The calkins clinkered to a spark
The hunter called the pack; The sheep-dogs' fells all bristled stark
And all their lips went back.
"Lord God," the shepherds said, "They come,
And see what hounds he has;
All dripping bluish fire and dumb,
And nosing to the grass.
"And trotting scatheless through the gorse,
And bristling in the fell: Lord, it is death upon the horse,
And they're the hounds of hell!"
from "The Hounds of Hell"
Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.
* * *
Though found throughout Europe, its origins spreading far back into the mythic past, it must be remembered that the ghostly Wild Hunt is always a local phenomenon. Local heroes of history and legend get called up to join the ranks of a long succession of strange, spectral Hunt leaders, each particular to and retaining something of his or her own landscape and historical period. Each variation of the story sheds a bit more light on its possible interpretations. So, if you want to see the Hunt in all its ghostly splendor, you must be willing to follow a long and perilous trail through the folk traditions of many periods and lands.
The Wild Hunt, as it is most commonly known, is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history.
One of the earliest writers to refer to the Hunt is Tacitus, who recorded accounts of the tribes of Germania at the end of the first century C.E. He writes of the Harii, a Gaulish tribe who conducted fearful raids against their enemies:
. . . [they] are a fierce people who enhance their natural savageness by art and the choice of time. Their shields are black, their bodies painted black, and they choose black nights for battles and produce terror by the mere appearance, terrifying and shadowy, of a ghostly army. No enemy can withstand a vision that is strange and, so to speak, diabolical; for in all battles, the eyes are overcome first.
Though Tacitus provides primarily historical and ethnographic reports, we find the origins of the Hunt tradition in accounts rife with the terrible memories of invasions: night raids against the home, torches beyond the trees, unintelligible voices of unknown enemies moving beneath the moon. Such cultural memories become the stuff of legend. Even the most arcane tale may have its roots in actual events, moments of experience so powerful that they engrave themselves upon the collective memory and are relived and revived in the ghost stories of successive generations.
Not surprisingly, stories of the Hunt are most widely told among people and in countries that have either been invaded frequently, or who are frequent invaders themselves. Thus Norse, Anglo-Saxon, British, and German peoples retain strong ties to folklore of the Hunt.
In the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark the Hunt was most often named after its leader, Odin. It was called Odensjakt (Odin's Hunt), Oskerei (Horrific or Thunderous Ride), the Gandreid (Ride of the Dead), and the Asgardreia (Ride of Asgard). This Norse version of the Hunt was often seen chasing a beautiful Otherworldly maiden — perhaps a memory of grim night chases conducted by invading armies for purposes of stealing wives from their enemies. Such imagery also seems to refer to struggles for supremacy between rising patriarchal gods (embodied in the Hunt and its antlered warrior leader) and ancient European goddess cults.
In France we find the Hunt under the name of "The Family of the Harlequin." Two theories persist on the origin of this name. One (by Guerber) states that another form of the name "Mesnee d' Hellequin" is a derivative of the name for the Norse Goddess/Giantess of death, Hel. Another, more plausible theory explains that Harlequin is an evolution of the name "Herlathing." Walter Map, writing in the twelfth century, tells of the Herlethingus, perhaps (according to Simpson) a corruption from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "meeting, gathering, court of judgement." Map goes on to say that such nocturnal companies and squadrons were common apparitions during the time of King Henry II. They were troops engaged in:
...endless wandering, in an aimless round . . . and in them many persons who were known to have died were seen alive. They travel as we do, with wagons and sumpter horses, pack-saddles and panniers, hawks and hounds, and a concourse of men and women. Those who saw them first raised the whole country against them with horns and shouts . . . but they rose into the air and vanished suddenly. (Translated in Simpson)
In Old English, King Herla would be Herla Cyning. Written in 1123, the Ordericus Vitalis called it familia Herlechini, and in the fourteenth century poem "Mum and the Sothsegger," a rabble-rouser is referred to as Hurlewainis Kynne, kindred of Hurlawain.
Leaders of the Pack
In Germany where many tales of the Hunt have survived and are still being re-enacted today, the Hunt is still commonly associated with Odin and called Wotan's Hunt. Other names were Wotan's Army, the Wilde Jagd. The Wild Hunt in Germany was also known to be led by several female deities. Perchta, Holda, and the White Lady known as Frau Gauden all led processions of unbaptized children and witches through the night sky. The fields they rode past would produce double the usual harvest the next year. Such deities all tended to rule over fertility and domestic spheres: planting, spinning, weaving, and childbearing. These European Hunt goddesses (increasingly associated with agricultural and domestic fertility in the middle ages) seem to share associations with Diana/Artemis of classical tradition, who was herself a hunter, dealing out punishment for insults and violations of hunting-related taboos. As the horned moon-goddess, she may have lent another important association to the Hunt leader in the form of antlers, an ancient symbol which serves to blur the boundary between hunter and hunted.
The myth of the great Calydonian hunt told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses begins because Oenus, king of Calydon, forgets to make offerings to Diana. He recognizes only the agricultural gods, but leaves Diana's altar empty at the festival of first fruits. As punishment, she sends a giant boar to destroy his kingdom. The boar pays particular attention to uprooting the fields, a harsh reminder to agricultural people of their previous reliance on hunting and the necessity of maintaining a hunting tradition to stem the hardship of a failed crop. The hunt is eventually successful (though Meleager, its leader, dies later by the hands of his own mother), leading the hunting party back into the ancient forgotten forests to achieve their twofold goal: killing the boar and remembering the hunting goddess through the ritual performance of her favorite sport. Folklore of the Wild Hunt may be derived, in part, from such myths or the memories of their ritual re-enactment.
Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoof beats along with the Huntsman's shouts of "Halloo!" Death and war often follow in their wake.
Though the leader of the Hunt varies by location, its association with death imagery remains a constant. Its most frequent master is Odin or one of his many avatars, and no doubt his role as the god of dead heroes makes him particularly appropriate here. Even Odin's horse, Sleipnir, is suggestive of funerary imagery: its eight legs are thought to represent four men (two legs apiece) carrying a corpse. Whether under the name of Grim or Wotan, when led by the gallows god, the Hunt becomes a terrifying, roving memorial of the ancient dead and the physical routes they have taken to and from their graves.
An example of one of these routes can be found in Grim's Ditch, an iron age Anglo-Saxon fortification containing mounds, forts and most importantly, burial chambers. Overlooked by Grim's Ditch is a path thought to have once been used for the "Deadman's Ride," the funerary route of a ghostly rider and his dog (Briggs). The association of the Deadman's Ride with the Wild Hunt is clearly one of shared imagery. The dead huntsman rides the trail on his horse with his hounds behind him, seeking or fleeing his own barrow. In this way, the hunt often remembers funeral tracks long forgotten or disused. A living tradition in Devon tells of the Lych Way, a medieval funeral path used by the ancient moor-men to carry corpses across Dartmoor to their internment. While it has not been used since the thirteenth century, ghostly processions are still seen there, proof of the widespread belief that any route over which a corpse is carried must be remembered and respected. Thus, seeing the spectral Hunt or telling one of the many stories associated with it are themselves acts of recognition and respect, ways to give currency and vitality to important aspects of both landscape and tradition.
Ranging in England's Windsor Forest, Herne the Hunter is well known from both folklore and literary traditions. Herne's name possibly relates him to the earlier Celtic deity, Cernunnos, who, as an antlered lord of animals, had a widespread cult stretching from continental Europe to Ireland. Though a frequent apparition in local folklore, he is perhaps best known from his brief mention on the early English stage:
There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter
(Sometimes 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, 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 our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
(Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.4.28-38)
Here, Herne and Cernunnos, who is often met in the forest seated upon a mound, bellowing to a congregation of assorted wild beasts, are made one by England's greatest dramatic folklorist.
In Wales, the huntsman is Gwynn Ap Nudd, who also serves as Lord of the Dead and of the Fairy realm. As leader of the Wild Hunt, he drives the Cwn Annwn, or the Hounds of the Otherworld (more popularly called the Hounds of Hell, although Annwn is not a Christian Hell at all, but instead a land of splendor and dignity). These dogs are all white with red ears and accompany Gwynn in the pursuit of the souls of the recently deceased. He also appears in The Mabinogion, in the medieval Welsh story of "How Culhwch Won Olwen" as part of an enormous battalion of King Arthur's knights (a Wild Hunt in and of themselves) who ride forth to hunt the giant boar, Twrch Trwyth, when it attempts to destroy Britain (again we see how the Hunt is roused when the sovereignty of the land is threatened). At the time of the hunt in this story, Arthur may in fact already be dead (see the speech given by Arthur's gate-keeper as well as the story "The Dream of Rhonabwy," where, after his death, he is met in the Otherworld while Britain is under attack.). As inner-world guardian of the land, however, he calls up his men to protect their native soil from foreign aggression.
Other early texts seem to allude to Faerie associations of the Hunt. In the medieval poem, "Sir Orpheo," we chance upon the Faerie Hunt, or rade:
There often by him would he see,
when noon was hot on leaf and tree,
the king of Faerie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim,
and barking hounds that were with him;
yet never a beast they took nor slew,
and where they went they never knew.
The Hunting parties of Faerie were not in the habit of seeking animal quarry. Most medieval stories of Faerie and human interaction generally involve abductions and thus may be tied (at least thematically) to the larger Wild Hunt tradition wherein human souls are chased as prey.
More frequently in recent folklore, the Hunt is led by the Devil. But the designation of the Devil as huntsman is likely little more than a Christian refashioning of a pre-Christian tradition; it is commonplace in folklore to find the name of the Devil attached to any site or character that once held a place of reverence in pagan belief. Thus, any site dedicated to a pre-Christian god becomes the Devil's Tump or the Dewer Stone or the like. In fact, we can often use the appearance of the Devil in such stories to denote the presence of pre-Christian practice or mythological figures, even though their specific natures or names are lost.
Joining the Team
Though doubtless an exciting job, it should be noted that being enlisted into the Hunt is a dubious sort of honor, for it is associated with penance and punishment as well as power. Such power, when present in the stories, comes in the form of Otherworldly status conveyed upon an earthly king or hero, a way of keeping their memory alive by placing them into the landscape, associating them with successive generations of traditional lore and ghostly heroes. But before applying for the job of huntsman, one should ask oneself whether such Otherworldly status is really a gift. And is a permanent purgatorial place in the lore worth the price of admission?
Several kings — historical and legendary — have led the Hunt in their turns and found out the hard way that deals with the Otherworld have unpredictable payoffs. First among the ranks of cursed legendary hunters is King Herla, who strikes a bargain with the Faerie King, each promising to attend the wedding of the other's child. This is done, but when Herla makes ready to leave Fairyland (located within the hills) with his entourage, he is given a small bloodhound by his Otherwordly host as a parting gift, with these instructions: "Do not dismount until this dog leaps to the ground from the lap it is sitting in." After riding for some time, one man in the procession gets weary and dismounts, immediately turning to dust as his feet touch the soil. The party rides further on until they meet a man upon the road, who tells them that the name of Herla hasn't been heard in those lands for centuries. The little dog never descends, and Herla becomes the Hunt Lord, his train of men following him over the land. His fate is a mystery. Was he punished merely for entering the Otherworld? Or perhaps he broke some rule or other while visiting, by eating perhaps? The cause of his ill fortune is doubtless only known to those hapless souls who travel with him upon his hard road. In the year of King Henry II, Herla's ghostly train reportedly plunged into the river Wye in Herefordshire, and from that hour, it has not been seen.
Admission has its perks as well: by joining the Hunt, heroes can be transformed into supernatural figures. In his Draco Normannicus (1167-9), Ettiene de Rouen portrays King Arthur as an Otherworldly ruler, living on in the Underworld after his physical death in a kind of Faerie twilight.
Then the wounded Arthur seeks after the herbs of his sister; them the sacred isle of Avallon contains. Here the immortal nymph Morgan receives her brother, attends, nourishes, restores, and renders him eternal. The lordship of the antipodean folk is given him. Endowed with faery powers, unarmed, he assumes the warrior's role and fears battles not at all. Thus he rules the lower hemisphere, shines in arms, and the other half of the world is allotted to him. . . . The antipodeans tremble at his faery sway; the lower world is subject to him. He speeds forth to the upper folk, and sometimes returns to the lowest regions. (Translated in Loomis)
Gervase of Tilbury, writing of King Arthur in 1190, goes further by actually recording the additional belief that Arthur becomes the Lord of the Wild Hunt:
But in the forests of Great and Little Britain exactly similar things are said to have happened, and the wood wardens. . . relate that on alternate days, about the hour of noon or in the first silence of night, by moonlight in the full of the moon they have very often seen a band of knights hunting and the noise of hounds and horns, who declared to those who asked that they were the fellowship and household of Arthur. (Translated in Loomis)
Such beliefs retain their currency, for the folklore of numerous counties in Britain still tell of the King Under Stone, or the Hero within the Hill, or the Sleeping Lord, who with his band of knights will awaken in the hour of England's greatest need.
It is out of such a tradition that we hear of Edric the Wild who will also return lead the Hunt against England's enemies. Though Edric was a Shropshire leader of Harold's time, fighting the Normans from 1067-1070, stories of him were still told well into the nineteenth century. Many people believed that he was still alive at that time, living within the hills of Shropshire. His appearance was an omen that told of approaching war:
He cannot die, they say, till all the wrong has been made right, and England has returned to the same state in which it was before the troubles of his days. Meanwhile he is condemned to inhabit the lead mines as a punishment for having allowed himself to be deceived by the Conqueror's fair words into submitting to him. So there he dwells, with his wife and his whole train. The miners call them "the Old Men," and sometimes hear them knocking, and wherever they knock the best lodes are to be found. Now and then they are permitted to show themselves. Whenever war is going to break out, they ride over the hills in the direction of the enemies country, and if they appear, it is a sign that war will be serious. (as told by Miss Burne, recorded in Simpson)
Several other figures lead the Hunt, cursed for religious offenses. In Cornwall, a corrupt priest named Dando drives his Dandy Dogs for eternity, cursed for hunting on Sunday. Cain sometimes led the Hunt for the slaying of his brother Abel; Herod's Hunt pursued Holy Innocents; and in another version of the story, a nobleman, Hans von Hackelnberg, is punished for choosing to hunt forever rather than go to heaven.
Even Sir Francis Drake becomes master of the Hunt for a time. Like Arthur and Edric, he is a protector of England and his Hunt courses over the land at times of invasion and foreign threat (however, like any gentleman, he also hunts for sport). Drake's ghost, followed by a pack of spectral hounds, has been seen on Dartmoor's Abbot's Way, an ancient track leading across the moor and ending near Buckland Abbey, Drake's former home. Still lodged in the Abbey is Drake's drum, which may be used to call him back to defend England during times of trouble.
Beasts of the Hunt
My hide unto the Huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I'd rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the Huntsman let him go;
For he's neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! You must die!
—Traditional song sung by the Mummers of Richmond, Yorkshire
Horses and dogs attend every version of the Hunt. The animals are generally black, white, or grey. The horses can appear normal or fiery-eyed, with fire issuing from their mouths and nostrils. Often they appear missing limbs or having extra ones, like Odin's eight legged steed, Sleipnir. In Germany the horses, along with the dogs and riders, often appear wounded, missing limbs and/or heads, a clear indication of their Otherworldliness.
Ghostly dogs are described in great detail in British lore and are known by many names. These black, spectral hounds bear almost as many names as the Hunt. In the North they are called Gabriel's Hounds. In Lancashire they are described as monstrous dogs with human heads who foretell of coming death or misfortune. In Devon they are known as Yeth, Heath, or Wisht hounds. These hounds issue from inside Wistman's Wood on the eve of St. John (Midsummer), a night when by tradition the careful eye can see the spirits of the dead fly from their graves. Here, among the ancient dwarf oaks and greening stones, Dewer (the Devil), kennels his hounds, and it is still said that no real dog will enter these woods at any time of the year. The Yeth hounds are also associated with the souls of unbaptized children, which they chase across the moor as their prey. But related traditions hold that the dogs are themselves the souls of the unbaptized babes, and they instead chase the Devil across the moor in repayment for his hand in their fate.
In Wales the dogs are the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) often white with red ears and bellies. The corrupt priest Dando had his own beasts, called the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Great black hounds were known as the Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shuck. The Hounds of the Hunt all bear a striking resemblance to the "Black Shuck," a solitary creature that has stalked East Anglia for centuries with fiery eyes as big as saucers. In England such solitary dogs are often the ghosts of deceased people, changed as punishment, and will sometimes help people if treated kindly.
In several Norse versions of the Hunt, the huntsman would leave a small black dog behind. The dog had to be kept and carefully tended for a year unless it could be driven away. The only known way to get frighten it away was to boil beer in eggshells, a curious ritual act seemingly related to the traditional method of getting rid of a Faerie changeling.