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. 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 Oskorei in Norway,
Odensjakt in Denmark and Sweden
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.
The term “wotigez her” is used in the Middle German Rolandslied to compare the host of the Saracens simultaneously with the host of the Devil and that of Pharaoh. In the 13th-century Diu Urstende, the Jews who have come to capture Christ “with spears, swords, and arrows”are called “daz wtunde her.” In the early 13th-century “Moriz von Craon,” the hero appears bloodily wounded in the bedchamber of his captor, who says to his wife, “The devil is near to us … or the wutende her.” In Rudiger von Munre’s “Von zwein Gesellen” an oath-formula appears “by deus … and by wutungis her.” An Alamannic poem from 1300 describes the sound of thunder in the air, breaking through valley and mountain with armed riders and a mist in which rode “daz wuotes her.” The Middle German “Nachtsegen” (13/14 C), a medieval German version of the “from ghoulies and ghosties / and long-legged beasties / and things that go bump in the dark / good god, protect us” prayer, calls on god and the holy spirit to protect the speaker against “all unholden … Truttan and wutan, / wutanes her and all its (or his) men.” The romance of the prince of Braunschweig has the hero seeing “daz woden here, / where the evil spirits have their dwelling.”
Johann Geiler von Kaiserberg, writing in Strassburg in 1516, says that “those who die before the time which god has set for them as those, who enlist in the army and were stabbed or hanged and drowned, they must therefore walk long after their death, till that end comes, which god has set for them, and then god works so with them, as his godly will is.” His contemporary Cysat adds accident and war to the causes of death that doom one to the “furious host.” For the Strassburger Chronicle of 1516, Jakob Trausch writes that “Not only this year, but also many years since, one has heard that thing named the Wuetten-Hor in all lands, particularly Alsace, Breisgau, and other places, not only by night, but also by day, in woods and mountains. By night they went over the fields with drums and pipes, also through the city with great shrieking, with lights … in Freiburg a woman saw her man who had fallen in war, and therefore ran into the horde, to him whose head was split, she ran to him and bound his head together.” Hans Sachs’ poem, “Das wutend heer der kleynen dieb” (1539) describes the furious host in gruesome detail, with the ravens flapping above and plucking out the eyes of the dead, till at last “there came one behind, who had been hanged the same day, had still his eyes and saw me.”
The procession of the dead is, as one might expect, closely connected with foreboding death. In the Schwabian Zimmerische Chronik (1564-76), it is described how a nobleman, von Seckendorf, sees the grisly nature of his own death and has it prophesied by the furious host a year before the event, which duly takes place. The Norwegian oskorei stops either at places where someone has been or shall be murdered, in a manner to the Baltic werewolves described by Olaus Magnus in Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555), who, like the oskorei, come uninvited, drink up the ale and mead in the cellars, and whose Yule visit also portends a death in the approaching year. In England, the Wild Hunt comes to fetch the souls of the evil; in Jutland, the Hunt’s strong riding foretells war and its passing through a house in West Jutland is a sign of great bad luck to come (Olrik, “Odinsjageren i Jyland”, Dania VIII, p. 146). Landstad reports how the Telemarker Tor saw the “Aasgaardsreiden” with his brother Gredgard riding in the host. He hurried at once to his brother, only to find him sitting “dead as a stock or a stone” (Norvegs Folkslagsminne 13, p. 17).
It is clear that, on the Continent, this army was first and foremost an army of ghosts, but it also may have had other characteristics. The use of the term “wutendes heer” to characterize Pharaoh’s army attacking the Israelites, the Saracens attacking Charlemagne’s army, and the Jews attacking Christ, suggests that the phrase was essentially tied to the idea of a host hostile to Christianity — a host embodying the active forces of darkness, which also appears in Das Väterbuch (late 13th C) as “the devil’s wutendez her.” It would, perhaps, be going too far to suggest that this preserved a memory of the process by which Christianity demonized aspects of the native Germanic religion; however, it seems clear that the term had a quite specific connotation beyond the simple literal meaning of “furious host,” which in turn supports the interpretation of early folklorists such as Grimm, that “wutendes heer” might originally have been “Wotan’s Heer,” with the god “conveniently … stowed away in a cognate verb” (Teutonic Mythology, vol. III, p. 920). The close similarity of the genitive “Wutanes her” and the nominative “wutendes her” makes it at least plausible that the name of the heathen god could have easily been assimilated into the less telling phrase as his worship was forgotten — though he does continue to appear both as in the Nachtsegen and Rudiger von Munir’s “Wuotung”, and as “Wuot.” Both forms appear in Switzerland (Cysat): Wuttjns Heer, Guttisheer, Guttjns heer. The movement of the initial W to G is documented for the personal name, as is the loss of the final -n in the genitive compound, in Godesberg on the Rhine (from Godansberg, Wodansberg). On the Elbe, a feminine leader of the Wild Hunt appears, called Fru Wode or Fru Gode; the Wild Hunt is also said to be led by a Frau Gauden in Mecklenburg (Lisch, Mecklenburger jahrbuch, 8, 202-5). Grimm also suggests that Hackelberend (Westphalia) may be interpreted as “cloak-bearer” and seen as another name of Wotan (Teutonic Mythology III, p. 923). In 1666, the Swedish Johannes Scheffes mentions the nocturnal specter host in connection with Odin and identifies this with the German Wutensher.
The Old Norse materials have neither an Odin’s Host/ Furious Host nor a Wild Hunt, but there are some references which may be related to the same source beliefs. The gandreidh described in Njals saga CXXV bears a close resemblance to the Furious Host materials:
“(Hildiglumr) heard a great outburst, so that he thought both earth and heaven trembled; afterwards he looked in a westerly direction, it seemed to him that he saw then a ring and orbs of fire on it and in the ring a man on a gray horse. He shot swiftly on, and was faring hard; he had a burning brand in his hand; he rode so near to (Hildiglumr), that he could see him quite clearly; he was black as pitch. He spoke this verse:
I ride a horse with foaming mouth and wet forehead, willing ill;
flames are in the ends, poison in the middle
Flosi’s plans are like the flying staff
Flosi’s plans are like the flying staff
Then it seemed to (Hildiglumr) that he shot the brand eastwards to the fells and it seemed to him that a great fire leapt up, so that it did not seem to him that he could see the fells. He thought to see the man ride east under the fire …”
Hildiglumr tells this to another man, Hjalti, who says, “You have seen the gandreidh, and that always comes before great events.” In his edition of the text, Finnur Jonsson comments on this that “One may not think of Odinn,” though does not explain why not. Odinn himself boasts of knowing a spell for the confusion of “hedge-riders” faring through the air (“Havamal” 155). Witches are also called “mirk-riders” (Harbardhzliodh 20) and “evening-riders” (Helgakvidha Hjorvardhzsonar 15), though these latter titles may refer to the magical act of nightmare-riding, rather than to the wild ride through the air, such as that carried out by the “Darradhrljodh” valkyries before the Battle of Clontarf (Brennu-Njals saga, ch. 157).
Processions of the untimely dead do not appear in the Old Norse sources; however, this may be partially explained by the growth of the Valholl belief, perhaps via the developmental process of the Everlasting Battle story in which the slain are awakened by magical means to continue their fighting forever. Being specifically limited to their own battlefield and, later, to Valholl, the Old Norse furious host should not have been expected to go riding about at night. Further, even if a folklore tradition of a “furious host” of the dead, Odinnic or otherwise, had existed in the Viking Age, it is by no means certain that it would have been recorded in the Eddic materials, which largely deal with specific mythical events. The medieval Norwegian ballad “Draumkvaede” or, in some versions, “Draugkve’en,” does seem to describe something closer to the “furious host:”
There came the host from out the north, I thought it was the worst. In front rode Grutte Gray-Beard upon a jet-black horse (Landstad, Norske Folkeviser).
The other major variant of the ballad describes Grutte Gray-beard as wearing a black hat. Knut Liestöl suggests that this figure may well be a survival of a demonized Odinn, comparing the Odinsheiti “Höttr” (Hat), “Sidhhöttr” (Broad Hat), and “Harbardhr” (Hoar-Beard) to the description of Grutte Gray-Beard, interpreting the name “Grutte” as coming from a root meaning “to look angrily, fiercely; to have an angry or sulky expression in one’s eyes”
(“Draumkvaede”, Studia Norvegica 3, 1946, pp. 70-1).
The earliest find which has been theorized to bear a relationship to the “furious host” belief is the Tune stone, which memorializes a man by the name of Woduridar.
Frequent efforts have been made to give this name an Odinnic or cultic interpretation (Eike, “Oskorei og ekstaseriter”, Norveg 23, 1980, pp. 281-2), and the “furious-rider” could certainly be seen as fitting in with the “furious host”, but the general lack of data surrounding “Woduridar” leaves all such theories in the realm of speculation.
The description of the strange procession as a hunt first appears in England, in the Peterborough Chronicle entry for the year of 1127.
“Then soon thereafter many men saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and large and loathly, and their hounds all black and broad-eyed and loathly, and they rode on black horses and black bucks. This was seen in the same way in the town Burch and in all the woods from that town to Stanford, and the monks heard the horns blowing, that they blew at night. Trustworthy men who watched at night said that they thought that there might lit well have been about twenty or thirty horn-blowers. This was seen and heard from when they came thither all that Lenten-tide to Easter. This was its incoming; of its out-going we can not yet say. God fore see.”
The horn-blowing black men with broad-eyed hounds are entirely characteristic for the furious host, although the chronicle does not give a specific name for the phenomenon.
Thereafter, the description of a ghostly hunt does not appear until the folklore collections of the nineteenth century. By that time, however, it seems to have been thoroughly established. Jacqueline Simpson comments that, “Since we can safely assume that in the 1840s Faye and Thiele were … seeking out the oldest informants available, and that these too were drawing on childhood memories of what their elders had told them, the stories given here represent over 200 years of stable, homogenous tradition.” (Scandinavia Folktales, p. 7) In Northern Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, the Wild Hunt seems to have come more and more into prominence, overshadowing the Furious Host described by Scheffes in the 1600s; the Hunt aspect never appears in Norway, however. The “Wilde Jagd” described by Flörke in Rostock, 1832, has aspects of both.
“… the Wild Hunt, also called the Furious Host and in Mecklenburg the Wohl, a thing, of which I heard many shuddersome tales in my childhood and also afterward. Our field-workers … were set in fear by the Wild Hunt, so that they only with trembling dared to go to work in the evening. First they heard a dog-barking of rough and fine voices through one another; as these came nearer, they saw many glowing coals flying through the air, and then, if they had not already run away, roared the whole host with horrifying raging, barking, blowing, as with hunting horns, and hard breathing among them. In my youth it was considered a wholly definite thing, that these were old robberknights, who had no rest in the grave, and for a little while drove forward through the Overworld with their hunting hounds, as they had been used to in life; a pious priest told me, however, that it was no one other thou the Devil himself with several evil angels, who amused themselves by frightening humans. The Devil took on for this the shape of the old heathen god Wodan, under which he had previously been worshipped in these lands, from which also the name Wohl came, which was corrupted from Wodan.”
The theme that the Hunt is led by a nobleman doomed for his sins is common to both Scandinavia and Germany. A characteristic example of the story comes from Rugen: a great prince who loved the hunt more than anything else. When a herdboy cut the bark of a young tree to make a pipe, the prince tied the youth’s guts to the tree and chased him about it. A farmer who killed a stag that was eating his corn, the prince bound living to a stag and let the animal run free in the wood until it had battered the man to death. “For such cruel deeds the monstrous man at last got the payment he had earned.” He broke his neck while hunting, “and now it is his punishment after death, that he also has no rest in the grave, but must about the whole night and hunt like a wild monster. This happens every night, winter and summer, from midnight to an hour before sunrise, and then people often hear him crying: ‘Wod! Wod! Hoho! Hallo! Hallo!’, but his usual cry is ‘Wod! Wod!’ and from this he himself is called ‘der Wode’ in many places” (Jahn, Ulrich. Volkssagen aus Pommern und Rügen, pp. 4-5).
The various German, Swedish, and Danish stories of this ilk are clearly medieval or post-medieval in origin, and have imposed a form of social commentary onto the original legend. The leaders of the Hunt are almost invariably men of high status, either men who abuse their privileges in some manner or commit some form of blasphemy: hunting on a Sunday or uttering some phrase along the lines of “the Lord may keep his heaven, so he leave me my hunting.” Not subject to earthly justice, they are punished in the afterlife. Such tales reinforce the peasant’s sense of virtue in contrast to the “evil” folk in power; by setting the principal character into supernatural legend, they also express an otherwise unacceptable hostility towards and, perhaps, fear of the living nobility hunting through the woods. There also seems to be a progression from the ghostly procession to the horde of hunters which, with the emphasis on a single, named figure, eventually becomes the solitary hunt which often (though not exclusively) appears in Swedish and Danish legend.