Who is Herne?


Herne the Hunter

I’ve talked before about Herne and my relationship with Him over the years. I thought I’d provide a bit of information about Him for others.

Herne goes by different names –  Leader of the Wild Hunt, the Horned One. His presence can be found in place names such as Cirencester and Herne Bay in England. It is thought that His name might come from the sounds made by male deer. I’ve never heard them so can’t comment on that regard.

Herne can be gentle, but He can also be unforgiving and cruel. He is a protector God, of both the hunter and the hunted.

There is much discussion in some circles as to whether or not Herne is the same Horned God as Cernunnos, found across parts of Europe, or if He is a completely separate Deity. I have no idea, I just know that I’ve not felt any objection when I have used the names interchangeably in the past.

Hail Herne! Horned God

Leader of the Wild Hunt

Master of the Hunter and the Hunter

I honour you.

Have a listen to a red deer stag in Bushy Park, London. Can you hear the name of Herne in its roar?

Cernunnos in antiquity


Pilier des Nautes Cernunos

Cernunnos was worshipped by the Iron Age Celts all across Europe as late as the first century AD, and there is evidence his worship began centuries before that.

The earliest found image of Cernunnos dates from the 4th century, BCE, carved on rock in Val Camonica, Northern Italy. The image of the cross-legged stag-horned deity with the ram-horned serpent is probably an archetypal image of a Celtic god. However this association of image and name comes from a single carved image discovered in Paris and generated by sailors from the Gallic Parisii tribe (from whom Paris got its name) in the 1st century CE, by which time Gaul (modern France) had become a Roman province.

Further Gaulish inscriptions to Cernunnos have been found at Seinsel-Rëlent, Germany (dedicated to Deo Cernunico) and an inscription using Greek lettering from Montagnac, France: Alleteinos [dedicated this to] Karnonos of Alisonteas. Images consistent with Cernunnos have been found from Cisalpine Gaul (Italy) through Gaul to Denmark, on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron.

The Gundestrup Cauldron


Cernunnos on Gundestrup Cauldron

Cauldrons had magical significance for the Celts, and this is the most ornate ever found. It was beaten out of 10 kg of silver, probably in the second century BC, constructed from 13 heavily decorated rectangular panels and a plain bowl containing a 14th circular one (possibly a late addition). The entire assembly is 70 cm in diameter.

Sometime around the birth of Christ it was taken to pieces and apparently just left on the ground in a bog near what is now the hamlet of Gundestrup in Northern Jutland, where it gradually became overgrown and covered with peat. It remained there until its discovery by peat cutters in 1891.

The eight external panels (of which one is missing) each feature what appears to be the single face of a different god or goddess, surrounded by much smaller humanoids or beasts. The five interior panels each depict many characters, men, women, gods and beasts, in what may be a story.

‘Classical’ depictions of Cernunnos show him seated cross-legged on the floor or on a mound as in this picture from a panel on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Some have used this image to suggest an oriental influence on Celtic art; the pose being described as ‘Buddhic’. However, it is more likely to represent the natural sitting posture of the Celts who did not (at least according to classical writers) possess chairs or ornaments to sit upon but rather sat upon the ground. It has also been proposed that Cernunnos represents a truly ancient deity originating before agrarian societies arose. Or, at the very least originating when hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies existed side by side; for he is seen as a protector deity patron both of the hunt and of the hunted which may explain his association both with the stag and with canids that may either be wolves or hunting dogs.

Both images of Cernunnos are in the public domain and were found on Wikimedia Commons

The Legend of Herne the Hunter

Windsor Park, Berkshire, during the reign of Richard II.

Herne was one of the King’s huntsmen in the Great Park, a man skilled in woodcraft. One day when he and the King were out hunting a huge stag they were tracking turned on the King charging to gore him. Herne bravely stood in its way and saved the King’s life, but he was seriously injured himself.

From a beech tree a wizard called Phillip Urwick appeared. He bade the King to strap the dead stag’s antlers to Herne’s head. The King bound Herne to an oak to support him, and miraculously he survived. The King was forever grateful and Herne became his favourite head huntsman.

Urwick tended Herne back to health in his hut on Bagshot Heath. Two of the other huntsmen became jealous of the King’s favourite and some say they framed him for poaching and others say they struck a bargain with Urwick to remove his skill at woodcraft. Whatever the cause, Herne hanged himself in shame from his oak but his spirit was restless – and the wild hunt had begun.

The two treacherous huntsmen were impelled by Urwick to ride with Herne for all eternity and to this day the hunt is seen or heard in Windsor Forest and as far away as Cookham Moor and Huntercombe Manor which gets its name from the hunter.

Legend of Herne the Hunter at Windsor Park from multiple sources

‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’

by William Shakespeare

‘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 around 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.’

‘Why, yet there want not many, that do fear
In deep of night to walk by this Herne’s oak.’

7 thoughts on “Who is Herne?

  1. Pingback: Encountering Brighid | Writings of a Pagan Witch

  2. I’ve never considered myself pagan, I’m more of a logical scientific thinker. A week or so ago a friend linked me a song about Herne and I was happy just about to the point of tears over this song about a god I have never had any connection to. I’ve started to think a lot of things in my life have subtly or not so subtly pointed to Herne, almost as though I’ve been somewhat dedicated to him without realizing it, and I’m starting to wonder if there might be something to this, though I’m not quite sure how to decide for sure.

    Anyway, thank you very much for writing this.

  3. Pingback: My Patron Gods | Writings of a Pagan Witch

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