Essay: The Horned God: His Lore and Worship

(Written in 2009. My views have continued to evolve since then, but much written here still holds true.)

As the winter solstice approaches,  I’d like to spend some time writing about one intimately connected to this season, The Horned God, by whatever name you choose to call him (Cernunnos, Herne, etc) as viewed by a contemporary Pagan (i.e. me) . As part of my effort to spend more time focusing on my Druidry, I’ve been trying to better know this enigmatic figure in my own personal practice. For me it has not been easy, but I feel the rewards are worth the effort.  I feel that there are two ways to get to know a deity, through their historical body of lore and through the UPG and experiences of their current worshipers. Unfortunately both seem to be lacking where Cernunnos is concerned. Originally either Tracian or  Gaulish, almost all historical lore on him has been lost beyond the name, and try as I might I can find almost no one sharing their experiences with him on the net. For the longest time I just considered him to be the “generic horned god ” and I could not relate to such an impersonal figure. That is one of the main reasons I am a polytheist (as opposed to a monotheist or a duotheist). I seek a personal connection to the Divine that I just cannot begin to touch with either of those other systems of belief.  For the longest time I came to the conclusion that he just wasn’t real enough or relevant to my spiritual practice. It turns out I just had to dig a little deeper to learn of his mysteries. I will split this post into two parts, Lore and my experiences:

Lore of the Horned God

As I mentioned above his lore is sparse.  The deity that modern pagans call Cernunnos is most likely a collection of  antlered and horned Gods based around local cult centers across Europe that all seem to have gotten collected under one umbrella. The only reason we know of the name is because it is because of inscriptions found in France and Germany. The name literally means Horned God. This name was then attributed to many carvings of an antlered god found on relics all across Europe. One of the most famous of these is the Gunderstrup Cauldron. These depictions all share similar elements, namely an antlered, sometimes ithyphallic man sitting cross legged. He holds two items, a torc and a ram-horned serpent, and is surrounded by various animals such as wolves, stags, bulls, dogs, rats, etc. Sometimes he is holding a bag of money.  His worship seems to stretch back into the Iron Age and he is also often associated with a famous cave painting found in France termed The Sorcerer showing just how far back his worship goes.

From these clues we can interpret that he is a God of Wild things. The animals seem to surround him as if being called to  his presence. They almost seem to be basking in his proximity, regenerated by him. The Torc and bag of money would also seem to suggest that he is a god of prosperity as well. The horned serpent is a bit more of a mystery but seems to suggest he is also a god of the underworld and change. These are all associations that have followed him into the modern era, among others.

In moderns times Cernunnos has also been associated with Herne the Hunter.  Herne is a myth that seems to be confined to the local region around Windsor Forrest, where he serves as a guardian spirit and leader of the Wild Hunt. The legend of of Herne is a sorrowful tale that I shall not recount here (check the link above for a really great article on him). Originally thought of as two separate entities, sometime in the last century Cernunnos and Herne have become somewhat synonymous.  This is where the modern Cernunnos seems to have gained his association with the Wild Hunt and taken his place as the leader of it at Yule time.

Cernunnos also has often times been associated with The Greenman. This is an architectural element found throughout cathedrals and buildings, a face of a man made up of twigs and leaves. Thus in addition to being associated as a wild God of animals, through this association he also  has gained dominion over the plant realms as well.

This really only begins to touch the surface. I have not even touched upon his associations with Gwynn Ap Nudd, Pashupti, and the recent creation of  Hu Gadarn. Some people consider these all separate deities (myself included), others believe they are all guises of Cernunnos. That goes beyond the scope of this article. I’ll leave the reader to follow these paths on their own if they so choose.

So in my interpretation the deity that we call either Cernunnos or Herne, is a very old divinity that dates back to the pre-dawn of human consciousness. Throughout the years he has evolved (as many deities do),  been merged with other gods, gained attributes, and seems to be composed of wholly synchretic elements to emerge as the primal figure we associate with the modern vision of the Horned God today.

The journey to him and how I view him

*UPG Alert* Everything from here on is my own experience,  Conjecture, and UPG. Take it for what it’s worth, that being simply my own opinion.

My own journey with Cernunnos has been one of many starts and stops. I’ve been hearing his call to the hunt for a long while now. Even though I identify as a Druid I have always had problems relating to Celtic deities. In some ways I feel as if I’ve been putting my fingers in my ears and saying “Lalala I don’t do Celtic Gods, I don’t hear you, Lalala”. When I have tried to connect with him I’ve had mixed results.

For one, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He seemed to large and impersonal, composed of too many elements for me to get a good grasp on. I could find no one else talking about him beyond being the male principle and consort to the Goddess in duotheisitic worldviews. It almost seemed like he was defined solely on being “That other one who is not the Goddess”. Since I consider myself a hard polytheist and not a duotheist,  that did me no good. Who exactly is is Cernunnos/Herne? I wanted to get to know the real God, not the archetype.

To learn more of him I had to go to the Source. This past summer I spent a lot of my time in the woodlands trying to commune with him. Interestingly enough I could only feel him slightly here, a faint pulse letting me know he was there but no big fireworks or theatrics came. One would think that since this was his domain, I would find him in every leaf and glimpse of deer, yet I felt nothing. I went deep into the woods, to the very heart of them and prayed to him, cried out his name… and felt still nothing.

I also spent time at my altar trying to connect with him. I found the best way to do this was to put on some drumming music, light some incense (I found that real Sandalwood or Dragonsblood resin worked best. Not the fake stuff), pray, and meditate on his presence. I could feel him then presence dark and looming. I could feel the offering of sacred smoke being received but still it was as if there was a barrier between us like smoked glass. Thus I repeatedly gave up, thinking there is nothing to learn here time to move. Then the quiet call would begin again and I would find him poking at me. Try again, try again. Why do you give up so quickly impatient one? Am I not worth it? Sure enough, I found that with repeated practice this barrier became less and less.

The real breakthrough came as the seasons changed. Once the leaves began to fall and snow was on the ground he was with me in full force. This leads me to believe he is a seasonal deity and the Dark Time of the year is his time. His association with the underworld would certainly seem to support this. Or it could just be that he is so multi-faceted that he appears to each person in a different way depending on what aspect of him they are most sensitive too. Perhaps another person would feel him most fully in that summer glade I tried in vain to find him in, and not at all in the winter. Now that I have a better connection to him perhaps I will too this coming summer. It will be interesting to see.

There is an old cemetery on the road nearby that is overgrown with trees. Driving past that early in the winter morning when the morning fog still swirls, I can feel him most profoundly. I can almost feel his presence haunting that cemetery in his role as guardian of the underworld. How do I feel him? How does he appear to me?

To me, his presence is very primal and ancient. He is totally unconcerned with social niceties. Political correctness would be totally lost on him. He is of few words yet gets his point across with a sharp directness. He is ultimately concerned with survival and death. Wherever he is the scent of blood follows. He is aware that life is hard and unfair. He makes you face this fact without sympathy. To him there is only survival or death. Paradoxically, I have also found him strangely compassionate. He is not totally void of feeling. Indeed I would say that he loves fiercely even. He’s not going to coddle you or show grand outbursts of emotion but it is there rippling beneath the surface. It is clear that he does care about humanity, strongly even. However, to him man is an animal just like any other and he helps us realize and revel in that animal nature. He is guardian and guide to those who seek and are open to this primal experience.

He is also in my experience, pure masculinity, virility, strength, and sexuality.  The deer in rut, the musk of sex, the heat of passion. All these are his, and he radiates life force. This includes the pain of love as well as it’s sweetness. All aspects of  sexuality both the positive and negative are within his domain. He is a god of prosperity. The lush forests and fertile Earth are his home and he bestows their riches upon us, but they must be earned and are not given freely. He IS nature, and there is no free lunch in his domain. He is also renewing. I go to him wounded and broken and like the animals that seem to surround him and regenerate, I am made whole again. He is fierce yet there is something entirely comforting and reassuring in his presence.

The Horned One in my Own Spiritual Practice

The fact that it has taken time to get to know him has only sweetened the experience. At this point I feel that it’s safe to say that he has a permanent place at my shrine. In all my work with him I have not yet been given a Name for him. Sometimes I call him Cernunnos, othertimes Herne. He answers to both of these yet I still feel that they are only titles he accepts by us moderns, and they do not fully encompass his true nature. As a Druid I feel that he is there to guide me in that area of my spirituality, as if he is my link and guide to the tradition that I have chosen.

His presence in my life is almost a quiet one. He is full of power and majesty, yet there have been no grand revealings, no epiphanies or ecstatic experiences with him. Any link that I have to him has come through hard work, and I am positive that if I were to neglect maintaining that link he would slip away just as quickly and quietly.

One interesting thing I have noticed (and I know this will be heresy of the highest order to some) is that the closer I get to Hekate, the closer she seems to drive me to Cernunnos. I’ve noticed this on many occasions. For some reason they seem to work very well together! I guess this makes sense when you think about it considering that they share many aspects and overlap in areas of influence. Both are Chthonic deities, guardians and guides in the underworld. Both concerned with nature (you could take this even further by including Hekates almost synonymous associations with Artemis the Huntress in the PMG and other sources. That hurts my brain too much to think about though.)

Also interesting is that while primarily adopted by two different cultures (Greek and Celtic respectively) both are rumored to have ancient origins in Thrace. Perhaps there is some link there that is lost to history. That is only my speculation however. I do know that since Hekate has come into my life, my bond with Cernunnos has only strengthened. I could go even further with my heresy and speculate on Cernunnos’s links to Dionysos and Zagreaus, but I’ll stop here (horned serpent anyone?).

Do you have stories of the Horned God you wish to share?

Submit it to the Cernunnos Devotional Anthology. The deadline is October 31st, 2010.  I am looking for submission from individuals on all paths.

Resources

I leave you with some resources that I found useful in my own search for The Horned One.

Visions of Vanaheim: While primarily about the Vanir, this book does have an excellent chapter on Herne including some well written essays by those who include him in their worship of the Vanir Gods. It also contains some heartbreakingly beautiful prayers to him that I’ve taken to using in my own worship. Really why don’t you own this already? Highly recommended!

Horns of Power: This book by Sortia d’Este has a wealth of knowledge about various horned deities. While not devoted entirely to Cernunnos it does have a hearty amount of both historical lore and personal UPG from worshippers that is hard to find elsewhere.

The Horned God: an unofficial biography: I finally leave you with this prose by Damh the Bard. I personally found it moving in the extreme and it very well illustrates the evolution that I spoke of earlier. He reads it aloud in one of the OBOD podcasts. It does not get much better than this.

Cernunnos: Looking a Different Way:  A great scholarly article by Ceisiwr Serith. Lots of great resources and ideas here. A must read.

7 Responses to Essay: The Horned God: His Lore and Worship

  1. Thistlemoon says:

    Now, this post is something I could have written in how much it resonates with my own experiences. I am so looking forward to more posts.

  2. Ray Greenman says:

    Thanks for your honest thoughts on this topic I to have been seeking his being and like your self I know he is there and even though he still remains a little aloof thanks again for your insight.

  3. Ooh Chiara says:

    I loved reading this. I’ve always considered myself a Child of Herne, that he chose me from birth (having grown up in “Herne Hill”) but since I’ve grown into myself, and found my path within modern-day Druidry, the calling to him as certainly been stronger. It’s interesting to read that you found no real name to call him, other than the Horned One. I’ve felt that too, of late. The masculine energy he emcompasses can be somewhat overpowering. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who has felt him in this way. Thank-you for letting the world read your essay!

  4. Mr Chauvet says:

    Great article, many thanks. I’ve been fascinated by the figure of the horned god ever since I began to encounter representations of him in cave art. I think we can immediately conclude without hesitation the image of the horned god is essentially a relative manifestation of the principle of the absolute aspect of nature. In all religions this is the only means we as human beings can really hope to interact with universal, transcendental and elemental forces; in this case a powerful manifestation of the natural world, the forests, caves, woods and waterways. In an absolute sense the figure of Cernunnos IS nature, that primal force we get a strong sense of whenever we go for a walk in the woods, hills or by the ocean. In a relative sense, how do we hope to interact with that-I hesitate to use that derelict new age term but I guess there isn’t a better alternative-’energy?’ We visualise it through the manifestation of the horned god, a representation of a merging of our human selves with in its devotional aspect and endeavour to contact him through ritual. Its an attempt to make the unknowable knowable, to personalise an impersonal, hostile and remote universe. I sincerely believe this is what we are seeing in all the great cave art. There is ample evidence to suggest that the origin of much cave art is from ritual activity undertaken by shamans and spiritual journeyers, and is in essence a figurative representation of the images seen in trance states. The figure of ‘The Sorcerer’ from trois frerrer is I believe a fine example of this principle at work. Its here we can possibly hope to find the birthplace of figures like the horned god Cernunnos. (For more see Graham Hanckock:Supernatural)
    As we can say with certainty that cave art really began to appear on the landscape during the late Palaeolithic, then we can speculate with some confidence that this is the period when we as a species began to spiritually and devotionally attempt to merge ourselves with the awesome elemental power of the natural world around us and the creatures we shared it with through acts of devotional representation and activity. There exists a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support this, particularly in anthropological literature concerning the spiritual behaviour of the American plains Indians and extant hunter-gatherer societies in the rain forests of South America. A problem is that now, being modern humans and focusing our not inconsiderable ego’s, neurotic and self aggrandising agendas onto figures like Cernunnos we have lost site of this primal relationship and replaced it with needy midnight conjuring and delusional, narcissistic neo pagan mumbling. If we want to see the consequences of losing site of what Cernunnos really is, of what Herne the Hunter really embodies, then we should watch the Werner Herzog documentary ‘Grizzly Man’ about the hopelessly misguided and delusional Timothy Treadwell. Admirable ethical concerns are one thing, (and I heartily support anyone’s efforts to highlight abuses of the natural world and the species we share it with) a delusional and hopelessly romantic view of the natural world warped by sentimental new age agendas is another.
    It’s right here, in a primal, Palaeolithic landscape where I believe we can find the true origins of Cernunnos, and the very ancient source of our fascination with the horned god. We will not find him in a weekend drumming workshop or a store in Glastonbury.
    For Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers the world was a dangerous and spiritually elevated environment. (There is now evidence to suggest that Palaeolithic man lived his urgent life in an elevated state of consciousness, and was therefore much more open and receptive to states of being utterly lost to us in our everyday lives. On a subconscious level we do miss it though, its what drives us into the forest and the hills on a day off. Its what motivates us to seek out a spiritual aspect to our lives.)
    When Palaeolithic man stared at the interior of the forest and asked questions, it was the horned god who stepped out to answer him. Their relationship with the natural world (a relationship that fascinates me as it is so removed from the distant irregular and abusive one we share with our planet) and their attempts to commune with it gave birth to the figure of the horned god.
    It is out in the wilds, and in a transcendental inner landscape beyond the everyday, relative workings of the mind, that is where we will find him.

  5. Cassiopeia says:

    I, too, have recently found myself drawn towards a connection to the Horned God. As the season has progressed into Fall, I find myself less in tune with the spirited and fun loving maiden, and more into the darker and deeper mysteries of the God. Yet I do not find myself abandoning any aspect of the Goddess; indeed, I find myself seeing ME as an aspect of the Goddess, and the Horned One more as a lover. Interestingly, last year, I connected more with the Crone and spent the winter in quiet reverie. I wonder what mysteries will unfold as I spend the winter in the arms of the God?

  6. betoquintas says:

    I have myself looking for the One. In my research, a lot of books enlight my vision. Unfortunately, I’m one of those hard pagans and I live in Brazil, a country where the fluffy bunny merchandising about paganism, witchcraft and wicca domains. I think I’m one of the few who talks about Him. You’re welcome to read my blog [sorry, portuguese only] http://betoquintas.blogspot.com.br/

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