When I first discovered Wicca and Neopaganism, I was somewhat confused by the attention given to the Horned God as consort of the Goddess. I had grown up with classical mythology, so I knew Pan as a rustic minor deity of the Greeks, but I had never before encountered the idea that pre-Christian Pagans had worshipped a God/Goddess pair, with the God connected with the hunt and with wild animals, such as the stag.
Where did this come from? Yes, there is the famous illustration of the horned figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron (usually identified as Cernunnos, although that is conjecture). References to Cernunnos himself are scant, as are references to Celtic deities generally. Alas, there is no Celtic analog of the Norse sagas or the written Greek myths to give us a clear sense of the Celtic pantheon, if indeed there was such a thing. (It has been suggested, for example, that the deities of the Celts were mostly spirits of particular localities, with no unified pan-Celtic family of great gods.) References to the Horned God by other names associated with him in Wicca, such as Herne, are even more dubious. In any case, a figure such as Lugh would seem more central to Celtic belief than Cernunnos.
The answer goes back to a cluster of quasi-Anthropological ideas that were in vogue early in the 20th century. In 1921, Margaret Murray published her influential monograph The Witch Cult in Western Europe, which interpreted the records of the witchcraft trials of the 1600s in terms of a surviving Pagan fertility cult. Modern Pagans who are not familiar with Murray’s work first-hand may be surprised to know that Murray’s original picture of the “witch cult” had very little to do with goddess worship. In Murray’s conception, the object of the witches’ worship was a Horned God. Murray’s work carries little credence among anthropologists today, but she left a lasting imprint on the development of Wicca.
Why did Murray posit a Pagan religion with the Horned God as a central figure, when the historical evidence concerning European paganism suggests that the horned gods in the various pagan societies were minor deities at best? The answer is two-fold.
Murray was interpreting witch trial documents that were written by Christian zealots determined to condemn the accused persons of devil-worship. The medieval Christian image of the devil had acquired some details (horns and hooves) from the Greek god Pan. (This was likely an early attempt to associate Pagan worship with evil. The goat-like Pan made a good target, since he represented the “animal nature” the church was so determined to condemn. Furthermore, even the pagan Greeks regarded Pan with more than a little apprehension – he was not a character you wanted to meet walking through the woods at night.) What Murray did, essentially, was to recast a bit of nightmarish Christian mythology – witches consorting with the devil – in pagan garb.
So a Horned God lined up with the Christian devil-worship ideas that dominated the witchcraft persecutions of the 1600s. But there is another source behind Murray’s ideas: Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s thesis was that there was a recurring theme in Pagan mythology and practice, the idea of a king or god who must be sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land, and who would be resurrected again in a symbolic echo of the seasonal cycles of the agricultural year. Frazer’s point was not to extol the virtues of a paganism attuned with nature, but rather to undermine the status of Christianity by identifying a pagan basis for the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Modern scholarship thinks little more of Frazer than it does of Murray. Although he may have found an interesting thread of symbolism that recurs from time to time in different cultures, there is no reason to see the motif of the dying and resurrecting god as the central tenet of a pan-European of pan-Mediterranean pagan religion. Nevertheless, Frazer’s ideas made Murray’s interpretation of the witch trials plausible on the surface.
What does all this say for modern Wiccans and Pagans? Should we let the Horned God slip back into the murk of medieval Christian mythology and creative Victorian speculation he grew up out of? Actually, I think not. When we work with myth and symbol, the merit of a particular concept depends on its power to speak to us, to get inside us, and to change us. It scarcely matters where the concept comes from. What matters is how it works.
For me, the Horned God is a potent symbol of the wild spirit of life, the burst of will that erupts from the Earth, joins the great dance with passion, and then returns when his time is spent, only to return in a new shape, in some new spring time. He is the freedom of a pair of deer leaping through the forest. He is the force of sexual desire that creates new life. He is the child and lover of the Earth. When we honor the Horned God, we come into intimate contact with something that is central to our own nature as human beings: the fire of being incarnate, temporal beings.