“In the Western Isles of Scotland the Sluagh, or faerie host, was regarded as composed of the souls of the dead flying through the air, and the feast of the dead at Hallowe’en was likewise the festival of the faeries.”
— Lewis Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain
There are nights in this, the dark of the year, when the wind screeches and howls around the eaves, when it is best to just stay inside, near the fire. Nights like that, Samhain, for instance, the veil between the material and the spirit world is thin indeed, and one might encounter… things… out there in the dark night.
You do NOT want to encounter The Wild Hunt. Whether they are a faerie host, or the souls of the restless dead, nothing good can come of we mortals tangling with them. At best, you may be swept up into the sky and dragged off for miles on a terrifying ride. At worst, you might be taken for lifetimes, to return only in a hundred, two hundred years, when all you’ve known and loved is dust…
It is not this night alone when one must fear The Wild Hunt. The coming winter is the season of the dread host.
In Germanic and Scandinavian lore:
(The Wild Hunt) swept through the forests in midwinter, the coldest, darkest part of the year, when ferocious winds and storms howled over the land. Anyone who found him- or herself out of doors at night during this time might spot this ghostly procession – or be spotted by it, which might involve being carried away and dropped miles from where the unfortunate person had been taken up, or worse. Others, practitioners of various forms of magic, joined in it voluntarily, as an intangible part of them (a “soul,” if you like) flew with the cavalcade while their bodies lay in their beds as if sleeping normally. Sometimes, the members of the Hunt entered towns and houses, causing havoc and stealing food and drink.*
Jamie Fraser described a close encounter with The Wild Hunt to British Army officer Lord John Grey in Diana Gabaldon’s novel The Scottish Prisoner. Fraser and Grey were on a mission to Ireland, where Grey was investigating a potential Jacobite plot in the 1760s.
“Years back,” Fraser said at last. “It was after Culloden. I lived on my own land then, but hidden. In a wee cavern in the rocks. I’d come out at night, though, to hunt. And sometimes I’d have need to go far afield, if the hunting was poor, and it often was…
“It wasna a night like this, really,” he said. “Nay moon at all, and the wind going through your bones and moaning like a thousand lost souls in your ears. But it — it was wild, ye might say. Wild in the way this is,” he added, dropping his voice a little and gesturing briefly at the dark countryside around them. “A night when you might expect to meet wi’ things, should ye venture out.
“I’d run down a deer and killed it… And I’d sat down by the carcass to catch my breath before gralloching — that’s the cutting out o’ the bowels, ken. I’d slit the throat, of course, to bleed the meat, but I hadna yet said the prayer for it — I wondered later if it was that that called them.”
A nameless fear came over the Scottish outlaw. And then he heard the sound of hooves and voices. It wasn’t the Watch — they no longer rode the glens. He though briefly that it was English soldiers — but the voices weren’t speaking English. He heard a scream — a sound like a woman climaxing.
“And then I heard other noises — screeching and skellochs, and the screaming of horses, aye, but not the noise of battle. More like folk who are roaring drunk — and the horses, too. And coming closer to me.”
The Wild Hunt. Drawn, perhaps, to the unblessed deer kill? The Sidhe, coming for him on the wind, screaming and howling for blood? The outlaw ran for a nearby burn (creek) and spent the rest of a bone-shatteringly cold night half-immersed in the water, acting on the half-remembered belief that the Sidhe could not cross the water.
After dawn, he made his way back to his kill.
“Was it still there,” Grey asked, with interest. “As you’d left it?”
“Most of it was. Something — someone,” he corrected himself, “had gralloched it neat as a tailor’s seam and taken away the head and the entrails and one of the haunches.”
“The huntsman’s share,” Grey murmured under his breath, but Fraser heard him.
“And there were tracks around it? Other than your own, I mean.”
“There were not.”
Robert Moss, who teaches Active Dreaming (and who wrote some outstanding novels set on the Iroquois Frontier) offers up the most chilling thing I’ve read this Halloween season:
In November 1932, Jung declared in a speech in Vienna that “the gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are…psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree we are threatened by wars and revolutions which are nothing other than psychic epidemics.”
Four years later, as the full horror of Nazism unfolded, Jung gave a name to the psychic epidemic that had seized Germany. He suggested that Hitler, in himself a hollow man, had been seized by a dark force and that through him the collective mind of the German people had been possessed. He expressed these thoughts in a 1936 essay titled “Wotan”.
Jung brought out of Teutonic mythology a dark archetype, the wild and furious figure of a war god ever hungry for blood, who drives men to crazy and violent excess. “Because the behavior of a race takes on its specific character from its underlying images, we can speak of an archetype ‘Wotan’… Wotan is an Ergreiffer [possessor] of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler – which has indeed actually happened – he is really the only explanation.”
Jung observed, “We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors… In fact, I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all three reasonable factors put together.”
In a letter to Miguel Serrano, he added, “When the belief in the god Wotan vanished and nobody thought of him anymore, the phenomenon originally called Wotan remained; nothing changed but its name, as National Socialism has demonstrated on a grand scale. A collective movement consists of millions of individuals, each of whom shows the symptoms of Wotanism and proves thereby that Wotan in reality never died, but has retained his original vitality and autonomy. Our consciousness only imagines that it has lost its gods; in reality they are still there and it only needs a certain general condition in order to bring them back in full force.”
I wish we could say that none of this is relevant to our current conditions.
Note: We want to separate Odin, the shaman-god of the Eddas, from the bloodthirsty entity Jung was talking about. Just as we would wish to separate the swastika — a symbol of transformation in the Baltic, in India, and among the Pueblo — from the crooked cross of Naziism (though alas, thanks to the Nazis, it is now probably impossible to reclaim that symbol in the West).
Illustration: This is also troubling. In the year Hitler was born, 1889, Franz von Stuck made a painting of the Die Wilde Jagd, the Wild Hunt, showing Wotan leading a crazed band of hungry ghosts. At 13, Hitler saw the painting and was fascinated. Von Stuck became his favorite artist. Some people see a strong resemblance to Hitler in the face of the leader of the mad and deadly hunt in the picture.
Like so much Northern European folklore and music, tales of The Wild Hunt migrated to the New World. Perhaps the best-known poetic expression of The Wild Hunt is an American song, written by Stan Jones.
Yep. Ghost Riders In The Sky…
An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
Plowing through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cries
Yippie I oh oh oh
Yippie I aye ye ye
Ghost riders in the sky
Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred
Their shirts all soaked with sweat
He’s riding hard to catch that herd
But he ain’t caught ’em yet
Cause they got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire as they ride on hear their cries
As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
‘If you want to save your soul from hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the devil’s herd across these endless skies
Yippie I oh oh oh
Yippie I aye ye ye
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
For me, the classic version is the recording by Marty Robbins:
I’ve been partial to The Outlaws’ Southern rock version ever since my brother John spun it for me when I was about 15 years old:
And then there’s this:
I have to be out tonight. The Nugget Newspaper must be delivered, no matter what spirits — Sluagh, Sidhe, Ghost Riders — are abroad in the dark of a Sisters Country Samhain night. But I have a plan. Should I hear the scream like that of a woman in orgasm, or the sound of thundering hooves and howling on the wind, I will make for Whychus Creek and jump right in.
I just knew that if you wrote about The Wild Hunt you would include links to Ghost Riders in the Sky!
The comic book Hellboy actually had two different versions of the Wild Hunt in it. Mike Mignola the creature mined folklore for stories in the early issues.
Forgot to add this link….
Paul McNamee says
Robert Jordan included a variation in his Wheel of Time novel, THE GREAT HUNT.
Paul McNamee says
Great write up. Thanks!
And thank YOU for reading.
Keith West says
Be careful out there tonight.
Great post, Jim.
Let’s also remember a wild ride that occurred 100 years ago today: the Australian Light Horse vs the Turks. Legendary Aussie author —
and Jim n’ my’s fellow Cimmerian blogger — Keith Taylor does a great little write-up here on it:
He manages to tie it into El Borak as well.
BTW, “Sluagh” — meaning a “riding” or “hosting” in Irish Gaelic — is where we get the “slew” in the phrase “a whole slew”.
David Grady says
Loved Ghost Riders when I was a kid and still do. Hell of a guitar line. Thanks!!!!
Love that instrumental version.
john roberts says
Never saw the Wild Hunt, but I have a Dun Bonnet much like the one Jamie is wearing in the picture.
Most dashing, I am sure.
Off topic, but a lecture on REH’s Breckinridge Elkins and the fighting style of backwoodsmen
lane batot says
I wonder if I and my wolf-dog pack roaming the mountains at night inspired any local stories about “Wild Hunts” where I lived on the Tenessee/N. C. border, lo those many years ago. I DID hear of some exaggerations regarding my habits and my pack that I TRIED to correct, without any success–the truth just never was as good a tale,I guess!….. Lots of Civil War ghost battles take place in the South, however, according to many accounts….. And so where do you think Wotan has gone now?(fascinating stuff, that….)–I’d speculate some chubby little North Korean named Kim JUNG Yun, perhaps(ahem!)…..
Civil War ghost battles? Oh, hell yes!
My 16 yr old son is interested in Celtic and Norse mythology and wondering if you had any recommendations for a few books? Is the Lewis Spence book above a good starting point? Can’t buy from your local store, but will guarantee I will buy from Powel’’s in either PDX or Beaverton.
I like Daniel MCCoy’s The Viking Spirit. I’ll ask Deuce Richardson for his recommendation on Celtic.
Here’s Deuce on Celtic Mythology:
The dictionaries from Peter Beresford Ellis (my first choice) or Oxford. Most of the others are a shade too pedantic (you have to keep in mind that trying to deny the actual existence of Celts was a major thing in academic circles about 15-20yrs ago; it resulted in the joke, “Do you speak Iron Age?”) or they wander off into hippy-dippy mystical weeds. Ellis does a great job of walking the middle ground. He’s the best “lay” Celtic historian out there and has won multiple awards from various groups in all the Celtic “Six Nations” lands. The Oxford is also excellent. There might be a few other worthies, but those two off the top o’ me head.
Thanks guys. I’ll check these out.
Thanks for the lore, thanks for the music, and thanks for the art!
I’m so far behind reading your postings, but I just had to start up again by re-reading the Beast and the Wild Hunt.
You and your readers/responders stretch my brain so many ways.
Betty, that’s about the best thing I’ve heard in I don’t know how long. It affirms what we’re doing here and I thank you for that!