The Wild Hunt (also known variously as Woden's Hunt, Herod's Hunt, Cain's Hunt, the Devil's Dandy Dogs, Gabriel's Hounds, and in North America Ghost Riders) is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe. 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). The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Dietrich of Berne, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, Woden (or other reflexes of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer ("Wuodan's Host") of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.), or Arawn.
It has been variously referred to as Wilde Jagd (German: "wild chase") or Wildes Heer (German: "wild host"), Herlaþing (Old English: "Herla's assembly"), Mesnée d'Hellequin (Old North French: "household of Hellequin"), Cŵn Annwn (Welsh: "hounds of Annwn"), and Oskoreia or Åsgårdsreia (Norwegian: "ride of Asgard"). 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).
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 of the Wild Hunt are mostly from the area encompassed by modern-day Germany, where it was also known as the "Wild Army", or "Furious Army". There, its leader was given various identities, including Wodan (or "Woden"), Knecht Ruprecht (cf. Krampus), Berchtold (or Berchta), and Holda (or "Holle"). 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 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 English 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 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. 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 Kernow / Cornwall Dando and his Dogs or the Devil and his Dandy Dogs, in Cymru / 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.
The ritual re-enactment of the Wild Hunt was a cultural phenomenon 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 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 (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.
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 [...]."
In Sweden, 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.
It is clear that the belief in Odin's hunt remained most widespread in the Swedish region of Götaland, where numerous toponyms testify to very early worship of Odin. It is also notable that the Odin of folklore retains a considerable number of external traits from his origins in Norse mythology. Moreoever, it appears that the beliefs in Odin maintained a strong position in the region from pagan times until modern times.
Although the figure of the wild huntsman no doubt emanates from pagan Germanic culture, it should be noted that the recent legends do not spontaneously connect the name Odin with a divinity. During the centuries, Odin has been euhemerized into a legendary character, who is often demon-like and dangerous, without any clear connection to the All-father of Norse mythology. 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.
There are several examples of origin legends where Odin appears. In Gärdlösa on Öland, there is a story that Odin once went across the Alvar of Högrum and tied his horse to a crag of rock. The crag was splintered when the strong horse pulled in the cord, and then the horse threw himself on the ground, and so the bottomless swamp of Gladvattnet was created.
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.
In Danish (Scandinavian) tradition the hunted is a female troll, old elf, or jötunn-like figure named Slattenpat, which literally means "Wobbly-boob". The ugly-looking Slattenpat runs away putting her long hanging breasts over her shoulders in order to run faster. Eventually she is caught up by the wild hunt and killed by the leader.
Circa 1948, Stan Jones transposed the Wild Hunt into a country song "Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend" which tells the story to a group of cowboys who chase the devil's herd of cattle through the night skies, tormented by madness and thirst. Many artists have produced cover versions and musical parodies of this song.
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Wild Hunt (plural Wild Hunts)