In the days of my childhood
Of a forest creature I learned
A man with beastly antlers
Who goes by the name of Herne
(“Herne,” Kenny Klein,
Meet Me In The Shade of the Maple Tree, CD, 2008)
Through a clearing in tall trees you first see him. Standing tall, dark-skinned and muscular, against the verdant foliage of Great Windsor Park. On his head a rack of seven-tine antlers, either growing from his pate or held on with a crown, one cannot tell from this distance. Around him move great white dogs with red eyes and red tipped ears, baying and roving continuously. Towering behind him, the great oak that bears his name.
Herne the Hunter.
Like many Americans, I began a fascination with the figure of Herne when I saw the British production of Robin of Sherwood, in which Robin Hood is portrayed as worshiping Herne, and taking orders from a human shaman of Hern's hidden cult. Certainly a plausible scenario for Thirteenth Century Britain, two hundred years into Christian Norman rule, where pockets of Saxons might have taken refuge in Windsor Forest, stealing what they could from the oppressive Normans and reverencing their Saxon Gods.
But the Herne in Robin of Sherwood, it turns out, is a man wearing an antlered deer crown. Granted, the special effects of the production were, shall we say, nonexistent? Was Herne portrayed as a man in a deer suit because the production could not afford to create a deity? Or because the writers believed Herne, Robin Hood's God, was no more than a divinely inspired shaman?
I wanted to know more about the legend: was the historical Herne a man who rose to legendary status? Or was he a God or Faerie spirit of the British forest?
The Bard of Avon Voted for the first option. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1597, Shakespeare writes:
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner
(Act IV, Scene IV)
Shakespeare's Herne is the ghost of a forester employed by King Richard II, who was said to have saved the king's life when the monarch was attacked by a white hart (a stag) in Windsor Forest. The legend tells us that forester was killed by the hart, but brought back to life by a shaman. Later he fell from the king's favor, and hung himself from a great oak tree which became known as Herne's Oak. The legend goes on to say that his ghost is seen riding through the forest, wearing the antlers of the white hart on his own head, accompanied by howling devil dogs and other beasts.
So Shakespeare says Herne is a ghost. But is this the description of a regular old ghost? It's pretty obvious that this is not just your average spook story: the antlers, the white hart, the shamanic rebirth, and the devil dogs all seem to point to Herne being much more than a simple specter.
There have been twenty-odd sightings of the ghostly Herne recorded by history. According to witnesses, Herne appeared in 1413 on the eve of Henry IV's death. In the Sixteenth century Henry VIII, his son the Duke of Richmond and the Earl of Surrey saw Herne leading the Wild Ride through Windsor forest, upon a great horse, blowing his hunting horn, followed by a legion of ghosts or spirits.
More recent stories of Herne are told of in the Windsor area, all sworn to be true. In 1856 two boys, William Fenwick and William Butterworth, were walking near Windsor Castle when they were offered a ride by a mysterious man in a horse drawn carriage. They passed out in the vehicle, and woke near Victoria Bridge, clear on the other end of the Park, with no memory of how they arrived there. Years later Fenwick was shown a museum drawing of a carved gargoyle said to be the “mask of Herne,” and swore it was the face of the man who offered him the ride.
In the 1960s, two local farm boys and one “teddy boy,” or London hipster, were said to have found a hunting horn on the floor of Windsor Great Park while playing there one day. The local boys urged the hipster to leave it alone, but the teddy boy blew into the horn, and it made a huge, gruesome sound. At that moment they heard howling and hoof falls cutting through the forest. The three terrified boys ran toward a nearby church, but the story tells of an invisible arrow fired by an unseen hunter. When the two farm lads looked back, the teddy boy lay dead a few yards from the church door.
And in 1976 a guardsman at Windsor Castle claimed to witness an antlered statue come to life and walk into the forest.
All of these legends and accounts have a few folkloric or mythic elements in common: the appearance of Herne as half human, half antlered beast; the wild ride through the forest; the blowing of a hunting horn; and the presence of Herne only in Windsor forest, near the location of a tree that locals call Herne's Oak, near Frogmore House in the Home Park (a tree that was felled in 1796, and was important enough in English lore to be replanted by Edward VII in 1906).
Could these folkloric elements point to Herne being a God, as most modern Pagans believe? Or a Faerie, who haunts the forest near Windsor castle just as the folkloric figure of Tam Lin haunts Carter Hall?
To begin to answer these questions, let's look at Herne's name. A few different theories have been posed on that old chestnut: one theory says that Herne is related to the Celtic God Cernunnos, and this theory says that the name is an English pronunciation of Cern. This is the theory held by most modern Pagans.
Cernunnos, the theory goes, is depicted as an antlered God of various beasts on the Gundestrup cauldron, an ornate cup dug up in Denmark in 1891 and estimated to have been made either by Celtic or Thracian craftsmen. However, the cauldron's layered metal workmanship is more reminiscent of Thracian work than of Celtic, and some of the beasts represented on the cauldron are elephants. The Celts of Gaul did not have a whole lot of elephants. It's much more likely that the cauldron was Thracian, made by an early European people who lived in what is now Bulgaria and northern Greece, and brought to Denmark by Vikings.
So maybe the picture on the cauldron was not Cernunnos, but a different antlered God, one who liked elephants. Still, Cernunnos was seen as an antlered God of the hunt. Could he be the basis of the Herne legend? Sorry, 'fraid not.
Cernunnos was a very localized God, only worshiped by Gaulic Celts in the area around modern Paris. For Cernunnos to find his way into the lore and worship of Saxon Windsor is highly unlikely. Modern readers need to remember that England is now and has always been a Saxon country, settled by Engle (Anglo) and Saxon Vikings from Denmark, and later conquered by Norman Vikings. While Celtic culture has certainly filtered its way in from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the Saxon English would not have worshiped a French Celtic God. Being hunters like the Celts, their Gods may have had similar features (antlers, a hunting horn, beasts), but they would have been different Gods, and the people who lived their lives in the worship of those Gods would have made a clear distinction.
Looking closer to home, another theory says that Herne comes from a name for Odin, who was sometimes called Herion when he led the Wild Hunt. This makes a lot more sense: Odin is an antlered Norse God, accompanied by beasts such as ravens and wolves. He hung from a great ash tree, reminiscent of Herne's Oak. It's very possible that a vestige of Herion's worship would have been preserved among Pagan Saxons hiding out in Windsor Forest; coming to know the God of that area, they might have called him by the name they knew, Herion, or Herne.
One final theory that I hold, which has never been explored, is that Herne is related to another localized forest God or spirit: Like Herne this figure used a white hart to bring a human into a bargain (Shakespeare's Herne used the white stag to make his bargain with Henry II); he is an underworld figure who commands a hunt and who has a pack of devil dogs at his command; He is associated with a specific forest area, Dyved in Wales. That figure is Arawn, who in the Welsh Mabinogion tricks the mortal king Pwyll into an otherworldly bargain by allowing Pwyll to hunt the white hart that Arawn's hell hounds have already chased. Arawn then sends Pwyll to his own world, Annwvyn, where the mortal will fight Arawn's enemy.
When spoken, Arawn has the same guttural sound as Herne, both of which are similar to the sound a stag makes to attract a mate. Bodies recovered from the peat bogs of Northern Europe were buried with a musical horn called a lur, a Viking instrument that sounded like the stag's call. The fact that the instrument was used in sacred burials shows us that this sound was associated with worship or mythic figures by the Saxons, so using the sound to refer to their hunting God is certainly feasible.
But if Herne is a legendary or mythic figure, leader of the Wild Hunt and and protector of the forest, one question remains: is Herne truly a God, or is he an Underworld Faerie?
It was very common in the years between Roman rule and Norman conquest, as England became Christian, for people to transfer myths of their old Gods to legends of Faeries. We see this with Mab, an underworld Goddess who became known as the Faerie Queen, and who was said, like Herne and Odin, to lead the Wild Hunt. In Ireland, Celtic Gods like the Dagda and Lugh fell into the annals of Faerie lore as well as Catholicism took hold.
But Herne and Odin both seem to have a separate set of stories, one the myths of true Gods, the other a set of legends of Underworld Faeries. Both Herne and Odin have localized identities, tied to a small area of land: for Herne it's Windsor Forest; in Odin's case, the cliffs of Møen, Denmark or Asbyrgi in Iceland, a canyon said to be made by the hoof print of Odin's horse. In Through The Faerie Glass, I suggest that Herne and Odin are each names shared by both a God and a local Underworld Faerie:
“One theory of Herne is that he is Wodin or Odin, not the God but the Swedish Faerie that leads Odin’s Ride. Another Saxon name for Odin is Herian, and from that came Herne. Odin hung himself inverted in an ash tree (the World Tree of Norse myth). This could be true of Herne and his oak. In some legends Herne the forester was hanged from Herne’s Oak.” (Through The Faerie Glass, Llewellyn 2010)
The Wild Hunt, which both Odin and Herne are said to lead in their respective 'hoods, are very specific to Faerie lore. In autumn, near to Samhain or Halloween, the Faeries ride through the forest gathering up the spirits of crops killed in the harvest and animals killed in the hunt. The Faeries will leads these spirits to the Underworld, where they will rest until spring, when colored eggs flowing on running water into the Underworld will wake the spirits and tell them it is time to be reborn. They will become the growing grain and the newborn beasts.
That Mab, Herne, and Odin all play such prominent roles in these legends shows that these are names for Faerie creatures, tied to a particular forested area, and to the life cycle of plants and animals in that area. As underworld faeries they interact with humans, and protect their little clump of land as faeries like Tam Lin and the Grimms' Beast have in many legends and tales. Disturbing the forest can summon them, as picking a rose did with Tam Lin and with the Beast, and as blowing a horn does with Herne. Iron, we are told, will banish them, as it will with any Faerie:
“It is said in Sweden that one may not see Odin’s Hunt, but one will hear his two hounds, one baying loudly and the other baying softly. One legend says a person can only protect himself by throwing iron between him and the dogs.” (Through The Faerie Glass, Llewellyn 2010)
So worship Herne as an antlered God, a protector of beasts, a leader of hunts. But if you walk through the forest at night and hear the baying of hounds or that hoof fall of a giant horse, that just might be Herne the Underworld Faerie, and you might be better off running away instead of sticking around to see what might happen. It won't be pretty.
And as for the mystery; ghost, Faerie or God? Maybe we have to content ourselves with the idea that Herne's name has been applied to one of each. We hope the forester's ghost finds rest in the forest of Windsor, the Faerie Herne has many more centuries of riding through Windsor Great Park, and Herne the antlered God lives on ever in our hearts.