Hlafdige Arastorm © Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor 2016 Tchipakkan@tds.net
The tradition of armies of mysterious otherworld beings passing through the forests or sky is pervasive in Europe, taking many forms depending on the culture. Various leaders for these hosts have been suggested from Historical characters like St. Guthlac, Hereward the Wake, or Sir Frances Drake, legendary characters like King Arthur, Herne the Hunter, or King Hera, old gods like Woden, Arawn, or the Devil, there are also ladies (more or less benevolent) Holle, Perchta, Dame Habondia.
Forms of these hosts generally have a leader and followers, often with dogs or other animals, and are often pursuing a victim- innocent or guilty. Most are hunters, but there are also Percht and her host of dead children, and other benevolent troops. Sometimes they are seen as the passing of a troop of fairies, or other otherworldly beings which are neither terrifying, nor benevolent, but still dangerous to approach.
The benevolent troop seems a pre-Christian survival, and putting out food and drink as offerings for these passing groups are said to earn good fortune, but locking food away leads to ill fortune. These are often seen as the doubles of women who go out leaving their bodies in bed, like the later Benedanti.
During the Middle Ages the explanation of these hunts acceptable to the Church was that these were souls from purgatory being punished for their sins. Often these sins were hunting on Sundays, or mischievously, and onlookers were often asked to pray for their souls, or try to right wrongs they had done in life. When Christianity took over these stories they became much less specific to the individuals involved. To speak to or approach the troop was to risk joining them.
The traditional form (from Ordoric Vitalis) is for the troop to be preceded by a herald, either a dwarf or giant with a staff, followed by the poor dead carrying burdens, followed by coffins, and sinners being punished for their crimes, ladies punished for their vanity, clerics of all ranks, and finally knights. Often people who have recently died are seen, and sometimes living people- which signifies that they are soon to die. The observer often attempts to take a horse or other token of proof back with him, but only gets a scar to take back as proof. At the end he is enjoined not to speak of it for three days.
This is especially associated with winter- the time between Halloween/Samhain, St. Martin’s (11/11) and Candlemas/Imbolc, during the Christian Era Wotan, Diana and the others were expected to ride between Christmas and Epiphany. Some have them riding during Lent . The hunt may be gathering the souls of all who died that year.
To protect yourself, if you meet them outside,throw yourself on the ground, (don’t look) they ride an ox-bow above the ground, throw down a piece of steel or bread for the dogs, or pray. At home, leave some food uncovered.
Ginzburg, Carlo, Night Battles, Johns Hopkins U Press, 1983 & Ecstasies 2004
Lecouteuxm Claude, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead, Inner Traditions, 2011