Cernunnos is an enigmatic and somewhat elusive deity. It can be hard to know Him, and I personally found it very hard to connect with him at first. The reasons are two fold. First off there is almost no surviving lore about him. At best we have a name and a smattering of images across Europe that may or may not be related. Secondly and similarly, I find that practically no one talks about him on the web or elsewhere or relates their own experience with him. For these reasons I wanted to dedicate this essay to explaining my own work with him and some insights I’ve come to as a result of that work. Please note this is entirely my own UPG, and should be taken as such.
Cernunnos is a deity whose basic nature can be summed up in two words: Sex and Death. Most people will know him as the Horned God of Wicca. Originally, as put forth by Gerald Gardner, Wicca was a religion of sex and death and thus he was a perfect choice of patron. Also a theory shared by some of the modern day devotees of Vanir (a tribe of Gods once again connected to sex and death) considers Him to be a deep ancestral progenitor to the Vanir tribe, and evidence of His current and blood can be seen in many of the these Gods. The beginning of life from conception to the end of it (and everything in between). These are the powerful forces which are made manifest in this God. My own experiences with him have taught me this, and have changed me in many ways (and continue to do so).
First off although I am a hard polytheist, working with Cernunnos has softened me up around the edges a bit. While I experience him as an individual, he has also given me to know that he is indeed made up of a magnitude of multiplicities. Thus both views of him as portrayed in hard and soft polytheism, in my opinion, are correct. This is one of his mysteries to be solved by the individual devotee to his or her own satisfaction. This can make it hard to connect with him at first, and was one of my biggest stumbling blocks. It made him seem less personable to me. There is a sense of ancientness about him. He has been with man since we first became aware of the divine, and yet he wholly understand out modern needs. Cernunnos is a God of enigmas and seemingly contrasting opposites and no amount of pigeon-holing him as “God of” anything will hold up to much scrutiny.
He comes to me personally as both compassionate and stern. Our very first interactions revolved around him chastising me for being too willing to follow in the footsteps of others and not defining my own path enough, much like a father would a son. A stern reprimand, born out of love, but stinging none the less. This is a lesson he drilled into me from the very beginning of our relationship. He is also very clear and matter of fact in his answers when I seek him out for divination. It does matter if it is something you want to hear or not, he will tell you what you need to hear. He is an excellent councilor if you can take the heat! He is not one to pull punches.
He is intricately connected to the land and the land spirits. To work with him is to accept the fact that he will be inviting spirits of all sorts into your life and you will have to learn how to listen and communicate with them as well. I have come to the conclusion that they are somewhat of a package deal.
Being a deity connected to the land, I personally believe he is heavily connected to the European landscape. I think this is why it was so hard for me to reach him here in the States. It is entirely possible to do so, but I think those of us in the States may have a harder time of it than someone who lives on the land where he has been invoked for centuries. It just takes more work, but the work is well worth the effort. We tend to forget that in relative terms he has only been worshiped in the United States in any substantial form manner for just under four decades. Compared to the rich deep history of his homeland this is but a fraction of a second to him. However that is changing, and as more voices here raise themselves in his worship, his presence in these new lands becomes stronger.
He embodies all aspects of nature, both light and dark. This includes humans. All too often I see the attitude that humans are not included in “pure nature” but somehow separate from it. As such he is both civilized and wholly wild. I see this best illustrated when I invoke him at my indoor shrine versus in the wild. Indoors I tend to get “civilized” Cernunnos, who interacts with me in a very human and compassionate manner, fully aware of the complexities of modern life. When I invoke him in the wild it is entirely different. His arrival is heralded by a sense of pure, want to tear your skin off, painful, eroticism. Cernunnos is both life and death, and this is very basis of Life itself. In this form he is the rutting stag, life force pure and vital. For this reason I personally consider him to be a God of ecstasy, and although we can never know for certain I’d be willing to bet there was an ecstatic component to his historical rites. As I’ve mentioned before, although they are not the same God, I sense a bit of Dionysos in Cernunnos (and no I have no idea how that works. I’ll leave that to the philosophers which I am most decidedly not).
He is also a God of the underworld, and as such connected with death as well. Nature is both harsh and blind. Many of us intellectually know this, but don’t really comprehend it in our cement paved, sanitized, air-conditioned world. There is an example I would like to share: A few weekends ago I was working in the garden with my wife and father-in-law on his land. As I sat, planning life bearing seeds into the rich soil, the warmth of the sun hitting my skin and hands in the dark Earth, I felt particularly… “pagan” for lack of a better world.
I though of Cernunnos and asked him to teach me that I may learn more of his mysteries (the more experienced among you may be laughing at my naïveté). Not more than a few moments later I heard a chorus of tiny little screams as my border collie flushed out a nest of baby rabbits. They scattered, and before we were able to stop him two lay wounded, one with a broken back and the other practically eviscerated.
My father-in-law, the veteran farmer that he is, nonchalantly directed us to a water basin with instructions to drown them. Knowing that it was a mercy did not make it any easier as I had to extinguish the life from those furry little broken bodies. I felt the heavy presence of The Horned One in his guise as lord of death thick in the air around me. For someone who is essentially an “animal lover” this was one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. Throughout the rest of the day I was reminded of this lesson as the calm was punctuated with even more tiny screams when the local hawks picked off the rest of the bunnies who had scattered out of the nest. Yes Cernunnos decided to teach me his mysteries that day, though it was not an easy lesson to learn.
The lessons of the horned one are not easy. While he is compassionate he is also equally as cruel as nature itself and it would be wise not to forget it. This is not a God who will be sanitized for our easy consumption. He is many things. Loving, yes, but also dark and unforgiving. This is the Lord that I know.