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  The Wild Hunt

"When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees - a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.

"But then the barking of dogs fills the air, and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses"
Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson (Mountain Thunder)

In Orkney, indeed, across most of northern Europe, belief in the Wild Hunt was once widespread. In the islands, little remains of the belief today.

The form of the Wild Hunt, or Raging Host, varied across each of the geographical locations/ in which the tradition was found. But the basic idea was generally the same - a phantasmal leader, accompanied by a horde of hounds and men, hurtled through the night sky, their passing marked by a tumultuous racket of pounding hooves, howling dogs and raging winds.

The quarry of this spectral horde also varies. Norse legend, for example, suggests objects such as a boar, a wild horse and even magical maidens.

Later Christian influences had the Wild Hunt summoning the souls of evildoers, sinners and unbaptised infants.

But one theme was common to all - to see the Wild Hunt was a very bad omen, usually foretelling a time of strife or death.

Before we consider how the Wild Hunt was found in Orkney, we should first take a brief look at the tradition as it was found elsewhere.

Odin's chase and the souls of the dead

At the root of the myth lies the Teutonic god Woden, or Odin, to use his Norse name.

Odin, in his guise of wind-god, was thought to rushing through the skies astride his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir.

As it was thought that the souls of the dead were wafted away on the winds of a storm, Odin became regarded as the leader of all disembodied spirits - the gatherer of the dead. Eventually, storms became associated with his passing.

In this role he was known as the Wild Huntsman. The passage of his hunt, known as Odin's Hunt, the Wild Ride, the Raging Host or Asgardreia, was said to presage misfortune such as pestilence, death or war.

Odin, followed by the ghosts of the dead, would roam the skies, accompanied by furious winds, lightning and thunder. To the believers, the tumult must surely have been evidence of the god's passing.

Throughout the years, the mythology of the hunt adapted to suit the geographical area and the time period. In the Middle Ages, for example, the lead huntsman included Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and King Arthur.

A later folktale states that the leader was Hans von Hackelnberg, a semi-historical figure who died in either 1521 or 1581. It was said he had slain a boar and was then injured on the foot by the boar's tusk and died of poisoning.

As he died he declared that he had no wish to enter heaven, but instead wanted to hunt. His wish was granted and he was permitted, or perhaps cursed, to hunt in the night sky. Another version of the tale has it that he was condemned to lead the Wild Hunt as punishment for his sins.

But even behind this 16th century character, lies a more ancient element, perhaps harking back to the original traditions surrounding the hunt. Hackelnberg, it has been suggested, is simply a corruption of "Hakolberand" - the Old Saxon epithet for Woden.

Herne and other hunt leaders

But traditions of a Wild Hunt also existed in areas away from Norse influence.

In Wales, for example, the leader of the Hunt was Gwynn ap Nudd. The "Lord of the Dead", Gwynn ap Nudd was followed by his pack of white hounds with blood-red ears.

These red-eared hounds are also found in northern England, where they were known as Gabriel Hounds. Their appearance was also a portent of doom.

In southern England, it was Herne the Hunter who led the hunt, while elsewhere it is also referred to as "Herlathing" - from the mythical King Herla, its supposed leader.

According to the 12th century write, Walter Map:

"This household of Herlethingus was last seen in the marches of Wales and Hereford in the first year of the reign of Henry II, about noonday: they travelled as we do, with carts and sumpter horses, pack-saddles and panniers, hawks and hounds, and a concourse of men and women.

"Those who saw them first raised the whole country against them with horns and shouts, and . . . because they were unable to wring a word from them by addressing them, made ready to extort an answer with their weapons. They, however, rose up into the air and vanished on a sudden."

Again this may have Odinic connections - some suggest the element Herle relates to Herian, one of Odin's many names, and refers particularly to his role as the leader of the dead warrior who filled the Hall of Heroes - Valhalla.

That this Herla, or Herle, may have a distinct root is evident from the number of similar variants. In 1123, for example, it was referred to as the familia Herlechini by Ordericus Vitalis. In France it was La Mesnie Herlequin while in England we find Milites Herlewini.

The Orkney interpretation

Orkney had its own variant of the Wild Hunt, in which the fairies, or trows, were, on occasions, seen out on midnight rides, galloping furiously through the air on white horses, or bulwands. They were often said to be seen driving a stolen cow before them.

For one such account, click here.

Across Europe, the Wild Hunt appears at various times of the year, but most commonly over the Yule season. This is not surprising as Yule was regarded as the season in which supernatural visitations were most common. In particular, the spirits of the dead were allowed to return.

This ties in with the idea that the hunt represented a procession of the dead, and did so in Orkney too.

As detailed here, I believe the Orkney trow was originally regarded as an undead spirit, or ghost. And not surprisingly, Orkney's trows were at their most active on "rife" nights such as Yule, Halloween and New Year's Eve.