The Wild Hunt
by Liam Rogers
(Published at Samhain 1999)
"We heards the dogs' tongues and all, and they beside us. We heard the horses and all, same as it was the middle of the day. That was about two o'clock in the morning. I'm only just telling you things we saw ourselves...They say it's some kind of a hunt spirits." Thus Tom Carroll, a local resident, described an encounter with the 'Dead Hunt' near Lough Gur in the Irish province of Munster. The Wild Hunt, under various names, can be found throughout central and northern Europe. Tom was lucky, since many do not survive a meeting with the Hunt which spells death or disaster. Another witness of the Lough Gur Hunt claims: "You never heard the hunt in your youth. That 'twas in your matured years that you actually heard it. When you were young, the older people in the household held it, but you did not...But after that hunt there's always someone supposed to die on the following day in that locality."2
This is usually the case when the Wild Hunt rides. An appearance of Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest is followed by tragedy or disaster, often of national importance. The stag-horned Herne is probably the most famous leader of the Hunt, who has often been linked to the Celtic god Cernunnos (and even more speculatively to the palaeolithic 'sorcerer' figure in the cave of Les Trois Frères).3
The Wild Hunt in Mercia
It has been suggested that Shakespeare (in The Merry Wives of Windsor) moved Herne to Windsor from his original haunt in Feckenham Forest, close to Shakespeare's Forest of Arden.4 A guy called Callow (who gave his name to many Midlands places) was also said to lead the Hunt in Feckenham.
Sir Peter Corbet, who owned Chaddersley Corbet and much land around Alcester, was another local leader of the Hunt. Edward I gave him a charter to hunt wolves in the royal forests of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, and Shropshire. Hearing of his daughter's secret meetings with a man in the woods, he locked her in her room and let the hounds out. The suitor was torn to shreds, and his daughter drowned herself in the moat. Peter wasn't too happy, so he hanged his hounds and threw their bodies in a pool (as if it was their fault, not his!). After his own death in around 1300, he was doomed to roam the forests with his hounds.
Another phantom huntsman is Harry-ca-Nab who kept his dogs at Halesowen ('Hell's Own' in popular etymology). He would hunt boar mounted on a winged horse or wild bull across the Lickey Hills on stormy nights. To see his hunt presaged ill luck or death.
One of the earliest Wild Hunt tales was written by Walter Map, a Herefordshire man, in about 1190. In it an ancient British King named Herla was about to be married when a pygmy king riding a goat asked if he could come to the wedding. "Sure", said Herla graciously, and the pygmy asked him to come to his a year later. The pygmy turned up, Herla was married. The next year the pygmy came back to lead the king and his retinue to his place - a cave in a cliff by the Wye. After three days of feasting Herla and his men left with gifts, including a bloodhound. The dog had to be carried until he chose to jump down, only then were the king's men allowed to dismount.
On their way home Herla asked an old shepherd for news of his wife. The Shepherd explained he could only just understand Herla as he was Saxon, but the only woman of that name was the wife of an ancient British King who had disappeared near that very spot centuries ago. Some of Herla's men dismounted and turned to dust, so Herla and the rest rode on until the bloodhound jumped down - he never did. Herla led his men on through the centuries, until the time of Henry II when they reputedly rode into the Wye and vanished.5
Wild Edric leads the hunt in Shropshire. He led the men of Shropshire against the Normans, but betrayed his cause by making a dodgy peace with William in 1070. He was married to Godda, a faery queen, who disappeared one day. For ever more he is destined to go on galloping furiously across the Stiperstones in search of his wife. He has developed a tendency to appear on the eve of war - he was seen (with Godda for once) on the eve of the outbreak of the Crimean War, and made further appearances in 1914 and 1939.6
Related to the theme, perhaps, is the story of Black Vaughan who was beheaded during the War of the Roses. His ghost caused no end of hassle in the Herefordshire Village of Kington until twelve parsons succeeded in trapping it in a snuff box and throwing it into Hergest Pool in the grounds of the Vaughan family's home of Hergest House. Then the haunting continued in the form of a huge black dog, sometimes holding Vaughan's head in its mouth. The phantom hound's howls signalled the impending death of one of the Vaughan family. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew the family and based The Hound of the Baskervilles on their story.7,8
Finally, there is the case of the Seven Whistlers, a flight of birds (usually geese or swans) that deal in ill fortune and death. If you hear all seven at once then its the end of the world.9
Often these spectral hunts actually flew over the land, and the last example suggests we should look at birds and flight in myth and magic. Geese are comman symbols of magical flight in Europe, medieval witches often using goose fat as part of their flying ointments. The feathered skins of cranes were used in shamanic flight in Siberia. Wayland the Smith escaped his labyrinth by using a Valkyrie's swan skin, and Daedalus used wings to escape the Knossos labyrinth.10
So are we talking a kind of magical flight, and can specific routes be discovered? Although the Hunt is usually peopled by the dead, witches' testimony in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suggests that they believed they were riding with the divine huntress Diana, and the benandanti of northern Italy were said to fly out of body to combat such marauding witches to ensure the fertility of the fields.11
Certain Hunts seem to frequent the same territory - around Lough Gur, Edric and the Stiperstones - but specific paths are another matter. Brian Hoggard has noted one possible route, however. Folklore attests that one Old Mother Darky, a witch from Overbury, had a habit of turning children into hounds so she could hunt over Bredon Hill. Brian thinks this may be a watered down Wild Hunt legend, and tentatively connects it with a equinox alignment that links Bredon Hill with British Camp to the west and Castle Hill, Brailes to the east.12 Elsewhere, he goes further - along the route were two labyrinths and caves, and he speculates:
"The caves might have been considered womb-like, a place where the shaman/benandanti might have enhanced powers. The labyrinths perhaps stopped the angry processions or 'wild hunt' from entering and terrorising the most sacred places."13
There was certainly a burial path along part of this route. Funeral processions and the Wild Hunt are also connected in a tradition from Dartmoor that the Yell Hounds (short for Gabriel Hounds) favour an ancient track known as the Abbot's Way. In medieval funeral processions, the bier was called 'Gabriel's Wain' and Nigel Jackson thinks "the archangel with his trumpet has assimilated the heathen archetype of the Lord of the Furious Host who winds his horn to summon the souls of the dead."14
That would be Odin or Woden, the most common leader of the Hunt. To return to the opening of this section, he had two ravens who he send out to learn of things from afar - spirit flight, surely?
Odin's name is derived from the Old Norse Odhr which means "Fury, ecstasy, inspiration", Woden is similarly derived from the related Indo-European word - the Saxon Wod. Apart from thus showing why the Hunt is "Wild", and supporting ideas of ecstatic trance and spirit flight, this clue may lead us to a possible origin of the Wild Hunt. Berserkers are most commonly associated with the cult of Odin from ninth century Norway onward. By donning animal skins or believing themselves transformed into animals by their rage, they can easily be seen as the hounds of Odin's Wild Hunt. Witness Snorri's description:
Although the mythology behind this cult may lead back further, as I will shortly consider, I see no reason why a slight physical resemblence between Herne and the Celtic god Cernunnos should put the origins of the Wild Hunt back into prehistory. So with due apologies to those pagans who work with these images in their rituals I shall not consider this matter further.
The comparison of Berzerkers with wolves (they are referred to as "wolf-coats" in Hrafnsmal) makes them symbolically dead - wolves are synonymous in Old English with outlaws and criminals, who are considered socially 'dead' - so it is easy to see how a Wild Hunt of the dead could be derived from their exploits. The dogs of the Hunt can be traced via wolves back to Odin, according to Turville-Petre.16
The death-dealing chaos of the Berzerks in action relates to the dark, wild side of nature, and particularly the privations of winter. Jackson shows that Odin would lead his Wild Hunt at All-Hallows or over the twelve nights of Yule - in Iceland it is known as the Yule Host:
"These times are intercalendary periods in Celtic and Teutonic year-reckoning, the paradoxical 'time between the times' when the crack appears and the paths between the worlds are laid open. They are periods of 'ritual reversal' when the dead enter the world of the living and the living enter the world of the dead."17
Thus the myth of the Wild Hunt seems to be a part of the drama of the turning year, re-enacted by the Berzerks as part of an Odinic cult. It has of course been tainted by history, under Christianity becoming a ride of sinners and unbaptised children - a warning to the living to live according to the Church's rules, for example.18 But this seems the most likely explanation.
That it continues to be heard and experienced is something I cannot explain here, but "there are more things in heaven and earth" and all that. Unless you consider that since the Hunt is heard, but rarely seen, and rides on cloudy nights the explanation for the Gabriel Hounds that Mary Stewart puts into the mouth of a character in her novel of the same name might just be it:
"I think myself that the idea must have come from the wild geese - have you heard them? They sound like a pack of hounds in full cry overhead, and the old name for them used to be 'gabble ratchet'. I've sometimes wondered if the'Gabriel' doesn't come from 'gabble', because after all Gabriel wasn't the angel of death..."19
But that would probably ruin a good story!
Little Bit of Politics
Out of the dramatically swirling clouds he descended, "a reincarnation of All-Father Odin, whom the ancient Aryans heard raging over the virgin forests".20 This is a description of the opening of a film that ends with "the ethereal passage of silhouetted figures marching heavenwards in the clouds."21 The film is Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will", and the reincarnated Odin leading his Wild Hunt is one Adolf Hitler.
Mythology has always served a social and political purpose, and meanings alter in order to fit the needs of the time. The Nazis made great play of their appeal to the Mythic Past to bolster Nationalist feelings in Germany.22 Myths such as that of the Wild Hunt have simple meanings of natural death and regeneration, but can easily be harnessed to rabid nationalistic ends. This year "Ethic Cleansing" has been going on in Kosovo, London has seen bombs directed against Asians and gays, the National Front have marched in Worcestershire, and "The White Wolves" are threatening a millenium massacre in Britain. A few years ago I wrote about another piece of cyclical mythology, concluding that "just as a forest fire leaves behind fertile soils for new life to grow when the previous ecosystem was becoming stagnant, so does all life need an occasional clearing of the land of the dead wood in order to thrive."23 Such words can easily be abused, as the Nazis did with Nietzsche, and today seem a little unfortunate. The use of myth and metaphor can be a dodgy business.
Let us all be on our guard as the millenium comes to a climax, that the various pagan communities are kept clear of such people who would dare insult their gods by using them to support those fascists who would try to destroy the rich multi-cultural community in which we live. Let us call on our gods to preserve peace.
(1) Quoted in Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic , Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996
(2) Quoted in Michael Dames, Mythic Ireland , Thames & Hudson, 1992
(3) Eric L.Fitch, In Search of Herne the Hunter , Capall Bann, 1994
(4) Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Hereford & Worcester , Logaston,1992
(6) Kathleen Lawrence-Smith, Tales of Old Shropshire , Countryside Books, 1991
(7) Palmer, op.cit.
(8) Kathleen Lawrence-Smith, Tales of Old Herefordshire , Countryside Books, 1990
(9) Palmer, op.cit.
(10) Liam Rogers, "The Sun at Midnight", White Dragon 14, 1997
(11) Brian Hoggard, "Spirit Flight and the Veneration of the Dead", The Ley Hunter 133, 1999a
(12) Brian Hoggard, Bredon Hill: A Guide to its Archaeology, History, Folklore & Villages , Logaston, 1999b
(13) Hoggard, 1999a, op.cit.
(14) Nigel Jackson, "Trance Ecstasy and the Furious Host", The Ley Hunter 117, 1992
(15) Ynglinga Saga , quoted in Griffiths, op.cit.
(16) Griffiths, op.cit.
(17) Jackson. op.cit.
(18) Hoggard, 1999a, op.cit.
(19) Mary Stewart, The Gabriel Hounds , Coronet, 1968
(20) Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film , Princetown, 1947
(21) Audrey Salkeld, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl , Pimlico, 1997
(22) Liam Rogers, "Time, Space & Identity in the Third Reich", Place 7, 1999
(23) Liam Rogers, "Exhuming the Vampire", White Dragon 17, 1997