That time of year is drawing closer, the time of short days, weak sun, long nights, and strange things riding under the stars. And for old legends that re-surface in interesting places, from fantasy novels to country songs and folk-tale collections. One story in particular returns over and over with twists and new developments: the Wold Hunt.
The fact that the basic legend is found so far back and with so many variants suggests either great age or that it tapped into something of greater age than the original story. The oldest fairly reliable versions that I’ve come across describe Odin or a different night god hunting ghostly animals, or the spirits of oathbreakers, or evil spirits, or the foolishly curious across the land and sky, accompanied by a pack of red-eye’d, flame-tongued hunting dogs. One version has it as Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, night, and dogs, leading the chase. I’ve also read a variant that has Arawn, the king of the Otherworld in Welsh mythology, hunting across the lands, but that came from a relatively late (early 1800s) collection and it may well be that the compiler decided that it would be a logical thing for Arawn to do, even if there was not a specific tradition. The Mabinogion Books 1 and 4 describe Arawn hunting, but not the Wild Hunt per se.
To my knowledge, and based on everything I’ve managed to find, this is strictly a European legend, without other Indo-European counterparts or Asian variants. Several sources put the origins with the Norse, although that leaves one wondering how it spread so far relatively quickly and comparatively early. Germanic origins seem more likely, which then spread through trade routes and settlements so that by the Dark Ages/ Late Antiquity, local variants existed in many parts of Europe and Britain.
In Germany and Switzerland, and in an interesting variant I found from Lower Austria, the hunt is sometimes led by a woman called Perchta or Pechta. In other cases it is not a hunt but an army of spirits racing across the land and sky, or marching along remote roads, and includes the souls of the newly and soon-to-be dead. In the Lower Austrian variant, a countess, beautiful but reckless, loved to hunt and would do so without any regard for holy days. One Sunday she and her hounds caught a stag in the woods and followed it to a hermitage, leaving her huntsmen and courtiers behind. The Hermit gave the stag shelter under a crucifix and told the countess to leave and to have reverence for the Lord’s day. She killed the stag, splashing hermit and crucifix with blood. He cursed her to ride the hunt forever. She tried to return to her castle and could not find a way. As night fell, exhausted and terrified, the countess fell to her knees and begged for mercy and aid. She heard bells, and followed them to safety. She repented and stopped hunting so much. But the hermit’s curse stayed with her, and after her death she rides the Hunt to this day, from darkness until the ringing of the Matins bell. The legend contains elements of St. Hubert (sabbath hunting, a stag and a crucifix) but also of the Wild Hunt and Frau Pechta.
The Wild Hunt/ Wild Army was seen as a sign of ill omen, foretelling death or war when it arrived out of time. The usual seasons were St. John’s day (Midsummer/Walpurgisnacht), Martinmas (Nov 11), All Souls, the Winter Solstice, and a few other local instances. The winter season was the most common time for the hunt, coinciding both with the stormiest time of year and with “normal” hunting season. All smart people stayed indoors if they heard hounds where no hounds should be, or the sound of armies, or geese racing down the skies in the night. If someone was on the road and the Wild Army appeared, they should duck into the woods and avert their eyes, or if close to a wayside chapel or sanctuary, get there as quickly as possible and wait on holy ground for the specters to pass. Otherwise they risked being caught up in the hunt or pulled into the army, condemned to ride or march forever.
The Christian Church at first opposed all such legends, then began adding its own interpretation in some cases. French and Swiss clerics in particular recorded the legends in the early 1500s and described them as pagan superstition or evidence of the Devil riding the land. The leader of the wild hunt became the devil and the animals and spirits those of the damned. The Brothers Grimm recorded the stories in the early 1800s and classified them as the Wildejagd or Wutendeheer, either hunt or army, and classified them as early Germanic survivals. Most folk-lore scholars follow their lead, as do several neo-pagan resources and web-sites.
I first encountered the Wild Hunt in The Dark is Rising, where the specifically English variant of Herne the Hunter plays a major role in the story. Next, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was Andre Norton’s novel Gryphon’s Eyrie (written with A. C. Crispin). Then the Mabinogion, and later in scholarly books about the Wild Hunt, folklore of Europe, and most recently in a reprint of folktales of the Danube Valley/Lower Austria.
Except I’d heard the story before, as a ballad. A singularly creepy western ballad. Yes. That one.
That’s the first recorded version not done by the songwriter. The following is more famous. I think Ives is still chilling in his simplicity.
For more: https://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Armies-Night-Ghostly-Processions/dp/1594774366/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474133711&sr=1-1&keywords=wild+hunt Phantom Armies of the night is the standard academic work.
The Time Life Enchanted Worlds series volume on ghosts has the Wild Hunt in it: https://www.amazon.com/Ghosts-Enchanted-World-Editors-Time-life/dp/0809452162/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1474134039&sr=8-12&keywords=time+life+books+enchanted+world
For an English view: http://whitedragon.org.uk/articles/hunt.htm
The Orkney link is from the Orkney Islands, heavily influenced by Scandinavia.