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 adventureswith 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’.
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.
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’.Other accounts refer to frequent sightings of the hunt at this period.
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, 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.
While the wild hunt seems to originate in the medieval era, 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.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:
Sabine Baring Gould and Alfred Newton, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, Smithe, Elder and Son, London, 1863, pp. 200 -204.
Baring Gould, pp. 201-202.
Garmonsway, G.N., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Dent, Dutton, 1972 & 1975, p. 258.
Harold Peake, ‘17. Horned Deities’, Man22, February 1922, p. 28.
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.
Reynolds, S., ‘Eadric Silvaticus and the English Resistance’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical ResearchVol LIV, No 129, 1981, pp. 102-105.
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.
Though Jacob Grimm, who produced the first scholarly study of the tradition in 1883, located it in pagan belief.
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.