Wild Hunt © 2016 Tchipakkan@tds.net
The tradition of armies of mysterious otherworld beings passing through the forests or sky is pervasive throughout Europe, taking many forms over the centuries and where it turns up. 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. Other, female leaders of the hunt (usually more benevolent) include Holle, Perchta, and Dame Habondia, and seem to be some of the earliest forms of the spiritual host.
These hosts generally have a leader and his or her followers, often with dogs or other animals, and often pursue a victim (innocent or guilty, which may go back to the Furies). Most are hunters, but in contrast we find Percht and her host of dead children, and other benevolent groups of night flyers. 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 ladies is said to earn good fortune, but locking food away from them leads to ill fortune. Sometimes human women and men are said to join the supernatural host when their doubles go out, leaving their bodies in bed until they return, like the later Benedanti.
During the Middle Ages an explanation of these apparitions acceptable to the Church was that these were souls from purgatory being punished for their sins. Among these sins were hunting on Sundays, or mischievously; those who reported seeing them 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, and often symbolic of sins against which the Church was fighting. These stories became a way to popularize the fairly late myth of purgatory. One thing stayed the same: to speak to or approach the troop was to risk joining them.
The traditional form of the Christian version (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 for their lapses, and finally knights and other nobles (usually for greed and violence). Often people who have recently died are seen (throwing these sightings into the category of hauntings), and sometimes living people are observed, which signifies that those folk are to die soon. The observer in these tales 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 traditionally enjoined not to speak of it for three days.
This phenomenon 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 other pagan survivals were expected to ride between Christmas and Epiphany. Occasionally they are seen riding during Lent. The hunt may be “gathering” the souls of all who died that year.
To protect yourself, if you meet them on the road, throw yourself on the ground, as they ride an ox-bow above the ground. Throw down a piece of steel on the path, or bread for the dogs, pray, and don’t look at them. If you hear them coming, getting off the road and hiding among certain trees offers protection (which trees depends on culture). At home, leave some food out for the ladies during the season in which they visit houses, but again, don’t try to look at them.
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