The Man Behind the Myth:
Although Herne is seen as an aspect of Cernunnos, the Horned God, in the Berkshire region of England there is actually a story behind the legend. According to folklore, Herne was a huntsman employed by King Richard II. In one version of the story, other men became jealous of his status and accused him of poaching on the King's land. Falsely charged with treason, Herne became an outcast among his former friends. Finally, in despair, he hung himself from an oak tree which later became known as Herne's Oak.
In another variation of the legend, Herne was fatally wounded while saving King Richard from a charging stag. He was miraculously cured by a magician who tied the antlers of the dead stag to Herne's head. As payment for bringing him back to life, the magician claimed Herne's skill in forestry. Doomed to live without his beloved hunt, Herne fled to the forest, and hanged himself, again from the oak tree. However, every night he rides once more leading a spectral hunt, chasing the game of Windsor Forest.
Shakespeare Gives a Nod:
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Bard himself pays tribute to the ghost of Herne, wandering Windsor Forest:There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Some time 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.
Herne as an Aspect of Cernunnos:
In Margaret Murray's 1931 book, God of the Witches, she posits that Herne is a manifestation of Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. Because he is found only in Berkshire, and not in the rest of the Windsor Forest area, Herne is considered a "localized" god -- and could indeed be the Berkshire interpretation of Cernunnos.
The Windsor Forest area has a heavy Saxon influence. One of the gods honored by the original settlers of the region was Odin, who also hung at one point from a tree. Odin was also known for riding through the sky on a Wild Hunt of his own.
Lord of the Forest:
Around Berkshire, Herne is depicted wearing the antlers of a great stag. He is the god of the wild hunt, of the game in the forest. Herne's antlers connect him to the deer, which was given a position of great honor -- after all, killing a single stag could mean the difference between survival and starvation, so this was a powerful thing indeed.
Herne was considered a divine hunter, and was seen on his wild hunts carrying a great horn and a wooden bow, riding a mighty black horse and accompanied by a pack of baying hounds. Mortals who get in the way of the Wild Hunt are swept up in it, and often taken away by Herne, destined to ride with him for eternity. He's seen as a harbinger of bad omen, especially to the royal family. According to local legend, Herne only appears in Windsor Forest when needed, such as in times of national crisis.