On winter nights, when the moon is high, wait by the track at Camelot.
Though nothing catches your eye except shade and moon shadows, you may hear them ride by:
Arthur and his men, hoofbeats clattering, with their horns and their hounds on their way to hunt.
— Exploring King Arthur’s Britain by Denise Stobie
Except for the occasional association with Goddesses of the dead, justice, or the hunt, the Wild Hunt’s legendary leaders are mostly Gods and male heroes.
In Germany and the Scandanavian lands, the Hunt is most commonly associated with the All Father, Odin and called Wotan’s Hunt. Other names were Wotan’s Army, and the Wilde Jagd. Odin’s name is derived from the Old Norse Odhr which means “Fury, ecstasy, inspiration,” and the word “Woden” or “Wotan” is similarly derived from the Saxon Wod.
Sometimes referred to as the “Herlathing,” the Hunt is also associated with the mythical King Herla, who sometimes leads it. In another one of the earliest Wild Hunt tales, written by Walter Map, a Herefordshire Englishman, in about 1190, an ancient British King named Herla was invited to visit with a mysterious, diminutive king who had come uninvited to his wedding day. When Herla returned from this visit, centuries had passed, his own Queen was long dead, and his knights, upon dismounting, instantly fell to dust. Thus, King Herla realized he had been a captive in Faery, and so is now doomed to ride in furious grief forever.
Similarly, the leader of the Hunt is sometimes the Faery King himself. In some tales, this romanticized version of the Hunt features Gwynn Ap Nudd, or another King of the Fey. With a decidedly more courtly aspect, some versions of the Hunt feature the Sidhe, as they hunt and travel to Faery. Although beautiful, this host is also perilous and a procession best avoided, lest, as described in the beautiful lay, Sir Orfeo, one be carried away from the land of mortals.
In southern England, it was often the God Herne the Hunter who led the hunt. Riding with Him were his pack of hounds, white with red ears in some versions, that coursed the skies herding up and chasing the souls of the dead to Annwn, the Celtic underworld.
Bridging the worlds of legend and historical fact, King Arthur is also sometimes a leader of the Wild Hunt. According to Arthurian expert Michael Wild, “The hunt coursed the skies on thundery nights hunting the souls of the dead. Closely related to this theme is the notion of Arthur and his knights as ghostly haunters of the Somerset countryside. His association with the Wild Hunt was not the only association that Arthur had with death, for he was also said to have been transformed into a crow or a raven. These birds were regarded as foretelling the death of those warriors to whom they appeared.”
Historical figures reported to have participated in the Wild Hunt were St. Guthlac (683–714), and Hereward the Wake (died ca. 1070). As mentioned previously, the earliest direct written documentation of the Hunt is in Orderic Vitalis’ history, who reports a terrifying cavalcade seen in Paris, in January 1091, which he asserts were “Herlechin’s troop (familia Herlechini).
The historical figure Edric the Wild, who fought the Normans from 1067-1070, and who was said to have taken a Faerie wife, at times also leads the Wild Hunt. His role is a protector of the land, for he appears whenever England is threatened with invasion. Edric and his Hunt were widely reported as having been seen riding in the months prior to the Crimean War, the First World War and the Second World War.
Next week, I’ll share some final thoughts about the Wild Hunt. For it certainly contains wisdom for us today. Perhaps especially so.