The Lord of the Wyldwood
Within the Wyldwood, Cernunnos (translation into English: The Antlered One) is the name we most often give to the male aspect of the divine. In all honesty, while the name Cernunnos appears on a very small number of images from the Roman period, there is no evidence to support the existence of a Celtic God with this name and it is more likely that the Romans used the name to represent a whole group of antlered or horned deities found among the Celtic tribes. This is precisely why we choose to use this particular name, as it is not bound to one interpretation and as we shall see in the article below, we are not content to settle with only one idea of the Lord of the Wyldwood.
As I said Cernunnos is the name we use most often for the Lord of the Wyldwood, but you would not be wrong in calling him Pan, Sylvanus, Rex Nemorensis, Bacchus, Dionysus, Old Hornie, Bucca, Pashupati or Herne.
A masked dancer circles the fire, robed, painted and wearing the skull and antlers of a great stag. This dancer makes calls to the spirits to ensure a good hunt, they, and the other dancers with them imitate animal calls and movements. They enact the cycle of life and death in a ceremonial gathering in an ancient prayer for success. But where did this dance come from? Where did the dancers learn it, why did it begin? Let us take a journey…
The white stag is on the moor, all summer he has grown his antlers, at first soft, now bloody and sharp as velvet falls from them. Thrashing about he covers them in bracken, gorse and grass, a display of virility. He roars, the voice of the Thunderer, his song loud and clear. It is the mating time, the rut. The stag is not alone, another, dark coated and lusty approaches. Heart pounding, lungs drawing in air like great bellows, they charge, heads down and as they clash, a great crack sounds across the field. They struggle, cutting and pushing, each trying to find a weakness in the other. The white stag has held his Harem for many years and he is older, but the black stag is full of youth. The white stag is wounded and the black stag, victorious takes his prize.
The strength of the victor gives new strength to the herd. The old, white stag limps into the forest. The old has given way to the new, a sacrifice has been made for a better future.
Snows fall, food is scarce and the white stag is weak. The scent of his wound leads wolves, guided by the raven in an ancient bond, to their meal. The white stag runs, though weakened he is still fast and powerful. His antlers ward off the wolves, teaching them to how to avoid his thrusts and jabs. The dying informs the living. The pack learns and the stag tires and falls, his blood is red upon the snow. The stag gives of his flesh to make the pack stronger. The final pieces taken to the sky by crow, raven, buzzard and kite. The stag returns to the sky. His antlers appear as flashes of lightning to drive away the darkness. They appear and fertilise the earth, where storm has been soon follows growth, his bellow is heard in the storm.
Watching, observing, the priest understands. The Antlered One is the thunderer, incarnate upon the earth. The priest takes up the skull from the snow and wears it. Calling to the sky to bring warmth back to the land, to bring game back to the forest, as the winter is harsh and the people hunger, the weakest are dying. The priest sees that as the white stag fell, the pack and the herd were made stronger. In his dying moments he taught the wolves new skills. He knows that something must be given in exchange for a gift of food. In the harshest of winters, only the strongest gift will do.
Death must precede life, giving must precede taking, sacrifice must precede blessing. Death is a teacher with a heavy price.
As the day and night become equal again the black stag sheds his antlers, the priest finds them, lightning on the land, the Thunderer has heard his call. Soon seasons turn again, winter becomes summer, trees bring forth their leaves and deer return to the forest; the prayer has been answered. The people are thankful to the priest and the priest guides them, he has watched the land, listened to its song, and the people paint him on the wall, dancing among the animals which taught him.
Times changed, stone tools became metal, caves were replaced with houses of timber, reed and earth, the hunt was replaced with the harvest.
Cross legged and calm sits the Antlered One, surrounded by beasts and vines. In the left hand is held the horned serpent, in the right, the great torc, symbol of power. He is the giver or fertility and wealth, he is the guide at the crossroads, taking the dead to the next life. His name became Cernunnos. Those that followed his teachings became priests themselves, Whether they are called Shaman, Witch or Druid.
Now the corn ripens, falls and regrows. Blood on the snow is now beer in the bowl, tipped on the earth to give thanks for the harvest. We still give prayer for a good harvest. We still remember that we must give something to the earth in exchange for its bounty. We still understand that there must be death, before there is life. Cernunnos teaches this. Though Cernunnos is no longer a priest with an understanding of death and life, he has become a God and the stag is his symbol. Our hunt is no longer about survival, but about proof of skill.
We still seek blessings, and for this we give our finest. Our sacrifice is no longer of own blood, instead it is of beer, food, tools and jewellery.
We still remember the great price of nature: Death must precede life, giving must precede taking, sacrifice must precede blessing. We tie ribbons upon the tree to ask for healing or love. We give broken weapons to the water to ask for protection, we give blood from our livestock to the soil to ask for a harvest. As the wolves in the forest ate the weakest of the deer, so the weakest of our livestock are sacrificed as food for the winter and to keep the herd strong.
Times changed again. The Gods were turned into devils, nature was shunned and vilified as the new priests arrived with their fires of damnation.
Now the harvest is taken for granted, there is no threat from winter. The stag’s head sits on our walls, the moor is empty save for grouse which are preserved for the rich to shoot. Round houses of timber have become towers of stone. The cave has been gutted for its minerals and stone, the earth has been torn into for materials to make our new home. We do not hunt, we need not pray for food. We have forgotten our plight and the teachings of the ancient priest. Cernunnos is forgotten. Our hunt is now a sport. We kill more than we should and give no thanks. We have forgotten to give prayer and sacrifice, we give nothing in return.
We have forgotten the great price of nature, we take without giving, we fear and detest death and no longer honour its true meaning, we hoard and jealously keep what we own. We starve, we hunger and as the greatest winter of all approaches, we ignore it.
The white stag in the forest is rare, a beast of great power. He knows the secret ways, to follow him is to venture into another world, an old world, when he is gone forever, so too is our chance to remember who we are.
Oh Great Horned God of ages past, lord of the hunt, lord of the dance From that place where you lie slain, come to me, return again Across the mountains, the fields, the sand, be once more upon this land
Oh Great Horned God of times gone by, lord of the earth, the sea, and the sky Of the forest, and of the glade, be with us now, and for all our days Herne, Cernunnos, our name of Pan, be once more upon this land
~ Inkubus Sukkubus - Hymn to Pan
The image of a humanoid figure with antlers or horns, sometimes cross legged and sometimes surrounded by animals, appears almost everywhere on the globe, and stretches across tens of thousands of years. There are striking similarities between the image of Cernunnos from the Gunderstrup Cauldron, (an enormous piece of silverware found in a Danish bog and dated to around 150BCE) which is pictured above and the Pashupati seal (left) found at Mohenjo Daro in northern India which is dated some 3,500 – 4000 years earlier.
Likewise there are many similarities between various pieces of rock art from around the world, such as those of an antlered priest like figure found in Val Camonica, Italy and the Running horned woman of Tassili n’Ajjer, Sahara desert.
Importance of the Horned God
The horned or antlered deity is perhaps the most beloved and iconic within modern Paganism, and it seems evident that this importance echoes back far beyond the rising of agriculture or the taming of the horse; He remains a constant inspiration. However we are quick to dismiss the attributes of this deity which are socially undesirable; We enjoy images of Pan dancing and frolicking with Nymphs, but often choose to overlook the darker aspects of this Hellenic fertility deity. We enjoy the image of a benevolent Cernunnos, bestowing prosperity or leading souls from this life to the next, but often put aside his aspect of the ravenous wolf, tearing hungrily into the body of its still struggling prey.
And yet this balance of dark and light, death and life is perhaps the most important part of this deity. We cannot enjoy the benefits of meat without the kill, and the kill is never pleasant. We cannot endure as a species without death, and yet we do not honour this essential part of the cycle. A Shaman cannot deal with soul retrieval without first facing death, a doctor cannot heal the sick without first understanding illness. Since the dawn of time, something has had to die in order for something new to come into being and this is the essence of the Antlered One. In giving up his flesh to strengthen the wolf pack, or giving up his position of power in order to allow a new and better leader to take over, he ensures the continued health and survival of other beings. As we shall see later when comparing attributes with other deities, the dual aspect of light and dark, death and life and even good and evil have become deeply entwined with the Lord of the Wyldwood in modern mythology.
Perhaps it is because we so often shy away from the shadow side of this ancient spirit, that we have become so removed from nature.
The Horned One and His Hounds
Among the more popular images of the Lord of the Wyldwood is that of the God of the Hunt often with the name Herne (meaning Horn). Almost always this hunter aspect is accompanied by otherworldly hounds. Although the description of these hounds varies greatly from culture to culture as 'minor' characters often do, it helps us to identify other deities with similar attributes. Below are some of these deites.
Herne and the Wild Hunt
Herne the Hunter has a rich history in the British Isles but appears nowhere else. He is said to lead the Wild Hunt between Samhain and Imbolc; a ghastly, furious hunt in which the souls of the departed and those evil spirits who have wandered away from their own realm are hunted down and taken back to the otherworld. The hunt has been Christianised too with it being used to frighten 'sinners' who risk being hunted down by the dread 'hellhounds' and taken to hell. In this version Satan often replaces Herne, but this is a Christian medieval association and is by no means canon to the bible.
The hunt has many beginning and ending points across the UK, almost every county seems to claim ownership of the hunt, however the most popular place mentioned as the spot from where Herne begins his annual hunt is Windsor Great Park in Berkshire. Herne's Oak was located in the neighbouring Home Park, the tree was sadly blown down on 31 August 1863 and although Elizabeth I planted a new tree on the same spot, it was cut down in 1906 to make way for the new avenue. According to J Westwood one of the trees that line the new avenue has been given the name of Herne's Oak.1
The Wild Hunt has also been attributed to Woden, the Anglo-Saxon name for Odin, however this may likely be a tenuous link founded in the AS attempt to stamp out ancient British culture.
It is said that the howling winds of the strongest winter storms are the sound of Herne's hunting horn and the baying of his hounds.
- Loki and Fenrir
- Arawn and the Cwn Annwn
- Hades and Cerberus
Set and Anubis
This is a tenuous link to be sure, but the two deities are intimately linked; Set is either the father or the foster-father of Anubis depending on which account you follow. Anubis guards the gates to the Underworld and although Set is not in the Underworld in more modern mythology, I wonder if before Osiris was raised in popularity, whether Set may have been a lord of the Underworld rather like Hades? As Osiris and Set are really more like two aspects of the same deity (like with the Oak King and Holly King, see below), perhaps they are combined aspects of the Underworld deity.
Oak King and Holly King
The Case for Satan
There is perhaps one Horned God with whom we have struggled for centuries because of the negative associations thrown upon him by the Church. He is perhaps among the more important Horned Gods for the current age and yet he is only an amalgamation of older lore; Satan.
Satan is not an original part of Christianity and in Judaism there is no belief in an omnimalevolent character. There is however a strong history of persecuting one deity in favour of another particularly at the turning of an age or a major shift in religio-political systems. The origins of Satan lay much further back with the Egyptian God Set (also known as Seth, Suetekh) and with the serpent Apep.
I have already discussed the origins of the Serpent of Eden in Apep in the article Snake so will not labour on them here. Set however, being the basis for the Christian Satan (and the Cherubim Samael) is an important discussion to have when discussing the Horned God in Paganism.
What does Satan mean?
Satan is a Hebrew word (שָּׂטָן) meaning 'Accuser' or 'Adversary' and it is used as a title, not a name. Throughout the Jewish Bible the term is used in two ways, as 'satan' referring to any accuser or adverary, and as ha-Satan meaning 'The Satan' reffering to a heavenly figure. Yaweh (YHVH, the Christian God) himself is reffered to as 'a satan' when confronting Balaam about his departure from the Elohim. In this way it seems that 'Ha-Satan' is not an evil character rather it is the judge, jury and executioner (it is the same spirit sent to spread plagues in Israel to kill 70,000 people in punishment for David's taking a census without Yaweh's approval... over-reaction much?!).
Samael and Set
Satan has been applied as a more modern name for the Cherubim (one of the choirs of angels) known as Samael (meaning Venom of God). The actions of Samael are used to punish sinners, not to tempt them away from Yaweh. In much the same way that Set in Egypt was turned from a benevolent aid and even equal to Ra into a God of chaos, death, corruption and destruction, Samael has had the term Satan given as his name in later Christianity. The angel is said to have fallen from Heaven when opposing the removal of free will. This places Satan as being a chief deity of a world other than heaven. Set is the God of the Red desert which is always in opposition to the fertile black soil of the Nile delta, Ra's domain. Both Satan and set are Gods of the outcast, unwanted and to those who are in contrary to the ruling religion. Set acts in a similar way to Ha-Satan in his ancient status as the only being able to withstand the hypnosis of Apep and to drive away the serpent of destruction.
Loki is that you?
When it comes to Gods who at first appear as good or at least neutral and are turned evil in later mythology, especially when they are Gods of an outcast race, Loki (Anglo-Saxon Sæter for whom Saturday (Sæteres-dæg) is named), has it all. His association with a divine Serpent, his common appearance with horns (not only in Marvel's depiction of the Scandinavian deity but also in ancient art) and his warlike and mischievous characteristics show him very clearly to embody much of this 'Satan' lore. He has been trusted with the throne of Asgard while Odin was at war, and apart from the murder of Baldur and his actions in the heavily Christianised story of Ragnarok, his actions always have a beneficial outcome.
In response to the domineering stance of the Christian church, particularly in America where the religion is being used to strip women of their rights, Satanism has risen up as a new non-theistic religion. While Anton LaVey's Church of Satan focusses on a balance between humanism and social-Darwinism, The Satanic Temple (TST) pushes the idea that Satan is not an entity; rather it is the emblem of being in opposition to the status-quo especially where that status-quo is harmful toward people and planet.
In this perhaps Cernunnos, the Horned deity who displays the link between man and nature, who is part beast, who could be seen to share some of the attributes of Satan is the perfect emblem for Paganism when standing up to oppression?
-  Westwood, J. Haunted England: The Penguin Book of Ghosts. Penguin UK, 2013.
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