Cernunnos and the Forest Gods

The most mysterious of the Celtic deities are the mostly nameless lords of the hunt. Foremost of these is the antlered deity dubbed Cernunnos, a Romanized Gaulish appellation taken from a small handful of inscriptions, only one of which is associated with an image. Cernunnos simply means “The Horned One”; his Celtic name or names are unknown, although there are some clues to his identity.

Cernunnos was likely not one but many deities who shared similar attributes. He appears in art almost invariably as a stag-antlered man, seated in a cross-legged pose among the animals and plants of the forest. He is associated with animals of the forest, symbols of the Otherworld. Both snakes and stags are emblems of renewal and rebirth — as the snake sheds its skin and is reborn, so too does the stag throw off its antlers, only to form new ones in the spring. The Horned One then could be viewed as not only a god of resurrection, but also of death, and could be looked upon as a guardian of the Otherworld.

The snake which accompanies Cernunnos and other Celtic deities is something of a mystery. Snakes in general are associated with fertility, death, and regeneration or healing. Cernunnos' serpent is no ordinary snake but a particular oddity known as a horned or ram-head serpent, sporting a pair of curved horns. Horned snakes (in Celtic iconography) are often associated with healing, especially healing springs.

Cernunnos was a god of fertility and hunting. He appears to have been the most widely worshipped of the Celtic deities, if not a supreme deity — although strangely enough, the body of Celtic mythology that remains is entirely silent on the antlered god. Cernunnos may have been carried over into Irish mythology as Fionn, a deity who is very closely associated with deer and hunting.

Is Cernunnos a representation of the devil?

The depiction of the Christian devil as a horned figure is no coincidence. As Christianity swept westward over the former domains of the Celtic gods, many monuments and temples were abandoned to the elements. In medieval times, these images of a serpent-entwined deity took on a sinister significance and were looked upon as images of Satan.

One of the most famous depictions of Cernunnos is among the mythological scenes depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron, where he sits cross-legged among birds, deer, and other animals. He wears a torque, a circular choker with open, decorated ends that is an emblem of sovereignty, and holds another in his right hand. In his left, he grasps a horned serpent, an emblem of fertility. The torque suggests a connection with sovereignty.

The worship of Cernunnos may be ancient, as Neolithic burial sites have revealed the burials of tribal priests buried in antlered costumes, often in the same cross-legged pose in which Cernunnos appears in later stone carvings. Images of antlered men and gods also appear in very early stone pictographs, and some are presumed to represent the deity. Figures of (presumed) shamanic figures wearing antlered garb appear in ecstatic poses on cave paintings from as far back as 10,000 B.C.E.

In later Roman period carvings, Cernunnos appears to be associated with material wealth and prosperity, perhaps a god of commerce. He is pictured as an enthroned character whose lap overflows with acorns, nuts, and even gold coins, or surrounded by overflowing cornucopias. He is often flanked by images of the Roman gods Apollo and Mercury, whose attributes he probably shared.

The Green Man/Derg Corra

A mysterious character who appears in tales connected with the god Fionn is Derg Corra, (“Man in the Tree”). He is a symbol of wisdom, closely connected, like Fionn, with the stag. He is described as a curious character who sometimes goes about “on the shanks of a deer,” but is described in the tale of Fionn as seated in a tree, with a raven on his shoulder and a deer at his feet. He carries a bronze cup with a salmon and shares among his companions various fruits of wisdom. Derg Corra is an obvious personification of the forest and its creatures, perhaps an embodiment of the tree of life itself. His creatures represent all of the domains of earth — a bird for the sky, a stag for the land, and a salmon to represent the waters.

There is every reason to believe that this ancient forest deity is directly related to the phenomenon known as the Green Man. Scarcely a medieval building anywhere of any note is without one or more representations of the Green Man in its decorations — in some cases, dozens may be found worked in stone, carved into the woodwork, and hidden amongst more ordinary decorations. The most common appearance of the Green Man is found carved in wood or stone. He is a great foliate creature, with a face made entirely of leaves and vines, often with wild tendrils sprouting from his mouth. His look is often wild and staring, and he appears to be the absolute embodiment of unfettered natural force.

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