The Wild Hunt is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal, spectral group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, with horses and hounds in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it.
The hunters may be the dead or fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead). The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Theodoric the Great, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, the Welsh psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd or the Germanic Woden (or other reflections of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer ("Wuodan's Army") of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.).
It has been variously referred to as Wilde Jagd (German: "wild hunt/chase") or Wildes Heer (German: "wild army"), Herlaþing (Old English: "Herla's assembly"), Woden's Hunt, Herod's Hunt, Cain's Hunt, the Devil's Dandy Dogs (in Cornwall), Gabriel's Hounds (in northern England), Ghost Riders (in North America), Mesnée d'Hellequin (Old North French: "household of Hellequin"), Cŵn Annwn (Welsh: "hounds of Annwn"), divoký hon or štvaní (Czech: "wild hunt", "baiting"), Dziki Gon or Dziki Łów (Polish), Oskoreia or Åsgårdsreia(originally oskurreia) (Norwegian: "noisy riders", "The Ride of Asgard"), divja jaga, meaning "the wild hunting party" or "wild hunt", in Slovene; Caccia Morta (Dead hunt) or Caccia selvaggia (wild hunt) in Italian; Estantiga (from Hoste Antiga, Galician: "the old army"), Hostia, Compaña and Santa Compaña ("troop, company") in Galicia, and güestia in Asturias.
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.
In Germany, where it was also known as the "Wild Army", or "Furious Army", its leader was given various identities, including Wodan (or "Woden"), Knecht Ruprecht (cf. Krampus), Berchtold (or Berchta), and Holda (or "Holle"). The Wild Hunt is also known from post-medieval folklore.
The ritual re-enactment of the Wild Hunt was a cultural phenomenon among many Gallic 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 associated with the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia because of his aspect of berserking. Odin acquired the aspect 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, with which the Hunt was often identified, 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.
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.
In view of this, John Lindow of the University of California, Berkeley (Lindahl et al. 2002:433) notes that more recent scholarship "would argue a basis in an Indo-European warrior cult in which young warriors imbued with the life force fight with the characteristics of animals, especially those of wolves, and are initiated into a warrior band [...]."
The Hindu document Bhagavata Purana mentions a similar appearance in south Asia: "This particular time is most inauspicious because at this time the horrible-looking ghosts and constant companions of the lord of the ghosts are visible. Lord Shiva, the king of the ghosts, sitting on the back of his bull carrier, travels at this time, accompanied by ghosts who follow him for their welfare."
In England, the historical figures St. Guthlac (683–714) and Hereward the Wake (died ca. 1070) were reported to have participated in the Wild Hunt; and, in the Peterborough Chronicle, there is an account of the Wild Hunt's appearance at night, beginning with the appointment of a disastrous abbot for the monastery, Henry d'Angely, in 1127:
many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.
Reliable witnesses were said to have given their number as twenty or thirty, and it is said, in effect, that this went on for nine weeks, ending at Easter. Orderic Vitalis (1075–c. 1142), an English monk cloistered at St Evroul-en-Ouche, in Normandy, reported a similar cavalcade seen in January 1091, which he said were "Herlechin's troop" (familia Herlechini; cf. Harlequin).
While these earlier reports of Wild Hunts were recorded by clerics and portrayed as diabolic, in late medieval romances, such as Sir Orfeo, the hunters are rather from a faery otherworld, where the Wild Hunt was the hosting of the fairies; its leaders also varied, but they included Gwydion, Gwynn ap Nudd, King Arthur, Nuada, King Herla, Woden, the Devil 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 exhausted what his huntsmen carried, declared he would go to hell for it. A stranger came and offered a drink, only to steal Dando's game and then Dando himself, with his dogs giving chase. The sight 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; he and his men are still riding, because the greyhound has yet to jump down.
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. At Cadbury Castle in Somerset an old lane near the castle was called King Arthur's Lane and even in the 19th century the idea survived that on wild winter nights the king and his hounds could be heard rushing along it.
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 (Heath) or Wisht Hounds, in Cornwall Dando and his Dogs or the Devil and his Dandy Dogs, in Wales the Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of Hell, and in Somerset as Gabriel Ratchets or Retchets (dogs). In Devon the hunt is particularly associated with Wistman's Wood.
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.
An abundance of different tales of the Wild Hunt are recorded in Germany. In most tales, the identity of the hunter is not made clear, in others, it is:
- a mythological figure named Waul, Waur, Waurke, Wod, Wode, Wotk, or Wuid, who is thought to be derived from the ancient Germanic god of the wind and the dead, Wodan;
- a mythological figure named Frie, Fuik, Fu, Holda or Holle, who is thought to be derived from the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg;
- an undead noble, most often called Count Hackelberg or Count Ebernburg, who is cursed to hunt eternally because of misbehaviour during his lifetime, and in some versions died from injuries of a slain boar's tusk.
Sometimes, the tales associate the hunter with a dragon or the devil. The hunter is most often riding a horse, seldom a horse-drawn carriage, and usually has several hounds in his company. If the prey is mentioned, it is most often a young woman, either guilty or innocent. The majority of the tales deal with some person encountering the Wild Hunt. If this person stands up against the hunters, he will be punished. If he helps the hunt, he will be awarded money, gold or, most often, a leg of a slain animal or human, which is often cursed in a way that makes it impossible to be rid of it. In this case, the person has to find a priest or magician able to ban it, or trick the Wild Hunt into taking the leg back by asking for salt, which the hunt can not deliver. In many versions, a person staying right in the middle of the road during the encounter is safe.
In Scandinavia, Odin's hunt was heard but rarely seen, and a typical trait is that one of Odin's dogs was barking louder and a second one fainter. Beside one or two shots, these barks were the only sounds that were clearly identified. When Odin's hunt was heard, it meant changing weather in many regions, but it could also mean war and unrest. According to some reports, the forest turned silent and only a whining sound and dog barks could be heard.
In western Sweden and sometimes in the east as well, it has been said that Odin was a nobleman or even a king who had hunted during the Sundays and therefore was doomed to hunt down and kill supernatural beings until the end of time. According to certain accounts, Odin does not ride, but travels in a wheeled vehicle, specifically a one-wheeled cart.
If houses were built on former roads, they could be burnt down, because Odin did not change his plans if he had formerly travelled on a road there. Not even charcoal kilns could be built on disused roads, because if Odin was hunting the kiln would be ablaze.
One tradition maintains that Odin did not travel further up than an ox wears his yoke, so if Odin was hunting, it was safest to throw oneself onto the ground in order to avoid being hit. In Älghult in Småland, it was safest to carry a piece of bread and a piece of steel when going to church and back during Christmas. The reason was that if one met the rider with the broad-rimmed hat, one should throw the piece of steel in front of oneself, but if one met his dogs first, one should throw the pieces of bread instead.
Leader of the Wild Hunt
- Brittany: King Arthur.
- Catalonia (Spain): Count Arnau (el comte Arnau), a legendary nobleman from Ripollès, who for his rapacious cruelty and lechery is condemned to ride to hounds for eternity while his flesh is devoured by flames. He is the subject of a classic traditional Catalan ballad.
- England: Woden; Herla; later de-heathenised as a Brythonic King who stayed too long at a fairy wedding feast and returned to find centuries had passed and the lands populated by Englishmen); Wild Edric, a Saxon rebel; Hereward the Wake; King Arthur; Herne the Hunter; St. Guthlac; Old Nick; Jan Tregeagle, a Cornish lawyer who escaped from Hell and is pursued by the devil's hounds. On Dartmoor, Dewer, Old Crockern or Sir Francis Drake.
- France: Artus, King Arthur (Brittany); Lord of Gallery (Poitou).
- Germany: Wodan, Berchtold, Dietrich of Berne, Holda, Perchta, Wildes Gjait. The Squire of Rodenstein and Hans von Hackelberg (both Sabbath-breakers).
- Guernsey: Herodias (Rides with witches at sea)
- Ireland: Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna; Manannan—also known as The Fairy Cavalcade.
- Lombardy (Italy): King Beatrik, la Dona del Zöch (Lombard:the Lady of the Game).
- Netherlands: Wodan, Gait met de hunties/hondjes (Gait with his little dogs), Derk met de hunties/hondjes (Derk with his little dogs), Derk met de beer (Derk with his boars/bears), het Glujende peerd (the glowing horse). Ronnekemère, Henske met de hondjes/Hänske mit de hond (Henske with his little dogs), Berend van Galen (Beerneken van Galen, Bèrndeken van Geulen, Bommen Berend or Beerneken, the bishop of Münster, Germany).
- Scandinavia: Odin; King Vold (Denmark); Valdemar Atterdag (Denmark); the witch Guro Rysserova and Sigurdsveinen (Norway).
- Wales: Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh god of the Underworld.
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. This is also the origin of the Dutch "Zwarte Piet". The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin's mask (red and black).
In Flanders, Belgium, the wild hunt is rarely seen, but there are accounts of feasts in the fields, most often held by alvermannen (singular form: alverman) of elves. One would be invited to sit at the table if the banquet was approached decently; then you could eat and drink and sit there for eternity, unless you ask for salt, then the party disappears instantly. If the party was dissrupted, there would be a punishment; usually the light in your eyes would be blown out.
Karaçay version of Nart Epos calls Narts (deities of Caucasian Mythology) "gök atlıla" (Tr: Gök Atlıları, En: Celestial Horsemen, Horsemen of the Sky) and in cırs (Cır: Poem in Karaçay, Tr: Yır, English: Folk Ballad) dedicated to Sosuruk (Karaçay equivalent of Circassian Sosruquo) it is clearly mentioned that Sosruko leads the host of the skies, who ride horses, and their yells are heard when they encounter their enemies in the sky and start a battle.
In modern culture
The Wild Hunt features in Karl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz, in one of Franz Liszt's Transcendental Études of 1837 and in Arnold Schönberg's oratorio Gurre-Lieder of 1911. The subject of Stan Jones' 1948 American country song "Ghost Riders in the Sky", which tells of cowboys chasing the Devil's cattle through the night sky, resembles the European myth. Cartoonist Gary Larson referenced this in a cartoon involving "Ghost Riders in the Kitchen". Swedish folk musician The Tallest Man on Earth released an album in 2010 entitled The Wild Hunt.
A short story from 1861 by Spanish writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer entitled El monte de las ánimas features a version of the Wild Hunt that appears on Halloween. William Butler Yeats evoked the Wild Hunt in his 1893 poem "The Hosting of the Sidhe". The Wild Hunt is referenced in Cormac McCarthy's 1979 novel Suttree, and it forms a major element of the plot in Philip Pullman's 1982 children's novel Count Karlstein.
The Wild Hunt appears frequently in modern fantasy fiction by writers such as Peter Beagle, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Raymond E. Feist, Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Penelope Lively, Andrzej Sapkowski and Mary Stewart, and it features prominently in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel Child of the Hunt. In Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series Dresden Files, the Wild Hunt is led by the Erlking, later named as Herne the Hunter. The Wild Hunt also features in The Elder Scrolls series of video games.
- Schön, Ebbe. (2004). Asa-Tors hammare, Gudar och jättar i tro och tradition (Fält & Hässler, Värnamo). ISBN 91-89660-41-2 pp. 201–205.
- Katharine M.Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, s.v. "Wild Hunt", p 437. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
- Katherine M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, pp 49–50 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
- "In the Middle Ages the wild hunt was also called Cain's hunt, Cain being another progenitor of the Wandering Jew": Venetia Newall, "The Jew as a witch figure", in Katharine Mary Briggs, and Newall, eds. The Witch Figure: Folklore Essays by a Group of Scholars in England 2004:103f.
- Encyclopaedia of the Celts: Devil's Dandy Dogs – Diuran the Rhymer.
- Called so in the north of England, according to Robert Chambers, The Book of Days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, vol. II, 1883, s.v. "October 11: Spectre-dogs";
"...He oftentimes will start,
For overhead, are sweeping Gabriel's Hounds,
Doomed, with their impious lord, the flying hart
To chase for ever through aërial grounds," (William Wordsworth), "Though narrow be that old man's cares" (1807), quoted in Edwin Sidney Hartland English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, 1890, "Spectre-Dogs"; "Gabriel's hounds are wild geese, so called because their sound in flight is like a pack of hounds in full cry", observes Robert Hendrickson, in Salty Words, 1984:78.
- See S.H. Houston, "Ghost Riders in the Sky" Western Folklore, 23.3 1964:153–162.
- The origin of this name is uncertain, and the reference to Asgard is reckoned to be a corruption by some scholars (a Dano-Norwegian misinterpretation).
- See, for example, Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1901, s.v. "Wild Hunt": "[Gabriel's Hounds]...portend death or calamity to the house over which they hang"; "the cry of the Seven Whistlers... a death omen".
- Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Infringement of fairy privacy", p 233. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
- Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, p 307, ISBN 0-631-18946-7
- Bhagavata Purana 3.14.23–24
- Garmonsway, G.N., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Dent, Dutton, 1972 & 1975, p. 258.
- Noted by Harold Peake, "17. Horned Deities", Man 22, February 1922, p. 28.
- K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 49. University of Chicago Press, London, 1967.
- K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 50–1. University of Chicago Press, London, 1967.
- Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. London: Grafton Books. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. p. 8.
- Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. Pub. Grafton Books, London. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. pp. 155–156.
- Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. Pub. Grafton Books, London. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. p. 32.
- Hoffmann-Krayer, Eduard; Baechtold-Staeubli, Hanns, ed. (2002). Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens. Waage- Zypresse, Nachträge. Handwörterbuecher zur Deutschen Volkskunde (in German) 1. de Gruyter. pp. 191ff. ISBN 3-11-006597-5.
Neumann, Siegfried; Tietz, Karl-Ewald; Jahn, Ulrich (1999). Neumann, Siegfried; Tietz, Karl-Ewald, ed. Volkssagen aus Pommern und Rügen (in German). Bremen-Rostock: Edition Temmen. pp. 407, 29ff. ISBN 3-86108-733-2.
Simrock, Karl (2002 reprint of 1878 edition). Handbuch der deutschen Mythologie mit Einschluß der Nordischen. Elibron Classics (in German). Adamant. pp. 191, 196ff. ISBN 1-4212-0428-2.
- Schön, p. 204, referring to a report from Voxtorp in Småland.
- K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 51. University of Chicago Press, London, 1967.
- Joaquim Maideu, "Llibre de cançons: crestomatia de cançons tradicionals catalanes", p. 50. ISBN 84-7602-319-7.
- Hole, Christina. Haunted England: A Survey of English Ghost Lore. p.5. Kessinger Publishing, 1941.
- De Nugis Curialium by Walter Map.
- Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Wild Hunt", p 436. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
- Ruben A. Koman, Dalfser Muggen Profiel, Bedum 2006. 
- Hutton, Ronald, "Paganism in the Lost Centuries", p 169, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur, 3rd ed. 2006 ISBN 1-85285-397-2.
- Carlo Ginzburg, Storia Notturna – Una decifrazione del sabba, Biblioteca Einaudi
- Grantham, B., Playing Commedia, A Training Guide to Commedia Techniques, (Nick Hern Books) London, 2000
- Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (1998), ISBN 0-226-73887-6 and ISBN 0-226-73888-4
- Kris Kershaw, "The One-Eyed God: Odin and the Indo-Germanic Mannerbunde", Journal of Indo-European Studies, (2001).
- Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, John Lindow (eds.) Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, Oxford University Press (2002), p. 432f. ISBN 0-19-514772-3
- Otto Höfler, Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen, Frankfurt (1934).
- Ruben A. Koman, 'Dalfser Muggen'. – Bedum: Profiel. – With a summary in English, (2006).
- Margherita Lecco, Il Motivo della Mesnie Hellequin nella Letteratura Medievale, Alessandria (Italy), Edizioni dell'Orso, 2001
Media related to Wild Hunt at Wikimedia Commons
- "Wild Hunt". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.
- Ari Berk and William Spytma, "Penance, Power, and Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt"
- The Wild Hunt in Orcadian traditional legend at Orkneyjar
- Liam Rogers, "The Wild Hunt" 1999