Published: 18-03-2010, 09:30

Wild Hunt

If one listens closely to the swirling winds of a stormy winter night, eerie voices seem to howl in the darkness. In past centuries much folklore from northwestern Europe interpreted these sounds as a sign that the Wild Hunt was abroad. People invented many names for this unruly procession of ghosts, goblins, and deities that stormed across the night skies. For the most part, the wailing spirits frightened listeners, but in some places they also aided human beings.
Belief in the Wild Hunt was especially strong between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Historical records indicate that some medieval Europeans believed the Wild Hunt capable of rampaging through their dreams, carrying their spirits off on unwholesome adventures while their bodies slumbered. Folkloric records indicate that the Wild Hunt might appear in the skies at any time of year. Nevertheless, in many locales the ghostly riders were thought to be most active during the Twelve Days of Christmas, especially Twelfth Night.
The leaders, members, and purpose of the Wild Hunt varied somewhat from region to region. In Wales, Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Underworld, led the hunt. In England some believed the Wild Hunt was led by King Arthur. Others referred to the noises on the wind as the baying of Gabriel’s Hounds. The phantom hounds represented the souls of unbaptized infants, and their passing signified a death to come. In Norway the Hunt was known as the Gandreid, which means “spirits’ride.” According to Norwegian folklore, the spirits of those who had died during the past year charged across the night skies during the Gandreid, increasing the fertility of all the fields they passed over. The Gandreid was most active around Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.
In German-speaking and Scandinavian lands the Hunt was known as Asgardsreid, literally “Asgard’s Ride,” and was thought to occur most often during Yule or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Asgard was the home of the Scandinavian gods. Many believed that the fearsome, one-eyed king of the Scandinavian gods, Odin, led the wild ride across the skies to Asgard, mounted on his eight-legged steed. He and his riotous following were sometimes called the Wild Hunt, the Raging Host, the Jolerei or the Julereien (the Yuletide Host), and it was believed dangerous for Christians to see them. Nevertheless, some peasants left the last sheaf of grain in their fields as an offering for Odin’s horse. In some locales Odin’s wife Frigga headed the throng of spirits.
In other German-speaking areas the noises on the wind meant that the goddess Berchta and her following of wraiths, fairies, and the souls of small children rode abroad. Berchta roamed the world during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but was especially active on Twelfth Night. She rewarded the industrious and punished the lazy. In northern German lands the Furious Hunt or Furious Host was led by a similar goddess, Holde, who commanded a similar band of followers. The passing of Holde and her followers blessed the lands below, ensuring that crops would double during the coming year. (See also Christmas in Germany.)