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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the earliest and foremost histories of the Anglo-Saxons, who were descended from the same Germanic tribes as the Norse and broadly shared the same body of religious lore, records the following event as having happened in CE 1127:
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 woods 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.
This spectral, nocturnal horde was the “Wild Hunt,” which was recorded in folklore all throughout ancient, medieval, and even early modern Europe, but was especially concentrated in the Germanic lands of northern Europe. In Scandinavia, it was called Oskoreia, “Terrifying Ride,” or Odensjakt, “Odin’s Hunt.” In Middle High German, it was called Wuotanes Her, “Odin’s Army,” and in modern German Wütende Heer, “Furious/Inspired Army,” or Wilde Jagd, “Wild Hunt”.
It swept through the forests in midwinter, the coldest, darkest part of the year, when ferocious winds and storms howled over the land. Anyone who found him- or herself out of doors at night during this time might spot this ghostly procession – or be spotted by it, which might involve being carried away and dropped miles from where the unfortunate person had been taken up, or worse. Others, practitioners of various forms of magic, joined in it voluntarily, as an intangible part of them (a “soul,” if you like) flew with the cavalcade while their bodies lay in their beds as if sleeping normally. Sometimes, the members of the Hunt entered towns and houses, causing havoc and stealing food and drink.
When accounts of the Wild Hunt mention a leader, the figure who filled this role varied greatly.
However, as the Wild Hunt’s various names across the Germanic lands attest, one figure was especially closely associated with it: Odin, the god of the dead, inspiration, ecstatic trance, battle frenzy, knowledge, the ruling class, and creative and intellectual pursuits in general. Two of Odin’s hundreds of names further demonstrate his association with midwinter, the time of the year in which the holiday Yule (Old Norse Jól) falls: Jólnir and Jauloherra, both of which mean something like “Master of Yule.” The myths describe him frequently riding throughout the Nine Worlds on his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, on quests of a shamanic nature, another theme that connects him to the Wild Hunt. As H.R. Ellis Davidson put it, speaking of the manifestations of the Wild Hunt that continued well into the Christian era, “it was natural that the ancient god of the dead who rode through the air should keep a place in this way in the memory of the people, and it reminds us of the terror which his name must once have inspired.”
In the body of lore surrounding the Wild Hunt, we find a number of themes that connect it powerfully with the dead and the underworld. For one thing, there’s the ghostly character of the hunters or warriors themselves. Dogs and horses, animals that were closely associated with death (amongst a great many other things), were almost invariably present. In some accounts of the Hunt, the riders can hardly, if at all, be distinguished from land spirits, who were themselves often conflated with the dead, as if the two were thought of as being in some sense one and the same. Finally, for the ancient Germanic peoples, the worlds of the living and the dead were especially permeable during midwinter, which goes a long way toward explaining why this troop of apparitions haunted the land during that particular part of the year. In the words of Claude Lecouteux, “[T]he Wild Hunt fell into the vast complex of ancestor worship, the cult of the dead, who are the go-betweens between men and the gods.”
It was as if the very elements of midwinter – the menacing cold, the almost unrelenting darkness, the eerie, desolate silence broken only by the baying winds and galloping storms – manifested the restless dead, and the ancient northern Europeans, whose ways of life and worldviews predisposed them to sense the spiritual qualities in the world around them, recorded the sometimes terrifying fruits of such an engagement with the more-than-human world in their accounts of the Wild Hunt.