The God Cernunnos and the Pictish Stag and Boar Symbols (Part 1)

If we continue with the proposition that Pictish symbols represent stars or constellations in the night sky (and therefore are part of an astrological system) we could ask: are there long-forgotten Pictish ‘boar’ and ‘stag’ constellations?

Could these hypothetical constellations have occupied a portion of the night sky in the neighbourhood of Ophiuchus, Scorpio, and Libra?

This region may well have included long forgotten stag and boar constellations, with only echoes of their existence surviving in Greek and Celtic mythology. The hunting panel on the Shandwick stone may well be the means to confirm this possibility. (See post on the Shandwick Stone below)

File:Pictish symbol stone from Dores.JPG

A picture of a Pictish boar  By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At first a casual examination of the constellation of Ophiuchus gives us no obvious clues to there being any stag or wild boar connection. This classical constellation is large and represents a celestial human figure normally depicted holding two snakes. The snakes are sometimes classed as the separate constellation of Serpens, and this can be further divided into a right and left portion. Ophiuchus has in the past been associated with Aesculapius, the surgeon on Jason’s ship the Argo. A clue however from one of Europe’s finest archaeological treasures, may provide a link between the stag, the boar, and the constellation Ophiuchus. This Greek mythological figure with his serpents is strangely enough reminiscent of a figure that apparently featured in Celtic religious belief. This god, known as ‘Cernunnos’, whose name according to Miranda Green in her Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend means ‘horned or peaked one’, is depicted usually with antlers on his head, and sometimes with the ears of a stag. He often holds a snake or ram-horned snake. He is seated in a lotus or cross-legged pose reminiscent of the gods from the Indian subcontinent. His most famous image is the one that appears on the Gundestrup Cauldron found in Denmark. This cauldron is generally thought to be Celtic (although may have been custom manufactured in Thrace) and probably dates from the first century BC. Cernunnos is shown holding in his left hand a large snake, and in his right a torc. He has a large pair of antlers on his head and is surrounded by beasts, with significantly for us, a stag to his right and an animal that is usually interpreted as a boar to his left. As pointed out by Gregory Coulter in The Lost Zodiac of the Druids, the snake-holding Ophiuchus seems therefore to have some parallels with the various images of Cernunnos, and it would be tempting to speculate on whether the two figures have long forgotten connections or perhaps a common origin. Cernunnos’ identification as a human figure with stag-like physical features, and a strong association with animals, fits well with the concept that in Celtic tradition there are frequently found gods or heroes who can ‘shape-shift’. As Miranda Green states in the context of Cernunnos and his stag association ‘perhaps one of those beings who underwent transmogrification or shape-shifting from human to animal form’. Furthermore, Cernunnos would seem to make a reasonable candidate for the animal interpreter who features in the old Welsh story of Culhwch and Olwen; ‘Gwrhyr’. We should note the close proximity that Ophiuchus has animal constellations that may bear some relationship to the creatures that Gwrhyr conversed with (see book for more details). Indeed, who better to talk to the animals than a Cernunnos/Ophiuchus character?

File:Ophiuchus IAU.svg

The Constellation ‘Ophiuchus’ note proximity to the ecliptic and position relative to Scorpio

By IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) ([1]) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the The Lost Zodiac of the Druids, Gregory Clouter investigated the complex imagery of the Gundestrup Cauldron, theorising that the figures are cosmological. One of his conclusions was that the figure of Cernunnos is indeed the constellation Ophiuchus in the night sky. He also interprets the animal to the right of Cernunnos as a hound and equates this to the constellation Libra. The evidence presented in my own book however would tend to suggest that Libra is one of the candidates for a wild boar and this is the more common interpretation of the animal figure that appears beside Cernunnos on the cauldron.

However imaginatively we view the asterism corresponding to Ophiuchus, and try to match this to Cernunnos, the evidence so far presented is still relatively weak for a positive identification of this constellation as the stag, or wild boar, that feature in the collection of early medieval Welsh stories – The Mabinogion. If the god Cernunnos could be associated with the constellation Ophiuchus, then another possibility is that a Celtic ‘Cernunnos’ constellation might have been formed by combining the constellations Ophiuchus and its smaller close neighbour, Scorpio. In this scenario the much larger constellation would represent the god, but at the same time half of the constellation could also be seen as having some of the attributes of a stag. This might provide an explanation for the god’s shape shifting abilities and also explain the symbolism of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron. As Ophiuchus lies to the north of the ecliptic and Scorpio predominately to the south of the ecliptic, this possible split zodiacal sign would be important when considering the paths of the Moon and planets through this region of the sky. The Moon in particular ‘wanders’ considerably from the ecliptic and would therefore sometimes pass through Scorpio (i.e. below the ecliptic), perhaps emphasising a cervine aspect, while at other times pass through Ophiuchus (i.e. above the ecliptic) and therefore emphasising a more human-like aspect. It is also worth noting that Ophiuchus is sometimes considered as a thirteenth zodiacal constellation, but is the only one which is not recognised as an astrological sign. Indeed, the Sun spends a longer time traversing Ophiuchus than it does neighbouring Scorpio.

Turning now to Scorpio, how likely are we to find associations with stags or deer? Scorpio, according to classical legend, is the creature that slew the giant Orion, but was itself in fear of the arrow of Sagittarius. Using an arrow to kill a scorpion would seem to be a little strange, but might just hint at the possibility that Sagittarius may not have always been aiming at a diminutive scorpion. Perhaps the constellation once represented a larger creature, one more suitable for a hunter. The month of October, traditionally the month associated in the classical world with Scorpio, is known in Scots Gaelic as Damhair, derived from the word damh meaning ‘stag’. Generally, it is thought that the name relates to the stag-rut that occurs in the Highlands in the autumn, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the name is in some way connected with an alternative cervine Scorpio. Even if there is not a connection between Damhair and an ancient European view of the constellation Scorpio, the Gaelic name for the month provides some potential reasons as to why northern Europeans may have seen Scorpio as a stag. The October stag rut is of course the time when the animal is at his most potent and magnificent. This in itself could have inspired the notion of a stag constellation exulted by the Sun in autumn. If there is evidence that the Picts included a stag within their own zodiac, it would be tempting to suggest that the Gaelic month of Damhair in some way reflects this. It is worth noting that in the closely related Irish language the name for October is different. For now there is simply not enough evidence to connect the Gaelic name for October with an ancient version of the constellation Scorpio, which would also necessitate evidence of continuity from the Picts to the later Gaelic speaking population of the Highlands. It is also the case that rare white stags are seen as a symbol of good luck in Scotland and are viewed as ‘otherworldly’, hence it is considered almost taboo to hunt them. Could the white stag be linked to the concept of a celestial deer constellation? According to the Oxford Dictionary of Mythology, a stag enticed people into the ‘otherworld’; an idea that was later Christianised with the animal being thought of as guiding souls to heaven. Perhaps this also suggests that the stag was seen in a celestial or cosmological role, acting as an intermediary between earth and heaven.

File:LandseerMonarch1851.jpg

Scottish Red Deer Stag (Cervus elaphus scoticus)

(Painting: “The Monarch of the Glen” by Sir Edwin Landseer)

Another important reason why northern Europeans may not have recognised Scorpio as a Scorpion is that the stars of Scorpio, even at their zenith, do not rise much above the northern horizon. Indeed, the Scorpion’s tale and sting are simply not visible at northern latitudes. This second point would have a natural effect on the overall impression the asterism would have on the eye. It seems reasonable therefore that northern Europeans may have viewed this particular constellation as something else, with the possibility of a stag substituting for the scorpion.

Turning to a map of the night sky, it is worthwhile considering the shape of the northern, visible portion, of the constellation Scorpio. This portion, and indeed the whole of the constellation, is dominated by the red giant; Antares. This is viewed traditionally as the scorpion’s heart. Above this is a small group of bright stars that define the scorpion’s head. Extending further northwards from these are the scorpion’s ‘claws’. If northern Europeans really envisaged Scorpio as a stag, then does such an interpretation make sense in terms of the shape of the constellation?  Assuming that the stag was seen as upright, as these figures usually are, then the obvious first characteristic to look for is the stag’s antlers. It is not at all difficult to imagine the pincers of the scorpion being viewed by northern Europeans as the antlers of the more familiar stag. The head of the scorpion would also fit well with the shape of the stag’s head. The red star Antares may therefore have been viewed not as the scorpion’s heart, but rather as that of a stag.

We should also not forget Hercules’ third task, that of the Ceryneian hind, and the strong Greek association of the hind or stag with the constellation Scorpio. Is this further evidence that this constellation may have been viewed by at least some Europeans as a ‘stag’ or at least a stag constellation existed in this area of the sky.

Part 2, next week

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About iainforbespict

Author of book on the Picts

Posted on April 23, 2013, in Pictish History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I like this theory – and for a reason I didn’t see mentioned.
    There seems to be a triskele carved into the boars hind-quarters – with one leg comprising a line of the boar’s front leg, and another comprising part of the back…

    And while the three “legs” could signify movement, if I’m recalling correctly – a triskele is present on the oldest astronomical calendar in Ireland. Could be a connection.

  2. Worth considering also that the Welsh word for “Autumn” and “October” – Hydref – is thought in some quarters to derive from the words for stag (Hydd) and lowing (bref). Also interesting in relation to this is the unusual figure described in the Mabinogion story “The Lady of the Fountain” who strikes a stag with an Iron club and has dominion over the animals of the forest…

  3. The Picts identified the Deer with the constellation of Auriga and Leo was identified as the Boar.

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