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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Of Gods and Rats

The Reims Cernunnos, shown above, is one of the most famous images of a Horned God from antiquity. A product of Roman-era Gaul, it shows the Antlered seated cross-legged on a plinth or altar in a miniature temple. Apollo and Mercury attend him. In his lap, he holds a bag of circular objects—generally identified as either coins or grain—which he pours out to a bull and a stag before him. Mysteriously, in the pediment above him is carved a rat (or mouse; for the purposes of this discussion, the two are interchangeable).

There's much to be said concerning the symbolism of this relief, but here I will focus only on the most curious aspect of its iconography: the Rat.

The Horned Lord tends, in pantheon after pantheon, to be a Master of Animals generally, but still the choice seems an odd one. The scholarly literature has tended to address this question cursorily, generally preferring one of two readings.

The first associates the Reims Rat with the cult of Apollo Smintheus, patron of a city in Asia Minor, at whose temple were kept sacred mice. At best, this explanation kicks the can down the road. Why would any god (one could add Ganesha to the list) be associated with a pestiferous rodent?


The second scholarly explanation speaks vaguely of the rat's “chthonic” associations. This may be so. In Keltic art, the Antlered is frequently associated with serpents, which move between worlds and which, indeed, curl around his neck and whisper the secrets of the Underworld into his ear. This comes closer, but we're not home yet.

I suggest that we see a rat here because, paradoxically, Rat is a symbol of abundance.

If you have lots of grain, you will have lots of rats (and mice): many from many. Many rats means much grain, so if you've got many rats, it means you're rich because you've got lots of food. This increases the likelihood that what the god pours from his sack of abundance is indeed intended to be grain and not coins.

The god both gives wealth (bull, stag, grain) and takes it (rat). In the logic of the Old Ways, the giver of animals can be their withholder as well. It seems likely that Rat's presence here is also, in a sense, apotropaic, averting, a prayer to be spared from the power of the rat.

May the Horned, Lord of Rats, pour for you a year of abundance, and keep the vermin at bay.

And let us all say: So mote it be.






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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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