British Horned Gods

Blackbird Hollins 2008
First published in White Dragon

Who is the Horned God? Not hard: His name is Cernunnos and his image is found throughout Britain and Europe.

However, there is another answer to this question which better fits the multitude of horned god images and mythology: There are many horned gods and there are many types of horns.

Cernunnos is not actually horned at all. He is antlered and this is different, both physically and symbolically. Horns are a permanent fixture on a animal. They are made mostly keratin, a fibrous protein which is also present in our skin and hair. The keratin covers an inner core of living bone. Antlers are made from dead bone and unlike horns, they are shed seasonally - deer lose their antlers in autumn and regrow them in the spring.

Having made that distinction, I now confess that this article will look at both horned and antlered gods. It will concentrate on the Romano-British time periods and will look at general animal symbolism in pre-Christian Britain and the images of horned gods left to us by the Romano-British . We will extend this into the (mostly medieval) mythology of Britain and Ireland, looking at the role of horned animals and characters, looking for further clues about the lore of horned animals and the possible survival of older symbolism and lore into these tales. We will also be touching upon horned images from outside the British Isles for comparison purposes.

Having made the distinction between horned and antlered, we also need to look at whether or not different types of horns carry different symbolism. From the surviving imagery, that seems to be the case, although there are points of cross-over. There are three main groups of horned animal in Britain, the ram, the bull and the goat.

The goat becomes important later, particularly as the Christians began equating goat horns with their devil. (This was probably inspired by gods such as Pan and although this development is fascinating, it is outside the scope of this article.) During the iron-age and Roman period, the goat does not seem to have been widespread in Britain, probably because the hardier sheep does far better in our climate. Having said that, because the sheep of this time were far more goat-like than the modern fluffy creatures, it can be hard to tell the two apart in the archaeological record. Ram horns do appear, particularly in the figure of the mysterious ram-horned serpent that often accompanies antlered images. Bulls and bull-horned deities are the most commonly represented and this is unsurprising given the importance of cattle to the British economy and the impressive stature of a fully grown bull.

Although we do have some horned images from earlier times, the first significant horned god evidence was left by the Romans and Romano-British. However, the information is still scanty and we have a very incomplete picture of these gods, their attributes and their worship. There are many horned images without inscriptions and also some confusion over the various recorded god-titles. Most of these are descriptive (i.e. Belatucadros, Bright Shining One, Mogons, Great One etc.) This can be really useful as it gives us information about the attributes of these deities. On the other hand, most gods have more than one attribute and we have no idea if these titles might actually describing different facets of the same god. This tendency can be seen in Ireland with the figure of the Dagda, known variously as Ruad Rofhessa (Lord of Great Knowledge), Deirgderc (Red Eye) and Eochaid Ollathair (All-Father). However, as a polytheist, where there is no evidence to the contrary, I prefer to assume that each title belongs to an individual god.

The Roman practice of equating or comparing British deities with their own gods is also helpful to us. If we understand the symbolism and charactistics of gods such as Mars, Mercury and Silvanus, we can infer additional information concerning native gods and this can really help us to better understand their attributes.

Another important avenue is to look at the type of animal horn represented upon a god. If we understand the symbolism attached to an animal such as the bull or deer, we can begin to see how the depiction of horns might symbolise characteristics of the various horned deities. To do this, we can look at the representation of horns on contemporary pieces such as figurines, armour and horse trappings. We can also look at how that animal is portrayed in later myth, though we must do this carefully, bearing in mind that over a thousand years may separate this lore from the Romano-British evidence.

Bulls and Bull-Gods

Cattle were very important economically in Iron Age Britain. They provided meat, milk, leather and horn and were also used as draught animals. Bulls were admired for their virility, aggression and strength and these attributes form the main aspects of bull symbolism.

According to Green , bulls are the most commonly represented animals in figurines. This underlines the importance of the bull culturally and economically. They also appear in a wide variety of other media such as carvings, craft items and coins. Often in these representations, the horns are disproportionately large, as if this were this feature that embodies the characteristics of the animal. A good example of this is the knob-horned bull from Ham Hill in Somerset . This consists of a bull's head, which was probably a decorative mount. The animal is very stylised, with large curving horns. A firedog found at Baldock in Hertfordshire also depicts knob-horned bulls heads. The horns are huge and look quite phallic, appropriate given that bulls were strongly associated with fertility. It may be that this item was used during ritual feasts or festivities.

As mentioned above, bulls appear on coinage of the period and this link between cattle and wealth was exemplified in Ireland, where a cow (cumal) was actually a monetary unit. In the Romano-British period when coinage became more common, it makes sense that the connection between cattle and economic wealth be represented in this way.

As far as religion goes, cattle remains are often found at sacred sites such as graves, temples and shafts. From the huge amounts of cattle bones left in some places, it seems likely that the cattle were consumed during festivities, either by the gods, the people or both. However, this in itself does not mean the cow was necessarily sacred - it may simply have represented a valuable sacrifice, or been the most practical solution to feeding a large amount of people. Even though iron age cattle were very small in comparison with modern breeds, they would have still provided a good few meals for hungry worshippers or deities. However, given the examples of bull iconography given below, such as the three-horned bull and the depiction of bulls with deities, not to mention the large amount of bull-horned god representations, I think that the bull did have religious significance. It may be that cattle represented the power of tribes. This was a creature that lived in the tamed world of humanity, that fed them, clothed them and that they held as an icon of bravery and virility.

That humans sought to emulate the strength and aggression of the bull is shown by objects such as bull-horned helmets. The intention was probably to emphasise the aggression, courage and fighting prowess of the wearer. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to explore this further, the human head held great significance to the 'Celtic' peoples and the emphasis placed upon the head through the addition of horns may also be important. Such a helmet was recovered from the river Thames, and is very decorative, suggesting that it may have been used for ceremonial rather than practical purposes. It is a beautiful object, made from bronze and inlaid with enamel. The horns are very pronounced and the helmet must have looked extremely impressive. Further afield, carvings at a site in Southern Gaul depict bull horned helmets . These also feature the wheel symbol, which generally has solar associations.

We have other celestial connotations on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found in Denmark. Bulls are very well represented on the cauldron. Aside from the scenes showing bulls being hunted by dogs, we have another panel showing a human figure wearing bull horns. This figure is accompanying the 'sky-god' with his solar wheel. Celestial imagery is also found on coins showing a bull with crescent moon. It is not hard to see how bulls might be linked with solar symbolism, given that both were connected with fertility and abundance. The lunar imagery is more difficult, but we could speculate that cattle may have been linked with some constellation or perhaps with the milky way.

We can learn something about the significance of bulls by looking at the Irish epic 'Tain Bo Cuailgne' (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The story revolves around two bulls, Finnbennach (White Horn) and Donn Cuailgne (Dun/Brown of Cooley), the warring of the tribes over these bulls and the eventual combat of the bulls themselves. A side-tale tells us that the bulls are actually ancient beings who have undergone a series of transformations. They began as two feuding swineherds whose emnity was so bitter that it continued through several lifetimes. The two became various creatures including ravens, stags and dragons before finally taking the form of bulls. This information gives a different dimension to the story. Rather than simply being impressive and strangely intelligent, these bulls are ancient and magical creatures, perhaps emblematic of the power of the tribes themselves. This idea may be pertinent to triads in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, entitled 'Three Bull-Protectors of the Island of Britain ' and 'Three Bull-Chieftains of the Island of Britain '.

Because cattle equated with wealth, we also find them as representations of abundance. This ties in with the general virility attributes of the bull and leads to a powerful association with fecundity in both the animal itself and the wider tame world. The aggression of the bull in protecting its herd leads to a protective aspect to the beast, to the gods associated with it and the men who emulated it. Little wonder that the bull features in the names of tribes such as the Taurini and in personal names like Deiotarus and Donnotaurus.

We do find bulls and stags represented together, particularly in Gaul. One creature complements the other and they share associations of virility, abundance and aggression. However, one is wild and the other tame , thus to an extent, each fulfils the same symbolic role in the respective spheres. On one monument, we see an antlered god sitting on a throne which is supported by bulls heads. Another depiction from Rhiems shows a god feeding grain to a stag and a bull. This could be intepreted this as meaning that this god can nourish both wild and tame worlds, and that he can cross the boundary between the chaotic forest and the ordered world inhabited by humanity.

We have seen that bull imagery usually emphasises the horns. This is especially true of the three horned bull which is found in both Gaul and Britain . The exact meaning of the three horns may never be known. However, the mysterious representations lead us to think that there is some lost myth surrounding this creature. One of these three horned bulls, from Maiden Castle, is very interesting in that we can see the remains of three female figures upon his back. Green suggests that this may link with the Tarvostrigaranus image from Gaul, which depicts a bull with three cranes. There may be some link with shape-shifting, given that magically transformed cranes often feature in mythology. Because the three horns take this bull out of the ordinary, it's likely that this triplicity had some magical or religious significance, suggesting that this is a divine representation.

Another unnatural representation is the portrayal of knobbed horns both on bulls and horned humans. These horns have pronounced round bobbles on the ends. We have already seen these on examples given above and they are widespread in the iconography of the time. Some people have suggested that this relates to an agricultural practice, but there has never been a good explanation as to what this might have been. Others such as Ross and Green are happy to accept the knobbed horns as a supernatural significator. Green says:

"I think that such horn terminals are more likely to relate to some form of symbolism, perhaps related to some defuntionalizing device, introducing non-realism to the image in order to render it appropriate as a sacred motif."

Given that many bull-gods are phallic and that bulls themselves were strongly associated with fertility, it may be that these knobs have a similar association.

As mentioned above, one panel of the Gundestrup Cauldron depicts a character wearing knob-horns; whether these are growing from his head or upon a helmet is unclear. He grasps the wheel of the god dominating the scene, and it's possible that the depiction is of a human warrior wresting power from the gods. An array of fantastic animals are in attendance, including the ram-horned serpent, somewhat paralleling the other well known panel that shows a stag-horned god surrounded by animals.

Another image of a British knob-horned deity can be found on a relief at Bath. This is a very unusual representation, as it is one of the very few which depicts a horned god with a consort. Like the Gundestrup Cauldron image, he has very large knobbed horns which may actually spring from a helmet. Both god and goddess hold some kind of sceptre, or perhaps cornucopiae, while the goddess also carries a bucket or basket. Interestingly, at the bottom of the relief is a ram and three Genius Cucullati. These hooded figures always appear threefold and are usually associated either with places of healing or with various warrior-gods. The presence of the ram indicates qualities of fertility and bravery, and it we can speculate that these two gods share those attributes.

It should be said here that it is unwise to think of iron age and Romano-British gods as being 'gods of' this or that, or of only fulfilling one role for humanity. Most of the old British gods appear to have been multifunctional - which is an awful word to use - but by which I mean that a tribal god is likely to have fulfilled many roles - or to put it another way, to have a wide variety of interests and talents. We can deduce this through instances where the Romans equated the same British god with several of their own deities. Cocidius is a good example. On many altars, he is referred to as 'Mars Cocidius', implying warlike and protective attributes , and indeed, he is shown looking fearsome and brandishing weapons. However, on other carvings, he is equated with Silvanus and depicted in a forest setting with stags, suggesting that he was also concerned with hunting or herding.

The presence of the bull-horned god with the goddess at Bath, a place of healing, indicates that he was such a god, displaying many different, but connected attributes. Another interesting find involves both a horned god and a horned goddess. The two deities are not depicted together, but are two separate images found at the same site, Richborough in Kent. The goddess image is on a piece of broken pot. She is crudely formed with long hair, large eyes and breasts made from blobs of clay. The god is depicted on what looks like a basin handle and is a stylised head with large, thick knobbed horns. These are tantalising images. In the absence of other evidence, we do not know if they represent a divine couple, nor anything about the relevance of the horns on the female.

The worship of a bull-horned god seems to be very British. Not only that, but most of these gods are specific to what is now northern England, in what would have been the territory of the Brigantian confederation of tribes. This area was largely a pastoral economy and cattle would have featured largely in the lives of the people there. Therefore it's unsurprising that the gods honoured there are associated with cattle themselves. Images are clustered along the line of Hadrian's Wall and come from altars, rock art and carved panels. Although stone images came in with the Romans, it is possible that some Roman shrines replaced earlier religious sites containing perishable materials. While incoming Romans brought their gods with them, the tendency was for Romans to also venerate the gods they found locally. It is also important to remember that a large proportion of Roman soldiers in Britain were auxillieries, some of whom would have been drawn from the existing local populace. These people may have continued the worship of their own gods, albeit in a more Roman fashion. Therefore we can say that it's very likely that the worship of most of these gods predates the Roman influence.

The horned-god images from this area are fascinating. Typically, they are depicted in the British rather than classical idiom, with stylised features and often with emphasis on the head and genitalia. An image from High Rochester (Bremenium) shows a carved male figure with a large head, horns and phallus. The features are formed with simple incised lines and it's possible that the god holds something in his left hand. It has been suggested that this is a patera, a kind of flat dish used for offerings and often depicted in religious iconography. These things suggest that we have a god associated with fertility and abundance, which as we have seen, are attributes linked with bull symbolism. The image can be seen in Durham Cathedral.

There are several bull-horned god images from Maryport in Cumbria. One is similar to the figure described above, in that his head is exaggerated and the features are incised with single strokes. However, this god is supremely warrior-like. He holds a rectangular shield in his left hand and a spear in his right. His horns are quite large, and again, he is phallic. Another relief from Maryport is broken, but the head of a horned god can be seen, with a spear held at his right side. This is a very stylised representation, the features are barely outlined and the head looks far more animal than human .

We also have some horned heads, such as that found at Carvoran in Northumberland, a crude but beautiful object with wide eyes and two small horns protruding. As mentioned previously, the importance of the head in British culture and religion gives these items great significance.

An image from Carlisle shows a hunter-type god. This is a very classical portrayal, nothing like the simple 'Celtic' style depictions of the Maryport gods. This god is carved in a naturalistic style, completely in proportion. He wears a cloak about his shoulders and rests his foot upon a stone, looking like a Romano-British Grattan catalogue model. He has two distinct horns.

Although these examples are a very small sample of the surviving horned images, they serve to sum up the two main portrayals of bull-horned gods in Britain: those showing warrior characteristics and those showing hunter-provider characteristics. (Though the roles of the warrior and the hunter can become blurred, given that hunting was often a means to practice martial skill and demonstrate courage and prowess. The note about multifunctionality is also relevant here.) There is such a wide variety in the type of imagery used with these horned figures that it seems unlikely that only one god is being represented. Annoyingly, as is often the case, we are lacking any written evidence to go with most of these images. It could well be that some of them represent gods whose names are known to us, such as Cocidius and Belatucadros, but without other evidence, we can only speculate.

Stag-antlered gods

As we have seen, the stag is to wild what the bull is to tame. Both are portrayed as virile and aggressive, connected with abundance. The large antlers of a fully grown stag are reminiscent of the shapes of trees and like the trees, alter with the seasons. Thus the stag can also be connected with renewal and the cyclical nature of the world. Some of the Gaulish images have holes, presumably for removable antlers and the use of these may have been linked to a seasonal worship or mythology. As with the bull-horns, most stag images emphasise the antlers and these were obviously seen as the salient feature.

Both antlers and horns were viewed as phallic, or at least, strongly associated with male virility. However, despite the popularity of the image in modern times, pre-Christian stag-gods are rarely portrayed as phallic, unlike the bull-gods.

As with the bull, there is much in myth concerning stag transformations. In Brythonic myth, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are transformed into deer as part of a punishment meted out to them by their uncle Math, and they bear a fawn that Math gives human form. The stag is also significant in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen and the Trioedd Ynyn Prydein ('Welsh Triads'), where it appears as one of the Five Elders of the World . It is a stag which leads Pwyll to his first meeting with Arawn, King of the Underworld and the Irish god Donn also uses stags as lures and messengers. As Green puts it: "In both the Welsh and Irish traditions the stag is bound up with the notion that gods needed living humans to come to their realms and employed stags as intermediaries."

So the stag crosses boundaries between this world and the otherworld, between the realms of humans and gods. It may be that a human wearing antlers was also trying to blur boundaries - between human and animal, wild and tame, and perhaps was communicating with the gods or travelling into the otherworlds on behalf of the tribe.

In Irish myth, the stag is very important, particularly in the Fenian cycle of tales. The name of Fionn's son 'Oisin' means 'Little Fawn' and although this was a common name in Medieval Ireland, it seems to be significant given the role that stags play in the Fenian myths. It becomes even more significant when we consider that Fionn's boyhood name, Demne, means 'stag', that his wife was said to have been transformed into a stag and that his grandson was named Oscar - 'deer-lover'. The stories of Fionn also involve other characters who are deer-related.

One tale describes how Fionn meets a mysterious man in the woods. Although the figure wears a cloak of concealment, Fionn divines that he is Dearg Corra, a man who has previously been dismissed from Fionn's service . Dearg Corra is sharing a meal with a blackbird, a stag and a trout, very similar creatures to the Elders of the World who feature in Culhwch ac Olwen.

Dearg Corra may also be linked to another deer story of Fionn. Here, Fionn is enticed into the woods by a doe. However, the doe is a transformed maiden, Blai Dheirg, and once she has lured Fionn into the woods, she seduces him and later bears his son Oisin. The names are very similar and there is a possibility that she was a member of Dearg Corra's family.

This mysterious Dearg Corra may once have been a god. His name probably means 'red horned/peaked one' and his divinity is backed up in another tale, 'Da Derga's Hostel'. The 'Da' prefix is a contraction of 'Dia', meaning god, which would seem to be meaningful. There are also three horsemen, all called 'Derg', who ride the horses of Donn, god of the dead. Therefore Dearg Corra seems to be connected with Donn and thus with death. It is possible that Dearg Corra is simply an epithet of Donn - we have already seen that it is not uncommon for gods to be known by several names. That he should also be connected with stags is unsurprising, as I have already shown that stags were connected with otherworldly journeys, an undertaking that most people do only upon death.

The image of Dearg Corra surrounded by animals is paralleled both in the 'Cernunnos' iconography, which we will come to later, and also in an episode in Brythonic myth. This occurs in the late tale 'Iarlles y Ffynon' . Arthur and his followers are speaking with Cynon son of Clydno. Cynon is describing meeting a mysterious man who is seated on a mound in a clearing:

"And I greeted the black man, but he spoke nothing to me save incivility. And I asked him what power he had over the animals. 'I will show thee, little man', said he. And he took the club in his hand, and with it struck the stag a mighty blow till it gave out a mighty belling, and in answer to its belling, wild animals came till they were as numerous as stars in the firmament, so that there was scant room for me to stand in the clearing with them and all those serpents and lions and vipers and all kinds of animals. And he looked on them and bade them go graze. And then they bowed down their heads and did him obesiance, even as humble subjects would do to their lord."

This is similar to Fionn finding Dearg Corra seated in the woods among the animals and also brings to mind the 'Lord of the Animals' figure upon the Gundestrup Cauldron.

It's possible - though speculative - that the character of Fionn may be based on a stag-type god. And he may have a British relation - the names Fionn (Irish) and Gwynn (Brythonic) are the same, both meaning 'bright' or 'fair'. Like Fionn, Gwynn Ap Nudd is connected with warrior skill and hunting. He appears in the tale Culhwch ac Olwen, where he helps in the hunting of the magical boar Twrch Trwyth, and is said to hunt a pack of otherworldly hounds, the Cwn Annwfn.

The transformatory and clthonic associations of the stag carried over into Christian symbolism, showing how deeply embedded this lore was in the culture of the time. St Patrick's poem 'The Deer's Cry' is about an occasion when the saint escaped from his enemies by transforming himself and his followers into deer. And in Scotland, carvings of deer can be found on Christian gravestones, presumably present in its role as a beast of death and the otherworld.

Along with the symbolism of the stag itself, we must also consider the symbolism of hunting. Stags were not necessarily hunted for food. Rather, hunting was an activity in its own right, a pastime of the wealthy. It gave men practice for warfare and a chance for to show off their bravery and skill. It also had religious implications. As in many societies, there was a sense of respect for the prey. This is shown in images of hunter-gods demonstrating gentleness towards the wild creatures.

The act of hunting, by its nature, involves humans entering wild space. A great deal of human ritual and mythology in Britain and Ireland involves the creation of order, of taming. Tamed spaces are owned by the tribes, made safe by the continuing protection and support of tribal gods. The wild forest is another matter. Here is a place where humans are trespassers in the realm of strange gods and spirits. In myth, humans are often enticed into the forest by enchanted animals and hunting was a dangerous activity, both physically and spiritually.

Arrian describes how 'Some of the Celts' - sadly, he's not more specific - paid a set sum into a kitty upon catching a wild animal such as a hare, fox or deer. Then on the feast day of their goddess , they used the accumulated money to purchase an animal for sacrifice, usually a sheep, goat or cow. This is interesting: the lives of wild animals taken from the forest are literally and symbolically paid for with animals belonging to humans and the tame world. Presumably the animals of the forest are seen as the property of their goddess and the sacrifice is a gesture of reciprocity and perhaps appeasement - the tribes needed the goodwill of the gods both for success at the hunt and protection from harm while in the wild places. Green says it succinctly: "hunting itself was a form of ritual activity which needed both permission and assistance from the divine powers. "

The most famous stag-god is Cernunnos. Many people, noteably Ronald Hutton, have asserted that there is only one inscription to this god. This refers to the 'Pillar of the Boatmen' from the Paris area of what was Gaul, a wonderful carving dating to the 1st century CE depicting many gods including Cernunnos. He is shown as a bearded deity with antlers and stags ears. However, another two probable Cernunnos inscriptions also survive in Europe. One from modern Germany reads "Deo Ceruninco" (i.e. To the God Cerunincos). The other is from Gaul and is written in Greek. It includes the name "Karnonos" . Images of a stag-god are found widely in both Britain and Europe, each showing surprisingly similar attributes. In the absence of written evidence, whether these are all 'Cernunnos' or a series of similar but independent local gods, will probably never be known. These attributes include torcs (either worn, held or draped around the antlers), the inclusion of animals, especially stags and ram-horned serpents, and some kind of food item, usually grain or fruit, though some of these depictions may be of coins. These attributes suggest an association with the wild forest and the underworld, tying in with the already chthonic symbolism of the stag. The torcs and the food/coins indicate abundance and wealth.

Although the image on the Gundestrup Cauldron has been named in modern times as 'Cernunnos', that portrayal bears very little resemblence to the depiction of Cernunnos from Gaul, which shows an elderly, balding man. The Gundestrup Cauldron figure is youthful and beardless. If we assume for a moment that symbolism was pretty universal among the tribes of the time, we could suggest that the Gundestrup antlered-god is liminal figure - half man, half beast and half boy, half man. Despite the dissimilarity with the Pillar of the Boatmen image, the Gundestrup Cauldron depiction does share attributes with other stag-god images from Britain and Gaul, including the presence of forest animals, torcs and the ram-horned serpent.

It does seem that an antlered-god, who may have been Cernunnos, was imported from Gaul into Britain. Most of the surviving images come from areas of Gaulish and Belgic settlement, and in comparison with the wealth of bull-horned god images, there is scant evidence for a widespread antlered-god cult in Britain. The two best depictions are a carving of a stag-god with two ram-horned serpents which will be discussed below, and a beautiful silver coin which portrays a stag-god with a wheel symbol between his antlers. (This was found in Hampshire, but can now be seen in the National Museum of Wales.) Given the location, it is likely that this coin either arrived in Britain from Gaulish traders, or was brought by Belgic settlers. The presence of the wheel indicates solar attributes, and as we saw with the bull iconography, this can symbolise abundance, fertility and regeneration, all of which are appropriate to the stag.

There are some interesting stag-god images from Midlothian, which are more likely to be independent of a Gaulish tradition. Sadly, both these images are now lost to us. The first has fallen victim to the elements and is a rock upon which was once carved an antlered head. The second is an altar which has become lost, but of which we have a drawing. It shows an antlered and bearded head. We can also speculate, though without any other evidence, that the Cornovii tribe may have drawn their name from a connection with horned animals or the worship of a horned god. As Ross points out , this is a possibility given that other tribes such as the Epidii and Caereni are named for horses and sheep respectively.

The Ram

Ram-horned gods and ram imagery do not feature as heavily as that of the bull, perhaps because sheep are physically less impressive and were not economically so important. Like cattle of the period, iron age sheep were comparitively small and also quite goat-like. We can still see what they looked like due to the survival of Soay sheep, taken up to St Kilda about two thousand years ago where they remained isolated and unaffected by modern breeding methods.

Like the bull, the ram is depicted as virile, war-like, aggressive and protective. We have seen the ram appearing with a bull-horned god on the relief from Bath, probably symbolising fertility and protection. The Roman god Mercury, to whom dedications are found in Britain, was connected with the ram and it often appears on his iconography. This probably relates to the famous Greek myth in which Mercury aids the children of Nephele, sending a winged golden ram upon which they escape. Later, the ram is sacrificed to Zeus and his hide becomes the golden fleece later won by Jason.

There are both carvings and figurines of Mercury from Britain. One lovely example is the bronze from Hertfordshire that shows the god accompanied by a ram and a cockerel. Both animals are strongly associated with him and often appear on his iconography. Through the caduceus, a wand with two serpents twined around it, Mercury is also linked with the snake and this is interesting given the British and Gaulish ram-horned serpent image. Although I'm not suggesting that the ram-horned serpent is borrowed from Graeco-Roman myth, it could well be that the Romans themselves noticed the connection and that it influenced their worship and portrayal of British and Gaulish gods.

Miranda Green has an interesting theory about a Mercury relief from Emberton in Buckinghamshire. The image bears what might be either horns or the wings normally given to Mercury and Green speculates that this ambiguity is deliberate. The British artist that carved the image may have intended British people to see the horns often associated with their gods, while the Romans would assume these to be wings . However, from the same site, a plaque shows Mercury with definite horns and it may be that the ambiguity is simply a result of the stylised nature of British art.

One interesting ram-horned image was found at Netherby. This is a head bearing large ram horns which curve around the top and sides. Tantalisingly, the same site has yielded inscriptions to Belatucadros, and it is possible, though speculative, that this head might be an image of him. Certainly, Belatucadros has all the right associations for a horned god, being equated by the Romans with Mars.

Another god with links to the ram is Camulos , whose name means 'Powerful'. Unlike Belatucadros whose worship appears to have been very localised, inscriptions to Camulos are found throughout modern France, Germany and Britain. Most of the inscriptions come from Gaul, especially in areas populated by the Belgae and Remi tribes. It may be that the Belgic settlers initially brought Camulos to Britain, although evidence for him here is widespread rather than localised, as one would expect if that were the case.

Like Belatucadros and Cocidius, Camulos is equated by the Romans with Mars and this combined with the evidence of his name gives us the sense of a warrior god par excellence. Camulodunum - modern Colchester - is named after him and we find evidence for his worship right up into Scotland with an altar from Bar Hill in Dumbartonshire being dedicated to Mars Camulus The other British inscription was only found in 2002 . This is on a marble plaque and again reads to Mars Camulus.

While there are no attested British images of Camulos, the Colchester area has yielded many coins which bear the image of a ram-horned deity. Although impossible to prove, we can infer that this is the image of Camulos, given that the city was named after him and that, due to his associations with Mars, we know that a ram-horned depiction would be appropriate.

There is another important group of horned images, that of composite creatures. For our purposes, the most important composite creature is the ram-horned serpent. This creature clearly had religious significance. It regularly appears on altars and other religious iconography, often accompanying a stag-god. It is widely found in Gaul, but there are several instances of it in Britain too. Unfortunately, we have no inscriptions relating to it, so we can only make educated guesses about its meaning.

A good first step is to look at general serpent symbolism in Britain. Like stags, snakes are associated with renewal - while the stag sheds his antlers, the snake sheds his skin. Snakes are seen as underworld creatures, given that they slither in and out of the earth. Thus like stags, they can be seen as intermediaries between this world and the otherworld. Although this gives them associations with death, the renewal aspect of the skin shedding also implies the continuation of life.

Snakes are very fertile creatures and this reinforces the associations with life. They have dozens of young, and of course, their shape is phallic. The ram-horns may serve to emphasis this link with virility and abundance, just as horns themselves are shown larger than life in images of bulls and rams. Finally, because the shape and movement of a snake is reminisent of flowing water, snakes are often associated with water and thus with healing. So the snake has many different attributes, some or even all of which may have been associated with the ram-horned serpent.

Although snakes can be dangerous creatures, the ram horned serpent is always depicted positively. An image from Gloucestershire appears to show two ram-horned serpents having become the legs of the stag-god. (The carving is quite weathered and he may simply be holding the serpents in front of him) The snakes curl around him and feast on something up by the god's head, perhaps grain or fruit.

The ram-horned serpent does appear with other deities. From that we can infer that its meaning or relevance was not completely tied in with the stag-god. An image from Gaul shows the ram-horned serpent sitting with its head in the lap of Gaulish Mercury, and in Wiltshire, a figurine of a local Mars-type god was found, grasping two ram-horned serpents which twine around him.

Occasionally, the ram-horned serpent appears on its own. An altar from Lypiatt in Gloucestershire is carved with a solar wheel and a ram-horned serpent. As we've seen previously, the sun was, like the serpent, associated with fertility, regeneration and healing.

Along with abundant life, snakes are also linked with monetary wealth. They were thought to hoard and guard underground treasure, and this can be seen as a symbol of the mineral wealth of the earth. Given that mining has always been an important part of the British economy, I think this is a very significant attribute. Prehistoric mines are found all over the place, and rich mineral deposits were probably a major reason for Roman interest in Britain. Given that serpents, rams and stags are all linked with the underworld and that both serpents and stags are also associated with wealth, we can see that the combination of the ram-horned serpent and the antlered god was very powerful.

We have looked at the Romano-British evidence for horned-gods and also delved into later myth to reveal lore and symbolism that may be relevant to understanding and interpreting this evidence. The story of horned gods doesn't end with the medieval myths. As mentioned in the introduction, during the renaissance, Pan started to became important here, and he probably influenced depictions of the Christian Devil. We also see new myths appearing, such as that of Herne the Hunter, first recorded by Shakespeare. These new stories probably drew upon remembered stag-lore, Germanic 'wild hunt' lore and earlier hunter-figures such as Gwynn ap Nudd.

When Margaret Murray popularised Cernunnos, other horned gods were relegated to aspects of him - but as we have seen, the wealth of horned-god imagery from Britain shows that many different horned and antlered deities were honoured by the pre-Christian Britains and Romano-British.


Select Bibliography

Arrian. Cynegeticus, Trans W. Dansey 1831 (available online at Googlebooks)
Green, M. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Routledge 1992
Green, M. Celtic Gods, Bramley 1986
G. Jones and T. Jones. The Mabinogion, Everyman 1992
MacKillop, J. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP 1998
Ó hÓgáin, Dáithi. The Lore of Ireland, Boydell 2006
Ross, A Pagan Celtic Britain, Cardinal 1974