The Wild Hunt

A particularly persistent Otherworld legend that survived into Christian times was the theme of the wild hunt, or “fairy raid,” a myth that appeared in numerous European cultures. The Wild Hunt was led by a hunter whose identity varied from one region to the next — sometimes it was Nudd, sometimes a goddess, sometimes even King Arthur. The hunt is a wild stampede of horses, dogs, and riders who tumble out of the Otherworld in a wild procession, followed by animals of the forest, fairies, and spirits of the dead. The procession is spectral and fierce, with its participants often described as red-eyed, flaming, even flesh devouring.

One particularly detailed account of a local legend comes from twelfth-century historian Walter Mapp, who recounts the appearance of the ghostly host under the command of a former king:

The nocturnal companies and squadrons, too, which were called of Herlethingus, were sufficiently well-known appearances in England down to the time of Henry II, our present lord. They were troops engaged in endless wandering, in an aimless round, keeping an awe-struck silence, and in them many persons were seen alive who were known to have died. This household of Herlethingus was last seen in the marches of Wales and Hereford in the first year of the reign of Henry II, about noonday: they traveled as we do, with carts and sumpter horses, pack-saddles and panniers, hawks and hounds, and a concourse of men and women. Those who saw them first raised the whole country against them with horns and shouts, and … because they were unable to wring a word from them by addressing them, made ready to extort an answer with their weapons. They, however, rose up into the air and vanished on a sudden.

The wild hunt is sometimes called “the fairy raid,” but the basic elements are pretty much universal. A seated rider, be it goddess, wild man, ghost, or fairy, leads a wild procession of animals and specters that kills, destroys, or devours everything in its path.

The hunt retained its appeal through Christian times, and later versions of the hunt include cursed or damned characters from Christian legends, from biblical villains to kings or priests who made poor choices in life. One such tale describes the misfortune of Hans von Hackelnberg, a huntsman for the Duke of Brunswick, who is condemned to lead the wild ride until Judgment Day as punishment for hunting on Sundays.

One leader of the hunt was the British wild man called Herne the Hunter. Herne was a forest spirit, strongly associated with deer. He was almost certainly related to the ancient fertility gods of the forest, perhaps even Cernunnos himself. Herne is portrayed as a male rider with the antlers (and sometimes even the head) of a deer.

The leaders of the hunt can be viewed as fertility spirits, representations of unrestrained sexuality. In earlier times, the wild hunt was associated with fertility cults, but in Christian times it became a symbol of the devil at work, which perhaps highlights the differing sexual attitudes of pagans and Christians. To the former, the sexual urge is wild, chaotic, and celebrated, while to the Christians it is fearsome, demonic, and strange.

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