Would the Real Herne the Hunter Please Stand Up
by Andrew Collins
For those who, like me, were avid watchers of the HTV television series Robin of Sherwood you will accept that the primary old English lord of the forest was Herne the Hunter. He was the one in the huge stag's head and horns dressed in a shabby, often cowled brown robe. Robin Hood, the viewers were told, had been the earthly incarnation of this woodland deity who was even referred to as Herne's son.
Herne's obvious ancestry is easy to recognise. In Romano-British mythology he was Cernunnos, the Lord of the animals who led a ghostly wild hunt and, as a fertility deity, he symbolised the male impregnation and rejuvenation of the feminine land of the great mother.
Cernunnos' name is Latin for the Horned One, the embodiment of which was to be found presiding over witches' Sabbaths in ancient times. Under this guise he also became the medieval church corbels and capitals, and the source behind many Green Man public houses scattered across the country. Some might even say that he was the prototype for the Robin figure, the hooded man who guards and preserves the spirit of the forest and was the rebel pagan within the English race.
All of this we should already know and agree upon. Yet what about the figure of Herne himself. What was his real origin? Was Herne merely a transition of the word Cerne, meaning horn in Latin? Was it a name adopted to describe the sounds made by red deer at dawn and sunset, as has been claimed? I feel that we need to find out as Herne the Hunter has now gone on to become the most popular name used for the Celtic forest deity, not just in Britain, but across the world. Recently I heard of an 'ancient Celtic church' merrily channeling him through out in sunny California. So who is this Herne the Hunter we have deified?
To my knowledge the one main reference to Herne the Hunter stems from the pages of Shakespeare's work The Merry Wives of Windsor which was first performed on St George's Day, 23rd April 1597, at the Garter feast of Windsor. St George's chapel at Windsor Castle is the home to the monarch headed Order of the Garter which, itself, is riddled with pagan and mystical overtones. Herne is mentioned in lines quoted by the character Mistress Page who says: There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter, Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, still at 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.
The play was inspired by local people, local places and local traditions, so it is safe to assume that such a legend once surrounded this mighty oak which was once situated in the Windsor great forest and formed part of the royal estate. All deers themselves being the property of the crown and linked with the archaic Oak King ceremonies of folkish tradition.
In 1792 a gentleman named Samuel Ireland wrote of Herne's Oak in his Picturesque View on the River Thames. He drew his source from The Merry Wives of Windsor and spoke of Herne as a real keeper in the forest during Elizabethan times who was said to have haunted the tree after his death. In 1790 the original tree had died and six years later its trunk was accidentally pulled down during a general clearance of the Great Park by order of King George III. No wonder he went mad!
By the nineteenth century the oral legend of Herne had taken on dramatic features. The story went that Herne or Horne in some accounts(the English for the Latin 'Cerne') had been the king's huntsman in the great park. He had also been a man skilled in the art of woodcraft. One day he was out haunting with the king when a stag tried to gore the king. Brave Herne stood before his monarch and the stag mortally wounded him and killed itself in the process. From out of a nearby Beech tree came a wizard named Phillip Urwick who prescribed a means of reviving the wounded Herne back to health. He told the king to fix the dead stag's horns upon the huntsman's head, which he did, binding Herne to an Oak for support. He survived and became the favourite huntsman of the king.
Urwick tended Herne back to full strength in his hut. Two other huntsmen became jealous of Herne's role to the king and decided to frame him. Herne ended his life by hanging himself from his oak, yet his spirit was restless. Urwick impelled the two rival huntsmen to ride with Herne forever and thereafter sounds of this wild hunt have been heard throughout the Slough and Windsor areas. These have included sites at Cookham and at Huntercombe Manor which may well have taken it's name from Herne's epithet.
A new Herne's Oak replaced the old one at the beginning of the twentieth century, and on several occasions it is claimed that Herne the Hunter has been seen by observers, usually in association with the birth, death or fall of a Monarch. This once again ties him to the death and rebirth cycle of the Oak King, Green King or Green man traditions. Interesting then to consider that the English dragon-slaying saint St George was dedicated to sites once revered as places of Mayday fertility practices. His actual feast day is, of course, 23rd April which has come to be associated with the Celtic festival of Beltane, Bel in Biblical legend being another traditional slayer of a dragon.
One of Herne's last recorded appearances took place in 1962. A group of youths are said to have found a huge hunting horn in the great park one night and, inevitably, blew upon it. Their call was immediately answered by a similar call, as well as the sounds of hounds baying nearby. Herne himself then appeared riding a jet-black horse and wearing enormous ragged antlers. Terrified, the youths threw down the horn and ran for their lives (that would be a nice artefact to lay your hands on, eh!).
On other occasions his horn has been heard, as have the eerie sound of spectral horses' hooves and dogs baying. All these accounts whether accurate or not, clearly show Herne in his role as leader of thew Wild Hunt, a role often assumed by other folk heroes such as King Arthur, Gwyn up Nudd and the Norse sky-god Woden, or Odin. Indeed the curious figure of Urwick, Herne's saviour, seems to be a form of Woden, in his role as Grim, the disguised old man who walks the forests at night.
All this is straight forward western mystery tradition material, and although we need not believe that Herne was a mere discarnate spirit who got tangled up with some pretty heavy archetypal mythology, his legends and appearances in Windsor Great Park hardly qualify him as a god in his own right.
Nowhere else to my knowledge preserves similar Herne traditions, suggesting quite clearly that Herne is purely a misrendering of Cerne, and is therefore the Romano-British god Cernunnos, pure and simple.
Is it that easy? Or did the figure of Herne, as Lord of the forest, leader of the Wild Hunt and Lord of the Animals have roots elsewhere? There are links to Woden, yes, embodied in his Herne's Oak legend, but is there more?
A quick glance across a detailed map of Kent and Surrey quickly brings to light at least three Herne place names. We can see Herne Bay and Herne on the Thames estuary, and Herne Hill on the outskirts of London. Upon consulting a book on the etymology of place-names we find that the root 'herne' is considered to derive from the word 'heron', as in the large bird of this name. The conclusion on the part of the etymologists is that these locations quite obviously once housed Heronries; a logical conclusion, one might assume.
Realising this made me recall place-names in Essex with the prefix heron, as in Herongate and Herons Hall, near the town of Brentwood. They too, as I soon discovered, were once considered to have contained now vanished heronries. One must therefore sit back for a moment and ponder upon the locations of these water-based heronries, since the nearest expanse of water, the River Thames, is several miles to the south of Brentwood.
On the other hand, there is an alternative to the heron explanation, and one which will catapult us along our path in search of Herne the Hunter.
During 1980 a psychic girl I knew well, named Alison, accompanied me on a walk through some local woods, near to my parents home in Wickford, in Essex. On my suggestion she carried out a spontaneous, inspired invocation which ended with her squatting in a meditational state within a crude circle of sticks and stones. Afterwards she came up to me - for I was not allowed to take part or observe what was happening, due to her shyness towards magic - and told me that a man by the name of Heron had spoken to her. Upon asking her for his description, all she could say was that he was handsome.
Curious as to the identity of this woodland spirit, I took time to find any references too him in texts relating to European folklore. I was rewarded graciously. In the Balkans, particularly in the region of Thrace, a great number of stone monuments have been found on which is carved the bas-relief of a horseman known as the Thracian Rider. They have been discovered in Roman sanctuaries mostly, and the seated figure is generally shown wearing a trailing cape, as if indicating speed of movement. He is seen wielding either a club or a double axe, and some Roman scholars have suggested that he may represent the classical sun god, Phoebus. However, many of the monuments bear the names Heros and Heron. Additionally he is sometimes shown with other riders chasing a boar. Through this imagery and the possible root of the names Heros and Heron, it is considered that the Thracian Rider may well have been a Roman hero god, similar with the Roman Mars and the Greek Hercules, as well as being a hunter god.
Altars to Heron have been found in western Europe as the Roman cavalries adopted him as a patron deity, and therefore transmitting his cult across the continent. Some of the Heron imagery brings us dangerously near to accounts of the wild hunt. Chances are that Heron would have reached this country with the Roman legions and thereafter was absorbed within localised deities such as Cernunnos and, later Woden/Odin. Alison,s encounter with Heron (and I will assume it is the same one), along with the local Heron place names do indicate that this was so. In particular that heron was revered in the south-east counties such as Essex, Kent and Surrey. Herongate is only seven or eight miles from Wickford.
We must also not forget the Herne place names in Kent which were originally recorded as Heron. Did Heron, the original east European Thracian Rider become the Herne in later Old English pagan traditions? The image of Heron as a rider wielding a club, along with the speculation that he was a hero god, such as Hercules, and more importantly, Mars may also be of relevance. For although Mars is accepted to have been a god of war and warriors, he was originally a god of vegetation, forests and fertility. He is often shown as a rider with a club and was sometimes given the epithet 'Olloudius', meaning 'great tree'. Another of his titles was 'Rigismus' meaning, 'greatest king' and he is sometimes depicted wearing horns as the symbol of virility and manliness, yet he wields a club which suggests fertilisation with the feminine land under forced will. The place name Cerne is almost certainly a rendition of the Latin word for horn and may be a direct allusion to Cernunnos as well.
Back now to Mars. By far his most important epithet in association with his links to Heron is 'Rigonemetis' - which means of the Sacred Grove. Is this a reference to his forgotten role as Lord of the Forest? Lastly there is Mars Toutatis, a god that combines Mars with a Gallish god Toutatis, who is also equated with the Roman Mercury, and who has been seen psychically as an archer holding a bow and arrow. The arrow is another male symbol of strength and potency, like the lance or spear, which is used to pierce by flight the white hart, a representation of Elen, the goddess of the land, who in some traditions leads the wild hunt into her sacred grove. The archer may therefore be associated with the leader of the wild hunt and must surely be linked to the Robin Hood archetype as the spirit of the forest.
In consequence there might well be a direct link between Robin Hood and Herne through Toutatis, which will please Richard Carpenter, the writer of the Robin of Sherwood television series. At the end of the day it would appear that the Herne the Hunter who haunts Windsor Great Park is a fusion between the old Romano-Celtic god Cernunnos, the Norse god Woden/Odin and Heron, the forgotten hero god of the hunt, known as the Tracian Rider.
As a little postscript to this article I will now come to the events which drew my interest to Herne in the first place. Back in June 1990 an unexpected psychic message to a friend of mine named Debbie indicated that we should visit a place being referred to as 'the gate of Heron, the Forest King.' She was unaware of Heron's identity and, what was more, the information came as we stood beneath the tower of All Saints' church, Rettendon, in Essex, only a few miles from the location where, exactly ten years before, Alison had first introduced me to the name Heron.
I promptly recognised the location concerned as Herongate, which added weight to my personal belief that the area derived its name from Heron the deity, not the bird. An immediate visit to the locale produced some promising confirmations. Within the tiny village we located at least two ancient Herne place-names, one as a lane name and the other as a housing estate. To our amazement we also saw that the village is centred around a public house called The Green Man, which is the most obvious face of the King of the Forest!
So why was Herongate the place refered to as the Gate of Heron? Well, it just so happens that the other side of Herongate is the village of Horndon-on-the-Hill. Etymologically speaking, Horndon translates as 'the hill of the horn.' In the past this area was deep withion the desne forests that stretched from Epping Forest right across to the edge of south-east Essex, so it is possible that both Herongate and Horndon were once ancient cult centres to the worship of the Horned One.
So the next time that someone mentions Herne the Hunter as if they are on first name terms with him, be sure to correct them. It should be Heron, not Herne!
Strange Berkshire. Edited by Amanda Cowley, Chris Cowley and Alan Cleaver. Strange Publications, 1986. ISBN 095105810
Herne from the HTV series Robin of Sherwood.
Herne's Oak .
Heron by Yuri Leitch, taken from the cover of ASH Magazine, no. 12.