Cernunnos: God of Wealth, the Wild, and Big Gold Torcs

I was seriously tempted to call this piece “Cernunnos: God of Bling”. This may seem a wildly inappropriate way to describe a god revered by neo-Pagans and possibly the divine ancestor of the Gauls, but when so many images of him feature one or more torcs, which are simply enormous gold necklaces, how can you resist?

God of Wealth

The torc is as much as an attribute of Cernunnos as his horns or his disitinctive, cross-legged pose. I suppose that most seekers who are drawn to Cernunnos now seek a connection with nature and the underworld, but we know that to the ancient Celts his ability to give wealth and abundance was important too.

Cernunnos from the Pillar of the Boatmen, in Paris. Wikimedia.

In some images, like the one from Rheims below, he wears the torc around his neck, but not always. The image above shows him with two torcs hanging from his antlers, like enormous earrings. (Being merchants themselves, the Guild of Sailors who paid for it would have appreciated the value of liquid assets.)

The Gundestrup Cauldron shows how symbolic the torc was, since the Cernunnos-like god doesn’t wear it, but holds it aloft. (In fact, many torcs may have been brandished rather than worn, as Julia Farley explains, being too heavy and stiff to wear.) The point of the torc was that it was a sign of power, aristocracy and wealth.

Julius Caesar said of the Gauls that their chief god was Mercury, and they traced their ancestry to Dis Pater, often assumed to be Cernunnos. To the Romans, Mercury and Dis Pater were gods who married commerical and underworld interests, since Mercury was the god who travelled between the realms of life and death, while Dis Pater was the god of the underworld and all its riches, as well as its dead. (Sucellos, a god of abundance whose devotees included miners, is another candidate for Dis Pater.)

In fact, we don’t actually know that Cernunnos is a god of the underworld at all (Ceisiwr Serith points out that the ram-headed serpents that accompany the god, and are often seen as evidence for his underworld nature, could equally be animals that he is subduing, turning the hoarded wealth of the underworld to human use), but his role as god of abundance is clear:

Bas-Relief of Cernunnos, Mercury and Apollo, from Rheims. He holds a sack of gold coins which he is pouring out. Wikimedia.

To switch pantheons, Cernunnos could be compared to the Norse god Njord, who looked after merchants and sailors, and who was so wealthy that he could provide for all his followers. After all, what does a god need gold for? They have everything they want.

Big Horns

The torc may be a sign of wealth and nobility (only aristocrats could wear them, and probably only they could afford them) but the antlers that give Cernunnos his name seem to point in a contradictory direction. These suggest a god of the wild, possibly a Lord of the Animals type. (Wikipedia tries to reconcile the two by suggesting that he represents the riches of the forests.)

The Roman and Gaulish aristocracy would have enjoyed their hunts, which might help to explain how a god of status and riches was also a god with animal characteristics, but I think there’s more to it than that.

We get his name from two texts, one calling him Cernunnos (Paris) and the other Carnanos (Montagnac). While they are linguistically somewhat different, the second follows the Celtic format of a noun followed by a –on suffix often found in deity names. (Sirona, Maponus and Damona, among others, follow this pattern.)

Sirona is the Great Star, and Maponus is the Great Son, so Carnanos is the Great Horn, although I suppose “Horned God” sounds less weird. Since Cernunnos, a somewhat unusual variant on this linguistic pattern, is depicted with horns, it seems likely that he and Carnanos are the same god.1 (There is another possible text, a plaque inscribed with a dedication to Deus Cerunincus. But since it’s from Luxembourg, it may well represent an entirely separate god with a similar name.)

The Rheims altar reflects this aspect of his character, too: below Cernunnos’ feet you can see a small bull and stag, facing each other, both virile animals who have horns. (The Irish goddess Flidais had herds of cattle and deer, which she milked every day, so this conjunction of tame and wild must have had some resonance in various Celtic mythologies, even with the genders changed. There are a few images of horned goddesses from Gaul and possibly England, so perhaps Cernunnos had a female counterpart or consort.)

Ceisiwr Serith adds to this another image of a possibly horned god with a billhook in one hand and a bow in the other, mixing the agricultural and wild again. (The image comes from La Celle-Mont-Saint-Jean, in north-western France.)

The God Between

Jesse South’s article “Not Your Mother’s Horned God” (Google Document) stresses this duality in Cernunnos, and sees him as limnal god who lives on the boundaries between wild and tame, life and death, as well as the heavenly and the underworld. (In his view, Cernunnos is a Mercury-like god and a psychopomp, moving between heaven, earth and underworld.)

Going back to the Irish goddess Flidais, she governed many of the same areas of life as Cernunnos, but with a feminine accent. She was a goddess of abundance, feasting, the hunt, cattle (which in Ireland meant wealth) and sexuality. Her name may be related to the Irish for “moist” and this connects both to her milking and the ritual of blooding after a hunt, as well as the generous table she kept at her fort. She passed on her ability to milk deer to her son, thus blending the otherworldly and the human.

Perhaps the Gauls, who were after all more urbanized than the Irish, but still people uneasily balancing between one culture and another, felt the need of a god who could function both in the newly Romanized world of commerce and the forests they had long left behind, but which “all the world” knew were the proper home of a Celt.

It would also explain, why, according to Deo Mercurio, his cult faded in time. As the Gauls became more assimilated, their transition-figure was left behind, his purpose fulfilled.

1. It’s also wise not to get too picky about spelling with Celtic deities. Things may have been better in Gaul, but in Britain Veteres and Belatucadros have their names spelled in many different ways, Veteres in particular fluctuating in gender and between singular to plural.

To Cernunnos – Deo Mercurio
Cernunnos – Looking a Different Way by Ceisiwr Serith
Wikipedia article on Cernunnos
The Strange Triumph of Cernunnos over Pan by Jason Mankey
My own article on Flidais and Cernunnos, at the Dun Brython website
Not Your Mother’s Horned God by Jesse South

The image at the top is a picture of the Great Torc from the Snettisham Hoard.