Like Pan, Cernunnos is a deity that I find rather confusing. With Pan, it was because he has a zillion stories through antiquity. With Cernunnos…well, it’s because he really doesn’t have any. “Cernunnos” is just the conventional name in Celtic studies given to the various depictions of a horned god that pops up throughout Celtic polytheism. The name only pops up once in all of history (that we’ve found so far), on the 1st-century Pillar of the Boatmen. In most of his historical depictions, he is seated cross-legged, holding or wearing torcs, and is associated with animals in some way. My thoughts on these depictions are that the torcs signified the figure’s deity, since it is incredibly unlikely that anyone but of the highest rank would be able to afford these adornments. At the very least, it is a sign of high status or nobility. I imagine that the cross-legged, seated position is important for this figure because he is seen in the company of animals, and many of these are dangerous to humans in close proximity. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, he’s in the company of a stag on his right and a boar on his left. There’s also a single dog, two lions, and two animals that might be cattle or antelope. (There’s also a human figure riding a dolphin, for some reason.) All of these animals have the power to kill a man, but the Cernunnos figure sits quietly amongst them because he has nothing to fear from them. There is no need to stand alert and guarded if you are the master of all that surrounds you. There’s also no need to stand alert when surrounded by wild things when you yourself are a wild thing.
Unfortunately, there is no literature to give us any details about this God, and modern humanity has yet to uncover any details about his past following or his significance in Celtic myth and religion. The way we currently interact with Cernunnos is entirely a creation of modern Paganism–and I think that can be a good thing. We’ve done a decent job of grounding our understanding of Cernunnos in the recovered art that shows him, and we’ve really taken the simultaneous nature of mastery over wild things and being a wild thing and have run with it. Today, we’ve turned Cernunnos into an archetype of pure, active male energy. Cernunnos is a man at the height of his physical and spiritual powers. He has the base urges of any virile man–and so is ‘wild’–but he has the mastery of all he surveys. He can nurture and hunt simultaneously.
As this very phallic piece of modern art indicates, many modern Pagans have taken Cernunnos’s virility angle to extremes. I think this is very understandable, as it isn’t a far leap from “horned” to “horny”, and there’s a long artistic motif of showing horned mythic figures with prominent erections. Depictions of Pan, for example, show his penis in every possible state of excitement and use. Yet, I think that there is a marked difference between Cernunnos and Pan in this regard. After all, we have yet to uncover any ancient depictions showing Cernunnos with a raging hard-on. I think Cernunnos’s potency has a potential for abstraction that other horned Gods lack. Cernunnos, for example, is often depicted with a plump money bag hanging from his belt where other horned gods do not. As money is an abstracted potency that is earned instead of taken, I think we can infer that Cernunnos is able to check his immediate physical needs and has a wider sense of virility than his other horned brethren.
In setting the tone for his Cernunnos devotion practice, Timothy Roderick notes that “the energies that Cernunnos brings to you are physical agility, assertiveness, decisiveness, the powers of wild animals, and knowledge of all earthly things. Cernunnos’s sacred symbols are antlers, animal figures (especially horned or antlered ones), animal pelts, serpents, pinecones, fire, and the sun. Cernunnos’s magical colores are brown, black, woad-blue (navy), and gold. His magical essences and herbs are musk, benzoin, and frankincense. The time of day that you can easily invoke his presence is noon. Wild meats and harvest-grain breads are Cernunnos’s sacred foods.”
Make an altar honoring Cernunnos that includes his sacred symbols. Light appropriately colored candles and intone his name slowly, one syllable at a time (pronounced: ker-NOO-nos) until you feel his presence surrounding you. Once he has arrived, spend time contemplating how you might serve this deity. Take time to ask Cernunnos what it would mean to live life through his energy, and listen for his answer. Contemplate how you might live your life if you were an expression of unfettered wildness.
Spend the day honoring this god by attending to your wild instincts.
I wasn’t able to secure any wild meats or whole-grain breads, and my stone collection is currently packed away, but I did the best I could with cobbling together an altar for Cernunnos. On it, I prominently featured my statue of him (the Neil Sims one I fawned over last May–it was my birthday present this past year), a pair of red candles, my athame, a couple little figures of raccoons I borrowed from V., and a stick of frankincense incense.
I was definitely a little surprised by the presence I felt. I guess on some level I was expecting a very animalistic, strong, sexy presence. Something a little dangerous. And while there were undercurrents of these energies, the presence I felt was more of that sunny, warm, wonderful God that Y. always channels in Hartwood’s circles. This God is all male, but his strength is a protective one–not necessarily dangerous–and he loves what he protects. In this case, what he protects is me, and I felt his warm, supportive care. Now that I sit and think about it, I can see where the energy I felt wouldn’t be unlike what I might expect a stag to feel for his herd. He’s got all that incredible power and virility, and he does pose a danger to what threatens his herd…but he cares and tends the deer in his herd.