Typically associated with Northern Europe, mainly Germany and Scandinavia, the legend of the Wild Hunt is a widely known folk tale of a ghostly undead figure leading a band of huntsmen and hellhounds. In Norse mythology, Odin was the leader of the Hunt.
However, the leader of the chase would change according to the region and would often be a local god, hero, or historical figure. The characteristics of the Hunt would also depend on the area.
The Wild Hunt was usually an omen of chaos and death for those unlucky enough to be present as the entourage swept across the land. It also preceded violent winter storms and unrest.
The Wild Hunt in British, Germanic, and Norse Mythology
Anglo-Saxon and British Mythology
In England and Wales, tales of the Wild Hunt date to at least the 12th century.
The Peterborough Chronicle (13th-century chronicle written in Medieval Latin at Peterborough Abbey, England, covering events from 1122 to 1294) featured a story about the Hunt passing through the town and the neighboring village of Stamford in 1127.
British versions of the tale depict 20 to 30 riders forming the Hunt, which continued for nine weeks. Earlier versions of the Wild Hunt represented the group as demonic, while later ones described the participants as fairies.
Another variation tells the story of King Herla returning from a visit to the Fairy King. A strange figure holds up his party and orders the king and his men not to dismount from his horse before the greyhound he is carrying jumps to the ground first. The dog refuses, so the king and his men cannot continue, frozen in time.
Celtic beliefs in the Hunt
There are various tales of Wild Hunts on Dartmoor, an area of moorland in southwest England.
A Welsh version exists featuring Gwynn ap Nudd, or “The Lord of the Dead,” as a wild huntsman riding a wild black horse. Nudd has a pack of white hounds with blood-red ears. Dogs with blood-red ears, known as the Gabriel Hounds, also appear in legends from England. These dogs symbolized impending disaster.
The hunt leader in Southern English legend is Herne the Hunter (or Herlathing), who shares a connection with the mythical king Herla.
Celtic beliefs in the Hunt spread to the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and the west through Wales and Ireland.
In Teutonic legend, the hunter also is on horseback, leading a pack of hounds. He has associations with a dragon or devil, with a young woman as the quarry.
Anyone trying to rescue the woman or challenging the group was punished but would receive a reward if they aided the hunters, usually with money or the leg of a dead animal. This leg was cursed and could only be disposed of with magic or prayer.
The lead huntsman has several names in Germany:
- Odin (Wodan or Woden)
*Also, make sure to check my article on Germanic Paganism Vs. Norse Paganism.
Odin in Germanic Mythology
Odin was also known as Jólnir and Jauloherra, names that can translate as “Master of Yule,” the time of year the Hunt appears.
In Middle High German, it was “Wuotanes Her” (“Odin’s Army”) and “Wütende Heer” (“Angry Army”) or “Wilde Jagd” (“Wild Hunt”) in modern German. Jacob Grimm, the German folklorist, coined the phrase Wilde Jagd in his Deutsche Mythologie of 1835.
According to Grimm (1882), Perchta, a spinning and weaving goddess, was Berchtold’s feminine equivalent and an occasional leader of the Wild Hunt. However, John B. Smith disagrees because Perchta personifies the feast of the Epiphany (or Perchta’s Day) and, therefore, cannot be pre-Christian.
In Scandinavian versions of the tale, the Hunt was only heard but never seen. A deathly hush followed by the baying of Odin’s hounds preceded its arrival.
Legend decreed that the appearance of the Hunt usually happened in conjunction with war breaking out or the changing of the seasons. The hunters represent the souls of the dead and can be fairies, Valkyries, or elves.
Viking legend mentioned the quarry of the Hunt could be a boar, a horse, or magical maidens. Later versions, influenced by Christian beliefs, described the Hunt as consisting of sinners, evildoers, and unbaptized children.
In Scandinavia, the Wild Hunt is called Oskoreia (“Terrifying Ride”). This word originates from “Ásgård-reið” (The Ride of Asgard), Oensjægeren (“Odin’s Hunters”), or Odensjakt (“Odin’s Hunt”).
Christian Wild Hunt Heroes
In the Middle Ages, as the worship of pagan gods started to disappear, the heroes became historical kings like King Arthur, Charlemagne, or the 12th-century Roman Emperor Federico Barbarossa.
Leaders of the Wild Hunt
British and Irish Mythology
In Welsh folklore, Gwyn ap Nudd is the hunt leader. The leader of the Hunt in Southern English legend is Herne the Hunter (or Herlathing) – he shares a connection with the mythical king Herla.
In Ireland, the leader was Fionn mac Cumhaill, and the Fianna, Manannán (also known as The Fairy Cavalcade).
Mesnée d’Hellequin, the Goddess of Death, led the ghostly procession in Northern France. Her name originates from Hel, the Norse Queen of the Dead.
The lead huntsman has various names in Germany: Holt, Holle, Berta, Foste, Heme, and Odin or Woden, also known as Jólnir and Jauloherra.
Other leaders of the Hunt are biblical characters like the Archangel Gabriel, Cain, Herod, or Satan.
The Danish king Valdemar Atterdag and the Goth king Theodoric the Great also appear in legend as hunt leaders.
Odin (or Wotan) leads the Old Norse version of the Wild Hunt, riding his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir.
What Does the Wild Hunt Symbolize?
The Wild Hunt can be a precursor to impending chaos, plague, war, and unrest.
It is also associated with the weather, as storms are said to follow its appearance.
Many legends link the arrival of the Wild Hunt to the changing seasons.
The Wild Hunt’s Influence on Modern Society
The Witcher III and Assassin’s Creed
The third Witcher video game, an action, sword-and-sorcery, and role-playing game based in medieval times, was called The Witcher: The Wild Hunt.
CD Projekt, the Polish game developer based in Warsaw, released the game in 2015. It is a sequel to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and takes place in a mythical Northern European landscape. The game describes the Wild Hunt as “a cavalcade of wraiths on undead horses.”
The Wild Hunt also appears in the penultimate Assassin’s Creed video game, “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. “It was released in 2020 and occupied sixth place in the AC “pantheon.”
In his 2019 book, The Wild Hunt in the Modern British Imagination, Ronald Hutton analyzed the enduring allure of the Wild Hunt legend and how it influenced British fiction in the late 20th century, producing a series of novels aimed at children and young adults.
In 2001, Hilda Ellis Davidson, a British expert in folklore and medieval European mythology, described the Wild Hunt as “one of many names for a company of dark riders who pass through the sky at night, or else along lonely roads.” She also commented that the menacing hunt leaders might be figures from history or legendary and supernatural characters: “an impressive example of the intrusion of dangerous Otherworld powers into daily life.”
In the same year, Patricia Lysaght, a leading folklore authority, said the Hunt was “a group of ghostly hunters (horsemen) riding through the sky at night.”
In 2006, Catherine (formerly Charles) Butler, an academic and children’s author, who conducted an important study on the Wild Hunt, called it “paradigmatic of how mythological and folk material has been utilized within British children’s fantasy.”
Gilded Duology by Marissa Meyer also features the Wild Hunt.
Stephan Scott Grundy’s Mountain Thunder
The American Stephan Scott Grundy (1967-2021), also known by the pen-name Kveldulf Gundarsson, was an author, scholar, goði, and practitioner of Ásatrú. He wrote a poem in the early 1990s called Mountain Thunder, which describes the Wild Hunt:
“When the winter winds blow, and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees – a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.
“But then the barking of dogs fills the air, and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses.”
Wicca’s Modern Twist to the Wild Hunt
Followers of the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca have produced a modern twist to the Wild Hunt. According to their beliefs, the Wild Hunt leader is the goddess Hecate.
The English anthropologist Susan Greenwood witnessed one of these rituals in the late 1990s in Norfolk, England. It was called the “Wild Hunt Challenge” and took place on Halloween as participants walked around a wood to gain favor from its spirits.
The anthropologist Rachel Morgain reported a recreation of the Wild Hunt as part of the Wicca claiming tradition in San Francisco.