Friday, May 22, 2015

The Wild Hunt rides forth

The Wild Hunt by Peter Arbo, 1872.

In the world of gaming, pre-orders (reserving copies of highly anticipated video games before their market release) are a racket for the consumer; for $5, you're guaranteed access to a game that will most likely be readily available on store shelves regardless. Occasionally, though, I'll consciously succumb to the hype to secure a limited collector's edition of a game I've long been a fan of, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Good thing, too! I pre-ordered the collector's edition in June last year, and they were sold out by December. The game itself was only released last Tuesday, and the box was brought to my doorstep the same day.

This final installment of the Witcher trilogy, a dark medieval fantasy saga based on a series of novels and short stories by Polish author Andrezj Sapkowski, focuses on a phenomenon called the Wild Hunt. In the series's world, the Hunt is a spectral cavalcade of riders across the night sky, led by an enigmatic king, abducting children and heralding war and death. The riders were hardly invented for modern fantasy fiction, though; they were once a widespread staple of medieval folklore, now almost entirely forgotten by us moderns amidst enlightenment and a steady stream of technological distractions.

It was perhaps the Nordic peoples who had instilled belief in the night riders, who Jacob Grimm would come to call the Wilde Jagd (the Wild Hunt), throughout northern and central Europe. At its head was Woden, better known as Odin All-father, Norse god of battles, wisdom, and death, to name a few. It was, no doubt, always a terrifying proposition to be caught in the path of Woden's hunting party in the dead of the night; but the Hunt took on a more demonic character after the Christianization of the Teutons. In Teutonic Mythology, Grimm wrote:

"...they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.
"The Christians had not so quickly nor so completely renounced their faith in the gods of their fathers, that those imposing figures could all at once drop out of their memory. Obstinately clung to by some, they were merely assigned a position more in the background. The former god lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power, that still had a certain amount of influence left. His hold lost upon men and their ministry, he wandered and hovered in the air, a spectre and a devil."

Other folklorists contend that the Wild Hunt was always a part of the Christian age. They say it developed to give the old gods a new place in the northmen's understanding of the universe. Far easier it was to re-imagine Woden (or Frigg, or some other formerly revered deity) as among the spirits of the damned than to abolish him entirely. It wasn't only ignorant peasants who believed in the Hunt, though. The first recorded account of the riders in England appears in the Petersborough Chronicle under the year 1127. The monks recorded an incident when they were receiving a new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who was hated for being corrupt and for being a Norman; which was, perhaps in their minds, the same thing. At any rate, they said of it:

"Let it not be thought remarkable, when we tell the truth, because it was fully known over all the country, that as soon as he came there... then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and big and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Petersborough, and in all the woods that there were between his town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that were blowing at night. Trustworthy people noticed them at night, and said that it seemed to them there might well be about twenty or thirty hornblowers. This was seen and heard from the time he came there all Lent up to Easter."

As the centuries passed, new leaders emerged at the head of the cavalcade, as determined by local popularity: in France, it was Charlemagne; in England, Arthur; in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Barbarossa. It appears the myth persisted well into the Elizabethan age, since some tales tell of Sir Francis Drake commanding the Hunt.

In the event that you come across these ghostly riders in the night, our medieval forebears propose the following survival tips:

1.) Throw yourself on the ground to avoid being hit; the Hunt usually travels above ground level.

2.) Stay in the middle of the road; there is no hiding from the Hunt. Hopefully they'd rather trade with you than run roughshod over your corpse.

3.) If they reward you with the leg of a slain animal (or human), don't take it. It's probably cursed. Rather, ask for salt to go with it. As the Hunt cannot carry salt, neither can they bring you the cursed leg.

4.) Carry a piece of bread and a piece of steel with you at all times. If you see Woden first, throw the steel to keep him at bay. If his dogs come first, toss them the bread.


  1. I have recently heard about some missionaries (one of them a friend of mine) who, after leaving a town, suddenly heard a stampede of horses all around them, in plain daylight, without being able to see them. It seems to have been a demonic display of some sort intended to scare them, pretty common in that part of the country. As you say, in the "enlightened" days we tend to disregard these happenings, but we shouldn't, they're pretty real, they're still happening and they're pretty daemonic.

    It is an interesting thing that Odin was once reputed to have led the "Hunt", perhaps suggesting the daemonic origin of the northern religion (just as Saint Augustine commented the daemonic origin of the roman religion in his "De civitate Dei"), which may be confirmed by the legendary note on the "Hunt" dropping cursed objects. A great reminder not to approach those old religions again...

    By the way, the fragment on Henry of Poitou, if we consider the events described as true (as I usually do), could suggest something really, really scary about that abbot... just saying.

  2. Very interesting! Thank you for this - I always love learning about how our medieval ancestors saw the world.
    On a somewhat related note, have you played all the Witcher games? I know that the author is an atheist - are they anti-Catholic in theme?

    1. I have, indeed, played the first and second game all the way through, multiple times. I just started The Witcher 3 yesterday. I've read four of the books.

      It's unfortunate that Sapkowski, like most authors and other creative people in the west today, are unbelievers. I think this represents a major fault in the way we Christians have been perpetuating ourselves. It suggests a brain drain.

      The games are role-playing games that allow the player to choose their own moral actions, including (in the first Witcher) ones that favor faith and the fictional Church of the Eternal Fire. There are no clear-cut good and evil sides. For instance, elves in this universe are an oppressed minority, but some of them fight for their freedom by resorting to terrorist tactics that end up making persecution even worse. One of the recurring themes is that the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, often finds that the worst monsters are the ones in human skin.

      So, to answer your question, I don't think the Witcher games are explicitly anti-Catholic (certainly not in the way that, say, His Dark Materials are), but they require an appreciation for what I would call "pulpy low fantasy", extensive drawing from medieval pagan folklore (Slavic or otherwise), and the inability to play this game when one's kids are about.

    2. Thank you. They actually sound like interesting games to play. I have no problem playing games with religious bad guys (like Final Fantasy X) as long as it's not a blatant middle finger to the Church, like that one Assassin's Creed where the final boss is the pope and you actually interrupt the Holy Mass to murder him.

  3. Interesting. I had seen the Peter Arbo painting before - as the background for a YouTube recording of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" by Johnny Cash - but it had never occurred to me to examine it closely and see that its figures looked rather more viking-ish than cowboy-ish.