"The Bull and the Three Cranes"
On the Sailors' Pillar of Notre Dame (ca. 17 CE) are reliefs depicting two scenes: the first being the Gallic god Esus cutting branches off a tree; the second being a bull with three cranes on his back, standing by a tree. The two reliefs are inscribed "ESVS" and "TARVOSTRIGARANOS". There is also a third relief of a horned god, called Cernunnos (inscribed "ERNENOS"), and a relief of Smertios, a god holding a club, about to kill a snake. Aside from these, there are also reliefs of Vulcan, Jupiter, and Mars.
A similar relief was found in Trier, wherein Esus is again cutting at a tree, which has three birds and the head of a bull sitting in its branches. There is no apperance of Cernunnos or the other gods, however.
The meaning of these scenes has puzzled scholars.
The god Esus is refered to in only one other place, the Pharsalia of Lucan:
And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus' horrid shrines,
And Taranis' altars cruel as were those
Loved by Diana, goddess of the north
Later commentary (9th c. CE) identifies Esus with either Mars or Mercury, and say that his victims were hung on a tree and bled to death. Now, while I am not discounting that the Celts practiced human sacrifice (they certainly did), there may be other symbolism at work here.
The only other two surviving depiction of Cernunnos is on the Gundestrup Cauldron, and a relief in Reims, which shows him flanked by "Mercury" and "Apollo". The cauldron panel is significant, as there are some similarities between the pillar and the cauldron. As for "Mercury" and "Apollo", these would likely have been the Gallic gods Esus (or possibly Lugus) and Maponos (or Belenus).
First, let's look at the relief of "TARVOSTRIGARANOS" -- we have a tree, a bull, and three cranes. What would these have represented to the Celts? First, the tree was revered by the Celts, and it was in groves that the druids would worship. The word druid may be derived from the word drus -- oak in Greek, but similar to the modern Irish word duir. The tree is a symbol of life -- apple trees are associated with Myrddin, Manannán and Avalon, all of the Otherworld. The tree may have had a similar role to that of the Germanic Yggdrasil -- the World Tree, the axis of the world.
The three cranes have analogues to other groupings of birds. In Welsh myth there are the three birds of Rhiannon, mother of Pryderi, and identifiable with the goddesses Macha and Epona, as well as Modron, mother of Mabon. Rhiannon's birds were sent to show the seven survivors of Prydein the way to the Otherworld. Then in Irish myth there are the three sisters Morrígan, Macha (who is often equated with Rhiannon), and Badb, who appear as ravens on the battlefield. It can then be assumed that the three cranes are the three birds of a powerful goddess, queen of battle, but also mother of the god of light.
Now what of the bull? What leaps first to mind is the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, which brought about the war between Connacht and Ulster, and which caused Morrigan's enmity towards Cuchulainn. It was the death of a white bull which finally put the war to rest, and restored order to Ireland. At the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron's interior, there is a relief of a bull sinking into the ground, dying, as well as a depiction of three bulls about to be sacrificed by three warriors.
At the Roman temple in Maiden Castle (Dorset), there was found a bronze bull with three horns and three women on his back. Some have speculated that this was a Mithraic object, and the similarity between the bronze bull and the reliefs are unmistakable. And what is most important is that Mithraism is based around the belief that Mithra slew the cosmic bull; also, the earliest grade of Mithraism was Corax -- the crow, who is perched on the bull's back:
Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He faces the viewer while half-straddling the back of a bull, yanks the bull's head back by its nostrils with his left hand, and plunges a dagger into the bull's thoat with his right. Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull's testicles. Often the bull's tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull's back. On the viewer's left stands a diminutive male figure named Cautes, wearing the same garb as Mithras and holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer's left there is another diminutive male figure, Cautopates, who is also clad as Mithras is and holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.
-- A typical mithraeum.1
Now, the sacrifice of the three bulls on the Gundestrup Cauldron have what seem to be a dog running beneath each bull. Also, the interior bottom, which depicts the dying bull, shows his slayer -- horned and wearing a cap -- on the bull's back (actually, more like floating above it), with a sword in his hand. There is also what looks like another dog (?) by the bull's head and beneath the bull's feet.
Let us then look at the Tain Bo Cuailnge -- Cuchulainn (hound of Cullen), is son of the god of light Lugh Lamhfada (or possibly an incarnation of Lugh), and defender of Ulster, which has come under siege because of the Brown Bull. Cuculainn's enemies include Morrigan and her sisters, who can change into birds. The death of the white bull (which is actually killed by the Brown Bull) brings about the end of the war.
What we may well have then is a myth similar to that of Mithras -- a Celtic version of the same creation myth. This is not implausable, as the Celts and Persians are, ultimately, derived from the Indo-European stock. This bull-slaying myth, involving birds, dogs, and so on, may have originated in prehistory and elaborated on over the centuries, until the two different forms met again under the Roman Empire. This is all theory, of course, but remember that it was from the cosmic cow Audumla that the giant Ymir nursed, until he was slain by Odin, Vili, and Ve, creating the earth. His blood drowned everything -- including Audumla -- but the gods and the giant Birgelmir. After this flood, the world was created new.
The issue of Odin then brings up Esus. In Odin on Runes (from Håvamål), Odin hangs from Yggdrasil for nine days, pierced by a spear, in order to gain the secret of the runes. This image of a man hanging from a tree as a sacrifice brings to mind what the monks said of Esus' sacrificial victims -- hanging from a tree, wounded and bleeding. Odin was equated with Mercury --a case of interpretatio romana; for one superficial example, our Wednesday is called dies Mercurii (day of Mercury) in Latin. Esus is also equated with Mercury, and so there may have been a common origin for these two deities. Also, remember that the Irish god Lugh (Gallic Lugus) is equated with Mercury -- and Lugh is father of Cuchulainn.
And so, it can be conjectured (but certainly not proven) that Esus was slayer of the bull which sat by the world tree in company of the Triple Goddess in her bird form. From the body of the bull, the world is created, order instituted. This is conjecture -- there is no actual Celtic creation myth recorded, unfortunately.
What then of Cernunnos and Smertios? First, Smertios is depicted as slayer of a serpent. If we compare him to Norse mythology, he is like Thor, slayer of Jormungand. As the thunder god, then, we can equate Smertios with the Gallic god Taranis -- who is also part of the trio described by Lucan above, and equated with the other thunder-god, Jupiter. Taranis is usually depicted carrying a wheel, and there is a god carrying a wheel on the Gundestrup Cauldron; there is a ram-headed serpent at his feet.
The ram-headed serpent is twice shown on the Gundestrup Cauldron, once in the company of Cernunnos, and once in the company of the bull-slayer. However, the bull-slayer -- tentatively identified with Esus -- also resembles Cernunnos, with short bull-like horns. Esus is not Taranis, but the two seem to have been combined on the cauldron.
Cernunnos is the Lord of Animals, and a zoomorphic being. He may have the same origin as Pashupati, one of the names of Shiva, who was also Lord of the Animals (a seal from Mohenjo-Daro shows Pashupati in a position very similar to that of Cernunnos).2
Discrepancy is not surprising, as we have no written, contemporary records by the Celts. What we do have is a few pictures of a bull-slaying, a horned god, and a great tree.
Images of the Esus and Bull reliefs can be seen here:
Image of the Cernunnos relief can be seen here:
Most images of the pillar can also be seen here:
http://jfbradu.free.fr/celtes/les-celtes/cadre-religion-celte.htm NOTE: This site is in French.
Images of the Gundestrup Cauldron are numerous and widespread.
1. Griffin, Alison. "Mithraism." http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/mithraism.htm.
2. MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. NY: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1973. (This book also contains many of the statues and reliefs of Gaul depicting Celtic gods, such as the Sailor's Pillar, as well as the Gundestrup Cauldron.)
"The Cattle Raid of Cooly" Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. Cross & Slover. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1996 (reprint).
"Håvamål" The Poetic Edda. (Many translations; it's also on E2.)
Lucan. Pharsalia: book 1, l.498-502. See http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Pharsalia/book1.html