I remember that it was more like falling ‘into the world’ than the falling ‘away’ from it that I have often heard describing the “spiritual experience”. The details of my surroundings in those moments remain sharp in my memory despite the fact that my attention was focused elsewhere. In my hands I held a magazine opened to an image depicting an antlered figure rendered in crude lines on soot stained stone. It was that image, or rather the figure within that image that drew me inward. My consciousness slipped down beyond the ancient drawing, past the halftone pattern of the printed page and into a space that seemed to exist both below and within the reality in which we share our day to day lives.
If you had stepped into my home at that moment you would have seen a child of eleven, sitting in his mother’s rocking chair, reading a magazine article about prehistoric cave-paintings in Europe. You would have noted his mother reclined on a nearby couch, reading a House & Garden magazine, and his father at the dining room table, leafing casually through the Sunday paper.
You might have seen the boy suddenly lift his head, looking with startled eyes to see if his parents had noticed anything amiss. If you looked closely you might have noticed the way he gripped the arm of the chair, as if testing to see that it was solid and real after all.
For my parents it was just another lazy weekend afternoon, unremarkable and now unremembered. For me, it was a moment I could never forget, the first step along a path that would lead me through the modern Pagan movement and into the mythology of my Celtic ancestors. That was the day that I began my search for Cernunnos, the Horned God.
This is not a subject I approach easily.
This is, in part, because my experiences with Cernunnos have been both very personal and of a nature that I find difficult to put into words. Only recently, despite being openly pagan for almost twenty years, have I shared those experiences with the important people in my life. My relationship with the Horned God is both more intimate and less consistent than that which I share with the other gods of my pantheon. Truth be told, in the past I have often avoided speaking of Cernunnos because he represents a significant enigma in my spiritual practice.
As a Celtic Reconstructionist, one of my goals is to rediscover the beliefs and traditions of my ancestors and further my relationship with the gods by honoring those traditions as accurately as possible within the context of our modern society. Cernunnos flies in the face of that goal precisely because we know so very little about him.
He is known to us primarily through a handful of representations in stone or bronze relief scattered around Europe. He is most often depicted as a bearded man with antlers sitting in a lotus-like position while surrounded by animals. The torc, a Celtic neck ring indicating royalty or power is either worn about his neck, held in one hand or dangling from his antlers. In his other hand he may hold a serpent crowned with the horns of a ram. He may also be seen to carry overflowing bags of coins.
Cernunnos (Kernu – “horn or antler”, no – “indicating a deity”, -s “latin first person singular”, thus “The God with Antlers”) may be his name or an epithet by which the Gallo-Romans referred to the him.
Many in the CR (Celtic Reconstructionist) community eschew Cernunnos for exactly these reasons. Too little is known about him to build a religious practice. If guided by the available iconography we can only guess at his nature. No record, that I am aware of, reveals the sacred places or days associated with him. There is no word on what traditions or customs might have been used to honor him. Any discussion involving the Celtic Horned God will likely lead to more questions than answers.
And then there are the more recent associations to consider.
When anthropologist Margaret Murray published The God of the Witches in 1931, she postulated a secret pre-christian religion surviving into the modern day and worshipping the Horned God. While it is now common knowledge that her methodology and conclusions were dubious at best, her ideas proved very popular among early devotees of Wicca. The popularity of the Horned God within Wiccan circles has served (however unfairly) to further alienate Cernunnos from many practitioners of CR.
Finally, there is the simple fact that Cernunnos appears to have been a god of the continental Celts while I am a follower of the Gods of Ireland. There is a tendency toward hard-polytheism within the Reconstructionist movement. We see our gods as individual beings and not “aspects” of some other deity. Within CR this usually means that you honor the gods of a particular region (Ireland, Wales, Gaul). The idea of Pan-Celtic gods (deities that existed throughout the Celtic world) has been falling out of favor for some time.
So why is a devotee of the Irish Gods and a stickler for hard facts like myself following a Gaulish deity shrouded in mystery? Perhaps because my beliefs are as much about my experience of the divine as about the scholarly theories thereof.
The reality is that Celtic mythology makes an absolutely strict adherence to hard-polytheism a difficult proposition. A number of the gods and goddesses (including Cernunnos) are represented in triplicate form throughout the lore. Further, there are too many commonalities between gods with similar names and attributes scattered throughout the Celtic world for me to completely cast aside the idea of a Pan-Celtic pantheon.
While I have long looked for a deity that I felt could be the Irish manifestation of the Horned God, I have yet to find one that feels right to me. Of the two which are most often suggested (The Dagda and Donn), neither seems an entirely perfect match. Rather than forcing an association between two disparate beings I find that I am willing to live with the unanswered questions.
This is not a matter of faith but rather my way of dealing with the “facts on the ground.” Cernunnos, lord of nature, fertility, abundance and death is believed to be above all things a god of transformation. My own experiences with him have been transformative for both myself and others. He opened a door for me when I was a child and although I was too young to actually step through, the view from the threshold was enough to change the way I looked at the world from that point forward.
I don’t need archaeological evidence (however much I may hunger for it). I don’t need an Irish cognate among the Tuatha Dé Danann. I don’t need everyone to agree on who he is or what he represents.
I certainly don’t need anyone to agree with me. I claim no special wisdom on this topic and my experiences have been my own. I am here, finally, to add my voice to the conversation. Only by sharing our experiences and observations can we hope to learn.
My own search for the Horned God continues.