Herne the Hunter came onto my radar as a young schoolboy when, sat in front of the telly on a Saturday tea time, I watched Robin of Sherwood back in the 1980s. Here, Robin, Marion and the villagers prepared to meet the mysterious spiritual protector Herne deep in the woods and pay homage to him for the harvest. A sense of mystery descended as the strains of Clannad played in the background, and a tall, dark, hooded and horned being stepped through the swirling fog billowing through the trees. You’ll have to watch the show to find out what happens next, but that, coupled with the now blindingly obvious usage of the phrase “blessed be” would sow seeds into my unconscious that would germinate in the decades to come.
Using the two scopes I mentioned in Part 1, let’s begin our brief exploration of Herne using the mythopoeic scope…
The first written account of Herne comes at the turn of the fifteenth century in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor which alludes to the legend that possibly existed in oral form before then but we cannot state this for certainty:
“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 radd’g 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….
… Why, yet there want not many, that do fear
In deep of night to walk by this Herne’s Oak.”
There’s nothing further written about Herne until a couple of hundred years later when Samuel Ireland writes a story in which Herne ends up hanging himself in remorse for a heinous crime.
According to Porteous in his book The Forest in Folklore and Mythlogy, Herne was one of the keepers of Windsor forest during the reign of King Richard II. Porteous then recalls the story written by William Harrison Ainsworth in Windsor Castle (1842) (available free on the Amazon Kindle). In Ainsworth’s story, Richard Horne (Herne) owned two black hounds of the St Hubert breed, and was held in high esteem by King Richard II because of his great knowledge of woodcraft and incredible skill in hunting. Being favoured and talented often brings about jealousy in one’s peers who began to plot his downfall. One day whilst hunting, King Richard’s life was saved by Herne who took the hit of a very infuriated stag, and appeared to all purposes dead. A tall, dark stranger appeared who called himself Philip Urswick, offering a cure after being approached by the king to heal Herne. The cure sounds quite magical – cut off the head of the stag and bind it upon the head of Herne. The cure seemed to work, but as Herne was recovering, Urswick reneged on his promise to look after Herne after consultation with the other keepers, declaring to them that although Herne would recover, his skills would be lost.
Sure enough, Herne recovered and, having been appointed chief keeper found himself unable to carry out the tasks he used to do due to his lost skills. King Richard sacked him from that position, and Herne in despair hanged himself upon an Oak tree. His body mysteriously disappeared but oddly the successors to his role also lost their skills. The keepers sensed that magic was afoot and consulted Urswick to remove the spell. Urswick informs them that a blood curse was upon them because of Herne’s death and in order to break it, they they needed to go to the Oak to learn how. So, the keepers went to the tree where Herne’s spirit appeared to them telling them to bring horses there the following evening. They return the following evening whereupon Herne appears, leaps onto one of the horses and orders them to follow him, which of course they do. Arriving at a beech tree Herne invokes Urswick who appears out of the tree as a flaming figure saying he’ll break the curse but only if they form a band of loyal followers of Herne. Again the group of keepers follow the instructions and the end up ravaging the forest on a nightly basis, plundering it of the deer stocked in there. King Richard is obviously not impressed and learning of the occurrences at the Oak takes it upon himself to meet the spirit of Herne there. Richard meets the vengeful Herne who says he’ll stop plundering the forest deer if Richard hangs the gamekeepers turned poachers. After Richard’s death, Herne and his band reappear during the subsequent reign of eight monarchs. I suppose the moral of this story is that once you start on a road which leads to the death of an innocent, you end up becoming embroiled in the web which eventually traps yourself.
“Whoever digs a pit will fall into it,
and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.”
Another darker version has Herne as a forest demon attempting to get keepers to sell their souls to him.
Herne is said to lead a wild hunt through the skies on All Hallows Eve. His association with the wild hunt stems from Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm fame), whose scholarly research brought together many accounts of a wild hunt, including one led by the Norse god Odin in their publication Deutsche Mythologie (1835) and whose work is the origin of the phrase “Wild Hunt”.
Exploring Herne through an empirical telescope, we have documented evidence of the shamanic practice of wearing the skins of the animal whose spirit / powers one wishes to contact / take upon. We also have evidence of the traditional hunting practice of wearing the skin of an animal in order to take upon the scent of an animal and mask one’s human scent. One can see that the idea of a horned hunter in the forest could be mingled with observations of certain shamanic practices and added to the mystery and wonder of folklore to create an archaetypal Green Man.
Herne is associated with the oak in Shakespeare’s play. The original one claimed to be the one he hanged himself fell one stormy night on August 31st 1863. It was replaced by a young oak by Queen Victoria which was removed in 1906 due to replanting of the area. Herne’s name was given to one of the oaks that replaced Queen Victoria’s oak and can still be visited today, but bear in mind that it’s only in its infancy, so anyone pointing out a very large and ancient oak, claiming it to be Herne’s Oak is mistaken.
Although Herne’s origins are found in relatively modern English folklore, his horned nature led Margaret Murray in The God of the Witches to describe him as a localised deity linked with another, more ancient horned character, Cernunnos (whom we shall explore later). One can begin to see other links forming which have contributed to some classifying Herne as a nature god. For instance, Windsor is in the county of Berkshire which once belonged to the Saxons, some of whom worshipped Odin. Stories of Odin include being hanged on a tree and the wild hunt from Jacob Grimm, which appear in the folklore of Herne.
Although there are quite a few differences, Herne has a number characteristics which fit with the life of Jesus:
- Subject to injustice through jealousy of others.
- Dies upon a tree – in Herne’s case an oak tree.
- Present and yet unperceived by those who are not aware of him.
- A spirit being who can manifest in the physical.
- A spiritual leader who does battle in the heavenly realms.
Our exploration of Jesus and the Green Man continues in part three as we investigate Robin Hood.