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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 8

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: January 7th. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,983

This is the second segment of "The Pagan Gods; Old, New and Otherwise", which is part 8 of this essay series "Another History of Modern Paganism -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't".

In this installment, I’m going to take a stab at identifying some of the sources or “monomyths” for the popular neo-Pagan and Wiccan gods and goddesses, and make guesstimates about their age and authenticity. This time, we'll take a look at the Lord of the forest, also known as...

Herne or Cernunnos:

In her book _God of the Witches_, Dr. Margaret Murray theorized that a horned deity was revered by the people of Europe up to the time of the Renaissance, and perhaps into the modern era. This image of a beast-man formed the basis for the Christian accusation that witches worshipped Satan, a horn-bearing mythological character. As evidence, Dr. Murray used ancient artifacts, woodcuts from the Medieval period depicting an antlered or horned figure, and she also found many descriptions of a horned deity or beast-man in her ethnographic studies of the witch trials. Recently, Murray’s assertions have fallen into disfavor. Gerald Gardner may have gotten some ideas for the God of Wicca from Murray, or from James Frazer, who made comparisons of various European gods to those of classic literature. While some of his material has held up under scrutiny, Frazer’s notion of a universal “sacrificial king” or harvest lord has been disproven. So, was there really a Horned God venerated by the Pagans of ancient Europe? Did his worship survive into the present day?

There are numerous archeological and literary references to a horned god / demigod / hero / beast-man found throughout the European territories. They include the cave painting of an antlered figure called “the Sorcerer” in the Trois Freres cave in Ariege, France; the petrogliphs found at Val Camonica, Lombardy, Italy; the silver-plated Gundestrup Cauldron found in Denmark; the Germanic legend about the wild man of the woods; the statues of a horned man discovered with Roman artifacts in France; British coins bearing his image; and the Welsh legends of Gwyn ap Nudd and the Boucca. A carving of an antlered man is still visible on a Neolithic dolmen in Ireland. A bronze amulet with the head of a moose and body of a man was found in Russia. A horned figure was discovered in a Roman fortress in Durham, Northumberland in England, believed to be Celtic and created sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries. All of these images pre-date the Christian legend of Satan as a horned anti-deity.

Other artifacts bear evidence of our ancestors’ reverence for the stag or beast-man figure. Although the famed Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is “only” 950 to 1, 200 years old, an excavation of a Mesolithic settlement in Star Carr, Yorkshire, England was discovered to contain hollowed stag skulls, with antlers intact. These skulls had holes drilled in them to contain thin rawhide straps, to make them wearable as a headdress. There are carvings of a horned or antlered male figure in several churches in western Europe dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. An image of a man with curling ram’s horns was discovered in the basement of Notre Dame Cathedral. A wooden mask with bull’s horns, familiarly called the “’Ooser” was used in ritual folkplays and as a figure of punishment for spouse-abusers in Dorset up to the late 1800s. Some archeologists believe that the antlered images represent a hunting deity, while the horned men were depicted after the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals.

The archetype of the Horned God seems to be quite universal. East India has a legendary Lord of the Beasts called Pashupati or Rhudra who looks amazingly similar to the European deity. In Bhutan and Mexico, stag dancers enact a symbolic ritual sacrifice. A deer Kachina is revered by the Navajo. Found in a Viking hoard was a golden statue of a man with deer’s hooves. The Lapp people have a forest god called Radien Kiedde, pictured as a man with reindeer antlers. There is even a wooden mask of an antlered man from a Native American culture discovered in Oklahoma. If Pan, the Faunus and Dionysus are included, the horned or antlered beast-man can be said to be a worldwide phenomenon.

The word “Cernunnos” likely came from the Roman invasions of the Gaulish lands. This inscription exists on only one written source, the fresco of a man with ram’s horns found under Notre Dame in Paris. There are similar spellings of the name in other locations, including one in Greek, which may refer to the same entity. In Latin, Cernunnos simply means “horned one”. In one Romano-Gaulish carving, a man with horns is standing beside the Roman gods Mercury and Zeus. Since these figures are deified, it’s quite probable that the horned man is also considered to be a god. The more recent English name Herne may derive from the Latin “Corn”, or old French “Cern”, meaning horned. The word “Cornucopia” means “Horn of Plenty”. A ceremony called the “Kirn Supper” was held during the Harvest Home ritual, which involved harvesting grain and baking and eating bread. The Welsh version of Santa Claus is “Sion Cern”. Cerne Abbas is home to the famous chalk carving of the priappic giant above the Cerne River. The original name for Cornwall is Kernow, both of which may refer to a horn. There is a Herne Hill in London and a Herne Bay in southern England. In fact, in Britain alone, there are over sixty references to Herne in place-names, most believed to be pre-Christian. Many people in the U.K. bear the surname Hearn, Herne, O’Hern, Trehern, Hernden, Hobson, Hod or Hood. These latter appellages may come from Robin Hood, hoodening, or ol’ Hod, another name for the Christian devil. Hoodening is also spelled “hodening”, and the word “hod” may also refer to a horn, such as the container used to keep coal.

The horned man, man-deer, man-horse or beast-man is a figure of lore and legend as well. St. Patrick is said to have transformed himself and his companions into deer to hide from his enemies. In one King Arthur tale, Merlin rode a stag into the middle of a wedding celebration. Perhaps these stories originate from an older pre-Christian ritual or legend. The Woodwose, or wild man of the woods, was a popular figure on the coat-of-arms of Norman nobility and in churches found in the British Isles and on the continent. He is sometimes depicted as half-man, half-beast. Some speculate that the name of the horned Dorset ’Ooser mask came from “Grand Wooser”, or woodwose. The beloved tales of Robin Hood include a fight with Guy of Gisborne, a man wearing a whole horse-hide as a hooded cloak. Saint Cornelly, the patron of wild animals, is sometimes shown wearing antlers, and may be a Christianization of Herne or Cernunnos. In recent times, the metaphor of a man wearing stag’s horns meant that his wife had been unfaithful, perhaps an allusion to an earlier fertility ritual. Of course, we all know the colloquial meaning of the word “horny”.

In some aspects Cernunnos is the god of death and the underworld. The legends of the Wild Hunt still exist throughout Britain and Germany, in which a horned huntsman and his riders chase souls of the dead. The hunt was sometimes called the “Family of Herlechinus” or the “Hosts of Herlething”, possibly references to Herne, although these names have also been attributed to the Biblical character Herodias. Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about a huntsman named Herne who worked for King Richard II. This hunter was grievously injured. He was healed by tying a stag’s antlers to his head. After Herne’s eventual death, his ghost appeared in Windsor forest, still wearing the horns. William Shakespeare refers to this same Herne in _The Merry Wives of Windsor_. As with much of the Bard’s work, the play might have a precedent in Celtic mythology. The Horned God may have taken his name from these stories, or it is possible that his identity dates back to a much older Pagan legend.

Anthropologists speculate that pre-Christian shamans wore antlers and animal hides in a ceremony to imitate hunting, thereby attracting deer to their tribal lands. Some believe that these rites were performed as a spirit journey, perhaps to commune with a totem. The original Herne may have represented this concept. Up until the 1920s, Siberian shamans practiced similar rituals, and photographs were taken of them wearing antlered hoods. One of the paintings in the Lascaux cavern in France is of an entity with a bison head and human feet, who appears to be carrying a short hunting bow. He was discovered in 1940. A similar image was etched on a bone found in 1928 in the Pinhole Cave in the Creswell Crags of Derbyshire, England. And let’s not forget the famous “Sorcerer” of Les Trois Freres. These images strongly resemble the masked figure of the stag, bull or horse in many English mummers’ plays and hoodening rituals. These folk customs, documented from the Medieval period onward, could not possibly have used the cave art for inspiration, as the prehistoric carvings and paintings were not re-discovered until much later. Hoodening rites and the cave images existed independently of each other, leading me to conclude that wearing animal skins was an authentic Pagan ritual, etched in primal human memory, which survived into the modern day. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Derby Tup, the Mari Llwyd, the ’Ooser, hoodeners and the stag accompanying some Morris dances may all have derived from the ancient hunting or shamanic practice of a man wearing an animal skin for ritualistic purposes. These customs may also suggest an image seen while in a trance state, or it might represent transformation into an animal. Perhaps hoodening rites were originally intended to mimic a human “becoming” a totem.

The “stag-pole” or “ermula” of Saxon Europe may be a ritual tool which was used for a parallel ceremony. A stag-pole is the skull of a male deer, or a set of antlers, which are affixed to a long wooden staff. It may represent male fertility, a boundary marker, a warning to potential invaders, or an insult to enemies. It could have been used as a grave marker for an important individual such as a shaman. The modern Cornish pellars’ staff or “gwelen” is used as a magical implement. There are still several Stagpole Inns and Stackpole Streets in Britain today. In the late 1800s, a few taverns in the Highgate region of London required customers to swear an oath of fealty on a set of antlers. This custom, called “swearing on the horns”, was perhaps the remnant of an older fraternal rite practiced by huntsmen.

So, was Herne / Cernunnos the original “God of the Witches”? We have no way of knowing for certain. The Horned Lord appears often enough in folklore, artwork, legend, ritual dances, place names, surnames and artifacts to believe that he was and is revered by many civilizations. He often appears as a mystical figure related to hunting and death. He was also a character of buffoonery, sexuality and fun, as portrayed by the Greek god Pan, the Basque Basa-jaun and the Roman faun or satyr. Some Wiccans and feminist neo-Pagans believe that the Horned God is the “consort” of the Goddess, but Herne has seldom been connected with any feminine figure. While the Gundestrup Cauldron displays female images, the horned male entity sits alone.

As an amateur historian, I personally believe that hoodening rites and the ritual use of animal skins, skulls, horns or antlers are the “missing link” which connects pre-Christian ceremonies to the modern Pagan worship of the Horned God. Perhaps seekers might try making an excursion to the woodlands to invoke Cernunnos for themselves!

Hey, now you're coming to a fun part... there are TONS of pictures and references to Herne on the internet! Look up museum sites, look up coin collections, look up archeology journals online. There are private collections, stories, plays, and some fairly decent pictures of the cave drawings and carvings. Check out Morris dance sites and hoodening rituals. See if you can find the 'Ooser mask. Are these really old? Or ain't they? You decide!

Copyright: Copyleft 2005 A.C. Aldag. Reproduce as you will. The nice folks here at Witchvox have politely requested that articles not be excerpted until they're off the front page.


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan

Author's Profile: To learn more about A.C. Fisher Aldag - Click HERE

Bio: We've done a similar hoodening ritual here in the States since 1989. I was the Crone. It was typecasting. At the time, the ritual wasn't readily available to be viewed online... the Internet was still in its infancy. I'm told that hoodening is genuinely old, practiced by some of our family members. I've also been told I made it all up. Sooo, go look at the pictures, already!

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