Cernunnos: a Jungian symbol?

To explore Jung’s theory of the unconscious I’m going to look at a very ancient symbol, that of the horned or antlered human. This symbol has been expressed by many cultures across the world – we find it in Africa, Asia and Europe in images dating from the very earliest periods of human history. If any symbol could be deemed mythological in nature, as arising from the depths of the human imagination, it is surely this one. One of the most famous examples of this symbol is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, made during the La Tene period of Celtic art. This remarkable and ancient relic contains panels that depict many mythological scenes, figures and narratives.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 200BC - 100AD.
The Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 200BC – 100AD.

The particular symbol I’m going to look at is on an inside facing panel, called interior plate A.

Interior plate A of the Gundestrup Cauldron.
Interior plate A of the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The central figure on this panel is of course the male figure with antlers, sitting down holding a snake in one hand and what’s known as a torc in the other. This is a very important symbol for us when we look at the First Branch of the Mabinogi in particular. For the time being I’m going to focus on the figure itself, so forget about the animals surrounding him and what he’s holding in his hands and lets just look at the antlered figure as he is.

Scholars have interpreted this figure as being a representation of an old Celtic god called Cernunnos, which translates as the ‘horned one’. It’s rather obvious why he’s called that, but this also gives us a clue as to what potentially conflicting elements have been harmonised in this symbolic figure. If this mythic symbol is an expression of the unconscious, according to Jung we should be able to perceive within it some conflicting influences that have been brought together in a more or less stable form.

The two potentially conflicting influences I’m referring to are of course the animal and the human. Cernunnos contains both aspects, and is in many ways a blending of the two. It’s not that the Cernunnos figure itself is in anyway conflicted, as this is a balanced image containing a harmonious blend of both elements. Yet it’s not within our normal experience of things to expect such a form: how can a man be both human and animal at the same time? This is the paradox at the heart of this image that disturbs the normal order of things, and does so in a simple yet very eloquent way. But why would these two aspects necessarily be in conflict?

Wild civility.
Perhaps one of the simplest interpretations is that the Cernunnos figure represents a harmonising of the civil and wild aspects of human society. Civility is often expressed in a code of conduct that has evolved across many generations, developing into customs and taboos, influencing all spheres of human interaction including religion, art and politics. Fundamental to the idea of a code of conduct is the concept of self control, that the individual is able to bend his or her will to abide by the socially proscribed forms of behaviour.

Self Control
Self Control

This is in contrast to wild, unbounded forms of behaviour where the individual does not abide by a code of conduct. Instead it is an essential, visceral and ultimately liberated state that has its own power, attractions and downfalls. Its the state of instinctive urges and reactions, such as experienced in love-making, hunting or fighting. It is the non-rational state of the animal, where behaviour is instinctively attuned to experience.

The Cernunnos figure, if we treat it purely as a symbol in the Jungian sense, could be interpreted as harmonising these two potentially conflicting attitudes. If the conflicting aspects of civility and wildness were brought into harmony in this symbol, we could conclude that Celtic culture of the time had evolved to embrace both aspects of human life as one experience. The great popularity of the horned god symbol could suggest that balancing these two aspects of the self was a theme in Celtic art and religion, a synthesis expressing the ideal state of the human animal.

Balancing heart and mind.
Balancing heart and mind.

But this hypothesis depends upon reducing two ultimately complex aspects of life into simple conflicting opposites, and although this is an attractive interpretation, it is dependent upon abstracted simplifications that are inevitably modern in tone. What we understand to be concepts of civility and wildness will inevitably differ to what was the actual lived experience of historical Celts.

Using the idea of paradox as a starting point for the interpretation of the Cernunnos symbol can throw up many perspectives, of which the wild civility paradox is but one. For example, as a Jungian symbol it could also be a harmonising of the conflicting behaviours of killing an animal and yet being in reverence of it. Its easy to see how modern scholars have interpreted the images on the Gundestrup cauldron as having religious connotations; archaeological evidence shows that Cernunnos was worshiped as a deity in Celtic and Romano-Celtic shrines all across Europe.

Cernunnos figure found at an ancient Celtic shrine in Paris.
Cernunnos figure found at an ancient Celtic shrine in Paris.

In view of this religious significance, we can suggest other possible conflicts that have been brought into balance in the Cernunnos symbol.

Hunting would have been an important part of life for the Celtic tribes, and as in many other parts of the world the hunt developed a spiritual significance. We find remnants of the sacred nature of the hunt in surviving European folklore, something covered in detail in the audio course. But in its basic form, this attitude to hunting clearly contains a fundamental paradox.

As we find on inside panel A of the Gundestrup cauldron, the stag, the dominant male deer, was venerated by the Celts. The depiction and positioning of the stag next to Cernunnos gives us many clues as to what was involved in this veneration.

Cernunnos and the stag 'ancestor'
Cernunnos and the stag ‘ancestor’

Traditionally, its thought that you can tell a stag’s age by how many tines it has on its antlers. If we count the tines on one of Cernunnos’ antlers we find that he has 6 tines, but the stag to his left has 7, suggesting that the stag is Cernunnos’ elder. We also see that the stag appears to be speaking into Cernunnos’ ear. The elder stag is communicating something to the younger Cernunnos, perhaps giving him wisdom, special knowledge or power. This would also imply that the stag is Cernunnos’ ancestor. This sets the stag up as a figure of veneration: an ancestor, an elder who passes on his wisdom to his descendants.

In venerating Cernunnos, the Celts venerated their relationship with the sacred stag, and perhaps even saw themselves at least partly as stag people. The Celtic tribes of Europe would have had a close relationship with the deer herds that populated the region, their communities having either absorbed or evolved out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the earlier neolithic. The Cernunnos figure represents a tradition that was ancient in its own day.

Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex

Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex

The long relationship between human and deer would have been founded upon the hunting and killing of deer for food and materials, and as with many other such societies, the European predecessors of the Celts would have long come to appreciate their reliance upon such a valuable source of food, clothing and tools. The hunting of deer would have ensured the survival of neolithic families and clans, particularly in hard times, during long winters or when wild crops failed. In many ways the deer could have been considered a symbolic source of life for the tribes: the people lived because the deer gave them life. They were children of the stag in more ways than one.

This sets up a very complex relationship. These early tribes would have been killing that which they also venerated, setting up the initially conflicting influences that we find resolved in the Cernunnos figure. In the Jungian sense at least, Cernunnos stands as a bridge between the human and animal worlds, defining the terms of that relationship and expressing the ultimate paradox that life gives to life through the medium of death.

But once again we must be careful not to assume this theory exhausts all potential meaning. The religious significance of the Cernunnos figure could be said to transcend such a reductive theory, particularly as the Celts very likely considered him a living god as opposed to the unconscious synthesis of powerfully conflicting experiences. Our reasoning doesn’t necessarily reflect historical reality, although it can suggest new avenues of research that could be fruitful.

The Swastika Paradox
Now that we have a working understanding of how a symbol can embody a paradox while maintaining a stable appearance, let’s go back and take a brief look at the swastika once again. We’ve seen how this symbol can be interpreted within different contexts, both marga and deshi, but what of the symbol itself? As a basic symbolic image, can we apply the term paradox in an attempt to interpret this very simple image?

La Tene period Celtic Bronze coin.
La Tene period Celtic Bronze coin.

One of the core elements of the swastika is the suggestion of rotation, of movement. The right-angle arms suggesting trailing strands drawn out from a turning centre. In that very simple form we could interpret two contrasting conditions, the rotating movement of the arms juxtaposed against the still centre, the axis of the form itself. Like all circle and cross devices the swastika contains both movement and stillness at the same time, and in that way at least can be seen to embody a paradox.

6 thoughts on “Cernunnos: a Jungian symbol?

  1. Great article! A couple of observations, the first being that it’s not clear that the Gundestrup Cauldron was actually Celtic in origins. It’s execution is generally discussed as being Thracian and there are many Teutonic influences in its symbolism. There is no evidence that links it to Celtic mythology, although it is possible to infer this. The whole context of the region links this design into interlace and viking gripping-beast styles – this continued as a regional style for a while from the Oseberg ship, the Ormside bowl to the later Ruthwell cross as examples. It’s also had many comparison to early Hindu icons. The Mabonogi has parallels to some early Indian texts that might suggest common pan-indoeuropean symbolism and beliefs more than evidence of the collective unconscious.

    This has opened a broader interpretation of who Cernunnos was. There is a tendency from a Romanic/Greek perspective to think of these North Western European belief systems through a pantheon structure – looking for 12 types. However, there is a lot of overlap between Odin and Cernnunos as deities as we can reasonably expect from a decentralised religious structure. Odin in this context, raises many shamanistic traditions.

    Odin or Woden, rode a horse called Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil is the name of the world tree- the axis mundi. The axis-mundi was the doorway to the other worlds. So if you see a pose in a ‘tantric’ position, it does raise the interpretation of shamanistic practices and mental journeys to the other world – where the tree might be incorporated as part of the ride. The antlers/branches are symbolically linked. Additionally, the serpent, stag and wolf are all psychopomps – animals that journey from one world to the next. Most shamanistic figures like Odin and Cernnunos were psychopomps. Local shamans would ‘travel’ to the otherworld in order to learn from the members of the tribe that had traveled there in advance. Cauldrons are symbolic of life and death – they are both the womb and grave ( I posted about this symbolism recently).

    You make a good connection between the civilized and wild natures presented. Roman tended to live ‘with’ nature, the North East European ‘in’ nature. This duality was much more a part of their thinking in how they expressed themselves.

    From a Jungian perspective, the torc is analogous to our business tie – it separates symbolically our heart from our minds. That’s why it’s easy to see many contemporary cultural examples where it is discussed as a noose. We are disconnecting our wild or emotional sides from our rational thinking sides. Time to let the animal out 🙂

  2. Thanks for the response, Decanted.

    I think the antlered figure with horned snakes and torcs make the cauldron as Celtic as anything else in this period. They’re features found on other Celtic artefacts of a similar age. It does have exotic influences and may well have been made by Thracian or Dacian silversmiths, but I don’t think its unreasonable to assume its a piece of La Tene ritual art. It fits neatly into that category when all else is taken into account.

    I know there is disagreement as to how we can account for cross-cultural influences. The similarities between Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian artefacts are numerous, but the general position of the ‘authorities’ (Miranda Green, Anne Ross etc) is that the cauldron is Celtic. Or perhaps the ruling family that commissioned it was intermarried with several other tribes of different cultural backgrounds? I’m sure some Celts fancied the odd German now and again, and as a result their children may well have had their own local hybrid of beliefs / iconography. But hey, orthodoxies fall and maybe the Gundestrup Celtic Cauldron is one that’s time is due. We’ll see.

    Regardless, I think you’re right that there are fundamental similarities between beliefs in N.W. Europe and further. Regional differences are often founded upon apparent universals. In that wider context it makes little difference as to the exact origin culture of the cauldron itself. The horned god may very well have been one of those figures common tp many cultures, as the Europe wide myth of the wild hunt shows. As you say, the Hindu Pashupati figure also makes a long distance Indo-European connection.

  3. Odin rode the horse Sleipnir. It is only the world tree that is called Yggdrasil. But Odin does hang from the tree for nine days and nine night. He has also woundes himself with his spear, offering himself to himself. His is where he finds the runes.

    1. Thanks for the clarification Sina. Have you ever considered the similarities between Odin on the tree and what happens to Lleu in the 4th Branch of the Mabinogi? Another cross-cultural motif perhaps.

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