The Horned God is a modern syncretic term used amongst Wiccan-influenced Neopagans, which unites numerous male nature gods out of such widely-dispersed and historically unconnected mythologies as the Celtic Cernunnos, the Welsh Caerwiden, the English Herne the Hunter, the Hindu Pashupati, the Greek Pan and the satyrs, and even the Paleolithic cave painting "the Sorcerer" in the Trois-Frères (Cave of the Three Brothers) in France.
Development of an idea
The idea that all such horned images were of deities and that they represented manifestations of a single Horned God, and that Christianity had attempted to suppress his worship by associating him with Satan, developed in the fashionable 19th-century Occultist circles of England and France. Eliphas Levi's famous illustration (right) of Baphomet in his Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (1855) accompanied the first suggestions to this effect. Levi's image of "Baphomet" is reflected in most depictions of the Devil made since. Symbolism is drawn from the Diable card of the 17th and 18th century Tarot of Marseille: the bat-winged, horned and hoofed figure with female breasts, perched upon a globe; Levi added the caduceus of Mercury at his groin, moved the flaming torch to crown his head and had him gesture towards lunar crescents above and below.
This was not an evil figure, Levi contended, but a god of the old world, driven underground and condemned as a figure of witchcraft by hostile Christianity. Figures such as Aleister Crowley and Margaret Murray took up this suggestion and blended it with an adaptation of cultural anthropologies such as that of James Frazer. Where Frazer saw modern folklore and folk customs as the echoes of forgotten agricultural rituals, authors such as Murray and other members of the Folklore Society saw an esoteric fertility cult, a secret tradition driven underground and suppressed by Christianity. Margaret Murray suggested that Christian reports of witches meeting in the woods with Satan were actually pagans with their priest wearing a horned helmet to invoke their Horned God (Murray 1921). These themes shaped the modern concept of the Horned God revered by some neopagan groups today.
Sacred horned or antlered animals that signalled the numinous presence of a deity were ubiquitous in the ancient world, and certain scholars have criticised worshippers who blur "the very important distinctions between a god named, described, represented, and worshipped in animal form, a real animal worshipped as a god, animal symbols and animal masks in the cult, and finally the consecrated animal destined for sacrifice." (Burkert 1985 p 64). Many sacred bulls and goats, sacred stags and ibexes serve as examples. Not all horned gods and their priests were male; Astarte and Isis (borrowing an attribute from Hathor), for example, were sometimes depicted with horns.
The Horned God is associated with woods, wild animals, and hunting. He is often also associated with sexuality or male virility. As a symbol of sexuality, the Horned God represents one of the most elemental forces in Nature, and is therefore complementary to female fertility deities known collectively as the Great Mother.
Another name for the Horned God is The Hunter. He is a symbol not only of the giving of life, but the taking of life too, in what is seen as a great and eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. He sometimes carries a bow.
The Horned God is always portrayed with horns or antlers, which are of course his distinguishing feature. The God's horns are considered symbols of male potency, strength and protection. Sometimes they are seen in a sense as phallic symbols. The horn has been a religious symbol for thousands of years. An altar made entirely of stag horns was built in the temple of Apollo at Delos, and temples to the Goddess Diana usually contained horns as well. The horn is also seen as a symbol of fruitfulness and bounty, as in the Horn of Plenty.
He is often portrayed with an erect phallus. The phallus is itself a symbol of the power to create life. Another symbol of his sexual prowess and virility is the occasional presence of cloven hoofs or the hindquarters of a goat. The goat itself is considered a symbol of sexuality.
It is worth noting that the wizard Merlin was also sometimes associted with the Horned God, perhaps due to an older origin before the two developed their eventual and individual identities. He was often seen in the company of stags, and himself was sometimes described with stag-like attributes. Futhermore, in at least one account he interrupted a wedding by riding into the assemblage atop a great stag, drunk and very belligerent.
During the rise of Christianity, a depiction of Satan as a horned and hoofed goat-like monster holding a trident, adopted from Greek Pan, became popular. By adopting the image of the Horned God and transforming it into an image of the Devil, the Christian church implied that paganism was evil. The similarity does not extend beyond the image, of course; while Judeo-Christian Satan is described as a fallen angel and essentially evil, the pagan Horned God is believed to be a force of nature, neither entirely benevolent nor entirely malevolent: In his role as Father, he is said to give life, but in his role as Hunter, he is also said to take life. Positive aspects of the Horned God are re-attributed to Satan by the Church of Satan and similar branches of modern Satanism.
Post Christian depictions
Belief in and worship of the Horned God waned almost to extinction by the 19th century, although vestiges remained in local customs, particularly in the countryside. Ghost stories of Herne the Hunter and reverence of St. Cornus would be the strongest pre-wiccan remnants of the Horned God. He makes a late appearance in art referred to in the moonlit last act of Giuseppe Verdi's final opera, Falstaff.
Gerald Gardner began Wicca in England as what he saw as a revival of ancient Pagan worship, focused on the duality of the Great God and the Great Mother. It should be noted, however, that Wicca is little based on historical findings and is mixture of many influences from Gardner's time, instead of being a reconstruction of any one culture or religion. Today Wicca and other Neopagan religions claim about 1,000,000 adherents.
In modern Wicca, "The Horned God" can refer to any of these individually, or to the universal archetype Wiccans believe they represent. In this context, he is sometimes referred to as the "Great God" or the "Great Father". He impregnates the Goddess, and then dies during the autumn and winter months and is reborn in spring, while the Goddess lives on always as Mother Earth, giving life to the Horned God as he goes through the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
- Wood, Juliette "The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Traditions: A Study in Modern Legend Making": Folklore, Vol. 109, 1998
- Burkert, Walter Greek Religion 1977 (1985) Cambridge:Harvard University Press)
- The Horned God in India and Europe.