Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
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--

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter appears as a ghost rider with antlers on his head who is seen at night throughout Windsor Park in Berkshire.  Sometimes he is hunting and other times he is  simply standing and watching, but he is alwas armed with a bow and a quill full of invisible yet devastating arrows that could instantly still a man’s beating heart.  According to legend, Herne, one of Richard II's royal huntsman, saved the king's life by throwing himself in front of a wounded stag that was charging the monarch.  

It was then that a wizard appeared and told the king that he could save Herne by cutting off the stag's antlers and tying them to Herne's head.   It worked and Herne recovered.  Richard, indebted to Herne, showered the hunter with rewards.  This made the other huntsman jealous, and they eventually, by framing Herne for theft,  convinced the king that he must oust him from his court.  Herne, in despair, hanged himself from an oak tree. 

But it is said that every night he returned to head a ghostly hunt, and it is said that as he travels through the night, the mournful blast of his hunting horn has been said to wither foliage, kill livestock and even cause distant cows  milk to run with blood. At times he travels on horseback, accompanied by a pack of hounds and sometimes also by a screech owl. Pagans see Herne is a manifestation of the ancient  Horned God, Cernunnos.  

When the oak tree from which he supposedly hanged himself blew down in 1863, Queen Victoria ordered the wood to be burned in order to release his spirit.  His ghost still appears whenever England finds itself in crisis.

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