Homage to Cernunos

Hunting is an often-contentious topic, and this isn’t helped by the fact the concept means different things to different people.  Say “hunting” and one may think of providing food for the family, while another may picture millionaires posing over an elephant.

In my experience, one of the broad groups that leans in the anti-hunting direction is the pagan community.  For every note on my feed that is favorable (or at least accepting) of hunting, there are dozens who see it as abominable.

The following is an article originally published in Touchstone, the journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.  Republished here with permission of the author. Let me know what you think.

 In Homage to Cernunos: A Modern Druid’s View of Hunting

The hunt is a common theme and a powerful symbol in Celtic mythology. How many stories are framed around hunts, finding the action “one day while he was out hunting” (or “while her husband was away hunting”)?  Even today, modern Druids and Pagans identify with, and venerate, the Horned God – as Cernunos, Herne, or in another guise.  Yet, in the Pagan community, the issue of hunting is fraught with contention.

No doubt there will be many readers who believe that hunting is wrong.  Druid opinions range from “I think hunting is great” to “hunting for sustenance is okay, but not for sport” to “killing another living thing is wrong.”  In the greater population, the hunting controversy becomes tangled up in issues of class, politics, and even nationalism.  Just as in any human community, it is easy for a group to be reduced to a negative caricature to an outsider’s eyes.

I grew up the son of a wildlife biologist in a rural part of Georgia, in the southeastern United States.  Hunting was a normal part of life.  Rifles and shotguns were stacked on the rack by the front door, and deer heads decorated the walls. My father was a hunter from youth, providing food for his family and later ours; he passed his skills and knowledge – a mixture of native field-craft and scientific study – to me.  My parents still hunt.

As a biologist myself, I can speak to reasons why, in this region and in this time, hunting deer is necessary. White-tailed deer breed without regard for either their welfare, nature, or us.  When deer overpopulate, they over-browse, removing all edibles as far up as they can reach, even eating bark off roots – not to mention the farmer’s crops.  Bringing back cougars and wolves is not feasible, so without hunting, deer numbers rise until most of the individuals suffer a lingering death due to starvation and disease.  By then, the land has lost much of its resiliency and natural diversity and takes many years to fully renew.

As one among a community of hunters, I know hunting is important to people for many reasons.  It is true that most hunters of my acquaintance feel pride at taking a particularly large deer, but a fine set of antlers is seldom the overriding reason for hunting. A deer on the ground means meat in the freezer, and among some struggling families, a successful deer season means the difference between health and hunger the rest of the year.  For those omnivores without access to organic meat, wild game is both organic and generally healthier than store-bought beef or pork.  Concerns for ethics are assuaged by comparing a factory-farmed life and stress-filled final minutes of a cow versus the quiet, free life and sudden and unexpected death of a hunted deer.  Finally, a good hunter is more immersed in and aware of nature.  I know hunters whose working knowledge of bird and beast, tree and forb, and the yearly cycles of their hunting ground would awe many Druids.  Many speak of their time on the hunt as a spiritual experience, bathed in the peace of the forest.  Through their connection with the prey, they enact a ritual known to their forebears stretching to the dawn of time.

From a broader standpoint, hunters and anglers (in the United States) fund the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat through excise taxes and fees, helping game and nongame species alike; this funding source dwarfs the financial contribution of birders, hikers, and other “non-consumptive” users.

As someone on a Druidic path, I have pondered my own reasons for hunting. To non-hunters, I have stated all of the reasons above.  But in private reflection, I turned the notion around and looked at it in the context of a religious obligation. I eat meat, much of it factory-farmed – a situation which, if pressed, many people would say they dislike but few ever think about. These animals are raised and killed by faceless strangers, their lives sacrificed so that I may buy prepared food. But in the Autumn, I enter my sanctuary woods reverently.  I proclaim that I have not forgotten that my plastic-wrapped food was once a living animal – an animal which fed on plants which were in turn nourished by the sun – and in token of this acknowledgement I will perform the sacrifice myself, at least this one time.  I do not flinch from this symbolic duty, and I endeavor to kill swiftly. And kneeling over the animal whose life I took and whose flesh will provide nourishment for my wife and child, my friends, and myself in the coming year, I pause to wordlessly express my compounded gratitude and apology.

The hunt is a seasonal ritual, conducted in my family’s woods and in my favorite season.  I enter the woods with my code of ethics firmly in place:  I will only harvest a fully mature deer, and only if a clean, swift kill is certain.  I let many deer walk away – for these reasons, or because the spirit moves me to let them be.  I silentMOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERAly watch and learn as they interact with each other and the world around them.  I also see other hunters at work – a bobcat bringing down a rabbit, or a hawk stooping on a careless squirrel.  This day, I am like them, bound to the prey.  Lost in the hunters meditation – senses alert to  a leaf crunching,  the breeze shifting, the flicker of gray against the brown-shaded landscape – I touch both the woodland predators and my own ancestors stretching back to the dawn of our kind.  The hunting spirit in the breast of our ancient kin is surely what led them to call forth to hunter gods, to revere great hunters in  myth and legend.

Hunting is not for everyone.  Comparatively few have the opportunity, and fewer have the inclination.  Yet that spirit of the hunter is still a part of us – if often slumbering  or sublimated.  That spirit should be, if not acted on, at least acknowledged; as beings of both instinct and intellect, some part of us needs the hunting aspect to keep us closer to our true, natural selves.  My  father once said: “The prey must have the predator, just as the predator needs the prey.  One without the other eventually becomes something less.  The wolf becomes a dog.  The deer becomes a cow.  And what does Man become?”

The arts of Herne deserve respect within the Pagan community, from hunters and non-hunters alike.  For some people, hunting can provide a unique insight and a spiritual link to our ancestors and to the spirit of the Wild Hunt.  Further, it can bring a greater awareness of our place in the environment, of the cycles of nature and the delicate balance between life and death.  It can help us better understand our own natures.  On a broader scale, hunting can be a greater good, helping protect and restore wildlife habitat.  Hunting will always be controversial, but perhaps the arguments on either side of the issue aren’t as simplistic as they are made out to be.

Thoughts on Walking in the Woods

Reproduced here with the kind permission of  Jerry Knox:

Some will say they fear the woods, for the snakes and such. I have found a different truth.  One who treads the woods with care, to do no harm to tender plants, will never be surprised by any harmful thing.  The very sense that guides your feet away from the violet, will alert you to the poison ivy there as well.  The soft, and measured, step allows both mouse and rattlesnake time to flee your path, or hide, alert and safely unafraid, as you pass by.

But one who crashes through the brushy ways carelessly and unaware will find his way perilous indeed!  Yellow jackets boil to defend their precious nest.  Thorny vines find painful lodging round ankle, neck and arm.  Ticks shower on his shoulders, chiggers cling to pants and legs.  The rattler coils and bows his neck to fight off this bold invasion.  Thrown out, repulsed by vine and fang, the intruder flees with tales of terror, and fearsome creatures lurking in the trees, and fails to see the danger in the woods was he!