Finding Cernunnos

PART ONE: DENIAL

“But he doesn’t have any myth,” I would say when someone asked me about Cernunnos. To myself I’d mutter “How can anyone worship or honor a god who doesn’t have any myths?” The idea just didn’t make sense to me.

By the time I was actively denying Cernunnos I was known as a Horned God devotee. I was worshipping both Pan and Dionysus by then , leading rituals in my local community, and generally doing all the things a loud-mouthed know-it-all-Wiccan does in their mid-20’s. (Admitting these things does not mean I’m proud of them either, just trying to be honest.)

The Cauldron, from the Scottish National Museum.  Photo by me.
The Cauldron, from the Scottish National Museum. Photo by me.

I wanted to like Cernunnos; I read about him where I could, but there wasn’t much to read. When he did show up in a book, it often felt like authors were trying to insert a square peg into a round hole, or completely talking out of their asses. I found the attempts to link C* (as he’s often referred to in our house) to Merlin and other mythological figures laughable, eventually leading me to the idea that there can’t be all that much to Cernunnos since no one seems able to write about him.

It feels strange to me all these years later to think of my life without Cernunnos, but it was a part of my Pagan experience for a substantial chunk of time. Heck I even reconciled with the Galilean before accepting Cernunnos. I’m not all that good when it comes to deities without a concrete backstory, and no where was that more apparent than in my dealing with C.

PART TWO: THE WOODS

There’s nothing like the Midwest in early Autumn. The days tend to stay reasonably warm, and the landscape is an electric blend of colorful leaves, blooming plants, and green grasses. There’s also a very powerful energy at that time of year; an intoxicating mix of death, turning weather, excitement, and sex. It’s easy to associate the Spring with sex, but the Fall is plenty horny too. For me, chilly Sunday mornings often meant “sleeping in” with a paramour, and mid to late October is prime rutting season for Michigan’s deer population.

A week or so before Samhain many years ago I convinced my now wife Ari to pull off to the side of the road just left of the middle of nowhere and go for a walk in the woods with me. After the car stopped we found a path and began making our way into a heavily wooded area. On both sides of us on that trail were rutting deer, literally just a few feet away. We could hear them rustling in the foliage and making some serious noise.

Image of Cernunnos, Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris By ChrisO.  From WikiMedia.
Image of Cernunnos, Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris
By ChrisO. From WikiMedia.

Ari, because she’s sensible and knew how dangerous rutting deer were, encouraged me to end our late night nature hike; I wanted it to continue. Between all of those deer I began to feel a power circle around me. “Doubt me?” it said, “how can you doubt this?” The energy around me that night was equal to what I felt when working with Pan or Dionysus, and I didn’t need a damn myth to understand it.

PART THREE: LORD OF DEATH

About a year after Ari and I’s adventure in the woods my friend Sarah Kate asked me if I would like to be a part of her Samhain ritual. I think I responded with a shrug and a sure, but also a question: “What would I be doing?”

I was told that she had me in mind for some sort of comic relief after what she envisioned as a rather intense working. By this point in my life I didn’t want to be the comic relief in ritual, and something other than my inner Puckish-Pan was eager to get out. I asked her if I could take on a meatier role, perhaps something involving the Lord of Death . . . . .

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Years later I only remember two things about that ritual: it was a perfect Samhain night, and I felt his hand on my shoulder. I knew that this particular ritual didn’t call for Pan, or even Dionysus (though you’d be surprised at just how complicated D is), I knew I’d need to reach out to something someone else, instead I didn’t have to. When my part of the ritual began I immediately felt a firm, warm, hand on my shoulder. This hand directed and guided me, perhaps his voice even whispered into my ear . . . . . . . this was the Dread Lord of Shadows, Cernunnos.

There are no tales of Cernunnos ruling the abode of the dead, and nothing beyond vague connections to water and the hunt linking C to death, but here he was. No lore, my myth, no matter. The experience was so real and so true that there was no way I could deny it. I knew in my heart that it was Cernunnos, and at subsequent rituals at Samhain he’s been there to guide me, and lend me strength.

Sometimes my interactions with him have been something akin to a full-fledged drawing down experience, and other times it’s just been his hand leading me around the circle. Often that hand on my shoulder is a way for him to send me his power, usually when attempting to create some sort of portal between this realm and that of the Summerlands.

PART FOUR: OTHERS KNOW HIM TOO

Over the years it’s become clear to me that my wife knows C nearly as well as I do, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. When he’s drawn down into our circle during ritual she’d be the one most likely to interact with him. During those times he’s with me, but in a completely different way. She also knows when his presence has become a part of our rituals, and simply when he’s around in our daily lives.

Cernunnos as he appears in my ritual room.  Artwork by Laura Tempest Zakroff
Cernunnos as he appears in my ritual room. Artwork by Laura Tempest Zakroff

Talking to other followers of Cernunnos over the years I’ve heard stories and tales similar to my own. He may not have a mythology in the traditional sense, but I’d argue that we are getting his mythology now. Tales and understandings of the gods all had to start with someone (or several someones), why can’t we be those someones? When John Beckett writes about Cernunnos I feel and hear the god I know in his words.

A year ago my wife and I commissioned Laura Tempest Zakroff to create a Cernunnos painting for our ritual space. What she came up with let me know that he had been whispering in her ear just as much as he’s been whispering in mine over the years.

Hail Cernunnos!

*My wife and I have a habit of calling our house deities by the first letter of their names. This probably evolved out of Dionysus being “Big D” and eventually just “D” in our personal parlance. Aphrodite then became known as “A” and finally Cernunnos as “C.” Pan is already one syllable so calling him “P” never felt necessary, besides he’s not urine.

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Finding Cernunnos
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