THE MOON-WOMAN – FROM MATRIARCHY TO PATRIARCHY


Selk’nam woman and child, carefully posed

In May 1966 the American anthropologist Anne MacKaye Chapman was living near the ‘Indian reservation’ of Lake Fagnano in Tierra del Fuego. She was researching the culture of some of the most southerly indigenous people on earth, the Selk’nam (also Ona, Onawo) and Haush societies of Patagonia. After a century or more of colonization, few of these people with their distinctive culture and unimaginably harsh lifestyle remained. Chapman was speaking with one who did. Her name was Lola Kiepja, the last of the Selk’nam who had lived that destroyed way of life and knew the foundation myths of her people, passed down for thousands of years as they struggled to survive in the toughest environment on the planet.

One day, Lola posed a rhetorical question to Chapman: ‘Where are the women who sang like the canaries? There were many women. Where are they now?’ The Selk’nam woman was speaking of the foundation myth of her people, revolving around Kreeh, the Moon-Woman.

In the mythic period of the hoowin, before the human Selk’nam, all the landforms, the animals, birds and some stars lived on the earth as great shamans, known as hoowins. At this time, women ruled over men who carried out the basic tasks of cooking, childcare and water carrying, in addition to their hunting and related male activities. When young hoowinwomen reached the right age, they were initiated into the secrets of the matriarchy in a ritual held in the Hainhut. Here, the sacred fire burned and the women disguised each other with masks and red, white and black paint representing the spirits. When the women appeared before the men in these disguises, they believed that the women had the power of the spirits of the skies and earth, validating the female dominion of the males.

But on one occasion, while the women were in the Hain preparing for the ritual, three hoowinmen spied on them and saw that the women were only dressing up as the spirits. One of the men whistled to the other males to let them know that they were being fooled. When the females in the hut heard the whistle, they realised the males had discovered the truth and put out the sacred fire in fear of violence. It came swiftly.

The males attacked, killing the women, except younger girls and babies. Their leader hit the female leader, who was his wife, with a burning log from the extinguished fire. The heavens trembled. He hit her again, but not a third time, in case all creation and the heavens might be destroyed. Badly burned and raging with unquenchable anger, his wife fled the earth and turned into the Moon, pursued by her husband in the form of the Sun. Ever since, he has chased her, but never caught her. Each month, shereappears as the full moon, when the scars on her face from the burning log are clearly visible. Her anger at men is especially intense at eclipses and this is a particularly dangerous time for the Selk’nam of both sexes, who gather to ward off her often-lethal anger.

After the massacre, the males and surviving females travelled to the East sky to mourn. Then they travelled to the North sky, to the West sky and, after a very great time, came back to earth from the South sky. The males established a new Hain through which they subject the females to the same domination the men experienced previously. 

Death came to the earth as the hoowinwere transformed into various heavenly bodies, wind, rain, snow, sea land and animals. At this time the first human Selk’nam were formed from two clods of dirt.[1]

Selk’nam group, 1930s

This is a condensed re-telling of a complex narrative cycle that includes other elements of Selk’nam mythology and cosmology. Like the creation stories of many cultures, this one includes the coming of death, as well as life, and provides an account of how the living world was formed from a preexistent epoch of spiritual beings. It explains the cycle of night and day and provides a validation of the patriarchal nature of human Selk’nam society, in contrast to the matriarchy that prevailed in the hoowin. In its depiction of male violence against women, it is a chilling tale with global resonance.

The Selk’nam are now usually said to be extinct, though their language is being preserved by at least one speaker. 

Selk’nam, 1938

[1]Anne MacKaye Chapman, ‘The Moon-Woman in Selk’nam Society’ at http://www.thereedfoundation.org/rism/chapman/moon-woman.htm#back1, accessed September 2018.

Moral Ecologies and Crimes Against Nature – just out

sketch-of-stringybark-creek-ambushSydney Mail, November 16, 1878.

 

Moral whats?

A term coined by American historian Karl Jacoby in his influential Crimes Against Nature. Jacoby used the term to indicate the usually unwritten attitudes and assumptions held by local people about their environment and how it should be managed and ‘that against elite, top-down conservation schemes that sought to criminalise customary and often sustainable practices such as the taking of wood and game, those already dwelling on the land resisted by continuing to live their lives as before.’ As described in the Introduction:

‘This book offers the first systematic study of how elite conservation schemes and policies define once customary and vernacular forms of managing common resources as banditry—and how the ‘bandits’ fight back. Drawing inspiration from Karl Jacoby’s seminal Crimes against Nature, this book takes Jacoby’s moral ecology and extends the concept beyond the founding of American national parks. From eighteenth-century Europe, through settler colonialism in Africa, Australia and the Americas, to postcolonial Asia and Australia, Moral Ecologies takes a global stance and a deep temporal perspective, examining how the language and practices of conservation often dispossess Indigenous peoples and settlers, and how those groups resist in everyday ways. Drawing together archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers and historians, this is a methodologically diverse and conceptually innovative study that will appeal to anyone interested in the politics of conservation, protest and environmental history.’

My chapter is on the relationship between the constituencies of northeastern Victoria before, during and after the Ned Kelly bushranging outbreak of the late 1870s, and their attitudes towards their environment, an embryonic form of moral ecology. Here is the full chapter list:

Moral Ecologies: Histories of Conservation, Dispossession and Resistance

Carl J. Griffin, Roy Jones, Iain J. M. Robertson

Pages 1-34

Conservation as Dispossession

Front Matter

Pages 35-35

PDF

Politics of Conservation, Moral Ecology and Resistance by the Sonaha Indigenous Minorities of Nepal

Sudeep Jana Thing

Pages 37-58

Global Ecologies and Local Moralities: Conservation and Contention on Western Australia’s Gascoyne Coast

Roy Jones, Joseph Christensen, Tod Jones

Pages 59-82

From Activists to Illegally Occupying Land: Aboriginal Resistance as Moral Ecology in Perth, Western Australia

Shaphan Cox, Christina Birdsall-Jones

Pages 83-97

Ghosts in the Forest: The Moral Ecology of Environmental Governance Toward Poor Farmers in the Brazilian and US Atlantic Forests

Scott William Hoefle

Pages 99-125

Conservation as Occupation

Front Matter

Pages 127-127

PDF

Crimes against Cultures: How Local Practices of Regulation Shape Archaeological Landscapes in Trowulan, East Java

Tod Jones, Adrian Perkasa

Pages 129-158

Of Necessary Work: The Longue Durée of the Moral Ecology of the Hebridean Gàidhealtachd

Iain J. M. Robertson, Mary MacLeod Rivett

Pages 159-187

Demographic Fluidity and Moral Ecology: Queenstown (Tasmania) and a Lesson in Precarious Process

Pete Hay

Pages 189-215

‘Fearless, Free and Bold’: The Moral Ecology of Kelly Country

Graham Seal

Pages 217-234

Squatting as Moral Ecology: Encroachment and ‘Abuse’ in the New Forest, England

Carl J. Griffin

Pages 235-263

A “Moral Ecology” of Afrikaner Settlement in German East Africa, 1902–1914

Thaddeus Sunseri

Pages 265-288

Afterword: On Moral Ecologies and Archival Absences

Karl Jacoby

Pages 289-297

 

Available from

A MAGICAL WAR

mascot copy

Mascot of Canadian troops

 

We like to think the modern era is a rational one in which superstition, or folk belief, has been relegated to the distant past. A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith in the First World War(Oxford University Press, 2018), a new book by Owen Davies shows that magic thinking was alive and well during, and after, World War 1. As anyone who takes the time to inquire into these matters will know, it still is.

Can there possibly be anything new to say about the history of the bloody madness that engulfed much of Europe and elsewhere from 1914 to 1918? It seems so.

Owen Davies leaves no form of delusion and deception unexamined in his new book on magic, divination and faith in the First World War. A great number and variety of practices professed to offer supernatural insights into life and death. They included almanacs, charms, divination, fortune-telling in all its nuances, ghosts, luck, mascots, prophecy, spiritualism, talismans, visions, witchcraft and ‘zepp charms’, crafted from the aluminum skeleton of a downed German airship. These are only some of the topics excavated and investigated in this enlightening study of a little-researched aspect of the Great War.

Davies casts his glamour widely. His extensive research takes in not only British and Empire beliefs but also those of many European countries, including Germany, as well as the United States of America. While the broad contours of supernatural belief were much the same everywhere, there were national emphases. Visions of angels were largely a British preoccupation, and not only in relation to the well-known sightings associated with the Battle of Mons.  Marian visions were rare in Britain but, not surprisingly, frequent in Catholic countries, yet also experienced in Germany.

Another strength of the book is Davies’ dissection of the various intellectual approaches to the supernatural. He discusses psychology, sociology, folklore and anthropology and psychical research as well as history. While folklorists in Europe and, to some extent in the USA viewed the war as an ideal event through which to investigate supernatural beliefs and practices, their British counterparts were mostly missing in action. Only one individual appears to have bothered to conduct even casual fieldwork among acquaintances and the odd soldier he encountered. Consequently, we know much less about British folk belief on the ground at this time than in many other countries. Fortunately, Davies’ extensive archival research goes a long way to plugging this gap, allowing him to provide a convincing overall picture of faith in the war, both at home and at the front.

And faith, of one kind or another, is at the centre of this inquiry. Davies early on addresses the tricky definitional and conceptual issues associated with work of this kind. What term should be used to describe the subject of study? ‘Superstition’, the popular description – also still used by psychologists – is misleading. One person’s superstition may be another’s deeply-held belief, and who is to say which belief is valid and which is not? The word has been used as a bludgeon in the struggles between Catholics and Protestants (and, in another context, in the colonisation of indigenous peoples). Davies refuses to refer to his topic as ‘superstition’ and only uses the term between inverted commas. Following that wise observation, he further declares that: ‘I do not hold the view that the beliefs and practices explored in this book are in any way symptomatic of backwardness or credulity.’ (13)

While agreeing with this view, the numbers of those who succumbed to what seem to be blatant scams, does suggest a strong level of credulity, inflamed of course by the dreadful circumstances of loss and uncertainty that was the lot of almost everyone involved in those dreadful years of conflict. Nevertheless, people needed to find whatever consolations and hopes they could, regardless of their source. It is the willingness of some to take pecuniary advantage of those needs that is reprehensible, rather than the propensity of many to believe.

As a good historian should, Davies loses no opportunity to dissolve myths. In this area of research, there are many. A popular legend of the trenches among all the combatants was ‘the White Comrade’, a spectral figure seen tending to the dead and dying. The origins and identity of this folkloric phantasm were vague, even for legends, but the comrade was soon said by many to be Jesus Christ. Citing David Clarke’s earlier research on this topic, Davies provides an account of the origin of the belief in a short story published in early 1915 and spreading via republication in parish magazines and a variety of other print forms, as well as oral transmission: ‘Once again, fiction became fact…’ (68).

Through seven (lucky?) close-packed chapters on prophecy, spirits, fortune telling, soldiers’ folk beliefs and religious faith in the trenches, A Supernatural Warprovides a nuanced and learned exposition of the profound roles of belief in the supernatural during the Great War. Davies deals with various forms of ‘new thought’, including Christian Science and Pelmanism, the moral memory system that was a favourite butt of trench humour. He also looks at the role of the supernatural in some non-Christian faiths. Such a broad approach suggests that this book is likely to remain the definitive work for a long time to come.

A final chapter provides an overview of supernatural beliefs and practices since the First World War, into the second, and beyond. Witches, real and fictional; folk magic; spiritualism; psychic research; Theosophy; astrology; prophecy; lucky chain letters; mascots, amulets, bibles and the like all continued to appeal. Some practices thrived. Commercialised horoscopes, in particular, became a still-familiar staple of newspapers and magazines. There is also a brief mention of some fascinating uses of the supernatural as propaganda in the Second World War. A future research topic, perhaps?

While this book focusses on the First World War, the beliefs and practices it illuminates are as prevalent today as they were then. The supernatural was, and is, no different to other human activities: ‘Beliefs and practices constantly ebbed and flowed, disappeared and emerged, in response to broader trends in social, cultural and economic life.’ Owen Davies concludes his excellent book with the considered observation that, despite the long history of ‘superstition’, that ‘the First World War and its legacy confirmed that the supernatural was profoundly modern.’ (232)

Graham Seal (This review appears in a slightly different form as ‘Shamans at War’, in Literary Review, February 2019).

 

THE SECRET SPEECH FROM THE DEVIL’S ARSE

 

Mollcutpurse

Moll Cutpurse (BL)

What were the King of the Gypsies and Cock Lorel doing in the Devil’s Arse?

They were meeting in the Derbyshire cave with the memorable name to concoct a new language, the tongue of crime and criminals. The Gypsy King of the 1520s and 30s was Giles Hatherley and Cock Lorel was the mythical head (cock) of the rogues (lorels). Mostly referred to as ‘Cant’, the secret speech they allegedly created would last for centuries and some of its words are still spoken today.

Cant was a fluid amalgam of criminal codewords and street slang of the past and present, enriched with Romani and Parlary. Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spittal-House, published around 1536 contains the first record of this tongue. It included bousy cove, meaning a man under the influence of alcohol, a meaning still preserved in some slang. Another cant term that survived the centuries was patrynge (pattering) cove, meaning one who lived by some line of verbal deceit or other dubious activity. Others did not last so well, including dell for a virgin, pek for eat and jere for shit.

A dictionary of cant by ‘B.E. Gent.’ was published in the late 1690s under the exhaustive title A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of theCanting Crew, in its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all sorts of People, (especially foreigners) to secure their Money, and preserve their Lives; besides being very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly new. This early example of multi-marketing by whoever the gentlemanly ‘B E’ might have beenechoed the speech of a vast underworld of vagabondage, thievery and deception. A New Dictionary, and the many publications like it, were mostly written to pander to the insecurities and curiosities of the literate classes and so often exaggerated aspects of the lives and language of conny-catchers and sturdy beggars.

Another early example of this publishing fad was The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching. With the new devised knavish art of Foole-taking by ‘R G’, Robert Greene, which tells a number of cautionary tales of those who have fallen victim to the wiles of ‘this hellish crew’ who ‘cheate, cosen, prig, lift, nippe and such like tricks now used in their Conie-catching Trade’. The book ends with the warning ‘let each take heed of dealing with anie such kind of people’. There were no police forces at this time, so the honest citizen was generally responsible for his or her own safety and security. Similar works such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors (1566), The Defence of Begging by ‘Cuthbert Cunny-catcher’ (1592) and Thomas Dekker’s The Belman of London (1608), among many other similar titles allow us to hear this tongue and know something of the lives and crimes of those who spoke it.

 

image

The Tudor period experienced increasing numbers of masterless men and other vagrants wandering the roads. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and crime had become major issues for society and government. The poor – which meant the vast majority of the population – were seen as a possible source of disaffection and political violence. This was held to be especially so of those who would not or could not work, preferring instead a life of crime and, it seemed to the authorities and the respectable classes, of dissipation. In 1596 an Order by the Privy Council to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex described the activities of such people:

a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured and maintained in such and like noysom and disorderly howses, as namely poor cottages and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, ins, alehowses, tavernes, garden howses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicying howses, bowling allies and brothell howses. The most part of which pestering those parts of the citty with disorder and uncleannes are either apt to breed contagion and sicknes, or otherwize serve for the resort and refuge of masterless men and other idle and evill dispozed persons, and are the cause of cozenages, thefts, and other dishonest conversacion and may also be used to cover dangerous practizes.

Almost twenty years earlier the author of a polemical pamphlet had made similar complaints aimed at “Dauncers, Fydlers and Minstrels, Diceplayers, Maskers, Fencers, Bearewardes, Theeves, Common Players in Enterludes, Cutpurses, Cosiners, Maisterlesse servauntes, Jugglers, Roges, sturdye Beggers, &c.”

These light-fingered (from at least the 1570s) Canting Crews involved themselves in a bewildering variety of criminal specialisms and sub-specialisms. Cozenage was an Elizabethan version of the con trick, from the name that such people gave to their prospective victims, cousins or cozens. To prig was to steal, also used as a term for the stealer. To liftwas to steal goods from a shop, as in shoplifter, or to practice a form of robbery in which the lifter assumed the identity of a servant to gain access to luggage or other belongings. The nippe was a form of cutpurse thief who stole purses by slicing them from their owners clothing with a knife. A more refined nippe was the foyst, who used pickpocket skills to achieve the same ends.

From the sixteenth century Conie-catching also referred to deceptive practices, conie (conny, connie) being a term for a rabbit or, as we might say today, a bunny, who is caught by a con man. These swindles involved the catchers making the acquaintance of their intended conie, winning his trust then cheating him of his money or other possessions. In one variant or another the word has had a continuing presence in criminal tongues. In the nineteenth century a coney, coney dealeror coniacker was one who dealt in counterfeit money and the term eventually produced con man in all its English-speaking variations during the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth and the twenty-first. These include con artist,con game, con girl, con woman, con head, con mob, con job, con racket and simply a con.

A slice of Cant from what is usually said to be its first record in print was written by Copland around 1536. While this is a contrived piece of verse conversation, it well suggests the difficulty of comprehending such talk for anyone not schooled in its complexities. The speaker is a porter of whom Copland has asked whether pedlars ‘with broken hose and breche’ pass this way:

Ynow, ynow; with bousy cove maund nace,

Teare the patryng cove in the darkeman cace

Docked the dell for a coper meke;

His watch shall feng a prounce’s nob-chete,

Cyarum, by Salmon, and thou shall pek my jere

In thy gan, for my watch it is nace gere

For the bene bouse my watch hath a coyn …

Copland admits that even he has difficulty understanding this ‘babble’, or ‘pedlyng frenche’.

A-New-Canting-Dictionary-626_b_35_tp

The canting crews (BL)

 

1808 mermaid tattoo

 

THE BATTLE OF BOW STREET

The Eagle Hut, Aldwych (Art.IWM ART 1123) image: a view across the wooden buildings of the American YMCA Eagle Hut in Aldwych, constructed adjacent to St Mary le Strand church, which is visible immediately behind. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23488 CCs.

Just why a large mob of American, Canadian and Australian soldiers and sailors took on London’s finest in March 1919 is a mystery. You would think everyone would be fed up with fighting after four years of the greatest slaughter the world had known. But it seems not.

America maintained an enormous comforts facility for its troops located to the north of Aldwych. Established by a group of American businessmen when the United States entered the war in 1917, Eagle Hut was run by the YMCA and a force of 800 volunteers. Troops could eat, sleep, exercise, groom and generally recreate in a vast complex of canteens, barber shops, cinemas, library and lounges. You could even borrow money there and all things American, including hash browns and chewing gum, were available through what must have seemed a small paradise to soldiers returning from France but still a long way from home. Troops of other allied forces, including Canadians and Australians, were also welcome at Eagle Hut and its friendship and comforts would be long remembered in all those countries.[1]

Group inside Eagle Hut, Henry Rushbury (IWM CCs)

But in March 1917, the war had been over for barely four months and there was now little for soldiers to do. Men who had been in peril of their lives a few months earlier were now hanging around in London, aching to get back to their homes, lives and loved ones. As well as the official activities provided by Eagle Hut, the soldiers had their own pastimes. Gambling was prime among them and it was a game of dice – either craps or possibly the British Crown and Anchor – that started a serious riot known as ‘the Battle of Bow Street’.

The official police narrative[2]begins with a group of three soldiers dicing for money on the steps of Eagle Hut and so, technically, on the street. Public gambling was illegal and the game was spotted by two policemen. The bobbies, no doubt politely, requested the soldiers to desist. The soldiers felt that as they had come far across the seas to risk their lives fighting for Britain, the least that country’s constabulary could do was to let them have a little harmless fun while they waited to go home.

We might think that a reasonably-minded policeman, or even two of them, would see this argument, even if it may not have been presented very diplomatically. The sensible thing to do would have been to give the gamblers a caution, turn two blind eyes and continue on the beat. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the bobbies decided to run the soldiers in. 

Mistake. A mob quickly appeared and attacked the policemen who were forced to blow their whistles for assistance. It arrived and battle continued, with a Corporal Zimmerman injured by police who feared he had a firearm. He too was arrested and the police struggled back to Bow Street nick with their prisoners.

That evening, a false rumour circulated that Zimmerman had died in custody. Outraged soldiers marched on the station. Reinforcements were called as a large crowd of soldiers threw missiles at the station and threatened police if their mates were not released. The police defended themselves with apparently effective baton/truncheon charges, though the riot was not quelled for many hours and with the assistance of mounted police. 

Skulls and bones were cracked, flesh bruised and eyes blackened but, surprisingly, no one was killed or seriously injured. Twenty or so police and rioters were injured and seven (some sources say eleven) Americans were eventually apprehended and handed to the American military authorities for court martial. That night, Eagle Hut was cleared of occupants, as sailors were sent back to their ships and soldiers were found alternative lodgings. Ten other rioters eventually faced charges in London courts.

 

All this suggests that the authorities had been seriously rattled by the riot and may well have feared further unrest among the crowds of overseas troops waiting to return home. There were probably tensions between the British and these expatriate troops, many who had been wounded and not seen their families for perhaps many years. It was these tensions and the bungling of the bobbies that flared into the riot and perhaps threatened to spread, with resulting disturbances of public order and a contradiction of official pronouncements of post-war harmony between allied troops. 

After this incident, we hear no more of troops rioting. As repatriation processes continued and servicemen left, the tension in the city dissipated. Life slowly returned to a semblance of what it had been before August 1914. Eagle Hut was no longer needed and closed less than six months later.

(from Springfield College, Creative Commons)

The Battle of Bow Street has faded into history as a successful, if relatively minor, restoration of the peace by police. But there is a problem with this narrative.

It seems highly unlikely that fifty-or-so policemen, even with truncheons, could subdue two thousand hardened soldiers and sailors with an attitude problem and a grudge, justified or not. Certainly, the sparse photographic evidence[3]suggests a much smaller number of rioters than the two thousand usually claimed. I would suggest less than half that number, still frightening enough for authorities, especially as soldiers often had souvenired firearms, a factor in the police response. 

The clearing of Eagle Hut and the American court martials indicate that the authorities were seriously concerned about the riot.

There also doesn’t seem to be much eyewitness testimony from bystanders or from the soldiers to give their point of view. No doubt some might be turned up with an archive search, possibly telling a very different tale to that given by the bobbies.

Whatever the truth of ‘the Battle of Bow Street’, it hardly matters now, though riots are still frequent occurrences and the accounts given of their origins, suppression and aftermaths still tend to differ drastically between the official and unofficial versions.

Notes

The Wikipedia entry on the riot, taken from The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard,takes the police line.

A memorial plaque at Aldwych testifies to the existence of Eagle Hut and to the ‘friendship of the English-speaking peoples’ – though not on the occasion of the riot, which is not mentioned.


[1]A souvenir booklet of Eagle Hut in Museums Victoria, Australia collection at https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1811009

[2]In Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard, Virgin, London, 1999, paraphrased in the Wikipedia entry on the riot. A slightly different version of events appears at https://blog.maryevans.com/2013/07/the-eagle-hut-of-aldwych-the-battle-of-bow-street-.html

[3]Photograph in The Illustrated London News, 15 March 1919, online at https://blog.maryevans.com/2013/07/the-eagle-hut-of-aldwych-the-battle-of-bow-street-.html

LEGENDS OF THE SPECTRAL HORDE

 

Wild Hunt

Franz Stuck’s ‘Wilde Jagd’ (The Wild Hunt), 1889

 

In the early 1860s, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, English antiquarian collector of lore and general know-all, was part of a group of men galloping across an expanse of arid black sand in Iceland. One of his local companions, Jon, shouted out that they were ‘sweeping over the country like the Yule host.’ Inveterate busy-body Baring- Gould’s ears pricked up and he asked for details.

Jon told him of the ‘wild rout of phantom horsemen’ that ride across the country, especially at the winter solstice and at Yule, or Christmas. The Reverend immediately recognized this as the local version of a widespread European tradition and filled the next four pages of his Icelandic travel adventures[1]with his prodigious knowledge of the phenomenon. Baring Gould regaled his readers with the details of the spectral hordes of Norway, Germany, France, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and, of course, England:

‘Gervaise of Tilbury says that in the thirteenth century by full moon towards evening the wild hunt was frequently seen in England traversing forest and down. In the twelfth century it was called in England the Herlething. It appeared in the reign of Henry II and was witnessed by many. The banks of the Wye was [sic] the scene of the most frequent chases. At the head of the troop rode the ancient British Herla.’

He went on to give this version of the legend, featuring the legendary king of the Britons:

‘King Herla had once been to the marriage feast of a dwarf who lived in a mountain. As he left the bridal hall the host presented him with horses dogs and hunting gear also with a bloodhound which was set on the saddle bow before the king and the troop was bidden not to get off the horses till the dog leaped down. On returning to his palace the king learned that he had been absent for two hundred years which had passed as one night whilst he was in the mountain with the dwarf. Some of the retainers jumped off their horses and fell to dust but the king and the rest ride on till the bloodhound bounds from the saddle which will be at the Last Day’.[2]

The story was old well before Gervaise gave his version. Early in 1127 an unpopular abbot arrived at the Peterborough monastery. People soon began to talk of strange and frightening nightly apparitions. Twenty or thirty spectral huntsman, ‘black, huge and hideous’ rode through the town’s deer park and woods ‘on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.’ Every night for weeks on end until Easter, the monks listened fearfully to the sound of hunting horns echoing through the darkness.[3]

On another dark winter night thirty-six years earlier, in 1091, the English monk Orderic Vitalis was in Normandy where he documented an appearance of ghost riders he referred to as ‘Herlichin’s troop’.[4]Other accounts refer to frequent sightings of the hunt at this period.[5]

These unfortunate monks, and many others, were witnessing the ‘Wild Hunt’, an ancient and widespread apparition reported throughout Europe. The hunt is invariably a bad omen, foretelling war, tragedy or other disaster. In many traditions, anyone who lays eyes upon the spectral horde is doomed. The leader of the hunt varies from country to country. In Germany, it might be Woden, or malign figures of German tradition, such as Fraue Holle. In the Scandinavian countries it can be Odin; in Brittany, King Arthur and, in Ireland, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Other European countries have their own versions of the legend, often in diverse forms. In England and Wales, the leader can be any of Woden, Herne the Hunter, St Guthliac, Old Nick or any of a dozen or so other identities, depending on which part of the country the tradition is known.

Another leader of the (mainly) English pack is named Eadric, an historical figure who refused to bow to the Norman invaders in his domain within what is now the English and Welsh border, the Marches. Along these borderlands between 1067 and early 1070 Eadric held out against the invaders in a variety of activities that included attacking Hereford castle and occupying the city of Shrewsbury. He was one of a number of rebel leaders, including Hereward (‘the Wake’), attempting an ultimately lost resistance against the Normans, who named them silvatici, or ‘wild men’. Eadric probably made peace with William in 1070 but may have been involved in another rebellion against the ‘Norman yoke’ in 1075, probably losing his lands as a consequence, and possibly a lot more. There are no further mentions of Eadric in historical records[6], but in the Shropshire and Welsh versions of the wild hunt legend Eadric, sometimes in company with his wife, haunts the night skies. Eadric’s wild hunt has been reportedly seen or heard just before the Crimean War, the First World War and the Second World War.[7]

While the wild hunt seems to originate in the medieval era[8], it has endured into modern times. A German painting on the theme made by Franz Stuck in 1889gh was widely believed to foretell the tyranny of Adolph Hitler and his Nazis. Hitler was reportedly so enamoured of the painting that he purchased it and groomed himself in imitation of its forbidding depiction of the German god of war. There is even a possible connection with the popular country song ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, though that might be drawing the bow a little too long, as the song seems to have been based on a local legend of a fatal cattle stampede.[9]More recently, the anthropologist and historian, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, under her pen name of ‘Fred Vargas’ has used French version of the story as the basis of a detective novel, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec(2013) – and a great read it is.

The number of alleged sightings, along with the diffusion and duration of this powerful legend gives it a creepily convincing character. The legend is not going away any time soon either. It features in the best-selling ‘Witcher’ fantasy novel series byAndrzej Sapkowski,later turned into an award-winning and widely successful video game, ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, bringing an ancient folk tradition to the digital generation.

 

NOTES AND SOURCES:

[1]Sabine Baring Gould and Alfred Newton, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, Smithe, Elder and Son, London, 1863, pp. 200 -204.

[2]Baring Gould, pp. 201-202.

[3]Garmonsway, G.N., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Dent, Dutton, 1972 & 1975, p. 258.

[4]Harold Peake, ‘17. Horned Deities’, Man22, February 1922, p. 28.

[5]Map, Walter. Master Walter Map’s book, De nugis curialium (Courtier’s trifles). trans. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924, at http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/map1.html, accessed November 2018. Map was writing towards the end of the twelfth century.

[6]Reynolds, S., ‘Eadric Silvaticus and the English Resistance’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical ResearchVol LIV, No 129, 1981, pp. 102-105.

[7]Westwood, J., Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, Granada, London, 1985, pp. 300-304. Also Hutton, Ronald (2014). ‘The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath’. Folklore. London: The Folklore Society. 125 (2): 161–178.

[8]Though Jacob Grimm, who produced the first scholarly study of the tradition in 1883, located it in pagan belief.

[9]Composed by Stan Jones and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949, and by many since. For the local stampede legend, see Fairweather Lewis, ‘Stampede Mesa: The Story Behind ‘(Ghost’) Riders in the Sky’ at https://fairweatherlewis.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/stampede-mesa-the-story-behind-ghost-riders-in-the-sky/, accessed November 2018.