The Stag in Ancient Celtic Culture

Stag on the Watch – By Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) – Public Domain Image

The stag in Celtic mythology is a symbol of the forest. It grows antlers that resemble branches on a tree. It looks as if it carries the forest around with it crowned on its head. The stag is fast, powerful and agile and sexually vigorous. This represents the the energy of nature which is self regenerating. The shedding of its antlers in the autumn and their regrowth in the spring is like the seasonal cycle of the forest trees which shed their leaves each autumn and regrow them each spring.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

Part of Gundestrup Cauldron Depicting Cernunnos – Derivative work: Fuzzypeg – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One of the finest relics of the Celts is the Gundestrup cauldron. This is a Iron Age silver work cauldron that was found near the Danish village of Gundestrup. The cauldron is ornately decorated with many fine figures of gods, animals and images of nature. Cernunnos, the stag horned god of the Celts is depicted sitting cross legged next to a stag. On another part of the cauldron there is a depiction of a god holding a stag with each hand.

Highly Regarded

The stag appears to be highly regarded in Celtic society and held in reverence over a widespread area. In Luxembourg a depiction of a stag with coins flowing from its mouth has been found.

A carved stone figure found in Rhiems depicts Cernunnos with a stag and a bull that are drinking from a. stream of coins. This is believed to mean that stags are associated with prosperity.

As can be expected, in many areas the stag is associated with hunting. The stag would have played an important part in the economy of the Celtic people. Its flesh provided food, its skin provided clothing and coverings, and its bones provided, tools and weapons such as arrowheads.

In northern Britain, Cocidius, the hunter god, was associated with the stag. In the south of Britain, around Colchester, Silvanus the woodland king, also known as Silvanus Callirius, was associated with the stag.

At a mountain shrine at Le Donon, in the Vosges dedicated to a nature or hunter god. His image was carved in stone showing him wearing the hide of an animal and he had fruit hanging from him. Next to him stands a stag and he has his hand placed on its antlers in what seems to be an act of benediction.

The Celtic Relationship With Nature

Images of hunting and of the forest are shown next to images of prosperity. It shows the relationship and respect the hunter has for the hunted and in doing so reveals much about the Celtic mindset and their relationship with nature.

Burgundy was believed to have been a horse breeding region during Celtic times and a place where the stag horned Cernunnos was revered. A sculpture made by the Aedui tribe shows a “divine couple.” A god and goddess, are shown apparently presiding over the animal kingdom. They are shown in a sitting position next to each other with their feet resting on two stags. Next to the god is a horse that is being offered a drink from a goblet. The goddess is offering a goblet to a horse by her side to drink from, while petting it.

The stag in Celtic terms was a representation of the natural world and the animal kingdom. The antlers are a reminder that nature can be dangerous and violent. It can be violent and harmful, but it can be benign and beneficial. They stag is also a symbol of male fertility, the fertility of the forest and the renewal of nature. As such it played an important role in Celtic society and culture representing the Celtic relationship with nature and the animal kingdom.

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans

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2 thoughts on “The Stag in Ancient Celtic Culture

  1. When I was a child I read the book “What Stag” about the Huns. I loved it and have been entranced by them every since. Last summer on a train trip from Denver to Chicago I found myself gazing out the train window after a tremendous storm. Rain was dripping from everything, but the sun had broken through the clouds and the wind was carrying off the worst of it. As we passed an abandoned warehouse that looked as if it had burnt to the ground decades ago, there beneath what was left of a storage shed roof stood a great stag. Huge antlers and a brilliant white breast. It appeared he’d taken refuge underneath the overhang to wait the storm out. The experience was over in a flash, but I think of that moment often. A bit of a magic on a long journey.

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