Cernunnos: ancient and modern

I recently wrote a couple of novels* in which I called on the mythopoeic image of a horned god, or an antlered man. In my stories, the man was just that—a mortal, one perhaps dangerous, the embodiment of the Scottish saorsa, the wild place.

The ancient idea of an antlered deity still intrigues me. This article is no more than a brief look at of the horned god as he appears in western (especially Celtic) tradition and persists even into modern times. The concept of a man-beast begs for an explanation…

From what I can gather, one of  the most potent and long-lived symbols of a horned deity is one born from the ancient Greeks—the deity Pan, god of wild places, of fertility, of man’s impetuous nature. Pan is usually portrayed as a satyr, a man with cloven feet, often with horns, playing a reed instrument.

pan & daphnis
The sexual overtones are obvious in this piece originally discovered at Pompeii [Wiki, copy of marble sculpture by Heliodorus. Ca. 100 BCE. Object in the collection of the Naples Museum of Archeology. Photo, 1999]
 In many myths (and images) his sexual potency is celebrated with nary a blush.

One sculpture whose photo I ran across—and have mercifully hidden from viewers’ eyes—shows the Roman cognate Faunus actively stropping a goat. Such activity obviously runs in the family. How else to explain the cloven footgear?

The most persistent image and mythos of an antlered god (aside from the modern Wicca tradition) is Cernunnos. This deity has the body of a man and horns of a stag; he’s often depicted wearing a torc, an ancient necklace with knobby ends fashioned of twisted metallic threads. Scholars think the torc may represent wealth or status.

cernunnos wiki pic
[The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or horned god, on the Gundestrup Cauldron, on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Wikipedia.] Clearly, Cernunnos was seen as the heart of all animals, large and small.
In my novel Warrior, Come Again the scholar Jaythor describes the god to a fidgety audience:

“Cernunnos is part of the ancient Celtic lore. A half-man, half stag, one whose legacy goes back as far as the Greek Pan. Or perhaps even farther. One endowed with horns, who lives in the shelter of trees, and takes his strength from the power of Earth itself. He embraces the notion of fertility as well as the end of days. There is something about the potency of wilderness that nests between his huge horns… Perhaps man’s seeking after the bestial side of his nature. Who knows?”

I have Jaythor surmise that the name “Cernunnos” may be a later distortion of a local (Scottish) tribe, a fact I picked up somewhere in my research. Who better to pontificate about this obscure fact than Jaythor  the Mentor?

“One of the splinter tribes of the Brigantes are called the Carvatii. I am certain the name is a Britonnic form of the Latin cervus, ‘deer.’ They are said to carry totems of an antler-headed god and actually worship a Cernunnos-style of deity. They are blue-painted with the woad plant , covered head to toe by markings to resemble a stag. And their leader is said to be twice the size of a normal man.”

What I want to emphasize in this short piece is the persistence of an ancient archetype. It may have started with the Greeks, or it may even be a separate tradition with the first Italic tribes (their god Faunus), then traveled over to Gaul and other Celtic locales with the spread of Roman civilization-cum-conquest, and lasted at least until the last century. 

Consider the celebrated poem “Afternoon of a Faun” by Mallarmé, whose frontispiece was illustrated by artist Manet; and Claude Debussy’s later orchestral homage.

faun by manet
Frontispiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) for the poem L’après-midi d’un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé 

No less an author than Kenneth Grahame used the mysterious character of a woodland deity in his influential children’s book The Wind in  the Willows.

wind in the willows
Original cover of wind in the willows. [Wiki: “Grahame’s Pan, unnamed but clearly recognisable, is a powerful but secretive nature-god, protector of animals, who casts a spell of forgetfulness on all those he helps. He makes a brief appearance to help the Rat and Mole recover the Otter’s lost son Portly.]
Note of interest: those who read (or who’d like to try) transgressive homoerotica, take a look at the short story “Amadan na Briana”  by Sessha Batto, which I discuss on another blog, here: https://gaylitauthors.wordpress.com/review-sex-ray-specs-by-sessha-batto/  Her brilliant work brings the ancient mythos into sharp modern (and mythic) focus.

cernunnos silo
This image of a squatting Cernunos with his torq, dark as it is, may be the best representation of the archetype that lurks in our collective psyche.

Man marries beast. Pan and his tansmutations are, for me, a reflection of our deepest fantasies. Through the centuries Pan has merged with Cervus/Cernunnos who has merged with an archetype we can clearly see in dreams but cannot put a finger on. Jung was right—such mythic images ride wild in the ganglia of all our brains, facets of our human nature.

cernunnos shutterstock

*My own tale of Stag Heart deviates from the mythopoeic. I keep the sensuality but couple it with a kind of wild innocence in the form of a young Scottish man. His name Oisean is itself taken from a Celtic myth about a boy disguised as a fawn.

stag silo trees
My own mashup of a man and a forest, in which the tree trunks become “horns.”

For readers of M/M romance-adventure, my books are:

The Iron Warrior (specifically Warrior, Come Again)

http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh

Stag Heart

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN  

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