Myth & Mind: Restless riders

Oct 6, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

“Åsgårdsreien,” painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872, public domain.

By Reva Sherrard

In 1127, the chronicler of Peterborough Abbey in central England recorded an alarming event. Both monks and local townsfolk “saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. … [In] the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.” (From the “Peterborough Chronicle,” translator G. N. Garmonsway)

Witnesses reported this frightening spectacle for weeks; it began in midwinter and only ended at Easter. This was not a mortal cavalcade. The people of Peterborough had seen the Wild Hunt.

These were troubled times for England, and Peterborough Abbey was no exception. Only 10 years previously, some drunken monks had been responsible for a fire that destroyed their library; seven years later a succession crisis would plunge the country into cataclysmic civil war, and fill the chronicle’s pages with accounts of tortures inflicted on the common people. The conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066 had violently uprooted Saxon society, traumatized the island’s patchwork of Germanic and Celtic cultures, and threatened the language with extinction. Taxes to enforce the new order came directly from those who could spare the least. Starvation was rampant. This was the age that gave rise to the legends of Robin Hood, the thief who stole from corrupt nobles so the poor could live.

 

Little wonder, then, if spectral terrors as well as mortal ones plagued the English; at least, so thought the Peterborough chronicler. In his account there is no question why fiendish huntsmen were visiting his abbey. King Henry I, William’s son, had just appointed his own cousin to the lucrative abbotcy, an act of peremptory nepotism that violated both earthly and heavenly laws in the eyes of the Peterborough monks. More than an omen, the Hunt’s appearance was a sign of the derangement of cosmic order.

But the phenomenon was not usually a political statement in the many centuries and cultures in which it has figured, from the early Middle Ages throughout Europe up to the last century in rural Sweden and Norway. It could appear as a portent of ill fortune or the death of the one who saw it; in Scandinavia, where it was oftener heard in passing than seen, it could simply mean a change in the weather (a weightier matter to farmers in boreal regions than to we in temperate climes). It was called the Old Army, the Ghost Army, the Cortège of the People of Death in Spain; Oskurreia (“screaming ride”) in Norway; the Dead Hunt, Caccia Morta, in Italy; Odin’s Hunt in Sweden and Wotan’s Army in southwestern Germany and Switzerland. In some places a marching army was seen, presaging war, or battle heard clamoring in the clouds, while in others a howling, horn-winding band would hurtle past through the air — and woe to any unlucky enough to be in its path.

 

Why the Dead Hunt, the People of Death, the deadly omens? Unlike the majority of mythical characters, the members of the Hunt are not deities or fairies. Where led by Odin, he is said to be not a god but a king who hunted on Sundays, and who with his horse and dogs was doomed at death to hunt eternally for breaking the Sabbath. A German leader of the Hunt, Count Hackelberg or Ebernburg, was likewise cursed for the foul deeds he committed while alive. Though it keeps him from peace, the curse is no deterrent to his criminal activities: in tales he tends to pursue young women instead of game animals.

A similar story sprang up after the demise of a 17th-century Devon squire, one Richard “Dirty Dick” Cabell, a devoted hunter who in life gained a reputation for evil behavior and was rumored to have murdered his wife. Ever afterwards he could be spotted riding hard over the moors at the head of a pack of terrifying ghostly dogs. Sound familiar? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle heard the local legend from a friend and adapted it as the core of his novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

In medieval England, the doomed hunter could be Cain or Herod, notoriously wicked biblical figures; later he might be Dando, a man who in a savage temper sold his soul to the Devil for a drink of water. In these cases, the Hunt’s leader is someone cut off from life yet bound to the mortal world still, incapable of passing on to the next phase in the soul’s journey: outcasts of natural law and spiritual order. To the Peterborough chronicler, the Hunt was a symptom of the dispossessing of the English by their Norman conquerors and the dismantling of their world, a sign of things awry. But where did the restless riders come from, and how did the stories begin? If the Wild Hunt intrigues you, look for its return in midwinter.

In the meantime, as Halloween approaches and the world of the dead opens to ours, keep an ear out for horns on the wind.

*****

While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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