Another week, another set of patch notes. This time around, Cernunnos, the Horned God – a hunter from the Celtic pantheon – joins the battlefield. This makes him the second god in the Celtic pantheon, joining The Morrigan – a mage. Rather than focus on the specifics of his kit, let’s spend some time going over his role in the Celtic mythos. The question we are looking to answer in this series is a simple one: does the myth match the SMITE god?
What’s in a Name?
To name something is to attempt to understand it. In the case of the horned god, his name actually dates to a single item – the Pillar of the Boatmen. What is the Pillar of the Boatmen, you ask? It is a stone pillar dating back to the early part of the 1st century AD that once stood as part of a temple in the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, which would later become Notre-Dame de Paris. You might have heard of it. The Pillar of the Boatmen is notable for depicting both Gallic and Roman gods, and for being one of the earliest instances of Gaulish art to also contain writing. It is this pillar that carries the only undisputed instance of the name Cernunnos being tied to the horned deity. The picture accompanying the epitaph was a male figure with the horns of a young stag, each bearing a torc.
Even then, the first letter was obscured, leaving only _ernunnos The name Carnonos was seen as Celtic inscription in Greek language. The Proto-Celtic name is constructed as either Carno-on-os or Cerno-on-os. It is more likely the former, as the word for horn was carn. To further complicate matters, a metal plaque found in Luxembourg, former Celtic Treveri territory, bears an inscription of Deo Ceruninco – to the God Cerunincos. Beginning in the 18th century, drawings of the Pillar of the Boatmen carried the name Cernunnos, which is has been taken as the name in the time period since. Unfortunately, the name has become a bit muddled, and is used for every depiction of horned/antlered gods in Celtic folklore from that time forward. This definitely poses an issue.
Why Does it Have to be Snakes?
While the horned-snake is a big deal in native american cultures, it does make an appearance in northwest Europe during the Roman period. Myths regarding the creature are numerous and varied. The Muscogee depict is as an underwater creature with iridescent, crystalline scales, a large crystal in the center of its heads, and stag-like helms. The scales had properties of divination, and the antlers were powerful medicinal components. The horned snake was not an evil or harmful creature, but possessed the power to control game creatures. The Alabama people had four classifications of horned snakes, based on color. The Yuchi people saw the creature as blue with yellow horns, and was related to lightning, thunder, storms, rainbows, and disease.
The Cherokee had a yet different legend, naming it as Uktena – a gargantuan snake as large around as a tree trunk with horns, a brilliant diamond on its head, scales that glowed like fire, with rings and spots along its length. Legends said you could only harm it by hitting it in the seventh spot, where its heart and soul were vulnerable. When you killed it and claimed the diamond for your own, you became a legendary craftsmen. However, the brilliance of Uktena was such that someone looking upon it went mad, and was lured recklessly towards it. To make things worse, Uktena had a pestilent breath that would be unleashed upon those threatening it. Oh, and if you came across Uktena asleep, it cursed your family, condemning them to death. Not an ideal situation.
In Gallic-Roman depiction, the horned snakes were seen as servants of the Celtic gods. Chiefly, it was depicted with our buddy Cernunnos. In fact, it was his most prevalent iconography, next to the torc. He was sometimes depicted with two horned serpents which he would feed with corn mash and fruit. There are even a few instances of Cernunnos’s legs actually being two horned serpents. He wasn’t alone among the Celtic gods for being associated with snakes, as other gods associated with the sky or sun also bear the horned serpents.
As you go further east, it’s interesting to note that the horned serpent becomes sinister once more, matching closely the legends of the Uktena, particularly in the Northern Europe/Southern Scandinavia region. There, you get legends of the Lindorm (lindwurm). It is a combination of the watery version and the deadly, deadly version – including the death on sight part. You know who’s a Lindorm? Jörmungandr, that’s who. The word linnorm was co-opted by D&D, where the name refers to ancient, primeval dragons. The baddest of the bad.
Thus ends the primer on the horned serpent.
Where Do You Come From?
If you know Irish folklore, you know Cú Chulainn, hero of the Ulster Cycle and incarnation of the warrior-god Lugh (praise the sun). Cú Chulainn had a foster brother named Conall Cernach. Cernach can be translated as meaning “angular; victorious; bearing a prominent growth.” It’s possible the cern root comes from this name, but that’s a semantic argument. In one tale – Táin Bó Fraích, “The Driving-off of Fraech’s Cattle – there is an anti-climatic ending. The castle that Fraech and Conall are storming is guarded by a mighty serpent. Instead of an epic battle, Conall walks up and the serpent is all, “Hey buddy, let’s hang out,” and decides to hang out as Conall’s belt from that point forward. Conall then plunders the heck out of the fort, taking all of its possessions for his own. It is also believe that Conall is the same person as Cernunnos.
Nailing down what exactly Cernunnos is the god of isn’t an easy task. Most sources agree he was the Lord of the Animals, or the Lord of Wild Things. He is sometimes seen as a peaceful god of nature and fruitfulness. However, this isn’t all he is about. Due to the prominence of nature in the life of the Celtic people, most deities were deities of animals and nature, so this isn’t exactly a defining trait. He was also depicted carrying bags of coins, sometimes even vomiting coins, and having domain over travelers. Not only that, but he is considered to have domain over the underworld and its hidden treasures. To strengthen that link, serpents were often used to depict domain over subterranean treasures.
To bring this all together, most scholars actually believe Cernunnos is the Gallic version of Dis Pater. Julius Caeser even said that Dis Pater was their ancestor. If you aren’t familiar with Dis Pater, he a Roman god of wealth, treasure, and the underworld. Over time, he become more and more associated with Hades, until he was eventually subsumed by Pluto. He was said to rule the underworld with his wife Proserpina, and was often used as a way to refer to death itself.
The Gall of it All
Maybe you aren’t convinced by any of the above. Let’s look a little further into it. Cernunnos was said to be born in the winter, marry the goddess at Beltane (May Day), and then die at the summer solstice or in fall. This is incredibly similar to the story of Hades/Persephone or Dis Pater/Proserpina. This seasonal approach to life and death, albeit one that is altered slightly to place the onus on Cernunnos, though that is likely because the mother goddess in question is not quite as prominent in memory and folklore, so the role was likely shifted to the more important god.
If you recall the tale of Persephone, you know that Hades made her eat six pomegranate seeds before she left the underworld. Beings who eat food of the underworld cannot leave, and so Persephone must spend one month for each seed she ate with Hades. Think back to the early mention of Cernunnos being depicted with corn mash and fruit. It’s hardly a coincidence that Cernunnos is linked with similar foods, and that the partaking of the food in question is part of worshiping him and is tied to the seasons.
Like a Version
Well, looking at the available scholarly works, the version of Cernunnos that appears in SMITE does not closely resemble the mythological depictions. Sure, we get a horned god, but one that is more WoW-Satyr like than the human-with-horns historical depiction. Cernunnos was often referred to as the Lord of Animals or Lord of Wild Things, but this was less important than his role as the Dis Pater analog. There were a lot of horned gods in Celtic mythology, including a rad double-faced Janus analog with a lot of little horns. This Lord of Animals/Wild Things title is likely one that became attributed to him over time – much as Dis Pater eventually become more and more like Hades/Pluto. As far as the hunter part goes, the myths around him would make him more of a warrior or a guardian, maybe even a mage. I understand that The Morrigan was already a mage, which makes sense given her oracular/trickster role, so moving away from that role is more than reasonable. Hunter, however, just doesn’t strike the right tone with me.
It appears as if the team decided to go with the Actaeon analog instead of the others, in which he is a heroic hunter transformed into a stag by Artemis – punishment for seeing her naked – and was subsequently torn asunder by his hunting dogs. Cernunnos even turns people into boars, and we all know the rage of Artemis can be expressed as punishment-by-boar. This myth isn’t all that prevalent, however, and is much more of a Hellenistic thing than a Celtic thing. Even if this was the basis, where’s the dogs, man? Why is it all just about thorns and wild stuff? I would guess just because of thistles and the Lord of Wild Things title?
This definitely seems like an easy, surface interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, the design on this god is really cool, and the kit is possibly ridiculous (remains to be seen). I just don’t think this is a case where myth and SMITE mesh all that well.