Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 11, 2013 8:30:52 GMT -5
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is the generic term for the apparition of a mounted huntsman, or group of huntsmen, riding through the air accompanied by a pack of phantom hounds. The Hunt was more often heard than seen, thundering across the sky at night over the forests and moorland of northern and western Europe in the manner of a violent storm. The hunters in this spectral parade were usually identified as the dead or sometimes as fairies. The “Fairy Rade” of Ireland and Lowland Scotland, a solemn mounted precession of fairy nobility, is a version of the Wild Hunt motif. Toward the end of the Middle Ages in England, the Hunt came to be associated with witchcraft – the potent image of a host of screaming witches on their brooms led by a demon or perhaps even Satan himself was often used by ministers to frighten their congregations.
Throughout the long history, the myth/folk motif of the Wild Hunt has constantly been modified, with various local and national gods and folk heroes assuming the role of leader. In Scandinavian countries, it was usually Odin; in Denmark, Valdemar Atterdag (often called “King Waldemar” in English); in Germany, Woden (Odin) and Hackelnberg; in Wales, Gwynn Ap Nudd (King of the Fairies); and in England, Herne the Hunter, King Herla and even Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake. The fact the Wild Hunt could be led by the Devil is in keeping with one of the Huntsman’s roles as a demonic figure collecting the souls of sinners. The Wild Hunt was known by various names throughout Europe, including the Mesnee d’ Hellequin in Northern France, Herlathing (England), Cwn Annwn (Wales), Woden’s Hunt and the Raging Host in Germany, the Oskorei in Norway, Odensjakt in Denmark and Sweden, and Ghost Riders – a collection of phantom cowboys doomed to ride the sky forever in pursuit of the Devil’s herd – in the United States.
Wherever it appeared, the Hunt was an ominous sign portending death or disaster and it was thus closely connected in folklore and myth with the Black Dog, Headless Horseman and Death Coach. Indeed, the English folk motif of the “hell waine” (hell wagon), a death coach known in Ireland as the “coach-a-bower,” performs a similar function to that of the Wild Hunt, roaring about the countryside at night collecting the souls of the damned. Most reports of so-called “phantom coaches” during the past 200 years or so have their origin in tales of the Wild Hunt.
The ancient origin of the folk motif of the Wild Hunt is difficult to trace, though it is undoubtedly, as described by Ari Berk and William Spytma in their article “Penance, Power and Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” “an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship and royal pastime.” In Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the name Odensjakt means “Odin’s Hunt,” and it is in Odin (Teutonic “Woden”) the chief divinity of the Norse pantheon, that many characteristics of the Wild Huntsman may be found. In his role as a wind god, Odin would blast through the sky riding his magical eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, gathering the souls of the dead. The arrival of Odin’s Hunt was signaled by the baying of hounds, the hoof beats of horses, roars of thunder, crashes of lighting and furious winds. Odin, charging across the night sky followed by the spirits of the dead, presaged catastrophes such as war, plague and the death of all who witnessed the terrifying scene.
As Susan Hilary Houston notes in her article “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” in Western Folklore (July 1964), there may be a further connection between the Wild Hunt and the saga of Odin, in the wild rides of the Valkyries (Old Norse Valkyrja, “Choosers of the Slain”). These minor female deities were Odin’s handmaidens and soared over battlefields mounted on winged horses and armed with helmets and spears, ready to carry off the slain to Valhalla. The role of the Valkyries as collectors of the souls of dead warriers ties in well with the primary function of Odin’s Wild Hunt, though Houston’s contention that the Valkyries were “the original Wild Hunters” is perhaps stretching the evidence.
It is from England the first description of an unearthly procession for the dead is described as a hunt, recorded in the Peterborough Chronicle for the year 1127:
Let it not be thought remarkable, when we tell the truth, because it was fully known over all the country, that as soon as he came there ... then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and big and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that there were between his town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night. Trustworthy people noticed them at night, and said that it seemed to them there might well be about twenty or thirty hornblowers. This was seen and heard from the time he came there all Lent up to Easter.
This terrifying description of the Wild Hunt from Peterborough Abbey was written by monks as a portent for the coming of Henry of Poitou, a greedy and scheming abbot appointed to the post, in their opinion, only because he was related to King Henry I. Writing later in the same century, around 1190, Walter Map in his De Nugis Curialium (Courtier’s Trifles) speaks of King Herla, a legendary king of the ancient Britons who became the leader of the Wild Hunt after a visit to the Other world. Map, an English author of Welsh descent, describes “nocturnal companies” known as the familia Herletbingi – the “household of Herlethingus.”
The Brothers Grim collected a number of tales of the German Wild Hunt in the early 19th century, the most accessible collection of these stories in English Being The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm (1981) edited by Donald Ward. By the time the brothers were recording German folktales, the leader of the Hunt was generally believed to be Hans von Hackelnberg (said to have died in either 1521 or 1581), the semi-historical chief huntsman to the Duke of Brunswick in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany. The tale “Hackelnberg, The Wild Huntsman” tells how the huntsman was so dedicated to the chase that when he lay on his deathbed, he prayed to God that he could exchange his place in Heaven for permission to follow the hunt in Solling Forest “until Judgment Day.” The irreverent huntsman also asked to be buried in Solling Forest. As a result of this agreement, four times every night, the terrible echoing sounds of the hunting horn can be heard “signaling the chase and the baying of the hounds can be heard in the wilderness.” It was also believed that if anyone heard the sounds of the Hunt during the night, but persisted in going hunting the following day, he would suffer terrible misfortune or receive a serious injury during the chase, possibly even a broken neck.
The narrator of the story of Hackelnberg, Hans Kirchhof of Wendunmuth, relates an experience he claimed to have had while riding through Solling Forest on the way from the town of Einbech to Ublar in southern Lower Saxony:
I became lost and chanced upon Hackelnberg’s grave. It was located in a clearing something like a meadow, but it was covered with a wild growth and with reeds. It measured about an acre and was somewhat longer than it was wide. Though the area was surrounded by trees, none grew on this clearing. One end extended toward sunrise, and at the other end there was a raised, flat red stone about eight or nine feet long, and about – as it seemed to me – five feet wide. The stone did not face toward the east as gravestones usually do, but instead one end pointed south and the other north. I was told that no one would ever be able to find this grave – whether from inquisitiveness or from a sense of purpose – no matter how determined and adventurous he might be. But if someone should chance upon the site, he would find a pack of frightful black dogs next it. I, however, saw no such spooky apparition ....
In another tale of Grimm’s tales of Hackelnberg, “Toot Osel,” the Wild Huntsman is recorded as being witnessed at midnight in his carriage with his yelping hounds leading the way, “rushing through storm and rain.” In this particular story, a night owl flies before him, called by the local people Toot Osel. Any travelers who encountered this ghostly owl would throw themselves to the ground face down and let the Wild Hunt pass by above them, with the spectral pack of hounds barking furiously and the Huntsman calling out “Hoho! Hoho!” Similarly, in tales of the Raging Horde from upper and middle Germany, an old man known as “Faithful Eckhart” went before the host carrying a white staff and warning people to clear the way for harm would befall them if they witnessed the phantom procession.
Two other stories from the Grimms brothers illustrate another motif of the Wild Hunt legend – found also in England – that described the punishment of a mortal who mocks the hunt in some maner. In “The Wild Huntsman and the Tailor,” a tailor sitting at his work bench next to a window heard the furious noise of the Wild Hunt passing overhead and cried out mockingly, “Hoho! Hoho! Kliffklaff, kliffklaff!” Suddenly, a horse’s hoof crashed through the window and struck the tailor such a blow that he fell to the floor almost dead. When he managed to regain consciousness, he heard a terrible voice shouting, “If thou wouldst hunt with me, then though wilt suffer with me!” In the Grimms’ “The Wild Huntsman Pursues the Moss People,” the Moss People – “little men and women who lie upon green moss are clothed all over in green moss,” are described as being the sport of the Wild Huntsman. On one occasion, a peasant from Arntschgereute, near Saalfeld (east-central Germany) was cutting trees in the mountains when he heard the terrible din of the Wild Hunt approaching. Wishing to join the Hunt, the peasant began yelling like a hunter, but the hunt passed by and the man finished his work and went home. The next morning, when the peasant entered his stable, he found a quarter of a Moss Woman hanging there “as though she was his share of the catch.” A local nobleman, Lord von Watzdorf, later told the terrified man not to touch the body as the Huntsman would challenge him for it. The peasant followed his advice and the game soon vanished from his barn. He never again encountered the Wild Huntsman.
A very similar story, from Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor in southwestern England, is recounted by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould in A Book of the West (1899). The wood was allegedly haunted by one of England’s many packs of spectral hounds, in Devon known as the Wish (or Wisht) Hounds. One night, a farmer was riding home from Widdecombe Fair, passing an ancient stone alignment, when a pack of phantom hounds led by a ghostly huntsman flew silently and swiftly by him. Seemingly undaunted, the plucky farmer yelled out to the huntsman requesting a share of the game. “Take that!” called the huntsman, flinging down a bundle as he passed overhead. As it was dark, the farmer waited until he arrived home to find out what was inside the mysterious bundle. When he opened it, he was horrified to discover the body of his own child.
In English folklore, as in that of other countries, when the original name and meaning of the Wild Hunt had begun to fade from memory, the command of the Hunt was increasingly attributed to various well-known leaders of the past. As in Germany, in England, the Hunt could be led by a historical or semi-historical figure, as well as a completely fictional one. An example is Eadric the Wild, a leader of English Saxon resistance to the 11th century Norman Conquest, who held extensive lands in Shropshire and Herefordshire in the English Midlands. Legends associate Eadric with the Wild Hunt and say that he lies sleeping under the Shropshire hills and, like King Arthur, will return to lead the Hunt in a phantom procession across the sky whenever England is in danger. On the eve of the Crimean War in 1853 or 1854, a young woman from the village of Rorrington in western Shropshire claimed to have heard the sound of a horn and witnessed the spectral Hunt led by Wild Eadric astride a white horse. She described Eadric as having short dark hair, a green cap with a white feather, a short green coat and cloak, with a sword hanging form his golden belt. He was accompanied by his wife, Lady Godda, queen of the faeires, who was also dressed in green, had golden hair flowing to her waist, a band of white linen containing a gold ornament around her head and a short dagger at her waist.
Another leader of the Hunt in English folklore and mythology is Herne the Hunter. Though Herne is believed by some to have been an actual person, perhaps a gamekeeper on the estate of Richard II (1377-1399) in Windsor Forest (Berkshire), the Herne figure more likely represents the wildness of the forest itself. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, first published in 1602, Shakespeare has Falstaff impersonate Herne:
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,k 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
Receiv’d, and did deliver to your age,
This take of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
In the parish of St. Germans, Cornwall, in the southwest of England, the version of the Wild Hunt legend is known as Dando and his Dogs or the Dandy Dogs. The story involved the Devil carrying off a dissolute priest named Dando who hunted on Sundays. Since then, he and his hounds are seen, or heard, racing across the moorland and valleys on dark nights. In Wales and the west of England, the leader of the Hunt was said to be Gwynn ap Nudd. As the King of the Welsh fairies (the “Twlwyth Teg”) and Lord of the Dead, Gwynn ap Nudd drives the Cwn Annwn (the “hounds of the Otherworld,” sometimes called the Hounds of Hell), his pack of white hounds with blood-red ears, in pursuit of the souls of the recently deceased. In the north of England, this spectral group of hounds with red ears was known as the Gabriel Hounds. These supernatural beasts were said to foretell death by their yelping at night. After Christianity became the accepted religion, some attributed the yelping to the souls of unbaptized children wandering about the skies awaiting Judgment Day.
English statesman and writer Gervase of Tilbury, writing around 1212 in the Otia imperialia (“Recreation for an Emperor”) calls the Hunt familia Arturi, “the household of Arthur,” and later, in the early 13th century in some parts of France, it was known as la Chasse Artus (“Arthur’s Hunt”). In England, there are tales of King Arthur and his men thundering by on moonlit winter nights at Castle-An-Dinas in Cornwall and also at the South Cadbury hillfort in Somerset, both of which have associations with a possible historical King Arthur. Harlequin, the masked character of Early Modern theatre, also has associations with the Wild Hunt. Probably a version of King Herla, the origin of Harlequin seems to lie in Hellequin, a black-faced messenger of the devil in the Medieval French miracle plays. Hellequin was said to originate inside the earth, hence, his blackened face, and would roam the countryside at night with a group of demonic horsemen, known as la Maisnie Hellequin (“Hellequin’s Escort”), pursuing the damned souls of evildoers to Hell.
In Germany, there were two aspects to the Wild Hunt myth, the Wild Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) of northern Germany and the Wutendes Heer (“Furious Host”) of the south. However, the two are not identical. Although it was the function of the Wutendes Heer to warn of future catastrophes, the Wilde Jagd was the more feared because it could bring immediate disaster. In some parts of Germany, the Wilde Jagd was led by female deities, such as Perchta, Holda and Frau Guaden, who would lead a train of dead children through the night sky. Such pagan soul-gatherers soon became demonized by the Church in the Middle Ages and consequently, it was soon the Devil himself who was said to lead the Wild Hunt.
Source: Lore of the Ghost: The Origins of the Most Famous Ghost Stories Throughout the World by Brian Haughton.