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The Wild Hunts of Medieval Lore

By Karin Murray-Bergquist

The singular term “Wild Hunt” does little justice to the myriad tales of wandering bands of spirits that circulated in many forms throughout medieval Europe. Although the general pattern of a troop of spirits travelling without rest is a recurring theme, the versions of its origin, identity, and purpose, differ widely enough to seem almost unrelated. A handful of variations on this theme illustrates the wide range of phantom hosts that roved the land.

The term “Hellequin’s Hunt” appeared in the twelfth century, when Orderic Vitalis (1075–1142), in his Historia Ecclesiastes, recorded the tale of a procession of the damned, recognised by a witness, the young priest Walchelin, as familia Herlechini. The appearance of the priest’s own brother, and the mark left on Walchelin by a ghostly hand, provided proof of his tale — an important aspect of medieval ghost lore, as it ensured that the witnesses were not merely being deceived by demons. Other ecclesiastical sources — Raoul Glaber (985–1047), the abbey of Saint-Foi, and William of Auvergne (1180/90–1249) — describe similar processions, some of souls in torment, others presaging the deaths of their witnesses, all wandering without rest.

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In the Peterborough Chronicle of 1127, the ghostly hunt appears in all its glory — complete with hideous black hellhounds, and phantom riders on black horses and goats, disturbing the peace for days on end. The incident these phantoms accompanied was the arrival of the unpopular new abbot, a point the story took no pains to conceal. There is no origin story given for these apparitions, but their restless state illustrated the displeasure of the monks, extended to the spiritual plane.

The Legend of Herla

The legend of King Herla recorded by writer Walter Map (1140–1210), by contrast, sets up his party’s transformation into wandering figures — unable to return to the living, but not quite dead. King Herla attends a dwarfish king’s wedding, inside a mountain cave. Upon leaving, he is given a white dog, and the warning that neither he nor his men must dismount from their horses until the dog has done so. The first man they meet outside the cave does not recognise him: the name Herla is familiar, but only as a legend from long ago, a king who disappeared mysteriously. One of his men, hearing this, leaps down from his horse in dismay and instantly turns to dust. The rest, forewarned, travel on with the dog, who to this day has never dismounted, though the troop itself has disappeared. (The author was unable to keep from slipping in snarky remarks on the dangers of itinerant royals — Map was famously irked by the peripatetic court of Henry II (1133–1189).

Map connects his legend with Hellequin’s hunt, using the term Herlethingi, but his was not the only account connected to a legendary figure: Gervase of Tilbury (1150– 1220) includes this as a facet of the King Arthur legend, just as elsewhere, Óðinn was sometimes named as the Hunt’s leader. In other accounts, the leader was female, linking the tales sometimes to the Roman goddess Diana, or to the Valkyrjar of Norse mythology. The name of Hellequin or Herlechin, though mentioned often for context, was not a constant figure in the phantom host.

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Priestly accounts of phantom processions, often acting as a warning, clearly identify the figures as departed souls, enduring, in Jean-Claude Schmitt’s excellent phrase, “a sort of itinerant purgatory.”

The ghostly figures of Herla and King Arthur, however, are different in nature, and hark back to a legendary past, while disrupting the present with their activity. Their transient state is not a purgatory, but rather an uneasy half-life.

Sometimes the phantom host became aggressive: Giraldus Cambrensis (1146– 1223), recounts a ghostly army physically attacking a resting camp. This story has echoes of the phantom armies mentioned in the Prose Edda, who repeat their battle every night on the island of Hoy, in Orkney. However, as Giraldus points out, such apparitions were not uncommon, especially for those on martial campaigns in Ireland.

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A detail from the Stora Hammars I stone, an image stone on Gotland. The idea of an eternal battle and daily resur- rection appears in book I of Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and in reports of the eternal battle of Hjaðningavíg. Photo by Herig / Wikimedia Commons

The Wild Hunt’s associations are with equally untamed places. With few exceptions, most accounts take place outdoors: King Herla was last sighted crossing the river Wye, Arthur’s host appeared in the forest, and Walchelin’s encounter happened far from any dwelling. Reinforcing the contrast between wildness and domesticity, bishop William of Auvergne claimed that the hostile Wild Hunt cannot enter fields — a detail that has occasionally been interpreted as a remnant of harvest goddess-worship, but which William asserts is due to their spiritual cleanliness.

The Tradition of the Wild Hunt

The notion of the Wild Hunt as a coherent tradition took firmer hold in the nineteenth century, becoming a popular motif for art, and the subject of speculation on its origins. The medieval tales of ghostly processions, armies, and hunts are adept at weaving this theme into, and around, other stories, leaving it less as an independent tale, and more as a recurring theme. It could be used as a general admonition for the living to amend their ways, or its criticism could be more directed, as in the Peterborough Chronicle, or Walter Map’s account.

Most of these tales are told by the living witnesses, bystanders who are singled out for more or less sinister reasons by the spirits themselves. Others are told from a greater distance, as apparitions sometimes seen, but not by the recorder. Perhaps most strikingly, Map’s version tells the story from Herla’s point of view, rather than having his doomed ruler recount it to a passerby. Whether acting as an omen, a warning, or the retinue of a legendary figure, the mutability of the story, and the power of the image it evokes, have made the Wild Hunt an enduring element of both medieval and recent folklore.

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Karin Murray-Bergquist is a PhD student at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

See also: The Medieval Walking Dead

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Wodan’s Wild Hunt, depicted in Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden (1882)

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