21 Dec 2012

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered (20): Windsor Forest

On the South side of the British monarch's royal residence at Windsor Castle, stretching over an area of 5,000 acres, is Windsor Great Park. It may be the remnant of an ancient, sacred, pagan forest or it may be ancient, sacred, and pagan because these elements have accidentally been preserved by the park being directly owned by generations of monarchs keen to keep it as a wild and beautiful place in which they could hunt. Then again it may be a bit of both.

The main, recoverable pagan element in the park centres on Herne the Hunter and Herne's Oak Tree. At a time when the legend of Herne was still very much alive among the local people, it was fortuitously mentioned by William Shakespeare in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor:

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.

This indicates that an actual pagan ritual was performed by the keeper dressing up in "great ragg'd horns." Herne the Hunter has been 'rationalized' as the ghost of a poacher arrested and presumably executed for hunting in the "royal forest" in the time of Henry VII (1485-1509), but the horns and appearance in "the Winter-time, at still midnight" shows that this is something of a much more ancient and pagan character.

The stag-like appearance and Winter-time appearance ties this into the much more widespread tradition of the animal dances, such as Hobby Horse customs, which also include horned animals.

In his Penitential, Theodore, Archbishop of Cnterbury (668-90) proscribes the custom:

"If anyone at the calends of January goes about as a stag or a bull, making himself into a wild animal, and putting on the heads of beasts...penance for three years because this is devilish."

"Devilish" is of course post-Roman-Imperial monotheistic code for "authentically divine" and therefore a threat to the arid, dehumanizing power of Christianity, but which pagan god is Herne the Hunter? In appearance, he resembles the stag-headed Celtic god Cernunnos, but the myth mentioned by Shakespeare also has certain features that link it with the tradition of the Wild Hunt and the Wild Huntsman, a mythological remnant of the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, a hooded god, who is also reflected in the Christianized myth of Father Christmas and his reindeer. It seems likely that Herne, Cernunnos, Woden, and Father Christmas are all aspects of the same mythic entity.

Alas, the oak mentioned by Shakespeare no longer stands. It was reputedly cut down in the time of George III, but this is no real loss as specific sacred trees were temporal features. Any oak of a particularly distinguished appearance can serve as a focus for the veneration of the sacred forest and its gods.

Colin Liddell
A Pagan Place
22nd December, 2012

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