As anyone reading my blog will know, me and my husband are neopagan Witches, and we have a God with horns, a God we love very much. I view modern Witchcraft as a modern spirituality movement, though people used to think that it was a survival of an underground pre-Christian European religion. However, I am not going to do a “our God isn’t the Devil, we’re not Satanists!” post, that’s kinda boring and there are an awful lot of them about. I’d actually like to argue that we owe a little debt to the idea of the Devil as a repository of a sense of the mysterious, the magical, the wild, the sexual, the liberating, the earthy, the nocturnal and Dionysian and the hidden, and the paradoxically enlightening – though not to the whole negative monotheistic package.
Many of us read books like Margaret Murray’s “The God of the Witches” and “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” and ate them up. We responded with feelings of devotion for the God we saw in those books, which tried to make the case for the afore-mentioned survival of an underground pre-Christian religion. Those who came to neopaganism later may not appreciate just how central the God was to our sense of Witchcraft. The popular movement has got much more Goddess centred with the rise of feminist spirituality, but the Horned One was an irreplaceable and magnetic figure for Witchcraft in the mid twentieth century.
As it turned out, Margaret Murray’s research was not that reliable, and there is little to indicate that such a survival existed in the way described. What she came up with was derived partly from accounts generated by the witch hunt craze, and from her own interpretation of folklore and folk customs. The witch hunts were an appalling episode in history, amongst many other appalling episodes, and their destructive power was in part driven by the psychological potency they held for the culture that bore them. They led to the torture and death of thousands (who were probably rarely “witches” in any sense of the word), which their persecutors turned into a seemingly sadomasochistic hallucination in their forced confessions. What Margaret Murray in part did was look into this bad trip and snatch from it a cleansed vision, a naturalised version of what she hoped underlay the nightmare. I think she attempted to redeem the tragedy unconsciously, and give these victims their own Lord, an earthy, noble and loving one, older than Christ and crowned with horns. Without knowing it, she was trying to heal a cultural split in the modern world, and one not unrelated to those that underlay the demonizations involved in the witch craze itself. One thing Margaret Murray asserted seems very reasonable though, and it is that the gods of the conquered old religion become the devils of the victorious new religion. In the case of monotheisms this seems quite credible, and borne out to this day.
It’s quite true that most people’s idea of the Devil was far closer in appearance to the cloven hoofed Pan than to any documented Judeo-Christian figure. With the waning of Church power it seemed that the association with sex and sensuality was more to the fore than the shop of horrors propounded in earlier times, and the wickedness became more ironic. That’s one of the reasons why the “Satanic panic” hysteria of the 1980’s and after was so shocking and unexpected, and the fact that “professionals” joined in and organised around this delusion (and largely got off scot-free) is a sobering indictment of our supposedly modern societies.
The association with the supernatural and magic also survived, and with forbidden and “occult” knowledge. It’s true that there generally had to be a sinister twist in the tale to add a moral, and the horror genre has continued to throw up stunningly Catholic superstitious burlesques from The Exorcist onwards, but I think it is also apparent that the image of the Devil was carrying foreign cargo along with all that. Some of that cargo was Pagan – the residue of the gods of an older, conquered world; remembrances entwined with denied desires and longings. In this sense I feel that Margaret Murray was mistaken, but poetically she divined something in her misinterpretations, if not about the past then about the present.
Modern Pagans have tried to find out what historical Paganism was really like, how real witches would actually have been, and even who the Horned God was as a definitely identifiable, historically worshipped deity. There are some fruitful lines of enquiry, and a good deal to be gained from research, but none really captures the magic and the mystery, and none less so than with the Horned God when he is pinned to a single instance. Kernunnos, about whom we know so little? Frey, whose name means “Lord”, a god of peace and fertility? Herne, who was a ghostly legend in the Windsor area? Some have proclaimed that there simply was no Horned God, only various separate horned deities, and not always in convenient locations and with appropriate associations. And Murray’s thesis has receded, having failed as academia, and not been fully considered as counter cultural process.
But those who have sensed His presence have not felt mistaken in finding Him real, palpable, immense. And we will search and not find Him in a historical figure, indeed we lose him in the search, because He’s just where we are not looking, and where we found him all along. A benevolent devil, a great power natural and supernatural both, a poetry fully naked and animal from the waist down, a Sun at midnight, a common man’s god, our shadow and our light, the promise and the fear of our inner most selves, a swarthy redeemer, a different story.
We lose so much when we approach the sacred, and our own inner processes, with a sense of the literal. I feel this has been the mistake of modern Paganism from the old approach to the witch craze through to the search for historical authenticity in reconstruction. We got the wrong end of the stick, and then kept hold of it, when it seems to me that what the Horned God really points to is something within ourselves.
Of course he’s not the Devil, that belongs to the whole dualistic line of theology which is so profoundly alien to neopaganism, even as it is to many forms of mysticism, and neopaganism is a spirituality, not a negation of someone else’s religion . But before we trash the old boy completely I think we should wise up to how images and associations do actually grow and break free of the intentions and definitions of their masters when we enter the folk life of humanity. The Devil, with his bad boy supernatural power of Nature, his mirror to our alienation, and his strange imagined patronage of self-willed women, rebels, heretics, homosexuals and all that the totalitarian Church judged as “perversion” and subversion, he couldn’t help but be a significant symbol, not in our cleaned up retrospective view, but in the underground psychic life that was so suppressed, and in this corner or that always continues to be.
The Devil of folk lore was an “un-god” that invited us to outgrow and see beyond him, to what he might actually be, beyond the schizoid ravings of the respectable. And think on this:
The Church took Pagan motifs to shape the comely form of their Devil, a form more powerful and resonant than the twisted messages they intended to imbue it with. If this was an attempt to separate people from Paganism then it boomeranged eventually, because the psyche is a sensually responsive creature, and reads forms more directly than it does religious ideology. That’s one reason repressive religions seek to condemn and control art in so many manifestations.
When Paganism returned at a popular level in the western world (by which I mean in the 20th century and in a truly popular sense) I believe it did so in the guise of Pagan Witchcraft initially, and the god who exemplified the soul’s beloved more than any other was the goat footed, horned one. I feel this is attested to in the Romantic idealization and repeated referencing to Pan in literature and painting. Ronald Hutton likened him in his analysis of the roots of modern British Witchcraft to a “green Christ”.
Not the Devil, but one hell of an ironic twist ;0)
August 2013 – very minor edit done to last two paragraphs without change to meaning.
September 2015 – since writing this piece I have in fact become a Satanist, but remain a polytheist.