Across Central, Western and Northern Europe, the Wild Hunt is a well-known myth. A ghostly leader and his group of hunters and hounds flying through the cold night sky during the winter solstice, as the winds howl and the cold seeps through the bones.
While some stories depict the supernatural hunters as either the dead, elves, or even fairies, in the old tradition of the North, the Wild Hunt was synonymous with Yuletide (read more about Yule here), and great winter storms, being led by no other than Odin himself.
Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt of Odin) by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.
The First Tales
The first written mentions of the Wild Hunt come from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in 1127 AD:
“Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild tantivy as near as they could tell.” (Branston, Brian. 1974. The Lost Gods of England. p. 94., recounting an event that supposedly happened in CE 1127)
The old oral traditions of the North were only popularized later, by author and mythologist Jacob Grimm in 1835, in his works Deutsche Mythologie. In his version of the story, he mixed folklore with textual evidence from the Medieval up to the Early Modern period. Many criticized his methods, which emphasized the dynamic nature of folklore. He believed the myth to have pre-christian roots and its leader to be based on Odin, on the darker side of his character. He also thought the leader of the hunt could too have been a woman, which he associated with Odin’s wife Frigg.
Some years later, another respectable author, Hélène Adeline Guerber, put Odin and his steed, Sleipnir leading the Hunt, in her 1895 book Myths of the Northern Lands, further cementing the old tradition in our modern times.
The Hunt was said to pass through the forests in the coldest, stormiest time of the year. Anyone found outdoors at the time would be swept up into the hunting party involuntarily and dropped miles from their original location. Practitioners of magic may have sought to join the berserkers in spirit, while their bodies remained safely at home. Grimm postulated the story inevitably changed from pre-christian to more modern times. The myth originally began as a hunt led by a God and Goddess visiting the land during a holy day or days (Yule), bringing blessings, and accepting offerings from people. They could be heard by the people in the howling winds, but later, with christianity, the members of the hunt became known as a pack of undead with malicious intent.
The Many Versions of the Wild Hunt Legend
The numerous variations of the legend mention different leaders of the hunting party. In Germany the leader is known by various names, for instance, Holt, Holle, Berta, Foste or Heme. Yet one figure frequently appears in the majority of versions: Odin (also called Woden). Odin is known by two particular names which relate to the time of year the Wild Hunt was alleged to occur, Jólnir and Jauloherra. Both of these roughly mean Master of Yule.
The legend of the Hunt has been “adapted” over the years. In the middle ages, the leader of the Hunt became characters such as Charlemagne, King Arthur or even Frederick Barbarossa (the Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century). In the 16th century, Hans von Hackelnberg was said to lead the Wild Hunt. The story recounts him slaying a boar, accidentally piercing his foot on the boar’s tusk and poisoning himself. The wound was fatal and, upon his death, von Hackelnberg declared he didn’t want to go to heaven, but instead continue with his treasured vocation – hunting. He was then forced to do this for an eternity in the night sky, or, as recounted in alternate versions, condemned to lead the Wild Hunt. Sources cite his name as possibly being a corruption of an epithet of Odin’s name.
In Wales, a variation of the story exists purporting the leader to be Gwynn ap Nudd or Lord of the Dead. In this version, the Lord of the Dead is followed by a pack of hounds with blood-red ears.
In England, the same white hounds with red ears appear in legends. In Southern England, Herne the Hunter, or Herlathing, is alleged to be the hunt’s leader, and possibly connected to the mythical king Herla. Another version focuses on King Herla who had just visited the Fairy King. King Herla was told not to dismount his horse until the greyhound he carried had jumped down first. Three centuries passed and his men continued to ride as the dog had not jumped down yet.
The Orkney Island tradition speaks of fairies or ghosts coming out at night and galloping on white horses.
In Northern France, Mesnée d’Hellequin, the Goddess of Death, was said to lead the ghostly procession.
In Scotland, the Wild Hunt is closely linked to the fairy world in some sources. Evil fairies, or fey from the Sluagh or Unseelie Court, allegedly flew in from the west in order to capture dying souls, resulting in people in Scotland, up until the 20th century even, closing windows and doors on the west side of their houses when they had a sick person inside.
The Wild Hunt was not seen – only heard – in Scandinavian versions of the myth. Typically the barking of dogs and howling of Odin’s wolves, as well as the forest growing deathly silent, warned people of their imminent arrival.
Die Wilde Jagd Toile de Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1856.
Despite all these variations, one thing remains the same in all the Wild Hunt legends: the leader is a God of the fallen and the Hunt comes during the winter solstice - Yuletide. That is hardly a coincidence.
As the Wild Hunt’s various names across the Germanic lands attest, one figure has always been especially closely associated with it: Odin, the God of the valorous dead, inspiration, ecstatic trance, battle frenzy, knowledge, the ruling class, and creative and intellectual pursuits in general.
Two of Odin’s hundreds of names further demonstrate his association with midwinter, the time of the year in which the holiday Yule (Old Norse Jól) falls: Jólnir and Jauloherra, both of which mean something like “Master of Yule.” The myths describe him frequently riding throughout the Nine Worlds on his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, on quests of a shamanic nature, another theme that connects him to the Wild Hunt.
As H.R. Ellis Davidson put it, speaking of the manifestations of the Wild Hunt that continued well into the Christian era, “it was natural that the ancient God of the dead who rode through the air should keep a place in this way in the memory of the people, and it reminds us of the terror which his name must once have inspired.”
Have you ever heard the Hunt coming? Leave your comments below!
The Ride of the Valkyries is a painting by Johan Gustaf Sandberg
Simek, Rudolf. 2008. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. BOYE6. ISBN-13 978-0859915137
Jesse Byock. 2005. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2
Anthony Faulkes. 1995. Snorri Sturluson, Edda. 3rd. edition. London, England: Everyman J. M. Dent. ISBN-13 978-0-4608-7616-2
Daniel McCoy. 2016. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. 1st edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN-13 978-1533393036
Branston, Brian. 1957. The Lost Gods of England. Publisher Thames and Hudson. ISBN-13: 9780195197969
Grimm, Jacob. Deutsche Mythologie. 2008. BiblioBazaar. ISBN-13 978-0554447285
Guerber, Hélène Adeline. 1895. Myths of the Northern Lands. American Book Company. ISBN 978-1-4400-9296-1
Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. ISBN-13 978-0140136272