Relations with the Hunt
Chances are, meeting the Hunt is going to be the beginning of a bad night, but good or ill will befall you largely depending on your response to such a meeting. The prudent traveler will take pains to avoid it altogether; still, you may ask, "what can I do to protect myself from the Hunt should it happen my way?"
If you treat the Huntsman with respect and reverence, or show cleverness, you might be rewarded for it. The "Tale of Wod, the Wild Huntsman" tells the story of a drunken peasant returning home from town when the Hunt descends upon him. When a voice yells out, "In the middle of the path!" he ignores it and is forced into a tug of war contest with Wod (Odin). The peasant outsmarts Wod by wrapping his end of the chain around a tree. Wod congratulates him and gives him a share of a freshly killed stag. The man has no bucket, so Wod fills the man's boot with blood and his sack with meat. By morning the man's gift is impossibly heavy as it has turned to gold. (Ashliman)
Shouting to the Hunt in reverence might get you gifted with a horse's leg that, if kept until morning, will turn into gold. Anyone seeing the Hunt could request a sprig of parsley from its leader, which would protect from the madness and death brought on by seeing the Hunt. In Strassburg, people who hold the hounds of the Danish Huntsman are given presents that later turn to gold, and in Northern Germany, foam wiped from the Huntsman's horse turns to gold pieces.
There are dire consequences for failing to respect the Hunt. One story tells of a miller's son who rudely yells out to the Hunt, "Take me with you!" to which the Huntsman replies, "If you want to hunt, you can also eat," and throws him a human leg. Human limbs are the most common "gifts" given to those who mock or show disrespect to the Wild Hunt, but there are worse rewards. In one frightening version, a man coming home from Widecombe Fair calls out to the Huntsman, "Hey Huntsman! What sport have you had? Give us some of your game!" The Huntsman then tosses him a small bundle which is later revealed to be the man's smallest child, dead. This tale warns that, in disrespecting the Hunt, we turn our back on the past and diminish our connections to both the Land and our ancestral guardians. The cost of such behavior is borne by our children.
hould due respect and reverence not be sufficient, there are other ways to protect oneself from the Furious Host. The most common are prayer and the brandishing of crosses, though this only tends to make the dead angry as it reminds them of a heaven they are not likely to see. Another method involves throwing oneself to the ground face down and holding tight to any plants or tufts of grass one can find. This fourteenth century German charm may also prove efficacious against the Wild Hunt:
Woden's host and all his men
Who are bearing wheels and willow twigs
Broken on the wheel and hanged.
You must go away from here.
(Gundarsson, trans. Höfler)
Based on this charm, it appears as though Woden is travelling with dead criminals, those "broken on the wheel and hanged," offering further support for the idea that the Hunt served as punishment or a kind of earthly limbo. But more than this, this charm evidences the very prevalent early modern belief that the spirits of people who died before their time (such as warriors, criminals, and suicides) had to remain on earth, suspended between this world and the Other.
Seasons of the Hunt
Though it may be met any night of the year (especially those associated with the dead or their festivals), the Hunt is most prevalent on Winter nights, particularly between Yule and Twelfth Night. This goes back to the very old belief that the dead walk among the living during Yule. Ancestors were honored at this season and food was often left out for them, because the relationship between the living and the dead was essential for the well-being of livestock and family. The Wild Hunt may then be associated with ancestral spirits who come to collect their portion of the year's spoils in return for a good harvest the following year.
During Christmas and Twelfth Night, Norwegian peasants would leave a sheaf or a measure of grain in the fields to feed the Huntsman's horse. Until the beginning of this century, young men in Norway enacted the Wild Hunt at Winter Solstice. Costumed and masked, they embodied the souls of their ancestors. Their task was to punish those who violated the rural traditions, usually by stealing beer and livestock. If the riders were given food and drink, however, they brought prosperity.
Wild Hunt as Folk Practice
Medieval records of the Wild Hunt may in fact be descriptions of ritual folk dramas and processions. K.H. Gundarsson cites Vulpius' sixteenth century description of the NŸrnberg Fastnacht train as "the wild host, very strange figures, horned, beaked, tailed . . . roaring and shouting . . . Behind, on a black, wild steed, Frau Holda, the Wild Huntress, blowing into the hunting horn, swinging the cracking whip, her head-hair shaking about wildly like a true wonder-outrage." He also observes, "similar living trains appear in the Tirol, such as the Perchtenlauf described by J.V. v. Zingerle in 1857:
It was a kind of masked procession. The masked ones were called Perchten. They were divided into beautiful and ugly. . . . The beautiful Perchten often distributed gifts. So went it loudly and joyfully, if the wild Perchte herself did not come among them. If this spirit mixed among them, the game was dangerous. One could recognize the presence of the wild Perchte when the Perchten raged all wild and furious and sprang over the well-stock. In this case the Perchten ran swiftly away from each other in fear and tried to reach the nearest, best house. For as soon as one was under a roof, the Wild One could not have them any longer. Otherwise she would tear apart anyone, who she could get possession of. Even today, one can see places where the Perchten torn apart by the wild Perchte lie buried. (Sitten, BrSuuche, und Meinungen des Tiroler Volkes, in Höfler, p. 59)."
As recently as the 1940's the Hunt was heard going through West Coker near Taunton on Halloween night. And the unlucky visitor to the West Country of England may still meet the Hunt upon the moors. But whether in chronicle or legend, in folk practice or personal experience, the Hunt's underlying meaning and message remains one of remembrance: remember the dead, your kin, so your crops may grow by ancestral blessing; honor them lest they come like warriors to the field claiming tribute. Give the dead their due: a passing thought, a furtive glance, and the telling of their tale.
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William Spytma studied English Literature at Central Michigan University. An artist, writer, and carver, he specializes in the study of Norse mythology, art and folklore.
Copyright © 2002 by Ari Berk and William Spytma. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.
Art: Cernunnos as found on the Gundestrup Cauldron.