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"), Odens jakt or Vilda jakten (Swedish: "the hunt of Odin" or "wild hunt"). 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 concept of the Wild Hunt was developed by the German folklorist Jacob Grimm, who first published it in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie. It was in this work that he popularised the term Wilde Jagd ("Wild Hunt") for the phenomenon. Grimm's methodological approach was rooted in the idea – common in nineteenth-century Europe – that modern folklore represented a fossilized survival of the beliefs of the distant past. As such, in developing his idea of the Wild Hunt, he mixed together recent folkloric sources with textual evidence dating to the Medieval and Early Modern periods. This approach came to be discredited within the field of folkloristics during the twentieth century, as the dynamic and evolving nature of folklore was recognised.
Grimm interpreted the Wild Hunt phenomenon as having pre-Christian origins, arguing that the male figure who appeared in it was a survival of folk beliefs about the god Wodan, who had "lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power... a spectre and a devil." Grimm believed that this male figure was sometimes replaced by a female counterpart, whom he referred to as Holda and Berchta. In his words, "not only Wuotan and other gods, but heathen goddesses too, may head the furious host: the wild hunter passes into the wood-wife, Wôden into frau Gaude." He added his opinion that this female figure was Woden's wife.
Discussing martial elements of the Wild Hunt, Grimm commented that "it marches as an army, it portends the outbreak of war." He added that a number of figures that had been recorded as leading the hunt, such as "Wuotan, Huckelbernd, Berholt, bestriding their white war-horse, armed and spurred, appear still as supreme directors of the war for which they, so to speak, give licence to mankind."
Grimm believed that in pre-Christian Europe, the hunt, led by a god and a goddess, either visited "the land at some holy tide, bringing welfare and blessing, accepting gifts and offerings of the people" or they alternately float "unseen through the air, perceptible in cloudy shapes, in the roar and howl of the winds, carrying on war, hunting or the game of ninepins, the chief employments of ancient heroes: an array which, less tied down to a definite time, explains more the natural phenomenon." He believed that under the influence of Christianisation, the story was converted from being that of a "solemn march of gods" to being "a pack of horrid spectres, dashed with dark and devilish ingredients".
The anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr noted that for modern readers, it "is generally difficult to decide, on the basis of the sources, whether what is involved in the reports about the appearance of the Wild Hunt is merely a demonic interpretation of natural phenomenon, or whether we are dealing with a description of ritual processions of humans changed into demons."
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.
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 Yule. 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; Manannán—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.
Connections to the witches' sabbath
Historian Ronald Hutton noted that there was "a powerful and well-established international scholarly tradition" which argued that the Medieval Wild Hunt legends were an influence on the development of the Early Modern ideas of the witches' Sabbath. Hutton nevertheless believed that this approach could be "fundamentally challenged".
M.M. Banks cautioned against viewing the Wild Hunt as a peculiarly European phenomenon, identifying a similar tale of cavalry being heard on the wind that was located in the early twentieth-century in the Ghats, India.
In modern culture
The Wild Hunt is featured 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. The Wild Hunt is a 2009 Canadian drama/horror film from Animist Films, produced and directed by Alexandre Franchi. In 2013, Swedish black metal band Watain released an album titled '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 also appears in the Wild Cards anthology Dealer's Choice, led by Gabriel Hardesty channeling the spirit of Herne the Hunter.
The Wild Hunt motif has appeared in various forms of literature, such as Alan Garner's The Moon of Gomrath and Brian Bates' The Way of Wyrd. The Wild Hunt appears frequently in modern fantasy fiction by writers such as Peter Beagle, Cassandra Clare, Susan Cooper, Charles de Lint, Raymond E. Feist, Alan Garner, Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Penelope Lively, C. Robert Cargill, Andrzej Sapkowski, Michael Scott, Robin Lafevers (Mortal Heart) and Mary Stewart. It was used as the album cover for the 1988 metal album, Blood Fire Death by Bathory. It features prominently in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel Child of the Hunt, in Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series Dresden Files, where the Wild Hunt is led by the Erlking, later named as Herne the Hunter, and is the central plot feature in Fred Vargas' crime fiction novel The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. The Wild Hunt is also featured in the video game franchise The Elder Scrolls and in the "Witcher" series of games, based on the fantasy writings of Andrzej Sapkowski.
In contemporary Paganism
Various practitioners of the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca have drawn upon folklore involving the Wild Hunt to inspire their own rites. The anthropologist Susan Greenwood provided an ethnographic account of one such Wild Hunt ritual performed by a Pagan group in Norfolk during the late 1990s, stating that they used this mythology "as a means of confronting the dark of nature as a process of initiation." Referred to as the "Wild Hunt Challenge" by those running it, it took place on Halloween and involved participants walking around a local area of woodland in the daytime, and then repeating that task as a timed competition at night, "to gain mastery over an area of Gwyn ap Nudd's hunting ground". If completed succesfully, it was held that the participant had gained the trust of the wood's spirits, and they would be permitted to cut timber from its trees with which to make a staff. The anthropologist Rachel Morgain noted that when conducting ethnographic research among the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca in San Francisco, she too came across a "ritual recreation" of the Wild Hunt.
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"...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.
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- 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).
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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