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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 (, 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?

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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 (, 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.


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

Does the Pictish Beast Symbol represent the astrology sign of Capricorn?

Pictish Beast/Elephant

This symbol, which appears on stones more than fifty times, resembles no known animal and therefore most likely represents some sort of mythological creature.  The symbols are surprisingly uniform across Pictland, exhibiting the same or a very similar set of features. There are a number of these features that stand out. Firstly, the legs do not end in well defined feet or paws, there is no evidence of claws, but rather they end in swirling patterns; clearly this is no ordinary animal. Indeed, the swirling patterns terminating the feet, might suggest that this animal is nebulous in nature, perhaps blown along cloud-like by the wind. The second feature that stands out is the ‘horn’ or ‘crest’ that in most of the examples typically curls back from the top of the head. This bears no obvious resemblance to any trait of any native animal. It could represent a single horn, or perhaps a mane-like structure. However there are some examples of Pictish beasts where this feature clearly arises not from the top of the head but from the side, in approximately the same place as one might expect horns to appear on other animals, suggesting that this is more likely to be a horn-like structure, although highly stylised. Thirdly, the shape of the head and snout are quite distinctive and has given rise to the description of the symbol as an ‘elephant’ although, unlike an elephant, the snout clearly has a mouth incorporated within it.

It has been suggested that the Pictish beast is some sort of aquatic creature, and primarily because of the shape of the snout, a dolphin, or dolphin-like beast. As we have seen before, a dolphin constellation is actually present in the night sky (Delphinus). However, only the head would seem to bear even a passing resemblance to that of a dolphin.

Another fascinating explanation is that this obviously mythological animal represents an aquatic spirit. This idea is based on the possibility that legends have percolated down from the Picts to modern Scotland as tales of water spirits, or kelpies, perhaps even giving rise to the legend of the Loch Ness monster.

Perhaps the most intriguing connection however requires an examination of the symbolism of one of the classical signs of the zodiac; Capricorn. In the book I discuss the possibility that the ‘beast’ symbol on the obviously Christian Shandwick stone could well be associated with the winter solstice, and therefore Christmas in a Christian context. This possibility arises from a carved scene immediately below the ‘Beast’ which may constitute a celestial calendar. In this context, the likeliest candidate for the ‘Beast’ is the constellation of Capricorn. However the imagery of the classical representations of this zodiacal sign does not match particularly well with the beast symbol. It is now pertinent to revisit the notion that the beast might represent the constellation of Capricorn.


The constellation Capricorn

That Capricorn is represented by a goat, is a modern invention. This sign of the zodiac is actually a ‘sea-goat’, classically portrayed by the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Egyptians, as having the head and front legs of a goat, and the tail of a fish. The constellation of Capricorn occupies that portion of the night sky associated with water and therefore has an aquatic aspect to it. While a sea-goat would seem a long way conceptually from the beast, there is a fascinating connection. The Indian zodiac also has its own version of Capricorn, which shares little in common with the goat-fish, but bears more than a passing resemblance to the ‘beast’. This creature is the fearsome ‘Makara’, which like the western Capricorn is aquatic, but is considerably more sinister. Depictions vary considerably, but at its most simplistic it is shown with the head of an elephant and the body of a crocodile, sometimes with the tail of a peacock. A number of older carvings show the head as rounded like an elephant, but with a long snout, which like the Pictish ‘beast’ incorporates a mouth. In the case of the ‘Makara’ the mouth is armed with sharp teeth. The creature’s legs vary considerably and can resemble those of a lion, a crocodile, or an elephant. In some cases the body ends in a flourish of ethereal swirls, which like the nebulous terminations on the ‘beast’ may emphasise that this is a supernatural creature. In mythology, the Makara seems to have both an aquatic and sky aspect, being associated with rivers and pools (in a similar way to the kelpie), but was also ridden through the air by Varuna who is both a sky god and a god of the ocean.  Although there are obvious differences between this Indian creature and the Pictish symbol, there are a number of features that the Makara, and the ‘beast’ seem to share, perhaps most obviously the long snout and rounded head. In some of the images and sculptures of the Makara, the upper portion of the snout (despite the incorporation of the mouth) is reminiscent of the elephant’s trunk with its bands of muscular tissue that allow the animal it to articulate the structure. However, in common with depictions of the Pictish beast, the length of the Makara’s snout varies and can be quite a bit shorter than one would expect to see on an elephant, and the tip seems also to end in a tight curl. Examination of the beast found on the Shandwick stone reveals that the upper portion of the snout also ends in a tight curl. Clearly, the ‘beast’ does not have any defined feet, whereas most examples of the Makara do indeed have feet, although these vary considerably; some Makara have four and some two, ending with a swirling tail. The two dimensional Pictish ‘beast’ appears to be four legged with a rather simple tail, although both legs and feet end in a swirling pattern suggesting it is of supernatural origin. Some Makara also exhibit a small beard-like feature below the lower jaw, reminiscent of the goat-like western Capricorn, and in addition has a crest on its head, reminding us of both the beast’s crest and the horns of Capricorn (that typically sweep backwards in the same manner as the Pictish beast’s crest).


File:China, testa di makara, norther qi dynasty, 550-577 02.JPG

Chinese Makara (note crest and curled trunk)

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Makara as the Vahana (vehicle) of the goddess Ganga

A further connection can be made between the beast and the Makara, if we consider the possibility that the beast could well be representing on the Shandwick stone, not only the constellation of Capricorn but the winter solstice and by default the Nativity. In India, the winter solstice festival is referred to as ‘Makar Sankranti’ and marks the day the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn. It is seen as highly significant, symbolising the dawn of a new day for the gods (a year was said equivalent to a day and a night to the gods in Hindu tradition). This to the Hindus also marks the point in time where the Sun begins it journey northwards again and the turning point in the year. Today it is celebrated, not at the solstice, but on or around the 15 January. In AD 700 we find that, due to precession, the Sun would have already traversed much of Capricorn by this date. In effect, Makar Sankranti would be expected to have started on the 25 December; Christmas Day. If the Makara and the Pictish beast both represent Capricorn, then this would seem to reinforce the theory that the Shandwick stone is proclaiming the Nativity, using a long forgotten symbol for mid-winter; the constellation Capricorn. The month prior to this event in India is seen as very inauspicious, by contrast Makar Sankranti is seen as highly auspicious; perhaps too the Picts regarded the 25 December in the same way, a state of mind that would be very useful to the church as it gradually imposed Christianity on the population. What better symbolism for the Nativity than a proclamation of the dawn of a highly auspicious period of time?

The so-called 'Pictish beast' symbol on the Shandwick stone

The so-called ‘Pictish beast’ symbol on the Shandwick stone

If the ‘beast’ really does equate to the Makara of India, then the mythology of the Makara, a monster that drags people or even other mythical creatures into his watery lair, might find parallels in tales that have survived in Scotland from Pictish times. As previously mentioned, the most obvious tales are those of the kelpies, or water horses, that are associated with specific Scottish lochs. Like the Makara in legend, they too lie in wait, ambushing their victims and dragging them into the depths. It is perhaps also pertinent to mention that a common translation of the word Makara is ‘water horse’. Viewing the kelpie as a Makara-like mythological figure also helps to explain one of Scotland’s most famous tourist attractions; Nessie. This legendary monster is not, contrary to many peoples belief a modern invention, but has a well attested mythology going back to the age of the Picts. St Columba, who is credited with bringing Christianity to the northern Picts, was travelling through Pictland in AD 565. On reaching Loch Ness he saved a man from a water monster, banishing the creature with his staff. The Loch has been inextricably linked with a monster, or as some locals prefer, a kelpie, ever since. Perhaps, in a mirror to Hindu tales of the Makara, the Picts originally had a myth or legend linking such a monster to the Loch, a monster that was stopped in the process of drowning a person by divine intervention. Maybe this intervention originally took the form of a Pictish god interceding directly as Vishnu is credited with doing in Indian Makara mythology, but this myth was later ‘appropriated’ by Columba’s biographer Adamnan as a miracle by the Christian missionary in order to boost his status.  A story relating to the banishment of a monster in the process of drowning a righteous man, is transformed into a story where the monster is banished by the power of Christ through his servant St Columba.

There is one more piece of visual evidence that to say the least is startling and is not easy to explain unless the Pictish beast symbol is indeed the Makara. If we return to the fine example of the beast on the Shandwick stone and take another look at the head and snout, as we have previously noted, that there appears to be some resemblance to the Makara. There is the rounded elephant-like head, the crest, the long snout and the end of the upper jaw appearing to end in small swirl reminiscent of some of the older Makara carvings. However we must remember that the Shandwick stone has been badly weathered in the past after many years of exposure to the salt air of the North Sea. The question is then; are there any features that were apparent in the past that have faded with time that back up the growing evidence that the Pictish beast and the Hindu Makara are one and the same? There are early drawings and photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of the Shandwick beast that appear to show more detail than is apparent today. These clearly show that the beast’s snout bears all the same hallmarks of the Makara’s trunk, with the classic muscular banded features of a typical elephant’s trunk. Traces of this banding can just be made out in the picture above.  Amazingly this was an integral feature of the ‘beast’ symbol displayed on a stone in northern Scotland and created in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The trunk of the Pictish beast does not just vaguely or accidently incorporate some trunk-like features, but it would appear that an elephantine resemblance may have been deliberately sought, in much the same way as in the depictions of the Makara. Both the Hindu and Pictish sculptors however are also obviously aware at the same time that this is not an elephant, and appear to have a very clear, similar and well defined creature in mind. We can therefore say with increased authority, that both the Pictish symbol and the Indian version of Capricorn both display the same bizarre and almost identical snout-like feature, which is modified in both cases by shortening, curled tightly at the end and incorporating a mouth. How this incredible similarity could possibly come about, creates more questions than it answers, questions that probe the very relationship in space and time between the Celts of north western Europe and the Hindus of India. Whilst the Makara represents the whole of Capricorn in Indian solar astrology, the equivalent nakshatra in Vedic Lunar astrology is represented by the front portion of the constellation; the ‘elephant’s trunk’. We therefore have the possibility that the beast could either be equivalent to the entire constellation or solar zodiacal sign of Capricorn or a Pictish version of the much smaller lunar nakshatra; Uttarashadha.

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