As the archetypal spirit of nature, the image of Cernunnos can be found in Romano-Celtic worship sites throughout the Celtic lands. His role as an animal god and hunter was central to early Celtic religion and has been preserved in folklore and magic to the present day.
The cult of Cernunnos was especially encouraged by the Druids in their attempt to regularize the local Celtic dieties into some sort of pantheon. It was their wish to establish him as a national, rather than a local diety. The Druids had some success as he was possibly the nearest the Celts got to a universal father god within their fragmented system of worship.
He is portrayed on many Celtic artifacts and works of art as far back as they can be recovered. The Gundestrup Cauldron is probably the best known piece, containing, as it does, what has become the most widely published Celtic scene ever, a depiction of Cernunnos sitting cross-legged in the company of a stag and a boar, holding a torc in his right hand and a snake in his left. Cernunnos was invoked in many Celtic ceremonies and he appeared in many guises. He was the randy goat representing the fertility rites of Beltaine, a festival held on the first of May, which marked the beginning of the Celtic summer. He was also the master of the hunt who came to full power in late summer and early autumn. As the guardian of the gates to the Otherworld Cernunnos became associated with wealth and prosperity, although his earlier function had been of a nature diety holding sway over the woodlands, and animals, as well as the active forces of life and death, regeneration and male fertility.
Cernunnos was of such importance to the Celts that the Christian church made him a special target of abuse, taking his image to be that of the Devil, deo falsus or “false god”. This was not a judgment on his attributes, but rather a device for frightening the European populace away from the Old Religion.
His status as a fertility god is of much later origin, he has much less to do with sexuality than popular wisdom would suggest. He is the god of hunting, culling and taking, so that through selection and sacrifice, he is able to utilize the powers of fertility, regeneration and growth to purify and strengthen the animal kingdom.
Stories of Cernunnos are sketchy and come largely from oral sources. Both his image and his name survive in present-day Britain. The former in many rituals and folk dances performed around the countryside, particularly the Abbots Bromley horn dance, and the latter in place names such as Cerne Abbas in Devon, and the legend of Herne the Hunter, a fabled antlered entity said to roam the Forest of Windsor.