Jul 202013

William Shakespeare sometimes interestingly features Goddesses and Gods in his canon of plays, often enough that they can be put together into a series-

 Hern the Hunter

Cruikshank’s 1843 illustration of Hern the Hunter

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.”

Depiction of Falstaff as Hern, with the Merry Wives, from 1832

Depiction of Falstaff as Hern, with the Merry Wives, from 1832

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.

Feb 232013

Appearance of Hern the Hunter

“There is an old tale goes, that Hern the Hunter (sometime a Keeper here in Windsor Forest) doth all the winter-time, 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.” -The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act IV, scene iv, lines 28-38)

Statue of Hern

Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597) is famous for relaying the legend of Hern the Hunter, which as he tells us, is “an old tale,” well-known to the play’s Windsor audience, “received and delivered” to the then-current age of the late 16th century “for a truth” by the “superstitious, idle-headed eld”- or elderly people, who will preserve through recounting the antique stories of the past, in as nice a definition of oral folk-cutlure as one might imagine. Apparently there is little documentation for Hern before Shakespeare’s comedy (I have decided that I like to spell the name “Hern,” so as to more accurately present its pronunciation, rather than the misleading “Herne,” which seems to imply an extra syllable on the end); Shakespeare assures us, however, that the legend of Hern is heavily ingrained in Windsor folk-lore, and it seems only fair to take him at his word. He also informs us that the legend of Hern is localized around a specific oak tree- apparently once a specific oak, regrettably felled at some intervening point in history, and now confusingly replaced by a couple of faux-Hern’s Oaks.

What legend we have inherited concerning Hern- beyond Shakespeare’s assertion that he is a “Spirit,” who once was a “Keeper” in Windsor Forest, or a sort of Park Ranger as we might think of it- tells us that he was unjustly murdered somehow, and that his vengeful Ghost roams the Great Park of Windsor, hunting down Evil-Doers, and kind-of concurrently protecting the Royal Family from harm (due to the function of Windsor Castle as a summer residence for the monarch, Windsor is very much associated with the monarchy). It is possible to come across what Americans would call “ghost stories” concerning the appearance of Hern, and the various nuances of his backstory become fascinating to consider: (1) surely a folk-memory of (my guess) some form of local Celtic Horned Deity, centered around a specific oak (which are otherwise associated with Druids), (2) or else some species of Anglo-Saxon Horned Deity, who functions much like the Leaders of the Teutonic Wild Hunt, (3) who for being a Keeper, or someone who “keeps” the Forest, would seem to have some Green Man in his Being, intensely identified with the woodlands, (4) as well as one who, for being supernaturally “born” through trauma, is both a Ghost of vengeance and protection. (The similarities between Hern and Batman, both driven in reaction to cruelty and corruption, and both signified by horn-like appendages on their heads, are interesting to me.)

Conclusion to Merry Wives at Hern’s Oak, featuring costumed Faeries and Falstaff lying surprised

What additionally intrigues is that Shakespeare ascribes “a dance of custom round about the Oak of Hern the Hunter,” which takes place at midnight, and which must not be forgotten. (Act V, scene v, line 80) This curiously implies a tradition, or as the script says, a “custom,” which for involving (1) the performance of a Ring-Dance (necessary if one is to dance “round about” an oak), as well as (2) the hour of midnight, which is otherwise associated with Witchcraft, in addition to (3) a specific tree, which suggests bygone Pagan Forest-Worship, (4) and apparent customs of costuming and disguising like Faeries or other Otherworldly Spirits, which recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all in the honor of (5) a Horned Pagan Forest-Deity of some kind (I find that I cannot “read” Hern any other way): all adds up to an oddly Pagan custom, apparently preserved at Windsor, and more than a little reminiscent of medieval Witchcraft.

Odd early 1900s shot of English Village Ladies, dressed in “Old Time” garb; perhaps the Windsor Witches looked something like this

All of which becomes very pertinent in considering The Windsor Witches of 1579, which predate Shakespeare’s play by some twenty years, and which like The Merry Wives of Windsor, are indisputably located in Windsor. The Witches of Windsor are remarkable, in that they appear to have formed a Coven, complete with a “Mistress Witch,” or what we would call a “High Priestess” (which individual seems to have possessed two different names, one of which is suggestive of a “Witch’s Name”). Their group comprised some of the local Cunning-Folk and had regular meeting-spots around the Windsor area, and is unusually recorded in two separate accounts- neither of which mention Hern’s Oak, or “Dances of Custom” around it at midnight (an hour also apparently favored by the Witches of Windsor). However- if Shakespeare’s play in the late 1590s associates Windsor villagers with midnight Ring-Dancing around a special Tree identified with a local (antlered) Forest-Spirit (as it does); why might we not equally associate the Windsor Witches of the late 1570s with the same midnight Ring-Dance, the same supernatural Tree, and the same Horned Deity? In which case- Witches, dancing in a Ring, around a specialized Oak Tree, at Midnight, in honor of a Horned Pagan God: that’s pretty close to what Margaret Murray described as the “Witch Cult of Europe.”