Cernwn (Cernunnos)

The Gaulish and Cymric God, also known as Cernunnos, Cernenus, Karnonos: The Hornéd One

Cernwn (Cernunnos, Cernenus, Karnonos) is a Gaulish and Cymric god known from two inscriptions from France and one from Germany as well as many images across the Celtic world. He is the classic stag-horned god of Celtic mythos who survives in Welsh folklore as Cernwn.

Cernunnos is one of the paradoxes of Celtic studies. The image of the cross-legged stag-horned deity with the ram-horned serpent is probably an archetypal image of a Celtic god. However this association of image and name comes from a single carved image discovered in Paris and generated by sailors from the Gallic Parisii tribe (from whom Paris got its name) in the 1st century CE, by which time Gaul (modern France) had become a Roman province. The earliest image of the same type that has, as yet, been found was carved on rock in Val Camonica, Northern Italy in the 4th century BCE. Even the interpretation of the name as Cernunnos was in doubt (the original inscription reading ERNUNNOS) until a second inscription representing the same name was found at Polenza, Italy. A variant of the name, Cernenus was discovered on an inscription at Verespatak, Rumania where he is equated with the Roman Jupiter.

Apart from the Parisii inscription found at Notre Dame de Paris further Gaulish inscriptions to Cernunnos have been found at Seinsel-Rëlent, Germany (dedicated to Deo Cernunico) and an inscription using Greek lettering from Montagnac, France: αλλετ[ει]υος καρνονου αλ[ι]σο[ντ]εας (Alleteinos [dedicated this to] Karnonos of Alisonteas).

The cern- component of the name is derived from the Brythonic corn- where it means ‘horn’, as the root does in modern French. Thus Cernunnos literally means ‘The Hornéd One’. However, it is uncertain how widespread the use of the exact name for this deity was; however iconography consistent with this deity have been found from Cisalpine Gaul (Italy) through Gaul to Denmark (the famous Gundestrup Cauldron) through to insular sources. The British representation of this deity may be a continental import as they occur in areas of Belgic influence such as the Cirencester (Corinium Dubunnorum) relief and the Meigle stone, Perthshire. However, one should be careful when interpreting horned gods as Cernunnos features as many such deities represent the warrior god in Britain.

The name Cernwn is a Cymric extrapolation of Cernunnos and has been used to refer to the figure encountered in the tale of the Iarlles y Ffynon (Lady of the Lake) in the Mabinogi where Cynon ap Clydno relates to Arthur and his kinsmen of an adventure that befell him. Where a man from whom he had recently received the boon of hospitality tells him: in the clearing you will see a black man who is taller than two men of your mortal world. He has but one foot and one eye at the centre of his forehead. In his hand he holds a club of iron; a club so heavy that it would take two men to lift. Though he is ugly of aspect he is not ugly of spirit and he is the keeper of his forest realm with a thousand animals grazing about him. Cynon went to the clearing and there he encountered a black figure even larger and more monstrous than had been described to him. A man who would not speak civilly to him. Provoked, Cynon asked him what power he had over animals. ‘I will show thee little man’ the giant replied. Taking his club in his hand the dark figure struck a nearby stag a mighty blow. The stag bellowed and in answer to this sound wild animals came forth until they were more numerous than all the stars in the heavens. He bade them all graze and they bowed their heads in obeisance to him and began to graze. Here we have a giant who, though not disposed unkindly to humans is more closely associated with animals with the stag being his particular totem. The image seems close to the depiction of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron implying the continuation of this deity’s mythos where we see the deity in his form as ‘lord of the wild beasts’.

‘Classical’ depictions of Cernunnos show him seated cross-legged on the floor or on a mound. Some have used this image to suggest an oriental influence on Celtic art; the pose being described as ‘Buddhic’. However, it is more likely to represent the natural sitting posture of the Celts who did not (at least according to classical writers) posess chairs or ornaments to sit upon but rather sat upon the ground. It has also been proposed that Cernunnos represents a truly ancient deity originating before agrarian societies arose. Or, at the very least originating when hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies existed side by side; for he is seen as a protector deity patron both of the hunt and of of the hunted which may explain his association both with the stag and with canids that may either be wolves or hunting dogs. This protecitve aspect of Cernunnos, at least in the form of Cernenus may explain why he was equated with Jupiter.