Photo by Tim ten Cate on Unsplash

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…

An image of the Trois Freres Shaman, from a cave painting inside the Trois Freres caves, France

An image of the Trois Freres Shaman, from a cave painting inside the Trois Freres caves, France

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.

An image of Cernunnos surrounded by animals and ivy vines from the Gunderstrup Cauldron, approx 150BCE

An image of Cernunnos from the Gunderstrup Cauldron, approx 150BCE

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.

The horned or antlered deity is perhaps the most beloved and iconic within modern Paganism, and the various forms of this ancient deity, which extend back far beyond the rising of agriculture or the taming of the horse, remain a constant inspiration. Each version of the antlered one is an expression of just a few aspects of the whole, and usually these are just the desirable aspects. We are quick to enjoy images of Pan dancing and frolicking with Nymphs, but even quicker 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.

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.

An image of the Pashupati Seal showing Pashupati, an early form of Shiva, cross legged with horns and surrounded by animals.

An image of the Pashupati Seal

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.

Sadly these images are often used by Christians to justify their beliefs in the devil or their mistaken belief that Pagans are devil worshippers.

It is very important to note that while I empathise with early man’s belief that sacrifice of humans and animals was necessary, I do not believe that it is a valid practice. The sacrifice of a human is nothing more than murder. The practice would never have actually guaranteed a successful hunt or harvest. However, there is a precedent for adding animal blood to the soil in order to increase the health of the crops which is why it is possible to buy Fish, Blood and Bone fertiliser. This does not mean that the harming of an animal for this outcome is acceptable!