William Shakespeare sometimes interestingly features Goddesses and Gods in his canon of plays, often enough that they can be put together into a series-
Frequently when Shakespeare includes Deities in his plays, They are Classical Ones reflecting the Latin education received by Elizabethans; sometimes, however, he features native British Divinities- as is the case with Hern the Hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597). There is dispute whether Hern represents a version of the Celtic Cernunnos, or perhaps an Anglo-Saxon identification of one of the Wild Hunt leaders- in which case, Hern was assimilated into British mythology at such an early date, from the Elizabethan perspective, that He counts as basically a native figure. Situated in Windsor, the site from which the Royal Family takes their name, Hern is an exceptionally localized Deity, and indeed Mistress Page’s speech describing His legend constitutes a huge part of our understanding of Him (it is rare to find discussion of Hern that does not quote the speech, as representing His primary account).
According to Mistress Page, Hern was once an actual person, a “keeper” of Windsor Forest (something akin to a Park Ranger). Further legend states that Hern was murdered one night by wicked men, causing His ghost to return, roaming the woodlands and seeking vengeance upon evil-doers (Hern is a little like Batman). Hern’s signature emblem is the impressive set of stags’ antlers that he bears on top of his head; if you check out “Herne the Hunter, images,” you will find some fantastic artwork and photography inspired by the Horned Forest Lord. The tale that Mistress Page recounts in Act IV (scene iv) is as much a spook-story as it is a local legend, kept alive by oral folk-culture.
“There is an old tale goes that Hern the Hunter, sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest, doth all the wintertime, at still midnight, walk round about an oak, with great racked 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 received and did deliver to our age this tale of Hern the Hunter for a truth.”
In (Act V, scene v), Falstaff enters in the potent disguise of a male deer, according to stage directions, “with a buck’s head upon him.” At the least, Falstaff is wearing a pair of antlers, in order to impersonate Hern, the Personification (or Deification) of a stag. He goes on to describe himself in a speech that includes Classical allusions to horny Deities, as well as references to himself as Hern, representing the Stag-Lord of the forest in a rutting mood. “The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now the hot-blooded Gods assist me! Remember, Jove, Thou wast a bull for Thy Europa; love set on Thy horns. O powerful love! that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast! You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent Love! how near the God drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast. O Jove, a beastly fault! When Gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag, and the fattest, I think, in the forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? My doe? My doe with the black scut? Am I a woodman, ha? Speak I like Hern the Hunter? Why, now is Cupid a child of conscience; he makes restitution. As I am a true Spirit, welcome!”
In summary: Falstaff has been set up to think that he is meeting the Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Page and Mistress Ford) for a menage a trois rendezvous in Windsor Forest (the menage a trois relationship; who knew it was in Shakespeare?) This is why he is strutting around Windsor Forest wearing the deer’s antlers of Hern and talking about Jupiter “getting it on”: he thinks he’s going to get laid. The other Windsor villagers, however, have wised up to the con-artist knight’s scheming, and are preparing to ambush him by pretending to be the Wild Ride of Faeries, into whose path Falstaff has intruded. (The Merry Wives of Windsor can be read as “Falstaff gets punked; Elizabethan style.”)
At this moment, the Windsor villagers (disguised like Faeries) leap out at Falstaff, swarming all over him in the guise of outraged Faeries, pinching him in the manner of Fays, and burning him with their tapers. Basically, Falstaff “becomes” the stag, hunted to the ground by his vengeful fellow citizens. Having taught the rude knight a lesson, the Windsor folk remind one another, “but till ’tis one o’clock, our dance of custom round about the oak of Hern the Hunter, let us not forget,” a very interesting reference (I think) as it implies a customary circle-dance around a specialized tree during the proverbial Witching Hour of midnight, in honor of a Horned Forest God- something both ancient, Pagan, and Witchy all at the same time.