fact a decoration hanging from the figure's waistband, and that such waistbands are in the Indus Valley found only on females. Further, the figure on the seal wears armlets, which are also found only on female figures. With the absence of the important characteristics of Cernunnos, and the identification of the Indus Valley figure as female, the similarities between the seal and the Gundestrup Cernunnos are seen to be merely superficial.

Such superficial similarities may have been enough, however, for an image of this type, not necessarily directly from India itself, but from a culture between India and Thrace, to have served as a model for the artistic form of the Gundestrup panel. A search for such intermediate is a task for art historians, particularly those specializing in the art of the steppes, but since such templates are unlikely to have been relevant to the religious meaning of Cernunnos (just as in the case of the ram-headed serpent), I will not deal with the question any further here.

However, comparing Cernunnos with deities from the Indo-European world is more the legitimate, so as to determine if he has a place in the religious systems of those cultures rather than being uniquely Celtic. The first place to work is obviously in the <i>interpretatio romana</i>, looking at both deities that accompany him and deities with whom he is conflated.

I have already noted the name of "Jupiter Cernenus," However, since, as noted, the name is not accompanied by any defining characteristics, as is not definitely connected with Cernunnos, this deity will not be considered here.

On the "Cernunnos" block from Paris, he is accompanied, on his right and the opposing side, by the Dioscuri. On his left is the Gaulish Smertullos, shown killing a snake with a club. The Dioscuri are not otherwise found with him, however, so nothing more can be said.

Cernunnos is shown twice with Hercules, on the back of the statuary group from Saintes and on a lost altar from Le Chatelet (Bober, 1951, p. 51; C6), known only from two 19th century drawings, on one side of which was a standing figure with a purse who has two things extending from his head. (The other two faces show Victory and a goddess with an open purse in one hand and coins in the other.) Bober is inclined to see Cernunnos here; however, in light of our only knowing of this piece from two drawings, the execution of which could well have been influenced by what the artists wanted the image to show, it is impossible to be sure that this represents Cernunnos.

I see two possible reasons that Hercules might have been connected with Cernunnos. First, Hercules was seen as, among other things, a killer of serpents (e. g. that of the Hesperides, which we have already seen on the Lyons cup), and the grasping by Cernunnos of the ram-headed serpent could have been seen as a similar act. Bober (1951, p. 31) would identify the Smertullos from Paris with Hercules as well. Second, Hercules was, because of his travels on his labors, a patron of merchants, such as the sailors on the Seine would have been. The significance of this will be evident later.

Cernunnos is accompanied by Apollo three times, on the two reliefs from Reims and that from Vendeuvres. On both of the first two he is shown to Cernunnosís right, with Mercury to his left; he is also on Cernunnosís right at Vendeuvres. The image on the side of the block to Cernunnosís right is destroyed, but it has been suggested, quite reasonably, that it was originally of Mercury, as at Reims (Bober, 1951, p. 51). If so, all three depictions of Apollo would put him to Cernunnosís right, with Mercury on Cernunnosís left. This would indicate that Apollo is not particularly associated with Cernunnos, but only in opposition to Mercury. I have explained the reason for this grouping above, and see no reason to revise my opinion.

Bober suggested identifying Cernunnos with Pluto (p. 44). She based this on the later Romanized images showing him bearded and balding (Reims and Paris), which is a typical way of showing Pluto, and the presence of the rat at Reims; placed where it is, it would seem to place Cernunnos underground. Further, when discussing the Saintes grouping she suggested that the smaller figure to the goddessís left should be identified as a subsidiary goddess, making the three images as a whole likely to represent Pluto, Ceres, and Proserpina. While these arguments are reasonable, it does not mean that we have to equate Cernunnos with Dis Pater, lord of the dead, but rather with Pluto, god of wealth, which, as we have seen, is certainly one aspect of Cernunnos.

The deity most commonly depicted with Cernunnos is Mercury. We have seen him twice at Reims, and possibly at Vendeuvres, as well as on the Lyons cup.

Even more important, Mercury is himself depicted several times in Gaul in ways connected with Cernunnos. We thus find several images of Mercury cross-legged (Bober, 1951, A9; Benoit, 1969, fig. 142, 143).



Fig. 28. Pouy-de-Touges

The wings on Mercuryís petasos are sometimes represented as virtually horns (e.g., at Staufenberg; Benoit, 1969, fig. 145). In at least one case, at Clermont, the appearance is strongly one of antlers.



29. Clermont

There are as well several images in which Mercury is accompanied by a ram-headed serpent (Bober, p. 26). We have seen that this serpent is not unique to Cernunnos, and a connection with it could have been suggested by the snakes on Mercuryís caduceus; nonetheless, the connection is highly suggestive.

The connections between Cernunnos and Mercury go the other way as well. We have already seen that although the torc remains particular associated with Cernunnos (even on the heavily Romanized Lyons cup), it is accompanied or replaced by the purse of Mercury in a number of images.

It is clear, then, that Cernunnos and Mercury were seen by the Gallo-Romans as overlapping, either as identified with or accompanying each other. This raises the question of why. There is a connection with wealth in both cases, but Pluto is also connected with that, and he is barely connected with Cernunnos.

The explanation may come through a suggestion made by Calvert Watkins (1970b) of the possibility of an Indo-European god of exchange and reciprocity. He describes this god as one of bidirectionality, of ensuring the distribution of wealth, and of communicating between the worlds of the gods and of humanity. The specific deities he links with these are Hermes, Pan, and the Vedic Pushan, with the inclusion of Mercury stated but not specifically dealt with in detail. Of these, it is likely that the least familiar will be Pushan, so I will discuss him in greater detail than the others.

Pushan is a god of merchants, those who travel to and fro. Originally, though, he was a god of domestic animals, flocks, creatures which are neither wild nor tame, and are kept on the outskirts of inhabited territory, on land neither wild nor tame. As a god of the herds, he is also possessing (Rig Veda 1.89.6), increasing (1.89.5), and bestowing (1.142.6) of wealth (MacDonell, 1897, p. 36).

As "master of the way" (6.53.1; Watkins, 1970a), he also functions as a psychopomp:

May the all-knowing Pushan, guardian of the earth,
whose cattle do not perish, dispatch you hence!
May Pushan consign you to the Fathers' keeping,
(10.17.3; Panikkar, 1977)

Pushan is thus a god of go-betweens, of liminal states, of wealth, and of the journey of the soul.

If we now turn back to the classical world, the first deity to draw our attentions is the Greek Pan, whose name is likely linguistically cognate with "Pushan" (Polomé, 1997, p. 415). While he is often thought of as a god of the wild, he is rather god of the flocks, inhabiting neither wild forest nor tame village and farmland, but the half-wild, half-tame pastures. With his horns and cloven hooves, he partakes in himself of both the animal and the human. He is not himself connected with wealth (except insofar as domestic animals are wealth), but his father Hermes most certainly is. Hermes is himself a god of the borders, with his cairns or herms marking the edges of properties. And we have already seen that Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Hermes, is the most common deity depicted with Cernunnos. I have summarized the shared characteristics of these deities in Table 4.

Table 4: Mercury and Cognates

Mercury

Hermes

Pan

Pushan

Wealth: Possessing,

Wealth:

Wealth:

Wealth: Herds,

Bestowing

Distribution

Sheep

"Bring Prosperity"

Psychopomp

Psychopomp

Psychopomp

Mediator between up and

Mediator between

Mediator between

down

up and down

up and down

Messenger of gods

Messenger of gods

Messenger of sun

Identified with Hermes

Identified with Mercury,

Son of Hermes;

"Pushan" cognate

father of Pan

"Pan" cognate

with "Pan"

with "Pushan"

Roads and travellers

"Master of the way,"

protector of travellers

Merchants

Merchants

Merchants

Doors

Offered to on threshold

Announcer of sacrifice

Announcer of sacrifice

Goat

Goat

Goat

Goat

Leads bride to groom

Leads bride to groom

Borders

Borders

Herds

Pastures

Pastures

Physical deformity:

Physical deformity:

Part goat

Toothless

Worshiped in caves

Lives in and is wor-

shiped in caves

Snakes

Snakes

Goes and returns

Goes and returns

Goes and returns

Ships

Grain

Grain (gruel)



This evidence indicates at the very least a central and eastern isogloss of a god of bidirectionality associated with wealth. Many of the characteristics I list may seem almost obviously connected Ė a god of roads might naturally be thought of as a psychopomp. Others, however, are a bit surprising, such as a connection with goats.

Even more interesting, especially for the purposes of this paper, is that Cernunnos may be added to the group, as is shown in Table 5. (I have added some characteristics of the earlier deities that gain in importance with the inclusion of Cernunnos.) The table confirms my contention that Cernunnos is not a god of the wild, but rather a deity connected with one of the most characteristic elements of culture, namely commerce.

 

 

Table 5: Cernunnos Cognates

Mercury

Hermes

Pan

Pushan

Cernunnos

Wealth: Possessing,

Wealth:

Wealth:

Wealth: Herds,

Wealth: Possessing,

Bestowing

Distribution

Sheep

"Bring Prosperity"

Bestowing

Psychopomp

Psychopomp

Psychopomp

Psychopomp:

Between Apollo and

Mercury

Mediator between up and

Mediator between

Mediator between

Mediator between up

down

up and down

up and down

and down (torc and

snake)

Messenger of gods

Messenger of gods

Messenger of sun

Identified with Hermes

Identified with Mercury,

Son of Hermes;

"Pushan" cognate

Accompanied by and

father of Pan

"Pan" cognate

with "Pan"

identified with Mercury

with "Pushan"

Roads and travellers

"Master of the way,"

Sailors on Seine

protector of travellers

Merchants

Merchants

Merchants

Merchants

Doors

Offered to on threshold

Sits on threshold at

Reims

Announcer of sacrifice

Announcer of sacrifice

Goat

Goat

Goat

Goat

Goat

Leads bride to groom

Leads bride to groom

Borders

Borders

Liminal zone of forest

Herds

Pastures

Pastures

Herds of cattle and deer

Physical deformity:

Physical deformity:

Physical deformity:

Part goat

Toothless

Part deer

Worshiped in caves

Lives in and is wor-

Underground at Reims

shiped in caves

Snakes

Snakes

Snakes

Goes and returns

Goes and returns

Goes and returns

Looks both ways (three

heads)

Ships

Sailors

Grain

Grain (gruel)

Grain?



The correspondence of characteristics as given in the table therefore extends Watkinsí list of connected deities into a Celtic culture, establishing his suggested god of bi-directionality as indeed an Indo-European one. It also explains why Cernunnos was related specifically to Mercury, since they are not purely gods of wealth (which may come from under the ground, Plutoís realm), but of wealth created and exchanged through commerce.

It is barely possible that a further extension of this deity might be found in Anatolia. Watkins (1998, pp. 17 Ė 20) the existence there of a stag-god there whose name is likely contained in that of a king, K(u)ru-nt- . Although Watkins is hesitant to postulate an Indo-European stag god based on this, I would myself suggest just such a possibility, linking the Anatolian stag deity with the five I have already connected together. A better understanding of the Anatolian deity would be necessary to determine whether he belongs here.

The Indo-European god of bi-directionalilty might have originated as either a stag god or a pastoral one, and then been modified according to the economy of each place where he was worshiped. The liminal state of such a deity would have maintained, in either form, the shared qualities shown in Table 5.

In summary, then, although, pace Bober and others, Cernunnos was considered a god of material prosperity, he was so by means of his nature as a god of the in-between, of bi-directionality, of the reconciliation of opposites. He was both wild and tame, god of healing and god of death, of the hunter and the hunted, of nature and of culture, and in his very person human and animal. Under this interpretation, his iconography seems ambiguous because it was meant to be. He is an ambiguous god, and always was. Ambiguity does not conceal his nature; it reveals it.

References

Illustrations:
Fig. 1. Mylene Thyssen
Fig. 2. Michael Dangler
Fig. 3. Kernunnos.com
Fig. 12. Animavitis (fig. 35)
Fig. 13. Sprockhoff, p. 273.
Fig. 19. Musée départemental Dobrée
Fig. 20, 24. Nantonos
Fig. 27. Harappa.com
Fig. 28. FATRA (fig. 9)
Fig. 29. Musée Clermont Ferrand (?)


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