Local ratepayer David Megarry says there is widespread concern about the “monstrous and grotesque” figure on social media among residents in the town.
“If this character was in a cartoon you would not show it to the kids in case it gave them nightmares,” he said. “But here it is - five metres tall - on a family walk in a park. I want it removed.”
Dr Bob Curran, a former lecturer in history at Ulster University and a prolific author of folklore books, was taken aback.
”It seems a bit strange for a place like Hillsborough. It is very pagan for the Lagan Valley.”
Asked to explain why, he added: “He is completely pagan. Cernnunos was a god both of hunting and of fertility.” He was adamant there would inevitably be concern about the statue in the area.
”At Stormy times of the year, if you heard the wind and thunder overhead that was known as ‘the wild hunt’. And Cernnunos led the wild hunt, hunting down all sorts of evil things across the sky. “Now, you could be swept away by this and carried away by winds and ghosties and ghoulies that travelled with him. Because he had horns he was equated with the devil. He was a woodland god and he hunted with devil dogs.”
He said the “devil dogs” were usually represented with “blood red eyes and blood dripping from their mouths”. “It is thought that the council of Toledo about the 6th century decided that the figure of a creature like Cernnunos would be how the devil was to be depicted - with the horns and cloven feet. So he became a picture of the devil.
”He has great knowledge of forest herbs and is also associated with poisonings. He is half man and half goat - with cloven hooves and is equated with the god Pan in Roman mythology. So it seems strange for Hillsborough.”
He was also supposed to be “rather drunken”.
“Cernunnos was associated at one stage with something like Crom Cruach, a pagan deity of pre-Christian Ireland reputedly worshipped with human sacrifice. He may have been associated with a figure in Irish mythology who was the foster brother of Cuchulain Conall Cernach, who was known to eat human flesh. He also turns up as a hideous giant who devours small children.” That sounds a bit ominous for Hillsborough, he says.
”Yes”, he exclaims, “that is what I am saying! The wild huntsman was a symbol of nature which is red in tooth and claw.”
“He could also have been associated with Crom Cruach a pagan deity of pre-Christian Ireland reputedly worshipped with human sacrifice.
”He was associated with fertility. But if you go down to Belcoo you will find a stone which is associated with this known as the Crom Cruach. On the top of the stone, the irst birth [of the year] was placed and beheaded.
”This legend has, I would assume, a hint of reality about it, because the blood of the infant was supposed to flood into the soil and allow the crops to grow. “This is back in prehistory but the stone is still there and there is a lot of local mythology about it - it is considered to be an evil stone.”
It was originally supposed to have been in a massive stone circle on ‘the plain of adoration’ in Co Cavan, but the stones were later scattered far and wide by St Patrick, he added. Cernunnos is also a central figure of worship for modern witches, he said.
“This is because he symbolises a force of nature.”
The News Letter reached out to a wide range of Wiccans for comment without success. Asked why he thought Wiccans seem so reluctant to speak about the statue, Bob replied: “Well, he was supposed to be ‘the black man of the covens’”. Historically, witches were supposed to greet Cernunnos with a very specific sexual rite, he said.
“At the covens sexual intercourse was supposed to have taken place [as a fertility rite]”.
Lisburn and Castlereagh Borough Council said it consulted widely on 10 new statues in the park over two years, and an App, costing a total of £707,000. Most feedback has been positive but there have been 15 complaints, it added.
Encyclopaedia Britannica says Cernunnos, or ‘Horned One’, was a “powerful deity, widely worshipped as the lord of wild things” who had different names in different parts of the Celtic world.
It adds: “The Christian church strongly opposed him because of his powerful pagan influence. He was used as a symbol of the Antichrist...”.
Rachel Rodham, is not a Wiccan but is ‘a Pagan Advisor’ at the Chaplaincy Centre of the University of Sheffield.
“Pagan deities are often complex because they have often gone through several ‘incarnations’ and, outside of the classical religions, not much is known of their history,” she told the News Letter.
“Cernunnos is undoubtably ancient. He is usually thought to have been a Celtic God but like most of Celtic spirituality we have almost no understanding of how he was originally worshiped or what he represented. However, there does seem to be old iconography showing Cernunnos with antlers and associated him with stags and rams - probably other animals as well, though it is the stags that have survived.
“Probably the reason that he is relatively popular today is that he was adopted into the Wiccan pantheon after the 1940’s, becoming associated with the Wiccan Horned God – consort of the Goddess. Wicca was hugely influential in bringing Pagan ideas to the general public in the last century.
“To non-Wiccan Pagans, Cernunnos is usually regarded as a Lord of the Forest and also tied up with Pan and the Green Man, a general symbol of the natural world, especially forests, and a part of the Wheel of the Year. He is also associated with fertility and masculinity by some and is generally a spring/summer God.
“Unfortunately, the antlers - or horns - have caused Cernunnos and similar deities to become confused with Satan by certain members of the church. There is no such similarity. To modern Pagans, a statue to Cernunnos in a forest would be entirely appropriate. It is where he belongs.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica says Wicca is “a predominantly Western movement whose followers practice witchcraft and nature worship and who see it as a religion based on pre-Christian traditions of northern and western Europe”.
The origins of modern Wicca can be traced to a retired British civil servant Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), it adds, who “read widely in Western esoteric literature, including the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley.
“Returning to England shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Gardner became involved in the British occult community and founded a new movement based on a reverence of nature, the practice of magic, and the worship of a female deity (the Goddess) and numerous associated deities (such as the Horned God).
“He also borrowed liberally from Western witchcraft traditions. Following the 1951 repeal of England’s archaic Witchcraft Laws, Gardner published Witchcraft Today (1954), founded his first coven of followers, and, with input from its members, especially author Doreen Valiente, developed modern witchcraft into what today is known as Wicca.”
In a statement, Lisburn and Castlereagh Borough Council said the statue is one of ten on a new sculpture trail.
“It is a welcome tourism opportunity for visitors from across the world as they enjoy the experience of Royal Hillsborough. Extensive public consultation on the project has taken place over the last two years,” the council said. “Presentations were made to local church groups, schools and community groups. Public displays were in place at Hillsborough Forest in January 2020 and in January 2022. All feedback received was carefully considered. Whilst the majority of the feedback has been positive there have been 15 complaints.
“Design concepts were assessed by an agreed internal panel. The recommendations were presented to the Hillsborough Forest Project Board and the Development Committee in 2019.
“Internationally renowned artist Idan Zareski designed ‘Cernunnos’ to portray reflection. Idan describes his sculpture as a Celtic mythological Big Foot hidden in the forest based on Cernunnos, (“Horned One”), who in Celtic mythology is an archaic and powerful deity, widely worshipped as the ‘Lord of the Forest’.
“The signage and digital app will explain the story of each sculpture on the trail and will include details of the internationally acclaimed artists who designed them. The total project cost for all 10 sculptures and the digital app is £707,000.
“We welcome all feedback and a further report will be presented to Elected Members later this year.”
The council has so far failed to give the cost of the Cernunnos statue alone.