Is Cernunnos the God of the Witches? Jan 27, 2016 7:45:58 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Jan 27, 2016 7:45:58 GMT -5
Is Cernunnos the God of the Witches?
Anyone who has encountered Wiccan theology will be familiar with the concept of one goddess and one god of whom other goddesses or gods are merely aspects. The god is generally depicted with horns and often called Cernunnos. But many pagans may be surprised to discover this specific concept of the horned god appears to be a little more recent than many might think because it derives from the writings of Margaret Murray. Following the success of her popular book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), Dr. Murray published The God of the Witches (1931), in which she popularized the idea of a Horned God whose worship dated back to Paleolithic times. Although the book was discredited at the time by many of her academic colleagues for its lack of any critical analysis of source material, it gained popularity following the repeal of England’s Witchcraft Act in the 1950s.
Concerning Cernunnos, Dr. Murray says "in spite of his Latinised name, [Cernunnos] was found in all parts of Gaul. It was only when Rome started on her career of conquest that any written record was made of the gods of Western Europe, and those records prove that a horned deity, whom the Romans called Cernunnos, was one of the greatest gods, perhaps even the supreme deity, of Gaul. Cernunnos is recorded in writing and in sculpture in the south of Gaul."
The purpose of this article is briefly summarize any existing pre-Christian evidence of a cult of Cernunnos and discuss what such evidence tells us. First, there is no evidence the idea of gods as anything other than separate individuals was popular until possibly the rise of Neo-Platonism in the third century BC. Classical literary sources, such as the Greek dramatists, Hesiod and Homer, and insular works such as The Book of Invasions, The Mabinogian and the Icelandic Eddas, all treat the gods they describe as individuals. This article is written on the same basis, rather than assuming one horned god might be the same as another – or, indeed, the same as any god, horned or not.
There are less than two dozen known artifacts that display images which might be identified as Cernunnos, and four inscriptions mentioning him by name. These are spread over the UK and Western Europe, with by far the greatest number originating in ancient Gaul. It is not know whether Murray's confident claim that Cernunnos is recorded in writing implies contemporary literary sources other than the inscriptions, however, if it does, none has been discovered. Although the number of finds (when compared to the evidence for other pre-conquest Gallic gods) is quite large and probably supports the claims for a widespread cult, there are parts of France that contain no finds. Why Murray says "Cernunnos is recorded in writing and in sculpture in the south of Gaul" is unknown, because only one inscription is from the south of Gaul. Most are in the northeast. If there is a cult center, based on the evidence we have, it lay in central and eastern Gaul. But Gallo-Roman religious sculpture of all kinds, not just of Cernunnos, is concentrated in northeast and north-central Gaul.
The next problem lies in identifying when an artifact is, indeed, intended to represent Cernunnos. The name is provided on just three or four inscriptions, one of which, the Parisian pillar, includes a carved image. This Pilier des nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen) provides the earliest known written record of the name "Cernunnos" (above). Although the first letter of the name is defaced, it is likely it was "Cernunnos" based on linguistic and other archaeological evidence. The Gaulish word carnon or cernon means "antler" or "horn," which can result in the names Carnonos, "Deer-Hoofed One" or Cornonos "Horned One." The central syllable "on" denotes a deity, as in Epona or Maponos, and would have been replaced only by “un” to provide a Latinized form of the name for inscriptions. Latin was the common language of Roman Europe and names mentioned in Latin texts are converted to a Latin form. This does not imply, as Murray seems to indicate, that a god with a Latinized name was commonly recognised by the Romans. Of the remaining inscriptions, two on metal plaques from Seinsel-Rëlent (Luxembourg) provide an alternate rendering of Deo Ceruninco, "to the God Cerunincos." And the last, a Gaulish inscription written in Greek letters from Montagnac (Hérault, Languedoc-Roussilion, France) provides a Hellenistic form of the name: Karnonos. These inscriptions provide no additional information about the god. It was common at the time to make a statue or relief in devotion to a god, usually in fulfilment of a vow. Many examples of this can be seen at the Roman baths in Bath, Somerset. The Parisian pillar was erected by a Gaulish guild of boatmen who lived among the Celtic tribe of the Parisii and controlled trade along the Seine. The image included on the Pillar of the Boatmen also introduces other features, such as torcs (rings) hanging from the horns. Reconstructing the lost lower half of the relief, it is probable that the deity is pictured sitting cross-legged. Although one face of the pillar includes this image of Cernunnos in its top half, others feature other gods, and the inscription mentions many gods, some Roman, some Celtic.
In all the undisputed representations found, several features recur continually, although not all are to be found in any one image: horns; torcs (which are often pictured on the necks of Celtic divinities); a purse or cornucopia; three heads or faces; the ram-headed snake; animals, principally stags; and a seated position, usually cross legged. The more of these features an image displays, the more likely it is a representation of Cernunnos. The modern tendency to depict Cernunnos with a prominent erect phallus is not reflected in the ancient artifacts. No Gallo-Roman sculptures of Cernunnos have this feature, although it figures in Gallo-Roman iconography of other deities. Despite this, the popular conception of Cernunnos with an erection is so widespread that one online encyclopedia has seen fit to insert a gratuitous phrase about it into what is a fairly standard description of Cernunnos on many websites:
"He wears a torc, an ornate neck-ring used by the Celts to denote nobility. He often carries other torcs in his hands or hanging from his horns, as well as a purse filled with coins, he is also seen with oversized, erect penis as a Pan/Puck creature ever ready for sexual pleasures. He is usually portrayed seated and cross-legged, in a position which some have interpreted as shamanic, although it may only reflect the fact that the Celts squatted on the ground when hunting."
Horns are generally the preeminent symbol most would associate with Cernunnos. Although at least one image (which contains other features, such as sitting cross-legged and arms raised in the "orans" position familiar from the Gundestrup Cauldron, pictured above, discovered in Himmerland, Denmark) has what appears to be ram's horns, Cernunnos is usually associated with antlers, especially those of the red deer. The difference between the two is profound, as antlers are shed seasonally, whereas horns are not. This is clearly a difference which is significant because the statues from Etang sur Arroux, Condat and Sommerécourt all have holes as though to fit removable antlers, and separate antlers have been found elsewhere. This indicates the seasonal nature of the god was sufficiently important for some devotees to retain the means to alter the image to reflect this. But what did antlers indicate to the ancient Celts? Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to ascertain their meaning. We might guess part of the symbolism related to virility, however, at least two images of antlered goddesses have been discovered, and the removal of horns calls such symbolism into question. On the other hand, the bull, as well as the stag, appears on the reliefs from Saintes, Reims and Les Bollards. Among other theories, one of the most popular is that Cernunnos was Lord of the Hunt and the bulls may represent the wildness of such animals as the boar and the stag existing within some domesticated settings. The common position of cross-legged pose on images from Etang, Saintes and Vendoeuvres, especially when associated with the arms raised in a Buddhic style (as seen on the Gundertrup Cauldron), seems to contradict this wildness. In at least three other images, Cernunnos is seated on a bench in a style familiar to those who have seen images of The Matronae, and we gain an impression of a more peaceful deity. It has been suggested that sitting cross-legged might be a normal position for a Celt who was hunting. Absent additional evidence, it is impossible to know. However, in at least three of the artifacts in which he assumes this pose, Cernunnos is also accompanied by the ram-headed snake and this may tell us something more.
There is some conjecture regarding this symbol. Snakes were commonly associated with a number of symbols: fertility, death, the underworld and regeneration (the last through the sloughing of the skin). The Graeco-Roman god associated with healing, Asklepios, used the snake as a symbol of healing and the underworld. The snake also appears with the Celtic goddesses Sirona, who is associated with healing, and Damona, associated with farming and the sleep of healing at shrines and springs. The ram is associated with Mercury and battle. Miranda Green suggests it is also a symbol of aggressive virility and also notes this ram-horned snake symbol is found primarily in northeastern Gaul, which produces a lot of the evidence for the cult of Cernunnos. Three of the images fall within this area, with at least another two, of ordinary snakes, falling outside it. And two ram-horned snakes – including the two earliest images – occur outside France. One of these is the Gundestrup Cauldron, which is dated to the 1st or 2nd century BC, while the other is the earliest find, from the Camonica Valley in Italy and dated to around the 4th century BC. Although a number of online articles claim there is a unique association between Cernunnos and the ram-horned snake, this is untrue. It is found in conjunction with other gods, especially the Celtic Mercury and Mars. According to Green, the Celtic Mars was a protector and healer as well as a warrior. He is accompanied by the ram-horned snake on an image found at a healing spring. This snake also appears twice with the Celtic Mercury, associated with wealth and healing – one of these finds again occurring at a healing shrine. Mercury also shared with Cernunnos a direct association with wealth and to a less degree, triplicity for some of his iconography include triple-headed figures. Mercury is found alongside Cernunnos on the Reims relief.
The cult of the head among Celtic peoples is commonly known and the triplicity of heads or faces seems to denote a sign of wealth, or an intensification or, occasionally, a multiplicity of interests. All one can do is guess because there are a number of possible meanings. Among other suggestions for Cernunnos has been a Celtic triad of fertilization, maturation and harvest, or birth, life and death. But as there is no indication on the images we have of what this meant, no one can be certain. Nevertheless, it seems to be a common feature of most representations and occurs in those found at Nuits St. George, where he is triple-faced; Beaune, where his companion is triple-faced; Etang sur Arroux, Langres, Condat, Denevy and on the Les Bollards relief. Although he has only one face on the Reims relief, he is flanked by the figures of Apollo and Mercury, and two boys on the find from Vendoeuvres.
Wealth in connection with the triplicity of heads or faces may well be an emphasis of the wealth expressly associated with Cernunnos in numerous images containing sacks of coins, torcs (two on the horns in the Paris image, or one on each arm in the Italian one), feeding snakes, or, fairly explicitly, a stag vomiting coins in the representation from Niedercorn-Turbelslach in Luxembourg. The Pillar of the Boatman links him to sailors and commerce and, again, one recalls the association with Mercury in the Reims relief. As mentioned, Mercury is associated with healing and holds his caduceus of entwined snakes; he is also usually identified with the Greek Hermes, who, among other things, was a psychopomp, who escorted the dead to the underworld, as well as being a divine keeper of herds. Apollo has a strong association with healing and fathered Askeplios, and in the Celtic world, he is associated with the goddesses Sirona and Damona.
The last great symbol of Cernunnos is that of animals, predominantly the stag, although other representations include bulls, a boar, rat, hare, dog, dolphin and lions. As mentioned, this gives rise to the commonly held attribution of the god as Lord of the Hunt because hunting involves death, a connection to the underworld. The image on the Gundestrup Cauldron is often compared to that of Shiva Pashupati, the Yogic "Lord of Beasts," as shown on at least one well- known image, the Marshall Harappan seal. In this, the horned Pashupati is surrounded by animals and has his legs crossed. The resemblance is striking and may have influenced the design of the Cernunnos plate of Gundestrup, which may have its origins in Romania or Thrace, which stood between Greece and the east.
If there is a connection to the underworld, does this raise a possible connection to the Celtic god Dispater? When Murray writes that "one of the greatest gods, perhaps even the supreme deity, of Gaul, Cernunnos is recorded in writing" she may have been referring to Caesar's words in The Gallic Wars. Of the Gallic gods, he said, "They worship chiefly the god Mercury. After him they worship Apollo and Mars, Iuppiter and Minerva. About these they hold much the same beliefs as other nations. Apollo heals diseases ... All the Gauls assert that they are descended from Dispater, their progenitor." Unfortunately, we have little evidence to assist us with Dispater, other than the fact his name is obviously a reference to a god of the dead and wealth, which comes from the earth. The Roman god most commonly identified with Dispater was Iuppiter (Jupiter), and, although this name also appears on the Piller of the Boatmen, it is in addition to the names of several other gods. The identity of Dispater remains elusive and there are those who more readily identify him with the Irish gods Donn or the Daghda.
So where does all this leave us? The first and most obvious admission is that we cannot be certain. However, it seems fairly safe to say it appears, on the basis of the evidence have, that Cernunnos was directly associated with divinity, wealth and animals, and potentially indirectly associated with regeneration, healing, fertility and death. We have little to explain the cross-legged pose so characteristic in many images, although it may relate to either a common Celtic position of a hunter, or to something more akin to Buddhic calm, all of which is not only far from Murray's certainties, but also from some of the symbolism commonly associated with the Wiccan "horned god."
Sources: Alex Duir, Association of Polytheist Traditions, and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches by Margaret Murray.