Herne the Hunter is a great English ghost, a specter who haunts the Berkshire woods and countryside. Rattling chains and tormenting animals, he is marked by the antlers upon his head and the horse he rides. A popular folk tale, he first appears in writing in William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, though his historical origins remain open to speculation.
The origins of the name Herne are as shrouded in mystery as the specter himself. One such origin suggests a link to the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, as rendered by the Latin cerne, or horned. Through Grimm's Law, cerne can become herne, and thus mean “horned.” Alternately, Herne could be a corruption of Hernian, a title of Wotan, Germanic god of the dead and the Wild Hunt.
Another theory suggests that Herne was in fact a real person whose name was changed by Shakespeare, as Herne appears as “Horne” in some earlier drafts, connecting him to an obscure historical yeomen of Henry VIII's time.
Herne is a specter, a ghost that haunts Windsor Forest of Berkshire, now called Windsor Great Park. He haunts a particular tree, called Herne's Oak, and terrorizes the wildlife of the wood there. He is known by the rattling of chains and ghostly moans that precede him, and by the giant deer antlers upon his head. Some depictions show him wearing a deerskin hood upon which the antlers sit, but in the original Shakespeare depicts the antlers coming from his head.
His ghostly powers involve the decay of the natural world. He can destroy a tree with a touch, causing it to wither and die. He can bewitch cattle, causing them to produce blood instead of milk. In later legends he has a horn and hounds, and his appearance can mark national disasters and major deaths.
The character of Herne is hard to know, in part because his appearance rarely involves interaction. His cruelty came from his death by suicide, rather than facing the shame of his crimes. His terrorizing of animals may be related to this great shame, for in later legends, he was a poacher in the king's wood at the time of Henry VIII.
The identity of Herne's Oak at Windsor Great Park has been a matter of great debate for centuries. Several trees have been identified. Most of these trees no longer stand or the originals have been replaced, some of them felled by storms. The tree currently most well-known as Herne's Oak was planted in 1906.
Herne the Hunter first appears in Shakespeare, but has since taken on a life of his own, representing a myth of unknown origin or age.
It is unknown how much of the story of Herne predated The Merry Wives of Windsor. It seems likely that Berkshire had stories of ghosts or gods in their woods, as this would have been a common trope going back to Antiquity. But without a written record it is impossible to know what existed before Shakespeare wrote his play, and how much is extrapolation by scholars and writers after the fact.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
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.
Herne's first appearance in written record is in the 1597 Merry Wives of Windsors, where he is a cautionary tale told to scare off young children from the woods near Windsor. A ghost who terrorizes animals and people, unlike later depictions he does not ride a horse but instead haunts a single tree. In some versions of the story he is “Horne,” suggesting a real-life link to Robert Horne, a yeoman and poacher in the time of Henry VIII. Despite surfacing in later legends, this is his only appearance in the play.
In the time since The Merry Wives of Windsor, scholars and novelists have added to the legend and attempted to discern its origins. Scholar Samuel Ireland suggested that Herne's death must have been unholy for him to become a haunt of the woods, in line with the idea that Herne took his own life. Mythologist Jacob Grimm connects Herne to the Anglo-Saxon version of the Germanic legend of the Wild Hunt, perhaps as its leader.
The 1843 novel Windsor Castle by William Harrison Ainsworth made Herne popular outside of the theater world, expanding on his legend. In this version, Herne was gored by the stag he hunted, and in classic Faustian form, the Devil appeared and offered Herne his life, on the condition he wear the same stag's antlers on his head. He did so, and continues to haunt the woods near Windsor Castle to this day. This story popularized the legend so much that the Victorian public spent time trying to discover which tree was Herne's Oak, with even Queen Victoria weighing in on the topic.
Herne then began to appear to people, and in the 20th century his appearances had special meaning. Not only might he appear or moan and groan, but hounds and a horn were added to his repertoire as signs of his approach. These appearances forecasted natural disaster and the death of the reigning monarch, perhaps in a somewhat apocryphal manner.
In Other Mythology
While it is impossible to know exactly what Herne might have been prior to his appearance in Shakespeare, scholars have attempted to deduce a connection to larger Celtic and Germanic legend.
His horned appearance and connection to animals is not unlike Cernunnos, an obscure and mysterious Gaulish deity of wild places who may have had a following in Berkshire prior to Christianity. Similar to Herne he has horns protruding from his head, but unlike Herne he is a defender of nature, not its destroyer.
A theory favored by Jacob Grimm claimed Herne was related to Odin, Norse god of the dead. Among the Germanic tribes that made their way to England, he was Wotan, who led the Wild Hunt to collect souls of the dead for his army. Wotan had the title of Herian, head of the Hunt. Unlike the Norse Odin, Herne and Wotan both have horns on their heads.
The popularity of Herne in the Victorian period runs parallel to the rise of the horned demon-god Baphomet among occultists, making Herne perhaps a tamer option in popular fare. Like many horned deities, Herne is now a popular figure among folk revivalists and neopagan movements, particularly in England.
Since Shakespeare, Herne has taken on a life of his own, appearing in a wide range of popular culture, including:
- Herne appears in the 1980s series Robin of Sherwood, as a character who inspires Robin to take up the title of “the Hooded Man.” He is a shaman who anoints the two different Robins in the series and helps the Merry Men in their quest against the Normans. The show's soundtrack, made by Irish band Clannad, includes a track called “Herne” that appears on their album Legend;
- Herne appears as a character in several books and series, including the Dresden Files, the Wild Card series, Jane Yolen's The Wild Hunt, The Dark is Rising series, Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorne series, the Immortal Secrets of Nicholas Flamel series, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, the Iron Druid series, and Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen;
- A satirical version of Herne appears in the Discord series, as Herne the Hunted. A god of small woodland animals that are hunted, he himself is also hunted and must be cunning in order to avoid his own demise;
- In addition to Clannad's song, other songs about or referencing Herne include “English Fire” by Cradle of Filth, “Hymn to Herne” by S.J. Tucker, Marillion's “Herne the Hunter”, Wuthering Height's “Longing for the Woods III: Herne's Prophecy”, and several operas that adapt The Merry Wives of Windsor, including ones by Carl Otto Nicolai and Ralph Vaughan Williams;
- In comics, Herne has appeared Marvel, DC, and Hellboy.
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. 1597. Accessed 25 February 2019, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/merry_wives/full.html.
Ainsworth, William H. Windsor Castle. 1843. Accessed 25 February, 2019, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2866/2866-h/2866-h.htm