Herne–The Hunter, the Ghost, the Witches’ God

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Herne the Hunter by Angie Latham (Pinterest).

The earliest written record that mentions “Herne” the hunter-god-ghost is William Shakespeare’s play 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.

Who Is Herne?

Herne is said to have killed a sacred stag belonging to the Abbess of Bordesley Abbey. In consequence, he was compelled to ride the night sky with his hunt. Strange really when you look into who Herne really is and the fact that there never was an Abbess of Bordesley Abbey!

Herne is portrayed as a wild, ghostly man with antlers, an ancient Pagan God from long before Christianity known as Cernunnos.

Cernunnos is a horned god found in Celtic mythology. He is connected with male animals, particularly the stag in rut, and this has led him to be associated with fertility and vegetation. Depictions of Cernunnos are found in many parts of the British Isles and western Europe. He is often portrayed with a beard and wild, shaggy hair — he is, after all, the lord of the forest.

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Cernunnos depicted on an ancient Celtic cauldron (Wikipedia).

With his mighty antlers, Cernunnos is a protector of the forest and master of the hunt. He is a god of vegetation and trees in his aspect as the Green Man, and a god of lust and fertility when connected with Pan, the Greek satyr. In some traditions, he is seen as a god of death and dying, and takes time to comfort the dead by singing to them on their way to the spirit world.

In Margaret Murray’s 1931 book, God of the Witches, she posits that Herne the Hunter is a manifestation of Cernunnos. Because he is found only in Berkshire, and not in the rest of the Windsor Forest area, Herne is considered a “localized” god — and could indeed be the Berkshire interpretation of Cernunnos. During the Elizabethan age, Cernunnos appears as Herne in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. He also embodies fealty to the realm, and guardianship of royalty.

In some traditions of Wicca, the cycle of seasons follows the relationship between the Horned God–Cernunnos–and the Goddess. During the Autumn, the Horned God dies, as the vegetation and land goes dormant, and in the Spring, at Imbolc, he is resurrected to impregnate the fertile goddess of the land. However, this relationship is a relatively new Neopagan concept, and there is no scholarly evidence to indicate that ancient peoples might have celebrated this “marriage” of the Horned God and a mother goddess.

Because of his horns (and the occasional depiction of a large, erect phallus) Cernunnos has often been misinterpreted by fundamentalists as a symbol of Satan. Certainly, at times, the Christian church has pointed to the Pagan following of Cernunnos as “devil worship.” This is in part due to nineteenth century paintings of Satan which included large, ram-like horns much like those of Cernunnos.

herne-the-hunter-john-lenz

Artist unknown (Pinterest).

Today, many Pagan and Wiccan traditions honor Cernunnos as an aspect of the God, the embodiment of masculine energy and fertility and power.

Both Shakespeare and Samuel Ireland identify Herne as a real historical individual, the latter saying that he died an unholy death of the type that might have given rise to tales of hauntings by his unquiet spirit. The fact that Herne is apparently a purely local figure supports this theory. One possibility is that Herne is supposed to be the ghost of Richard Horne, a yeoman during the reign of Henry VIII who was caught poaching in the wood. This suggestion was first made by James Halliwell-Phillipps, who identified a document listing Horne as a “hunter” who had confessed to poaching. The earliest edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor spells the name “Horne”.<

–Other Images: Pinterest/Wikipedia.

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