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The Truth About the Horned God of Paganism

Updated on May 29, 2015
PatriciaJoy profile image

Previous writer and editor at BellaOnline. I love sharing articles on many topics.

Possible depiction of Cernunnos, close-up
Possible depiction of Cernunnos, close-up | Source

A Wild God of Nature

One of the most potent images in the Neo-Pagan revival is that of the god of nature in all his leaf-clad, horned glory. For many Pagans, this lord of the forest and wild hunt has come to represent the very heart of the natural forces of fertility, destruction and regeneration.

Theories About the Horned One

Modern Scholars and Murray

In Witch Cult in Western Europe, Margaret Murray put forth the theory that the horned god was a father deity worshipped by an ancient witch cult. This idea prevailed throughout most of the 20th century. Scholars have seriously questioned this however. Ms. Murray believed that this cult survived unbroken in one form or another until the 17th century.

In her theory, this cult was sent underground by the Christian church which maligned the horned god by making him into the devil of the bible. She based much of her theory on James Frazer's The Golden Bough in which he presents the idea of a dying vegetation god that is born again in the spring.

In Ronald Hutton's book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, he asserts that Ms. Murray came to this conclusion by combining the numerous artistic references to a horned god over many centuries instead of assessing each piece individually. Hutton also suggests that the artists of the Romantic Era contributed to the horned god's popularity today.

Whatever theory you agree with, it is apparent that the image of the god stirs the Pagan imagination and heart in ways that allow us to connect with nature and all of its aspects.

Larger View of Gundestup Cauldron

Possible depiction of Cernunnos
Possible depiction of Cernunnos | Source

The Gundestrup cauldron is a religious vessel that was found in Denmark in 1891. Some people believe that it depicts Cernunnos but this is debated by scholars. Another theory suggests that the figure is a Gaulish Mercury type god. Scholars believe it may be of Gaulish or Thracian origin. Source.

The Witches' God - An encyclopedia-type overview of the many gods honored in witchcraft

The Witches' God
The Witches' God

Stewart Farrar along with his wife Janet was a Wiccan elder and important figure in introducing witchcraft to many people through his books.


God of Nature

He Represents the Darkness and the Light

There is no question that his horned head has been negatively played upon by those who think Pagans just worship the devil but don't know any better. Pagans generally do not believe in the concept of hell from the Christian bible. Therefore, the idea that they worship a god that rules a place they don't believe exists is usually met with laughter or rolled eyes if not outright (understandable) defensiveness.

The fact that he represents such a wild, uncontrollable force as that of nature could be exactly why he was thought to be a demon. However, there is a primal, unspoiled beauty in him, for nature is not only a one-sided force of destruction but a force of creation as well.

"By the flame that burneth bright,

O Horned One!

We call thy name into the night,

O Ancient One!"

~ from The Horned God by Doreen Valiente

Cernunnos - Torc-Clad Gallic Horned God

Charles Knight - page from  “Old England: A Pictorial Museum”
Charles Knight - page from “Old England: A Pictorial Museum” | Source

Horned God of Myth and Legend

There are several horned gods that have become stars in their own right. One of the most famous is Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, flocks, the wild hunt, mountains and nymph chasing. He chased one nymph, Syrinx, who ran (like most of them) and was transformed into reeds, which Pan made into pipes, thus the famous Pan pipes we know of today.

Cernunnos is the Gallic horned god generally shown torc clad and surrounded by stags and serpents. One of these representations is the stone bas-relief, the Pillar of the Boatmen believed to be constructed in the first century CE.

Sometimes associated with Herne of British folklore, he is pictured with a stag head in his role as lord of the animals of the forest. Other figures that have come to be associated with the horned god because of their wild nature are the Green Man, satyrs and even Robin Hood. It's important to note that the connection between these figures and the horned god is tenuous. Pagan author, Ceisiwr Serith, discusses what is really known about Cernunnos as the Gallic God versus the modern Wiccan god of the same name in his video, Cernunnos: Looking Every Which Way. In this video and the article linked below, he also relates info about Cernunnos being an underworld deity which has been overlooked oft times in favor of him being a forest god.

Pan and Syrinx

Pan and Syrinx
Pan and Syrinx | Source


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Lord of Inspiration

The horned god has been known by many incarnations from early cave paintings to the Lord of the Forest we know today. His impact throughout the ages is clearly immense evident in the poetry, art, and literature that has been devoted to him. He inspires us to look at the beauty in every aspect of nature and in ourselves.

Herne the Hunter - Nothing is Forgotten

I can't mention Robin Hood and Herne without mentioning Robin of Sherwood, a fantastic British series from the 80s starring Michael Praed and later Jason Connery. It blended the legends beautifully. Here is an homage to the show and Herne the Hunter from a fan on YouTube.

© 2009 PatriciaJoy

Comments welcome.

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    • Lionrhod profile image

      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Great page. Thanks for writing it! Cernunnos/Herne is one of my patrons.