Wild Hunt

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Wild Hunt

Asgardsreid, Furious Host, Furious Hunt,

Gabriel's Hounds, Gandreid, Jolerei,

Julereien, Raging Host, Yuletide Host

If one listens closely to the swirling winds of a stormy winter night, eerie voices seem to howl in the darkness. In past centuries much folklore from northwestern Europe interpreted these sounds as a sign that the Wild Hunt was abroad. People invented many names for this unruly procession of ghosts, goblins, and deities that stormed across the night skies. For the most part, the wailing spirits frightened listeners, but in some places they also aided human beings.

Belief in the Wild Hunt was especially strong between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Historical records indicate that some medieval Europeans believed the Wild Hunt capable of rampaging through their dreams, carrying their spirits off on unwholesome adventures while their bodies slumbered. Folkloric records indicate that the Wild Hunt might appear in the skies at any time of year. Nevertheless, in many locales the ghostly riders were thought to be most active during the Twelve Days of Christmas, especially Twelfth Night.

The leaders, members, and purpose of the Wild Hunt varied somewhat from region to region. In Wales, Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Underworld, led the hunt. In England some believed the Wild Hunt was led by King Arthur. Others referred to the noises on the wind as the baying of Gabriel's Hounds. The phantom hounds represented the souls of unbaptized infants, and their passing signified a death to come. In Norway the Hunt was known as the Gandreid, which means "spirits' ride." According to Norwegian folklore, the spirits of those who had died during the past year charged across the night skies during the Gandreid, increasing the fertility of all the fields they passed over. The Gandreid was most active around Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. In German-speaking and Scandinavian lands the Hunt was known as Asgardsreid, literally "Asgard's Ride," and was thought to occur most often during Yule or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Asgard was the home of the Scandinavian gods. Many believed that the fearsome, one-eyed king of the Scandinavian gods, Odin, led the wild ride across the skies to Asgard, mounted on his eight-legged steed. He and his riotous following were sometimes called the Wild Hunt, the Raging Host, the Jolerei or the Julereien (the Yuletide Host), and it was believed dangerous for Christians to see them. Nevertheless, some peasants left the last sheaf of grain in their fields as an offering for Odin's horse. In some locales Odin's wife Frigga headed the throng of spirits.

In other German-speaking areas the noises on the wind meant that the goddess Berchta and her following of wraiths, fairies, and the souls of small children rode abroad. Berchta roamed the world during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but was especially active on Twelfth Night. She rewarded the industrious and punished the lazy. In northern German lands the Furious Hunt or Furious Host was led by a similar goddess, Holde, who commanded a similar band of followers. The passing of Holde and her followers blessed the lands below, ensuring that crops would double during the coming year. (See also Germany, Christmas in.)

Further Reading

Guerber, H. A. Myths of Northern Lands. 1895. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Singing Tree Press, 1970. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Wild Hunt

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

As the wilde Jagd the Wild Hunt is part of Teutonic folklore, although it was known across most of northern Europe. In France it is known variously as Chasse Maccabei, Chasse Artu, or Mesnie Hellequin. It is a procession of beings, usually female and including ancient deities, across the sky. Names of the deities known in southern Germany include Perchta, Berhta, or Berta, called "the bright one" and sometimes aligned with Diana. Other names associated with the Wild Hunt include Holt, Holle, or Hulde; Faste; Selga; Selda; and Venus. In France the names Abundia and Satia are used; in Italy, Befana, Befania, or Epiphania.

The Wild Hunt took place not only across the sky. In some areas it was supposed to pass along the country roads, especially on sabbat dates. Witches were commonly believed to be a part of the Wild Hunt. It was first described in the Canon Episcopi

of c. 900 CE, which stated, "Some wicked women. . . seduced by illusions and phantoms of demons, believe and profess themselves in the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the Pagans, and in the silence of the night to traverse great spaces of the earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights."

By many accounts the Wild Hunt was led by Satan himself, attended by the hounds of Hell. Reports have it accompanied by a cacophony of baying hounds and blowing horns. For whose who heard it approaching, the only safe thing to do was to lie flat on the ground, face down with eyes tightly shut, and hold on to any plant or bush until the hunt had passed.

The Wild Hunt was believed to ride in various parts of England. In Shropshire it was led by Wild Edric, the hero who held out against William the Conqueror for several years. In Warwickshire an unknown hunter led a pack of hounds known locally as the Hell Hounds, the Night Hounds, or Hooter. Across Windsor Great Park, on the night of the full moon, Herne the Hunter led his pack of hounds (and, according to many, still does). Across Dartmoor, and some other areas of England, Woden led the hunt. In the 1940s, during the war years, it was reportedly heard at Samhain, passing through West Coker, near Taunton, Devon.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1127 CE), as reported by Brian Branston in The

Lost Gods of England (1957), contains the passage: Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the wood stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild tantivy as near as they could tell.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.