Atho: The Horned God of the Witches
In the early 1960’s a man named Raymond Howard offered a correspondence course called “The Coven of Atho”. The first lesson begins by telling the reader they are going to be taught about the symbolism and rites of a “clan of White Witches” that is known as “The Coven of Atho”. It was taught, “ATHO is the name of the Horned God of Witchcraft.” But going back just a bit further Raymond Howard became the handyman of a Charles Cardell in 1959 that had started to teach people in 1958 about this same God named Atho. Both of these men had their own version of a story where they learned about Witchcraft and the God Atho. The one thing they had in common was this was an ancient God that had some sort of connection to Atlantis.
One witch named Doreen Valiente wrote about Atho in her book An ABC of Witchcraft. She made a drawing of it and included it next to the well-known image of Baphomet “the god of the knights Templars” drawn by Elphas Levi. She writes a good bit about her personal observations of this wooden head that was carved from single piece of dark oak. The horns were decorated with the signs of the zodiac and in the center of the head were five circles, which stood for the five different types of circles cast by a witch. Some symbols are a bit harder to notice like the nose in the shape of a chalice.
There are only a handful of known photos of this wooden head and one was shown in the book Dancing with Witches by Lois Bourne. She saw the head in 1964 while on vacation in Crantock, Cornwall in the UK. The last known photograph ever taken was published in the “Eastern Daily Press” on March 6th, 1967. Shortly after that article came out the head was stolen. Searching through Doreen’s personal journals she did give a hint about who stole this head and where it currently resides. She pondered why Charles Cardell would steal the head from Raymond Howard if the head were a fake. She later noted that the head was buried in Charlwood in the county of Surrey in the UK.
It was reported to a few people that the son of Mr. Raymond Howard recalls observing his dad work on the head. This has made some to believe the head was a fake. In a brief correspondence in 2009 the son of Raymond Howard told me that while he did recall observing his dad work on the head of Atho he could not be positive he recalls him starting it from the beginning. Mr. and Mrs. Cardell hired Mr. Raymond Howard as their ‘handyman’ in 1959 but they had already were teaching witches in 1958 and corresponding with witches like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente in 1958. Also in 1958 Mr. Cardell published in a magazine called “Light” an article entitled “The Craft of the Wiccens”.
In one of Doreen Valiente’s journals I borrowed and transcribed from, there were some descriptions of various photos and in one was the head of Atho at Stonehenge “with two cloaked figures kneeling on either side of stone altar, on which is Head of Atho” was placed. In the Coven of Atho books I studied were a list of ‘witch words’ it included the word “Atho – The God or visual image”. A similar list of ‘witch words’ was shared with Jack Bracelin by Gerald Gardner that also contained the word ‘Atho’. It is still possible Raymond Howard was commissioned by Charles Cardell to carve this head of Atho. It is also possible the head of Atho was first created by Charles Cardell and was later handed over to Raymond Howard to make further modifications. But I’m quite certain the word ‘Atho’ was in use by Mr. Cardell before Mr. Raymond Howard was ever hired as the handyman in 1959.
It was Doreen Valiente who wrote down in one of her smaller diaries “ATHO=Welsh Addhu or Arddhu. (Look this up in Welsh Dictionary) .” Later she would publish in An ABC of Witchcraft that the name “Atho is evidently a Sassenach version of the Old Welsh Arddhu, ‘The Dark One’. She wrote that ‘dd’ in Welsh is pronounced as ‘th’. So this would give us ‘athu’ and arthu’. These are quite close to the word Atho and yet there is nothing else Welsh about the Atho material I studied and transcribed. It has closer ties to Greco and Roman Paganism with stories of Atlantis, and the Gods Mercury and Diana. So I wondered why would some Welsh God get paired up with the Goddess Diana who is the Goddess worshiped in the Coven of Atho.
I came across one reference in the book The Mothers by Robert Briffault and in Volume III he wrote that “ ’Arthur, ’ that is to say, ‘the Black One’ (ardu = ‘black’) …”. Doreen is possibly correct that these two words ‘addhu’ and ‘arddhu’ might have something to do with the color black. In using an online Welsh dictionary I did get ‘âr = ploughed land” and ‘du = black’ which came out to be “black plough”. If it were ‘yr du’ it would be ‘the black’. Another similar word in Welsh could be ‘aradr’ which is the plough but it does not have the ‘th’ sound in it. In Gaulish ‘art’ means ‘Bear’ and this is close to the Welsh word ‘arth’ for bear and in Irish it is also ‘art’. Some researchers have speculated that this might be the root of the modern name Arthur. There might possibly be some sort of connection between the God Atho with Arthur, or the color black, or the plough or even all of them. While this may not seem relevant Doreen seemed to think there might be a connection because she wrote a good bit about the constellation “The Plough” which consists of Seven Stars which is also called “the Great Bear”. This had even some deeper meanings to even more symbols found in the Coven of Atho.
One of the symbols of Atho was the trident but another symbol used for Atho was an old symbol for Mercury and was called the “Monogram of ATHO”. In a drawing of the eight paths of magick in the Coven of Atho a better known image for the symbol of mercury was used which stood for “Atho, The Horned God of Witchcraft. This is the study of all the Arts and Teachings of our Order and it is only the Initiated Members of the Coven of Atho who can learn all these things.”
Yet another symbol used for this God Atho written about in the Atho material I studied is the Monas Hieroglyphica first drawn by Dr. John Dee in 1564. Again there is nothing Welsh about the symbols associated with the God Atho and it is wrong to just state Atho is a ‘horned god’. In many ways he is a guardian of the mysteries of magick. He is a mystery to be solved through communion and gnosis. While the symbols all used are quite complex they only tough the surface for the deeper Mysteries of Atho.
Since the head of Atho is sort of frightening looking with big horns it made me think more of the Minotaur at the center of the maze. Even in Mr. Raymond Howard’s lesson he wrote that the head is “a rather frightening thing.” Lois Bourne wrote in Dancing with Witches that the head of Atho was “most curious and slightly repellent”. Doreen wrote in An ABC of Witchcraft that the head was “very impressive carving, having a crude strength and power”. When I was first shown a drawing of the Head of Atho by Raymond Howard I must admit my first impression of Atho was repulsive and yet there was this strong strength in him.
This year in reading about the God Mercury I came across a reference by a Dr. Miranda Green who wrote some about an epithet that has the words “Mercvrio Avg Artaio” on it. She believes this ‘Mercury Artaius” to be a “bear-god”. Besides the lore Doreen transcribed between 1958 and 1963 from first Charles Cardell and later from Raymond Howard this is the first actually historic reference I’ve come across that link the Gaulish word ‘artos’ or bear with the God Mercury. There apparently was some sort of Romano-Celtic period of influence.
During one of the first meetings Doreen Valiente had with Charles Cardell in 1958, he had tried to pass off a statue of Thor as a Celtic Horned God. Doreen had to tell him he was very wrong. So I do wonder how could he have known or guessed that Atho was maybe an old Welsh word and yet also have known about this Celtic-Romano period and have included a lot of teachings from the Mediterranean Mystery schools.
Doreen wrote in one of her journals that it was Charles Cardell who stole back the head of Atho from Raymond Howard. She wondered why he would steal back the head if it were a fake. Later in her personal diaries she would write the location of the head of Atho is buried in Charlwood which is a particularly large 1, 000 acre wood in the UK close to where both Raymond Howard and Charles Cardell lived in Surrey.
Doreen made one comment about some of the material in the Coven of Atho to being much more complex than it first appears. Atho is one of those complexities and is not just a simple “horned God of the Witches”, but then is any God really all that simple? Atho is if anything a reflection of the complexities of our own minds and imaginations and yet as a Priest and Witch in BTW and now a follower of Atho I’ve come to see this God as independent of me. He is a harsh teacher of the Mysteries of Magick and a guardian to it as well.
Atho was worshiped by a few who called themselves Witches and if anything Atho is quite similar to the God Baphomet. They are both a mass of symbolism and have many facets of light and dark to them. The first response many get when seeing this Horned God might be repulsion and I suspect many will then turn away. It takes a bit of understanding and wisdom to see the light in the dark. Atho is only half the Mystery.
I would like to end with giving a great deal of credit and thanks to The Centre For Pagan Studies and to Doreen Valiente’s last High Priest John Belham-Payne who graciously lent to me a few of Doreen’s journals and notebooks containing her writings on The Coven of Atho. I also would like to thank Doreen Valiente for sharing her insight into the Craft and the Arts and sharing her research into magick and witchcraft.
Seven words of blessing to remember given by a member of The Coven of Atho are “Blessed Be They Who Worship The Goddess”