Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter

In English mythology, Herne the Hunter is an equestrian ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire.

The legend

Herne is said to have been a huntsman in the employ of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) in and around Windsor Forest. He saved the King's life when he was attacked by a cornered white hart, but was mortally wounded himself in the process. A local wizard brought him back to health using his magical powers, which entailed tying the dead animal's antlers on Herne's head. In return, however, Herne had to give up his hunting skills. The other king's huntsmen framed him as a thief. As a result he lost the favour of the king. He was found the next day, hanging dead from a lone oak tree. That same oak tree is in the Home Park at Windsor Castle.

The ghost

The earliest written account of Herne comes from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in 1597::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.:You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know:The superstitious idle-headed eld:Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,:This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth. ::— William Shakespeare, "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

This records several aspects of Herne's ghost which is said to have haunted Windsor Forest (covering all of East Berkshire and parts of south Buckinghamshire, northeast Hampshire and northwest Surrey) and specifically the Great Park ever since his death. Further details have entered local folklore from supposed sightings. He appears antlered, sometimes beneath the tree on which he was hanged, known as "Herne's Oak", but more often riding his horse, accompanied by other wild huntsmen and the captured souls of those he has encountered on his journey. He is thus a phantom of ill omen, particularly for the country and, specifically, the Royal Family. He has a phosphorescent glow and is accompanied by demon hounds, a horned owl and other creatures of the forest.

Herne's Oak

The supposed location of Herne's Oak was, for many years, a matter of local speculation and controversy. Some Ordnance Survey maps show Herne's Oak a little to the north of Frogmore House in the Home Park (adjoining Windsor Great Park). This is generally believed to be the correct site from which the oak of Shakespeare's time was felled in 1796. Queen Victoria, unfortunately, had a replacement planted on a different site. This new tree fell in a gale in 1863 when carved mementoes were made from the timber, including a cabinet for the Queen. The bungle was, however, corrected by her son, King Edward VII, who planted the current Herne's Oak in 1906. [Petry, 1972.]

Possible origins

It is frequently claimed that Herne is a manifestation of the Celtic Horned God. This idea is largely based on connecting his name and appearance with Cernunnos, a deity known from both Britain and Gaul, but by name only from the latter. This is in accordance with Grimm's law and was one of the many theories put forward by Margaret Murray in her 1931 tome "The God of the Witches." Herne is a very localized legend not found outside Berkshire and the regions of the surrounding counties into which Windsor Forest once spread.

In the Dark Ages, Windsor Forest was settled by pagan Anglo-Saxons who worshipped their own pantheon of gods, including Woden who rode across the night sky with his own Wild Hunt. He also hanged himself on an ash tree in order to learn the runic alphabet, but whether this story of Woden provided a non-Celtic source for stories of Herne, or was itself a Saxon adaptation of the original Celtic deity, remains unknown. This kind of cultural intermingling appears to have happened with another Wild Hunt-associated mythological figure, King Herla.

Janet and Stewart Farrar, in "The Witches' God", claim that the name 'Herne' is an onomatopoetic word representing the call of a doe to a stag.

Herne could be the Anglo-Saxon version or pronunciation attempt of Cernnunos - considering that "-os" is usually dropped over time, plus, following the Germanic rules, the "C" becomes "H" (possibly from Indo-European "*ḱer-", 'horn') - or Herne may originate from the Old English for 'horn'. However, this seems to be unlikely, considering that the name Cernunnos did not exist outside of the Paris area [Ronald Hutton, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy", People of the Mist (chpt 5)] , although depictions of horned-gods did exist in the isles.

Post-Shakespearean adaptations

*William Harrison Ainsworth's Victorian romance of "Windsor Castle" featured Herne and popularised him.
*Arrigo Boito, composing a libretto for Verdi's opera "Falstaff" by improvising upon materials in "Merry Wives" and "Henry IV", built the moonlit last act set in Windsor Great Park around a prank revenge played upon the amorous Falstaff by masqueraders disguised as spirits and the spectral "Black Huntsman," in whom we recognize Herne the Hunter. Carlo Prospers Defranceschi wrote a similar libretto for composer Antonio Salieri that specifically mentions Herne.
*Herne was portrayed as a pagan priest and embodied spirit of the woods in the British television series "Robin of Sherwood".
*Herne the Hunter appears in Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence where he plays a key part in the end of the book by the same name and the series' ending "Silver on the Tree".
*Herne the Hunted is a parody of Herne the Hunter in Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series. He is a small god and the patron of those animals destined to end up as a "brief, crunchy squeak."
*Herne the Hunter is a key figure in Ruth Nichols' children's novel "The Marrow of the World". His character has no supernatural attributes.
*English Poet Laureate John Masefield included Herne the Hunter as a benevolent 'spirit of the woodlands' in his children's book "The Box of Delights".
*Herne made an appearance in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Cecilia Dart-Thornton. In these books Herne is portrayed as a powerful "unseelie wight" by the name of Huon who leads his hellhounds in search of the main protagonist.
*Herne the Hunter appears as a supporting character in Simon Green's "Nightside" series.
*Herne the Hunter is one of the main antagonists in C. E. Murphy's "Urban Shaman".
*Herne the Hunter is Monster in My Pocket #59.
*Herne the Hunter features in the lyrics of the song "English Fire" by Cradle of Filth on their album "Nymphetamine".
*Herne was the Deer God in the book Fire Bringer, by David Clement-Davies
*Herne is a deer-headed guide in Ursula Vernon's webcomic Digger.


*Fitch, Eric (1994). "In Search of Herne the Hunter". Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 978-1898307235.
*Petry, Michael John (1972). "Herne the Hunter: A Berkshire Legend". William Smith (Booksellers) Ltd. ISBN 978-0950021881.


ee also

*Horned God
*Green Man
*Jack in the green

External links

* [http://www.berkshirehistory.com/legends/herne01.html Royal Berkshire History: Beware the Ghostly Hunt of Herne the Hunter]
* [http://www.mystical-www.co.uk/herne.htm Mystical Worldwide Web: The Legend of Herne the Hunter]
* [http://www.afallon.com/stories/herne.htm Haunted Britain & Ireland: Herne the Hunter]

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