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Tracking Herne the Hunter

Illustration of Herne the Hunter

Illustration of Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter is an well-known character in British folklore. He is mentioned as a ghost, a forest spirit, a hunt leader, and even a god. His origins are hard to pin down, and many have tried to solve the riddle. We take a look at Herne's lore and appearances throughout the ages in a bid to learn more about this Berkshire enigma. Is there any founding in his comparisons to the Celtic god, Cernunnos? Or is he merely a fanciful figure from the imagination of William Shakespeare? The information is presented with the intent that the reader may come to their own conclusion.

The Bard's Account

"There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,

Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;

And there he blasts the trees, and takes the carrle,

And makes milch kine* yield blood, and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner."

* milking cows

This extract appears in Act 4, scene 4 of William Shakespeare's play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Written in 1597, it is the earliest recorded account of this character. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford decide to play a trick on Sir John Falstaff in revenge for his advances. They persuade him to disguise himself as a ghost and meet them under an oak in Windsor Forest at midnight, whilst they arrange for others in on the act to turn up at the same time and arrange for him to get what he deserves; being pinched and burned by children in the guise of fairies [1].

A pirated text from 1604 shows variations to these lines, and suggests that the belief of the ghost was exploited by mothers to control their unruly children. Herne was presented as a bogeyman;

"Oft have you heard since Horne the hunter dyed,

That women, to affright their little children,

Says that he walkes in the shape of a great stagge." [2]

Why this character was chosen or created, we do not know. There are some thoughts that some of Shakespeare's plays are based on local folk tales, or incorporate parts of them into his works. This may be a case of an earlier legend making an appearance in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

A costume featuring antlers would be taken as a reference to cuckold's horns by the Elizabethan audience. A cuckold is a name given to a husband of an errant wife. The word derives from cuckoo, a bird that lays it's eggs in the nest of a different species. The same behaviour is exhibited by the cuckold's wife, with the husband unaware of the wife's infidelity, and might even raise a child not of his siring as his own, much in the fashion of the host parents of a cuckoo chick! Roman soldiers were given horns on their return from battle when they settled back down with their families, and it was not uncommon for their wives to have taken comfort elsewhere during their absence. Jokes were sometimes made that the horns also meant that the husband was no good in the bedroom. It is believed that this is the source of the insult, which was a guaranteed source of laughter on the Elizabethan stage [3]. With Falstaff intent on seducing the wives of other men, it was amusing that he himself should wear the guise of a cuckold to embarrass himself.

The appearance of Herne the Hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor ensured that this figure became widely known not just in England, but worldwide as the works of William Shakespeare reached global audiences.

Herne's Oak from 'The Merry Wives of Windsor,' by George Cruikshank

Herne's Oak from 'The Merry Wives of Windsor,' by George Cruikshank

Bust of William Shakespeare, allegedly carved from a piece of Herne's Oak

Bust of William Shakespeare, allegedly carved from a piece of Herne's Oak

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Herne's Oak

It would seem that we have William Shakespeare to thank for this celebrity tree. From the mid eighteenth century, a tree in Windsor's Home Park was pointed out as Falstaff's Oak or Hernes Oak, though sources disagree on which it was.

There were at one point it seems, two oaks. The main claimant to the title of Herne's Oak was felled in 1796 due to it poor health.

The rival was lost in a storm on August 31st 1863, when it was blown down in heavy winds. The logs were burned at Windsor castle in order "to burn away the ghost of Herne the Hunter". One log was spared and was carved into a bust of Shakespeare, which is now housed in the Windsor and Royal Borough Museum in the Guildhall.

Queen Victoria had a replacement oak planted in the spot of the tree that fell in 1863. In 1906 during the reign of her son, King Edward VII, the park was re-landscaped and Victoria's tree was removed. Another replacement oak was planted on the site of the tree felled in 1796, and was given the title of Herne's Oak [4].

So it would seem that there have been at least four oaks that have been associated with this legend.

The Restless Gamekeeper

In 1791, Samuel Ireland wrote about the legend of Herne in his work, Picturesque Views on the River Thames [5]. He described how Herne was a gamekeeper who was in fear of losing his job, and so hung himself from an oak tree:

"The story of this Herne, who was keeper in the forest in the time of Elizabeth, runs thus: – That having committed some great offence, for which he feared to lose his situation and fall into disgrace, he was induced to hang himself on this tree.”

It was believed that the spirit of a person who committed suicide was not permitted to enter heaven, and would instead remain on earth and haunt the scene of their death.

There are two more variants to this theme.

The first is that Herne was a huntsman employed by King Richard II. Some of the local men became jealous of his status and accused him of poaching on the King's land. He was falsely charged with treason, becoming an outcast. In his despair, he hung himself from an oak tree which later became known as Herne's Oak.

The second is that Herne saved King Richard II from a charging stag. Fatally wounded, he was restored by a magician who took his skills in forestry and hunting as payment. Part of the cure was to have the horns of the dead stag tied to Herne's head the beast's vitality revitalising the wounded woodsman. Herne could not bring himself to be without his beloved hunt and so committed suicide by hanging from the oak tree. His spirit appears each night leading a spectral hunt through Windsor Forest.

I could find no sources of the original text featuring these two variant tales which I came across in a Pagan weblog [6]. They have been copied by various other Pagan websites and used in the information given on Herne as a god.

Ancient Oak in Windsor Great Park (once part of Windsor Forest), by Malcolm Gould

Ancient Oak in Windsor Great Park (once part of Windsor Forest), by Malcolm Gould

Herne as a Villain

One of the aforementioned stories around Herne appears to be a summary of a depiction of him from the 1842 novel, Windsor Castle, by William Harrison Ainsworth [7].

A historical romance with a dark gothic undertone, the story is set in Tudor times and explores Henry VIII's pursuit of the ill fated Anne Boleyn. Herne the Hunter features heavily throughout, as a legendary phantom that haunts the woods of Windsor.

In this novel, Herne appears as Herne the Hunter. He is portrayed as an evil force that tries to claim the souls of his human victims. He captures two main characters in the story, who fall in love. Trying to escape Herne's clutches, one of the characters drowns. A passage from the book describing a character encountering Herne reads as follows:

"Suddenly, however, he was startled by a blue phosphoric light streaming through the bushes on the left, and, looking up, he beheld at the foot of an enormous oak, whose giant roots protruded like twisted snakes from the bank, a wild spectral-looking object, possessing some slight resemblance to humanity, and habited, so far as it could be determined, in the skins of deer, strangely disposed about its gaunt and tawny-coloured limbs. On its head was seen a sort of helmet, formed of the skull of a stag, from which branched a large pair of antlers; from its left arm hung a heavy and rusty-looking chain, in the links of which burnt the phosphoric fire before mentioned; while on its right wrist was perched a large horned owl, with feathers erected, and red staring eyes." [7]

Harrison Ainsworth was particularly interested in Herne and considered that his pacts were similar to the ones made by Faust. Herne was in this novel, the ghost of a forester who was gored by a stag. His life was spared by the Devil, on condition that he would forever more wear antlers.

Harrison Ainsworth created his own legend in his novel which was summarised by Stephen James Carver [8]:

"Herne served under Richard II as the forest keeper. While hunting with the Richard II, Herne prevented the king from being killed but ended up dying himself. To save Herne's life, Richard and his party turn to Philip Urswick to heal him. Urswick saves Herne, but makes a deal with Herne's rivals to take away all of his abilities so he is no longer favoured by Richard. After disappearing into the woods, he is found hanging from a tree but disappears soon after. Afterward, Urswick explains that Herne's rivals would then be cursed."

This account explains the origin of the "folklore" so frequently quoted to support further evidence of the legend of Herne as an authentic lost god of Britain.

Deer grazing on the edge of the woods at Windsor's Great Park

Deer grazing on the edge of the woods at Windsor's Great Park

Exploring Origins

Many comparisons have been made between Herne and other deities that were known to the people of Britain.

Because of the epithet 'the Hunter', Jacom Grimm suggested that Herne had once been imagined as leader of the Wild Hunt - a demonic cavalcade which, in European Folklore, sweeps across the midwinter skies, bringing destruction in its path. Its leader may be identified as the ghost of a locally or nationally famous personage, now a lost soul who is doomed to hunt for ever. This notion is attractive, and certainly there are plenty of British traditions telling how some man who loved nothing so much as hunting is doomed to ride eternally at the head of a phantom hunt, accompanied by demonic hounds. However the Herne legend does not match that of the Wild Hunt, which, by definition, rushes in frenzy from one place to another, usually in mid-air, whereas Shakespeare's Herne simply patrols the area round his tree [9].

This Wild Hunt appears in both Brythonic legends and Germanic myth. In Welsh lore, the deity Gwyn ap Nudd, ruler of the Otherworld or Annwn, rides out with his hounds to harvest souls. Anglo-Saxons in Britain would have known about Woden (Wotan, Odin), who is believed to ride out in midwinter and capture wayward spirits, banishing them from the land of men. More comparisons have been made between Herne and Odin, as both were hung from a tree; Herne from his oak, and Odin from the great ash (or yew), Yggdrasil in his quest for wisdom. Sacrificing one's self to one's self to become something more, also seems to be a recurring theme here.

The antler headgear bears a strong resemblance to the Celtic deity, Cernunnos. But we should remember that Herne's horns are part of a headdress.

Interestingly enough, archeologists in Britain found a headpiece made from the top of a stag's skull complete with horns, at Star Carr near Scarborough. It was subsequently dated to around 8,500 BC, placing it within the Mesolithic period. The item is believed to have been used in shamanic rituals to help connect with the spirit of the animals which were being hunted. This could be to restore vitality, or to help locate prey.

The Hunter is a strong European archetype that has existed for thousands of years, and Herne seems to be another variant of this.

The Star Carr headdress

The Star Carr headdress

The Elusive Herne

After presenting the sources, attestations, and ideas around whom Herne could be and what he represents, it is hard to tell for sure just what and who he is.

Is his inclusion among the lost gods of Britain a mistake based on fiction and misinformation? Is he a jumble of beliefs from various cultures settling in Berkshire that have left their mark? Or is Herne an echo of something far older; an early hunter deity that guards the forest and lends the hunters his skill?

I will leave you with this one last passage, which I feel summarises Herne's status very well:

"Where do gods come from? Where do they go?....gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in. Belief itself is the food of the gods."

~ Terry Pratchett [10]


[1] The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare, ISDN - 978-1904271123

[2] A Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson, Stephen Roud, ISDN - 978-0192100191

[3] BBC, Cuckolds, Horns, and Other Explanations

[4] Traditional Witchcraft for the Woods and Forests, Melusine Draco, ISDN - 978-1846948039

[5] Picturesque Views on the River Thames, Samuel Ireland

[6] Herne, God of the Wild Hunt

[7] Windsor Castle, William Harrison Ainsworth, ISDN - 978-1482701883

[8] The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805-1882 (Studies in British Literature), Stephen James Carver, ISDN - 978-0773466333

[9] Westwood & Simpson, The Lore of the Land: A guide to England's Legends, ISDN - 978-0141021034

[10] Small Gods, A Discworld Novel, Terry Pratchett, ISDN - 978-0062237378

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones


Nisse Visser from On the Edge on May 16, 2015:

Another Jewel. I have been weaving folklore into my plots and Herne and his Wild Hunt play a large role. It's fascinating stuff.

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on January 02, 2015:

Ah, I'll go look for that!

Brian Langston from Languedoc Roussillon on January 02, 2015:

Thanks Polly- I did send you an Fb message the other day to thank you for introducing me to hubpages but I think it's stuck in the pipework because we weren't friends (sniff) ....I'll be sure to tip you off when the book is finished...A bientot

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on January 02, 2015:

Thank you, Brian! I think you're right, his legend gains more momentum as time goes by. Please do drop by my FB page when your book is available so I can share the details for you. It sounds really interesting!

Brian Langston from Languedoc Roussillon on January 02, 2015:

Nice article Pollyanna. Although I now live in France I lived and worked in Windsor for almost 30 years and was a regular visitor to Windsor Great Park. Although I didn't see Herne, I know a number of people who think they did! I'm just finishing a book on the Ghosts and Ghouls of Windsor and Eton in which dear old Herne has a starring role. His legend will continue for another millennium!

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on September 05, 2014:

Thank you Susanna, yes, he most certainly seems to be a blend of all sorts of things, that has become a unique character in his own way. He is intriguing! I am glad you enjoyed reading my article.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on September 05, 2014:

I see Herne as an aspect of Cernunnos, a localised figure. You present a well done background!

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on September 01, 2014:

Thanks Carolyn! You're very kind.

Carolyn Emerick on September 01, 2014:

Another great article :-) Upvoted and shared.

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