A troop of warriors or hunters racing through the sky to harvest the dead led by the devil, Herne the Hunter or Woden (Odin) the one eyed lord of frenzy and magic who travels between worlds on an eight legged horse born of an encounter between a giant’s horse and a god who shape shifted into a mare.
Scholarly Tradition Is Wrong
In 2014 Ronald Hutton argued against the scholarly tradition that the Hunt is a host of human dead led by a male or female divine or semi divine figure. He also questioned the notion that the Hunt represents the journey of the living into the realms of the dead and that the Hunt was led by Diana, a belief that influenced the idea of night flights and the witches sabbath.
Hutton questioned key aspects of the scholarly tradition regarding medieval beliefs in nocturnal spirit processions which regard views of the hunt as
- Essentially concerned with the dead
- Direct survivals from ancient paganism, and
- Having a straightforward relevance to the early modern trials for witchcraft
The Fundamentalism of Jacob Grimm
In 1835 Jacob Grimm popularised the name Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd) as a night time ride of dead heroes led by a pagan god and his female consort. Grimm seems to have been the first to suggest ancient pagan traditions underlaid the modern notion of the witches’ Sabbats.
Grimm’s attitude resembled that of Biblical literalists in that he thought commoners and especially rural ones unthinkingly practised and believed things inherited from earlier epochs, which they no longer understood and were incapable of altering. This turned folklore into a set of living fossils that could throw light onto earlier beliefs and practices.
Grimm prioritised folklore over medieval and early modern texts. Later scholars questioned this noting features in folklore not present in older texts, that text and folklore reveal traditions of very different kinds of nocturnal spirit procession and that little evidence seemed to survive for an ancient origin for the Wild Hunt.
Spectral Processions and Hunts
By considering only sources earlier than 1600, the time the concept of the witches’ Sabbat had been fully formed, Hutton concluded the modern concept of the hunt mixes two types of nocturnal procession or cavalcade.
One, composed mainly of female spirits, travelled about, often visiting human homes to bless them if the inhabitants were clean and hospitable. Living people frequently claimed to have joined it, sometimes explicitly in spirit form while their bodies remained in their beds. In many areas it was believed to be led by a supernatural female. Clerical writers tended to call her Diana or Herodias, but she was also known by local names such as Holda, Abundia, Satia, or Percht.
The other sort of procession was mostly or wholly made up of dead human beings, and rarely considered benevolent.
As well as focussing on Medieval and early modern texts Hutton ignores reports of spectral huntsman such as this onein the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 1127.
”… many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them sounding their horns.”
Ghostly Hunters and Black Dogs Take to the Skies
Together with the belief the upper atmosphere was where demons and damned spirits tumbled through the air for eternity and that those who died early, were doomed to wander the earth until the day they would have died, often in animal form, spectral hunts could move from the earth to the airy spaces above.
It’s not clear whether Grimm invented the idea Woden led the Wild Hunt, but he created a vision that appeals to restless testosterone filled or menopausal men, perhaps trapped behind a desk, who would hear the wind howl and long to escape their clerk’s stool.
The Wild Hunt will be with us as long as we exist and may travel with us to tother planets or even galaxies.
© 2021 AlexK2009