According to one version of this legend, Henry VIII heard talk of a white stag roaming the forest near Windsor Castle, and
decided to go hunting for it. Taking his crossbow and his loyal gamekeeper Herne, he was soon on the stag's track. In a
clearing near a lone oak tree, he got a clear shot at it, and fired a bolt. He hit the stag, wounding it grievously, but
failed to kill it outright. The stag, maddened, turned and charged straight toward Henry. Unable to reload his crossbow
in time, Henry was all but defenseless. Herne saw the danger his King faced, and threw himself between Henry and charging
|A wizard appeared suddenly in the lone oak
Herne saved the king’s life – but at the cost of his own. Broken and bleeding, he fell at Henry’s feet.
Henry, unable to revive him, had lost all hope for Herne, when a wizard appeared in the oak. The wizard told Henry that
he could yet save Herne’s life – he need only cut off the stag’s antlers and tie them to Herne’s head.
Unquestioningly, Henry pulled out his hunting knife and removed the now-dead stag’s horns, and taking a length of rope,
tied them to Herne’s lifeless body. Immediately, Herne leapt up, fully alive. Henry was overjoyed; Herne was . . .
baffled. He had no idea what had happened, or even who or what he had become. Unbeknownst to either of them, Herne had become
a fusion of man and animal; as such, he had somehow lost the ability to serve as a gamekeeper, or to help track and kill his
fellow creatures. He was forced to leave the King’s service, lost everything he had in the world, and took to wandering
the forest day and night.
|As soon as Henry tied the antlers to Herne's head, he sprang back to life
One dark, still night, when he was particularly despondent, he heard an uncanny whistling in the treetops, and then the blaring
of horns and the baying of hounds. He had no doubt as to what he was hearing – it was the Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt, according to legends of many of the nations of northern Europe, is a host of spectral hunters, hounds, and
horsemen, who chase through the forests, and the air above the forests, searching for . . . well, it’s not settled what
their quarry is. It varies from country to country and from story to story: some say they chase a maiden, others say a pure
white deer. But wherever the story is told, it’s said that the Wild Hunt is terrible omen. You can hear the hunt and
yet live -- so long as you throw yourself flat on the ground and shut your eyes – perhaps they’ll only fly overtop
of you as they go by. But one cannot see the Wild Hunt and survive – they will pull you up into the sky with them,
and perhaps in a day or two someone will find your body, or parts of it.
|Herne knew it was the Wild Hunt flying overhead
|The spectral host soared to the baying of hounds and blaring of horns
This night, though, Herne was heartsick, and beyond caring about the danger – he looked up, right into the fiery eyes
of the horses and hounds. At that moment, he conceived a death-wish. He threw a rope over the branch of the lone oak, and
hanged himself. As soon as his ghost was free of his body, the Wild Hunt dragged it up into its wake, and he was off through
the sky with them.
Even into the last century, and the century before that, there have been reports of the Wild Hunt. Some say it’s Wotan
at the head of it. Others – depending on where they’re from, say it’s Charlemagne, or it’s King Arthur,
or Francis Drake, or Cernuous, the Horned God. My hunch, though, is that it’s Herne who’s fought his way to the
fore – and now leads the Wild Hunt in pursuit of the pure white stag that was his doom.