Of all the old horned gods, none has such confused origins as Herne.
He became a modern star in "Robin of Sherwood" on British television in the early eighties, as the shamanic mentor of Robin the Hooded Man, and this seems to be how everybody remembers him. In the series he is portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon hunting god, but this author can find no reference to such a god (even though there must have been one).
It is interesting that several generations of consonantal drift could very easily shorten Cernunnos to Cern, and then soften it to Hern. It is therefore highly probable that these two horned gods are related.
Whatever his lost origins as a deity, his origin as a folk myth is much better known.
"The Merry Wives of Windsor"
Act 4 Scene 4
Bill finished his play in 1597, and for local colour added the above reference to what must have been a well known local legend. No earlier reference to Herne is known to exist, but many versions appeared later variously embellished. The most detailed (not necessarily the most authentic) was in W Harrison Ainsworth's novel "Windsor Castle", written in 1843, which went roughly as follows...
In the reign of King Richard II (1377-1399) there worked in the King's estate of Windsor Forest a particularly competent young keeper called Herne. Human nature being what it is, the other less competent keepers resented him somewhat. One day whilst out hunting the King was thrown from his horse and was about to be gored by a stag when Herne stabbed it in the throat, getting fatally gored himself. As he lay dying a mysterious stranger appeared calling himself Philip Urswick and offered to cure him, and the king agreed. Philip also secretly agreed with the other keepers that he would see to it that Herne lost all of his skill if they would agree to his next request.
Philip then cut off the stag's antlers and skull and tied them to the dying man's head, prescribing plenty of rest. The king rewarded him with silver and gold, and mysterious Phil returned home to Bagshot Heath.
Sure enough Herne recovered his health, although the antlers became permanent, but he also lost all of his marvellous skill. So the king sacked him. Bloody typical. Poor Herne rode off demented into Home park, and was last seen by a pedlar later that same day hanging from an oak tree, but by the time he returned with the other keepers the body had mysteriously vanished. That night Herne's Oak was struck by lightning.
Now a curse seemed to fall upon the other keepers, rendering them even more incompetent than before. They consulted Urswick who told them to go to Herne's Oak at midnight, and when they did so Herne's ghost, complete with antlers, appeared to them, and ordered them to return the next night with horses and hounds, ready for the hunt.
The next night the keepers returned as ordered, but when Herne reappeared he promptly rode off through the forest, forcing the keepers to follow in pursuit. After a wild ride they suddenly stopped to find Urswick before them, and they owed him a favour. He commanded the (still living) keepers to ride with Herne's Wild Hunt forever.
And so they did, meeting every night at Herne's Oak before riding forth with the horned ghost, causing no end of trouble every night, killing deer, vandalising park benches, and generally being unpleasant. Finally the king had had enough, and went with them to confront the shade of his ex-employee. When challenged Herne said that he rode for vengeance, and promised to haunt no more during the king's reign on condition that he hung the other keepers from the very oak where he died. Needless to say, Dicky wasted little time on that executive decision, and they were all hanged the following day.
And so after King Richard II's abdication in 1399 Herne and his Wild Hunt rode forth down all the centuries, even down to our own, collecting the souls of the dead.
After "The Merry Wives of Windsor" became a smash hit Herne's Oak became a local tourist attraction, until in 1796 it was chopped down due to an administrative error. Its remains were turned into souvenirs (see right). Herne, however, continued to haunt the park as ever, and there were even stories of how, on a dark and stormy night, the ghost of the actual tree itself could be seen, haunting the spot where it was felled.
Other oaks were planted on various nearby sites, all suspected to be the original, and in 1906 King Edward VII planted the current one. Unfortunately it is difficult to visit because it is now inside the royal enclosure in The Home Park, just North of Frogmore.
There are dozens of local stories, supposedly all true, of sightings of Herne around Windsor. This is just one of them.
One day two local Windsor youths and a Teddy boy were playing truant in Windsor Great Park. (Note: Teddy boys were a kind of delinquent British sub-culture in the fifties and sixties.) They were up to the usual no good, breaking trees and generally fooling around, the local youths being led on by the Ted.
The troublesome trio were in an area of forest when the Ted noticed a curious old hunting horn hanging from a tree, and immediately picked it up. The local youths, knowing something of the legend, told him to put it down and walk away, so as an act of bravado instead, he blew upon it. All three immediately heard the sound of baying hounds, and horses crashing through the trees, close by and getting closer.
The local boys threw themselves to the ground and covered their eyes, and told the Ted to do the same, as the sounds of the hunt drew ever nearer. In no time the deafening racket was all about them, and it was all they could do to stay still while the thud of horses hooves and snarls of great dogs were all about their heads. One of the youths sneaked a look at his companion, who's eyes were screwed tightly shut, then the Teddy boy, just in time to see him panic and turn to regard the source of the din all about them. The Ted's eyes widened in fear, and he began to scream, at which the other lad buried his face once again in the soil and prayed. He heard the sound of a single arrow being loosed and striking its target, and then the noise began to fade, until the forest was quiet once again.
When they finally got to their feet the forest was as quiet as before and the two lads were safe, but the Teddy boy had vanished, never to be seen again.
Europe abounds with stories of The Wild Hunt, and Herne is just one of the Wild Huntsmen. Others include Arawn the Welsh god of the dead, Charlemagne, Frederick the Great, King Arthur, the saxon god Woden, the early British King Herla, The Devil, Sir Francis Drake, Father Christmas and Odin. The origins of the widespread legend of The Wild Hunt are so buried under centuries of mythic detritus that they will never be known.
What is known for certain is that a remarkably consistent image
exists in the mythic subconscious of Europe: the image of the wild,
nocturnal, horned huntsman, his coming announced by the baying of his
hounds and the blast of his horn above the din of the storm, in search
of souls to carry away.
Is this Herne ?
Was Herne once a European hunting god who also carried souls to the underworld ? Or is he just a local ghost that haunts Windsor ? Here is another creepy story, but this time all the facts are a matter of public record.
In 1487 the last Keeper of Windsor Great Park (and therefore a successor of Herne himself), one William Evingdon donated a building to the parish of Windsor, "for the good of his soul". This property was opposite the parish church on Windsor High Street, and it became the vicarage. About 450 years later in the early 1930s the vicarage was moved to Park Street, and during the move workmen dug up a strange object.
It was a carved stone head of something not quite human. It had the face of a man, including a moustache, but the ears and antlers of a stag. The eyes were deepset and fierce.
many theories as to
its origin. It may have been
part of a gargoyle or some other grotesque church ornament, and indeed
it has been described as looking something like the carved stone Green
Man faces which decorate many churches. Some suggested that it had last
belonged to William Evingdon, and that it was passed on from Keeper to
Keeper as some kind of tradition, or symbol of office. It became known
as The Mask of Herne.
It first became the property of a Mr
Bayley who owned it until the church claimed it back in the late
thirties, when it was put in the garden of the new vicarage in Park
Street. It seems to have been left there
after the 2nd World War when the vicarage was sold and the mask placed
in the church museum, where it remained until 1963 when it was stolen.
In spite of its spell in a museum, the only image of this object
that this author can find is the sketch to the left, made by Michael Bayley, the son of the man
who owned it during the mid thirties. This is the sketch that Michael
Bayley presented to Eric Fitch
during his research (see further
So, come on, own up. If you are reading this page you are very
likely the sort of person who would take an interest in an ancient
horned god cult object, and it is just possible that you, yes YOU
know where it is. If you do, you can tell
me. I just want to see it, touch it and draw it.
Pleeeeez ? I swear on
God's Horns not to tell the Old Bill. The last place it belongs is in a
Christian Church museum.
There is a creepy epilogue to this story.
One day in 1856 two young boys, William Fenwick and William Butterworth, were offered a lift by a stranger driving a horse and carriage. He took the two Williams to Albany Road, near Park Street, where they became drowsy and passed out for no apparent reason. They woke up several hours later in The Home Park itself by Victoria Bridge, and could not remember how they got there. The police became involved but nothing ever came of the investigation, and it was put down to an eccentric kidnapping or childish imagination. (Does this remind you at all of UFO abductions ?)
When the The Mask of Herne was dug up in the 1930s William
Fenwick, now an old man, was shown a photograph of the stone head, and
said that he was in no doubt that the face in the stone was the same
face as the man who had kidnapped him and his friend nearly 80 years
before. Presumably minus the horns.
"In Search of Herne the Hunter" by Eric L. Fitch (Capall Bann Publishing, ISBN 1-898307-18-0)