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Cernunnos in Shakespeare

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: June 21st. 2009
Times Viewed: 2,176

The Celtic Forest-God Cernunnos (“Horned One”) achieves almost starring role status in the latter part of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597) . Cernunnos is a Deity widely recognized throughout the Celtic world, from the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark to the Cernunnos Altar unearthed from beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral in the early eighteenth century, and across the Channel into Britain.

As Herne the Hunter, the Horned God is deeply associated with Windsor, to the extent that there are sometimes modern tales of Herne’s apparition spotted in even the Royal parkways.

Herne is introduced into the rollicking comedy by Mistress Page, who pauses the show to relay the Legend of Herne (presumably this tale is already well-known by Shakespeare’s audience) : “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 received, and did deliver to our age, this tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.” (IV.iv.26-36)

In other words- Herne once was a man who served as a “keeper” in Windsor Forest, which is like being a wilderness steward or caretaker; he “keeps” the forest (he’s kind of like Robin Hood in this as well, for living as one with the woodlands) . The legend (well-known in British folk-lore) is that Bad Guys jump Herne one night and kill him. Hard cheese for them thereafter- Herne is magically reborn as a supernatural man of vengeance, distinguished by a mighty rack of deer-horns (“ragged horns”) above his head. Commanding a ghost-steed of unearthly might, Herne hunts the Bad Guys down to the ground without mercy.

A harsh story, but is it not intriguing to reflect upon the connections between Herne with his hard mission of justice and his rack of horns- and modern Batman, dedicated to fighting evil in revenge of his parents’ deaths and noted for the horn-like Bat-points atop his head?

“You have heard of such a spirit; and well you know the superstitious idle-headed eld received, and did deliver to our age, this tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.” Note the process whereby these old myths survived the years- “the superstitious idle-headed eld” (“eld” meaning both “elders” and people of an older time) “did deliver to our age” these tales “for a truth.” In other words- the oral folk-culture of a people preserved such myths and legends as Celtic Herne. Note too the relevance to our own Pagan practice of today, delivered to our age as elder-truth.

The back-story to Merry Wives is that Falstaff (member of a noble family but a rouge and a reprobate and a liar and a con-artist who consorts with criminals and drunkards and prostitutes) has been trying to get Mistress Ford and Mistress Page to go to bed with him. This being an Elizabethan comedy, the two are not bothered by the idea of marital infidelity, but are offended that it is Falstaff coming on to them. So they begin to play all sorts of pranks on him, setting him up for a comic take-down time and again (essentially Merry Wives / is a series of episodes of Falstaff getting punked.)

For the play’s ultimate comic set-up, the Merry Wives arrange for Falstaff to meet them at night for a three-way (this is an Elizabethan comedy, remember) . Their meeting place will be the Oak of Herne; they have Falstaff (who thinks that he is arranging a romantic assignation) show up wearing a deer’s head atop his own, the deer-horns symbolic of beast-like paganistic virility: “Marry, this is our device, that Falstaff at that oak shall meet with us, disguis’d like Herne, with huge horns on his head.” (IV.iv.41) Essentially Falstaff costumes himself as Herne the Hunter; he means to say, “I am the Horned One and I’m going to get it on!”

Little does Falstaff know that everyone else is dressing up like faeries and hobgoblins, to surprise him by making him think that the Faerey Ride is breaking out upon him; this will freak him out and humiliate him, which will be really funny, because he is such a lying con-man.

“Nan Page, my daughter, and my little son, and three or four more of their growth, we’ll dress like urchins, ouphs, and fairies [“urchins” and “ouphs” both mean “supernatural creatures” like “faeries”], green and white [dressed in green and white robes, which are fae-colors], with rounds of waxen tapers on their heads and rattles in their hands…then let them all encircle him about, and fayrie-like to pinch the unclean knight; and ask him why that hour of fayrie-revel, in their so sacred paths, he dares to tread in shape profane.” (IV.iv.47-59)

After everyone has had their fun laughing at Falstaff’s fear and embarrassment, they anticipate dancing a “customary round” at Herne’s oak, between midnight and one. “Away; disperse: but till ‘tis one o’clock, our dance of custom round about the oak of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.” (V.v.80)

Pagan elements come flying so fast and furiously at the end of the play, it is a little hard to separate them all. Most obvious is Falstaff’s impersonation or essential embodiment of the Celtic Horned God.

Next is the Windsor folks dressing up like faeryes and elves before running into the woods for nighttime revels (much like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) . The very Celtic identification of a sacred tree (as I think we may assume that Herne’s Oak was) with a Forest-Deity, celebrated by nighttime circle-dances, is a remarkably Pagan circumstance for the time of Elizabeth I.

It is not without correspondence elsewhere, however- a century earlier, Joan of Arc had been questioned closely about her activities at the Faerey-Tree of Bourlemont, in a grove where witchcrafts were said to be worked. The Windsor folk freak Falstaff out by making him think he has stumbled across faerie-revels (subject of much medieval superstition) ; the fact that he enters the scene horned in imitation of Herne and the proud rutting stag- and exits the scene as the (symbolically) killed deer overtaken by the Wild Hunt of the Faerey-Ride- is a very nuanced use of the Falstaff-as-the-Deified-Deer-Spirit motif.

The fascinating thing is the suggestion that Windsor village-folk may have maintained customs of sojourning into the forests of Windsor to dance about Herne’s Oak at the witching hour of midnight. Scholars agree that it is possible that some kind of Mummer’s Play enacting some sort of ritual concerning Herne might have been preserved at Windsor during the time of Shakespeare, inspiring the ending to Merry Wives.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p. 300, n.4) reminds that varieties of Morris Dance were continued in isolated villages even until the twentieth century, demonstrating survivals of folk-custom similar to those seemingly alluded to in Merry Wives; there are enough “in-jokes” and references to places about Windsor in the play to make it clear that part of the show’s fun was meant to be imagining that it was all really happening out in the village somewhere.

At any rate- the identification of a group of Elizabethans faring into the woods at night, dressed up as spirits of the otherworld, to dance around a haunted oak tree at midnight- in the company and in the honor of an embodied Pagan horned Deity- is a very Pagan circumstance for the late sixteenth century.

Scrupulousness demands the observation that such a circumstance as described in Merry Wives is actually very much like what Margaret Murray envisioned in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

Considering the possibility that the doings attributed to the Fords and the Pages and their neighbors at the end of Merry Wives reflects an actual tradition at Windsor (which Mistress Page seems to concede with her reference to “our dance of custom, ” meaning something customary) , how interesting to ponder that some twenty years previously, a group of women had been put to death as mischief-working witches at Windsor. Their testimony is intriguing in that they appear to describe actual group-workings (what we would call “coven-workings”) of witchcraft.

If we assume that there is a tradition of celebrating Herne the Celtic Deer-God in Windsor at the sacred Tree of Herne- and we know that there was (apparently) an actual witches’ organization in operation at Windsor in the 1570s- does it not make sense to imagine that the Windsor Witches (like the rest of the good-folk of Windsor) might have remembered Herne the Horned Hunter with dances of custom about the sacred tree at the witching hour of midnight?

In which case, it is all the more like what Margaret Murray proposed in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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