The Wild Hunt, the ancient ghosts ride across Europe

The months between the autumn and spring equinoxes have been since ancient times populated by dark creatures, myths and lore linking to the otherworld. Different kinds of festivities in celebrating the ancestors, rituals involving the honourable dead or tales of ghosts and demons are being celebrated to this day in some regions of Europe. The myth of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly group of dead hunters, warriors, demons, wild animals and different spiritual entities riding through the winter sky is one of the stories which is being recalled all over the western hemisphere.

Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt of Odin) (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)
Asgårdsreien or The Wild Hunt of Odin (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)

The concrete pattern of the myth vastly differs throughout the different regions. Sometimes the Wild Hunt requests food offerings and has the power to grant a good harvest. In other variants of the tale the Undead take everyone with them that witnesses their gruesome arrival.


The true history of this myth is lost in time. Its core is mixed with local traditions and folklore. In Northern Germany and Scandinavia for example the Allfather Wotan/Odin is leading the hunt, in other parts the host is lead by Holda/Perchta, a legendary figure embodying the distant memory of a great goddess. On the British Isles it is King Herla, or the Wild Hunter, who rides in the front, the people of France know the story as the “Mesnie Hellequin” (Hellequin’s host). The story is also attested in slavic countries and in parts of Iberia, thus one can truly speak of this Wild Hunt a pan-european mythos. Mostly the appearance of the Wild Hunt is linked with the winter months and especially the Holy Nights between the Winter Solstice and the festival of Epiphany on the 6th of January.


There are several theories concerning the origins of the myth: some believe the story originated from the very essence of winter, from its snowstroms and long dark nights. For them the Wild Hunter and his entourage is just a metaphorical personification of the powers of Nature. Others however recognize the mask rituals and demon-roleplays that occur in relation to the myth as a transgenerational memory of old spiritual customs related to the initiation of young adolescents into manhood. In ritually “becoming” their honourable ancestors and representing them by haunting the villages of their people, the young men earned their place among their tribe.


Whatever interpretation you follow, one thing remains certain: for the people of ancient times the seemingly silent and bleak months of winter were a time full of life and meaning; the cold night sky was crowded with awful and awesome entities that descended to our earthly realms in these magical times.


Today the once living heavens seem gloomy and dull. No dead horse is neighing, and what one might mistake for an unearthly and spooky gleam is just the dazzling light of the streetlamps and industrial spotlights reflecting from the grey clouds. The giant canyons and valleys between the skyscrapers have become a land foreign to visitors from other worlds. The howling of the heavenly hunt is drowned in the discords of the highways and the titanic swarming of the mega cities.


Still, some never tire to listen to the age-old melodies of the frosty winter nights: the squeaking and groaning of the pine-trees under the new fallen snows, the cracking and creaking of exploding rocks in the mountainous gorges and ravines and the endless song of the winds howling throughout the frozen plains – the brutal rhythm of nature has not yet fallen silent. Who knows, if over this wild song in some distant valley is not rising the battle-cry of the Wild Hunt?

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About the author

Ingmar Hagedorn

Postmodern skald, looking for echoes of the eternal gods in germanic myth and poetry.

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