Wednesday, 23 April 2014

God of the Witches

Who is this god?

He bears horns, ‘cernu’ in Celtic, he is literally a horned man, Kernunnos, the horned one, which is just a descriptive, it is not his name, it is an adjective. He is half man, half beast, those breeks belong more to Pan than they do to Kernunnos, but anything with horns will do – cloven feet are fine – but it’s the headgear which identifies him. Only Pan (Faunus) comes close to this in the Graeco-Roman world. The God Pan. So what else is there? There’s music, [top link, centre right], and music is often important in Celtic Britain, the image of the harp for example, and the magical singing birds of Rhiannon. It would be odd to find any indigenous folk tradition then without music featuring in it.

[Circle of Demons and Witches, Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.]

What else? The phallic broomstick and phallic torch or candle, so there is fire symbolism, which compliments the circle – usually a symbol for the sun (wheel). And what else – people dancing in a ring and drinking jugs, indicating feasting, so this is also a god of plenty, and a god of fertility. The Sacred Circle. Then what can we find in Britain and, or Ireland, to match this otherwise bewildering figure? The art work seems to be derived from a 1628 publication entitled “Robin Good-Fellow” (short title) and the original figure is graphically virile, reinforcing the previously-mentioned phallic imagery. By the 17th century Robin was a name for the regent of the fair folk, the King of Faery, but we need to delve much further back and earlier in time to identify this elusive fellow


There are several contenders I think for the god of the witches in Celtic Brtain and Ireland. We have already noted the horns, the stag god’s antlers; but during the later medieval period there are repeated references to the devil being black, for example, “a very mickle [large], black rough man" claimed Isobel Gowdie in 1662 [1]. So step forward swart god! Not so simple though: Celtic belief was regional, it was tribal, the deities do not fall into neat categories and I believe their gods may overlap to quite an extent, quite unlike the classical pantheon with its apparently well defined Olympians.

But black, or rather dark; an obvious match could well be the Irish Donn  whose name gives us the adjective ‘dun’. This is a dark god of the Celtic underworld, but he is possibly more than that as well.  Julius Caesar [2] stated that the Celtic equivalent of his ‘Dis Pater’ was considered to be the ancestor of the Gauls, and so a very major figure, and Dis Pater was the god of the Roman underworld, so we may have a parallel dark Donn figure here. In Wales, the medieval Mabinogion affords us a glimpse of another large dark figure, a pillar-like ‘black man of great stature on the top of a mound’ grasping a stag and a club [3]. The club or cudgel is also an attribute of Gaulish Sucellous (‘good striker’) and the Irish Dagda, called 'The Good God' and the ‘All-Father’ bringing us back to Julius’ comment again. Equally, the Dagda has been poetically referred to as ‘Donn’ which can mean brown or dark [4], exactly the same adjective used to describe the Donn Cuailgne or great brown bull featuring in the epic Irish Tain saga – yes, those horns again.


But returning to the Good-Fellow imagery – especially the circle - and our quest for the dark figure, perhaps the Witches’ God. Besides Kernunnos and the Dagda as sometimes dark, ancestral and fertility deities in the broad Celtic pantheon, a third personage presents himself. This is Crom Dubh, ‘dubh’ meaning black [5]. The word ‘crom’ forms Welsh ‘cromlech’ meaning curved stone, in other words a stone circle. Crom Dubh may have also been known as Crom Cruach, which would tend to identify him with the hilltop god Lugh (Lleu) who has an agricultural and harvest association. The god Lugaid - perhaps related to Lugh - is a tricephalic diety just like Kernunnos – he can be depicted with three heads or faces.

I return to the dancing circle though because Crom Dubh, whom Michael J O’Kelly calls the chief Celtic idol of Ireland [6], is associated with several stone circles, and I do not see this as coincidental. Aubrey Burl informs us that the stone circle in County Cavan known as Crom Cruach or Crom Dubh was a circle of twelve standing stones with a taller monolith in the centre. The central stone appears to have been thought of as the god Crom Cruach himself. A second stone circle in the same county has a Crom Cruach association and that is at Killycluggin. This circle also appears to have possessed a central pillar. Both circles have been deliberately destroyed in antiquity and the question of Crom Dubh’s identity has been all but effaced [7]. However, the ‘mickle black man’ of the seventeenth century – the Witches’ God of the round dance, and the many megalithic monuments credited with witch associations, suggests to me that the chthonic Kernunnos – variously named and conceived of - was indeed the God of the Witches

From the Compendium Maleficarum by Francesco Maria Guazzo, (1608).


Kernunnos only means ‘horned’ it doesn’t mean anything else, it doesn’t refer to any particular animal at all. Consequently, all horned animals can be thought of as potentially the ‘horned one’ and this is what we find in the scant evidence available to us today. Where clearly represented Celtic male horned figures appear they are antlered (stags) or associated with horns like the ‘ram horned’ serpents frequently accompanying the chthonic god. Bovids are less acknowledged as horned divinities, but the Celtic bull was esteemed, as in the Tain, and a bull deity existed even though his nature is now as altogether shadowy as the erstwhile major divinity Crom Dubh in Ireland. The bull god was named Tarvos who is depicted as Tarvos Trigaranus on the 1st century Pillar of the Boatmen (an altar) at Cluny, France; immediately beneath this panel is a representation of Kernunnos with apparent stag’s antlers over which are looped torcs. I think this further suggests the interrelatedness of Celtic male horned figures, all being seen as facets of Kernunnos.


The Dagda as a major pre-Christian figure is described in the Tochmarc Étaíne [8] as having power over the storm which would tend to identify him as originally an archaic weather god, and his cudgel or club [9] parallels Indra’s axe, Thunor’s hammer and the thunder bolt of Zeus. In this way these deities have something in common with anciently bovine lunar* gods like the Anatolian Teshub, consort of the sun goddess of Arinna, and Sumerian Nanna /Sin – another ‘father of the gods’ figure - who rode a winged bull. The god’s consort Ningal was represented by a priestess who led a white cow and  is thought to have performed a ritual to the east or even the rising sun; the priestess is named ‘ornament of the heavens’ and embodied the person of the goddess [10]. Considering the sacred issue between Nanna/Sin and Ningal was the sun it is probable that Ningal was a solar cow goddess, recalling ancient Egyptian Hathor and the cow goddess Aditi who births the sun in the mythology of India. Bovine Nanna/Sin’s symbol was the crescent moon, reflecting his twin albescent crescent horns.


In general, the educated seventeenth century Establishment – the clergy, aristocracy and the judiciary, could only interpret the remnants of paganism, which were all around them, in terms of classical learning and the Bible. Thus the Witch God became the Christian Devil often depicted with Pan-like goat’s legs and feet. But it follows that the god of the witches was largely an archaic moon and fertility god, and that he was consequently worshipped at night. Indeed, recumbent stone circles in northern Britain are believed to reference the moon [11]. Elsewhere the solar nature of stone circles and related megalithic monuments is beyond serious dispute and there are too many documented sun alignments to call this into question, even accepting that some megalithic monuments remain obscure in terms of archeoastronomy. The examples of Stonehenge and Newgrange will always stand, and importantly so [12]. That many daylight traditions may have been erased, must be accepted, just as the Brythonic sun goddess Sulis is all but ignored in the modern period; we are left with the nocturnal god of the witches – a surviving folk memory - but without his consort the sun goddess, whose identity was probably overlain and absorbed by Roman Minerva in the late Iron Age and then Mary ‘The Queen of Heaven’ in the succeeding Christian period, and it remains for us to recover our lost heritage.



7. Aubrey Burl, ‘Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany’ p.211-12, 1995.
10. Harriet Crawford (ed), ‘The Sumerian World’, p.253-4, 2012.

*I broadly refer to Teshub as lunar after Karl Kilinski’s identification of him with the Neo-Hittite Tarhunt who was himself identified with the Luwian moon god Arma [Burney, 2004]. Kilinski also compares Teshub with the bull-horned, storm god Akkadian Adad whose father was Nana/Sin. The Hittite moon deity Kaskuh equates to Hurrian Kusuh [Taracha, 2009], consort of Nikkal, the Hurrian version of the Sumerian ‘Great Lady’ Ningal, spouse of the moon-god Sin, and I feel that this places Kaskuh in a category of male Middle Eastern weather/lunar/bovine deities.


Karl Kilinski, Greek Myth and Western Art, p.19, 2013.
Charles Burney, Historical Dictionary of the Hittites, p.219, 2004.

Piotr Taracha, Religions of Second Millennium Anatolia, pp. 127-8, 2009.

[All links visited 24.04.2014]

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Reformation and Paganism?

Witch Cult
I've come to a conclusion, so far at least there appears to be a conclusion. I read that Europe - including Britain - was still pretty pagan up until the period of the Reformation (c1550) but when I say 'pagan' remember that there was no organised pagan system of belief and never had been, you are looking at regional and local variations which can loosely be seen to form patterns of belief - and of decay - we are largely discussing folk memory. After the Reformation began a systematic conversion of almost everyone in the British Isles, and that's when the 'witch cult' comes into sharp focus. The old style RC priests had been fairly tolerant of the old customs whereas the new, professional clergy were encountering pagans for the first time and up went the cry 'witch!', 'warlock!', and so forth, with the tragic results we are all too aware of. But it gets difficult after this point, we can't see through the eyes of 16th century pagans because their words - where they were documented - were molded and shaped by the elite, the judges, the clergy, the high and the mighty. So what comes down to us is mostly elite fantasy grounded in biblical imagery which was - and still largely is - the founding stone of the Establishment

In origin, the 'witch cult' is probably an echo of all the various beliefs from prehistoric Britain, including a large shamanic element.

this Bronze Age woman was probably or possibly a shaman - here is the original which gave rise to the witch panic of the latter Middle Ages, a folk memory of elder deities and ecstatic flights to supernatural regions. Our native shamans are all around us, in barrows & on hill sides, out on the downs, out in the night, restless spirits somewhere out there, between dawn & dusk.

 Woman's Burial from Wessex

... these individuals - their mortal remains - are everywhere. I mean they are everywhere all around us, like 'genii loci'. Many of these ancient north European people were buried in association with deer antler & Natalie Mikhailova thinks that this "looks like features of shaman burials" [Archaeologia Baltica 7, p192 (2005)].