The Celts can rightfully be placed amongst the world’s most important ancient cultures and civilizations. Their far-reaching ancient origins are the irreplaceable part of every historical lesson, and their role in history was crucial in the development of the world as we know it today. Yet even so, many aspects of the Celtic culture and belief are a bit of an enigma – even today. Because they didn’t leave any considerable written records, the Celts are largely mysterious, and most of what we know of their early history comes from Roman or Greek historians. We do know, however, that Cernunnos was one of their foremost deities. A mystical antlered god, he was revered by the Celts across Europe.
Who was Cernunnos, the Antlered God of the Celts?
With the relatively recent discoveries of ancient Celtic core sites of La Tene and Hallstatt, in the mid-1800s, the world and the culture of these ancient Europeans came to the closer view of the general public and historians as well. Suddenly, there was so much more to learn about the Celts, about their art, their lifestyle, and their beliefs. Before the 1800s, the pantheon of the ancient Celts was largely enigmatic, but with new archeological material, typesites, and a closer glimpse into their religious rituals, we were finally able to paint a more detailed picture of the ancient Gods of the Celtic peoples.
Arguably the best-known deity in their pantheon is Cernunnos, the sylvan antlered god that likely has origins that far predate the emergence of the Celts. Sometimes also known as Carnonos, his name has firm Proto-Indo-European origins. It stems from the PIE word *k̑r̥no-, and is thus cognate to Germanic *hurnaz and Latin cornu, all meaning “horn”. In the Celtic Gaulish language, this word was karnon, and the connection with the name of Cernunnos is clear – it reflects the deity’s stag antlers, growing from his head. Thus, Cernunnos literally means “the horned one”.
This can also be deduced from the surviving imagery related to the god. In almost every surviving depiction, Cernunnos is presented as a seated human figure, with majestic stag antlers on his head, a luxurious and symbolic torc necklace around his neck or in his hand, and symbolic animals all around him. There are, however, some key indicators that suggest that Cenrunnos is much older than the emergence of the Celtic culture.
Is this God a Vestige of a Far Older Civilization?
One of the foremost hindrances in the process of learning more about Cernunnos is the lack of any surviving Celtic or Gaulish literature, inscriptions, and any other written evidence related to this deity. Without such material, we are left completely clueless as to what exact role Cernunnos had for the Celts. Was he the chief divinity of a larger pantheon? What epithets did he have, and what mythic tales were associated with him? These are the things that are hard to even outline properly. But we can safely say that this was a very important god, one that is present across Europe, with all the Celtic peoples.
Over time, scholars offered differing interpretations of Cernunnos and his role for the Celts – some consider him the god of fertility, animals, and nature, while others mention him as a deity of travel or commerce. Whatever his true role may be, it is certain that he has something to do with nature and things primeval – his antlers suggest fertility, forests, strength; the torcs suggest ruling, power, influence; the seated pose suggests wisdom, patience, reverence; the animals suggest shapeshifting, nature, and primal strength.
The Celtic Gundestrup Cauldron, the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
One of the best known depictions of Cernunnos, and one that serves as the parallel to all other known images of this god, is the famed Gundestrup cauldron. This is a luxurious and extravagantly decorated silver vessel, discovered in 1891 in Denmark within a peat bog. The cauldron is made from solid silver, and portrays Cernunnos in stunning detail – amongst other scenes and figures. The antlered deity is seated in the so-called “Buddha pose”, holds a torc in his hand, a snake in the other, and is surrounded by a variety of animals. Interestingly, the cauldron is not of Celtic manufacture. Historians largely agree that the cauldron was made by several Thracian silversmiths, as commissioned by the Celtic tribe of Scordisci. The cauldron – a highly valuable item – was later plundered by the Germanic Cimbri, and eventually deposited in Jutland peninsula in Denmark.
Is Cernunnos the Mythic Master of Animals?
The depiction of the god on Gundestrup cauldron is strangely akin to the iconic “Master of Animals” figure, which is found on many carvings and reliefs from ancient times. Curiously enough, the Master of Animals predates Cernunnos by thousands of years – this is a figure found in the world’s oldest civilizations, from Ur, Babylon, and the Indus Valley. As the name suggests, this figure is also surrounded by animals, and often grasps a snake in his hand: a gesture that means domination over nature, the elements, and the animal world. Could this link suggest that Cernunnos survived the long centuries and persevered amongst the Celts, as a god from far older times? We may never know for certain, but the imagery certainly suggests so.
Inner plates of the Gundestrup cauldron. (Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Either way, Cernunnos – in all his mystery – was most commonly found amongst the Gaulish tribes of modern-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. The Romans left many mentions of this god, and as the Celts became the Gallo-Romans, Cernunnos became bundled with the likes of Jupiter, Mars, and Janus. Many surviving Gaulish inscriptions and carvings either depict or mention Cernunnos, a simple male figure made distinct by his antlers.
Similarly, the depictions of an antlered god can be found elsewhere in the Celtic world. Within Britain, several reliefs of antlered figures are known in archeology, but none of them bear the name Cernunnos, making positive identification impossible. One depiction was found in Cirencester, and another in Petersfield, Hampshire. It is possible that the Celts of the British Isles also revered the antlered god Cernunnos, and his name could have survived in the form of Herne the Hunter, an enigmatic legendary figure with stag antlers and various other mythic attributes. Alas, due to the turbulent history of the British isles, and the many cultures that dwelt there, any belief in Cernunnos was long ago forgotten forever.
A Primal God Rooted in Europe’s History
Cernunnos remains one of the most important ancient deities in European history. It is subject to constant research, even now, and any new archaeological excavation in Celtic lands is a possibility to learn more about him. Other than physical depictions of this deity, we don’t have much to go on. We can propose theories, but will never know for certain what his exact role was.
Either way, he was an important figure for the Celts, one of Europe’s foremost ancient ethno-linguistic groups. And his unique appearance certainly suggests that he has very old roots, perhaps even predating the Indo-Europeans. And such theories open a whole new world of possibilities.
Top image: Representation of Celtic god Cernunnos. Source: ( Oleksandr/Adobe Stock)
By Aleksa Vučković
Aldhouse-Green, M. 1992. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Psychology Press. Koch, J. 2006. Celtic Culture: A-Celti. ABC-CLIO.
Maier, B. 2000. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. Boydell.