The Legend


Robin Hood

An exploration of the
Pagan themes
within this enduring myth

by Hester NicEilidh


For on-line discussions of the Robin Hood legend,

greenwood mythology, and British calendar customs,

please join our Merry Band among the Oaks in

The Greenwood



Who was that Hooded Man?

Historian Ronald Hutton points out that the search for the "original" Robin Hood has taken two divergent paths within academic circles:

"From the beginning of scholarly investigation into the lengends about the outlaw, it had been obvious that at the end of the Middle Ages he had been celebrated in plays as well as ballads. Two very different approaches to research into his legend were proposed in response. The first, by Joseph Ritson in 1795, assumed that Robin had been a real human being; the second, started by Thomas Wright in 1837, opined that he was originally a woodland god, honoured in the May revels. This latter argument gained more support in the early twentieth century. Douglas Kennedy and Lord Raglan suggested that he had been the dying and returning god of vegetation postulated by Sir James Frazer as a universal focus of devotion in ancient religion. Margaret Murray, copied by Robert Graves and Pennethorne Hughes, hailed him as the high priest of a coven of pagan witches, representing the horned god of nature worshipped by the "witch cult" which Murray believed to have existed in medieval Europe."

Although this second "mythical" approach to the meaning of the Robin Hood legend has fallen into disfavour among academics since the 1950s, I believe it is still the more interesting of the two perspectives. While the work of Frazer, Murray, Graves, and their followers has been dismissed as too speculative for historical research, it remains a clear indication of the extent to which the academic mindset of the late 19th and early 20th century was open to the concept of ancient pagan survivals embedded in modern Western culture. Indeed, these writers' imaginative analyses of myth, folklore and legend have provided the ideational basis for the neo-pagan spiritual movement of the late 20th century.

If we are to assume that the legend of Robin Hood derives in any part from memories of ancient pagan deities, we should examine the mythology of the pagan cultures that once inhabited the British Isles, namely the "Celts", the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes, to find likely archetypes for the Robin Hood figure.




The King of the Wood

and the Battle between Summer and Winter

To begin his masterpiece, The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer relates the story of the ancient cult of Diana at Nemi, and the priest who stood guard over her sacred grove and bore the title Rex Nemorensis, or "King of the Wood". He was the consort of the virgin goddess of the hunt, the divine lover/son who died only to return again, as the greenery does each year.

The archaic title "King of the Wood" seems to sit naturally on Robin Hood's head. Even his name is sometimes claimed to have originally been Robin (of the) Wood, and he holds de facto sovereignty over the forest of Sherwood (or in some tales, Barnesdale).

Moreover, Robin is clearly the consort of the goddess. In the earliest extant ballads, he is devoted to the Virgin Mary, the Christian Queen of Heaven. Most often, however, he refers to her only as "dear Lady", an appellation that has strong connotations for neo-pagans; moreover, he speaks of her as being "both mother and may". Later in the canon, of course, Robin is joined by Maid Marian, in her role as the May Queen, an archetype of the goddess in her virgin aspect.

Frazer argued that the "King of the Wood" was a manifestation of the universal pagan archetype of the dying and resurrected vegetation god, whose rebirth was often acted out in springtime mock combat between the personifications of Summer and Winter. Frazer gives several Germanic examples of this folk custom, in which Summer is clad in greenery or finery, and Winter is clad in skins or fur.

The battle between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, then, provides an echo of this pagan pageantry. Robin, in the role of Summer King, defeats Guy of Gisborne, the villain whose appearance in a horse-hide is utterly inexplicable, unless, of course, he represents the Winter King in his animal skins. Similar mock combats, complete with resurrection, took place in England at Yuletide in mummers' plays, in which Robin Hood occassionally appeared as the hero.

After killing Guy, Robin dons his horse-hide as a disguise in order to rescue Little John from the Sheriff. In so doing, Robin takes on the attributes of the Winter King, conflating the two roles and becoming a Year God, presiding over the entire cycle of vegetative growth, death and rebirth.

This motif of seasonal alternation and conflict seems to have also been an underlying theme in the May Games of the 15th and 16th centuries, at which Robin Hood replaced or appeared with the traditional Summer Lord who presided over the festivities. In his monograph Early Plays of Robin Hood, David Wiles, the first scholar to thoroughly study the historical records of these games (which usually involved mock combat) determined that, "beneath all this lies the ritual combat of winter and spring." Moroever, Wiles concluded that, through these festivities, "from a very early date, Robin Hood the outlaw became identified with the May King, the anarchic priest of the pagan summer spirit."



Robin at Midsummer:
Medieval Echoes of Ancient Pagan Rites

In the May Games of the 15th and 16th centuries, Robin Hood clearly became an archetypal personification of summertime. These games were celebrated at various times throughout the early summer season. Some towns held their games as early as April, while others waited until as late as July. The most common time for the Robin Hood games, however, seems to have been Whitsuntide, a moveable feast that took place 7 weeks after Easter, and could fall in May or early June. However, there is also compelling evidence to suggest that Robin Hood was, also strongly associated with the summer solstice, or Midsummer Day.

Literary Historian Sandra Billington has written an intriguing study entitled Midsummer: A Cultural Sub-text from Chretien de Troyes to Jean Michel (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers 2000), which examines North European midsummer festive customs, their continuity from pagan to Christian contexts, and their symbolic use in medieval literature, particularly Arthurian romances. I think Billington's hermeneutic framework of Midsummer Solstice as metaphor can also be usefully applied to the Robin Hood legend. Jeffrey Singman, in his re-examination of the May Games records, found two examples of the Robin Hood games taking place at Midsummer. Furthermore, the ballad of Robin and the Curtal Friar is explicitly set at this time of year, as is the comparatively late ballad of Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon.

Billington argues that English and continental Midsummer customs of divinatory magic, burning wheels rolled down hills, mock kings, river battles, and derision of authority, all derive from an ancient Roman pagan festival honouring Fortuna, the goddess of fate, on June 24. There was also a strong connection to the summer solstice in this festival. The "liminal" state of the sun, at its peak but just starting to decline, was seen by the Romans and later Europeans to symbolize the vagaries of fortune. Social and political power, even life itself, could always be taken away at any moment by chance, particularly if one were prone to the ancient sin of "hubris" or pride (later symbolized by a horse in medieval literature). The Roman holiday honouring Fortuna on June 24 was a river festival known as Tiberina Descensio, and it involved floating down the Tiber river in boats, then rowing back against the current, to symbolize "change, mutability, and the passing of time". Floating, moreover, seemed to indicate giving up one's will to fate.

Billington notes that many of the festive motifs relating to the goddess Fortuna remained part of European midsummer festives customs into the Middle Ages, but were subsumed under the feast of St. John the Baptist by the Church.

Billington only looked for these motifs in medieval French and Flemish literature, but I think we can also see them in the ballad of Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.

The ballad opens at Midsummer:

But how many merry moones be in the yeere?
There are thirteen, I say;
The midsummer moone is the merryest of all,
Next to the merry month of May.

Moreover, the concept of pride shows up, with Robin making an unusual reference to riding a horse, the medieval symbol of pride:

And Little John killd a hart of greece,
Five hundred foot him fro.

"God's blessing on thy heart," said Robin Hood,
"That hath such a shot for me;
I would ride my horse an hundred miles,
To finde one could match with thee."

That causd Will Scadlock to laugh,
He laughed full heartily:
"There lives a curtal frier in Fountains Abby
Will beat both him and thee

Furthermore, Robin and the friar's reciprocal piggybacking across the river is sometimes described as "playing horsey". And indeed, we see the vagaries of fortune and pride as each goes in turn from being in control and on top to being the beast of burden. The idea of floating down the river and seeing where fate takes you also shows up in this ballad:

And coming to the middle stream,
There he threw Robin in:
"And chuse thee, chuse thee, fine fellow,
Whether thou wilt sink or swim."

Robin Hood swam to a bush of broom,
The frier to a wicker wand;

This incident also appears to be a mock "baptism", which would link it further to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, aka Midsummer Day.

There is no explicit reference to Midsummer in the later ballad of Robin Hood and Little John, but it also seems to explore the same solstitial themes. Again, we have a reciprocal baptism in a river, this time involving someone named John, recalling the baptist saint. In addition, Robin's youth and "hot"-headednesss in fighting are emphasized -- themes which Billington also links to the Midsummer sub-text in medieval and early modern European literature as mirroring the heat of the sun at its peak (with the stages of a man's life frequently symbolized by the metaphor of the four seasons). Also, there is a rapid change of fortune with the foes becoming friends.

These two ballad thus seem to fit within what Sandra Billington terms a "festive matrix", which links the Robin Hood legend to a cultural subtext of midsummer religious metaphors that can be traced back to ancient Roman celebrations.


The Green Man

We may gain some clues to Robin's mythic nature if we analyze his habitual form of dress. Why is Robin so frequently described as wearing green? Likely because he is associated with the mysterious Green Man of art and folklore. Like the Green Man, Robin possibly represents the ancient pagan god of vegetation and fertility, a primordial "Lord of the Trees".

In his seminal study of the May Games, Robin Hood scholar David Wiles wrote that:

"[I]n the figure of Robin Hood two elements are combined, the outlaw who ignores the requirements of society, and the green man, the incarnation of spring."

However, the term "Green Man" is problematic, as it has been applied to a number of very different figures from folklore and religious art over the centuries. Originally, the term referred to 17th century pageant figures, who were dressed in costumes of leaves, wielded clubs in a comically drunken manner, and behaved as "whifflers" to control crowds. These figures, because of their apparent drunkenness, became popular images for pub signs, as evidenced by the large number of Green Man pubs at the time. However, during the Reformation, such images were roundly denounced as "pagan", and the image of the whiffler on "Green Man" signs was often replaced by that of Robin Hood. Clearly, these two folk figures were already considered roughly interchangeable at this time.

The term "Green Man" was further expanded in the popular imagination, however, in 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan asserted that the late medieval foliate head carvings in medieval churches represented:

"the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe".

This perspective was accepted as standard wisdom in folklore and academic circles until the late 1970s, when two historians, Kathleen Basford and Roy Judge, examined two key components of the claim in greater detail. Basford's monograph, The Green Man, and Roy Judge's study of The Jack-in-the-Green were groundbreaking works in the field of folklore and are best viewed as companion pieces. Written almost simultaneously, published in 1978 and 1979 respectively, both took as their starting point Lady Raglan's 1939 article on the Green Man and attempted to use historical methodologies to test her claim.

Both Basford and Judge's monographs are often cited as historically documented refutations of the very influential claim made by Lady Raglan. Yet, neither author entirely rejected or disproved Lady Raglan's theory. Basford did reject Raglan's claim that late medieval English congregations were actively "worshipping" the foliate heads as pagan deities. However, Basford found that the very first appearance of such a foliate head in a European church was actually a physical "borrowing" and remounting of reclaimed ancient pagan art. Moreover, Basford admitted that perhaps a few of the later English "Green Man" carvings could be interpreted as May King figures. And of course, we know that Robin Hood WAS equated with the May King in the May Games of the 15th and 16th century. Furthermore, Basford almost automatically accepted Lady Raglan's name for the figure. And while Judge could find no direct historical evidence of a link between the 18th century "Jack" figure and the late medieval carvings, he still accepted Lady Raglan's (and C.J.P. Cave's earlier) equation of the two figures as a potentially valuable "poetic insight".

More recent scholarship has also gone on to rehabilitate Lady Raglan's offhand and much maligned equation of these various green/man motifs. Brandon Centerwall, in his article "The Name of the Green Man" (in Folklore, 1997) notes several examples of 16th century English church art that seem to explicity equate the pageant figures called "Green Men", who act as whifflers with the earlier medieval foliate head carvings. He concluded that:

"... when Lady Raglan pondered the foliate head in St Jerome's, Llangwm, Gwent she recollected the "extraordinary number of 'Green Man' inns all over the country"(Raglan 1939, 53). It was her intuition that a phenomenon so widely diffused as the Green Man inns must be ancient in origin and must stem from the same root as the equally widely diffused foliate heads of church architecture. It is unfortunate that she subsequently dragged into her hypothesis every green figure in sight, but heroriginal intuition was not only correct but grounded on sound observation. It was not just luck. // By the standards of sober scholarship, her argument would never pass muster today. Lady Raglan has no business being right, yet there it is: the name of the "Green Man" was, and is, the Green Man."

Lorraine Stock, in a paper entitled "Lords of the Wildwood: The Wild Man, the Green Man, and Robin Hood", delivered at the International Robin Hood Conference [collected in Hahn, ed., Robin Hood in Popular Culture Violence, Transgression, and Justice (D.S. Brewer, 2000)] argued that the modern tendency to "lump" such figures together (as Lady Raglan did) is actually not a new phenomenon at all. Indeed she argues that these figures ARE semantically analogous, and have been perceived as such at least since the late medieval period when both the Robin Hood ballads/games and the foliate head church carvings flourished in England.

In her analysis of Green Man carvings at Exeter Cathedral, Stock states quite boldly that: "I believe that exposure to the conjoined iconography of a May queen and May king, Mary and the Green Man in the local cathedral ...suggested or influenced the creation of festive representations of another May king and queen, Robin and Marian, in Exeter" [the location of the first recorded Robin Hood play-game in 1427].

Moreover, Stock points out that:

"A fourteenth century misericord at Southwell [14 mi. NE of Nottingham] depicts a seated human male figure, from whose mouth issue two branches of oak leaves, each as large as he is. Thisotherwise human figure wears a gown and a stylized coif, hood, or cap. Situated in the heart of Robin Hood's literary locale, this misericord's "Green Man" could easily suggest the Lincoln green-gowned outlaw, devotee of Mary, and greenwood denizen of the forest near Nottingham."

Thus, while Lady Raglan's claim may have lacked scholarly rigour, we see that Robin Hood was explicitly associated with the Green Man at least as early as the Reformation, and possibly even in the earliest medieval forms of the legend.

BBC Radio Documentary about the Green Man (28 minutes in Real Audio)





God of the Witches

In her highly controversial and now discredited book The Witch Cult in Europe, and its sequel, God of the Witches, anthropologist Margaret Murray proposed that paganism did not die out with the Christianization of Europe, but instead, practitioners of what she called the "Old Religion" retreated in secret into the woods at night to continue their ancient rituals. Murray suggested that the witch craze in Europe was an attempt by the Church to eradicate these last vestiges of the earlier nature religions.

Murray claimed that the deity worshipped in these cults was a horned woodland god that dated back to Paleolithic hunting cultures, whom the mediaeval Church equated with Satan.

For Murray, the legend of Robin Hood was a veiled reference to the mediaeval witch cult, in which "Robin Hood" was one of the names for the leader of a coven, who was considered both priest and incarnate god:

"The cult of Robin Hood was widespread both geographically and in time, which suggests that he was more than a local hero in the places where his legend occurs. In Scotland as well as England Robin Hood was well known, and he belonged essentially to the people, not to the nobles. He was always accompanied by a band of twelve companions, very suggestive of a Grandmaster and his coven. One of those companions was Little John, a name which may be compared with the Basque Janicot. Robin Hood and his band were a constituent part of the May-day ceremonies, they had special dances and always wore the fairies' colour, green. He was so intimately connected with the May-day rites that even as early as 1580 Edmund Assheton wrote to William ffarington about suppressing 'Robyn Hoode and the May games as being Lewde sportes, tending to no other end but to stir up our frail natures to wantonness.' In all the stories and traditions of Robin Hood his animosity to the Church is invariably emphasized, an abbot or prior was regarded as his legitimate prey. In one of the oldest Ballads of this popular hero, there is a description of how he went to be let blood by his cousin the prioress of a convent of nuns; she treacherously left the wound unbound and he bled to death. Part of the account shows, however, that his death was expected, for his route to the priory was lined with people, mourning and lamenting for his approaching death. ... If then there were more than one Robin Hood at the same time in different parts of the country his ubiquity is explained; the name would then mean Robin with a Hood, and would be the generic appellation of the god."




The Horned God

Although Margaret Murray's theory was obviously flawed, resting as it did on errors of fact and faulty assumptions, the depiction of Robin as a horned nature deity is still compelling.

Following Murray, Robert Graves rather cryptically argued for the identification of Robin as a stag-antlered deity:

"It seems likely that Llew's [a Celtic sun god] mediaeval successor, Red Robin Hood was also once worshipped as a stag. His presence at the Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance would be difficult to account for otherwise, and 'stag's horn' moss is sometimes called 'Robin Hood's Hatband'. In May, the stag puts on his red summer coat."

There is certainly evidence that horned gods were revered in Britain over many centuries, despite cultural shifts. For instance, a carved stone from the Romano-Celtic period was found in the north of England bearing the image of a horned human figure and the inscribed name "Belatucadros". The Romans, of course, brought with them their own horned woodland god, Sylvanus, better known by his Greek name, Pan, who enjoyed a serious revival among 18th romantic English poets. The Danes, who ruled the north of England from the 9th to the 12th centuries, also had a history of Horned God worship, as evidenced by the golden icon from 5th century Denmark at left.

As a heroic and mysterious figure who lives in the forest, subsisting entirely on venison, it is not difficult to interpret Robin as a Lord of the Deer. Indeed, he is even explicity described in A Gest of Robyn Hode, the longest of the surviving mediaeval ballads, as a horned being. Little John, who is in disguise and acting as the Sheriff's servant, describes Robin Hood as an green "hart" (an antlered stag), in order to trick the Sheriff into an ambush:

"Yonder I sawe a ryght fayre harte,
His coloure is of grene;
Seven score of dere upon a herde
Be with hym all bydene.

"Their tyndes are so sharpe, maister,
Of sexty, and well mo,
That I durst not shote for drede,
Lest they wolde me slo."

While this passage may be dismissed as a joke, it is important to note that in the early ballads, Robin and the outlaws routinely trick the Sheriff by telling him a "truth" that he will misinterpret. Even Robin Hood scholars Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren admit that this ironic passage is "perhaps subliminally mythic".

In images and literary descriptions, Robin almost always wears a cap or a hood, perhaps to conceal the metaphoric horns sprouting from his head, the mark of his forgotten divinity. Robin is an outlaw, or wolfshead, shunning civilization for the wild. The "outlaw" status may also reflect the demonization of the Horned God by the Christian church. Even in the Christianized versions of the story, Robin steals from church officials, who are depicted as corrupt.

Robin's weapons and tools further link him to ancient woodland gods and pagan practices. The bow so strongly associated with him was also the weapon of Diana, virgin Goddess of the Hunt, and its shape echoes the bi-horned crescent moon. Robin's secondary weapons, the quarterstaff and sword, are phallic emblems of virility, well known to Tarot practitioners as esoteric symbols. Even the horn with which Robin calls his followers has meaning, recalling the hidden horns on his head.

The sexual connotations of this "horniness" are not insignificant, as the pagan Lord of the Wildwood is also the lusty god of sexuality. What is Pan, after all, but the King of the Satyrs? Twentieth century screen depictions of Robin Hood have, of course, emphasized his sexual attractiveness, with the most handsome and desired men of their generations playing the role: Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Richard Greene, Sean Connery, Michael Praed, Jason Connery, Kevin Costner, Patrick Bergin, Cary Elwes and Matthew Poretta.

The woodland god, in the form of Pan, is the god of the pan pipes, and music in general. Not surprisingly, then, it is through remnants of minstrel songs that the legend of Robin has been preserved. Robin is the protector of the innocent, the defender of the weak and poor. In this respect, he embodies the gentler aspect of the Horned Lord, in his role as the guardian of the small creatures, as so beautifully described in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, in the chapter entitled "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn".

In the 1980s British TV series "Robin of Sherwood", creator Richard Carpenter presented Robin Hood as the spiritual son and apprentice of Herne the Hunter, a shaman/god who wore a ritual stag's head headress. Herne the Hunter was originally a folklore figure, the ghost of a gamekeeper, who haunted Windsor Forest. His legend is best known from a mention in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor:

There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
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
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.

In God of the Witches, Margaret Murray posits that both Herne and Robin Hood were local variants of the Horned God of the witch cult, or his priestly representatives.




Wood Sprite and Trickster

Because of the similarity in name, Robin Hood is often thought to be a manifestation of Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous hobgoblin also known as Puck. Jacob Grimm apparently noted the close association of the two Robins, but did not elaborate upon it.

Robin Hood is a clearly a trickster figure, and may have indeed taken on attributes associated with Robin Goodfellow. He is often content to publicly humiliate a foe, rather than kill him. Moreover, he is a master of disguise and enjoys misleading his enemies.




Germanic Gods

The Saxons re-paganized Britain after the initial conversion to Christianity under the Romans, and the Danes brought a later wave of pagan culture after even the Saxons themselves had converted to Christianity. It is the shared mythology of these two cultures, then, that is most likely to have had the strongest potential pagan influence on the construction and development of the Robin Hood legend.

Within the Germanic pantheon (common to both the Saxons and the Danes), the chief god is Woden or Odin. As both a Summer Lord and a leader of the Wild Hunt, Woden is often proposed as a Robin precursor.

In the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk, Little John swears constantly "by him that died on tree". Now, this expression is generally interpreted to refer to Christ on the cross; however, it is more strongly evocative of Woden, who sacrificed himself to himself by hanging for nine days on the world tree Yggdrasil, until he had almost perished. Yggdrasil spanned the three levels of Norse cosmology, and was a haven to wildlife. As a primordial paradise, Yggdrasil could thus be equated with Sherwood. Interestingly enough, Little John is bound to a tree after being captured by the Sheriff in the very early ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and must be rescued at the last moment by Robin Hood, in the guise of Sir Guy, a Winter King archetype.

An equally compelling candidate for a Robin prototype within the Germanic pantheon is Woden's rival (or sometimes son) Ull (also known as Hollin, Holler, Oller, Uller or Vulder). He is the Norse god of archery, and the personification of Winter. According to some versions of the Norse myths, each summer, Ull must descend to Hel so that Odin, in his role of Summer King, can govern the weather. Ull is sometimes portrayed as the husband of the giantess Skadi, another personification of Summer; elsewhere he is one of the lovers of Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty.

Robin Hood, as a Year God, thus takes on attributes of both Odin and Ull, playing both the Summer King and the Winter King, and wins the love of the Summer Queen, or Queen of the May, Marian.

Ull: Archer God of Winter

Skadi and Njord (another Winter God)

A further Germanic model for Robin Hood would be Vali, the archer god of revenge. Vali, son of Odin and Rind, goddess of the frozen earth, was conceived for the sole purpose of killing Hoder (the blind god of Darkness) in revenge for the death of Baldur (the god of Light). Robin, of course, is a clear force of vengence against the oppressive feudal hierarchy. In the early ballads, he takes savage revenge on his enemies, beheading both Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff.

Vali is considered the Eternal God of Light, and is one of the few gods prophecied to survive Ragnorak (the Germanic equivalent of Armageddon). Like Robin, Vali is also a vegetation god, born from the frozen earth, Rind, as she thaws and accepts the advances of Odin, the Summer God.

Vali: God of Vengence and Rebirth

Finally, Robin Hood also assumes some of the attributes of the Germanic trickster god Loki, who continually stirs up trouble among the other gods, and deftly evades capture on many occassions.



Death of a Celtic Hero

In one of the earliest versions of "The Death of Robin Hood" ballad, we find a surprising pagan echo. As Robin makes his way to Kirklees abbey, to be bled as a cure by his cousin the Abbess, he meets on old woman kneeling on a bridge "banning" (i.e. mourning for) him:

Until they came to blacke water,
And over it laid a planke.

Upon it there kneeled an old woman,
Was banning Robin Hoode;
"Why dost thou bann Robin Hoode?" said Robin,
"Knowst thou of him no good?"

"We women have no benison
To give to Robin Hoode;
Wee weepen for his deare body,
That this day must be lett bloode."

Robin Hood scholars Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren suggest that the old woman is a "washer at the ford" figure. In Celtic folklore, this fairy figure presaged a hero's death in battle by washing his bloodied garments in a river as he passed by on his way to war. Her presence, in somewhat altered form, at the death of Robin Hood, links the mediaeval woodland hero to such ancient semi-divine figures as the Irish hero Chu Chulainn, suggesting that the Robin legend may have roots in pre-Roman British mythology.



Robin's Band of Merry Men

Robin, like Woden, is the leader of a Wild Hunt, as represented by his band of Merry Men.

In Shakespeare's "As You Like It", the deposed Duke and his retinue are described in the following manner:

They say he is already in the forest of Arden, and
a many merry men with him; and there they live like
the old Robin Hood of England.

As "Merry Men", the Duke's followers participate in an arcane hunting ritual, with obvious pagan overtones. They place the antlers of the slain deer on the successful hunter's head and carry him on their shoulders, while singing:

What shall he have that kill'd the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home;
[The rest shall bear this burden]
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn;
It was a crest ere thou wast born:
Thy father's father wore it,
And thy father bore it:
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.

Robin's band of Merry Men may thus be a holdover from ancient pagan men's mysteries and initiation rites. This secret brotherhood retreats to the woodland to live in all-male isolation, hunting together and sharing cameraderie. In the modern context, remnants of these practices may have survived in customs such as the "blooding" of a young man at his first fox hunt in England. The Iron John movement (though arising from misguided political perspectives) is an attempt to reclaim some of these lost traditions. Even fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons, although thoroughly Christianized, may harken back in structure and practice to such pagan rites.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men may also be a late British parallel to the Celtic Fianna, or Fenians, of the Irish myth cycle. The Fianna were a legendary band of heroes who defended Ireland and Scotland and kept law and order. Their main passtime, however, was hunting. Their leader was the semi-divine Fionn mac Cumhaill, a decidedly Robinesque figure.




Maid Marian

Marian represents the Goddess in her maiden aspect. According to Rober Graves, the name "Marian" is a variant of "Mare", one of the most ancient names for the Lady, dating back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Minoan Crete. In his masterpiece of mythological interpretation, The White Goddess, Graves equates Maid Marian with the goddess of the sea and sensuality, variously known as Mari, Miriam, Mariamne, Myrrha, Marina and Mary Gipsy. This goddess was Christianized as both St. Mary of Egypt and the Virgin Mary.

Graves suggests that the name "Maid Marian" is a sort of cultural pun on the term 'mermaid' (literally, "maiden of the sea"), also formerly written 'merry-maid'.

The painting above is by Howard Pyle, whose beloved 19th century retelling of the legend, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, has become a classic of the canon.

The goddess Mare also appears in classical mythology as Venus, who rose from the sea and is the mother of the archer god of love, Cupid.

Maid Marian's hidden divinity manifests itself in this mysterious paradox: she is clearly Robin's lover, yet she remains ever the "Maid" or virgin, both in name and reputation. Thus she is like the threefold goddess, ever renewed as the maiden in springtime.
Despite the limited acceptable social roles for mediaeval women, Marian is not disparaged in the Robin Hood ballads for following her lover Robin into the Greenwood and living the life of an outlaw, as the only woman among a band of men. As the maiden aspect of the Goddess, Marian is simultaneously slut and virgin, expressing her sexuality outside patriarchal norms of morality and choosing her own lover, yet remaining autonomous and unsubordinated. Her strong, unconventional character is made clear in the ballad of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

Moreover, Robert Graves argues that Marian is not even faithful to Robin, but rather, during the dark time of the year, becomes the mistress of his mythical rival. Thus, she becomes the Lady of Misrule during Twelfth Night celebrations.

Although Marian appears in very few of the surviving ballads, she is central to the legend. Even where Marian is absent, it is apparent that Robin is inherently the consort of the Goddess in her maiden aspect. In the Christianized versions, Robin is devoted to the Virgin Mary and follows a code of chivalry, never harming a woman.






With her bow & quiver and crescent-shaped horn,

Marian closely resembles the classical goddess Diana/Artemis, the virgin huntress,

whose consort at Nemi was the King of the Wood.




Beltane Rites & Greenwood Marriage

The pagan themes embedded within the Robin Hood legend become increasingly clear when we examine the rites associated with the celebration of Beltane, or May Day as the festival is now more commonly known.

In pre-christian Britain on Beltane Eve, large bonfires were lit on the hilltops, and the community gathered and danced around them. Young couples would sneak away from the festivities, into the shadows and nearby woods to tryst. They would stay out all night, ostensibly gathering hawthorn flowers (the "may" flower) to welcome in the dawn on May Day morn.

In anticipation of these trysts, the young men would prepare a lovers' nest somewhere private, in the nearby woods or countryside. They would make a bower, a crude shelter of branches, decorated with flowers. The folk name for these love nests is "Robin Hood's Bowers". The young couples would make love in these rustic arbours and their unions were sanctioned by the community and referred to as "Greenwood Marriages". Children born of these couplings were considered particularly blessed and known as "Children of the May" or "merrybegots". Some couples chose to make their liaisons more formal and entered into trial marriages at Beltane, becoming handfast for a year and a day. At some of these weddings, a Friar Tuck figure officiated.

With the Christianization of Britain, these gleefully orgiastic rites became somewhat more symbolic, yet they were not entirely extinguished. To this day, many towns in Britain still choose a young girl as their May Queen (originally representing the maiden aspect of the Goddess) and her traditional escort is the Green Man.

In the May Games the mediaeval church festival begun at Exeter, (generally held somewhat later in May or June, at Whitsuntide), the King and Queen of the May were explicitly represented by Robin Hood and Maid Marian in plays and processions.

We are all familiar with the image of the Maypole and the quaint country dances that children still do around it. Originally, however, the Maypole was a pagan symbol of sexuality, as phallic as Robin's quarterstaff, and those dances were fertility rites. At Beltane, the Maypole, a large sapling harvested from the greenwood, was thrust into the earth, symbolizing the sacred marriage of the god and goddess, in their springtime form of young lovers. Young men and women danced with ribbons around the pole, binding it to the earth to ensure fertility for the land and the people. Similarly, Morris dancers, traditionally all "merry men", or as Robert Graves suggests, "Marian's men", danced and beat the earth with phallic sticks to ensure fertility.




Robin as Sun God and Sacrificial King

As the King of the May, Robin can be equated with Bel, the Celtic sun god worshipped at Beltane. Called "The Shining One", Bel is parallel to Apollo in the Classical Greek pantheon. Indeed, Robert Graves argues that, during Celtic times, Stonehenge would have been the primary shrine of Bel, and he points out that the ancient monument's layout is similar to an Apollonian temple.

Appropriately, Apollo is both an archer and the twin brother of Artemis, who appears to be a likely model for our image of Marian. Apollo also appears as a lusty woodland god equivalent to Pan in the myth of Daphne, the nymph who transformed herself into a laurel tree to escape the god's advances.

If we assume Robin & Marian are siblings, like Apollo & Artemis, we are faced with the problematic issue of incest. Within mythology, however, brother/sister incest is often accepted unthinkingly. We need only look to Mt. Olympus for evidence of that. We see the same theme played out between Arthur & Morgana in the Arthurian tradition. Within the modern pagan religion of Wicca, the sun god is depicted as first the son and then the lover of the earth goddess, as the cycle of the year progresses. Each year, the god is sacrificed at the harvest, only to be reborn as his own son/self at the Winter Solstice. The pagan theme of divine incest goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians, and is often tied to the divine right of kings.

Robin, like Arthur, may also be a Sacrificial King, whose blood is shed to heal the land. In the ballad The Death of Robin Hood, Robin is ill and goes to his cousin, the Abbess of Kirklees, a knowledgeable healer, in order to be bled and cured. The Abbess cuts Robin's vein, then allows him to bleed to death. Within the ballad, the Abbess betrays Robin for petty political reasons. However, from a pagan perspective, the Abbess may have been carrying out a ritual duty to collect the blood of the Sacrificial King (who must not die of illness or old age) and pour it on the earth for the good of the land. In fact, the Abbess may represent Marian in her crone aspect. Indeed, she was portrayed as such in the 1970s film Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. Notice also the theme of consanguinity, in that the Abbess is called Robin's "cousin".

Coincidentally, we see the theme of consanguinity played out in popular culture as well. Only a decade after Sean Connery portrayed the aging Robin Hood in Robin and Marian, his son, Jason Connery, took on the role of Robert of Huntington in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood. The King is dead; long live the King!





The Robin and the Wren

The association of Robin Hood with the Celtic god Bel clarifies some otherwise arcane yuletide customs and helps us interpret an obscure English nursery rhyme.

Within the Welsh mythic cycles, Bel, of course, had a rival, Bran. Respectively, their totemic birds were the Robin of springtime, and the Raven of winter, while their sacred woods were the Willow and the Alder. Over time, within English folklore, these rival gods came to be represented by the Robin & the Wren; the Oak King & the Holly King; Robin Hood & the Sherrif of Nottingham.

The battle between Bel and Bran is a religious metaphor for the cyclical transition from light to darkness and back again throughout the year. While we have already equated Bel with Apollo, the archer god of the Sun, Robert Graves suggests that Bran is equivalent to Saturn, the classical god of time and crops. Upon the Wheel of the Year, Beltane, or May Day, the beginning of summer, is the festival of Bel, and its celebration is clearly linked to the Robin Hood legend; the Midwinter celebrations of Yule and Twelfth Night, on the other hand, mark the festival of Bran, or Saturn, with customs going back to the Roman Saturnalia. During the dark time of the year surrounding the Winter Soltice, Bran appears as the Lord of Misrule at Twelfth Night, and as Father Time, with his hour glass and scythe (both symbols of Saturn) on New Year's Eve. In these last days of the year, Bran, the Holly King, is making merry, before he must relinquish his role as Lord of the Greenwood to his rival, Bel, the Oak King.

The yule log, of course, is traditionally a piece of oak. Graves links the burning of the yule log to both the Robin Hood legend, and the bizarre custom of "Hunting the Wren" on St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day):

"By his successful defiance of the ecclesiastics, [the historical] Robin became such a popular hero that he was regarded as the founder of the Robin Hood religion, and its primitive forms are difficult to discover. However, 'Hood' (or Hod or Hud) meant 'log' - the log put on the back of the fire - and it was in this log, cut from the sacred oak, that Robin was once believed to reside. Hence, 'Robin Hood's Steed', the wood-louse which ran out when the Yule log was burned. In the popular superstition, Robin [Hood] himself escaped up the chimney in the form of a Robin [bird] and, when Yule ended, went out as Belin against his rival Bran, or Saturn - who had been 'Lord of Misrule' at the Yule-tide revels. Bran hid from pursuit in the ivy-bush disguised as a Gold Crest Wren; but Robin always caught and hanged him. Hence the song:

'Who'll hunt the Wren?' cries Robin the Bobbin."

The song Graves refers to is part of an old yuletide custom still practiced in Ireland and parts of England. Young boys hunt and kill a wren on St. Stephen's Day or on Christmas day itself. At any other time of the year, it was considered unlucky to harm this bird. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes the wren hunt as it was carried out on the Isle of Man in the late 19th century:

"On the twenty-fourth of December, towards evening, all the servants got a holiday; they did not go to bed all night, but rambled about till the bells rang in all the churches at midnight. When prayers were over, they went to hunt the wren, and having found one of these birds, they killed it and fastened it to the top of a long pole with the wings extended. Thus they carried it in procession to every house chanting the following rhyme:

"We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,

We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,

We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,

We hunted the wren for every one."

When they had gone from house to house and collected all the money they could, they laid the wren on a bier and carried it in procession to the parish churchyard, where they made a grave and buried it 'with the utmost solemnity, singing dirges over her in the Manks language, which they call her knell; after which Christmas begins.' The burial over, the company outside the churchyard formed a circle and danced to music."

A similar custom prevailed in parts of Ireland, although the rhyme is a bit more to the point:

"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;

Although he is little, his family's great,

I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat."

In Irish tradition, the treat was usually money or food. "

By killing the wren, the boys are symbolically slaying the Holly King, so that his solar brother, the Oak King, can again take his place as the Lord of the Greenwood. At the same time, they represent Robin Hood's band of merry men, catching and executing the Sherrif of Nottingham.

The flip side of this yuletide custom can be found in the Mother Goose rhyme "The Death and Burial of Cock Robin" :


Who killed Cock Robin?

"I," said the Sparrow,

"With my bow and arrow,

I killed Cock Robin."

Who saw him die?

"I," said the Fly,

"With my little eye,

I saw him die."

Who caught his blood?

"I," said the Fish,

"With my little dish,

I caught his blood."

Who'll make his shroud?

"I," said the Beetle,

"With my thread and needle,

I'll make his shroud."

Who'll dig his grave?

"I," said the Owl,

"With my spade and trowel,

I'll dig his grave."

Who'll be the parson?

"I," said the Rook,

"With my little book.

I'll be the parson."

Who'll be the clerk?

"I," said the Lark,

"I'll say Amen in the dark;

I'll be the clerk."

Who'll be chief mourner?

"I," said the Dove,

"I mourn for my love;

I'll be chief mourner."

Who'll bear the torch?

"I," said the Linnet,

"I'll come in a minute,

I'll bear the torch."

Who'll sing his dirge?

"I," said the thrush,

"As I sing in the bush

I'll sing his dirge."

Who'll bear the pall?

"We," said the Wren,

"Both the cock and the hen;

We'll bear the pall."

Who'll carry his coffin?

"I," said the Kite,

"If it be in the night,

I'll carry his coffin."

Who'll toll the bell?

"I," said the Bull,

"Because I can pull,

I'll toll the bell."

All the birds of the air

Fell to sighing and sobbing

When they heard the bell toll

For poor Cock Robin.

Listen to a Real Audio folk-punk rendition of this song by Chris Piuma

The first lines of the Cock Robin rhyme and the wren hunting song that Graves quotes are nearly identical in structure: "Who'll hunt the wren?"; "Who killed Cock Robin?" Perhaps the old Mother Goose rhyme even relates to a lost pagan custom of hunting the robin, possibly at the Summer Solstice, parallel to the wren hunt at Yule. It is not surprising we should find old pagan wisdom hidden in the apparently nonsensical rhymes of Mother Goose, as she clearly represents a sort of crone goddess or witch figure.

The "bow & arrow" reference in the first stanza of the rhyme suggests that Cock Robin is a metaphor for Robin Hood. Similary, the other birds and animals represent characters within the Robin Hood legend, and can be taken together as Robin's band of merry men. The third stanza, in which the fish catches Robin's blood in a dish, brings us back to the theme of the sacrificial king. Indeed, the fish symbolizes the goddess of the sea, or the mermaid, and thus Marian.

It is interesting to note that the pall-bearer, the Wren, Robin's rival, appears as part of a mated pair in this rhyme: Who'll bear the pall?/"We," said the Wren,/"Both the cock and the hen;/We'll bear the pall." All the other birds and animals, however, act out their parts alone. Where does the Wren's mate come from? It could be argued that she is, again, Marian, since, in another children's rhyme, Jenny Wren is the mate of Robin Redbreast. Graves points out that, during the yuletide and Twelfth Night revels, Maid Marion became the Lady of Misrule, the mistress of the Lord of Misrule, and thus the consort of Robin's rival, the Wren or Holly King. Graves claims that this inconstancy on Marian's part was well known, and that she was often referred to as Maud Marian during the yuletide celebrations, "Maud" being a diminutive of Mary Magdalene, and used in the middle ages as an epithet equivalent to "whore". Within more contemporary versions of the Robin myth, we see this theme played out in the abduction, attempted rape and attempted forced marriage of Marian by the Sherrif of Nottingham (or, sometimes, Prince John or Guy of Gisbourne).

In "going over to the dark side" at midwinter, Marian evokes another maiden goddess of the classical world, Persephone, who was abducted by Pluto and taken to the underworld to be its Queen. Persephone's mother, Demeter, Goddess of Grain, was so distraught by her daughter's abduction, that she refused to allow anything to grow. The world withered and died, experiencing its first winter. Zeus intervened, allowing Persephone to return to her mother and the world for most of the year. However, because Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds (varying from 3 to 6 in various versions of the myth) during her stay with Pluto, Zeus decreed that each year, Persephone must return to the underworld for the equivalent number of months. During the months her daughter is absent, Demeter mourns, and we experience the dark time of the year, or winter.

The pattern of romantic triangle between Robin, his rival, and Marion can also be found within Arthurian lore. We have already suggested that, as a sacrificial king, Robin is equivalent to Arthur. Similarly, Maid Marion's inconstancy at Twelfth Night can be equated with Guinevere's infidelity. Moreover, although Arthur and Lancelot become fast friends, they first meet each other as rivals and engage in single combat. In fact, Lancelot is referred to within some sources as the son of King Ban of Brittany, whom Graves equates with Bran. Camelot, moreover, is presented as a land of eternal summer. However, when Marian betrays Arthur with Lancelot, the realm becomes a bleak, barren wasteland, engulfed in winter, with nothing able to flourish or grow.




Sherwood Forest -

A Mythical Place, Outside of Time

The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest

There is much debate as to where Robin's forest really was. Although Nottingham has the strongest literary tradition, Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire and Plumpton Park in Lancashire also lay claim to the legend. Sadly, the Sherwood Forest near Nottingham is greatly diminished in size, increasingly encroached by human settlement. To learn about the efforts being made to conserve what is left, check out the Sherwood Initiative homepage.

Within the remaining forest of Sherwood is a huge, ancient oak tree, known as the Major Oak. Once thought to be 1000 years old, it is the fabled meeting place of Robin and his men. The tree is now propped up to prevent it succumbing to age. Modern dating techniques suggest the tree may actually be only 300 years old, but it is symbolic of Robin and the Greenwood nonetheless. As we have argued, Robin is the Oak King, and any such venerable tree would be sacred to him.

The name "Sherwood" derives from the term "shire wood", meaning the forest local to a shire or region. As such, it is a fairly generic term. Rather than being a single physical place, Sherwood is more likely an abstraction, representing "the wilderness" as a whole.

Within the legends of Sherwood, time stands still. It is perpetually May Day inside Sherwood forest. The Wheel of the Year has ground to a halt. Robin and Marian are the eternal springtime divine lovers. They live happily ever after together without needing to marry, have children, work or grow old. Although there is a ballad telling of the death of Robin, the character will not die. Rather, he is continuously reborn, like the Sun at the Winter Solstice. The tales of Robin & Marian continue to be rewritten and retold even to this day. Perhaps, just as Arthur sleeps in Avalon, to arise when Britain has need of him, so too does Robin sleep in Sherwood, ready to awake and return.




Peter Pan:

The Infantilization of the Robin Hood Myth

In their eternal youth and freedom from responsibility, Robin & Marian remind us of a similar couple in a later legend: Peter Pan & Wendy. Indeed, Never Never Land is a sort of idealized Sherwood, and the The Lost Boys are juvenile equivalents of the Merry Men.

As Peter Pan, the Edwardian derivative, Robin returns to his roots as a fey being from a magical realm, albeit now as an immature boy, stripped of the strong overtones of sexuality inherent in the adult figure of Robin Hood, despite his evocative surname.




Comic Book Robins:

Projecting the Robin Hood Myth into the Future.

Comic books have often been described as modern mythology, transmuting ancient tales of wonder and transmitting them to the young in a secularized form. Robin Hood has been portrayed many times in comic book form, and other more modern heros have also assumed his mythic attributes.

Could the young, masked, cape-wearing comic book superhero named Robin thus be a manifestation of Robin Hood in pop culture? I think so! Here we find Robin paired with the "bird" of night, The Bat, roughly equivalent to the Wren or Raven of winter. This time, however, the relationship between the two is not one of rivalry, but rather that of master and apprentice. And where is Marian in this modern myth? Given her two-fold nature, she shows up twice: first in her maiden aspect as Bat Girl; then as the Lady of Misrule, the Cat Woman. Sherwood now is an urban jungle: Gotham City. The Sheriff has mellowed into Commissioner Gordon, but there are plenty of villains to battle just the same.

A more blatant example of a Robin Hood figure in the modern mythical realm of comic books is, of course, The Green Arrow.



Cross-Cultural Parallels:

Hindu Archer God and

Mediaeval Chinese Heroes

The story of Robin Hood has many parallels around the world in myth, folklore and mythology. One of the most strikingly similar stories is the Ramayana, the sacred tale of the adventures of the Hindu lord Rama, an atavar (human incarnation) of the god Krishna.

Rama was a crown prince who was wrongly exiled to the forest for fourteen years. He was a skilled archer who won his wife's hand by proving his skill with the bow. His beautiful wife Sita and his loyal brother Laksmana accompanied him into the forest in exile, where they lived by hunting game. Sita was abducted by a monster and Rama was aided in rescuing her by a monkey named Hanuman, a servant of the monkey king. In return, Rama helped the deposed king of the monkeys reclaim his throne from a usurper brother.

From this synopsis, we can see the structural parallels with the Robin Hood story. Robin, the outlaw archer, banished to the forest, like Rama, is accompanied by his wife Marian (from the early 16th century at least) and his loyal lieutenant (and, in a 17th century version, cousin) Little John. In many of the later romances, Marian is abducted by the sheriff or his men and must be rescued. Also, since Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Robin Hood has been the supporter of King Richard over his usurper brother Prince John.

Certainly from the time of the British colonization of India, beginning in 1600 CE, there has been contact between the two cultures. The evolution of the Robin Hood story may thus in part reflect a knowledge of the Ramayana among Britons who had visited India. At the same time, the two cultures share an ancient linguistic and cultural heritage, representing the western and eastern extremities of the Indo-European language region. The basic similarity then, of Rama and Robin, as archer heroes exiled to the forest, may reflect an ancient Proto-Indo-European myth that has developed separately in the two wideflung cultures, only to coalesce further at the time of renewed cultural contact.

Looking farther east, beyond the Indo-European region, we find a second surprising parallel to the Robin Hood myth, in the 14th century Chinese novel "The Water Margins", about the 12th century outlaw Song Jiang and his band of 108 freedom fighters who retreated to a swampland wilderness to wage war against a corrupt feudal system. Perhaps, here the closer parallel is to the historical figure Hereward the Wake, the Saxon hero who held Ely and its surrounding boglands against the invading Normans. Hereward, of course, is thought to be one of the historical models for the Robin Hood legend.


Robin of Sherwood Fanfic

A Greenwood Handfasting

Robin Hood and Morgan le Fey

Maid Marian and the Hunter's Moon




Robin Hood Links

Robin Hood - Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood

The Robin Hood Project - Text & image archive, U of Rochester

A Fancyfull Historie of Robyn Hood - Shakespearean-style play



Lamhfada's Mythology and Folklore Banner Exchange


Back to Hester's House



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