Who Was Cernunnos?
The name “Cernunnos” only appears once in the historical record, and, due to the inscription being damaged, it’s missing the first letter. Linguistic reconstruction reveals that the missing letter would be “C”. The inscription and accompanying image were carved onto a pillar dated to approximately 14 AD. The pillar, known as the “Pillar of the Boatmen”, was discovered in the early 18th century at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The image shows a face, antlers, and two torcs hanging from the antlers.
Cernunnos is the conventional name given in Celtic studies to depictions of the “horned god” of Celtic polytheism. Over two dozen examples of his imagery have been found from the Gallo-Roman period, mostly in north-eastern Gaul as well as among the Celtiberians. Cernunnos is depicted in generic human form with antlers, seated cross-legged, and is associated with stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls, and rats. He is usually holding or wearing a torc.
Details about his name, his followers, or his significance in Celtic religion are unknown, due to the lack of extant literature. Interpretations of his role vary from seeing him as a god of animals, nature and fertility, the guardian of the underworld, to a god of travel, virility and wealth.
The Horned God?
While being referred to as the ‘Horned God’ by Wiccan and Neo-Pagan thought, linguistically, ‘Cernunnos’ translates to ‘Horned One.’ The amalgamation of Pan, Herne the Hunter, and Cernunnos is also relatively new, and the idea’s roots can be traced to a book from 1929 by R. Lowe Thompson (The History of the Devil or the Horned God of the West). In Wicca, they are seen as aspects of one God, “the Horned God.” But this is not how he is represented to Celtic polytheists; he is solely, ‘horned.’
Lord of the Wild Things?
The theory of him being ‘Lord of the animals” is probably arrived at because of the Gundestrup Cauldron, one of many iconographic artifacts depicting Cernunnos. It’s strongly believed in some circles that the animals on the Gundestrup cauldron symbolise the wild, and that Cernunnos is the lord of both the flora and fauna of our world as a result. Aside from the serpent, the dog, and the stag, animals found on other Cernunnos iconography, the other animals seem to serve as only decoration for the cauldron’s panels.
God of Virility?
There is no evidence to support the idea that he is a God of virility, and the image of him with an erect phallus is primarily Wiccan – there are no archeological artifacts depicting him as such. In Margaret Murrays “God Of The Witches” Cernunnos is described as consort to the Goddess. Much of her writing on this has been dismissed at it was theoretical and not factual in basis. Ithyphalic depictions of Cernunnos are a modern construct. Wishful thinking perhaps or borrowed from common depictions of the Greek Horned God Pan.
The Torc is a symbol of status, sovereignty, power and wealth in Celtic society, and Cernunnos is shown to wield one (or more) in a few different artifacts. On the Reims stela, Cernunnos is shown with a bag or gold (or grain – difficult to tell) in his lap – a possible nod to his connection with wealth.
Cernunnos is understood as a complex and powerful god, though he may not have been the head of the Celtic pantheon. Since his earliest origins as Lord of Hunt, he has been associated with animals, abundance, good fortune and virile fertility. However, since the object of the hunt is the death of the prey, and the hunter is sometimes even killed in this life-sustaining pursuit, Cernunnos is recognized as both the God of Death and guardian of the underworld. Irish stories describe Cernunnos (Uindos) as the son of the high god Lugh. He is called a wild hunter, a warrior, and a poet. Source
As so little is really known about Cernunnos, why is he so important? There are many opinions on this (see links below). My personal reasoning and opinion can be found here.
Not Your Mothers Horned God : The Cernunnos Primer