Horned Gods: A Comparative Mythology (Perspective)

Horned God symbolism is a cross cultural theme recurring in religions and literature throughout the world. Broadly speaking, horns are observed mostly in males. Bulls, stags, rams, buffaloes, rhinos are great examples of animals with horns, and appear consistently in mythological tales. These animals have inspired a lot of myth and eventually, horns came to be associated with strength and virility.

In some Asian societies, powdered horns of animals are prescribed and consumed (mostly illegally) as powerful aphrodisiacs. In fact, Horns are considered as sexual symbols associated with sex in popular culture. Consider the terms ‘horny’ and ‘cuckold’. Horny refers to a sexually aroused person, while a cuckold is a derogatory term for a man whose wife has committed adultery. In Europe, such a man may be referred to one ‘wearing the (cuckold’s) horns’. The allusion is to the mating habits of stags, who forfeit their mates, when they are defeated by another male of the species. The point is, horns are closely associated with sexuality and virility (or the lack of it).

Cave paintings such as the ones in the Lascaux caves in France and the ones at Bhimbekta in Madhya Pradesh, India, suggest that man has had a unique relationship of fascination and fear with horned animals. In the prehistoric pastoral cultures, man must have had plenty of opportunity to observe these horned animals and their behaviours, and spun stories around them. The Indus Valley unicorn seals could well be an example of the earliest myths about strange and supernatural (one) horned beasts.

Indus Valley seal depicting a unicorn JPG image


It is not hard to imagine these myths becoming more elaborate, with horns being attributed magical and even divine qualities. Man must have transitioned from stories of horned beasts to horned men and eventually to horned gods. These ‘gods’ either had animal heads with horns, or had horns growing out of their heads, or wore horned headdresses.

Celtic Polytheism, practiced between 500 BCE and 500 CE, gave rise to a number of gods and practices from the Indo-European family of religions. These religions were marked by ritual (sometimes human) sacrifices, and were presided by a priest-like people called the Druids.

After Gaul, Britain and Ireland were taken over by the Romans and the indigenous Celtic religion fused with Roman influences to form a new set of religious beliefs and a new pantheon of gods. Primary in this new set of deities is Cernunnos, for he was the horned one among deities.

Cernunnos occurs in the Pillar of the Boatmen, housed in modern day museum in Paris, France. The Pillar of the Boatmen is a square section pillar depicting several Gaul deities, from the 1 BCE, which was originally part of a Gallo-Roman temple. Dedicated mainly to Jupiter, one of the deities carved and inscribed on the pillar is Cernunnos.

The Pillar of the Boatmen (pilier des nautes) JPG image


There are several theories about the etymology of the name ‘Cernunnos’, but the popular notion is that Cernunnos is derived somewhat from the Latin word ‘Cornu’, which means horn. Therefore, Cernunnos is deemed to be a horned god of some sort, associated with nature and fertility. His most defining characteristics are his horns and torques (neck rings). One of the most detailed depictions of this deity is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The Gundestrup Cauldron is one of the most important archaeological relics from the La Tène period or early Roman Iron Age, dated between 200 BCE and 300 CE. It was unearthed in the town of Gundestrup in Denmark and is currently housed in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Found in seven fragments, the silver cauldron was later reconstructed, whereby alternating plates depicting gods and goddesses were observed. One of the interior plates has the etching of a horned deity, generally accepted to be Cernunnos.

Gundestrup Cauldron JPG images



The Greeks weren’t far behind when it came to introducing horned gods in their pantheon. With Greek invasions in far-reaching nations, cultural exchange was inevitable. Theories of oriental influence on classical Greek mythology have been proposed since Muller’s times, for example, the Vedic god Dyaus Pitr being the base for the Greek god, Zeus. So it would not be too far fetched to propose that horned gods from other cultures inspired one of the most enigmatic gods from the Greek pantheon - Pan.

Pan was one of the older Greek gods, with his name having been derived from the Greek work ‘paein’ meaning ‘to pasture’. He is therefore the rustic god of the wild, shepherds and flock, hunting, etc. The son of Hermes/Zeus and some nymph (parentage debatable), Pan is also associated with fertility, music and even theatrical criticism. Pan is notorious for his sexual overtures, having seduced many nymphs, including the moon goddess, Selene. Physically, Pan stands distinguished from other gods because of his zoomorphic form. He has a human head and torso, but a goat’s legs and horns. Another important aspect was that he could manifest simultaneously in many forms (sometimes called his sons), and hence there were many Pans. Some of these were called Kelaineus, Argennon, Aigikoros, Eugeneios, Omester, Daphoineus, Phobos, Philamnos, Xanthos, Glaukos, Argos, and Phorbas.

A Hellenistic statue of Pan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France JPG image


Pan’s Roman counterpart was called Faunus, and was similarly the god of forest, plains and fields. Faunus is also depicted with goat’s horns and goat’s legs.

Roman god, Faunus JPG image



HORNED GODS: A Comparative Mythology Perspective

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Faunus the Roman Pan Stone Wall Sculpture