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  

Featured

Tara: In the Cradle of Kings

Photo by Jim Dempsey

Tara–the very name evokes the ancient beginnings of Éire. That was the location of the famous Lia Fáil, known as the Stone of Destiny. That was the legendary site of the famous Mead Hall of the high kings…the Mound of Hostages….White Grange… the ráths or ringforts of kings and even mythic beings.

In the map shown here, you will see that Tara lies in Co. Meath, not far from Dublin. During the fifth century AD when my novels take place, Tara was  the site where Ireland’s high king Leary had his “bally” or settlement, and it served as the seat of his power. In the times well before that, since the dawn of Ireland’s civilization, this area was venerated as the sacral center of neolithic people around 5,000 years ago.

According to Ireland’s legends, Tara predated even those neolithic people, as it was the cradle of the Tuatha Dé Danann, pre-Celtic dwellers who held this land sacred. One can see by looking at a panoramic view that Tara is elevated gently, commanding a viewer to see for miles around. In a country largely devoid of peaks, this must have been a natural site to place its kings–close to the ocean, near rivers that feed the verdant, rolling hills where thousands of head of cattle could roam.

The Hill of Tara figures prominently in several of my novels, both published and unpublished. The first time the character Caylith stands on the ancient grounds, she is with her mother listening to the High King as he utters condemnations and bestows endowments from the Throne of Judgment. Later, she and the other characters watch a hurling match in a field near the sacred mounds, hosted by the king himself. In a later book, Caylith returns with her new husband in a failed attempt to forestall a confrontation between King Leary and St. Patrick. The the bold priest has set himself to lighting a huge bonfire to rival the king’s own Beltane purification fire. This event, supposed to have happened in 432 AD, is the part of the climax of my novel The Wakening Fire.

In my recent novels Warrior, Ride Hard and Warrior, Stand Tall the characters are in a “flashback” setting, as I tell what was happening behind the scenes when Caylith and her mother were given lands before the Throne of Judgment. Later, one of the characters is captured and held inside the Mound of Hostages, and still later another character is severely wounded and left to die under a huge dolmen near the sacred hill.

Photo by Jim Dempsey

Two of  the most intriguing and compelling sites at Tara are the Mound of Hostages and the Lia Fáil, both unarguably several thousands of years old.

From neolithic times, the leaders (later, kings) of  Ireland held “hostages” or representatives from the various sub-kingships of the island. Ireland’s most famous High King, called Niáll Noígíallach, is known to this day as Niáll of the Nine Hostages, for he held hostages not only from the five provinces of 5th-century Éire but also from Alba, the land we now know as Scotland.

 

It is possible that the ancient kings actually sacrificed some of those unlucky hostages. Here we see the structure called the Mound of Hostages where it is surmised that some held were allowed to die as representatives of their people. Here is an overview of the mound, taken on a stormy day, that to me evokes the frightening aspect of that place:

 

Photo by Jim Dempsey

A closer look at the opening reveals that it is really quite low, no more than four feet or so. In Warrior, Ride Hard the young man Wynn is thrown into this enclosure and finds that he can hardly sit up, and he cannot move around, because the dimensions inside are so cramped. As I wrote of his captivity, I imagined those hostages from centuries past trying to find air to breathe and room to stretch their limbs in this dire place.

I imagined those huge stones at the entrance being rolled across, allowing scant air for the prisoners to breathe. All in all, this famous mound is one to stop a visitor in his tracks. It is clear that it dates from the neolithic period, and that it really was once the site of sacrifice–whether human or animal–and that it was an important part of the rhythm of life of those early dwellers in Ireland.

In my most recent novel, STAG HEART, all the action occurs at sacred Tara…action most unbecoming such a venerable site! Mischief and mayhem combine in a tour fe force among several strong men.

To most Irish people, the word “Tara” conjures up the unforgettable image of the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny.

Photo by Jim Dempsey

The stone is undeniably, proudly phallic. On this greyish-white stone, would-be kings would have reverently placed their hands. On the ground at the base did the ancient seekers after kingship place their feet. Legends say that if the stone roared, or cried out joyfully, the seeker was the true king.

One wonders what happened to those unlucky candidates who heard nary a peep. I suspect that the seekers after the throne had their minions ready somewhere to simulate the sound of approval from this mighty rock!

The stone itself is barely six feet high. But in centuries past, this height was no doubt much greater than that of the people. It is said that the stone even passed over to Scotland to usher in the realm of Fergus in ca. AD 500, but modern scholars have debunked that notion. It is more probable that a threshhold stone was taken instead, one of sufficient size to warrant being a “swearing-in” stone, but not this several-ton behemoth!

We do know that in the nineteenth century, the Lia Fáil was taken from its place near the Mound of Hostages and placed on its current site.

As if to rival the pagan stone of old, a modern statue of St. Patrick now looms on the Hill of tara, near where it is  told that he lit his famous Paschal Fires in defiance of High King Leary.

 

Patrick seems even now to defy the pagan beginnings of the ancient Hill of Tara, as his imposing figure stands in a place of honor not so far from the neolithic Stone of Destiny.

This modern map of the northern and central section of Ireland shows Tara a little more in context.

All the characters in my historical books have roamed these boglands and hills, these seas and bays and lakes. You will meet them in the following novels:

The Twilight of Magic (fantasy for all ages): http://amzn.to/2C6SI6m 
The Dawn of Ireland (M/F fantasy romance): http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY
The Iron Warrior trilogy (M/M romance-adventure): http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh

 

treachery correx!

Stag Heart (M/M fantasy romance-adventure):

QRI:  https://is.gd/bQK5lo  (all links, reviews, explicit excerpt)

~and~

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN  

Kindle UK https://is.gd/ocon0O  

SeaToSky https://is.gd/MrfeiG  (pdf or epub)

Smashwords https://is.gd/vU7yxi  (epub)

Slán until next time…Erin O’Quinn
Featured

Clootie wells and trees: Ancient celtic places of purification

Now that Iron Warrior novels and the sequel Stag Heart are out, it’s time to talk about one of the themes that runs through them–the idea of defilement/pain and purification.well#2 j200

In Warrior, Ride Hard one of the protagonists—Wynn, a young trainer of wild ponies—is beset by druids who are bent on defiling him along with other men they have captured and drugged. In plain language, the druids are intent on raping him as they have abused other captive men.

(Please note that I am not intent on disparaging the druids. My story is just that—a story. No one knows about the personal lives of those long-ago priests, and so I have exercised “poetic license” to tell a compelling story about individuals, not about a group of people.)

bentinrain 190

Wynn is bent over the sides of a sacred well by two malevolent druids. He escapes, but not until he is convinced that the high king’s two chief druids, Loch and Lucet, have assaulted him while he is unconscious. In the following novel Warrior, Stand Tall, Wynn seeks out the place of his defilement (the sacred hill of Tara) along with a few friends who are there to help him seek justice. But Wynn doesn’t want justice. He wants to be cleansed of what he feels is a deep disease, or inner contamination.

In a later sequel set on the Hill of Tara (Stag Heart), a clootie well  and tree take on great significance.

I’d like to talk about the healing and purification, through the means of the clootie well and the clootie tree.

In Wakening Fire, the crippled Owen Sweeney MacNeill is taken to the sacred well each month by his loving wife, where she seeks to bathe his ruined legs in the holy waters. Later in that same novel, Owen is taken to sacred waters at Cloudy (Clóidigh) near Derry to bathe his legs. Later still, Caylith brews a “gruit,” or special herbal mix for Owen, using the branches of the hawthorn as well as other plants growing around the well.

In Wynn’s mind, the way to cleanse himself is through the common means of a clootie well, a well filled with water sacred to a spirit or a local goddess. In another novel, a young woman in pain, about to bear a child, travels to a  clootie tree to pray to the goddess Brighid. For centuries, folks throughout the celtic world would cleanse a diseased or malformed part of their body in the sacred water. After the advent of Christianity, when the wells’ spirit was transposed to a saint or other religious figure, the wells became the focus of folk pilgrimages.

The word “clootie” or “clougthie” is actually Scotttish Gaelic meaning “cloth” or  “clothing.”

The tradition of dipping rags or cloths into sacred water is apparently a very old one found throughout modern celtic locales–Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales, and other places. Those seeking purification would dip a strip of cloth in the water, then apply it to the affected body part. After hanging the cloth on a nearby tree–in Ireland, usually a hawthorn–they would leave it to the elements. They believed that by the time the sun had bleached it and the passage of time had cleaned it, the part of the body it had touched would be cured by the attendant spirit or goddess.

Usually, the wells one sees today are adorned with Christian crosses, and there are areas designated for pilgrims to leave tokens. Originally, however, the wells were probably declared “holy of holies” by some attendant druid or representative of  the spirit that watched over the  healing waters.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

The well pictured here, left, is from a site called Madron in Cornwall. The large cross, called the Boswarthen Cross, is located nearby.

Photo by J. Champion 8.29.2006

There are scores of sacred wells throughout the countries commonly called “celtic.” But sadly, many of them are beginning to disappear–usually through the ignorance of people, but often enough because of the lack of local laws preserving such precious sites from urban development.

An example of such desecration is the recent complete ruin of the Well of St. Brigid in Co. Dublin, Ireland, razed to make way for a building work. An article in Wikipedia mentions the destruction of such a well at Rath Lugh in the Tara-Skyrne Valley of Ireland that has recently been razed during the construction of a motorway.

The tree where the cloths were hung is known as a “clootie tree,” always located at or near the well itself. Both the wells and trees are seen to this day throughout celtic locales, especially in Scotland, but also in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and other parts of Britain. I mentioned that in Ireland, the sacred trees were commonly hawthorns, long thought of as sacred; in Scotland and other places, Wikipedia mentions that the sacred trees are usually whitethorn, though sometimes ash.

It is noteworthy that right up to the present moment, there are “clootie” trees throughout the celtic world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see trees from apple to oak festooned with cloth, paper tags, even religious and other icons. There is even a modern offshoot of the clootie tree called a “wish tree,” sometimes seen as “wytch tree,” whereon one hangs good wishes for the future and other signs of luck. Students of religion will no doubt see similarities to India’s sacred Bodhi tree, and even to our modern Christmas tree.

Although I have not seen any sources that make the specific connection, I see the ancient “celtic tree” motif in the clootie tree. The motif, common nowadays in celtic design, seem to be an archetypal symbol of the tree of life. The hanging of cloths–and later, yarn, pieces of paper, even shoes and neckties–seems to reflect a universal human longing for the connection between our souls and the trees whose deep roots wind through the earth itself.

Below, I list the links to the works I have mentioned in this article.

The Twilight of Magic (fantasy for all ages): http://amzn.to/2C6SI6m 
The Dawn of Ireland (M/F fantasy romance): http://amzn.to/2pxBRGY
The Iron Warrior trilogy (M/M romance-adventure): http://amzn.to/2n3sTgh
Stag Heart (M/M fantasy romance-adventure):

QRI:  https://is.gd/bQK5lo  (all links, reviews, explicit excerpt)

~and~

Kindle US https://is.gd/G6elnN

Kindle UK https://is.gd/ocon0O

SeaToSky https://is.gd/MrfeiG  (pdf or epub)

Smashwords https://is.gd/vU7yxi  (epub)

Slán until next time…Erin O’Quin