The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a European folk myth involving a ghostly or supernatural group of huntsmen passing in wild pursuit. The hunters themselves are indeed supernatural – being elves or the fey folk.

wild hunt

The leader of the hunt is often a named figure associated with Woden but may variously be a historical or legendary figure like Theodoric the Great, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, the Welsh psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd, biblical figures such as Herod, Cain, Gabriel or the Devil, or an unidentified lost soul or spirit either male or female.

The concept of the Wild Hunt was developed by the German folklorist Jacob Grimm – you know him of Brothers Grimm fame. He first published it in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie. It was in this work that he popularised the term Wilde Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) for the phenomenon. Grimm’s methodological approach was rooted in the idea – common in nineteenth-century Europe – that modern folklore represented a fossilized survival of the beliefs of the distant past.

Grimm interpreted the Wild Hunt phenomenon as having pre-Christian origins, arguing that the male figure who appeared in it was a survival of folk beliefs about the god Wodan, who had “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power… a spectre and a devil.” Grimm believed that this male figure was sometimes replaced by a female counterpart, whom he referred to as Holda and Berchta. In his words, “not only Wodan and other gods, but heathen goddesses too, may head the furious host: the wild hunter passes into the wood-wife, Wôden into frau Gaude.”

Discussing martial elements of the Wild Hunt, Grimm commented that “it marches as an army, it portends the outbreak of war.” He added that a number of figures that had been recorded as leading the hunt, bestriding their white war-horse, armed and spurred, appear still as supreme directors of the war for which they, so to speak, give licence to mankind.”

Grimm believed that in pre-Christian Europe, the hunt, led by a god and a goddess, either visited “the land at some holy tide, bringing welfare and blessing, accepting gifts and offerings of the people” or they alternately float “unseen through the air, perceptible in cloudy shapes, in the roar and howl of the winds, carrying on war, hunting or the game of ninepins, the chief employments of ancient heroes: an array which, less tied down to a definite time, explains more the natural phenomenon.”

He believed that under the influence of Christianisation, the story was converted from being that of a “solemn march of gods” to being “a pack of horrid spectres, dashed with dark and devilish ingredients”.

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. People encountering the Hunt might also be abducted to the underworld or the fairy kingdom. In some instances, it was also believed that people’s spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.

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