Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Halloween Special: The Wild Hunt

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Happy halloween, everybody!

Now, as you know, I generally do special spooky episodes in honor of the world's best holiday,

and more specifically I usually cover a classic work of great horror fiction.

Unfortunately, I kinda ran out.

I mean, there's more out there, but once you've covered Dracula, Frankenstein, Lovecraft,

Poe and Jekyll and Hyde, the great seminal works of horror fiction start getting a little

thinner on the ground and a lot less interesting.

Now I was planning on breaking the formula anyway by covering a much more subtly creepy

classic - The Count Of Monte Cristo, a harrowing exploration of trust, betrayal and the transformative

poison of revenge.

But it's really long.

Like, really really long.

Like, basically as long as my copy of Journey To The West.

So unfortunately I couldn't finish it in time.

But it's probably fine to leave it on the shelf for a year or fourteen.

I'm sure it won't get mad and swear tortuous vengeance about it!

Instead, let's dip into folklore and talk about something really in the spirit of the

season - spirits of the season!

Specifically, the folkloric wild hunt, a delightfully spooky staple concept in European folklore

with suspiciously ancient roots.

Now, the wild hunt is officially classified as a folklore motif in the Stith Thompson

Index of Folkloric Classification, a thing that I am desperately happy exists.

It sounds like a joke in an urban fantasy story.

("Code E-221!


We got a dead wife haunting husband on his second marriage!")

Anyway, the Wild Hunt is officially motif code E501 - a ghostly hunter and phantom entourage

pursuing an eternal phantasmal chase through the night.

Frequently connected with the sound of howling wind and other such creepy nighttime noises,

the Wild Hunt invisibly storms through the sky, hunting an ever-elusive prey and often

doing very unpleasant things to anyone who doesn't get out of their way fast enough.

Nothing like a good ghost party to really get into the spirit of the season.

The Wild Hunt concept was first officially codified by Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm,

during his studies of German Folklore, when he noticed a super recurrent motif of a ghostly

hunt through the night.

Variously called the Wild Hunt, the Raging Host and the Wild Army, the names can change

but the concept stays the same - where some ghosts haunt individually, the Wild Hunt is

a veritable ghost tornado, a screaming storm of the unhallowed dead, forever barred from

their rest and cursed in death to ride eternal.

And though Grimm was specifically studying german folklore, the Wild Hunt is found all

over western europe and beyond, even contributing to the american folkloric concept of the

ghost rider.

Yes, that one.

Now, Jacob Grimm, a comparative mythologist after my own heart, believed that a lot of

these fairy tale staples had ancient pagan origins.

And while that theory is often a bit hokey, the fact that a lot of the fairy tales about

the wild hunt specifically credit Odin as its leader lends some pretty solid credence

to that theory.

See, back in the old norse days, Odin had a ghost posse of his own - the Einherjar,

ghostly warriors brought to Valhalla by the valkyries to eternally train for the final

battle of Ragnarok.

With Odin and his valkyrie cohort leading them, the Einherjar ride out to the field

of Vigridr for the battle that ends the world.

And even post-Christianization, Odin and his Einherjar were still a very popular concept.

Tenth-century Norwegian King Haakon the Good was super into christianity, and spent his

life trying to christianize Norway before being killed in battle by the forces of the

amazingly named Eric Bloodaxe.

When he died, his court poet composed a poem about his death wherein King Hakon is spirited

away by valkyries and welcomed into Valhalla by Odin; and while Hakon is worried Odin will

hate him for his Christian faith, he instead welcomes him, and the Einherjar honor his

warrior's courage.

Amusingly, when Eric Bloodaxe was later killed, his equally-awesomely-named wife Gunnhildr,

Mother Of Kings, supposedly had a similar poem composed where Odin prepares Valhalla

and the Einherjar for the arrival of her husband.

One can only imagine the awkward dinner conversations.

And, bonus fun fact, Odin's ghostly host might have been originally based on a real group

of warriors attested by Tacitus in his Germania way back in the aughts CE.

This group, the harii, painted their shields and bodies black and attacked on dark nights

as a shadowy phantom army to very effectively confound and terrorize in their enemies.

Eight centuries and a lot of mythologization later, the story of this ghostly shadow-army

could easily transform into a phantom host in service to Odin.

The fact that einherjar is etymologically connected to harii supports this theory - though

harii just means warrior, and einherjar just means those who fight alone, so it maybe

doesn't support it THAT much.

Anyway, while Scandinavian kings at the turn of the milennium loved them some Valhalla,

Grimm thinks the general opinion might have soured a bit after a few centuries of Christianization.

In those early days, the Norse gods were still very familiar - they weren't quite being worshipped,

but they still had a very strong presence in the social landscape.

Many gods were explicitly connected with natural phenomena, like Thor's anger to the thunder,

or Odin's night rides with the howling night winds, serving as constant physical reminders

of these familiar old figures.

But as centuries passed in the new paradigm, the old gods became unfamiliar, even demonic.

Grimm thinks the christianization of Scandinavia never erased the old gods, but instead made

them unfamiliar and terrifying, personifications of the wild and the unknown.

Odin's nightly rides stopped being a glorious battle charge and a promise of a shining afterlife,

and instead became a terrifying army of ghosts.

And since christianity promises a peaceful afterlife for the hallowed dead, by extension,

that army of ghosts has to be really bad news.

Grimm puts this really beautifully, in a distinctly creepy way: "as the christian god

has not made them his, they fall due to the old heathen one".

Basically, since good people get to join the christian god when they die, the unhallowed,

unbaptized or otherwise bad dead fall into the waiting arms of the old pagan gods and

join their host instead.

But despite this extremely creepy framing, the Wild Hunt is not always strictly an antagonistic


One folktale describes a drunk peasant walking home through the woods - he hears the cry

of the wild hunt behind him and a voice telling him to get out of the way, and when he doesn't,

the hunt leader crashes down out of the sky in front of him.

The huntsman tosses a chain at the peasant and challenges him to a game of tug-of war,

but when he takes off into the sky, the peasant quickly ties the chain around a nearby oak.

Impressed by the peasants apparently prodigious strength, the huntsman tries and fails two

more times, and as a reward for the peasant's cunning, he butchers a stag and gives the

him meat, and the peasant, without any other way to transport it, is forced to carry it

in one of his boots.

As he walks home with it, the boot becomes heavier and heavier, but he eventually reaches

his house - whereupon he finds the boot is full of gold.

General consensus is this huntsman is Odin, or Wotan if you wanna be old high german about

it, and the bootful of gold is probably a remnant of a much older story, cuz it's a

little too weirdly specific otherwise.

This general format is pretty common in folktales - a mysterious and potentially malevolent

supernatural entity challenges the hero to an impossible task, and when they succeed,

the entity rewards them.

But the wild hunt specifically seems to have a habit of rewarding people with gifts of

gold, specifically gold that doesnt initially look like gold.

There's a few other consistent themes about the Hunt.

Its very commonly framed as a karmic punishment for the people caught up in it, usually as

a cautionary tale - the stock explanation for why the huntmaster is leading the hunt

in the first place is that they used to be some hunt-happy dumb-dumb who loudly declared

that the christian god can stuff it cuz hunting is where it's at and immediately found themself

bound eternally to the phantom wild hunt, cursed never to rest until judgment day or


It's also generally agreed on that, if you hear the cry of the wild hunt, it's unwise

to mimic it.

It might go pretty well for you!

Sometimes the hunt appreciates your enthusiasm and leaves you some of what they hunted that

night, like a bit of moss or an entire human leg.

But sometimes you're just getting their attention, which is a good way to get swept up by the

storm and disappeared forever.

Or both things could happen, like the tale of the peasant who mimicked the call of the

Hunt and was instantly killed when they tossed an entire horse flank down his chimney.

It's also very common for the hunt leader to ride a white horse - which is interesting,

because Odin's steed, Sleipnir, was very specifically gray.


Now, while the base concept of the Wild Hunt seems to have originally evolved from Odin

and his Einherjar, Odin is not always the huntsman leading it.

Although Grimm does believe a lot of the supposed hunt leaders are actually just corruptions

or bynames of Odin - for instance, several stories describe the hunt being led by a dead

nobleman named Hackelburg or Hackelbaran, which seems to be derived from the old norse

word hekla, meaning armored or cloaked one, which he thinks is just an epithet for Odin

corrupted and confused into being another figure entirely.

But not every hunt leader is Odin.

For instance, a lot of them are women.

One common theme says the hunt is led by one Frau Gauden, a noblewoman with 24 daughters

who loved hunting more than life itself, and once said that hunting was better than heaven.

In a bout of shockingly well-timed karmic retribution, Frau Gauden's daughters all immediately

transform into hunting dogs and they're whisked up into the sky, doomed to hunt eternally

through the night.

Oh no!

Exactly what we asked for!

This is the worst!

But Frau Gauden's wild hunt is a little aesthetically different from the Odin version.

For one thing, she doesn't ride a horse - she rides in a carriage.

And a common story when she's in charge is that her carriage gets damaged, usually when

she rides over a crossroad, and she politely asks a local craftsman to fix it.

When he does, she rewards him with a payment that initially appears worthless, like wood

shavings or literal dog poop - but when the sun rises, it transmutes into pure gold.

Frau Gauden is also said to be most powerful around the new year, and sometimes leaves

phantom dogs in the houses of people who don't lock up properly - and while yes, a free magic

pupper would be amazing, these lil guys are actually bad omens that bring misfortune on

the household until Frau Gauden collects them the next year.

Some pretty standard winter-is-spooky-lock-your-doors morals on that one.

There's another huntmistress found in Alpine folklore known as Berchta, who's quite different

from Gauden - her name either means hidden or the bright one, and either translation

makes sense, since she's described as being completely swathed in bright white robes.

Berchta, like Gauden, also appears around the twelve days of christmas, but that's where

the similarities end.

Gauden is a stately noblewoman, while Berchta is at best horrifically old and wizened, while

some stories paint her as physically monstrous, with mismatched limbs and animalistic features.

But Berchta isn't just another pretty face - she also cares for the souls of unbaptized

children, which ties in well with Grimm's theory that the old gods take the dead that

the new god won't touch.

Berchta also serves the important role of enforcing taboos, like a ban on spinning during

the winter holidays or eating anything but fish and gruel on her feast day, and in bavarian

and austrian folklore she supposedly rewarded well-behaved children and servants with silver


This kind of ties into the same theme as Odin with the bootful of gold - an intimidating

figure punishing transgressions but richly rewarding good behavior.

Now Grimm theorizes that Gauden and Berchta are both offshoots of a very ancient pre-christian

goddess, along with a third folkloric figure, Frau Holle, who Grimm believes most closely

resembles the theoretical original figure.

Frau Holle or Holda, sometimes also called Old Mother Frost, is a generally benevolent

folkloric figure who sometimes leads a cohort of phantom women and occasionally rewards

people with gold.

In one popular story, a young girl who lives with her cruel stepmother and stepsister accidentally

drops her spindle down a well and jumps in after it - only to find herself transported

to an unfamiliar meadow.

She finds an oven with bread baking, and the bread asks to be taken out before it burns.

She obliges, then finds an apple tree that asks her to harvest the apples, which she


Finally, she comes to a small house with a friendly old woman who calls herself Frau

Holle and says she can stay if she does her housework.

Ever-obliging, the girl agrees.

Frau Holle warns her to be extra-diligent shaking out the featherbed, because that's

what causes snow back in the real world, and the girl dutifully does her job.

Eventually she gets a bit homesick and Frau Holle sends her home with the spindle she'd

dropped - along with another gift.

Every time she talks, a bit of gold drops out of her mouth.

Sounds a bit uncomfortable, honestly, but it's better than what her stepsister gets

- when she jumps down the well and tries to earn the same reward without actually helping

any of the inanimate objects or doing any of Frau Holle's work, she starts spitting

out toads.

So Frau Holle is a bit of a dual figure - she fits the general folkloric role of rewarding

good stuff and punishing bad stuff.

She's also connected with spinning and weaving, is sometimes said to be the caretaker of dead

children and leads a host of phantom spirits.

She has a festival in midwinter, and the other connections to the season are pretty obvious

- she literally makes it snow.

It's her job.

Many folklorists believe she's a relic from a pre-christian and potentially even pre-norse

divinity, theoretically predating even Odin and company.

So according to Grimm's theory, these assorted huntmistresses - Gauden, Berchta, Holle, etc

- are all offshoots of this ancient winter goddess.

Which would be dope as hell.

Obviously this is a little hard to confirm, but the three figures do share a lot of similarities.

Gold, midwinter, spinning and weaving, punishing taboos, and - of course - leading a phantom

host of the unhallowed dead.


But, like I said earlier, the Wild Hunt is not just a german thing.

In Scandinavia it's called Odin's Hunt, which is pretty self-explanatory and follows

from the Einherjar origins we already covered, but in Old English it was called the Herlathing,

meaning Herla's Assembly.

Well, who's Herla?


I barely know 'a! okay anyway Well, aside from being secretly Odin - which

at this point is kind of a given - Herla is a legendary king of the britons, the pre-saxon

Celtic inhabitants of England.

According to 12th century english/welsh author Walter Map, King Herla, modernized from his

old english title Herla Cyning, strikes a deal with a dwarf.

The dwarf will attend his wedding, and then one year later, he'll attend the dwarf's wedding.

The dwarf brings wedding gifts and provisions and is an absolute model guest, and then a

year later, Herla travels underground to the Dwarf king's realm and spends three days at

the wedding party.

When he leaves, the king gives him a small bloodhound and warns him not to get off his

horse until the dog does.

Free dogs?

Best wedding ever!

Herla and his band leave the dwarf king's realm, but the hound stays on the horse - when

Herla asks a nearby shepherd how his queen is doing, he's shocked to find that the shepherd

is a saxon, not a briton, and that the saxons have ruled the land for over two hundred years.

Apparently three days in the dwarf king's realm equalled three hundred years out here.

Some of the men leap off their horses in shock - and immediately age three hundred years

and crumble to dust.

Stuck in his saddle and displaced in time, all Herla can do is ride eternally, trapped

in an endless unlife thanks to the world's worst case of supernatural jetlag.

But Herla's story doesn't end there!

This concept of an undead or demonic eternal wanderer was quite popular, and in the 11th

century French monk and chronicler Orderic Vitalis used the phrase "familia herlequin"

to describe a demonic host pursuing a hapless monk, led by a terrifying masked giant.

This was the first official attestation of the french version of the Wild Hunt, which

was a bit spicier than the Germanic version - the Hellequin leading the hunt was an emissary

of the devil himself, and his host of demons hunted down the souls of the damned, rather

than being those wayward souls themselves.

This demonic figure later evolved into a stock character in french passion plays, and then

evolved further with the advent of the sixteenth century commedia dell'arte and the introduction

of the masked motley figure of the harlequin, still a bit of a devilish trickster but a

lot less overtly malevolent than the wild hunt he used to lead.

All roads lead to Odin, apparently.

Well - that's not strictly true.

While the germanic wild hunt seems directly derived from Odin and the einherjar, the concept

of a nighttime host of ghosts or demons is actually pretty widespread.

The Welsh variant of the Wild Hunt is sometimes led by Arawn, the king of the Otherworld we

talked about way back when we covered Pwyll.

Since we already knew he liked hunting, that part isn't really a surprise, and it's even

explicitly part of his job description - he and his hounds hunt lost souls and drive them

to Annwn, making this a surprisingly benevolent form of the wild hunt - it's basically supernatural

cleanup duty rather than an inherently malevolent ghost tornado.

In some versions Arawn's hunting activity even peaks around the twelve days of christmas,

like Gauden and Berchta.

But he's also not always alone.

Sometimes the hunt is also led by Mallt y Nos, a crone who drives the hounds onward

with her constant wailing.

Similar to the germanic version, sometimes she's retconned as a dead noblewoman who got

herself karmically permbanned from heaven for saying it probably sucks up there if there's

no hunting allowed.

Irish and Scottish folklore has the sluagh, a word that just means throng or army but

describes a host of very nasty spirits of the restless dead - considered really bad

news, much worse than the generally-benevolent-but-still-dangerous Seelie fae or even the actively malicious

Unseelie fae.

The Sluagh were chaotic, unpredictable, and known for spiriting people away in the night

- the kind of thing you hide under the covers about.

Another version where the main way to stay safe is to stay indoors, close your windows

and hope they don't notice you.

But the concept of nightly ghost armies isn't just a European thing.

For instance, Hawaii has the nightmarchers, a procession of ghostly warriors beating drums

and blowing conch shells like they're marching to war.

While this sounds a lot more regal and orderly than most similarly spooky ghost armies, the

suggested response is the same - get inside, lock the doors, hope they don't take an interest

in you, and do NOT attract their attention.

Not showing the appropriate levels of respect is generally considered a good way to get

vaporized by bolts of divine retribution.

On a similar note, Japan has the Hyakki Yagy, the night parade of a hundred demons, a folklore

motif describing a massive horde of demons, spirits, phantoms, yokai, and every other

spooky specter in the area.

Sometimes it's a little more orderly, sometimes it's full-on pandemonium, but it's always

bad news, and like most other ghost tornadoes, best avoided to prevent death or ghost-kidnapping.

Now, perhaps the most obvious question at this point is - why do we have so many dang

ghost tornadoes??

This is bizarrely widespread, and while a concept as simple as "ghost" makes sense worldwide,

a cacophanic horde of the restless unhallowed dead trapped in an eternal hunt across the

endless sky is a biiiit more specific than "dead but hasn't got the memo".

Well, the most likely answer is kinda mundane.

Most wild hunt myths specifically describe the hunt as invisible but very, very loud.

Odin's hunt is specifically equated with the howling wind that plays through the forest,

which does often sound like howling or screaming, and over in Wales, Arawn's dogs barking in

the night sky is apparently - no joke - based on the eerie sound of migratory geese which'd

fly through the area in the winter months.

When the night is dark and full of really loud, weird noises that shake your roof and

blow your windows open, it's not much of a logical leap to assume you just got blasted

by a host of very inconsiderate spirits or ghosts.

In the same way that thunder and lighting were pretty much universally assigned gods

worldwide, creepy howling nighttime winds were also a universal experience - and a good

reason to stay indoors on wild nights.

The Description of Halloween Special: The Wild Hunt