Castle Howard, North Yorkshire: A trick of the light evokes the prehistoric shaman’s power
When the Wild Hunt erupts from the pages of Susan Cooper’s magnificent novel The Dark Is Rising, the throng is led by the towering, antlered figurehead of Herne the Hunter. It’s cacophonous, end-of-days stuff – enough to leave any 10-year-old wild-eyed. I next encountered Herne in shamanic guise, swathed in dry ice mist and spookily backlit in the 1984 TV series Robin of Sherwood. With the words, “Nothing’s forgotten, nothing is ever forgotten,” he took firm root in my teenage psyche.
There’s not a whiff of dry ice today. The woods are warm and flickering with butterflies. And yet before my very eyes, an antlered form is emerging, larger than life, from the forest floor, with a metre-long head and a spark of life dancing in the huge dark eye.
It’s not a stag but a roebuck, with blunt, teddy-bear nose, much less forbidding than Herne. Perhaps, then, he is the Romano-Celtic forest god Cernunnos; or Pan, piper at the gates of dawn. Or could it be that he is just a couple of fallen branches and a trick of the light, animated by a gently bobbing bluebell seed-head in his “eye”?
It’s likely that Herne, Cernunnos and Pan are iterations of the same archetypal horned deity – a god of wildness as old as imagination. Not 20 miles away, excavations of the Mesolithic settlement at Star Carr have produced 24 antler headdresses, made from red deer stag skulls, with truncated antlers and tooled cord-holes for securing to the wearer’s head. They are interpreted as the regalia of generations of shamans, which may have facilitated or symbolised their metaphysical connection with nature. It’s only too easy to imagine their power, and the reverence with which each of these profoundly personal possessions might have been ritually deposited in the lake when a shaman died.
Standing in the wood, well off the path, as I often am, I’m spellbound by the apparition. Rationality insists that this is pareidolia – the tendency to perceive patterns in abstract stimuli. But a smaller voice is also speaking. The dark is rising. Perhaps I’m even praying.