Even Gods Were Young Once

As promised, I’m writing about Herne the Hunter today. He is a deity with which I have a close affinity, so naturally I wanted to include him in my portraits of Death Deities. I decided to take another look at some of the information available and the effect it had on my work.

Herne is said to have been a royal hunter in the time of Edward II of England, the early 1300’s. While hunting in the woods around Windsor Castle, Edward was attacked by a stag and Herne threw himself in front of the king. None of Edwards other woodsmen would heal Herne out of jealousy. It was finally a dark rider who agreed to help and cut the horns off the stag and tied them to Herne’s head. He was healed, but lost all his prowess as a hunter. In despair at the loss of his skill, he ran into the forest, wearing the antlers and was later found hanging from an oak tree. When Edward’s retainers tried to recover the body, it had disappeared. The tree is known as Herne’s Oak and is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Since that time, Herne the Hunter has reappeared in the Windsor Great Park many times, most recently in the 1970’s.

 

The figure of Cernunos on the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The figure of Cernunos on the Gundestrup Cauldron.

What is interesting though is the possibility that the story goes back even further. H and C are interchangeable between the Indo-European languages and therefore Hern can become Cern and applied to Cernunnos, a horned deity depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron, dated between 200 BC and 300 AD. So here we have a horned deity sharing Herne’s name a thousand years before the reign of Edward II.

Jesus on the Cross, by Albrecht Dürer, Wodin Hanging, by Franz Stassen, and Herne's Oak, from the Folger Shakespeare Library

Jesus on the Cross, by Albrecht Dürer, Wodin Hanging, by Franz Stassen, and Herne’s Oak, from the Folger Shakespeare Library

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with Death Deities? Well, obviously Herne symbolizes sacrifice. He first put himself in harms way to protect his king, and then hung himself on the oak. (Parallels abound with Odin and Jesus.) After Herne’s disappearance, he was seen as the leader of the Wild Hunt, a spectral phenomenon throughout Northern Europe usually occurring in winter and presaging some sort of disaster. Herne and Cernunnos are seen as the Holly King and Oak King respectively, by modern pagans, and they symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth in nature. If we link Herne with Odin (who was widely revered in Anglo-Saxon Britain) we see a god who escorts the dead to the afterlife. And I’m just skimming over the surface. A great resource is Eric L. Fitch’s book: ‘In Search of Herne the Hunter’. If you’re interested in this mythical figure at all, I highly recommend it.

Herne the Wild Hunter, from symboldictionary.net

Herne the Wild Hunter, from symboldictionary.net

And finally, we come to the drawing I did for the show. A friend was surprised when she saw how young Herne is. Traditionally he is depicted as an older man, middle aged at least. His beard is long and his hair longer. But in the story of Herne, he is human and eventually becomes the ghostly, horned hunter. So he was young once, maybe even at his death. There is also the fact that this telling of the tale is one of the more recent versions (in a historical context) and therefore younger.

The Young Herne

The Young Herne

However one chooses to look at it, the image in the drawing is what I saw in my mind’s eye. And perhaps that is how Herne wished to appear. This time.

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Lightness in the Dark

You can’t draw portraits of death deities without reflecting on the issue of mortality, or at least I can’t. I took the gallery owner’s challenge; to go beyond sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead show, and started looking at death deities and their lore. What I found were some interesting similarities, some major differences, and some great stories. What I was hoping for, as the title of this post suggests, is to shed some light on these characters/archetypes/beings, and thereby illuminate the subject of death as transformation, a natural process that all living things share. I’m not trying to say that death is good, but neither am I declaring it bad. It simply is.

Raven Detail 3

 

There are five pieces in the show, each subject from a different religion/culture: Irish, English, Norse, Greek, and Egyptian. Starting with the Irish, because I promised to post more pictures of the Raven, is the Morrigan. In the notes for the show, this is what I wrote:

The Morrigan
One of the Celtic ‘triple goddesses’, a deity with multiple aspects, that of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. She is linked with cattle, and therefore fertility. She is also associated with rivers and lakes, the water being seen as a sign of rebirth. The Morrigan is also known as a battle goddess, but not by wielding a sword. Her power is in her ability to enchant or curse. She can clear a battlefield with a poem. She can transform into a raven, flying above the warriors, choosing who will die. She can be seen at a river ford, washing clothes and armor before battle, symbolizing the washing and anointing of the body after death and preparing it for the next life.

This is a greatly condensed description of her attributes, and with a bit of searching you can find good information about her on the web. One of the sources I found was:

http://witchesofthecraft.com/2012/01/12/the-goddess-morrigan/

They covered the basics of the Morrigan, etymology of her name, where she appears in the legends and myths, etc. Check it out.

RavenFinal72

 

The painting shows the transformation of the Morrigan into the raven and perhaps the other way as well. I did a couple of new things with the artwork. In the knot, I came back with thin lines of gouache (Prussian Green and Alizarin Crimson) on top of the watercolor, trying to emulate the iridescence of the black feathers. It’s very subtle and doesn’t show very well in my photograph. I’ll have to see if I can get the art scanned after the show comes down. And there is no black here. It’s all a mix of Indigo, Prussian Green, and Alizarin Crimson. The background behind the knot is Indigo gouache.

RavenDetail4

The human figure was initially left white, and then I changed her pose. I had to define her new edges with watercolor and then a thin wash of white gouache over all. Her face I struggled with. I was using the gouache and the colors kept looking too intense, so I kept reworking it, blending and adding. What I should have done was paint the face in watercolor completely, and then done my white wash over that. If there’s a next time…

Raven Detail 2

Next post, Herne the Hunter.