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The Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Dionysus, the Slavic Veles and Vedic Shiva have snake and bull among their symbols.

Why do these two symbols tend to come together?

It looks to me as though these deities also share some other similarities. They tend to be somehow associated with the Moon, the underworld, fertility, and knowledge (magic).

Although, if we take other characteristic into account, we would probably replace Dionysus with Hermes. Hermes is not associated with the bull but he is associated with snakes, knowledge, and the underworld.

To make my point stronger, I would like to add that all four mentioned deities (Cernunnos, Dionysus, Veles and Shiva) are associated with fertility. Cernunnos and Shiva are both associated with deer or stag. Veles and Shiva are both gods of cattle.

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    Can you elaborate on the idea of replacing Dionysis with Hermes? Not sure where you're going with that.
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 20, 2016 at 17:36
  • @DukeZhou, of course I do not meant that Dionysis is "replaceable" by Hermes. Of course they are very different. What I mean, is that Hermes seems to fit better to the group consisting of Cernunnos, Veles and Shiva. For example Hermes is psychopomp like Cernunnos and Shiva. Veles seems also to have something with underworld.
    – Roman
    Oct 22, 2016 at 16:58
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    @Roman Gotcha. Dionysus definitely has a strong fertility/rebirth connection, and he is slaughtered and consumed like kine or game. That said, I was just reading that the horns on the Mercury symbol represent the wings on his hat, but they sure look like horns to me, and he is associated with bovines in that he stole Apollo's cattle...
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 26, 2016 at 18:17
  • Formally seen, the question seems to be 'why do Indo-European deities share some traits' which is rather trivial. But more substantially the association is dubious.
    – sand1
    Sep 6, 2017 at 16:53

4 Answers 4

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This is only a partial and working answer until I can look into Cerunnos, Veles, and Shiva.

My first inclination is that this is a case of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. These four gods have associations with those two animals, and so you posit they must be a related. However, there's no telling when these gods developed these characteristics and whether they're primordial or just highlighting two accidental convergences.

Let's take a look at the Greek side, since I know that best.

First of all, snakes have long been a symbol of immortality. Think of the snake in the Garden of Eden or the Gilgamesh epic who snatch away immortality from Adam and Eve or Gilgamesh, respectively.

In the Iron Age, Dionysus developed a cult of immortality around him, one of the several savior cults around the Mediterranean. The most solid evidence comes the 400s, but it likely developed earlier. Multiple tablets attest to Dionysus' power to rescue souls from the Underworld. This could have given Dionysus his serpentine associations. (Cole, 338ff.)

As far as the bull goes, this is likely Mycenaean in origin and probably predates any the snake associations. Cattle are sacred to Dionyus at Cynathea in Arcadia, which has an unusual feast to him there (from Theoi):

(Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 19. 2) "The most notable things here [at Kynathea, Arkadia] include a sanctuary of Dionysos, to whom they hold a feast in the winter, at which men smeared with grease take up from a herd of cattle a bull, whichever one the god suggest to them, and carry it to the sanctuary. This is the manner of their sacrifice."

He is also called "bull-faced" in the Orphic hymns, paralleling the epithets for Hera (cow-faced) and Athena (owl-faced, or possibly gray-eyed).

Also, I wouldn't write off Hermes right away. The earliest sources for Hermes after the Odyssey definitely tie him to cattle. In his Homeric Hymn, Hermes steals the cattle of Apollo and then lies about it. He was so clever at it, though, Zeus granted him a position on Olympus. The snake association is actually more tenuous, as the entwined serpents around his staff is rather late iconography, and perhaps comes from Hippocratic symbolism, which in turn developed from the Asclepius cult. (See Wikipedia for a good rundown of the evidence.)

While I haven't looked at the earlier gods, I do think this analysis should lead you to hesitate in positing whether the snake and the bull really do belong together.

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Those Mythologies are Related

Celtic, Greek, Slavic, and Vedic mythologies all stem from a common mythological source, the Proto-Indo-Europeans. So it is entirely possible that the common characteristics you've identified are echos of an older mythology that included a fertility god associated with stags and snakes.

PIE Story

The short version of the Proto-Indo-Eurpeans (PIE) is: in approximately 3500BC the horse was domesticated on the steppes north of the Black Sea. Over the next ~2000 years, the steppe people migrated into, traded with, and profoundly influenced basically every other civilization around, from Tibet to Ireland. (OK, the Tibet influence was small, but certainly one could say from the Punjab to Ireland.)

This history is supported by a robust body of evidence in the form of linguistics, genetics, and archeological remains (Corded Ware Culture, Kurgan Culture, etc.)

PIE Myths

Piecing together the common parts of the various modern mythologies, a (rough) picture of the PIE mythos can be re-created. As an example, they all contain a "Foundation War" between rival factions (Aesir/Vanir, Gods/Titans, Devas/Asuras) where the father-cheif (Odin, Zeus, Indra) leads the winning faction and takes the sacred place (Asgard, Mt. Olympus, Earth) and the losers are not slaughtered, but are instead reduced in status.

Pantheon

The PIE pantheon is pretty sparse, because it's hard to say for certain what this pre-literate society believed, but it's certainly reasonable to propose a link between the gods you identified. Over time, it's likely that stories and attributes shifted, so the idea that Hermes received (or donated!) attributes to/from Dionysus is also reasonable.

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You seem to be overlooking the obvious, that the snake and bull symbols were first and foremost associated with the Mother Goddess (Crete, Egypt), representing renewal and fertility. The ancients naturally recognized that new life comes from the female long before they understood that the male must also be involved. The Egyptian Goddess Hathor was depicted as wearing the sun disk and bull horns on her head, while the Cretans during the same era (about 3500 B.C. onwards) worshipped the snake Goddess, who is also intimately linked to Bull leaping and bull symbolism. Later, as male deities and Sky Gods replaced female deities, we see the sun god Apollo "kill" the serpents of the female Delphic oracle/goddess and take on her traits.

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    Jan 20, 2023 at 18:41
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While all of the answers here provide some information, they are all incomplete in that they fail to acknowledge the meanings for these symbols. In many cultures the world over, snakes are symbols of more than just rebirth, but also great wisdom/awakening (kundalini) - believed to be a creature that could traverse the underworld just as easily as the world of the living. In addition to this, we see mythologies worldwide with stories of the serpent who encompassed the earth - Apep/Apophis (Egyptian,) Jörmungandr (Norse,) Ouroboros (Greek,) Shesha (Hindu,) Antaboga (Javanese.) The parallels with astronomy/astrology in these stories is also worth noting - specifically in relation to the constellations of Ophiuchus & Serpens, Hydra, & Draco. It is also worth mentioning that the cycle of the path of the sun through the seasons follows a sine wave form that has been depicted as a serpent. (Santos Bonacci discusses this at length.)

I also think that the story of the nahash (the serpent on the pole - raised up by Moses in the desert to cure those bitten by “fiery serpents. “Fiery [feathered] serpents” being the seraphim - of which were those “fallen angels” that imparted divine wisdom onto mankind.) should be considered in this discussion as well.

As for the bull, the horn symbolism is most significant, as it was a representation of enlightened consciousness. Much like the halos depicted on the images of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and many others, the horns were seen as evidence of enlightenment or divinity. In the Hebrew language (which has striking similarities with many proto-Indo-European languages, despite being classified as a Semitic language) the word for horn - qeren (קרנ) is often used allegorically to indicate great power of divinity or wisdom. (See Michelangelo’s “Moses” - 1505). Consider too, the astronomical implications for this symbol as it pertains to the constellation of Taurus. As the peoples of earth experienced each astrological age, the art and philosophies that grew up within each respective age tended to rely heavily on symbols from the cosmos. Jesus & the 2 fish in the age of Pisces. Abraham and the ram in the age of Aries. The Taurean Age (c. 4535 BC to c. 1875 BC) was marked by considerable advances in agriculture and a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer to a more agrarian lifestyle. During this time, many myths of sacred bulls (Apis - Egyptian,) (Marduk - Sumerian,) (Nandi - Hindu,) sprung up around these newly agrarian cultures. Symbolizing power, strength, fertility, and wealth, these sacred bulls were often associated with a solar deity as it indicated the beginning of spring and the growth of new crops. (Taurus season)

It is very likely that these symbols grew up around the “Holy Science” of Astrology and the concepts of divine enlightenment as they pertain to the influence of the heavenly bodies of the stars.

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