Cernunnos and Flidais by Sheena McGrath

Flidais is still less well known than she should be, but Cernunnos, thanks in part to Wiccan theology, is a very famous god.

It’s tempting to put them together as a Wiccan-style divine couple, but Flidais is Irish, while Cernunnos is a Gaulish god who is best known from art found in Paris and Rheims, as well as the plaque on the Gundestrup Cauldron, whose origins are debated but is probably Thracian ware made for a German customer. Still, they do have a great deal in common, including wild animals, riches, and fertility. Both have the deer as their animal.

Cernunnos

This god, whose named means “Horned One”, comes mainly from Gaul, although similar images of a horned god have been found in Spain. His horns are those of a stag, suggesting wild animals and also a ruler. His name means “Horned One”, the -on particle making a name out of an adjective, as in Maponus, Great Son, or Sirona, Great Star.

In all, about 50 images of a horned god have been found, mainly in northeastern Gaul, but only one of these gives us a name. The Boatmen’s Pillar, now in Paris, has a number of images of Celtic gods, including a horned god named as [C]ernunnos. (The name was intact when the pillar was discovered in 1710, but now the initial C has worn away.)

Similar names turn up on a plaque from Luxembourg “to the God Cerunincos” and another from Montingac reading “Alletinos [dedicated this] to Carnonos of Alisontea”, so Cernunnos or something very similar was the common name for him.

He’s usually shown sitting cross-legged, sometimes surrounded by animals. Other images, such as one found at Rheims, show him pouring coins out of a sack. He must have been a god of prosperity and commerce as well as natural abundance, which may be why the Boatmen put him on their pillar.

Torcs are another attribute; he wears them on his horns in Paris, around his neck at Rheims, and if it is him on the Gundestrup Cauldron, holds one in his hand. Another possible statue of him, from Etang-sur-Arroux, also sports a torc around its neck and holds a snake. The torc suggests aristocracy and riches, the serpent possibly the underworld and wisdom.

Both the figure on the cauldron and the Arroux statuette hold a ram-headed serpent. This and the Buddha-like pose are unique to Cernunnos. Another image with these attributes pre-dates the Roman conquest. An image from Pasapardo in Northern Italy shows a horned god with a torc on each arm and a ram-headed serpent, dating from 4th century BCE.

Nor was he ever given a Roman name or epithet, unlike many Gaulish deities. He may have been the Dis Pater who was ancestor of all the Gauls (according to Julius Caesar). His connections to the wild and the hunt suggest Silvanus, and the commercial and underworld aspects point to Mercury. Perhaps he was just too complex to be easily assimilated.

A much rarer form of horned deity is a horned goddess, although apparently several little figurines have been found in France. Mrs. Cernunnos, maybe?

Flidais

The Irish goddess Flidais wasn’t horned, although she had similar powers over wild animals. She was surnamed Foltcháin, “beautiful (or soft) hair”. She had a magical cow, the Maol, as well as herds of cattle and of deer.

She is usually considered a goddess of abundance (cows were wealth), sovereignty, feasting, magic, hunting and sexuality. Her dual nature, exemplified in the cows and deer, mingles the domesticated with the wild.

The Cóir Annam (The Fitness of Names) tells us that she was one of the Tuatha de Danann, the race of gods who ruled Ireland. She has her own story, a prologue to the Táin Bó Cúailnge called the Táin Bó Flidhais or the Cattle Raid of Flidais.

The story tells how Flidais had an affair with the prodigious hero Fergus, who was also carrying on with Queen Medb. To make matters worse, Flidais’s husband and Fergus met in combat, and Fergus was captured. Flidais freed him and they fled, leaving the fort undefended. She brought her herds with her to Fergus’ camp, where the magical cow the Maol could feed 200 men from a single milking.

Milking was an important theme in Flidais’ myths: the Cóir Annam tells how she taught her son to milk deer as well as cows. She also had a bloody side, as a goddess of the hunt, and her name, which can be translated as “moisture” might relate to either milking or the blooding ceremony after a successful hunt.

Flidais is one of several deer-women in Irish myth and legend, but she also has characteristics in common with Manannan and the Dagda. Like them, she uses magic, is known for her feasts, and is the only woman who can sexually satisfy the gigantic Fergus. (Flidais or any seven other women, apparently.)

Her daughters show various aspects of their mother’s character: Bé Chuille, a druidess, and Bé Téite, whose name means “wanton” or else “assembly, gathering”. Fand, also known for her beautiful hair, was the hero Cúchulainn’s lover, and Manannan mac Lir ended their affair by shaking a cloak between them, just as Flidais did between her husband and Fergus when she tried to make peace between them.

Schjodsted links Flidais and the god Tethra, who owned the fish in the sea, seeing both as going back to the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity. Cernunnos, too, seems to have developed in pre-agricultural times, perhaps as master of animals and god of the underworld.

Resources:
Bober, Phyllis Fray (1951). “Cernunnos: Origin and Transformation of a Celtic Divinity”. American Journal of Archaeology 55 (1): 13–51.
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
MacLeod, Sharon Paice 2011: Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs, Mcfarland & Co.
The Tain bo Flidais (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A1in_B%C3%B3_Flidhais)
The Fitness of Names (http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/fitness_of_names.html)
Deo Mercurio on Cernunnos (http://www.deomercurio.be/en/cernunnos.html)
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise 2000: Celtic Gods and Heroes, Dover Publications.
The National Museum of Denmark on the Gundestrup Cauldron
(http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-early-iron-age/the-gundestrup-cauldron/the-dating-and-origin-of-the-silver-cauldron/)
The Boatmen’s Pillar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_the_Boatmen)

You can read more of Sheena’s work on mythology and the gods and goddesses of various traditions on her blog We Are Star Stuff.

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