Tales of the spectral horde known as the Wild Hunt abound throughout Europe. Since pre-Christian times, the Wild Huntsman and his horde of hunters and hellhounds have hurtled through the night sky. Those who find themselves alone on a winter night may hear the sounds of a horn, the distant wail of the hounds, and the pounding of hooves as the Wild Huntsman and his supernatural companions approach.
The Huntsman arrives on a great horse, accompanied by hellhounds, wolves, and ravens—creatures that take delight in death and destruction. He leads the Wild Hunt through the darkness of autumn and winter, during which the Hunt’s approach might be mistaken for the baying of winds and galloping of storms.
The leader of the Wild Hunt is traditionally known as Wōden, but is also referred to by names. Wōden is the old English name for the Norse/Germanic god Odin. In other areas the leader of the Wild Hunt is known as Holda (Germany), Krampus (Germany), Gwyn ap Nudd (Wales), Fionn mac Cumhaill (Ireland), and Nuada (Ireland).
As Christianity became entrenched in Europe, the Huntsman was more likely to be described as the devil or some other kind of dark specter than a pagan god or goddess. In medieval times, the Huntsman was sometimes identified as a localized huntsman figure like King Arthur (England and Brittany), Herne the Hunter (England), Charlemagne (France), Hellequin (France), Count Arnau (Catalonia), or Hans von Hackelbernd (Germany). There are even tales of Sir Francis Drake leading the hunt.
While the Wild Huntsman leads the ghostly band, the hunting party constitutes a group of spirits, faeries, or elves doomed to ride with the Wild Hunt ‘til the end of days. The train of the Wild Hunt is made up of dead souls.
According to Irish and Scottish folklore, the Sluagh Sidhe are part of the Wild Hunt. The Sluagh are spirits of the restless dead, rejected by the afterworld. When these destructive spirits are on the Wild Hunt they attempt to steal the souls of the dying. The Sluagh are haggard and thin, with leathery wings, bony claws, and pointed teeth protruding from a beak-like mouth.
The Wild Hunt is also known as Woden’s Hunt, the Raging Host, Gabriel’s Hounds, Asgardreia, Cŵn Annwn, and Mesnée d’Hellequin. Though accounts of the Wild Hunt are well-known in European lore, there are comparable chases in other parts of the world.
In North America, similar phenomena are referred to as Ghost Riders. In the American story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Headless Horseman is modeled after the Dullahan, a harbinger of death often associated with the Wild Hunt. Similar tales can be found outside of the Western traditions. The Puranas, ancient Hindu holy texts, describe how the god Shiva would hunt sinners while mounted on the back of a bull, accompanied by a warrior band of ghosts.
The object of the Wild Hunt could be a wild horse, a visionary boar, a maiden, a wood nymph, the soul of the dying, or an unlucky victim who happens to find himself exposed as the Hunt sweeps past. In parts of Britain it’s believed that the hellhounds of the Wild Hunt chase unbaptized infants and sinners. In Norse and Welsh mythology the dying and dead are hunted in order to deliver them to the afterlife. Many believe that the Wild Hunt foretells death, disaster, or war. German folklorist Jacob Grimm popularized the term the term Wilde Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) through his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie.
Defense Against the Wild Hunt
Upon finding oneself alone in a forest or moor with the sounds of horn, hounds, and hooves approaching, it’s believed that there are ways to avoid being taken by the hunt. Though there’s no hiding from the Wild Hunt, they are sometimes willing to trade. Those who have attracted the attention of the hunt may be spared if they’re willing to sacrifice another in their stead.
A huntsman may offer the leg of a slain animal, but it will be cursed. Rather than outright refuse the offer, however, ask for salt to go with the leg. Since the Hunt cannot carry salt, they will not be able to serve the cursed leg.
Some travelers carry a piece of bread and a piece of steel at all times. Throwing the steel at Wöden may keep him at bay, but if the Hunt does approach, the dogs may be distracted with the bread. Gaelic tradition cautions that in houses of the sick or the dying, west-facing windows and doors should be kept closed because the Sluagh of the Wild Hunt fly in from the west.
The Wild Hunt in Popular Culture
- Teen Wolf: In season 5 of the MTV series, the Wild Hunt has been a recurring theme. In “Creatures of the Night,” the Wild Hunt described the Ghost Riders of the Wild Hunt: “Imagine a night like this, Kira. In storm clouds just like these, phantom hunters would appear. Riding black horses with blood-red eyes. And wolves and hounds at their side, baying and snarling.” During “Status Asthmaticus” it was revealed that one of the characters is a hellhound, traditionally part of The Wild Hunt. The season 6 storyline centered around the Ghost Riders of the Wild Hunt. The Ghost Riders arrived in Beacon Hills on black horses and began taking people who would eventually become part of the Wild Hunt. After being taken, all memories and other remnants that person were lost.
- Grimm: “The Wild Hunt” is the twelfth episode of Season 3 of Grimm. Despite having a character named “Woden,” this episode of Grimm creates a story that is removed from traditional tales of the Wild Hunt. Woden is a Wildesheer, a representation of the doomed huntsmen in the Wild Hunt. The Wildesheer were known to be part of the ferocious Nordic warriors known as Berserkers, who draw power from the scalps of their victims.
The Wild Hunt is featured throughout many modern fantasy novels.
The Dresden Files: In the popular book series by Jim Butcher, the Wild Hunt is described as very dangerous, willing to kill anyone in its path. The hunters are faerie, and the wydfae that leads the hunt is known as the Erlking, who is later referred to as “Lord Herne” as in Herne the Hunter. It’s believed that a person can avoid being hunted if they join the Wild Hunt. The novels Dead Beat (2005), Proven Guilty (2006), and Cold Days (2012) include the Wild Hunt. When the Hunt appears, it brings terror.
- The Mortal Instruments: In Cassandra Clare’s beloved series, the Wild Hunt is initially referenced in City of Lost Souls, and then one of the characters is pressed into the service of the Wild Hunt in City of Heavenly Fire. The Wild Hunt, led by Gwyn ap Nudd, is a group of faeries with no allegiance to any earthly court. They gather the dead after battles, claiming some of the dying men to join them in the hunt.
- In Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Moon of Gomrath (1963), a gathering of savage and ghostly riders led by an antlered Huntsman is inadvertently summoned through Old Magic.
- In the young adult novel The Dark is Rising (1984) by Susan Cooper, Herne the Hunter leads the Wild Hunt.
- Charles de Lint brings the Wild Hunt, as a motorcycle gang, to modern-day Ottawa in Jack the Giant-Killer (1987), in which mortals are unaware of the faeries living amongst them.
- The Wild Hunt chases the spirits of the dead through the night in Peter Beagle’s book Tasmin (1999).
- In Mistral’s Kiss (2006), the steamy fantasy novel by Laurell K. Hamilton set in the faerie court, the Wild Hunt is called forth for vengeance.
- In The Sorceress (2009), the third book in Michael Scott’s series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, the Wild Hunt is comprised of a pack of wolf people led by the horned god Cernunnos. There are also dog-men known as Gabriel Hounds in the novel, but rather than being a part of the hunt, they defend their master from Cernunnos and his pack.
- In the second book of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga, Time of Contempt (1995), one of the main characters is approached to join the Wild Hunt.
- Other authors who write fantasy novels about the Wild Hunt include Brian Bates, Raymond E. Feist, Alan Garner, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Penelope Lively, Robert Cargill, and Robin Lafevers.
- The exploration of the Wild Hunt in the Witcher world was greatly expanded through the roleplaying game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
- The Wild Hunt is featured in the action roleplaying video game franchise The Elder Scrolls.
- The 2009 film The Wild Hunt portrays aspects of the hunt through a community of Live-action Role-Players (LARPers), switching back and forth between the characters’ daily existence and the fantasy they have created.
- The Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) uses the concept of the Wild Hunt when the convict heroes of the tale are pursued by bounty hunters who turn out to be the devil and his posse of hunters and hellhounds.
Accounts of the Wild Hunt have terrified people for centuries. The Hunt was reportedly heard going through the English countryside on Halloween night as recently as the 1940s. For the unlucky soul wandering alone in the pine forests of Scandinavia or the moors of Britain, beware the howl of hounds and the thunder of hooves, for Wōden and his spectral horde may soaring through the skies overhead.