The Wild Hunt- One of the Oldest Germanic Stories
Cover image- Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wilde Jagd Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A ferocious storm hit my corner of California in December. The wind howled as it battered the house, moaning sounds came down the chimney, doors rattled, and we could hear branches cracking outside. A sudden popping sound, and we were plunged into darkness. Thankfully the extra candles i bought for Christmas were in easy reach. Sitting there by candlelight, with what sounded like a freight train barreling down on us (not to mention the dog howling in fear), I understood how our ancestors could believe that the Wild Hunt was riding past.
What is the Wild Hunt?
Stories of the Wild Hunt date back to the beginnings of pagan tradition and mythology (making me wonder if it isn’t one of the oldest stories that we still tell). At its core, a ghostly leader/hunter flies across the Winter sky followed by a group of spirits/hunters during the time of the Raunächte. Howling winds signify them passing by. In German, the Wild Hunt goes by many names… the Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt), the Wütendes Heer (Raging or Furious Host or Army), Wilden Heer (Wild Army). And in some stories, it’s a lone hunter- Wilde Jäger (Wild Hunter).
In the oldest stories, the Wild Hunt was a time for blessings from the gods. People left offerings to Woden in exchange for blessings over the harvest or their animals. Yes, Woden… before the great migration North in the 2nd century, the Norse gods that we’ve all come to know better because of the Thor films, were Germanic. (In Norway the Wild Hunt is called Oskorei.) The oldest written stories about the hunt were put to paper by Monks in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles in 1127… and they show up in the Icelandic Sagas (a fabulous and fairly complete record of Northern European mythology). Over time, beliefs changed, and the sound of howling wind was twisted into something malicious. To see the riders or be out in the storm, led to death or worse, being swept up in the hunt.
What’s interesting is how the story appears over and over in various incarnations throughout German history. The leader or Schimmelreiter, started as Woden, but over time was reshaped and rewoven to include other figures, from Frau Holle and Frau Perchta to Knecht Ruprecht, and even Loyal Eckhart. Stories about nobles like Count Hackelberg turned the Wild Hunt into a cautionary tale. In the Middle Ages, it was associated with Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa. Then, after Jacob Grimm published his Germanic (Teutonic) Mythology, the German Romantics picked up the story and turned it into art, Julius Wolff spent 30 years writing a bestselling epic poem, The Wild Huntsman: A Legend of the Hartz, and in a wild twist of the tale, Hitler himself was compared to Wotan/Woden/Odin. Even today near the Unterberg in Austria, Perchten (people who dress as pagan mythical beings) reenact the Wild Hunt with a dance.
The Wild Hunt, this howling army in the wind, binds it all together.
Stories of the Wild Hunt
While reading the many stories of the Wild Hunt, I get an image of a kitchen. On the stovetop you find pots filled with bubbling soups. The rack above the stove holds jars filled with aromatic seasonings. Cutting boards and bowls on the counter are filled with tasty ingredients. The base of the soups are all the same… but to this pot the chef adds pagan deities, and to that pot, a lone hunter, another pot gets a teaspoon of lost souls, while still another gets a pinch of hounds. There’s mixing and simmering. But the base story stays the same (and it’s all soup!).
Earliest stories of the Wild Hunt tell of Wodan/Odin riding his many legged horse, Sleipnir, across the sky ahead of his fellow hunters during the midwinter Yule Season (Rauhnächte). Those who left offerings would be blessed. (Usually some food for Odin, along with Hay or Oats for Sleipnir… not unlike leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa or a carrot for St Nicholas’s horse).
But it wasn’t just male hunters, women led the Wild Hunt in those days as well. Freya, Holda (Frau Holle), and even Frau Perchta led the procession. Usually as Women in White (a recurring theme in the old stories) Freya rode… by her husband’s side… but Holda and Perchta (the stories were regional by northern and southern Germanic areas) were there for a gentler reason. They guided the souls of children who had died over the course of the year to the other side. In Bohemia, after Christianity took root, it’s said that Barborka (later St Barbara) leads the Wild Hunt as a midwinter witch dressed in black… her tangled hair whipping behind her as she rides the winds….
Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld: Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker. Mit gegen 130 in den Text gedruckten Illustrationen, vielen Tonbildern u. s. w. Spamer, Leipzig 1863. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Public Domain
(Notice Eckhart out in front of Holle/Perchta…. he will show up again later)
The Story Changes
Over time, the stories changed. Jacob Grimm, in his Germanic Mythology, writes- “with the coming of Christianity the fable could not but undergo change. For the solemn march of the gods, there now appeared a pack of horrid specters, dashed with dark and devilish ingredients.”
Instead of blessings, the Wild Hunt took a dark turn. Anyone outside when the Hunt passed by would now be swept up in it. Woden still led the hunt, but to see it was dangerous. If you should hear it coming… the wind, the hounds, the approaching Ravens…it was best to hide inside. Can’t get to shelter? Lie face down in the center of the road, DON’T LOOK, and the Hunt should ignore you and pass by (shades of Indiana Jones shouting at Marion to keep her eyes closed). There are apocryphal stories of a young cowherd who heard the sound of baying dogs where there were none. He lay down and hid his face, the hunt passed him by. There is safety in not seeing.
Those swept up by the Hunt might be dropped off miles from where they started…or might never be seen again. A woman picking berries heard the sound of the Wild Hunt approaching, and instead of hiding, she peeked from behind the bush to see. She was picked up and thrown to the ground yards away… her basket of berries scattered.
Of course, some hunters choose to JOIN the Wild Hunt. These unfortunate souls are rewarded with a cursed object.
sollst du auch helfen tragen.”
“You want to help hunt,
You can also help carry”
The wanna-be hunters would be tossed the leg of a deer…or worse, a HUMAN… and were cursed to carry the rotting smelly thing. Even if they managed to get rid of the leg, the smell would stick.
In the Middle Ages, stories of the Wild Hunt were “modernized” to be more relevant to the time.
Instead of Woden/Odin, I’ve found references that Frederick Barbarossa or Charlemagne lead the Wild Hunt. (The closest written story I can find relates to Barbarossa. According to legend, he and his army are asleep in a cave in Mount Untersberg in Bavaria… today the people of Untersberg reenact the Wild Hunt). But it makes sense that stories would adjust to the times. (Like Urban Legends… a friend of a cousin heard something…and it has to be relevant!). According to Westphalian and Niedersachsen legend, Hans von Hackelnberg, an avid hunter in the 1500s, was poisoned when his foot was impaled by a boar’s tusk. He refused to give up the hunt and go to heaven, so now he rides at the head of the hunt until the end of days.
For others, leading the hunt is punishment. A tale from Löwenberg tells of a hunter who so loved hunting that he refused to stop for Sundays. While going after his prey, he crashed through some bushes and ended up killing the animal in the middle of a mass. The priest cursed him, and dogs tore the hunter to pieces. Now he leads the hunt for all eternity.
Some northern German legends say the hunters are after a woman… a female demon. And that the leg tossed to anyone who wants to join the hunt is female with a red shoe. (yuck…)
In the Thüringen Forests, the stories tell of Eckhard, the Wütende Heer, coming down from the Hörselberg (the Magic Mountain) to lead the Hunt on a 5 hour trip around the world. This legendary figure first shows up in the Nibelungenlied, and also in Tannhäuser and Grimm’s stories. Today’s Urglaawe practitioners still believe that Gedreier Eckhart (loyal Eckhart) leads the hunt. He is loyal to Holle with his white beard and staff, he goes out ahead of the Wild Hunt as a warning to unsuspecting people who might be in the way… but also to prepare those he encounters for the upcoming inspection.
An older tale from the Riesengebirge (a mountain range along todays Czech-Polish border that once divided Bohemia and Silesia) connects Rübezahl with the Wild Hunt. While a more recent legend from the Riesengebirge claims that the Wild Hunt is made up of Frederick the Great’s fallen Prussian Soldiers who can’t get home. During the Winter they rise up and try to fly home… then shriek and howl when they fail.
The Romantics and the Wild Hunt
In 1835, Jacob Grimm (of the Grimm Brother’s fame) published his (incredibly long and dense) 4 Volume Germanic Mythology/Teutonic Mythology containing ALL of the mythology and superstitions of the German people, both written and oral traditions. And he details the Wild Hunt, which changes it from legendary tale to a more concrete piece of the Germanic story.
And that’s when the German Romantics and Nationalists pricked up their ears.
Illustration for the Wild Huntsman by Woldemar Friedrich
Julius Wolff, born in Quedlinburg in 1834, was one of the last of the Romantic poets. You may not know his name, but his work will be familiar… he wrote Tannhäuser, the Tale of the Flying Dutchman, the Ratcatcher of Hamelin, the Song of the Lorelei, Till Euelenspiegel, and more. (Yup, he’s a big deal) It took Julius Wolff 30 years to finish writing his VERY LONG poem “The Wild Huntsman” (published in 1887). The Epic (and I mean EPIC) poem was gathered up from the Wild Hunt stories out of the Middle Ages. The first printing sold out in two weeks. His heros tale, loaded with myth, legend, horror, and a love for the outdoors… subsequently went through dozens of reprintings both in Germany and the United States. (Much like the Harry Potter or Twilight books of that age).
Here’s Wolff’s description of the Woden Host from The Wild Huntsman: A Legend of the Hartz translated by Ralph Davidson (1905 Putnam Edition)
Note the Woden’s ravens, the consort in snowy white robes holding a distaff (like Holda)… but oddly, no sound. (You can read all 225 pages here. )
Illustration of Wodan passing by Woldemar Friederich for the Wild Huntsman
Artists and Painters
Artists used the Wild Hunt as motif for their paintings…. And why not? It’s a fabulous theme! Lots of swirling and horses, hunters and animals. All tied up in myth. No wonder you see the images over and over.
Here is Wodan’s Wilde Jagd by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine. You see he’s using the Hunter theme with a female demon as prey.
The Wild Hunt Survives Today.
The Wild Hunt makes its appearance in literature like The Lord of the Rings, the Wheel of Time Series movies, Tom Winton’s “the Riders”, and (my personal favorite) Sharyn McCrumb’s “the Ghost Riders“. You’ll see it in comics like Hellboy and the Marvel Thor stories. And naturally, it the Wild Hunt makes an appearace on the Witcher. There are even roll playing games and video games.
Today it feels like society looks further back in time when it remembers the Wild Hunt stories. Or maybe some of the old ways are returning. In Germany, many people still hold off on hanging laundry outside during the Rauhnächte for fear that the Wild Hunt will be tangled in the line.
In a case of life imitating legend…Since the 1940s in the Pongau region of Austria, near Untersberg mountain, the community has been reinacting the Wild Hunt. This Perchten event dates back to the 1880s, but links to the 2000 year old story. 12 Hunters, dressed in costumes; a Vorprecht (one of the Perchten), Death, a Raven, Moosweiberl (wood elves), Baumpercht (a tree spirit), Hahnengickerl (a rooster), a Bear and Bear Hearder, a Witch and more. They are guided by torchbearers as they march through town. When they come to the selected home, they circle and dance around it… banging drums and ringing bells. Then they stop and chant. (The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas by Al Ridenour)
“Glück hinein, Unglück hinaus,
es ziagt des wilde Gjoad ums Haus”
“Fortune in, misfortune out,
The Wild Hunt goes round your House”
Then the Rooster crows, and the parade moves on to another house.
And over thousands of years, this oldest of story gets changes and adjustments according to what the chef (or storyteller) has in the kitchen. But the base stays the same. The Wild Hunt, a story to explain our darkest fears when we hear the sound and fury of a raging Winter wind.
Wild Huntsman Legends– University of Pittsburgh Translated- D.L Ashliman
Sagen von der wilden Jagd. (Wodan u. Frick.)– Lexicus
Jacob Grimm Teutonic Mythology- Translated by James Stallybrass
Wotan by Carl Jung
The Furious Hunt in Salzburg– B Special Tours
The Old Magic of Christmas– Linda Raedisch
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas. Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil- Al Ridenour
A Look at Grimm’s Pagan Lore– Annette e Neumann
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe- H.R. Ellis Davidson