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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.

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?

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 (, 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

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