When I was writing about the Irish goddess Flidais, I said that I would be covering hunting goddesses and horned goddesses in another post. The post on hunting goddesses was duly written, but the horned goddesses slipped away.
This may be due in part to the fact that I thought of horned goddesses as a mainly modern phenomenon. The first inkling I ever had of them came from Chesca Potter’s artwork. Her image of the folkloric figure Elen (heroine of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig“, in the Mabinogion) as a horned goddess caught my attention. However, I had no context for it, and it remained an interesting picture, and nothing more.
Cernuna? Celtic Horned Goddesses
Later, I was reading Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain, and I came across an illustration (no. 103) of a small pottery bust of a horned goddess, from Richborough in Kent.
There are a few Gaulish examples as well. Three bronze statuettes are listed in Bober’s paper on Cernunnos. One, from Clermont-Ferrand, not only has horns but the same pose as Cernunnos, and holds a cornucopia in one hand. (The other is missing, but probably held a patera.) Another, currently in the British Museum, has antlers, and the cornucopia and paetera as attributes. Finally, a statuette once in a collection in Besancon, but now lost, shared the antlers and attributes of the other two. (Pictures of two of these statuettes can be found here; this source says that the BM statue and the “lost”one are the same.)
Bober lists two other finds. A female head from Compiègne has slots for the top for wings or horns, but they are missing. Another interesting figure (of stone) is not horned, but holds the cornucopia and a plate of fruits, including a pomegranate. She also has a ram-headed serpent, and she and the Cernunnos statue found at the same site (Sommerécourt) are assumed to be a pair.
So, who was Elen?
This brought me back to Elen, who I knew only from Arthurian literature. Among British pagans, she is also known as Elen of the Ways, and is essentially a composite of legends about the mother of Constantine who brought the True Cross from Jerusalem, the Elen of Macsen Wledig, and many other Helens and Elens of myth and legend.
Even Old King Cole gets a look in. There was a historic king Coel Hen, of northern England. In the Colchester legend of the 12th century, he became the father of Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother. (Constantine was born in Serbia, but he later served in Britain, and his path to the throne started in York, where he was acclaimed by the army.) Saint Helen has 25 holy wells dedicated to her in Britain, and is patron saint of Colchester and Abingdon.
The Elen of Macsen Wledig, however, was the Elen of Ways, who magically built roads and castles across Britain. Her story still has a Roman connection, however, because Macsen was based on Magnus Maximus, who was proclaimed Augustus of the West in 381 and held his territory for eight years before Theodosius defeated him.
Like Constantine, Maximus began his imperial career in Britain, and by marrying him to a native, the story gives him a stake in the country and its fortunes.
The story has it that he dreams about her, falls in love, then sends out men to find her. When one finally does, she tells him that if Macsen wants her so badly, he can come to claim her himself. He does, they marry, and Britain prospers under their rule.
The horns seem to be modern gnosis, although the popularity of the idea suggests that the time was ripe. Chesca Potter’s image crystallized something that was in the air, and Caroline Wise and others began to explore the idea of a British, horned, goddess as protector and embodiment of the land.
Selene and Isis
When I began researching this article, I naturally Googled “horned goddess”. The commonest hits were crossword clues for “horned goddess”: Isis. I also had a nagging idea that Diana had a horned form. This turned out not to be true, but Theoi.com came up with several instance of Selene being called horned, and Hecate was occasionally described that way as well.
In both cases the horns are cow horns, however. This puts both goddesses in a different category: domestic and feminine. (Isis’ horns are also second-hand, as they belonged to Hathor.)
Bober, Phyllis Fray 1951: “Cernunnos: Origin and Transformation of a Celtic Divinity”,
American Journal of Archaeology 55/1 (Jan., 1951): 13-51. (JSTOR)
Green, Miranda 1989: Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge.
Jones, G.R. The Cult of St. Helen
Rabinowitz, Jacob 1997: “Underneath the Moon: Hekate and Luna” Latomus 56/3 (July – Sept.): 534-43. (JSTOR)
Ross, Anne 1992: Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Constable. (reprint)
Wise, Caroline, “Elen of the Ways – part one”, on AndrewCollins.com
You might also want to check out Goddesses and Sacred Cows, an article by Carol Christ on how we interpret archaeological relics.
For the image at the top, click here.