Herne the Hunter

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Herne with his steed, hounds and owl, observed by the Duke of Richmond and the Earl of Surrey, in Harrison Ainsworth's Windsor Castle, illustrated by George Cruikshank, c.1843.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He has antlers upon his head.

The first literary mention of Herne is in William Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor, though there are several theories attempting to place the origins of Herne as predating any evidence for him by connecting his appearance to pagan deities or ancient archetypes.

Herne has appeared in various books, TV series and other media since his first mention by Shakespeare.


For such an iconic figure, there is surprisingly little written evidence for Herne the Hunter before the 1840s.

Shakespeare as the earliest source merely describes Herne the Hunter as "a spirit" and "sometime a keeper … in Windsor forest" who is seen to "walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns" at midnight during winter-time.

Two hundred years later in 1792 Samuel Ireland slightly expands on Shakespeare as follows: “The story of this Herne, who was keeper in the forest in the 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.”[1]

William Ainsworth’s romantic novel Windsor Castle which began serialisation in 1842 contains a fictionalised account of the origins of Herne the Hunter set during the reign of Richard II. This fabrication was popular with the Victorians, and has come down to the present day as being the legend.


The earliest written account of Herne comes from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1597:

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.
— William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

This records several aspects of Herne's ghost which is said to have haunted Windsor Forest (covering all of East Berkshire and parts of south Buckinghamshire, northeast Hampshire and northwest Surrey) and specifically the Great Park ever since his death. Further details have entered local folklore from reported sightings, such as those in the 1920s.[2] He appears antlered, sometimes beneath the tree on which he was hanged, known as "Herne's Oak", but more often riding his horse, accompanied by other wild huntsmen and the captured souls of those he has encountered on his journey. He has a phosphorescent glow and is accompanied by demon hounds, a horned owl and other creatures of the forest.

Herne's Oak

Herne's Oak

The supposed location of Herne's Oak was, for many years, a matter of local speculation and controversy. Some Ordnance Survey maps show Herne's Oak a little to the north of Frogmore House in the Home Park (adjoining Windsor Great Park). This is generally believed to be the correct site from which the oak of Shakespeare's time was felled in 1796.

The legend of the oak was looked into by her son, King Edward VII and a new oak planted on the site of the tree that was felled in 1796.

In 1838, Edward Jesse claimed that a different tree in the avenue was the real Herne's Oak, and this gained in popularity especially with Queen Victoria. This tree was blown down on 31 August 1863, and Queen Victoria had another tree planted on the same site. The Queen's tree was removed in 1906 when the avenue was replanted.

Possible origins

Various theories have been proposed to account for the origin of the character, none of which has been proved conclusive, and the source for many of the tales told of Herne remain unknown.

Palæolithic origins and relationship with the Celtic Cernunnos

In his 1929 book The History of the Devil – The Horned God of the West Herne R. Love Thompson suggests that "Herne" as well as other Wild Huntsmen in European folklore all derive from the same ancient source, citing that "Herne" may be a cognate of the name of Gaulish deity Cernunnos in the same way that the English "horn" is a cognate of the Latin "cornu" (see Grimm's Law for more details on this linguistic feature) explaining that "As the Latin cornu changes into horn so might Cerne change into Herne." and adding "In any case the reader may also be prepared to recognize Cernunnos and the older magician, who emerge as the Wild Huntsman. My assumption is that these two forms have been derived from the same Palæolithic ancestor and can, indeed, be regarded as two aspects of one central figure, will help us to understand the identification of Herlechin and Herne, whom I will take as the most familiar example of the huntsman.".[3] Some modern Neopagans such as Wiccans accept Lowe Thompson's equation of Herne with Cernunnos (which they further connect to the Greco-Roman god Pan).[4] Herne however is a localised figure, not found outside Berkshire and the regions of the surrounding counties into which Windsor Forest once spread. Clear evidence for the worship of Cernunnos has however been recovered only on the European mainland, and not in Britain.[5] "Herne" could be derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root, *ker-n-, meaning bone or horn from which "Cernunnos" derives.[6] However a more direct source may be the Old English hyrne, meaning "horn" or "corner",[7][8][9] which is inconsistent with the Cernunnos theory.[10]

Anglo-Saxon deity

In the Early Middle Ages, Windsor Forest came under the control of the pagan Angles who worshiped their own pantheon of gods, including Woden, who was sometimes depicted as horned,[11][12] and whose Norse equivalent Odin rode across the night sky with his own Wild Hunt and hanged himself on the world tree Yggdrasil to learn the secret of the runic alphabet. It has been suggested that the name Herne is derived from the title Herian,[13] a title used for Woden in his role as leader of fallen warriors (Old Norse Einherjar).[14][15][16][17] Another Wild Hunt-associated folkloric figure, King Herla, started as the Old English Herla cyning, a figure that is usually said to be Woden, but was later re-imagined by Walter Map in literature as a Brythonic king (see Herla article) who after travelling to an Otherworld returns to find his lands inhabited by Englishmen, has a name that has also been connected to Herian and thus also possibly to Herne.[18]

Historical individual

Both Shakespeare[citation needed] and Samuel Ireland identify Herne as a real historical individual, the latter saying that he died an unholy death of the type that might have given rise to tales of hauntings by his unquiet spirit.[1][non-primary source needed] The fact that Herne is apparently a purely local figure supports this theory. One possibility is that Herne is supposed to be the ghost of Richard Horne, a yeoman during the reign of Henry VIII who was caught poaching in the wood. This suggestion was first made by James Halliwell-Phillipps, who identified a document listing Horne as a "hunter" who had confessed to poaching.[19] The earliest edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor spells the name "Horne".[20]

Post-Shakespearean adaptations


  • Arrigo Boito, composing a libretto for Verdi's opera Falstaff by improvising upon materials in Merry Wives and Henry IV, built the moonlit last act set in Windsor Great Park around a prank revenge played upon the amorous Falstaff by masqueraders disguised as spirits and the spectral "Black Huntsman", in whom Herne the Hunter is recognisable. Carlo Prospero Defranceschi wrote a similar libretto for composer Antonio Salieri that specifically mentions Herne.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams' opera Sir John in Love, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Merry wives, feature an impersonation of Herne the Hunter to misguide Falstaff.
  • "The Legend of Herne the Hunter" was part of Sir Arthur Sullivan's ballet Victoria and Merrie England of 1897, which portrayed various scenes from British folklore and history.
  • In the light opera Merrie England by Sir Edward German (1902), the librettist Basil Hood introduces another impersonation of Herne as a device to induce a change of heart in Queen Elizabeth I.
  • One of the earliest recordings by British progressive rock band Marillion is an instrumental song titled "Herne the Hunter" based on the legend.
  • Herne is a track on the 1984 LP "Legend" by Clannad.
  • Herne the Hunter features in the lyrics of the song "English Fire" by Cradle of Filth on their album Nymphetamine.
  • On the 2008 Album, "Blessings" by S.J. Tucker a song is titled "Hymn To Herne.
  • Singer-songwriter Kenny Klein has written and recorded two different songs about the legend of Herne, one of which, "Herne's Oak", is featured on the soundtrack of the documentary "Deep Down: A Story From The Heart" by Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin.
  • In 2011 the pagan metal band Herne released an album called Face of the Hunter, "inspired by the 1980s TV series 'Robin of Sherwood'";[21] the album introduction describes the famous falling whole tone motif that occurs in each episode.
  • "Herne" is the feature song for the mythy folk musician, Lily Herne, in her debut album "HART" (released August 2012).
  • British black metal band Old Corpse Road, known for the English folklore themes in their music, released a song entitled "Herne of Windsor Forest" on their June 2016 album "Of Campfires and Evening Mists" [22]


  • William Harrison Ainsworth's Victorian romance of Windsor Castle featured Herne and popularised him.
  • Herne the Hunter appears in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence where he plays a key part in the end of the book by the same name and the series' ending Silver on the Tree.
  • Herne the Hunted is a parody of Herne the Hunter in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. He is a small god and the patron of those animals destined to end up as a "brief, crunchy squeak."
  • Herne the Hunter is a key figure in Ruth Nichols' children's novel The Marrow of the World. His character has no supernatural attributes.
  • English Poet Laureate John Masefield included Herne the Hunter as a benevolent 'spirit of the woodlands' in his children's book The Box of Delights.
  • Herne made an appearance in the Bitterbynde trilogy by Cecilia Dart-Thornton. In these books Herne is portrayed as a powerful "unseelie wight" by the name of Huon who leads his hellhounds in search of the main protagonist.
  • Herne the Hunter appears as a supporting character in Simon Green's Nightside series. He actually appears on the cover of "Hex and the City" (Book 4), although his role in the actual novel is rather inconsequential.
  • Herne the Hunter is one of the main antagonists in C. E. Murphy's Urban Shaman.
  • Herne is the Deer God in the book Fire Bringer, by David Clement-Davies
  • Herne the Hunter, also named as Cenneros, is a character in Michael Scott's series of The Alchemist, the Immortal Secrets of Nicholas Flammel.
  • In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, in the book Cold Days (novel), the Erlking is referred to as "Lord Herne."
  • Herne the Hunter is a character in the book "Hunted" (novel) which is part of the series "The Iron Druid Chronicles" (Book 6) by, oddly enough, Kevin Hearne.
  • Herne the Hunter is the Monster in the book "A Monster Calls" written by Patrick Ness.
  • Herne the Hunter of the Mers and consort of the queen, also known by the title "Starbuck", in the 1980 novel The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. Won the Hugo award for best novel in 1981 and also nominated for the Nebula award that same year.
  • Herne the Hunter is one of the major arcana cards in Chrysalis Tarot.

Other references

  • Herne was incorporated into the Robin Hood legend in the 1984 television series, Robin of Sherwood. In it, Robin of Loxley is called by Herne to take on the mantle of "the Hooded Man", which Robin's father had predicted beforehand. It is Herne who encourages Loxley to become 'Robin the Hood' and to use his band of outlaws to fight for good against the evil Norman oppressors. Herne's appearance bears a very strong resemblance to the illustrations that previously depicted him, in that an otherwise unnamed shaman character, portrayed by actor John Abineri, dons a stag's head and tells Robin that "when the horned one possesses [him]", he becomes the spirit of the forest. Herne featured in 17 of the 26 episodes of the series and was shown to have various magical abilities. The series' adaptation of the Robin Hood mythos has become extremely influential and many of its brand-new elements have since been reinterpreted in a manner of different ways in nearly all of the subsequent films and television series of the legend.
  • Herne the Hunter is also featured as a guiding character in John Masefield's novel The Box of Delights and the 1984 BBC TV adaptation.
  • Herne is a forest spirit in issue No. 26 of the Green Arrow comic book series.
  • In 2010, Herne the Hunter appeared in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure Leviathan, a "lost" story from the Colin Baker years (an unproduced script from the 1980s).
  • In Lesley Livingston's 2008 debut novel, Wondrous Strange, Herne is an ancient hunter and former lover of Queen Mabh who now owns the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, New York City.
  • A person playing Herne the Hunter appears in comic book Hellboy: The Wild Hunt.
  • A deer-headed huntsman named Herne appears in Ursula Vernon's Hugo-award-winning webcomic Digger.
  • The Danish band Wuthering Heights published a song called "Longing for the Woods Part III: Herne's Prophecy" on their album Far From The Madding Crowd in 2004, and Erik Ravn also said "Herne protect you!" at the end of their live show at the ProgPower festival in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 2004.
  • Herne was featured in an independent British horror movie entitled "Call of the Hunter" produced in 2009. In the summer of 1962, three teenagers went on a camping trip into Herongate Woods. What started out as a fun trip ended in a nightmare as one of the boys met with a tragic death. The other two escaped, but could only relay a tail of a hooded and horned man who terrorized them. Forty years later, Caroline (one of the survivors) meets with a mysterious and tragic death. Ralph now the only survivor returns to the scene of the original incident with a documentary crew. As he relives the unfortunate episode the past catches up with him as the hooded man returns and the spirit of the forest is awoken with chilling consequences.
  • The Bloodmoon expansion for the fantasy computer RPG The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind includes a key character called Hircine the Hunter, a horned deity clearly heavily influenced by Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos.
  • Herne is mentioned and used as a character in the book Hunted by Kevin Hearne. Hunted is the 6th book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.
  • Two Magic: The Gathering cards; Master of the Hunt and Master of the Wild Hunt are direct references to Herne.
  • In the Wild Cards series of books, Dylan Hardesty is a mutant who becomes Herne the Huntsman at night, an 8-feet-tall stagman with the power to induce rage and bloodlust in all those who listen to the call of his horn, and to summon the Gabriel Hounds.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ireland, Samuel (1792). Picturesque Views on the River Thames.
  2. R. Lowe Thompson, The History of the Devil 1929 p. 134
  3. The History of the Devil by R. Lowe Thompson, 1920, page. 133
  4. 'Simple Wicca: A simple wisdom book' by Michele Morgan, Conari, 2000, ISBN 1-57324-199-7, ISBN 978-1-57324-199-1
  5. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, People of the Mist (chpt 5)
  6. https://sites.google.com/site/gmgleadall/radices-linguarum-celticarum
  7. Shipley, Joseph Twadell. 'Dictionary of Early English'. Philosophical Library, 1955. Page 330.
  8. http://rodneymackay.com/writing/pdf%20files/worldmyth.pdf
  9. Bosworth, Joseph.A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language, Containing the Accentuation—the Grammatical Inflections—the Irregular Words Referred to Their Themes—the Parallel Terms, from the Other Gothic Languages—the Meaning of the Anglo-Saxon in English and Latin—and Copious English and Latin Indexes ... Published by Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1838. Page 189.
  10. Petry, Michael John (1972). Herne the Hunter: A Berkshire Legend. William Smith (Booksellers) Ltd. ISBN 978-0-9500218-8-1.
  11. http://www.catshaman.com/s21edda2/09Eddagods2.htm
  12. hesternic.tripod.com
  13. Matthews, J. The Quest for the Green Man. Published by Quest Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8356-0825-5, ISBN 978-0-8356-0825-1. Page 116
  14. Spence, Lewis. Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine. BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2007. ISBN 1-4346-2755-1, ISBN 978-1-4346-2755-1. page 68
  15. De Berard Mills. Bardeen, C.W.'The Tree of Mythology, Its Growth and Fruitage: Genesis of The Nursery Tale, Saws of Folk-lore, etc'. 1889
  16. De Vries, Eric. 'Hedge-Rider: Witches and the Underworld'. Pendraig Publishing, 2008. ISBN 0-9796168-7-5, ISBN 978-0-9796168-7-7
  17. Greenwood, Susan.' The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness'. Berg Publishers, 2005. ISBN 1-84520-095-0, ISBN 978-1-84520-095-4. Page 120
  18. http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/hunt.htm
  19. Hedley, Windsor Castle, 93.
  20. Jeffrey Theis, The "ill kill'd" Deer: Poaching and Social Order in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.1 (2001) 46–73.
  21. http://www.kingpenda.com/herne
  22. http://www.oldcorpseroad.co.uk/releases/of-campfires-and-evening-mists

External links