The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt was a folk myth prevalent in former times across Germany and Britain. The introduction of Christianity also brought this folk myth to Scandinavia. The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, horses, hounds, etc., in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it. The hunters may be the dead, or the fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead).
It has been variably referred to as the Wild Hunt, Woden’s Hunt, the Raging Host (Germany), Herlathing (England),
Mesnee d’Hellequin (Northern France), Cŵn Annwn (Wales) Cain’s Hunt, Herod’s Hunt, Gabriel’s Hounds, Asgardreia and even in Cornwall “the devil’s dandy dogs.”
Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. Mortals getting in the path of or following the Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead. A girl who saw Wild Edric’s Ride was warned by her father to put her apron over her head to avoid the sight. Others believed that people’s spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.
Medieval legends are mostly from Germany. Historical figures reported to have participated in the Wild Hunt were St. Guthlac (683-714), and Hereward the Wake
(died ca. 1070). From the 12th century, there are testimonies from England: In the Peterborough Chronicle, the chronicler attests the Wild Hunt’s appearance at the appointment of a disastrous abbot for the monastery. Around the year 1132, the anonymous monk wrote:
“Tha huntes waeron swarte and micele and lardlice, and here hondes ealle swarte and bradegede and lardlice, and hi ridone on swarte hors and on swarte
(“Then the hunters were black and large and terrifying, and their hounds were all black and broad-eyed and terrifying, and they rode on black horses and black goats….”)
This particular Wild Hunt was banished by the intervention of the monks of the monastery and the local nobility.
The leaders were known by many names, including Berta, Holle, Hulda, Selga. The commonest name is Diana, which may stem from the Roman goddess’s connection with the hunt, the night, and witchcraft, but the Wild Hunt is known exactly in those areas that have no known connection with the worship of the Roman Diana, and it may also stem from “Diana of the Ephesians” the only goddess mentioned in the New Testament; it is certain that another name for this figure, Herodias, comes from that source.
While these Wild Hunts are recorded by clergymen, and portrayed as diabolic, late medieval English romance like Sir Orfeo, the hunters are rather from a fairy otherworld, as in Celtic countries, where the Wild Hunt was the hosting of the Sidhe, the fairies; its leaders also varied, but they included Gwydion, Gwynn ap Nudd, King Arthur, Nuada, and Herne the Hunter. Many legends are told of their origins, as in that of “Dando and his dogs” or “the dandy dogs”: Dando, wanting a drink but having exhausting what his huntsmen carried, declared he would go to hell for it, and when a stranger came and offered a drink, only to steal Dando’s game and then Dano himself, with his dogs giving chase, a sight that was long claimed to have been seen in the area.
Another legend recounted how King Herla, having visited the Fairy King, was warned not to step down from his horse until the greyhound he carried jumped down; he found that three centuries had passed during his visit, and those of his men who dismounted crumbled to dust, and he and his men are still riding, because the greyhound has yet to jump down.
The Wild Hunt is known from the post-medieval folklore of Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and to a lesser extent Norway. One of the origins postulated for the modern Harlequin is Hellequin, a stock character in French passion plays. Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin’s mask (red and black).
The myth of the Wild Hunt has through the ages been modified to accommodate other gods and folk heroes, among them King Arthur and, more recently, in a Dartmoor folk legend, Sir Francis Drake.
A rare modern example of a Wild Hunt legend dates from the 1950s: a group of boys vandalising trees in Windsor Great Park came across a horn. Two of the boys refused to touch it, but the third picked it up and blew it. The call was answered by the cry of the hunt and the baying of hounds. The boys ran for a nearby church, but the boy who blew the horn fell behind. The hounds grew closer, there was the sound of a loosed arrow and the boy who blew the horn fell dead. No arrow was found, nor was a wound.
In certain parts of Britain, the hunt is said to be that of hell-hounds chasing sinners or the unbaptised. In Devon these are known as Yeth Hounds, and in Somerset as Gabriel Ratchets.
In Quebec, the legend of the “chasse-galerie”, or witched canoe, is a favourite. It can be compared to another ghostly troop: the Santa Compaña in Galicia, a procession of the dead that recruits those who meet it.
As Kris Kershaw has exhaustively documented (Kershaw 2001), the ritual re-enactment of the Wild Hunt was a cultural phenomenon documented among many Gaulish and Germanic peoples. In its Germanic manifestations the Harii painted themselves black to attack their enemies in the darkness. The Heruli, nomadic, ecstatic wolf-warriors, dedicated themselves to Wodan.
The Norse god Odin in his many forms, astride his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, came to be deeply associated with the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia because of his aspect of berserking. Odin acquired another aspect (to add to his many other names and attributes) in this context, that of the Wild Huntsman, along with Frigg.
The passage of this hunt was also referred to as Odin’s Hunt. People who saw the passing hunt and mocked it were cursed and would mysteriously vanish along with the host; those that joined in sincerity were rewarded with gold (H.A. Guerber, 1922). In the wake of the passing storm (which the Hunt was often identified with), a black dog would be found upon a neighboring hearth. To remove it, it would need to be exorcised similar to the custom for removing changelings. However, if it could not be removed by trickery, it must be kept for a whole year and carefully tended.
According to H.A. Guerber:
“The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either [that of] a visionary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs, called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale.”
Whatever the case, the Hunt was most often seen in the autumn and winter, when the winds blew the fiercest. Otto Höfler (1934) and other authors of his generation emphasized the identification of the hunter with Odin, looking for the traces of an ecstatic Odin cult in more recent customs from German-speaking areas.