The Horned God is a popular image today, from neo-pagan traditions to pop culture. But who is he? And is he really a he? Follow me down this rabbit hole, as I show the journey of the Horned God from ancient feminist Deer Goddess, to Cernunnos—taking a detour by way of Shakespeare, Brothers Grimm, and Victorian Gothic fiction—to a 20th century mock-historical Wiccan fantasy revival and 21st century pop icon.
This timeline is serpentine. I’ve done my best to not take the juicy side fruits tempting me off onto splintering paths into Dante’s infernal harlequin demons or even into the Templar’s Baphomet—all of which would’ve been valid roads that this bizarre tale could travel, but I want to focus this story on something more primal to who we are as humans.
The idea of a forest God—or I should say Goddess—is where we’ll begin.
Deer Goddess Cult
In an address to the Folklore Society in 1930, researcher J.G. McKay put forward his theories on a matriarchal hunter gatherer society ruling the Highlands of Scotland as a pre-Celtic deer cult. He was drawn to this research by Gaelic tales of mysterious feminine characters, who sometimes appear as mortal witches and sometimes as giantesses, who owned, herded, and milked deer.
Modern Scottish Gaelic and modern Irish Gaelic dictionaries both give the word Fiadh as having two meanings, i.e. ‘Deer’ and ‘God’. That the deer was once some sort of a god, as well as a divine messenger, appears in several tales. In faerie lore, deer are their cattle and a common form for a faerie woman to transform herself into was that of a red deer. Witches transform themselves into mice, hares, cats, or black sheep—but not into the sacred deer.
Long, long ago, a state of society existed in the Highlands, when woman was supreme; all women were supernatural and magical; all ghosts whether of male or female creatures were feminine; fairyland of the Otherworld, was tenanted or inhabited by exclusively women; men were in the hunting stage of development and feared women, their spiritual mothers, all of whom were capable of guiding the destinies of men magically, either for their weal or woe, as they chose; the deer was a god; the ghosts of deer became fairy or supernatural women; and deer were the cattle of the fairies or of supernatural beings. (McKay 167)
In many pagan animal-cults, the priest or priestess would often wear an ornamental headdress of the sacred animal. There are Scottish folktales of a deer woman that McKay theorises could be explained by this real practice. In these folktales, a hunter, who has been stalking deer, observes, when putting up his gun to take aim, that the animal has changed into a woman. He falls in love with her. Adventures ensue and they are separated until he finds her again on a distant island and they finally marry and live happily ever after.
The deer-cult and the deer-goddess-cult date from a remote matriarchal time. Diana, as well as Artemis and her nymphs, would appear to be classical examples of a hint at this older heritage. No one in patripotestal times, it would seem, would dream of inventing a feminine hunting divinity.
In ancient Gaul, people would sacrifice animals to Artemis for permission to hunt. This practice could be based on an aboriginal Gaulish deer-goddess cult, from which the horned god Cernunnos was a patriarchal interpretation of the deer goddess. This ancient Gaulish god is always represented in a squatting posture; he is gigantic, and wears sometimes antlers and sometimes bull’s horns. Prof. Sir John Rhys thought that the name Cernunnos, and the Latinised form of it, Cernenus, contain the common stem cern, cognate with the Welsh and Irish corn, Latin cornu, English horn. The name suits the god admirably. More, the horns show what the animal was, with which he was connected, or which was sacred to him, that is, the deer. In this matter, he must be compared with the Highland deer-goddesses. (McKay 171)
In the town of Saintes, in Charente-Maritime region of France, there is a carved figure, supposed to be Cernunnos, with a female figure sitting next to him holding a cornucopia resting on her left arm, implying that she is the figure of a generous goddess. Cernunnos was the great figure according to Gaulish ideas, and his associate was apparently of smaller consequence in their sight. Did the developing Celtic society create a masculine Horned God from the Deer Goddess and keep the feminine character next to him as a reminder and as his shadow? By this stage, the Deer Goddess matriarchy would have been in decay. Her worshippers became ever fewer, while the worshippers of the male Cernunnos became ever more numerous.
The evidence from the Highlands and Ireland suggests in the strongest manner that the antlers, the gigantic stature, the squatting posture, and the chthonic or Plutonic character of Cernunnos had been stolen or borrowed or inherited, either from his associate goddess, or from some other female divinity or group of female divinities: the Highland and Irish deer-goddesses. He is, in short, merely a masculine transformation of a feminine divinity, merely a reflection of the change from matriarchy to patriarchy; and his subordinate associate is merely a survival of the former state of society. (McKay 172-173)
Today, there are whispers of this old Deer Goddess Cult in traditional German and English stag dances that are performed by men who dress themselves in women’s clothes, thereby preserving a memory of a former time when stag-dances were performed by women, and of a later time, when the religious functions of women were usurped by men.
Swiftly moving on a couple thousand years, we come to the iconic bard, Shakespeare. Elizabethan English comedy abounds with images of the cuckold—a man with horns on his head, symbolising his shame that his wife has taken up with another man—but I’ll get to him later.
Herne the Hunter—from Shakespeare to Popular Culture
First, we’ll have a look at the interesting development of the character Herne the Hunter, who, contrary to subsequent folkloresque referencing, was first mentioned in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor (1587). Shakespeare’s Herne is a human ghost.
An unknown writer in the 18th century claimed that Herne had been a forest keeper who feared he would lose his job because of ‘some great offence’ he had committed, and therefore hanged himself on a tree which he supposedly haunts. However, it was Victorian gothic novelist William Harrison Ainsworth who is responsible for the further popularisation of some aspects of the legend of Herne the Hunter, which has developed in curious ways over the centuries.
Ainsworth’s 1843 novel Windsor Castle is a melodrama set in the reign of Henry VIII, in and around the castle, and its most charismatic and memorial character was Herne the Hunter, taken from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare had made Herne a ghost of a gamekeeper in the royal forest of Windsor, who appeared in the middle of winter nights around a blasted oak tree, wearing ‘great ragged horns’, which are later specified as those of a stag. As a spirit, [Ainsworth’s Herne] was decidedly evil, causing illness and death in livestock and making cows yield blood rather than milk. His antlers could signify either his bestial nature or a mocking punishment of him for misdeeds in life. (Hutton 182)
Ainsworth didn’t make the leap for his character on his own, however. Jacob Grimm (of Grimm’s Fairytales fame) suggested in the early 19th century that the character of Herne the Hunter may have been the English version of the northern European pagan god who had led the faerie Wild Hunt. Shakespeare’s Herne did not ride anything, nor did he have an entourage of dogs, nor did he even hunt. It appears to be only his horns, his appearing at night, and his vaguely folkloresque aspect that led Grimm to link him with the Wild Hunt.
Ainsworth’s Herne was a blended creation of both the original Shakespeare reference and Grimm’s imagined supernatural heritage. Ainsworth took this seed of an idea and amped it up to 11. In chapter 31 of Windsor Castle, it is explained that Herne had been human, but had entered into a disastrous bargain with the Devil, who saved his life when he was gored by a stag on condition that he would wear antlers forevermore. Eventually the Devil deprived him of his huntsmen’s skills, bringing him to despair, suicide, and damnation. Ainsworth’s Herne is the ghost of a human being, but he is also now demonic, complete with accompanying imps and making pacts with humans to grant wishes in return for their souls. Not only that, he now rides a fire-breathing black horse, with black dogs running beside him, along with a retenue of dead humans, especially executed felons, and living humans who had given him fealty. (Hutton)
“By associating Herne with the Devil, Ainsworth paved the way for 20th-century interpretations that see him as more than human—a leader of the Wild Hunt, a forest spirit, an avatar of Cernunnos. All of which is a long, long way from Shakespeare.” (Simpson 137 ) But the key thing here is there is no mention of Herne the Hunter that has been found prior to Shakespeare, who had most likely invented him himself. There is no evidence of an older folkloric belief about the character in or around Windsor Forest; and the tree that can be found on maps of the area contemporary to the time actually changed location and placed the great supposed tree from the play in an area close to the castle to spice up tourism.
Any subsequent links between Herne the Hunter and ancient pagan belief systems is an act of imagined histories. It’s a quaint thought, but evidence does not support Herne the Hunter to be anything more than a literary creation elaborated on over the centuries by a series of authors, not pagan peoples.
You can’t have an article about a Horned God and not mention the cuckold. It’s interesting to note that despite the obvious bawdy reference in Elizabethans times to a man wearing horns, there is nothing in the text of The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest the cuckold’s joke in relation to Herne. Perhaps the joke might have been portrayed with physicality not noted in preserved stage direction, but Herne’s horns appear to be separate from the cuckold’s.
The humour of the cuckold’s plight is the classic theatrical set up where we know more than the character does about something he should know more about than we do: his most intimate domestic affairs. The cuckold is a kind of scapegoat by which a community’s anxieties are cast out. “To be known as a cuckold was to undergo a species of civic excommunication.” (McEachern 610)
And so why horns? It does seem odd because horns are seen as masculine. Indeed, it is the male of the species of most animals that has horns not the female.
There are quite a few theories about how the horns symbol came to be associated with the cuckold. The cuckold has been such a subject of our modern imaginations that there are countless journal articles written about nothing else. One theory puts forth it had to do with ‘cuckold’ coming from the word ‘cuckoo’, the bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. Another theory posits that the horns come from a bizarre method of cockerel husbandry where the castrated cocks had their amputated spurs grafted to their comb to then grow horns there, the better to tell them apart. And while gross animal cruelty does get full marks for historical probability, my favourite theory brings us back to our Deer Goddess.
In Ovid’s tale of Diana and Actaeon the chaste goddess punishes the notorious hunter for his accidental glimpse of her bathing by transforming him into an antlered stag, that is then pursued and killed by his own hounds. “Renaissance cuckolds were often called ‘Actaeons’. In this story, the antlers are clearly an emblem not of phallic power but of female domination.” (McEachern 616) Here we have the horn symbol reversed. It is not the mark of the male of the species, it is the mark of the Goddess.
20th Century Myth-Making & Pop Culture
Today, Herne the Hunter is often referenced as related to the Wild Hunt, or as the embodiment of Cernunnos, but this is a game of folkloric telephone. Associations of Herne the Hunter with an ancient deity of a horned nature-god was an invention by folklorist Margaret Murray in the 1930s. “Murray suggested that Herne had been the English name for the horned nature-god, whom she made the main male deity of her imagined medieval and early modern pagan witch religion. As Jeremy Harte has noted, what she took to be the historical details of the legend were actually derived from Ainsworth’s novel.” (Hutton 183) Subsequent modern Wiccans have taken the idea on board for a worshipful practice connecting them with older pagan traditions, but this Horned God’s heritage is more gothic novel than organic folklore tradition.
When John Masefield brought Herne into a children’s story in 1935, he reinvented him as a benevolent spirit of nature, a Lord of the Animals, understanding and protecting the creatures of the wildwood and explaining their ways to the young hero. His Herne didn’t have a horse, dogs, or an entourage: he was simply Shakespeare’s character with a kindly green makeover.
Feminist Starhawk wrote of the Horned God in 1979:
The Horned God is difficult to understand because he does not fit into any of the expected stereotypes, neither those of the ‘macho’ male nor the reverse-images of those who deliberately seek effeminacy. He is gentle, tender, and comforting, but he is also the Hunter. He is the Dying God—but his death is always in service of the life force. He is untamed sexuality—but sexuality as a deep, holy, connecting power. He is the power of feeling, and the image of what men could be if they were liberated from the constraints of patriarchal culture. (Starhawk 94)
The Horned God embodies the power of feeling. His animal horns represent the truth of undisguised emotion, which seeks to please no masters. He is untamed. But untamed feelings are very different from enacted violence. The Horned God is the life force, the life cycle. He remains within the orbit of the Goddess; his power is always directed towards the service of life. (Starhawk 97)
There is no space here to delve further into the relationship between ancient goddess culture and today’s popular and politically charged Horned God revival—the Baphomet. But I’ll leave you with this thought: if society was at one time a matriarchy, and the most masculine of all symbols—the horn—was a symbol of that matriarchy, perhaps the lesson here is not to prove the origins to be of a Deer Goddess or a Horned God, but to find the melding of the two in harmony. Not a fight towards matriarchy or patriarchy, but humans with nature and each other in balance.
Sources and further reading…
Graber, Robert Bates; Richter, Gregory C., ‘The Capon Theory of the Cuckold’s Horns: Confirmation or Conjecture?’ The Journal of American Folklore, 1987, 100:395, p58-63. Journal.
Harte, Jeremy. ‘Herne the Hunter: A Case of Mistaken Identity?’ At the Edge 3 (1996): p27–33. Journal.
Hutton, Ronald, ‘The Wild Hunt in the Modern British Imagination’, Folklore, 2019, 130:2, p175-191. Journal.
– ‘The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath’, Folklore, 2014, 125:2, p161-178. Journal.
McEachern, Claire ‘Why Do Cuckolds Have Horns?’ Huntington Library Quarterly, 2008, 71:4, p607-631. Journal.
McKay, J.G. (1932) ‘The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient
Caledonians’, Folklore, 1932, 43:2, p144-174. Journal.
Peake, Harold, ‘17. Horned Deities’, Man, Volume 22, 1922, p27–29. Journal.
Simpson, Jacqueline, ‘Seeking the Lore of the Land’, Folklore, 119:2, 2008. Journal.
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, (United Kingdom: Harper & Row) 1979. Book.