exploring sacred concepts and
cosmic consciousness
through universal symbolism


irish celtic mythology



is there an irish celtic equivalent?

Paul D. Burley, ©2012


The "R" Word

            Humans have recognized for many thousands of years that life is affected by two universes – the physical, and metaphysical. Certainly death is one aspect of physical reality, and humans ponder the consequences of death on both the living and the dead. What happens to our ‘life’ . . . our soul . . . our spirit, after the body dies? This question concerns the metaphysical universe – life after death and the possibility of regeneration, rebirth, resurrection, reincarnation. 

Ancient cultures expressed a fundamental acceptance of the nature of the universe as a cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation. Each cultural tradition has its own interpretation of re-creation as a cleansing, rebirth, resurrection. Each culture or religious tradition develops its own interpretation of this recycling of the universe, but all ancient traditions recognize that it is fundamentally so, including Irish Celtic mythology.

The Horned One

  One ancient Celtic god from continental Europe demonstrates the importance of cyclical universal processes through use of Celtic symbols and meanings. Only a very limited number of Celtic engravings and carvings have been found illustrating characteristics helpful to understanding the importance of this god. However, in tandem with documents provided by the Romans, a picture of Cernunnos resolves sufficiently to allow us to understand his importance within the Celtic pantheon.

  Cernunnos is a bearded deity with two stag’s antlers, a symbol of Celtic royalty. He sits holding a snake in each hand, or in one hand while holding a neck ring (torc) in the other. He holds a bag from which coins fall, and is surrounded by animals. He has called a hunter, a fertility god, and the primary deity associated with the reawakening of nature in spring. He’s been equated with Virupaksha Shiva, the master of animals whose sitting position, like that of Cernunnos, is reminiscent of the yogic lotus.

  In each ancient polytheistic religious tradition from around the world the respective pantheon was overseen by one particular god whose attributes were believed greater than those of any other. In her essay “Who is Cernunnos?” Based on Celtic symbols and meanings Alexa Duir proposes Cernunnos “was directly associated with divinity, wealth and animals, and potentially indirectly associated with regeneration, healing, fertility and death.”6

  Duir notes that the name Cernunnos is found on no more than four inscriptions: the Pilier des nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen) from Paris, two metal plaques from Seinsel-Rëlent at Luxembourg, and a Hellenistic inscription from Montagnac in Hérault, Languedoc-Roussilion, France.  In the latter engraving a torc hangs from each of the figure’s two carved horns. The lower portion of the relief is missing, but Duir envisions the figure sitting in a cross-legged position. She also lists several features common to the majority of Celtic images of Cernunnos: horns; torcs (typically adorning the necks of Celtic gods); purse or cornucopia; three heads or faces; holding of a ram-headed snake; nearby animals (most notably stags); and his seated, usually cross-legged position. Cernunnos appears to wear ram's horns in one particular rendition but is otherwise depicted with what appear to be deer antlers.

Symbols and Meanings

  Duir suggests that the antlers are indicative of “the seasonal nature of the god,”7 but their true meaning to the ancient Celts remains a puzzle. The thought that antlers symbolize virility is countered by images of antlered goddesses. Duir mentions the theory that Cernunnos was Lord of the Hunt within a wilderness setting and then counters this thought by observing the cross-legged position and “arms raised in a Buddhic style, as seen on the Gunderstrup Cauldron.”8

The most common associations with the serpent are “fertility, death, the underworld . . . regeneration . . . healing.”9 For the Romans the ram symbolized the planet Mercury, conflict, and strong virility. Duir notes that this association between Cernunnos and Mercury has “a less direct association of triplicity by [Cernunnos’] iconography being found, on several occasions, associated with triple-headed figures.”10

Duir completes her outline of Cernunnos by noting depictions of animals – stags, boars, rats, hares, dogs, dolphins and lions – situated around this god.

 “. . . . [T]his gives rise to the commonly held attribution of the god as Lord of the Hunt and, since hunting involves death, a connection with the underworld. The image of the Gunderstrup Cauldron is often compared to that of Shiva Pashupati, the Yogic “Lord of Beasts”. . . surrounded by animals and has his legs crossed. The resemblance is striking and may have influenced the design of the Cernunnos plate of Gunderstrup, which may have its origins in Romania or Thrace, which stood between Greece and the east.”12

Associating Cernunnos with the underworld is a reminder of gods from other times, in other traditions. Duir contemplates this idea. "If there is a connection with the underworld, does this raise a possible connection with the Celtic god Dispater? . . . The identity of Dispater remains   elusive, and some people more readily identify him with the Irish gods Donn or the Daghda."13 Duir concludes, “on the basis of what we have evidence for, that Cernunnos was directly associated with divinity, wealth and animals, and potentially indirectly associated with regeneration, healing, fertility and death.”14

  Let’s look again at Celtic symbols and meanings as they concern accoutrements of Cernunnos.

  •  Antlers: annual growth on the male skull of most deer species, where tissue protrudes beneath velvet-covered flesh and calcifies. Antlers symbolize seasonality, the cyclicity of time, re-growth, renewal.
  •  Snakes: symbolizing renewal and the cyclicity of time,. The ram-headed snake is a symbol of Mercury and Mars – war, protection, healing.
  •  Three heads/faces: tripartite nature of deities in many other deities from ancient and modern traditions, depicting different aspects of the universe that are, in fact, one.
  •  Torcs: circular adornment worn around the neck by royalty, women, and warriors; often made from precious metals; depicted on antlers or in the hand of Cernunnos.
  • Seated position: common position of Cernunnos and numerous other deities from around the world; a position of royalty, rest and contemplation.
  • Coins: spilling from a bag. Cernunnos is not miserly; he protects and spreads wealth, offers it, gives it as a sign of beneficence.

We can with conclude Cernunnos is associated directly “divinity, wealth and animals, and potentially indirectly associated with regeneration, healing, fertility and death”, and more.17 The symbolism identifies Cernunnos as a protector and a healer, a defender of the cyclicity of life, of nature, of the universe. He represents royalty, overseeing Earth, providing sustenance, and the wealth of the world. He gives life and he takes life for the benefit of all. It is the Celtic conception of Cernunnos as creator, destroyer, and preserver of life that should be held in regard.

 Does Cernunnos have an Equivalent in Irish Celtic Mythology?

In Irish Celtic mythology the Túatha Dé Danaan are talented and learned gods.1 They are the people of Danu, the Mother Goddess. Their skills include arts, crafts, and magic learned when they lived on islands of northern Greece prior to immigrating to Ireland. They derive divine power from wisdom, magic, and four talismans. The greatest of the Túatha Dé Danaan are Daghda the Good (also called the Daghda; god of fertility); Lugh, or Lug, of the Long Arms (god of the sun) and Nuada of the Silver Arm (king of the Túatha Dé Danaan).

The myth Ages of the World describes four treasures of the Túatha Dé Danaan: the Daghda’s bronze Cauldron of Plenty; the Stone of Plenty; the Spear of Nuada that always hit its intended target, bringing death to all it wounded; and the Sword of Lugh, flashing and roaring with flames and bringing victory to those who wielded it. Lugh’s sword was ever thirsty for blood and always sought appeasement of its hunger. Lugh had to keep the sword in a container of poppy-leaf juice; the narcotic put the sword to sleep until it was needed. The Cauldron of Plenty and the Stone of Plenty could provide sustenance for all life on Earth. In addition to these four treasures, Daghda the Good owned a great club capable of both bringing death and restoring life. This eight-pronged war club was so heavy it required eight powerful men to carry it. The Daghda pulled it into battle on a cart; he would then lift it to smite nine men in a single motion.

  Daghda also had a harp. King Nuada once commanded Lugh to play Daghda’s harp for him and the other gods. They all cried as Lugh played a sad melody. Then they all laughed when he played a cheerful melody. Lugh also played a melody that put the gods to sleep until the next day.

  Irish Celtic mythology states we live in the sixth age of the world. Gods remain here on Earth with mortals. The deities include the god of fertility, the god of the sun, a king, and numerous other masculine and feminine gods. Daghda the Good deals out both death and life with his club. His harp can create sorrow or joy, and cause sleep. In the great battle at the end of the fifth world, sun-god Lugh exclaims to the other gods, “Be of good courage! It is far better to face death in battle than to live as a slave and pay taxes to the conqueror!”3 Life is to be lived! The gods protect us! Certainly death can be sudden and terrible, but the gods also create – they  created the world (universe)—and restore life as it is intended to be. As a whole these gods mirror attributes and actions equivalent to the Continental Celtic Cernunnos.

  Scholars have equated Cernunnos with Daghda the Good of Irish Celtic legends. Daghda’s name may derive from dago devas, or dag dae "good hand" (skillful hand), or daeg dia "god of fire."19 Dago devas is the preferred source of his name but each derivation provides a suitable explanation for the name of a god as important as Daghda. Other names given to the Daghda provide additional clues to his importance in Irish Celtic mythology: Eochu Ollathair ("Horse Great-Father," indicative of a god of fertility and the elder of other deities) and Ruadh Rofhessa ("Red One Great in Knowledge" – the color signifying sacrifice and courage).

  Mary Jones’s Celtic Encyclopedia states, “Now, looking at this information, we can see several things. First, by his kingship and his titles ‘the good god,’ ‘horse great-father’ and ‘red one great in knowledge’, we can see that he is a leader of the gods . . . The Daghda is more like the father-figure and druid of the gods (which he is explicitly called in several texts).”20

  One of the four treasures of the Túatha Dé Danaan is the Daghda’s bronze cauldron containing sustenance enough for all people of Ireland. It is evident that the Cauldron of Plenty, harp and giant club, give the Daghda the capability to provide more resources than necessary for the good humans, the ability to sway other gods, and he can wield his power to produce terrible destruction with a single blow.

  The Daghda is the world-god, protector, provider, an earth-god wielding great power. He is a caring creator. He is the swift and mighty Regenerator of the World, pure yet resolute and harsh. He uses his club as a weapon to create and regenerate for betterment of the world and rebirth of humanity. His destruction is swift and terrible, but his purpose is regeneration. He is the god of fire that rains fire upon enemies of the world with wisdom and inspiration.

The obverse of a Celtic silver coin found in Hampshire includes an engraving of an antlered head. It is Cernunnos. An eight-rayed sun wheel is located between his antlers. Green considers the "association between Cernunnos and sun symbolism . . . curious and unique."21 However, considering we have but few fartifacts with the figure of Cernunnos, we shouldn’t be surprised by this association between deity and sun. Given the universal characteristics attributed to the creator and regenerator, it is difficult to understand why this association would be “curious.”

In fact, it is quite appropriate.

The Daghda, in tandem with fellow deities Lugh and Nuada of Irish Celtic mythology, is an equivalent of Cernunnos.


Is this the true reason for Cernunnos being represented as a triple-headed figure?

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