Ancient Stories: The Wild Hunt
The myth of the Wild Hunt, or “Raging Host,” is based on an ancient European folk story. It has been told and retold by many different cultures over thousands of years, but its origins are popularly held to lie among the ancient Germanic tribes of central Europe. It usually takes the form of a cautionary tale about a supernatural hunting party, pursuing its prey through the woods (or the night sky). Its pre-Christian origins have taken different forms over the centuries, but all are recognizable as having their roots in the original myth—and, like most myths, the story of the Wild Hunt was meant to entertain. It was also intended to offer moral and spiritual guidance.
What is the Wild Hunt?
The Wild Hunt takes the form of a host of supernatural beings in wild pursuit of their quarry. They may be elves, faeries, or some other fey (of the early, non-diminutive variety). Their leader is usually a figure associated with Woden, an early Germanic deity, who would later become the Norse God Odin; he was known to the Celts of central Europe, Britain and (especially) Ireland as Lugh, with some variations on the name occurring in other areas of the Celtic world. The figure might be an avatar of Woden, or—in some traditions—a partial representation of the deity, some specific aspect of his area of influence given separate form. On occasion, the leader of the Wild Hunt is represented as a great hero, or a quasi-historical figure out legend.
In other versions of the story, the Wild Hunt is comprised of the dead; ghosts, although the concept served a different function thousands of years ago. The modern ghost is usually an aberration; a lost soul which didn’t leave the world of the living behind when it was supposed to, something that defies the natural order and serves no purpose. In the ancient world, spirits of the dead were thought to manifest in service to some intended function; it was less “they aren’t supposed to be here” and more “we aren’t supposed to see them.” Ancient mythologies frequently placed the realm of the dead close to the world of the living, and there were held to be many possible ways to pass back and forth between them; go back far enough, and the separation was seen as little more than a journey of a few miles. In this form, the appearance of the Wild Hunt often heralded a “thinning of the veil,” a time when (or a place where) the boundary between this world and the next was unusually thin—perhaps even penetrable.
In either form, the Wild Hunt was a herald of ill omen. Its appearance was seen as a thing to be interpreted by the wise, whereupon human sacrifice, war, or migration might be engaged in for the sake of averting a subsequently prophesied calamity. The ancient world offered frequent hardship; the Wild Hunt might be seen in a storm, or a comet, and the less common its form the direr the predicament it presaged. At best, the sudden appearance of the Wild Hunt was said to mean the death of the one who beheld it; it was not uncommon for ancient European peoples to flee the site of a battle with the rise of a sudden storm, fearing the arrival of a spiritual entourage. On more than one occasion, this saved the loser of said conflict from complete annihilation.
Some stories of the Wild Hunt story describe its leader as being charged with escorting mortal spirits to the realm of the dead. This type of figure is referred to by modern mythologists (and spiritualists) as a “psychopomp,” with familiar examples including the Greek Hermes, the Egyptian Anubis, the Norse Valkyries, and the Christian Archangel Michael. In older myths, this was a far less benign role than how it is described later, with the psychopomp laying claim to whatever souls it can find—including those residing in people unlucky enough to stumble upon the Wild Hunt while they’re still breathing, as well as any individuals who happen to be sleeping nearby. The benign guide represented by figures such as the Archangel Michael comes much later; early psychopomps were seen as more of a function of natural laws, part of the universe’s machinery, and any soul which ventured too close was swept away with all the rest. As such, they were cautionary figures, whose reported approach sent ancient people scrambling indoors—and kept them out of mysterious, sacred places, such as the depths of the woods, and those places where the dead were buried or venerated.
Elements of the Wild Hunt Story
In addition to the leader of the Wild Hunt, and the individual huntsmen accompanying him, there were other elements which change with the time and location. The huntsmen in this supernatural entourage were often accompanied by hounds, who varied in appearance from great hunting dogs to wolves. In some locations, most notably in Celtic and post-Celtic Britain, the leader of the Wild Hunt was accompanied by hounds only. This is the origin of the black dog folk story, which is common in more recent British folklore: a black dog which appears as an omen of death. It is also the point of origin for the hellhound of modern fantasy, which arose as a Christianized version of the black dog story before passing into popular culture.
Long after the Wild Hunt has passed largely into obscurity, the black dog story continues to influence popular media today, most notably the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles. J. K. Rowling also included the image of the hound as an omen of death in the form of the Grim, first encountered in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the Potterverse, the Grim is the direst portent of death that exists; the one who sees it is almost inevitably doomed. The Little Black Dog, from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, is an example of an Americanized version of the British black dog folktale, which—like a lot of English legends—jumped the Atlantic with early American colonists.
The Wild Hunt’s quarry also changes depending upon the time and place from which the folktale is being sourced. Early accounts feature an animal of the sort that a mortal hunting party might track, such as a deer or a boar. Later accounts went in different directions: in the United Kingdom, a white hart or a white stag became common, and developed folktales of their own. Both recurred regularly throughout subsequent centuries’ fantastic and romantic adventure fiction, with notable appearances in the various retellings of the King Arthur legends. In Norse mythology, the Wild Hunt is often described as being in pursuit of unusual quarry, such as horses, or even maidens.
Origins of the Wild Hunt
The name “Wild Hunt” first appeared in 1835, in a study of Germanic mythology written by Jacob Grimm (a profound linguist and mythologist, though he remains better known as one of the Brothers Grimm). Jacob noted the many variations on the same mythological theme, which occurred in ancient cultures throughout Europe, and he coined the phrase Wilde Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) as a reference.
…they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes.
—Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology
He was the first to recognize the true geographical breadth and temporal depth of the many variations of the story, and may be responsible for recognizing the connection between Woden, Nodens, Odin, and other variations on the same ancient Germanic deity.
That the wild hunter is to be referred to Wodan, is made perfectly clear by some Mecklenburg legends.
—Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology
The actual origin of the folktale itself is unknown. Wild Hunt stories go back for thousands of years, with variations present in a range of British cultures, Nordic cultures, and the ancient Germanic tribes. Jacob Grimm notes the fact that, in every culture where stories of the Wild Hunt arose, they appeared to go back into pre-Christian times:
Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism…The Christians had not so quickly nor so completely renounced their faith in the gods of their fathers, that those imposing figures could all at once drop out of their memory. Obstinately clung to by some, they were merely assigned a new position more in the background. The former god lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power, that still had a certain amount of influence left. His hold lost upon men and their ministry, he wandered and hovered in the air, a spectre and a devil.
—Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology
Many of these cultures were widely illiterate, with writing either entirely unknown or reserved to a special, learned class of society, making backtracking to a specific point of origin difficult. It is entirely possible, given the ubiquitous concept of the hunting party and the widespread notion of a powerful sky god, whose sphere also encompassed victory on the battlefield, that the concept of the Wild Hunt arose separately in several ancient cultures. As with the changes in the black dog folktale with its conveyance from England to America, divergent traits would have spread from one society to another with the advent of trade and diplomacy, and different groups of people would have seized on aspects that were at once different from their own tales—yet familiar enough to relate to.
Post-Christian Forms of the Wild Hunt
Jacob Grimm has already told us how converted Christians retained the memory of their ancient beliefs, but in many cases certain elements of the Wild Hunt mythology were eventually supplanted: in no society has the development and creation of folktales ever ceased, with modern-day examples ranging from urban legends to the internet’s creepypasta.
Christian influences on the Wild Hunt folktales can be broadly divided into two forms: the identity of the master of the hunt, and the nature of the quarry being pursued. In either case, Christian “use” of the story parallels pre-existing pagan tradition very closely: the Wild Hunt was seen to be a harbinger of great misfortune, and was often regarded as being an omen of certain death to those who beheld it. It is possible to find parallels between the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the story of the Wild Hunt, while in other cases the leader of the Wild Hunt is represented as Death—stripped of his divinity, and even of his individuality, but not of his power and influence. Notably, some later folktales presented the master of the hunt as being a dead nobleman whose life had been characterized by wickedness; in some versions of the tale, he was slain by a boar, which he was subsequently doomed to never cease pursuing.
One German version of the post-Christian Wild Hunt names the doomed huntsman as Hanns von Hackelberg, who is said to have violated the Sabbath with his final, fatal hunting expedition. In various parts of the UK, post-Christian versions of the Wild Hunt frequently feature King Arthur as the phantasmal leader of the expedition. For a time (read: several hundred years) it became common to characterize notorious and unpopular political leaders as the master of the Wild Hunt—after their deaths, of course.
The quarry pursued by the Wild Hunt under Christian influences was sometimes of the traditional variety, as in the legend of the Baroque-era German nobles and their boars. One of the more common alterations to the story does feature a significant change to the quarry, however. This type arose among the Christianized Nordic peoples of northeastern Europe, whose ancient tales of the Wild Hunt had already incorporated the pursuit of maidens, mythical creatures, and other types of unusual quarry (at least for a mortal huntsman). The post-Christian Wild Hunt stories of northeastern Europe featured the Wild Hunt conjuring up the souls of specific types of sinners, most notably those of unrepentant petty criminals and unbaptized infants. These versions of the Wild Hunt sometimes featured hellhounds in forms recognizable to modern fantasy enthusiasts, and might have been led by the Devil himself—but this region did give rise to the version of the Wild Hunt, which would eventually become more widespread, which didn’t have a huntsman at all. It was simply a wild procession of the damned, with or without demonic hounds or other diabolical figures in attendance.
That last variation would eventually lead to the “dissolution” of the Wild Hunt folktales, where—without the rallying point of the huntsman himself, whatever his identity—other individual elements of the Wild Hunt, like the hellhound or the demon, began to take on more importance. These led to the distinction of the Wild Hunt fading away, or to the rise of alternate folktales that bear only a cursory resemblance to their point of origin: many would be regarded for centuries as death omens, or otherwise as a sign of misfortune.
Modern Pop Culture References to the Wild Hunt
While its origins as a distinct myth might not be well-known, particularly outside of central or eastern Europe, the Wild Hunt is one of the most influential stories behind much of today’s popular fantasy and science fiction media.
The Wild Hunt in Books
The Wild Hunt makes an appearance in many books, but is perhaps most well-known in fantasy.
In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, the leader of the Wild Hunt is a primordial entity who controls the Wild Magic, one of the four fundamental magical forces of the universe—infamously powerful, and notoriously resistant to any attempts to harness it. The forces of the Light and of the Dark both seek out the ritual elements required to bind the Wild Magic to their service for a single night, which will be enough for either side to remove the other side’s influence over mankind’s continued development.
In her bestselling Mortal Instruments series, Cassandra Clare describes an alternate New York populated by all manner of supernatural beings, including the angelic Shadowhunters who seek to protect the innocent—and the demons who want to destroy everything. In this setting, the Wild Hunt is depicted as being led by Gwyn ap Nudd, the ancient Welsh God of the Dead—an equivalent to the Irish Lugh and the Germanic Woden, and one of the early figures to lead the Wild Hunt in Britain.
In a noteworthy departure from traditional fantasy fare, Cormac McArthy—author of The Road and No Country for Old Men—penned a semi-autobiographical work called Suttree over a twenty-year period. The book is set in 1951, but wasn’t published until 1979. Many people have speculated over the apparent Odinic parallels to Cornelius Suttree, the titular, somewhat Steinbeckian hero, which are scattered throughout the book. While it is generally accepted that the Wild Hunt is given mention in Suttree, there isn’t a lot of consensus as to the meaning behind it—except, perhaps to the Hunt’s useful symbolism as an image of chaos, corresponding to Cornelius’ attempts to find himself (in an existential sense).
Andrzej Sapkowski is an award-winning Polish fantasy author most well-known in the rest of Europe and America for The Witcher saga, a series of fantasy novels featuring the exploits of one Geralt of Rivia—one of an order of Witchers, sorcerer-assassins who fight the monsters that infest Andrzej’s dark fantasy world. His world is itself deeply reminiscent of the gritty, non-Disney-esque fairytales and folk stories of ancient Germanic Europe. It features the Wild Hunt, led by a “King of the Wild Hunt” and consisting of a host of specters, which Geralt at one point joins after giving his soul in exchange for that of another. The Witcher series is noted for its seamless inclusion of various scholarly and scientific disciplines within its fantasy; as such, the exact nature of the Wild Hunt is debated by intellectuals within the context of the story itself.
Frank Long’s Hounds of Tindalos were incorporated into the Cthulhu mythos after being codified by August Derleth. They appear as emaciated, “rotting” hounds, which inhabit the angles of time. Living outside the normal progression of time as such, they are able to find their quarry wherever it may hide. Their lapping tongues produce deep, bloodless wounds which drain their victims’ vitality. These Lovecraftian hounds are deeply reminiscent of some of the creatures once described as being a part of the Wild Hunt, unshakable hellhounds with the power to steal a person’s soul away from them.
The Wild Hunt in Film and Television
The Wild Hunt is a 2009 Horror/Drama film by Canadian production company Animist Films. A low-budget film, produced for approximately $500,000 CA, it has won two awards of note: Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and an Audience Sparky Award for Best Narrative Film at the fifteenth annual Slamdance Film Festival (which focuses upon emerging, low-budget film production) in 2010. More widespread critical reception of the film, which features a live-action role-playing event gone wrong due to a ritual invoking the Wild Hunt, was lukewarm; a few critics have given it three stars, but multiple problems have been pointed out with lighting, special effects, and film editing.
The Wild Hunt in Games
The Witcher saga has been transformed into a series of three games (to date) by Polish video game developer CD Projekt Red. The company has rapidly risen to prominence based upon the success of the Witcher series. Witcher 3, the latest installment, is fully titled “Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt; it has accumulated more than 800 awards since its release, with more than 250 “Game of the Year” awards from reputable sources within the worldwide video game industry—and more than 10 million copies of the game sold to date. The Wild Hunt features prominently throughout the Witcher series, and its representation is somewhat complex: at times, the King of the Wild Hunt seems like a diabolical figure, while at other times the Hunt is represented as a mechanical part of “the way the world works.” Within the context of the game itself, characters have varying takes on the nature of the Hunt; some believe that it is not actually a host of specters at all, but “simply a magical phenomenon.”
The Wild Hunt has been a contributing factor to western folktales for so long that many of its influences have evolved beyond recognition. The plot of the existing installments of the critically acclaimed Mass Effect video game franchise centers around the coming of the Reapers: a host of sentient machines created by the first intelligent spacefaring race in the Milky Way galaxy. For millions of years, the Reapers have returned to the galaxy from the depths of intergalactic space at regular intervals, wiping out all sentient spacefaring civilizations before they could develop the technology to completely scour the galaxy of all life themselves. The bodies and memories of those slain are then used to construct new Reapers. The oldest and most powerful Reaper, the nominal “leader” of the Hunt, is known as Harbinger, tying in the idea of a death omen with the coming of the Reapers.
The Wild Hunt on Stage
The Wild Hunt was a popular theme in theater and opera for centuries, up to the innovation of modern media.
- Karl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz.
- Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études of 1837.
- Arnold Schönberg’s oratorio Gurre-Lieder, 1911.
- Spanish writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s 1861 El monte de las ánimas features a much-overlooked contribution to the modern Wild Hunt story, as it introduced the idea of the Hunt appearing on Halloween.
- Robert Wagner’s Die Walküre, from which we have Ride of the Valkyries, was first performed in 1870 as a complete piece. However, the main score may have been written as early as 1851. In Norse myth, Valkyries are not only psychopomps, but also supernatural warrior-maidens who hunt down the cowardly; they were often involved in Nordic stories featuring the Wild Hunt, for as long as those stories have existed.
- B. Yeats evoked the Wild Hunt in his 1893 poem The Hosting of the Sidhe. The Sidhe are one of the houses of the fey as represented by the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland. Yeats is noted for having competed with English aristocrat Aleister Crowley, “the most wicked man alive,” for leadership of the occult Golden Dawn Society: their power struggle split the popular Victorian occult society in two.
- Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Wesele, 1901.
The Wild Hunt in Modern Pagan Tradition
In the late 1990s, a modern Pagan group in Norfolk, England staged a “Wild Hunt Challenge” on Halloween. Participants would explore a local wooded area during the daytime, then repeat the process at night in a timed competition. The activity was associated directly with Gwyn ap Nudd, as the particular wooded area used was believed by the group to have been an area which the Wild Hunt frequented in ancient times. Successful completion of the challenge was rewarded by permission to cut timber from the woods and fashion a staff, representing the initiate’s having gained the trust of the wood’s spirits.
Founded in 1979 in southern California, the Reclaiming tradition combined Goddess worship with political activism to create an offshoot of the feminist movement, which Reclaiming adherents felt had gotten off-track. The movement combined modern feminism, anarchism, the peace movement, and environmental awareness. It was reported by various outlets that the leaders of the movement—a pair of Neopagan women who had converted to the faith from Judaism, bringing some elements of ancient Jewish religious practice with them—staged a recreation of the Wild Hunt in an area of San Francisco.
Digging Deeper into the Wild Hunt
This was originally intended to be a standalone piece; it now seems likely that additional blog posts will be written on the subject, with each one most likely focusing on a specific aspect of the Wild Hunt as outlined in this article. If you’re looking for more information on this fascinating subject in the meantime, here are a few highly authoritative sources which deserve consideration. Most have already been referenced within this article, but here they are for convenience:
- The Wild Hunt—Wikipedia
- The Wild Hunt—Norse Mythology for Smart People
- The Wild Hunt—Orkneyjar
- Woden vs. Odin—Of Axe and Plow
- The Witcher Official Wikia—WitcherWiki
- Modern Pagan News & Commentary—The Wild Hunt