The Wild Hunt

25 December is the latest date when the Wild Hunt traditionally begins its mad pursuit across the night skies of Europe. 

“… many men both 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. This was seen in the very deer park of the town ofPeterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.“ (Henry d'Angely)

Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo’s (1831-1892) painting "Åsgårdsreien" (1872), a version of the Wild Hunt

scholars wouldn’t argue these days that dating Christ’s birthday on 25 December was a deliberate act that occurred at some time during the 4th century and its more or less common knowledge that Christmas absorbed various pre-Christian festivities around the winter solstice. Yule features quite prominently among these celebrations, allegedly an old Germanic feast featuring the long-bearded god Odin as jólfaðr, Yule father, sometimes referred to as being celebrated during the twelve days following midwinter or on the first full moon after the solstice. There is, however, hardly any evidence of genuine Yule observances or even a worship of Odin before the Germanic tribes came into regular contact with the Roman Empire along the river Rhine during the first centuries after the turn of the eras and Germanic Yule might well be an imitation of the Roman festivals and later Christianity, absorbing older observances themselves. The Wild Hunt though, rumoured to ride across the skies during the twelve nights and led by Odin, is a decidedly archetypical image.

Franz von Stuck (1863 - 1928): "Wilde Jagd" (1899) 

Tacitus’ “Germania”, written around the year 100 CE and quoting Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” from a hundred fifty years earlier, mentions Mercurius as the principal deity of the Germanic tribes. A few decades later consecration stones to “Mercurius Cimbrianus”, Mercury of the Cimbrians, appear, donated by Germans serving in the Roman army, that have been interpreted as being the first evidence for the worship of Odin along with older Scandinavian petroglyphs. As it seems, the ambiguous Allfather of the Gods is a deity that originates from the contact with Rome and slowly displaced old Teiwaz, Tyr, as supreme god of the northern tribes. However, Odin with his vast varieties of responsibilities, from being a god of warriors to watching over fertility and finally a god of learning and a psychopomp, a being escorting the spirits of the dead, absorbs many features of worship that date well back to the days when a Shamanistic approach on the divine was more common. Odin’s role as psychopomp, probably leading Tacitus to identifying the Germanic deity with Mercurius, places him in the lead of the Wild Hunt, a far more primeval affair than the civilised Roman passing.

Johann Wilhelm Cordes (1824 - 1869): "Die Wilde Jagd" (1856/7)

The image of spectral huntsmen riding across the skies in the nights following midwinter is almost universal among the Celtic and Germanic tribes across Europe and echo similar beliefs among most other Indo-European peoples. Generally, Germanic belief was that the huntsmen are dead warriors or, later, the souls of the restless dead who are condemned to eternal walking because they died before their time. During the Rauhnächte, the rough nights, beginning alternatively on December 21th, 23th or 25th and ending on January 2nd, offerings were placed in the windows for the hunters and it meant generally bad cess to see them. One was supposed to throw oneself on the ground when they passed by, or even better, staying at home and praying when the Hunt approached. Those who dared to mock them were generally dragged along to an unpleasant place. Odin himself, whose Hunt once might have been the host of Einherjer, the spirits of the warriors fallen honourably in battle and rewarded with eternal mead, pork roast and fighting, galloping across the skies and showing their prowess to the mortals, degenerated more and more into a mere demonic figure or even a simple undead count over the centuries and the once proud possible counter-draft to monotheistic beliefs became a bugbear to frighten simple folks when the winter storms were howling during the Twelve Nights.

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