Folktale Friday: Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter is a spectral huntsman said to haunt Windsor Forest in Berkshire, England.

Materialising at midnight and fond of hanging out by a huge oak tree while wearing stag horns on his head (because a hat is apparently not good enough for him), Herne the hunter is famous for scaring the bejeezus out of anyone lurking in the woods after dark.

He also turns milk into blood…for some reason.

Well that’s my latte ruined.
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

But where did Herne come from?

It’s believed that Herne and his acts of milk related terrorism first appeared in Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the play, a character provides a description of the former gamekeeper who at midnight doth:

Walk round about an oak, with great ragged 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.

William Shakespeare,
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Act IV, Scene IV

Although not actually a character in the play, Herne’s mention in it is significant because it marks the first time the legend was documented in print. Some even believe it was Shakespeare who invented the forest dwelling phantasm. Because adding over 1700 new words to the English language wasn’t enough for him, I guess.

Who are you trying to impress, mate?
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

However, there is a possibility that Herne the Hunter existed long before Shakespeare wrote about him. After all, folklore and the creatures that populated it were part of the oral storytelling tradition. Tales of “haunted forests” were told hundreds of years before the Bard and for very practical purposes, like warning children about the dangers of wandering too far from home.

So why were people talking about Herne in the first place?

Firstly, it’s important to note that, unlike other supernatural woodsmen of European folklore, Herne exclusively haunted the forests of Berkshire. And what should be in those forests, but one Windsor Castle.

Built in 1070 as the royal residence for William the Conqueror, the castle is famous for its proximity to London, its 13 acre grounds and its royal hunting forest, chock-full of game both big and small.

Photo by cmonphotography on Pexels.com

A forest so large and teeming with life (most of it edible) must have been incredibly tempting to the average (and dirt-poor) Londoner. This would have been especially true during the Victorian period when poverty and malnutrition were rampant and when the legend of Herne experienced something of a resurgence.

But why resurrect a ghost?

  • Fashion:

Although they were known for progress, secularisation and mass industrialisation, the Victorians were also incredibly superstitious and fond of seances, spiritualism and spooky goings on. The idea a ghostly huntsman would have been right up their sooty, rat infested alleys.

But Herne may also have been plucked from history to:

  • deter poachers:

Hunting, which had consistently kept food on the tables for many Britons, became a risky and confusing endeavour in the 1800s thanks to the Game Laws. These were a set of rules which were as baffling to hunters as a game of Quidditch is to everyone but the most ardent Harry Potter fan.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Unable to determine what constituted legal hunting and what didn’t, hunters in Victorian England often found themselves poaching on private land, such as the Queen’s backyard.

While Windsor Castle had guards and gamekeepers it’s unlikely they would have been able to police the 13 acres of Windsor Forest effectively. So it’s possible that the legend of Herne the Hunter was brought back from the undead to scare off potential poachers. A kind of supernatural security system, if you will.

So what was Herne’s actual threat level?

Other than turning cow’s milk to blood, which is just gross, minimal. He mainly just frightened people. Although with those horns he could probably have your eye out.

What have we learnt?

A loyal royalist, Herne the Hunter was an oddly-dressed, forest-dwelling English bogeyman man, who, at least according to Shakespeare, had a real problem with milk. He may also have been used in lieu of a KEEP-OUT sign during a period in history when people couldn’t read good.

Or, maybe I’m reading too much into it.

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

https://www.rct.uk/sites/default/files/Windsor_Castle_Fact_Sheet.pdf

https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/g/game_laws.html

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-merry-wives-of-windsor/about-the-play/dates-and-sources

Wright, Gregory. “Herne the Hunter.” Mythopedia. Accessed on January 18, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/celtic-mythology/gods/herne-the-hunter/.

Rural and Urban Poaching in Victorian England: https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/4191/1/win1.pdf

https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/shakespeares-words

https://www.victorian-supernatural/#:~:bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-text

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