Cut up a tree to quench a ghost


Image via Wikipedia

I happened upon an unhappy ending, wandering through a tiny town museum the other day.

The story’s beginning is shrouded in the mists of time and began when an acorn fell onto fertile ground in the ground of a castle. I have shared shadows of the story’s middle before, for its lead character is well-known around these parts where the forest still exists.

And its ending lauds one of the story’s most illustrious chroniclers.

But we’ll begin, today, with a silver cauldron.

Just nine days before the dawn of the twentieth century, in a peat bog near a little hamlet called Gundestrup in Denmark, they found a silver cauldron of breathtaking quality.

Dismantled into a series of rectangular panels and hidden some time after 200BC, it was the work of a team of silversmiths, who gilded their work with gold, and gave the gaggle of mythological characters, which throng its sides, inlaid glass eyes. Once hidden, the peat bog grew up over and around it, leaving the ghost of a long-lost mythology beneath the earth.

Now salvaged, men were able to look once more upon the strange creatures of an ancient folklore. While each has its story, we, today, are concerned with only one.

He sits there with a crown of antlers on his head, a torc in one hand and a horned serpent in the other. And around him are animals: a dog, a cat, a cow, a deer, and more. His name, archaeologists think, is Cernunnos, a Celtic god of no-one knows quite what: yet his images, which have been found in a variety of places suggest he is a nature-whisperer.

The horned figure endured through the tales of the Celts to those of the Saxons, where Cernunnos became Herne: a hunter with a history.

I’ve told his tale before: Herne was a forester who saved  King Richard II from the attack of a great stag, and earned royal favour. But when you are lifted up so high, there’s a long way to fall. Herne was framed for poaching by others jealous of him: and rather than suffer the disgrace, he found a mighty oak in Windsor Forest and hanged himself from its branches.

The spin-off tales have never really stopped coming. William Shakespeare was its first known chroniclers. In The Merry Wives Of Windsor his legend is clearly local folklore:

“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.”

But all the way through the centuries, for we who live in the forest, the tales abound. Usually his appearance presages national doom: he appeared the night before the death of Henry IV in 1413, and several times during the brutal reign of Henry VIII; before Charles I’s execution, and the two world wars, and the great depression.

So it is said.

And for much of that time, the oak tree from which he hung himself was said to be living still. It was thought to be in an avenue of trees about half a mile from the castle, near one of the great dwellings of Home Park, Frogmore House.

But nothing lives forever. The oak has not the longevity of a yew. And at the end of August 1863, the tree identified as Herne’s Oak blew down in a storm.

And so deep-rooted was the myth of the ghost who haunted the castle’s realm, that the oak was reputedly cut into logs and burned, in the hope that with the dead wood would go the ghost.

One log remains.

And I saw it, on Tuesday. For it was retained and carved into a bust of the man who first recorded Herne’s story for posterity.

William Shakespeare.

What goes around, as they say, comes around.


31 thoughts on “Cut up a tree to quench a ghost

  1. Recently read The Mistletoe & The Sword by Anya Seton and now Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (both set in Romano/Celtic Britain) both full of similar rich early traditions and myths. Always think it’s such a shame they don’t teach us more of this kind of British history in schools … it’s just as good as the Ancient Greek/Roman myths.

  2. What a gorgeous bust! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it–carved from such a special oak. I love the accompanying story, too. I have always assumed that I miss more than half of Shakespeare’s historical or mythological references–maybe more! So it’s very nice to have one put into proper place. And given the ghost’s ability to foretell trouble, I do hope he’s been quiet of late!

  3. I never caught that Merry Wives reference before, and I love that someone had the idea to bring Shakespeare himself from Herne’s Oak (something I’d heard of but didn’t know the whole story behind).

    1. When you come over you must check old oak-hearted Shakespeare out, Andra. He’s only just down the road from the castle, housed in the Guild Hall where Elton John and Prince Charles got married. Not to each other, I hasten to add.

    1. Pleasure, Nancy. My mission is to see it, not. There’s a replica in Dublin, I believe. I might have to hold out for the real thing in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

  4. Had I not read your post and had only seen images of the bust, I would have thought that it was made out of bronze. I hope a match is never lit anywhere near it, but then one could blame Herne’s ghost for that happening. I hope you haven’t roused his spirit with this post Kate. That would make you an accomplice!

  5. I’ve still got a catalogue somewhere from when I saw a full-size replica of the cauldron displayed at a British Museum exhibition of Celtic treasures, sometime, ooh, in the last century. Hadn’t realised how big and heavy it was, how magnificent the craftmanship and artistry, and how many pieces went to make it up. And how haunting the images are.

    Didn’t know about the oak bust. What a link, and how poetically apt!

  6. that bust is rather beautiful… but very dark for natural oak. I wonder what it has been treated with, to take it towards ebony colouring. I understand there was a trend to ‘ebonise wood’ at one time.

  7. Good story.
    Reminds me a little of the Basque Tree – the Gernikako Arbola – in the town square in Gernika – symbol of Basques. It died – and I think the successor did too. I wonder what they did with the wood?

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