I worship a god with horns
by Jason Mankey
I worship a god with horns.
I’m usually pretty comfortable talking to people of other faiths. Just this past week I was lucky enough to participate in an “Ask a Pagan” project over on the blog of Christian writer Rachel Held Evans. For the most part, her readers were very supportive, and I pride myself in being able to write in a way that most Christians will understand and be able to relate to. I’m also open about most anything on the Pagan table, but one thing I always hesitate to bring up is The Horned God.
Not all Pagans worship a horned god. Some Pagans prefer to focus exclusively on female deities, or they might prefer sun gods like Apollo when looking for the male side of deity. I would argue that the Horned God archetype is the most common version of masculine deity in Modern Paganism, but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and a lot of that is due to the horns on his head.
In antiquity, there were a lot of gods with horns on their heads. The horns didn’t signify evil, just an affinity with certain types of animals. The most famous of all horned gods, the Greek God Pan, had goat legs and goat horns, he was also a shepherd of goats and his worship began in the rocky hills of Arcadian Greece, a land teeming with goats. His goaty attributes were simply a reflection of the environment his worship developed in. So while there’s nothing sinister about horns on a deity, I’m still often reluctant to go out of my way to address it.
It’s pretty obvious why it’s a subject I like to avoid, in many people’s minds horns equal the Christian Devil, but Satan with horns is a relatively new phenomenon. The Bible never portrays Lucifer in such a way, and it’s hard to imagine a fallen angel sprouting horns on top of his head. Even during the Middle Ages, Satan wasn’t pictured with horns, he just looked grotesque, like a scaly lizard-man. Times changed though, and the Devil was turned into a red guy with horns on his head, and it’s the horns that people most equate with him.
Writing in the early 17th Century Francis Bacon wrote “Nor need we wonder that Pan’s horns touch heaven; since the summits, or universal forms, of nature do in a manner reach up to God,” those are certainly not the words of someone who fears horns. Michelangelo’s “Moses” has horns on top of his head due to a Biblical mistranslation, showing not only Michelangelo’s comfort with horns, but Renaissance-era Christianity’s as well. I only bring these things up to illustrate that horns have not always been associated with evil, even in a Christian context.
To modern Pagans, horns on top of a god’s head mean what they meant to Bacon; they are a symbol of the divine and show the deity’s close association with nature. My god doesn’t lord over creation, watching it from on high, he’s actively involved with it, a part of the world and not a spectator who occasionally reaches down with a large hand to fix a problem. Horns are a testament to his earthiness, a statement that he’s with us.
Paganism is unique among religions because it allows worshippers to make their deities bigger than they might have been in the ancient world. There were many horned gods in the year Zero, and today a lot of Pagans gather up all of those gods and think of them as one archetype. “The Horned God” is not a specific deity from history, but an amalgamation of various classical deities along with more modern influences. The god Pan, for instance, had many of his more questionable impulses whittled away during the Nineteenth Century, becoming a much more “tame” and “gentle” deity. While ancient mythologies help to shape our perceptions about deity, they aren’t the only factors that contribute to that perception. Children’s books and dusty old poems have contributed greatly to the re-imagining of deity. Thanks to books like “The Wind in the Willows,” the god Pan is just as likely to be seen as a benevolent nature spirit as he is a devil. Religions and gods are not static, they are constantly evolving to better serve the needs of their worshippers.
During my early years as a Pagan, I was terrified by the idea of a horned god. I had been so thoroughly conditioned to equate horns with the devil that I didn’t know any other perceptions existed. Now, 18 years later, I find myself fully comfortable with the idea in my own practice, and accept the historical precedent for benevolent figures wearing horns. However, old habits do die hard, and I still find myself reluctant to talk about Old Horn Head outside of a Pagandom. It’s easy to talk about figures like The Goddess, but it remains difficult to overcome the stereotype of horns equaling the Devil, even with the help of Moses.