Hunting the Hunter

This was supposed to be a post about Aesop’s fables. But scanning the bookshelves in the Osborne Collection study room, my eyes lit upon two fat, stripy tomes of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. I pulled Volume I off the shelf, slapped it open, and stabbed blindly at an entry, sortes Vergilianae-style. And whose name should I find under my spatulate fingertip but Herne the Hunter’s? He, along with Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon had been haunting (or should I say hunting?) my mind all week, thanks to the awesome genius of Diana Wynne Jones as manifested in her book Dogsbody, which I’d had the pleasure to read only recently (I bow my head in shame). If you have not yet had the chance to relish this book and would like to do so unmolested by spoilers, I suggest you avail yourself of the back button. But if you’re already familiar with the novel, or have a superhuman immunity to spoilers, read on!

Briefly, Dogsbody tells of how Sirius the Dog Star escapes his imprisonment as a white, red-eared dog on Earth. What delighted me and absolutely blew me away about Dogsbody was the slightly slippery character of the “Master.” The Master is the apparent lord of the underworld (or at least, otherworld) in the novel. Every month under the full moon, he emerges into our world and leads his white, red-eared dogs on a wild hunt in which, paradoxically, he is both the hunter and the hunted. Sirius at some point joins this hunt out of necessity, and finds that he and the other hounds are sometimes running beside the Master, sometimes pursuing the Master. At the end of the hunt, his dogs devour him. The Master is then instantly reborn, whereupon he and his hounds retreat to his mysterious, otherworldly abode, which seems to be enclosed in a large mound of earth (yes, space in speculative fiction is a funny thing). He is also often referred to as a “child of Earth.” I hope this all sounds moderately familiar to you.

While his appearance is never fully disclosed, his head is said to be permanently shrouded in darkness and he is described as having “branched horns” on his head, which immediately put me in the mind of Herne the Hunter, whom I first encountered in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. (As a side note, Herne in Cooper’s book bears a striking resemblance to the forest guardian in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke.)

Herne is the resident spectre and keeper of Windsor Forest in Berkshire, England, whose most notable feature is that he has antlers. He often appears (I know not to whom) riding on horseback, accompanied by other wild huntsman and his captured souls in a sort of Wild Hunt [1]. According to the Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols, Herne is a “malevolent spirit” who “roams through the forest, especially in the vicinity of an old tree called Herne’s oak,” [2] though there is no sinister note in either Jones’ or Cooper’s depictions of Herne.

Our earliest reference to Herne is in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:

MISTRESS PAGE: 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
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.               (4.4.26-36)

Herne is of most confused origin. The Wikipedia entry for Herne suggests a few theories, which are quite interesting. In his book, The History of the Devil, R. Lowe Thompson suggests a relationship to Herlekin/Hellekin/Herlichin/Hellechin, etc. (whence we get Harlequin [3]), the Wild Huntsman “leader of la maisnie Hellequin, a troop of demons who rode the night air on horses [4]. He also speculates that Herne may be cognate with a truncated form of Cernunnos, the horned god in Celtic polytheism, just as horn is cognate with the Latin cornu (“horn”). At the very least, he’s probably right when he says that “these two forms have been derived from the same palaeolithic ancestor and can, indeed, be regarded as two aspects of one central figure’ [5].

Oddly enough, Herne is not mentioned anywhere in Dogsbody, perhaps because he is the most obvious folkloric/mythical figure to identify. Other references to mythical figures are explicitly made, however [6]:

The Master said uneasily, “Don’t look too closely. The truth [of his form] has no particular shape.”
“I know that,” Kathleen sad, rather impatiently. Her eyes stayed watching the space above the Master’s head for all that. “But you’re not Arawn, are you?” she said.
The boys had seen the Master for the first time. They were both terrified. Robin’s teeth chattered and he said, “But he could be Orion or Actaeon, couldn’t he?”
“Or John Peel,” Basil said, very derisively because he was so scared.

Sirius wondered what the three humans had understood about the Master that he had not. It was clear that the Master knew they had understood it, by the way he changed the subject.

First of all, I love this delightful moment of metafiction. Jones has her characters identify the Master with the very mythical figures which she, the author, has appropriated to create the Master. She comments on her narrative from within the selfsame narrative. It’s comparable to a footnote, a laced-in footnote whispering, “By the by, I used such-and-such figures to create my character.” I love how smoothly Jones flashes her cards; there’s no jarring effect because it is perfectly natural, arguably almost expected, that the children should liken him to the aforementioned mythical figures. For readers who don’t recognize before this juncture that the Master is a synthesis of various mythical beings, or that he is borrowed from mythology, this serves to clue them in; for readers already in the know, it is a moment of acknowledging, as Farah Mendlesohn puts it, the “delicious collusion” between author and reader. I confess I was rather of the former category, since I only recalled Herne, who is left unmentioned, even though citing only Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon did strengthen my suspicion that Herne had been a model for the Master. But “clue in” is an understatement; I was left rather unattractively open-mouthed: 1) I was a tad chagrined I’d totally missed seeing Orion and Actaeon–all the signs were there! 2) Leave it to Diana Wynne Jones to cleverly conflate mythical figures from across cultures. I really don’t think I exaggerate when I call her a genius. But I digress in this eulogy (admiration for Diana Wynne Jones will out!).

Being uninitiated in the world of Welsh mythology and its hellish pronunciation, I had to look up Arawn (ah-ROWN). Arawn is the lord of Annwfn/Annwn (an-OON), the Brythonic Otherworld, which is “located either on the face of the earth, under the earth, or over or under the sea” [7]. This Otherworld was a Celtic Elysium, a paradise, and later Christianized as the land of the dead [8]. Arawn is “a master of animals and the hunt, closely linked with the stag…an enricher of humanity”–interestingly,  “all attributes of Cernunnos” [9]. He is the lucky owner of the magic cauldron coveted by Arthur, in addition to a pack of hounds, “dazzling bright white and with red ears” [10].

This colouring is the hallmark “of the Otherworldly origins, according to a deeply rooted tradition found throughout the British Isles,” a hallmark shared by the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd (gween ap neethe) [11], Arawn’s successor, who is depicted in medieval poetry as a psychopomp, one who escorts the dead to the underworld [12]. He is associated with a form of the Wild Hunt motif found in “nearly all parts of the world”. The Wild Hunt, clearly what Sirius participates in, is when “ghostly hunters…ride through the sky on stormy evenings…The phantom host, its horses and dogs (ratchet hounds, Gabriel’s hounds, etc.), make a wild noise in the night” [13]. The noise is explained as the honking of migrating geese or other birds [14]. Gwyn ap Nudd’s hounds are the Cŵn Annwn (coon an-OON), “hounds of Annwn,” just one of the many packs of spectral hounds in British folklore. Other such hounds are Gabriel Hounds, Ratchets, Yell/Yeth/Yeff Hounds–the Master’s chief dog is fittingly named Yeff–and what have you. So much for Welsh mythology.

I’m sure you know of Orion, the storied hunter (and intemperate lover) of mythological and astral fame. He cleared Chios of wild beasts, and in some stories hunts with Artemis. The point in the muddled myth of Orion that concerns us is his birth. Hesiod reports that Orion was the son of Poseidon and Euryale, Minos’ daughter (not the Gorgon!). There appears to be another tradition in which he was gegenes, a son of Ge/Gaia, i.e. Earth. Still there is another version, which as far as I can tell is not the same as the previous one, wherein Orion is again (sort of) a child of Ge. Poseidon, Zeus, and Hermes decided one day to kick their heels at the house of Hyrieus, either a king or humble peasant, himself a son of Poseidon (which has funny ramifications) and Alkyone, Atlas’ daughter. Hyrieus entertained the gods, disguised as men, so well that they revealed themselves and promised to grant him anything he asked. He asked for a son (he was childless, naturally)  [15]. Here, I resort to Joseph Fontenrose’s lovely summary  [16]:

The gods then took the hide of the ox that had been slaughtered for their dinner, spread it out, and cast their seed upon it–or, as most sources express it, they urinated on it. They told Hyrieus to bury the hide underground for ten months and then take it up. At the end of the allotted time a boy was born from the buried hide (i.e., from the earth), and Hyrieus named him Urion after the manner of his conception (ouron), later altered to Orion.

Ouron means urine, in case that wasn’t obvious. Charming name, though I’m sure this is just a case of the ancients’ collective penchant for false etymologizing.

In this version, Poseidon and Ge are again in some sense parents of Orion, despite that fact that Ge was not consulted (would this be a form of rape, I wonder?). Poseidon shares his fatherhood with Zeus and Hermes, and if Hyrieus is to be considered Orion’s father, then Poseidon is also his grandfather [17]. Simultaneously, if Poseidon is Orion’s father, then Orion is also Hyrieus’ brother. Clearly the ancients were masters of doublethink.

So the Master can be Orion because they are both children of Earth. Even more fundamentally, the Master is Orion because Sirius is his dog. Curiously, I could not find any mention of Sirius in the summarized myths of Orion I’d read; he appears to be connected with Orion only apropos of the constellation. Zeus is said to have placed Sirius in the sky beside his master. Homer’s Iliad  (mentions Orion the constellation [18] and “Orion’s Dog” as the star [19] (it makes no mention of Orion the hunter); the Odyssey describes Orion the hunter in Hades, but he is sans dog [20]. Most likely, when the Orion constellation was identified with and named for the already well-known mythical figure, the former had affected the latter and the Greeks felt the need to invent and explain the hitherto nonexistent catasterism of the hunter [21]. Likewise, the Dog Star could have been identified as the dog of Orion, and inserted into the catasterism myth. But, disregarding this nicety, of course there was never any doubt that Sirius would join the Master’s Wild Hunt, since he must, perforce, if the Master is Orion.

It might also be worth noting that Orion is dead. That is, if he did indeed once exist, he is now dead. Homer tells in the Odyssey that Odysseus sees Orion in the underworld. So it’s not surprising that the Master as Orion should be found in a sort of underworld (under a mound, or Annwn as later recognized as the world of the dead), notwithstanding that he is at the same time supposed to be in the firmament (Orion the constellation also figures in the novel, in the same way that Sirius the Dog-Star does).

Lastly, Actaeon is another Greek hunter, who was metamorphosed into a stag by Artemis and posthaste devoured by his own dogs. He is uncannily similar to Orion visà-vis their relationship with Artemis. In various sources, Orion was “a companion, even a lover, of the huntress goddess Artemis, and she favored him” and he wanted to marry her [22]; ditto for Actaeon [23]. Orion offended Artemis by attempting to rape her or her nymph, Opis; by merely challenging her to a discus-throwing contest or boasting that he was a better hunter than she; or by becoming the lover of Eos [24]. Indeed, Actaeon offended her also by attempting rape or intruding on her bath; by boasting that he was the better hunter; or by becoming the lover of Semele [25]. Both were duly punished by the aggrieved party and posthumously worshipped in certain Hellenic cities [26].

Basil’s sarcastic remark aside, the kids get it right. The Master is Arawn, Orion, Actaeon, Herne, and who knows what else. I like how Jones is able to thread these figures together by their commonality of huntsmanship, and that she was able to discern that commonality (or maybe I’m just uncommonly dense), because beyond that, they’re quite different. Moreover, Herne, Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon don’t simply get amalgamated; that suggests too blended a whole. Nor does Jones’ incorporation of each figure’s singular traits, probably as clues or cues, create a unique character who is made of pieces. That is, the Master is not made up of a bit of Herne, a dash of Arawn, a pinch of Orion, and a splash of Actaeon; he is not Frankenstein. It is not that the Master is in part all of those four, or that he can be any one of those four and probably more, but that he is wholly each of them and all of them at the same time, layered transparently atop one another.

Next week, I will eschew fat, stripy books.

1. Herne the Hunter.
2. p. 494, Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, V.1, by Maria Leach and Jerome Fried. Published in New York by Funk & Wagnalls in 1949.
3. Harlequin.
4. Harlequin, Ibid.
p. 133, The History of the Devil (1929) by R. Lowe Thompson.
5. p. 133, Ibid.
6. p. 175, Dogsbody (1975) by Diana Wynne Jones.
7. p. 63, Funk and Wagnalls, V.1.
8. Annwn.
9. p. 100, Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses: A Guide to Their Spiritual Power, Healing Energies, and Mystical Joy (2005) by Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds.
10. The Mabinogi of Pwyll
11. The Mabinogi of Pwyll.
12. p. 100, McColman and Hinds.
13. p. 1177, Funk and Wagnalls.
14. p. 1177, Ibid.
15. p. 7, Orion: The Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress (1981) by Joseph Fontenrose.
16. p. 7, Ibid.
17. 18.568, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles.
18. 22.35, Ibid.
19. 11.656-660, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles.
20. p. 7, Fontenrose.
21. p. 17-18, Ibid.
22. p. 19, Ibid.
23. p. 41, Ibid.
24. p. 19, Ibid.
25. p. 41, Ibid.
26. p. 20, 42, Ibid.



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