The Wild Hunt was a folk myth prevalent in former times across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, horses, hounds, etc., in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it. It is often a way to explain thunderstorms.
The hunters may be the dead, or the fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead). The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Dietrich of Berne, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, Woden (or other reflexes of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.), or Arawn.
It has been variously referred to as the Wild Hunt, Woden's Hunt, the Wilde Jagd or Wilde Heer (Germany), Herlathing (Anglo-Saxon England), Mesnee d'Hellequin (Northern France), Cŵn Annwn (Wales) Cain's Hunt, Ghost Riders (North America), Herod's Hunt, Gabriel's Hounds, Asgardreia ("Asgard ride"), and in Cornwall "the devil's dandy dogs.
Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. Mortals getting in the path of or following the Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead. A girl who saw Wild Edric's Ride was warned by her father to put her apron over her head to avoid the sight. Others believed that people's spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade. Interestingly, those accused of being patrons of the "wild" hunt were typically those at odds or openly rebelling against the established monarchy. For instance, Eadric the Wild was a leader of English resistance to the Norman Conquest, active in western Mercia. Eadric led one of the many English rebellions against the Norman attempts at seizing control. Eventually, Eadric succumbed to the conquest and submitted to the Normans, even participating in an invasion of Scotland; he was broken and then adopted the behaviors of his conquerors to avoid future pain. Other conquests, such as the many within Christianity's long history, have included a similar "Wild Man" myth to discourage future uprisings and to erase a people's remembrance and to erode their culture. The myth may have been used as a weapon against those who challenged the current (and perhaps corrupt) system of power. This myth would establish a stigma, a fear, in the minds of the youth that would discourage them from fighting back. It would make the rebel the devil. The myth would serve to train children to question nothing, and instill a passive ethic standard, this myth would train children not to fight back.
Medieval legends of the Wild Hunt are mostly from the area encompassed by modern-day Germany. Historical figures reported to have participated in the Wild Hunt were St. Guthlac (683–714), and Hereward the Wake (died ca. 1070). Orderic Vitalis reports such a cavalcade seen in January 1091, which he asserts were "Herlechin's troop" (familia Herlechini; cf. Harlequin). From the 12th century, there are testimonies from England: In the Peterborough Chronicle, the chronicler attests the Wild Hunt's appearance at the appointment of a disastrous abbot for the monastery. Around the year 1132 , the anonymous monk wrote:
While these Wild Hunts are recorded by clerics and portrayed as diabolic, in late medieval English romance like Sir Orfeo, the hunters are rather from a faery otherworld, where the Wild Hunt was the hosting of the fairies; its leaders also varied, but they included Gwydion, Gwynn ap Nudd, King Arthur, Nuada, King Herla, Woden, the Devil and Herne the Hunter. Many legends are told of their origins, as in that of "Dando and his dogs" or "the dandy dogs": Dando, wanting a drink but having exhausted what his huntsmen carried, declared he would go to hell for it. A stranger came and offered a drink, only to steal Dando's game and then Dando himself, with his dogs giving chase. The sight was long claimed to have been seen in the area. Another legend recounted how King Herla, having visited the Fairy King, was warned not to step down from his horse until the greyhound he carried jumped down; he found that three centuries had passed during his visit, and those of his men who dismounted crumbled to dust; he and his men are still riding, because the greyhound has yet to jump down.
In certain parts of Britain, the hunt is said to be that of hell-hounds chasing sinners or the unbaptised. In Devon these are known as Yeth Hounds, and in Somerset as Gabriel Ratchets.
The Norse god Odin in his many forms, astride his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, came to be associated with the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia because of his aspect of berserking. Odin acquired the aspect of the Wild Huntsman, along with Frigg. The passage of this hunt was also referred to as Odin's Hunt. People who saw the passing hunt and mocked it were cursed and would mysteriously vanish along with the host; those that joined in sincerity were rewarded with gold (H. A. Guerber, 1922). In the wake of the passing storm (which the Hunt was often identified with), a black dog would be found upon a neighboring hearth. To remove it, it would need to be exorcised similar to the custom for removing changelings. However, if it could not be removed by trickery, it must be kept for a whole year and carefully tended.
According to H. A. Guerber: "The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either [that of] a visionary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs, called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale." Whatever the case, the Hunt was most often seen in the autumn and winter, when the winds blew the fiercest.
Otto Höfler (1934) and other authors of his generation emphasized the identification of the hunter with Odin, looking for the traces of an ecstatic Odin cult in more recent customs from German-speaking areas.
In view of this, John Lindow of the University of California, Berkeley (Lindahl et al. 2002:433) notes that more recent scholarship "would argue a basis in an Indo-European warrior cult in which young warriors imbued with the life force fight with the characteristics of animals, especially, those of wolves, and are initiated into a warrior band [...]."
In Sweden, Odin's hunt was heard but rarely seen, and a typical trait is that one of Odin's dogs was barking louder and a second one fainter. Beside one or two shots, these barks were the only sounds that were clearly identified. When Odin's hunt was heard, it meant changing weather in many regions, but it could also mean war and unrest. According to some reports, the forest turned silent and only a whining sound and dog barks could be heard.
It is clear that the belief in Odin's hunt remained most widespread in the Swedish region of Götaland, where numerous toponyms testify to very early worship of Odin. It is also notable that the Odin of folklore retains a considerable number of external traits from his origins in Norse mythology. Moreoever, it appears that the beliefs in Odin maintained a strong position in the region from pagan times until modern times.
It should, however, be noted that the recent legends do not spontaneously connect the name Odin with a divinity. During the centuries, Odin turned into a legendary character, who is often demon-like and dangerous, without any clear connection with the Odin of Norse mythology. In western Sweden and sometimes in the east as well, it has been said that Odin was a nobleman or even a king who had hunted during the Sundays and therefore was doomed to hunt down and kill supernatural beings until the end of time.
According to certain accounts, Odin does not ride, but travels in a wheeled vehicle, something that Thor of Norse mythology was known to do.
There are several examples of origin legends where Odin appears. In Gärdlösa on Öland, there is a story that Odin once went across the Alvar of Högrum and tied his horse to a crag of rock. The crag was splintered when the strong horse pulled in the cord, and then the horse threw himself on the ground, and so the bottomless swamp of Gladvattnet was created.
In parts of Småland, it appears that people believed that Odin hunted with large birds when the dogs got tired. When it was needed, he could transform a bevy of sparrows into an armed host.
If houses were built on former roads, they could be burnt down, because Odin did not change his plans if he had formerly travelled on a road there. Not even charcoal kilns could be built on disused roads, because if Odin was hunting the kiln would be ablaze.
One tradition maintains that Odin did not travel further up than an ox wears his yoke, so if Odin was hunting, it was safest to throw oneself onto the ground in order to avoid being hit. In Älghult in Småland, it was safest to carry a piece of bread and a piece of steel when going to church and back during Christmas. The reason was that if one met the rider with the broad-rimmed hat, one should throw the piece of steel in front of oneself, but if one met his dogs first, one should throw the pieces of bread instead.
Others: In Germany: the Squire of Rodenstein and Hans von Hackelberg (both Sabbath-breakers).
The Wild Hunt is also a central plot component in Raymond E. Feist's popular 1988 fantasy novel, Faerie Tale.
Legends of the Wild Hunt have been used by science fiction author Julian May in her series Saga of Pliocene Exile (British series title, Saga of the Exiles)."
Black metal band Bathory used Peter Nicolai Arbo's painting Åsgårdsreien as the cover for their 1988 album Blood Fire Death. The instrumental intro track Oden's Ride Over Nordland, and portions of A Fine Day To Die include thunderous noise and wild horse cries to paint an aural picture of the Hunt.
In the 1940s, Stan Jones encoded the story of the Wild Hunt in his country song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" (song written some time around 1948), which transposes the story to a group of cowboys who chase the devil's herd of cattle through the night skies, tormented by madness and thirst.
In Susan Cooper's series The Dark Is Rising, the Hunt is led by Herne the Hunter and is responsible for driving back the Dark (the enemy in the series), after seeing the six signs collected by Will Stanton, one of the main characters.
In The Bitterbynde Trillogy by Cecilia Dart-Thornton the Wild Hunt is led by Huon, a powerful "unseelie wight" who chases with his hell-hounds through the skies of Erith in search of the main protagonist.
The Wild Hunt also appears in the classic computer game Darklands as a recurring event.
In Mercedes Lackey's urban fantasy novel The Chrome Circle, protagonist and human mage Tannim and his companion in the book, the half-kitsune, half-dragon Shar encounter the Wild Hunt in their attempts to escape the darker, more evil-controlled pockets of Underhill.
The Wild Hunt is also the focus of a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" novel, "Child of the Hunt"
In Guy Gavriel Kay's trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry the Wild Hunt appear as eight lawless kings traveling the universe. While their leader is Owein, they all follow a child rider. They bring randomness to the world, making freedom possible despite the Weaver's chosen patterns.
In Arnold Schönberg's oratorium Gurrelieder the Wild Hunt appears in a third part. Danish king Waldemar was in love with Tove, who was murdered at jealous queen's bidding. Waldemar damned God and then Waldemar himself was laid under a curse to ride with his dead company until the day of judgment.
In the Meredith Gentry books by Laurell K. Hamilton, the Hunt appear as the Sluagh, led by a mixed-race Sidhe named Sholto. In the Meredith books, the Hunt are the legion of Fey too twisted and strange even for the Unseelie Court. They are Queen Andais' secret weapon, to be unleashed upon those Fey of her court who go into hiding to escape her wrath.
In The Tir Alainn Trilogy by Anne Bishop, the Wild Hunt is led by Diana, the lady of the Moon- female leader of the Fea, and consists of Shadow Hounds, which go to the Human Realm to hunt prey, being non-human and human.
In the role-playing game Exalted, "Wyld Hunt" is the term for the Realm's expeditions to destroy Celestial Exalts.
In Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Hellboy is asked to tend to a lame a hunting dog of the beheaded ghost of King Vold as he hunts for a mermaid. An upcoming Hellboy miniseries is titled The Wild Hunt.
In the Warhammer mythos the Wild Hunt is led by Orion, the king of the Wood Elves and a living avatar of the elf hunting god Kurnous. Orion's chosen servants, the Wild Riders of Kurnous, accompany their master on the hunt when the Wood Elves muster for war following Orion's ceremonial rebirth on the first day of spring.