Herne the Hunter


Herne the Hunter
   In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), two women decide to make a fool of Falstaff by getting him to disguise himself as a ghost at midnight in Windsor Park, where:
   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 ragg'd horns; And there he blasts the trees, and takes the cattle, And makes milch kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
   In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
   (iv. iv)
   An inferior text of 1604 has different lines here (unlikely to be by Shakespeare), including the idea that the ghost is used as a *bogey:
   Oft have you heard since Horne the hunter dyed, That women, to affright their little children, Says that he walkes in shape of a great stagge.
   Shakespeare was probably referring to authentic legends which the local audience would have known; a tree in Windsor Park was pointed out as 'Falstaff's Oak' or 'Herne's Oak' till it was cut down in 1796. A replacement was planted in 1906.
   There is no other early information about Herne/Horne, but in 1792 Samuel Ireland added that he had been a gamekeeper who hanged himself on the oak; this would be a good reason for him to haunt it, and the rattling chain is a standard feature too. Other details are unusual; Herne's powers of blasting trees, 'taking' (i.e. bewitching) cattle, and making cows' milk bloody is more like witches or malevolent fairies than ghosts. Nor do ghosts usually appear as semi-stags, even in forest areas. Shakespeare could have invented the antlers just to make Falstaff look ridiculous; planning to cuckold others, he is tricked into wearing *horns himself.
   Attempts have been made to link Herne with other folkloric figures. Jacob *Grimm suggested he was a leader of the *Wild Hunt, an interpretation followed by many; however, the essence of the Wild Hunt is that it rushes wildly from one place to another, often in midair, which does not match Shakespeare's account. Others have associated Herne's antlers with those carried by dancers at *Abbots Bromley, speculating that he was a character in some midwinter custom involving animal disguise. Others have connected his name with the ancient Celtic horned god Cernun-nos, even though it is a quite common medieval surname. Shakespeare's text gives no warrant for any of these ideas.
   In the 20th century, a tradition has grown up that Herne is seen before national disasters or the deaths of kings, and a fair number of people have reported personal experiences of hearing his horn or hounds (Harte, 1996: 31-2).
   ■ Westwood, 1985: 72-6; Petry, 1972; Jeremy Harte, At The Edge 3 (1996), 27-33.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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