Excerpted and adapted from: The Horned God of the Witches by Jason Mankey and published by Llewellyn Worldwide. copyright 2021 Jason Mankey. I’m so excited for you to read this book! You can pick it up where ever you buy your Witch books, or order it directly from me (signed of course!) at my online store.
Wiccan-Witchcraft’s primary male deity has always been the Horned God. In recent years I think this has sometimes gotten lost as people talk of “the God” or “the Lord” (with the Goddess being referred to as “the Lady”), instead of the Horned One. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to honor the Sun God or the Sea God or whatever other deity someone wants to place in their circle; only that at the beginning of Wicca the God of the Witches was nearly always horned or had attributes that we’d think of as belonging to the Horned God.
While this section is mostly focused on the evolution or the Horned God within texts most of us would think of as “Wiccan,” nearly all of those texts use the word Witch exclusively. Because of this I use Wiccan and Witch, and Witchcraft and Wicca as synonyms here because that’s how they were generally used in the books I’m referencing.
In 1959’s The Meaning of Witchcraft Gerlad Gardner provides perhaps his most thoughtful explanation of the Horned God of the Witches. In just a few sentences he links his Witch God to life, death, Pan, the King of the Wood, and perhaps, surprising to some, the two-headed Roman god Janus:
“Now, we have seen that Janus or Dianus was a form of the God of the Witches; the two faces depict his dual nature. As the witch ritual says, ‘Thou art the Opener of the Doorway of the Womb; and yet, because that which is born must also die, that it may be renewed, therefore art Thou Lord of the Gates of Death.’ Being the consort of Diana, he was the King of the Wood, and as the Phallic God, he was the renewer of life. It is evident that the bust which Lady Raglan illustrates depicts him as the renewer of life in spring; the green leaves take life from his mouth. Closely akin to him are Faunus and Silvanus, and Pan, who was hailed in Hellas as “Pamphagë, Pangenetor”, “All- Devourer, All-Begetter”; and as “Chairë Soter Kosmou”, “Beloved Saviour of the World”, yet from whose name was derived “panic” as a term of terror. Priapus, too, was the Phallic God and the God of Gardens. The concept of fertility, of eternal, ever-renewing, upspringing life, is the basis of them all.” (1)
Here Gardner’s God is cosmic and all encompassing. He’s one being, but he’s also Pan, Priapus, Janus, the Green Man, the King of the Wood, and the Lord of the Gates of Death. He’s the joyous god of the eternal English countryside, but he’s also a deity with one foot (or hoof) planted firmly in the afterlife. In Witchcraft Today Gardner wrote that:
“while the gods wished them (people) well, they (the gods) were not all- powerful, that they needed man’s help; that by performing certain rites men gave them power . . ” (2)
Perhaps a phallic, re-newer of life, and Lord of the Gates of Death is not quite all powerful, but he has to at least come close.
When reading Gardner, I sometimes feel as if his Horned God is two separate deities. There’s the (Horned) God of the Witches, a rather intimate deity who appeals only to Witches and whose origins are in the green earth and humanity before pre-recorded history. This is the version of the god who is not all powerful. Next to this figure is one of “the Two Pillars which support the universe” of which every “manifestation of male and female is a manifestation of them.”(3) This can be taken to mean that gods such as Yahweh (Jehovah) are also a manifestation of the Witch’s God.
Though I don’t think it was Gardner’s intention, the end result of these more cosmic musings would have later ramifications and allowed the Horned God to get lost in other manifestations of deity. Instead of continuing to be the primary (male) god of the Wicca, the door was now open to other possibilities. In later years the Horned God would be looked at by many as simply one aspect of a much greater whole, the end result being that many began to overlook some of the roles he played in Wicca’s earliest published literature.
When discussing the history of any Modern Witchcraft tradition, books are especially important. Until relatively recently, the only way to really learn about a tradition such as Wicca was through direct contact with a Wiccan (hard to find generally) or through the pages of a book. There have been influential Witches over the last 50 years who haven’t left much in the way of a written legacy, but the biggest shapers on Witchcraft as a whole have been writers. For many of us they have been our entry way into Wicca and other forms of Witchcraft. (This is beginning to change with online resources, whether blogs, podcasts, photos on Instagram or videos.).
At its beginning Wiccan-Witchcraft was an initiation-only tradition; to become a Wiccan-Witch required an initiation into an existing coven. That changed over time, but for the first twenty years of Wicca’s existence, the only way to obtain Wiccan ritual was to become an initiate or perhaps write one’s own, though the aspiring Wiccan would have no way of knowing that their rites were Wiccan as there was nothing to compare them to. That began to change in 1970 with the publication of Paul Huson’s (1942-present) Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks & Covens.
Mastering Witchcraft is a brilliant piece of Witchcraft writing. Many Traditional Witches think of it as a foundational work, and there’s certainly a lot in it that is very different from Wiccan-Witchcraft. But there’s also a great deal of Wiccan material in its pages, and the book’s last chapter, The Coven and How to Form One, is a basically about forming a Wiccan-style coven.
The “Horned One” features prominently in Huson’s book, but extra attention is also paid to Cernunnos as one of the “so-called Witch deities.”(4) Huson’s writings on Cernunnos are fascinating because it’s a version of Cernunnos that’s alien from the deity I know in many respects. Huson explicitly links Cernunnos to Pan, to such an extent that you start to wonder if Cernunnos has goat-horns atop his head instead of antlers:
“The goat is the age-old representation of lust and debauchery, and Cernunnos himself, for such is his witch name, is frequently represented as possessing the cloven hooves, horns, and erect phallus of his attribute. His symbolism has much in common with that of the Greek god Pan . . . . . . . . Whenever you wish to perform a spell whose object is to boggle someone’s mind with lust, you should invoke holy Cernunnos . . . . .”(5)
In this passage Pan and Cernunnos are essentially the same deity, an idea expressed before by Margaret Murray, but now they even seem to look alike.
Cernunnos would also feature in Huson’s work as a god of vengeance. The god figures prominently in a spell using poppet magick, which utilizes the power of Cernunnos to “vengefully stab the Dagyde (6) into the part of the puppet designated for torment with the words ‘so mote it be!’” (7) Later in the same chapter on “Vengeance and Attack” the power of Cernunnos is used to call up an electrical storm (but only on Tuesdays during a waning moon).(8)
The use of Cernunnos as Wiccan-Witchcraft’s primary or most important male deity would be repeated in other books published in the 1970’s. In Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows (not surprisingly by Lady Sheba, 1920-2002) the God and Goddess of the Witches are said to be “Arida and Kernunnos”(9) and those names are repeated several times throughout the text. (8) In her Spring Equinox ritual Sheba calls Kernunnos the “Merciful Son of Cerridwen” and states that his “name is Highest of all.”(10)
The reason for using an alternate spelling of Cernunnos is worth speculating on. Lady Sheba received much of the information that made up her Book of Shadows from an English coven who may or may not have included the name of their coven deity in their book. Not including specific deity names is a common practice among initiatory traditions in order to keep those names secret. It’s possible that Sheba was attempting to recreate a name she had simply heard previously and not seen written down. It’s also possible that her more phonetic spelling of Cernunnos was one she inherited from the coven she was “initiated” into.
(The story of Sheba’s initiation is a strange little piece of Witch history. Unlike most initiates, she was initiated remotely, in this case over the phone, by a British coven while she was living in the American state of Kentucky. After Sheba received the Book of Shadows she had pledged to keep secret, she promptly sent it to Llewellyn Publications, the publishers of this book.)
Sheba would not be the only Witchcraft writer of the 1970’s to us an alternate spelling of Cernunnos as the name of Wicca’s Horned God. Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), hailed by many as the Mother of Modern Witchcraft, would call the Horned God Kernunno in her 1978 “how to” book Witchcraft for Tomorrow.(11) In addition to using this specific name, her book also includes the poem Invocation of the Horned God focusing on the Horned One as a god of “moonlight meadow, on dusky hill” and “forest wild and wood enchanted.”(12) Valiente explained the use of Kernunno just over a decade later in her memoir The Rebirth of Witchcraft, stating that it was one of the god names used by the coven she was initiated into by Gerald Gardner.(13)
Contemporary to Sheba, Valiente, and Huson was the English Witch Sybil Leek (1917-1982) who released The Complete Art of Witchcraft in 1971. Instead of naming the Horned God Cernunnos (or a variation of) she called her Horned God, Faunus, generally seen as the Roman equivalent of Pan. Her descriptions of Faunus generally fall in line with other descriptions of the Horned God, he is “the spirit within the woods, trees, and waters,” but she also explicitly links him to the sun. Her Faunus is “ . . . the sun, the life giving force without which there could be no life at all.” (14) Leek also gives the names “Sylvester, Crom, Pan, Virnius” for her coven’s Horned God, though most of those, much like Faunus, never became very popular outside of the circles she inspired.(15)
Cernunnos is again used as the name of the Wiccan Horned God (and even spelled correctly) in Eight Sabbats for Witches (1981) and The Witches Way (1984) (later republished in one volume as The Witches Bible in 1996) by English Witches Janet (1950-present) and Stewart Farrar (1916-2000), with some assistance by Doreen Valiente. Like Lady Sheba, the Farrar’s utilized a British Book of Shadows in their text, and their versions of Cernunnos as the Horned One are quite similar. In both works Cernunnos straddles the worlds of life and death equally and is referred to as the “Dread Lord of Shadows.”
Eight Sabbats for Witches and The Witches Way would be some of the last Wiccan books to portray the Horned God as the unquestioned God of the Witches, and to include a specific deity name from antiquity. What Gardner hinted at in 1959, “The God” as a manifestation of all male deities, would become the most common way of writing about the God of Wiccan-Witches as the years rolled along. Writers would mention the Horned God of course, but he became something bigger than a more intimate deity concerned primarily with Witches.
Perhaps the greatest expression of this change can be found in 1979’s The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, (1951-present). Unlike the previous author’s written about in this chapter, Starhawk drew inspiration for her version of Witchcraft from sources far beyond Gardner and British-Wiccan traditions. Starhawk’s version of Witchcraft was heavily influenced by Wicca, but also second-wave feminism, Dianic Witchcraft, and the work of Victor (1917-2001) and Cora Anderson (1944-2008) the founders of the Anderson Feri Witchcraft Tradition.
In The Spiral Dance Starhawk calls the God of the Witches by several different names including Horned God, the God, Sun Child, Lord of the Winds, and Dying God.(16) Starhawk’s Witch God is cosmic, all encompassing, but beholden to the Goddess. Starhawk writes that the Horned God is “born of a Virgin mother” and that “His power is drawn directly from the Goddess: He participates in her.”(17) While the Goddess has always been somewhat predominant in most forms of Wiccan-Witchcraft, the Wicca of Gardner and his descendants generally viewed Goddess and God as equal in terms of power and agency, here the Horned One is no pushover, but obviously in a secondary role. Starhawk’s conception of the God of the Witches is not one that arose in isolation and was symptomatic of larger trends.
By the end of the 1970’s I think it can be safely said that many within the broader Wiccan community were moving away from the Horned God as the dominant male deity of the tradition and replacing him with a larger concept, “the God.” Some of this was most likely intentional, and some of it was probably by accident. Many specific initiatory Wiccan traditions use named gods, such as Sheba’s Kernunnos, whose names are often not allowed to be said during public ritual. This led to generic titles being used instead, which is why so many early published Wiccan rituals contain exhortations to the “Goddess” and “God,” or “Lord” and “Lady.” Eventually these placeholder names, became names of the deities themselves.
Freeing the Horned God from being specifically Faunus or Cernunnos also opened up what he might be capable of, and what sort of myths could be attached to him. He no longer had to be a god with one foot in the realms of the living and the dead, he could now die and be reborn continuously. His life story could be placed on the Wheel of the Year, with the God reborn on Yule as the Sun Child, and dying at the Autumn Equinox as John Barleycorn. A more complex Horned God mythology arose, borrowing myths from solar deities and dying and resurrecting gods.
A bigger Witch God who didn’t always have to wear horns or antlers could also be looked at as “respectability politics.” Though we don’t think about it very much today, by the late 1970’s and into the early 1990’s much of the United States was consumed by “Satanic Panic.” Rumors of Satanic conspiracies focused on murdering and kidnapping children were taken seriously by law enforcement, though there was absolutely no evidence suggesting any of it was true. Child day care workers went to prison, for decades in some cases, during the panic, and all of hysteria of the period was laid at the feet of a horned devil and his depraved devotees.(18) (And while this all feels very long ago, people were still being held in jail due to these allegations into the 2010’s.).
In the most influential texts of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Horned God had been effectively reduced to “The God” and only “sometimes” wore “horns on His head.”(19) This was all quite the change from Gardner’s phallic horned deity that originally shaped Wicca. And make no mistake, books like Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, were widely influential. They made Wicca easy to understand, easy to grasp, and easy to embrace, especially if one was going through Christianity withdrawals and a little afraid of the Horned God.
When writing specifically about “The Witches’ God” in 1989, the Horned God was listed as only one aspect of a much powerful whole by Janet and Stewart Farrar. In a short period of time things had changed from Cernunnos being the God of the Witches, to being but one part of him. Now the God was the Time-Measuring God, the Wisdom God, the Vegetation God, the War God, the Craftsman God, the Monopolist God, and the Underworld God (along with several other names).(20) Silver Ravenwolf’s (1956-present) To Ride a Silver Broomstick (1993) acknowledges that it’s hard for many new Witches to “accept the visage of our God,” and then makes it easy to do so by encouraging new Witches to pick whatever deity they want as “The God.”(21)
I remain a huge fan of Ravenwolf, Cunningham, and the work of the Farrars, but by emphasizing “The God” instead of the Horned God they, to some extent, sidelined Wicca’s original male deity. I don’t want anyone reading this book to think that the Horned God completely fell out of favor beginning in the late 1970’s, but he certainly began to change. He became one possible ritual focus amongst dozens of choices, instead of a primary one. In the process of writing this book and reviewing what has been written about the Horned God in Wiccan-Witchcraft texts, the Horned One often comes across as a secret reserved for practitioners. If you know how to look for him, you can find him, but if you are new to all of this Witchcraft stuff, here’s a way to get around any negative baggage you or society might have towards him.
(During the writing of this book I asked my friend and fellow Wiccan-Witch Thorn Mooney if my theory on the transition from “Horned God” to “The God” in Wicca was something that really happened or if I was projecting my own feelings onto things. She responded that as a young Witch she had “confusion about who I’m supposed to be talking to as a Wiccan” and if “the HG (Horned God) is the same ‘the Lord’? Is the God the HG? The difference in terms really confused me.” It’s good to know that I’m not completely wrong.)(22)
The end result of all of this was that Wicca’s Horned God became one part of a much larger God. Sure, that God was often depicted with antlers (he always seems more likely to resemble Cernunnos than Pan), but they could easily be dismissed or forgotten about depending on time and circumstances. I think most Wiccan-Witches still associate their primary male deity (or male deities) with horns and antlers, but alternatives now also abound. I’ve always felt Wicca should strive to be as inclusive as possible, and yes, for many people horns and antlers can be a barrier for entry. But by clipping his horns, the Wiccan God loses a bit of his history and mystery.
While the Horned God was slowly folded into a larger representation of deity, Wicca had another problem to overcome, the very denial of the Horned God’s true nature along with the identities of many of his followers. In my experience Wicca has generally been an accepting and tolerant spiritual practice, however, it wasn’t always like that. For several decades many Wiccan coven leaders refused to initiate (or even teach) gay and lesbian Witches. And when those gay and lesbian Witches were allowed into a coven situation they were often encouraged to “act straight” in circle.
Wicca as originally described by Gerald Gardner and other early Witches had a major emphasis on “male/female polarity,” and idea which suggests that magickal operations are stronger when worked in female/male pairings. Within the circle the Goddess and God were often portrayed as exclusively straight, with no interest in same sex coupling. If all of my brothers and sisters can be found within the Horned God, then my Horned God has multiple gender identities and interest in all different kinds of sexual partners. Gay sex was extremely sacred to Pan, it only makes sense that gay sex (along with all other forms of consensual sexuality) would also be seen as extremely sacred by the Horned God today.
I don’t think the Horned God can even be seen as exclusively male. Horned and antlered goddesses can be found throughout history. I have to believe that deity is close to limitless, meaning that it can take whatever sort of form it wishes in order to be better understood and appreciated by devotees. For the most part, Wicca has gotten over its homophobia problems, but the issue still comes up from time to time, often from people who wish to disparage Wicca by focusing on what it once was instead of what it has become.
Excerpted and adapted from: The Horned God of the Witches by Jason Mankey and published by Llewellyn Worldwide. copyright 2021 Jason Mankey.
I’m so excited for you to read this book! You can pick it up where ever you buy your Witch books, or order it directly from me (signed of course!) at my online store.