Riding with the living dead: The Wild Hunt
Every good hero has a dark side. Herne the Hunter, hero of my new novel Bound to the Beast, possesses one murkier than most. In recent centuries, Herne has been associated with the Wild Hunt, a band of undead ghouls, fairies, and hellhounds, who sweep across England on the eve of great disasters, bringing horror to all who see them and spreading destruction in their wake. Not the most peaceful of hobbies, then.
However, Herne is not the only figure associated with the Wild Hunt, and indeed, their origins are obscure. Different visions of the Wild Hunt can be discerned in the folklore of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as Germany, France, Scandinavia, and beyond.
One of the first descriptions of a Wild Hunt is attributed to the Roman historian Tacitus (who conjured many exotic images of the ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ peoples of the northern European forests, underlining the Roman imperialist project). Writing in the 1st century AD, he describes the Harii, a Germanic tribe as
“….a fierce people who enhance their natural savageness by art and the choice of time. Their shields are black, their bodies painted black, and they choose black nights for battles and produce terror by the mere appearance, terrifying and shadowy, of a ghostly army. No enemy can withstand a vision that is strange and, so to speak, diabolical; for in all battles, the eyes are overcome first.”
Early figures associated with the Wild Hunt include mythical Anglo-Saxon king, Herla, and the god, Odin/Woden (namesake of Wednesday, Woden’s Day.)
A depiction of Odin found on a warrior’s helmet, from Sweden, 7th Century AD.
Although primarily a northern European phenomena, the Wild Hunt captured the attention of Italian renaissance artist, Agostino Musi.
Musi’s ‘Vision of the Wild Hunt,’ 1515.
Many of the most powerful evocations of the Wild Hunt come from Norse mythology (especially its (re)invention among 19th and 20th century romantics.) This early 19th century Norwegian poem described the Wild Hunt of Asgard led by the god, Thor.
Thor, the strong one, his hammer high,
Stands tall in his rig, in front of the pack.
He strikes his shield and hot red flames
Light up the nightly raid at the scene.
Horns blow, and an awesome noise
From bells and riding gear resounds.
Then the pack roars loudly and people listen
With rising fear in their quaking homes.
The Wild Hunt of Asgard raids the county
Whilst fall and winter at stormy nights.
But it favors to travel at Yuletide…
They feast with trolls and giants;
they closely ride by meadow and path
And pass the fearful nation.
Then, – take care farmer! Keep all in order!
As the wild hunt of Asgard may visit your home!
Read the rest of the poem here.
Thor and his giants in an illustration from H.A.Guerber’s ‘Myths of the Norsemen,’ 1909.
One of the most famous descriptions of the Wild Hunt is ‘The Hosting of the Sidhe’ by the Irish poet and romantic nationalist, W.B.Yeats, in ‘The Celtic Twilight’ (1893), a collection inspired by Gaelic faerie lore.
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
Wodan’s Wilde Jagd, by F.W. Heine, 1882.
Dark indeed! In recent years, the Wild Hunt have turned up in various books, comics, and video games, and there was even a film by that name, made as recently as 2009. Anybody seen it?
So from the mists of folklore to the present age. All that we can be certain of is that the Wild Hunt rides on.
This is a companion blog to The Horned One.
The Wild Hunt feature my forthcoming novel Bound to the Beast, published tomorrow.