Monday, December 22, 2008

The Wild Hunt - a darker shade of Yule

When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, from the north of Scandinavia down to Switzerland, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark forest paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees -- a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still. But then the barking of dogs fills the air, with the hunters behind whooping "Wod! Wod!" a man's voice cries from above, "Midden in dem Weg!" and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and hooves of the black horses.
The wise traveller falls down at once in the middle of the road, face down. (The Hunt leader spares only those who remain in the middle of the path. Therefore he often calls out to travelers, "In the middle of the path!") If he is lucky, he will take no harm other than the cold feet of the black dogs running over his body. More foolish folk are swept up, coming to earth far from home or left dead behind the furious host. Those who join in the Hunter's cry may get as their share of the booty a piece of human flesh.

This is the Wild Hunt of Germanic folklore. It is known by many names -- Wutan's or Wuet's Army in the southern parts of Germany, the family of Harlequin in France, the Oskorei in Norway, Odensjakt in Denmark and Sweden -- but the basic description is always much the same. A great noise of barking and shouting is heard; then a black rider on a black, white, or gray horse, storming through the air with his hounds, followed by a host of strange spirits, is seen. The rider is sometimes headless. Sometimes, particularly in Upper Germany, the spirits show signs of battle-wounds or death by other forms of mischance. Fire spurts from the hooves and eyes of the beasts in the procession. The horses and hounds may be two- or three-legged. Often the newly dead can be recognized in the train. The furious host is always a peril to the human being who comes into its way, though sometimes it leaves rewards as well.

At the root of the myth lies the Teutonic god Woden, or Odin, to use his Norse name.
Odin, in his guise of wind-god, was thought to rushing through the skies astride his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir. As it was thought that the souls of the dead were wafted away on the winds of a storm, Odin became regarded as the leader of all disembodied spirits - the gatherer of the dead. Eventually, storms became associated with his passing. In this role he was known as the Wild Huntsman. The passage of his hunt, known as Odin's Hunt, the Wild Ride, the Raging Host or Asgardreia, was said to presage misfortune such as pestilence, death or war. Odin, followed by the ghosts of the dead, would roam the skies, accompanied by furious winds, lightning and thunder. To the believers, the tumult must surely have been evidence of the god's passing.

Throughout the years, the mythology of the hunt adapted to suit the geographical area and the time period. In the Middle Ages, for example, the lead huntsman included Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and King Arthur.

Traditions of a Wild Hunt also existed in areas away from Norse influence.
In Wales, for example, the leader of the Hunt was Gwynn ap Nudd. The "Lord of the Dead", Gwynn ap Nudd was followed by his pack of white hounds with blood-red ears.
These red-eared hounds are also found in northern England, where they were known as Gabriel Hounds. Their appearance was also a portent of doom.
In southern England, it was Herne the Hunter who led the hunt, while elsewhere it is also referred to as "Herlathing" - from the mythical King Herla, its supposed leader.

As recently as the 1940's the Hunt was reportedly heard going through the English countryside 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.

Much more detailed and fascinating information about this terrifying event at the links below:

Penance, Power, and Pursuit:On the Trail of the Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt - from the Orkney Isles
Wild Huntsman Legends
The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host


hattie said...

and the hunt goes on, tonight in the midst of winter as a thrust of warm air rolls over kansas, spawning thunderstorms and tornados.

It seems likely to me, given the advice for surviving the 'hunt', that this is remarkably like advice given for surviving either tornados (which they do have in Europe, especially England (!)) or microbursts associated with thunderstorms.

This would also be consistent with any reports of livestock in the air, or of people's bodies dumped inexplicably, miles from home.

Dani said...

Good point. Interesting...