The tradition of the Wild Hunt can be found all over Northern Europe.
In deep winter, around the time of Yule , a traveller might hear barking and howling on the wind and then, rushing out of the sky, a pack of ghostly hounds, and at their head a black rider, sometimes, headless, leading a hunt of the dead across the country.
The riders who accompany the hunter are usually those killed in battle or before their time. The name of the hunt, Wutendes Her, Woden Here, suggests a strong link to the god Woden or Odin , the All-Father, the god of the sky and of war.
It is interesting to note that Odin was also the heavenly shaman, who brought language, magic and prophecy to mankind, and that the Hunt itself is often seen as a portent or omen. Certainly Herne the Hunter, who is said to haunt Windsor Great Forest and who is attached to Wild Hunt myths, has appeared most recently in 1939 and in 1952.
In fact the Wild Hunt seems to have rather indistinct properties. Sometimes it is an omen of catastrophe, and sometimes even acts as a means of vengeance, snatching up those who have done wrong. Certainly tradition often suggests that to communicate with of to touch the hunters is fatal. On the other hand there are stories of those helping the hunt, feeding them, caring for their horses, being rewarded, the horse’s spittle turning to gold.
The traditions are not solely Germanic in origin, either, ghostly hunts occur within Celtic myth also, most notably the hounds of Annwn , the Lord of the Dead in Welsh myth. Moreover Cherokee Indians refer to the Milky Way as ‘where the dog ran’, while Scandinavian tradition gives its origin as a dog stealing corn, suggesting a common sky/dog link in ancient traditions. The myth has also prospered elsewhere, with the Ghost Riders of cowboy folk tales and the ghostly truckers who haunt our motorways.
On a folk level the Wild Hunt has many variations. The West Country is haunted by Yeth Hounds, while Sir Francis Drake leads a hunt across Dartmoor and the Norfolk fields are ranged by Black Shuck, the demonic hound.
What can be sure is that such tales are very definitely linked to winter and the omnipresence of death in that season for an agricultural economy. The more adverse aspects of the hunt most probably stem from the Christian depiction of the old gods as demons, and perhaps from the growing feudal distinction about who was allowed to hunt and who wasn’t – this certainly appears in the Herne the Hunter traditions.
It is probable, in fact, that the traditions arise from folk memories of actual religious rituals, a Yule game or midwinter ritual about the onset or turn of the season, that had the potential to get out of hand with performers caught up in the celebrations, thus mixing the emotions of fear and celebration that one can detect buried in the tales.