Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"


I recently came across the above image by Amdhuscias. It's quite beautiful, don't you think? It depicts the antlered (or horned) god Cernunnos of Celtic mythology. Upon seeing it I was reminded of something I read of this god (or archetype) in my friend Ed Sellner's book The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring – From Gilgamesh to Kerouac.

Shortly after, while researching my post on the pagan origins of All Saints Day, I came across an insightful perspective on Cernunnos by feminist neo-pagan Starhawk in her book The Spiral Dance.

I share the insights of both Ed and Starhawk this evening, starting with the following excerpt from Ed's book, The Double.


Ancient peoples, including the Greeks and Celts, were convinced that eros is a unifying power, a source of creativity and meaning, an opportunity for spiritual growth. It is definitely associated with attractions and needs, both physical and spiritual, which often overlap, especially when people are intimately involved or living in close proximity with each other. For warriors, as we've seen in the stories of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, and Cú Chulainn and Ferdiad, the battles and wars in their lives brought them closer together than probably any other situation might, and because of their deep friendship as well as their crucial dependence on each other for survival itself, many of them responded both emotionally and physically.

The ancients, especially the Celts, thus knew the power of eros, acknowledging the inherent mystery of attraction and celebrating it in stories, rituals, and dance. They knew that attraction contains all sorts of elements – from childhood experiences, dream figures, fantasies, to the basic human need to touch and be touched. They knew too that, among both women and men, some might be more strongly pulled to the opposite or to the same gender as themselves, while some might be drawn to both. This, the ancients thought, was a matter of personality and taste, like the preference for red wine rather than white. They didn't divide people nor themselves as we do today into strict categories labelled "heterosexual" or "homosexual." They simply acknowledged erotic feelings in relationships when they became aware of them, and were grateful for them as a sign of genuine love. They recognized that although eros can be expressed genitally, and at times self-indulgently, its presence is also a manifestation of the deeper levels of the soul, and of the soul's needs for wholeness and meaning, friendship and community. They did not seek to demonize eros or erotic attraction as the later Christians did by turning the god Cernunnos into Satan himself, replacing the stag horns of the Celtic god of fertility in art, icons, and spiritual literature with demon's horns, tail, and cloven feet.

Contrary to the religious formation many of us received which made us wary of anything related to sexuality, certain of our friendships, including male friendships, will have an erotic quality to them – as the ancient Celts realized. They were grateful for this life-giving energy, expressed in their pagan devotion to Cernunnos, the archetype of sensuality and the instinctual world. As that powerful archetype, Cernunnos can be found in all of us: in our desire at times to shed our cloths and be naked in the rich presence of nature, to be one with the landscape; to be naked, like our first parents who walked the earth, naked as when we were first born, naked as when we had our first sexual intimacies. To demonize Cernunnos, or to repress him into unconsciousness only gives him extraordinary power to erupt unexpectedly and perhaps inappropriately at times or to hurt us with a poison in our system that makes us ever more self-destructive. Cernunnos needs to be integrated into our spirituality and daily lives.




The ancient Celts did not limit the erotic to the human body alone. Their eros included the beautiful landscape in which they lived which caused them to be filled with wonder and awe at its mysterious beauty and power. They believed that the rivers and trees had a melodious voice and that one could hear music in the moving waters and rustling leaves. The positive side of their erotic traditions included a profound appreciation of physicality, of natural beauty – whether in nature or in the feminine and masculine expression of beautiful bodies. Above all, their sexuality was perceived as a sacred phenomenon, including even when Celtic men expressed themselves with one another as bed-partners or simply as friends.

We today can learn from them, or we can try to contain our eros, as St. Kevin and later Celtic saints did, with cold baths, sparse diets, sleepless nights, and immersion in our work. For many of us, however, our struggle is not to suppress our passions, but to somehow find ways of channeling them into creative expressions of our love and spirituality, of our soul.





If a man had been created in
the horned God’s image
he would be free to be wild
without being cruel,
angry without being violent,
sexual without being coercive,
spiritual without being unsexed,
and truly able to love.

Starhawk
Excerpted from The Spiral Dance


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
The Devil We (Think) We Know
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Edward Sellner on the Archetype of the Double and Male Eros, Friendships and Mentoring
In the Garden of Spirituality – Diarmuid Ó Murchú
In the Garden of Spirituality – James B. Nelson
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
The Dancer and the Dance
Manly Love
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Rockin' with Maxwell
Learning from the East
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son

Recommended Off-site Links:
Concerning Cernunnos (Part 1)Musings from Gelli Fach (July 23, 2011).
Concerning Cernunnos (Part 2): Accessing the Fruits of the WildMusings from Gelli Fach (July 27, 2011).

Image 1: Amdhuscias.
Image 2: Artist unknown.
Image 3: "Cernunnos Rising" by Ceruleanvii.
Image 4: Valerie Herron.
Image 5: "Lord of the Woodland" by Helena Nelson Reed.


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