Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A 'Cernunnos' in a 12th Century French Church

Some time around the year 1120, a sculptor working on the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in northeastern France carved onto the capital of a column in the nave of the church an antlered figure that looks remarkably like the 'Cernunnos' sculptures of Roman Gaul from 1000 years earlier.

The Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, Burgundy, is France's largest Romanesque church. Famed for its masterful sculpture and numerous relics of its eponymous saint, it was built on the site of a Roman-era villa.

High on the capitals of one of the columns in the nave, a handsome, antlered man peers warily from between two acanthus leaves. Bearded, with mustache and shoulder-length hair, he wears high boots and a tunic with long, cuffed sleeves.

Well might the antlered man be wary. On the other side of the stylized tree that divides the capital stands a bowman with an arrow pointed directly at him. There can be no doubt of the eventual outcome. The Antlered must die.

The carving is known to art historians as the 'Death of Cain.' In Jewish and Christian mythology, Cain, son of Adam and Eve, is known as the world's first murderer, having killed his brother Abel in a paroxysm of sibling rivalry. For this act, he is said in the book of Genesis to have been driven into eternal exile and marked with the (unidentified) 'Mark of Cain.'

There was much debate among the rabbis of the Talmudic period as to just what form this mark (in Hebrew, 'ot) may have taken. According to one suggestion, it was a horn (or, as we see in the Vézelay sculpture, horns). According to one legend shared by medieval Jews and Christians, this led to his accidental death at the hand of his grandson Lamech, famed as a hunter, who had mistaken his horns for those of a deer. (Interestingly, in Hindu mythology, the god Krishna also dies when shot by a hunter who has mistaken him for a deer.) It's a nice, tidy morality tale: the kin-slayer, slain by kin.

In some versions of the legend, Lamech the hunter goes blind in old age, but is led through the forest by his grandson, who acts as his eyes. The boy sees the antlers, directs the shot, and Lamech releases the arrow. When the boy describes his kill, Lamech realizes that he has killed his own grandfather and, in anger, kills the boy as well. (Apparently kin-slaying is contagious.) One can hardly fail to note the resemblance of this unlikely scenario to that of the death of Baldur in Norse mythology, with Lamech as the unwitting Hœnir and his grandson as Loki. It is interesting to note that Balder, 'lord,' is one of the ancient titles of the god of witches.

The story shows close similarities to Old Craft mythology. Like Cain, the god of the witches is said to be horned, to have slain his own brother (for which act, it is said, he was exiled from the company of the gods), and to have been killed in the hunt. This has led certain modern Old Craft clans to revere Cain as a covert aspect of Old Hornie. Confusion of the Biblical Cain with the different but eponymous figure Tubal Cain, known in the Bible as the founder of human arts and culture (qáyin means 'blacksmith' in Hebrew) has led these same clans to ascribe these roles to the god of witches as well, and indeed, the Horned has long been known in Craft mythology as inventor, and bestower upon humanity, of the arts of civilization, the fruits of his exile from the gods.

To judge from surviving art, the cultus of the Antlered God was widely known in Roman Gaul. It hardly seems likely that memory of this should have survived the intervening centuries to emerge, still recognizable, in the sculpture of a 12th century Burgundian cathedral.

We don't know if there really were witches of our sort, people of the Antlered, in medieval Vézelay. (It doesn't seem likely, but who knows?) If there had been, we can say for certain that they would likely have attended Sunday mass at Ste. Marie Madeleine, just like everyone else. It would have been as much as your life was worth not to.

And if they did, I think we can be pretty sure just where in the church they would have gathered while the priest up front did his hocus-pocus.

Where else but at the foot of the column of Cain?


For more on Cain and his mark, see:

Ruth Mellinkoff, The Mark of Cain: An Art Quantum (1981). University of California Press.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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