The wild hunt is a pre-Christian tradition that exists all over Northern Europe. It is commonly assumed to be a rationalisation for powerful storms, howevre certain regional variations of the myth bring that into question.
There are Five regional variants of the wild hunt, often given localised names.
The core is that there is a group of spectral riders who appear during winter to hunt. This might be led by Odin who is leading the ghost of warriors who did not qualify for Valhalla across the sky on black horses with red eyes, or on giant boars, the Erlking riding red horses through the countryside with a fae legion which appears every seven years, or failed godlings searching for brides. There is a variation in Japan called the Night Parade of a Thousand youkai which is led by the demon king Nurarirhyon.
Depending on area the hunt is either led by Odin, King Arthur, The Horned King, Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter, the Erl King, the King of Faerie or a child. They are either hunting the biggest predator they can find or searching for brides. It is generally accepted to be a very bad omen to see them as they foretell war, disaster and plague.
The Nordic variation sees the gods on boars riding alongside wolves, they visit battlefields to find warriors who didn’t die a clean death in battle but otherwise qualified for Valhalla. The Valkyrie, as ravens, appear to take them to the hunt where as the Wodensjaeger they ride eternal next to the hounds and wolves.
The British variation sees the hunt chase down anything that crosses it’s path as it rides, Wales calls them Fearg Ruadri or the Red Riders, they are often led by the Horned King. However as this is a pre-Christian myth most of what we know about it is from oral tradition and the Romans who didn’t believe in it.
The Celtic tradition has it as the progression of the Erlking and his parade, unusually these are horses, and they snatch anything they can catch. This is the version with the most rules, most advise people to stay in and shutter the windows on nights where the storm might ride, but there are conditions to the hunt in the Celtic lore, that if the hunt can be outrun you will survive. It is a variant of this that has a child ride as the lead.
The story goes that Ceridwen and Danu once chained the hunt and bound it with a horn, that when the horn was blown the hunt would be released because they were wild magic, not bound to god or fae, to keep them down they killed the lead rider and enchanted his horse, a unicorn that dripped blood [this is why they are called the Red Riders], when the horn was blown the hunt would snatch a child and he would lead the hunt. At the end of it the child would be found dead - the hunt lasting as long as the child lived - using the child’s life to prolong the hunt.
The concept of them riding black horses with red eyes comes more from popular culture than it does the mythology, the imagery is associated with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse which might be a variant of the myth.
Many variants of the story say the hunt has the ability to move from the realm of the gods, to the realm of the living, and the realm of the dead. It is a force of nature, like the storm it is believed to explain.
The Hunt appears only in winter, between Halloween and the start of May. It is most likely to appear on the winter solstice. However the hounds and horns can be heard at any time.
Famous Works That Feature the Wild Hunt
- Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather
- Jim Butcher’s Dresden series