We are often approached with queries about Cernunnos and asked about his connection to Ireland, Irish Paganism, and such. To come right to the point folks, Cernunnos is not an Irish deity and is not connected to Irish Paganism. Yet, does the concept of a “Horned God” or a deity of nature exist in Ireland? Well that is an interesting thing to ponder and so in this blog we will do just that and try to explore the possibility of Ireland’s Horned God.
The Celtic Problem
The place to start is of course with the most confusing element of this exploration and that is the definition ‘celtic’. There is a misconception out there that there was one source “celtic race” from which the peoples of various countries descend. From there the thinking follows in the footsteps of Julius Caesar in its attempts to conflate everything together so that they “fit” a preconceived narrative. Suddenly the Irish God Lugh, is “the same” as the gaulish God Lugus, who is “the same” as the greek God Apollo, who is “the same” as the roman God Mercury. All of this is of course incorrect, presumptuous in the extreme, and displays an ethnocentric mentality common to colonising cultures.
The term Celtic countries is actually an umbrella term proposed by academics to try evaluate different linguistic commonalities as they appear across multiple countries. The most common linguist root is Indo European in origin, but there are two distinct branches referred to as “P celtic” and “Q celtic” which define the basis of language in countries like France and Germany etc. Initially the Irish language was considered an odd ‘offshoot’ that diverged from “Q celtic” but more recent explorations of the older Proto Irish shows much more in common with Finnish than other celtic languages.
So what does this mean for our exploration? Well it clarifies that it is best to consider each culture’s unique expressions of spirituality independently, regardless of perceived commonalities. What this also means is that Cernunnos stays where Cernunnos is from, in Gaul. Therefore, we need to look in the Irish Lore for any sign of Ireland’s horned God.
Horned God of the Wilds
So one of the many motifs that are attributed to these horned Gods is a connection to the wilds of the world, to the forests and the animals that live in them. When we search the Irish lore we do find a character who matches this attribute, but in this case it is no God.
In the Fenian Cycle of Irish lore, exploring the tales of the famed Fionn Mac Cumhall we find a story called Finn and the man in the tree. It is here that we get a description that so matches people’s expectations that many fall to confusion. It is said that;
One day as Finn was in the wood seeking him he saw a man in the top of a tree, a blackbird on his right shoulder and in his left hand a white vessel of bronze, filled with water, in which was a skittish trout, and a stag at the foot of the tree. And this was the practice of the man, cracking nuts; and he would give half the kernel of a nut to the blackbird that was on his right shoulder while he would himself eat the other half; ~ and he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel that was in his left hand, divide it in two, throw one half to the stag that was at the foot of the tree, and then eat the other half himself. And on it he would drink a sip of the bronze vessel that was in his hand, so that he and the trout and the stag and the blackbird drank together.
Many folk point to this section of the lore as a proof of the existence of an Irish God of the wilds, but alas they are mistaken as it is Fionn himself who in the very next few lines dispels the mystery of this person.
Then Finn put his thumb into his mouth. When he took it out again, his imbas illumines him and he chanted an incantation and said: “’Tis Derg Corra son of Ua Daigre,’ said he, ‘that is in the tree.’
Derg Corra had been one of Fionn’s men and had been exiled by his leader when a captive, whom Fionn had a fancy for, turned him against his own warrior. Derg Corra, who had spurned her advance out of loyalty to Fionn, was cast out and had escaped Fionn’s wrath to live in the wilds.
Now the name Derg Corra is worth a look at, as though he is said to be a simple servant of Fionn, breaking down the language, particularly that of names, can give additional insights into these characters. In this instance ‘derg’ is red or ruddy coloured and ‘corra’ could be translated as peaked or pointed one. This could be a reference to a “red peaked one”. This naming convention and the wilderness imagery described don’t fully conform to the tales of this era as suggested by Daithí O’hOgain in his book Myth Legend and Romance.
What this suggests is that though this story includes a mortal servant of Fionn as the character in question, what it displays might in fact be something a bit older and so we must go deeper in our exploration.
The naming of a person in the old Irish tales often gives us more than simple words by which to recognise them. These names often give us deeper insight into not just their physical attributes, but also their nature, character, and indeed the abilities which they possess so here is our next step in exploration and that is to go back before the time of Fionn and his Fianna to Ireland’s mythological cycle. It is here that we find Ireland’s God, and so here we need to look for Ireland’s Horned God.
Ireland’s Gods are believed to have come as a tribe into Ireland and they are collectively known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. Though there are some other deities that may have their origins or connections in other groups before or after this tribe’s arrival, the dominant consideration is that this group is the source for Ireland’s Gods and so it is here we will next look for Ireland’s horned God.
Whilst a connection to nature and its animals is one of the main themes of the ‘horned God’, one of the others is a fecundity or fertility. Whilst there is no single “all father” of the Irish pantheon, there is one who is known as the ‘olathair’ or ‘great or ample father’ and that God goes by the name An Dagda.
Yet though he goes by this name he has many others which give us deeper insight as mentioned above and here is where we find our next ‘horned God’ for in a section of the Irish saga known as the Second Battle of Moytura, the Dagda is compelled to give his full name to the daughter of an enemy, Indech a King of the Fomorian invaders.
That name forms a rosc poem, one of the oldest linguistic structures we know as uniquely Irish, and starts with the words ‘Fir Benn’. Though the rest of this rosc is fascinating for the depth of detail it gives us about the ‘good God’ of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, these first two words are all we need to look at in our current exploration. ‘Fir’ is the word for man whilst ‘benn’ could be translated as ‘peak’, ‘pinnacle’ or indeed ‘horn of an animal’. When put together we have a ‘man of the peak or pinnacles’ or indeed a ‘horned man’.
The Dagda is described in many other sections of the Irish lore and though many of them include the words ‘derg’ or ‘Ruadh’ including the red elements we have observed earlier, there is not other mention of him specifically having horns or antlers as some other deities are described so here we are again close, but not exact in our search for Ireland’s horned God.
The Horned God Quest Continues
The Irish myth and folklore is extensive in some aspects and sorely lacking in others. This comes from the great boon that was the documenting of old tales by the early christian monks of Ireland, and sadly the intentional eradication of some aspects of the living culture, traditions and lore that was visited upon Ireland by its many conquerors and oppressors.
We have many tantalising elements referred to in works like the ‘Renne’ and ‘Metrical Dindsenchas’ being the lore of names and places as well as the ‘banshenchus’ or Lore of Women, but when we look for the full tales or more detailed information we sadly come up empty handed.
This leads to gaps which of course given the inherent curiosity of the human mind we try to fill to the best of our knowledge and here again we come across the danger of conflating things that seem alike or stumbling into ethnocentric thinking, regardless of our good intent.
When we have references to the God Manannan being the ‘Mac Lir’ or son of the sea, one might expect to find stories of his father Lir as God of the Sea, but if these tales existed they are sadly lost to us. The same might be said of the Cailleach or some others, as though we have more stories of them than Lir, they are sadly lacking when compared to the volume of the content concerning the Tuatha De Danann.
So where does this leave us on our quest for Ireland’s horned God? Well in some ways closer, as much of the themes that are attributed to this type of deity are preserved in stories of Der Corra, or in the older and more detailed tales of the Dagda. What we can also say with certainty is that Cernunnos is not Irish and should be treated with the respect due to him and the culture from which he comes.
Yet this is where certainty ends and the dangers and indeed freedoms of speculation begin. Much of ancient Ireland was covered in deep forests, lush and lively with all the beasts of the wilderness to fill them. Even megafauna such as mammoths and Ireland’s own giant red deer roamed this land in their own times.
So is it possible that there was some belief in an older deity of these wild lands and times? A belief that came down through the memories in tales like the Dagda, the Derg Corra and other ‘horned’ or ‘peaked’ figures? It’s hard to say and here alas is where we need to leave our search for Ireland’s Horned God.