In approximately 12,000 BCE, somebody ventured deep within Earth’s caverns in what is now southern France to paint a picture of what appears to be a dancing man with various animal attributes, including an impressive rack of antlers. There are comparatively few cave paintings depicting humans; most are incredibly precise portrayals of animals and so this dancing human-like figure has attracted much scholarly attention:
• Does it portray a sacred being or god?
• Does it portray a shaman, who have historically masqueraded as animals for assorted spiritual purposes (and still do)?
The cavern in which this image appears is now named Les Trois Frères; the horned figure is popularly nicknamed The Sorcerer or The Dancing Shaman.
Whoever that horned man was, he didn’t remain deep underground but surfaced, although he continued to be associated with caves. Ancient Greek artifacts frequently depict composite goat-men, typically combining a man’s upper torso, face, and very erect phallus with a goat’s lower quarters and horns. This image describes satyrs as well as the great god Pan.
When the Roman people first arrived in that region of Italy, they found a similar figure waiting for them. Faunus, their goat god, resembles Pan and the satyrs. According to legend, Faunus helped found the original city of Rome; the Lupercalia, a major festival whose vestiges survive in the modern Valentine’s Day, was dedicated to him.
Another horned male spirit, this one with stag’s antlers, is found all across Europe. Horned male spirits are found in Asia and Africa as well. These horned gods, some with goat or bull’s horns, others with stag’s antlers, are associated with fertility, sexual vigor, prosperity, survival, and wild nature. The cave painting’s nickname is no accident: these horned gods are also identified with the earliest stages of shamanism and witchcraft.
In the Christian era, this same figure became identified as the devil, popularly envisioned as a composite goat-man including a man’s perpetually erect phallus, and a goat’s horns and hoofs. Images of Pan can be virtually indistinguishable from those of the Christian devil, except that wings were eventually added to the devil’s form, so as to combine the form of the horned god with that of a fallen angel. The horned god served as the prototype for the Christian devil.
The story doesn’t end there: throughout Europe, as elsewhere, both before and after Christianization, men guised in the form of animals especially horned ones, perhaps ritually channeling horned spirits. Initially these were public communal rituals; however with the rise of Christianity, this practice was outlawed and so went underground, performed secretly in remote mountain clearings and caves.
We know that this occurred because of Christian descriptions and because similar practices still survive, albeit now usually considered “folkloric” rather than spiritual or magical. Photographs are available of Central European men, masked, costumed, and horned in the guise of their horned spirit, Krampus. Vestiges of masked, horned shamans also survive in modern figures like Santa Claus and his “dark companions,” as well as in what were once considered “lucky” chimney sweeps and hunchbacks.
During Europe’s witch-hunt era, people, mainly but not exclusively women, were hysterically accused of assembling en masse and worshipping the devil, usually in the form of a goat or a composite goat-man. Many defined this worship of a goat-shaped devil as what constituted witchcraft.
• Were these accusations based on fact or fantasy?
• Was this all hysteria, as some believe?
• Was the Inquisition attempting to stamp out surviving Pagan practices, as others think?
It’s impossible to determine: this was a period of religious fanaticism, not anthropology. The word “devil” was tossed around so broadly and loosely in relation to the horned ones that it’s now impossible to determine when the word was intended to describe a spiritual entity and when a man. And of course, for many devout Christians, there was no distinction between the two.
An unknown number of people, mainly women but also children and men, were tortured and killed for allegedly venerating a horned god. The horned god was envisioned as presiding over witches’ sabbats. Witches were accused of having sex with this figure, of receiving gifts from him in exchange for their immortal souls, and of offering him obscene obeisance. What the Inquisition described as the “witch’s kiss of obeisance,” or “osculum obscenum,” involved kissing the devil’s anus, buttocks or genitals.
The story doesn’t end there; the horned one never disappeared. His image remains potent, powerful, and virtually guaranteed to evoke some kind of reaction.
Today some perceive the horned one as sacred, not evil; a little rambunctious maybe but vital, powerful, and positive—the transmitter of Earth’s blessings. Other people look at the very same image and see the devil.
What’s so special about those horns?
Horns appear in the earliest manifestations of human religion, not only in the cave painting at Les Trois Frères but also in the temple complex at Çatal Hüyük and throughout the entire ancient world. Further information about the significance of horns may be found in ELEMENTS OF WITCHCRAFT, however, in short, horns indicate links between the moon, certain animals, men’s genitals, and women’s inner reproductive organs.
• Horns indicate wisdom, magical power, and primal generative, reproductive energy (see TOOLS: )
• Many horned spirits are lunar spirits
• Most, although not all, horned spirits are male
• Horns indicate protection and abundance: the cornucopia is the horn of plenty
Lunar goddesses like Artemis, Astarte, Diana, Inanna-Ishtar, and Isis often wear horns or horned headdresses. There was a Gaulish goat-goddess named Fenta. Many Celtic goddesses are profoundly identified with cattle. Some sacred hags sport antlers and boar’s tusks. Celtic bronze statues portray antlered women, although whether they are divine or human is now unknown. During China’s Chou dynasty (1050–256 BCE), female shamans danced wearing antlers.
Even goddesses who lack horns are frequently depicted in the company of horned animals. A famous Middle-Eastern image of a goddess variously identified as Inanna-Ishtar or Lady Asherah portrays her standing between two dancing ibexes (wild goats). Artemis is rarely without a stag at her side.
The male horned spirit is often the companion of a goddess; conversely he is a male divinity who is concerned with the welfare, prosperity, and fecundity of women. These male spirits are portrayed dancing, cavorting, and otherwise engaged with women.
Another name sometimes used for this horned man-spirit is the sacred Wild Man. The Horned Spirit/Wild Man presides over Earth’s cyclical nature: birth, death, and rebirth. He is the personification of the male generative fertility needed to spark life. Many horned spirits are associated with the element of fire, identified as the “spark of life.” Horned spirits proffer firebrands and, later, coal to their devotees. Conversely many horned spirits are associated with rainstorms that fertilize and were perceived as inseminating the feminine Earth.
The most obvious characteristic of horned deities are their horns. However there are also others:
• Horned spirits are often characterized by hoofs or a limp. Sometimes they have uneven feet (one foot, one hoof): this mysterious shuffling step is also associated with shamans.
• Horned spirits are often identified with specific tools: they carry birch switches, pitchforks, stangs, and sickles. (See TOOLS.)
• Sometimes horns are omitted but other animal anatomy retained as a clue to their true identity, notably hairy legs or cloven hoofs. This tradition survives in the notion that even when the devil manifests as a human being, one cloven hoof is retained as identification.
When discussing horned spirits, exactly what are we talking about? Spirits who manifest as horned deities, or people in the guise of horned deities? Spiritual traditions involving horned spirits involved masquerading and possibly ritual possession similar to modern Vodouistes or Native American katchina dancers (see MAGICAL ARTS: ).
There was once a powerful, extensive spiritual tradition involving masquerading as animals which the Church worked tirelessly to eradicate, although it was a tradition that was never entirely destroyed:
• In the 570s, the Council of Auxerre, France, forbade masquerading as a calf or stag and banned distribution of “devilish charms.”
• The seventh-century Liber Penitentialis is the earliest collection of ecclesiastical disciplinary laws for England. One clause forbids anyone from dressing as a bull or stag during the Calends of January.
• In an early association of the horned one with the devil, the Liber Penitentialis assigns three-years’ penance to those who transform themselves into the appearance of wild animals since the practice is devilish.
Hysteria regarding witches’ sabbats presided over by goats may be understood as a response to these traditions. Because such a disproportionate number of women were killed as witches, the question is often posed: where were the male witches? Tremendous emphasis was placed on identifying witchcraft with women. Women, hence witches, were perceived as submissive; male practitioners, many apparently dressed in shamanic horned costume, were identified with the powerful devil, instead.
In the words of St Peter Chrysologus (405-450), “All who have masqueraded in the likeness of animals … have turned themselves into devils,” and furthermore, “The man who puts on the guise of an idol has no wish to be in the image and likeness of God. Who jests with the Devil cannot rejoice with Christ.”
He urged Christians to convert those who “have masqueraded in the likeness of animals, who have assumed the shape of herd animals, who have turned themselves into devils.”
St Caesarius of Arles (470–542) wrote, “Is there any sensible man who could ever believe that there are actually rational individuals willing to put on the appearance of a stag and to transform themselves into wild beasts? Some dress themselves in the skins of herd animals, others put on the heads of horned beasts …”
The tradition never completely died: dressing up as animals or masquerading in beast masks was incorporated into the medieval Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass. It eventually became associated with New Year’s festivities; however it’s quite likely that the practice also continued secretly in the forest and at remote, ancient sacred sites in the same manner that Vodouistes once put on shows for tourists but reserved true rituals for private, sacred occasions. Presumably these secret traditions were what the Inquisition was so anxious to root out and eradicate.
Nor did the horned spirit ever fade away even in the heart of the Church. An altar stone found at Notre Dame Cathedral, for instance, depicts a horned deity with torcs on his antlers similar to images of .
There are a lot of horned spirits. The following is a selection of the most renowned, with a special focus on those historically associated with witchcraft.
See CALENDAR: , ; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: , .