I remember as a child, my mother was fairly vocal about her Irish heritage. Even then, I felt a mysterious connection to my ancestors. In my quest, I bought my Mother a book “Irish tales of Terror.” My mother did not appreciate anything relating to “horror/terror” but I did read it, when she did not. It had standard tales such as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy regains girl with their kingdom living happily ever after. My interests(which would not fully develop until I was much older) fell mostly upon tribal lines. Fearing death from a young age, the banshee held my interest with fascination.
The banshee signified death. It could often be heard by the older members of the household, while the young ones would hear nothing. As I grew older my interests expanded to other aspects of Celtic and Norse culture. I noticed similarities between the banshee and the Celtic Wild Hunt. Usually it was only heard by the older members of the household or travelers. It was always an indication of doom. It was made famous in Wagner’s “ride of the Valkyries” and is lead by Odin in the Norse religion.
In the Celtic Religion, it is called the Aes Sidhe, where the Sidhe(Faery folk) emerge as a host from their hollow hills at the eve, of the great fire festivals Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane, and LughnaSadh. Amongst the fearies their would be hounds, horses, various animal followers and its leader. When you see the wild hunt, you are expected to throw yourself upon the ground, averting your eyes and quaking with fear, until the procession has passed. If you do not do this, you will join the wild hunt.
In the Celtic Tradition, Horned Cernunnos leads the wild hunt. An ancient figure in Celtic Mythology whose known depictions date back to the Paleolithic age. Even the cave drawings associate him as a horned male God closely associated with snakes and stags. His main attributes are fertility, produce, and an obvious Phallic symbol.
Cernunnos can also draw various references(some real, some imagined) from various Gods and Pantheon’s across Europe. Possibilities include Odin, Frey, Green Man, Pan, Minotaur, Herne the Hunter, and the Arthurian Green Knight.
Cernunnos Horns and his color of nature(Green) are so distinctive that he was made into the image of the Devil during Christian conversion. The artwork in Dante’s inferno shows a green devil with stag like horns. St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, is a representation of the Christian removal of the Druids. Whose symbol was the snake, an animal closely associated with Cernunnos.
Devotes of Cernunnos follow a life/fertility/Death cycle celebrated on his death at Samhain October 31, of the Gaelic New Year. Which leads into the next story.
A piece of Arthurian legend passed down after the Christian conversion tells the tale of Sir Gwain and the Green Knight. It begins with the mysterious Green Knight entering King Arthur’s Court. The Green Knight challenges any of Arthur’s Knights to take up the axe he had brought and remove the Green Knight’s head. Only to be given a return blow on his own neck, one year from the day(New Years Day) at the Green Chapel(presumably at the Green Knight’s residence). Sir Gwain accepts the challenge and easily removes the Green Knight’s head with the axe. After the removal of his head, the Green Knight remains animated while walking and talking. He picks up and begins to carry around his head. Eventually he leaves King Arthur’s court reminding Sir Gwain to meet him in one year. Through a series of adventures(and misadventures) Sir Gwain retains his honour.
The Story of the Green Knight has many obvious references to the Celtic nature of Cernunnos. It reminds us of the color, cycles of life, and the date. The color green is an obvious reference to the Cernunnos color of nature. The removal of the head, on New years day(Samhain) represents the seasonal cycle of Cernunnos’ nature. With the winter following autumn which will destroy all naturally green plant life. Only to resurrect itself the following spring and Summer.
The Final story I wish to share on the subject is Herne the Hunter. A Horse mounted Ghost, Herne the Hunter wonders the Windsor forest. During the Rein of Richard the 2nd, Herne is employed as a local hunter for the king. During a hunting expedition, the King is attacked by a cornered white hart(deer). Herne, saves the King’s life only to have himself mortally wounded. A local magician(Druid?) can save Herne’s life by attaching the stag’s horns on his head and forcing him to give up hunting, upon which Herne accepts. Without his favored pass time, Herne soon becomes mad and runs into the forest. Soon, he is found dead. Apparently he hung hi mself upon an oak tree.
Often he is seen leading the “wild hunt” in Windsor forest. With a florescent glow, demon hounds, and a horned owl, and various other creatures. His “wild hunt” always signifies doom and especially disaster for the Royal family.
The Windsor forest was settled by Saxons(Germanics) in the middle ages. In their religion, Wotan leads the wild hunt and hung himself from an ash tree to learn the runic alphabet. Herne is often depicted with Runes and gives us a possible glimpse into a No rdic-Celtic religious crossover with a watered down version of Cernunnos. Herne’s wild hunt represents a Banshee like figure and is a fitting story to end with.
The Natural cycle of life, rebirth, and death plays an important role in Cernunnos and is an important concept to our community. Many ignore the teachings of the “wandering mystic” in favor of the “obedient soldier.” However, modern culture is very individualistic and lacks the national unity and traditions already deeply ingrained in previous countries and generations. The voice of our ancestors remains strong to those willi ng to listen and community traditions must be rediscovered in order to maintain and give our people a reminder for a reason to survive.