Recently a friend sent me a picture of the Hindu deity Pashupati and asked “could this be the same God as Cernunnos?” There are strong visual similarities between this image and the image of the Lord of the Animals on the Gundestrup Cauldron (who I believe is Cernunnos, but there’s no hard evidence that’s who it is). Both have a male figure, seated in a similar position, one with antlers and one with horns, surrounded by animals. These images could easily be two artists’ interpretations of the same God. Are they?
My answer was “maybe – it’s complicated.”
Rather than stacking up the similarities and differences between Cernunnos and Pashupati and trying to come to a conclusion, I think it would be more helpful to look at the questions behind this question, and at the implications of asking them.
We identify Gods by their attributes and actions
Sometimes a deity will give you their name, either right away or after a while. But some won’t, either because they think it isn’t important or because they want you to figure it out on your own. Some Gods are tricksters who may not tell the whole truth. And some spiritual experiences are not of Gods but of non-deity spirits who can and will lie, sometimes for benign reasons and sometimes with the intent to deceive. As with any spiritual experience, discernment is required.
We know Gods by our experiences of them. We identify Gods by noticing their attributes and actions, and then comparing those attributes and actions to lists of deities whose names we know.
“I see a healthy adult man with antlers growing out of his head. He gives me visions of the forest and of animals. In his presence, I feel an impulse to be wild and embrace my animal nature. He calls me to nuture the young and the weak, and to care for Nature. I can’t be sure, but that really sounds like Cernunnos.”
Our problem is that we never have a full understanding of the attributes and actions of any person, whether that person is divine, human, or otherwise. If we aren’t careful, we may grab one or two attributes and match them up with the wrong God. Pan is a God of the Forest, but his animal form is the goat, not the stag. Herne is a God of the Forest, but he is much younger and likely began as a historical human person.
Cernunnos and Pashupati share many attributes and actions, but that alone isn’t enough to say they’re the same God.
Spirits of a place are more or less tied to that place. You will not find the Spirit of the Liffey in Texas nor the Spirit of Crosstimbers in Ireland. But Gods move – they always have.
The stories of the Tuatha De Danann say they came to Ireland from “the North.” The Romans took their Gods with them as they expanded their empire, and sometimes brought other deities home with them. I have had first-hand experiences of European Gods here in North America.
One of the themes of Gordon White’s Star.Ships is the movement of culture and spirits. We know our Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors left Africa about 70,000 years ago and proceeded to populate the globe. We know they went east, but Star.Ships shows that at some point near the end of the last ice age, some of them moved back west: to India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt – and they brought their Gods and spirits with them.
Sometimes this movement causes conflation – and confusion. Is the Roman Jupiter the same as the Greek Zeus? At Bath, the Romans combined the native deity Sulis with their own Minerva – the Roman baths are a temple to Sulis Minerva. Is Serapis another name for Osiris, or a synthesis of Osiris and Apis, or a deity independent of both? Watch fundamentalist Old Testament scholars try to explain how every deity mentioned in Genesis is just another name for Yahweh, when history and archaeology show they were different deities worshipped in different places at different times. This is complicated.
We know the people of India and the people of Europe share common Indo-European language and cultural roots. It is entirely possible that the God who is now known as Pashupati in India moved west and was known as Cernunnos in Northwestern Europe.
It’s a plausible theory, but it’s far from certain.
The multiplicity of the Gods is real
It’s intuitive that the Gods are many. It’s easy to see that the Sun God and the Rain God are not the same persons, nor are Apollo and Aphrodite. It’s far less intuitive that the Gods are multiple. In ancient Greece, Zeus Olympios was understood and worshipped differently from Zeus Chthonios and Zeus Aetnaeus. Of course, in Hindu tradition, Pashupati is considered to be an avatar of Shiva. I’ll leave the exact meaning of that to someone with a greater knowledge of Hindu theology than me, except to say it’s another example of the multiplicity of the Gods.
If we assume two deities are really one just because they’re very similar, we wipe out the whole ancient tradition of epithets and local understandings of Gods.
I’ve been wondering if this painting by Morgan Milburn is actually the first representation of Cernunnos Denton – Cernunnos as he’s known and worshipped in Denton, Texas and in the tradition that we’re building here and now. I’m still contemplating this in meditation and asking questions in prayer, but I’m leaning in that direction.
If we ignore the multiplicity of the Gods and the history of epithets, we move dangerously close to soft polytheism. You are certainly entitled to believe all Gods are aspects of one God if you choose. But I do not believe that is true. I am a polytheist, and I believe the Gods are many, not one.
Religion and culture are not isolated from each other
Julius Caesar said the Celts most worshipped Mercury… by which he meant Lugh. If he was trying to conflate a Celtic deity with a deity he already knew, he made a fair match. They are both young male Gods of many skills.
But to worship Lugh as Mercury is to sever him from his Fomorian mother and Tuatha De Danann father. It is to sever him from his kingship and his victories in battles with the Fomorians. It is to sever him from Ireland and remove him from what makes Lugh, Lugh.
Only in the modern West are religion and culture considered two completely separate things. In most places throughout most of history, both religion and culture are just part of who you are, what you are, and whose you are.
For all of our common ancient roots, Vedic culture and Celtic culture and their modern expressions (both of which can be found in North America) are very different things. Even if Cernunnos and Pashupati are the same God, if we think of them as the same, we will begin to interact with them and relate to them in the same ways and either the Indian roots or the Northwest European roots will begin to wither and die. Considering who usually asks these questions, it’s a safe bet which culture will be diminished. Either way, it’s a sad and unnecessary loss for humanity.
Relationships before lineages
When you become acquainted with a God – whether through literature, worship, or ecstatic experience – it’s only natural to want to learn more about them. Considering how old some of them are, and knowing the stories of the migrations of humanity, it’s easy to wonder if similar deities might be the same deity. I think sometimes they are and many more times they are not… but that’s a guess, not something I know. In any case, the question isn’t wrong or improper.
Ultimately, though, whether two similar Gods are the same God is less important than how you relate to one or both of them.
Hindus have a long established tradition about Pashupati and how to relate to him. If you’re interested in Pashupati or if you feel called by Pashupati, follow it. Modern Pagans and polytheists have been worshipping and working with Cernunnos for only a fraction of that time, but we’re developing our own traditions. Get to know Cernunnos as Cernunnos.
So is Cernunnos the same God as Pashupati? I don’t know. While it’s an interesting question, and one I would love have a definitive answer for (I want all the answers!), it’s just not as important to me as experiencing and honoring Cernunnos as Cernunnos.
Pashupati image via Wikimedia Commons.
Cernunnos image from the Gundestrup Cauldron via Wikimedia Commons.
Cernunnos painting by Morgan Milburn. Photograph by John Beckett. Both are copyrighted and may not be reused without explicit permission.