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  • Herne the Hunter: the Twelve Basic Facts August 7, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    herne the hunter

    For the unacquainted Herne the Hunter is a southern English bogie, who haunted a tree in the park at Windsor Castle on the Bucks/Berks border. Almost all writing about Herne is overlaid with speculative points and useless comparisons. This post offers, therefore, an absolute basic version of the legend focusing hard on our early sources, the kind of thing that this blogger wishes he could have read when he started out on the horned one.

    Now the evidence for Herne the Hunter comes from three texts: (a) Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (which was probably written in 1597 and very possibly performed at Windsor in April of that year, but not properly published until the folio version in 1623); (b) a pirated version of the Merry Wives which appeared in print in 1602 (the quarto); and (c) a couple of sentences in Samuel Ireland, father of the famous Shakespearean forger, naughty William Shakespeare, the best part of two centuries later: Picturesque Views on the River Thames (vol 2, 16-17). After Ireland there is nothing about the local legends until the twentieth century.  The three sources are obviously of different value: hence the various points are lettered in relation to their source(s). The text for the three are included below as appendices.

    Let’s start now with some Herne basics.

    1) He was called Herne (a, c) or Horne (b).

    2) Herne had been a ‘keeper’, a ‘hunter’ or a ‘woodsman’ in the park (a).

    3) Windsor mothers used Herne the Hunter as a bogeyman figure to send their children to sleep (b).

    4) He walked around an oak: Herne’s Oak (a).

    5) Herne had hung himself on this oak, which he now haunted (c).

    6) He only appears around midnight in winter (a)

    And his appearance?

    7) Herne the Hunter carried antlers on his head (a) or even appeared in the form of a stag (b).

    8) He had a clinking chain (a).

    9) He blew on a horn (a).

    And what did he do?

    10) Herne the Hunter damaged his tree (a); or if we allow a textual emendation, trees generally.

    11) He terrified passersby (a).

    12) He put a blight on cows who gave blood in their milk (a).

    If we want to reconstruct the Elizabethan legend than, obviously, point (5) is suspect because it appears two centuries too late. It does sound, though, credible: Ireland may have picked up an old tradition that Shakespeare couldn’t fit into his rhymes.

    In the nineteenth-century there was a passionate debate about which oak in Windsor Park was Herne’s: there were several candidates and as none of these candidates add anything to the Herne legend we can happily leave the matter to others! However, the energy expended on the trees meant that Herne himself was rather forgotten. In the twentieth century there have been two approaches to Herne. First, there are the skeptics who claim or more commonly imply that Shakespeare made parts of the legend up. Second, there are the optimists who believe that Herne is a Celtic or Germanic hunting god.

    This blogger can ignore all writing on ‘horned gods’ simply because he is looking at the legend as it emerged in Windsor: but note that some of the speculation is pretty outlandish… He would, meanwhile, trust Shakespeare’s account because Shakespeare was writing the Merry Wives on commission for Queen Elizabeth the First and Herne the hunter was the bogey of Windsor Castle. There are also a series of details Shakes gives, that are rather unusual and are not what a sixteenth-century playwright would have made up about a ghost. Jennifer Westwood particularly has claimed (for example in Lore of the Land) that Herne does not feel like a normal British ghost. She is right. He does not. The antlers, and the ‘blasting’ are rather intense. But there are other examples from British folklore of this kind of evil, hurting spirit (and they were probably more common in the 1500s). Herne is rare, then, not unique. Jennifer Westwood also makes the suggestion that perhaps Herne was given antlers so that the play’s villain Falstaff (who dresses up as Herne) would go to the tree and look like a cuckold – cuckolds have ‘horns’. Here we enter the entrails of the play and Shakespeare’s plotting, but the logic does not, particularly work as Falstaff is trying to cuckold: he is not a cuckold. It does allow, though, one of those brilliant ‘unfunny’ and yet hilarious British puns. Mistress Ford on rejecting Falstaff states that she will not sleep with him ‘but I will always count you my deer.’ Love that.

    Any other Herne basics: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Appendix One: Merry Wives, Folio

    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 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.

    [note there are other references in Act four and Act five that I have not included but that you can easily find!]

    Appendix Two: Merry Wives, Quarto

    Oft have you heard since Horne the hunter died,

    That women to affright their little children

    Say that he walks in shape of a great stag.

    Appendix Three: Samuel Ireland

    The story of this Herne, who was keeper of the forest in time of Elizabeth, runs thus: That having committed some great offence, for which he feared to lose his situation and fall into disgrace, he was induced to hang himself on this tree. The credulity of the times easily worked on the minds of the ignorant to suppose that his ghost should haunt the spot.