The Wild Hunt was a folk myth prevalent in former times across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, horses, hounds, etc., in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it. It is often a way to explain thunderstorms.
The hunters may be the dead, or the fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead). The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Dietrich of Berne, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, Woden (or other reflexes of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.), or Arawn.
It has been variably referred to as the :
- Wild Hunt Woden’s Hunt the Raging Host (Germany) Herlathing (England) Mesnee d’Hellequin (Northern France) The family of Harlequin (France) Cŵn Annwn (Wales) Cain’s Hunt Ghost Riders (North America) Herod’s Hunt Gabriel’s Hounds Asgardreia (Asgard ride) Cornwall “the devil’s dandy dogs.”
Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. Mortals getting in the path of or following the Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead. A girl who saw Wild Edric’s Ride was warned by her father to put her apron over her head to avoid the sight. Others believed that people’s spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.
The first full description of a procession of ghosts was written in Paris about a night in January of 1092 (Ordericus Vitalis). The priest Wachlin, coming back from visiting a sick person, saw a swarm led by an enormous warrior swinging a mighty club in his hand. The shapes that followed wept and moaned over their sins; then came a horde of corpse-bearers with coffins on their shoulders — the priest counted some 50 coffins. Then women on horseback, seated on saddles with glowing nails stuck into them; then a host of ecclesiasticals on horseback. The priest knew many of these people who had died recently. He concluded at last that he had seen the “familia Herlechini,” of whom many had told him, but in whom he had never believed: Now he had truly seen the dead.
The myth of the Wild Hunt can be seen in many countries, and exists in England, Scotland, Germany and Iceland, among other places. Simply put, the Wild Hunt (or wilde Jagd) is a procession of beings led by a spirit who roam through the countryside reveling, hunting, killing or eating everything in their path. The name of the leader of the Hunt varies from place to place, and strangely enough the leader was normally a woman, a deity. The most common name was Perchta or Hulda, which was put down by Latin authors as Diana or Herodias.
The Wild Hunt was often mentioned in the witch trials of the Middle Ages, allowing us to see the variations in local beliefs. In Southern Germany the Hunt leader was usually called Perchta, Berhta or Berta, and called “the bright one”, which may explain why Latin authors called her Diana. In central Germany the Goddess was associated with agriculture rather than the Hunt as such, and called Holt, Holle or Hulda. Around 1100 the Huntress began to be called Pharaildis, which Burton, in his book Witchcraft in the Middle Ages suggests was a confusion between Frau Hilde and St Pharaildis, who actually had nothing to do with fertility. The Huntress was also known as Faste, Selga, Selda and Venus. In France the fertility aspect of this Goddess was more evident, with the names Abundia and Satia being recorded, and in Italy she was known as Befana, Befania or Epiphania, the latter name probably coming from the Christian festival of Epiphany, where ancient New Year’s rites were still celebrated. In some places, including England, the leader of the Hunt was male, and known as Herne the Hunter (in Windsor), Herlechin (sometimes spelt Herlequin, Harlequin, Hellequin or Hillikin), Herla, Berchtold, Berholt, Berndietrich and sometimes Hackel, Odin or Wuotan.
The male leaders of the Hunt were very specifically wild men, or wild spirits (selvaggi, salvatici or homines selvatici). Before the “Christianising” of Europe these wild men were probably fertility spirits, which may explain their connection with animals, notably the stag. The myth of the Wild Hunt became a popular literary and artistic device, which may be why it is still so familiar to us. In particular, Herne the Hunter, a horse riding ghost with antlers upon his head, thought to torment cattle and rattle chains has been commonly linked to the the Wild Hunt within English folklore.
The Wild Hunt appears to have been incorporated into several different myths; in some areas it seems to have been part of a fertility cult with the Huntsman/woman being the deity of fertility. In other places the Hunter was not a God, but the leader of the fairies, such as Gwyn ap Nudd who was seen as the leader of the Welsh fairies (the Tylwyth Teg) and who led the Hunt in Wales and the West of England. Toward the end of the middle ages, however, the Wild Hunt became more and more associated with witchcraft. Instead of saying that the Hunt was led by a spirit of God and featured many other spirits, it began to be said that witches participated in the Hunt and that their leader was either Satan himself or a demonic spirit. This belief also seems to have become muddled up with the idea that Witches rode in procession to Sabbats upon animals, or flew in the sky, and this idea became one of the major charges used in European witch hunts. More recently the myth of the Wild Hunt has been separated from its connection to demonolatry, perhaps because of its popularity as a children’s story and subject of art.