The God Cernunnos and the Pictish Stag and Boar Symbols (Part 2)

Part 2

In the these two articles , we are exploring the possibility that the Picts, and other cultures across Europe and perhaps beyond, recognised ‘Boar’ and ‘Stag’ constellations in the night sky.

The ‘Hunting Panel’ from the Pictish ‘Shandwick Stone’ , Note the Stag being fired on by the hunter, bottom right, the twin warriors, bottom left, and the wild boar above and to the left of the hunter and stag.

There is further evidence for Scorpio being seen originally as a stag outside of the Mediterranean basin, this time surprisingly in the ancient Indian astrological system; the ‘Vedic’ system. In this eastern zodiac, with its twenty-seven lunar zodiac signs or ‘nakshatras’, the constellation Scorpio is divided into three of these ‘lunar mansions’. These are Vishakha, Anuradha, and Jyeshta. Anuradha is symbolized principally by a lotus flower, but has as its ‘animal symbol’ a female deer, the Mgira. Furthermore, Jyeshta with its principal star Antares (the alpha star of Scorpio), has as its animal symbol the stag. Perhaps this also tantalisingly hints at a long lost stag constellation, although this time not in Europe but in India. It may at first seem unlikely that there could be a cultural connection between northern Europe and India, but it is important to remember that the languages of North India, and those of Europe, are thought to have a common linguistic ancestor; proto-Indo-European. It is therefore perfectly possible that there are other ancient cultural connections.

There is also a fragment of fascinating evidence from a traditional German ’folk’ rhyme. There is little information as to how old this poem is or anything else on its origins, but it apparently describes an alternative zodiac or at least a sequence of stars or constellations associated with the changing seasons:

‘Eber, Riese, Himmelskuh zählen wir dem Winter zu.
Hase, Wolf und Menschenpaar stellen uns den Frühling dar.
In Hahn und Hengst und Ährenfrau die Sommersonne steht genau.
Schwalbe, Hirsch und Bogenschütz sind des Herbstes feste Stütz.’

This has been translated into English as:

‘Boar, giant, and celestial cow we count to the winter.
Hare, wolf and human pair represent the spring.
At rooster, stallion and corn-ear-woman is summer solstice.
Swallow, deer (stag) and archer are the frame of autumn.’

From the above text, which is clearly referring to the night sky, only the human pair (Gemini), the corn-ear-woman (Virgo), and the archer (Sagittarius) are obviously discernible, although the celestial cow may represent Taurus. But noticeably within the sequence we have the appearance of a stag and a wild boar; the stag is associated with the autumn, as Scorpio is, whilst the boar is associated with the winter. In addition, the stag appears in the poem alongside the archer – remembering that Scorpio and Sagittarius are side by side in the Graeco-Roman Zodiac. This perhaps may hint at alternative northern European constellations including a stag and a wild boar; some of these may even be zodiacal.

Outside Pictland but within the British Isles there is another possible example of an alternative northern European view of this same area of the night sky, and specifically the area around Ophiuchus. The so-called ‘Parwich Tympanum’ is a pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon stone carved arch from the Church in the village of Parwich in Derbyshire.

Link: Parwich Tympanum

This is thought to have been carved in the eleventh century or perhaps much earlier. While there are clearly elements of Christian symbolism within the scene depicted on the stone arch, the mix of animals seems puzzling. Interestingly in the scene there is a deer or stag with a wild boar placed above it. In addition there is a pair of serpents, a rather indeterminate bird that sports talons, what appears to be a horse carrying a cross and is therefore usually interpreted as ‘the lamb of god’, and a beast that has been interpreted as a wolf. Examining the area of the night sky around Scorpio, our candidate Pictish stag constellation, we have the adjacent constellations of Ophiuchus and Libra, which represents our principal candidate for a wild boar constellation. Ophiuchus is of course in Greek mythology the serpent holder, and as mentioned previously, there is the possibility that this constellation may have been visualised by Celts as a stag god, perhaps shape-shifting (identified popularly today as Cernunnos). In the same area of sky, close to Ophiuchus’ serpent, we have Aquila the eagle. Sitting directly below Scorpio is the constellation Lupus. This has been interpreted by different cultures as a wolf or other beast such as a lioness or leopard. Finally to the east of Aquila, the eagle, we have two horses. Firstly the small constellation of Equuleus, the foal, seen by some classical authors as a horse head, and secondly, further east; Pegasus the flying horse. The mix on the Parwich Tympanum would seem to a reasonably good match for the area around Ophiuchus, but once again the match is dependent on accepting the presence of a wild boar and a stag in that region of the sky. Why the ‘lamb of god’ would have been depicted as a horse or foal is unclear, but might be explained if Church authorities had attempted to Christianise pagan constellations. In this case perhaps they may have tried to persuade people to view Equuleus, the foal as the ‘lamb of god’, with the sculptor compromising on this new interpretation by carving a partly traditional version.

Further echoes from ancient cultures in Europe and Asia may also have resonance with the Shandwick stone. Many cultures including for example, Hungarian and  Persian, have similar stories describing a hunter, sometimes twin hunters, or brothers perpetually chasing after a stag in much the same way as Hercules. This stag is no ordinary stag, but is white and holds the Sun in his antlers (The Legend of the White Stag). This chase story might have arisen as a result of the relationship in the night sky between Gemini and Scorpio. At the autumnal equinox, the Sun is in Scorpio, between the ‘pincers’ or in our theoretical alternative version, the ‘antlers’. As the Sun sets in Scorpio due west, Gemini rises in the east, and is present in the sky until the dawn Therefore the two constellations in effect are on opposite sides of the sky and appear to ‘chase’ each other, with neither ever being able to catch up with the other. The Shandwick stone, whether intentionally or not shows this exact same relationship, with twin warriors (perhaps representing Gemini?) in the bottom left hand corner and a stag in the bottom right hand corner (being shot at by a hunter with bow).

It would therefore seem that there are various strands of evidence coming together from Europe and Asia that collectively suggest that there was once a ‘stag’ constellation, in the vicinity of the classical constellation of Scorpio. This is most likely to correspond to Scorpio itself. What is astonishing is that from several very disparate sources; various European traditions, a Pictish stone, Welsh mythology, Vedic astrology, Greek mythology, a German poem, and an Anglo-Saxon carved arch, we find the same pattern repeating itself. The possibility that the Picts also visualised a Boar and Stag constellations within the vicinity of Ophiuchus would therefore seem to be plausible.


About iainforbespict

Author of book on the Picts

Posted on May 1, 2013, in Pictish History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. What a pleasant surprize to wander into this place. Right up my alley, been fascinated by the symbols and always thought they must surely hold some astrological secrets. Once I get on top of the subject matter, I’ll write something up to entice interest among the brains trust in the astro community.

  2. fascinating! Found you via Green Mackenzie’s blog…what a lucky find!

  3. ***Bryan*****Howis*****

    As soon as I saw the picture of the ‘Lupus’ beast on the Parwich Tympanum, I was immediately reminded of the ‘Maeshowe Dragon’ carved, (it is assumed, by Vikings in the Maeshowe tomb in Orkney), and I see a striking similarity between these two motifs. It’s likely in my opinion, that both these carvings draw from the same cultural root.

  4. And now I found you via Tims blog!!
    Happy coincidence 🙂
    The white stag is such a recurring theme, and it chimes something quite deep within my mind. I always feel the myth of the founding of Holyrood Abbey is based on this ancient symbol. This whole post makes perfect sense, after all why would our ancestors have imagined an animal they never see on the earth as being up in the stars.

    • Sorry for the dealy in replying. I think you are right. Legends of white stags abound across Europ and beyond. In Edinburgh I think the white stag (or hart) relates to the time of King David, but is probably has older resonance. Certainly in the tale the white hart has a clear divine role to play.



  5. I found your site looking for the Boar, too… now I want your book…

    Do you think that the “Boar” might refer to the “Bear” (which goes below the horizon in Winter)? Because a male Bear is also called a “Boar” (in English, anyway…)

    • Thanks very much for your comment. Interesting idea, I think we are only begining to scratch the surface of ancient astronomy in Europe – here in Scotland the long dark nights must have created wonder for our ancestors!


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