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Herne the Hunter: a May Day Figure of Folklore

The tale of the Greenman (otherwise known as Herne the Hunter) was a popular part of folklore in Shakespeare's day. In fact, this Lord of the Greenwood makes a special cameo in Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor" in the form of a certain favourite knight...

Emily Millward

There is an old tale that goes that Herne the hunter, sometime a keeper in the Windsor forest, doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, walk about an oak . . . .

— Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV, Scene IV

Nowadays May Day is usually celebrated by enjoying an associated Bank Holiday (and a rare day off work!), but what do we actually know about the origins of this day? May Day celebrations go far back into British folklore, and the first day of May traditionally marked a fertility festival: the moment when the final frosts had passed and the summer weather - and promise of a good harvest season - finally came. A particular character is associated with this festival... he is known as the Greenman, often shown with foliage surrounding his face, and is a figure of strength and fertility, representing the growing foliage that appears so suddenly at this time of year.

The Greenman
The Greenman

The Greenman is known by many other names, largely due to the different aspects which his character encompasses: Lord of the Greenwood, Cernunnos, the Horned God, and Herne - the latter being the figure who led the ‘Wild Hunt’ in folklore. Shakespeare himself pays homage to the Greenman in his Merry Wives of Windsor, in the scene where the lovable Falstaff is tricked into dressing as Herne and waiting beneath an oak tree in Windsor forest. Oak trees have direct links with the Greenman, and at several points in this scene the tree where Falstaff waits is referred to as ‘Herne’s oak’.

Falstaff as the Herne the Hunter
STRST: SBT 1993-39 A late 18th century pen-and-ink wash picture showing the final scene from the Merry Wives of Windsor; Falstaff disguised as Herne the Hunter with a crown of horns.

Although Shakespeare’s image of Herne is used for comic effect (and to play on the character of the unknowing Falstaff) within this scene it does show us that the figure of the Greenman was widely known by English people at this time; there is a sense that the audience seeing the play would have understood the tale of Herne spoke of in this instance. Images of the Greenman can still be seen all across Europe today, so when you celebrate May Day (in whatever may you choose), do so in the traditional merriment of the Greenman, just as Shakespeare celebrated this figure of fertility in his play - albeit at Falstaff’s expense!

You can find the Greenman for yourself! Check out Mary Arden’s Farm on our website for more details.