Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.
Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.
It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.
An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.
If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.
The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.
The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt. One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.
Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?
Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.
Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.