yas tigma-shR^iN^go vR^iShabho na bhIma ekaH kR^iShTIsh-chyAvayati pra vishvAH |
yaH shashvato adAshuSho gayasya prayantAsi suShvitarAya vedaH || RV 7.19.1
In our youth we were reading an ACK comic on kumbhakarNa, which had a memorable cover of the great rakShas wearing a horned head-gear slaying brAhmaNas in the daNDaka vana. But at the same time in the background of my mind a R^igvedic mantra I had just learnt was playing:
“vi jyotiShA bR^ihatA bhAty agnir Avir vishvAni kR^iNute mahitvA |
prAdevIr mAyAH sahate durevAH shishIte shR^iN^ge rakShase vinikShe ||” RV 5.2.9
The paradox prompted me to investigate and over time I realized that R^igvedic deities were frequently conceived as being horned. On at least 19 distinct occasions in RV maNDala-s 1, 5,6,7,8,9 and 10, different gods have been obviously described as being horned. The deities who are described as horned are: agni (1 time identified with rudra) – 6 times; indra – 8 times; soma – 4 times; bR^ihaspati – 1 time. Around the same time I was introduced by mAtAshrI to look into Sumerian, Assyrian and other Mesopotamian mythologies. There to my surprise I found again most deities being depicted as horned. Most striking was a Mesopotamian seal (see above, with Ea, Anu, Inanna, Enlil and Shamash all shown as being horned. Soon I became aware of a much larger horizon of horned deities who were roughly coeval: the unknown Harappan deity who was popular throughout the Indian chalcolithic, the Hittite Tarhunda or Teshub, Ba’al and Marduk. This feature also appears to have had a latter expression in the form of the occasionally depicted horns of Zeus. Further west we may also see a link to the horns of the Celtic deity Cernunnos (He may be depicted with longer antlers of cervids or antelopids rather than bovids on occasions, though the Gallo-Roman altar at Rheims is much closer to the Indo-Mesopotamian imagery of a horned deity). Another possible horned deity with a similar form is the Slavic rudra-like deity Veles. However, very little is known of his iconography if any to be sure. We also realized that such ceratocephalic deities are seen elsewhere in Eurasia like the famous horned deity in the Altaic shamanistic realm with the horns of a reindeer. However, we distinguish such reindeer-like apparitions from the quintessentially post-chalcolithic depictions where the horns are typically: 1) bovine and 2) placed as accouterments to a basically anthropocephalic form. This also sets them apart from the other ceratocephalous deities like Pan in the Greek world with goat horns (ortholog of puShaN, who rides a goat) and the Egyptian Ammon Ra with horns of a ram. Further, in modern India we have a central Dravidian tribal community known as the Maria Gonds, who are famous for the dancing head-gear that closely resembles that of the Harappan deity or his Middle Eastern counterparts. In light of these far-flung motifs of ceratocephaly I was unsure if it was a case of convergent evolution or an ancient meme spreading through disparate cultures of Eurasia.
It was then that ST, in course of a discussion with me and ekanetra, brought to my attention to a work by Margaret Murray, which is very popular in western neo-Pagan circles. Murray and a bunch of others speculated that there was a single prototype behind all horned deities who was the god of the original pagans- the horned gods. The main problem with this theory is that the horned deity is not merely Indo-European or Afro-Asiatic but is distributed between these cultures in a patchy way. In the more strict sense in which I characterized the horned deities above, they find a relatively narrow distribution in the Middle East, Indian chalcolithic and its successors and to a lesser extant Europe and are not in any direct sense linkable to the older Paleolithic examples that Murray invokes. Further, these deities are obviously distinct across different cultures and as we see in Sumer and it successor-states multiple deities might have horns at the same time. It was in this context that I decided to revisit the R^igvedic imagery of horned deities.