In my previous post, I talked a bit about Erich Neumann’s book The Great Mother and how, despite the various problems with it and the need for context-sensitive critical reading, it can provide a great theoretical framework in which to understand the Wiccan Goddess. Wicca is about experience, not theory, and a theoretical perspective like Neumann’s will never replace direct personal religious experience, but it can be a helpful way to process that experience—or, on the other end of things, to open ourselves up to it. My previous post focused particularly on a diagram of Neumann’s in which he articulates four central mysteries associated with the Great Mother and identifies some mythological figures and themes through which she can be understood. In today’s post, I want to provide a similar theoretical framework for approaching the Horned God of Wicca.
What follows is a diagram of my own creation, following the same basic layout as Neumann used in The Great Mother. All of the caveats and disclaimers I provided in talking about Neumann’s book still apply here; I want to be very clear that despite its usefulness, Neumann’s work is flawed, and I’m not trying to uncritically rehash those flaws. In particular, I want to call out four things about this diagram that I think are potential areas of misunderstanding:
- I am trying to map the mysteries of one particular God, not of all of the divine masculine. I think the latter project is, frankly, impossible. There are various features of Gods from around the world that you will not see represented here—themes like war, poetry, or commerce. That’s because my focus is narrowed on one individual deity.
- In a similar vein, I am not claiming that any of the mythological figures mentioned here are identical to the Horned God of Wicca, nor to each other. The hard/soft polytheism question is largely a matter of personal theology, and different people feel differently about it; that’s okay. For myself, my polytheism runs on the firmer side, and I do not think that Adonis is identical to King Arthur, nor that Osiris is identical to Pan. I’m not trying to pull a James Frazer and say “Actually, all of these Gods are in fact one and the same.” Rather, I use these mythological figures as points of comparison, to help identify characteristics of the Horned God that are similar to those seen in other figures from world mythology.
- I think it’s important to flag that this is just my individual take on the Horned God. It’s not complete or comprehensive, and it’s not meant to be. There are aspects of his mysteries that may not be reflected here, and there will be other Wiccans who look at this diagram and feel that I have put too much emphasis on one thing and too little (or none at all) on another. That’s okay; remember, Wicca is experiential, and different people have different experiences with the Gods. I’m not trying to speak for all of Wicca, just for my understanding of the Horned God.
- Finally, I want to flag that I’m trying to avoid biological, sex-based interpretations of the Horned God. Wicca gets a bum rap for biological essentialism, and to a certain extent, that reputation is justified. There are plenty of Wiccans who see our Gods as a cosmic Barbie and Ken (except, y’know, with genitalia). The phallus-and-womb symbolism as an expression of the relationship between the Gods is unquestionably a common theme in Wicca. And to be clear, I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. There’s something profound and divine in the way that egg and sperm conjoin to create new life; that is undeniably a form of expression for the sacred union of opposites that I see as the relationship between my Gods. But it’s only part of the picture, and the most superficial part, at that. I think the onus is on all Wiccans to seek a deeper understanding of our deities that does not reduce to sexual reproduction. That’s what I’ve tried to do here with the Horned God.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at what I’ve come up with.
At the center of the diagram, we start with what Neumann calls the “elementary character”: The basic, primordial function that then gets elaborated and nuanced in various ways. For Neumann, the elementary character of the Great Mother was “containing,” and the prototypical image of the Goddess was the vessel. Here, I have elected for “becoming” as the elementary character of the Horned God. The language I’ve chosen is Platonic, and has to do with the duality between being and becoming in Plato’s philosophy. To me, this is the core of the relationship between the Wiccan Gods. The Goddess is the ground of being: She is that in virtue of which things exist. She is steadfast and eternal. The God, on the other hand, is the ground of becoming: He is the lord of change, who animates the universe. He exists in the liminal spaces where things are either coming into or passing out of existence, or where they are changing their state. (I’ll often also use the Qabalistic language of force and form to describe this relationship.)
Like Neumann, my schema has two axes, which extend to four poles. Neumann’s axes were the “M” axis (for “mother”) and the “A” axis (for “anima”). Here, I’ve named mine “F” (for “father”) and “C” (for “consort”). We move outward from the core act of “becoming” and articulate it in four different ways: building and breaking (the F-axis), and filling and emptying (the C-axis). From there, we begin to articulate the kinds of spiritual transformation associated with each of those actions. On the F-axis, we have order and lawgiving at one pole, and destruction and chaos at the other. On the C-axis, we have union and conjunction at one pole, and decay and deprivation at the other. Here, you can see that my naming convention with the F- and C-axes is not exactly accurate; the F-axis is about order and chaos, and the C-axis is about love and death. But hey, I did my best.
Moving yet further from the center, we identify the key mysteries associated with each pole. For the positive, orderly end of the F-axis, I’ve called them Mysteries of Civilization: Mathematics (think: Pythagorean mystery cults), timekeeing and calendrical woo, fermentation, and agriculture. For the negative, chaotic end of the F-axis, I’ve termed them Wild Mysteries: Hunting, madness, ecstasy, and dance. Moving along the C-axis, we have Mysteries of Love: Sex, henosis (union with the Gods in a very Neoplatonic sense; there are people who would quibble with me including this here), marriage, and family. Down on the death end of that axis, we have (you guessed it!) Mysteries of Death: Fate, disease, old age, and death.
I’ve also given a handful of mythological figures as points of comparison for each pole on the diagram. For the orderly character of the Horned God, we have patriarchs like Marduk, Zeus, and King Arthur. For the the untamed character, we have beasts (or Gods associated with animality) like Herla Cyning, Pan, and Cernunnos. On the C-axis, for the bright consort (the God of love) we have lovers like Adonis, Eros, and the Prince Charming of fairy tales. For the fearsome consort (the God of death), we have psychopomps and death-figures like the Grim Reaper, Osiris, and Hades. None of these figures is exactly like the Horned God, but they all show some of the attributes I associate with him in one light or another. Those on the top half of the diagram (the patriarch and the lover) are the brighter, more comfortable faces of the God, while those on the bottom half (the psychopomp and the beast) are his darker, more chthonic aspects.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I know I’ve really loved writing it. This is only one limited perspective on the Horned God, but I like having something out there that says, “Here’s some of what my experience is.” I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about this piece, of see if someone wants to take a crack at making a schema of their own. Each person’s experience with the Horned God is subtly different, and there’s certainly plenty about him that is and will always remain an unspeakable mystery. But I’m proud of what I’ve been able to put into words here, and I feel that it accurately reflects a lot of who I have found him to be.