In 1127, a Norse historian whose name has been lost to us wrote a book which would come to be known as The AngloSaxon Chronicle. This volume would become invaluable to future scholars for understanding the lives of early Norsemen, but one paragraph in particular has always stood out for its dread and eeriness.
“Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild tantivy as near as they could tell.”
Our anonymous historian wasn’t exaggerating. This ominous spectacle was a common sight throughout Europe. It was a well-known portent of war, famine and coming calamity. An undead army racing through the night sky, their spectral forms dark and foggy, the object of their pursuit unknown but their sinister intentions apparent.
It had many names. In England, it was known as the Devil’s Dogs. The French called it the Household of the Harlequin. In Gaelic it was known as The Old Army or The Troop of Ghosts.
But it was the Norse who were most familiar with the tale. In fact, they believed Odin, their crafty and headstrong king of the gods, was leading the charge. And perhaps that is why it is the Norse name has been the one that has been passed down through folklore: The Wild Hunt. Notably, Scandinavian legend had it that it was easier to hear the WIld Hunt than to see it. If you stood alone after the sun went down, particularly during the bleak months of winter when the nights were at their darkest and the weather was most cruel, you may well be able to hear the yap of Odin’s ferocious dogs. It was said one loud bark followed by a second, slightly more distant bark, was a sure sign that Odin’s Wild Hunt was near.
The Wild Hunt was extensively documented by the German historian Jacob Grimm, who observed that in leading the pack, Odin had become a very different figure than the wizened seer often depicted in Norse literature. According to Grimm, this Odin had “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power… a spectre and a devil.”
Sometimes, according to some interpretations, the Wild Hunt was led by the pagan goddess Perchta — the guardian of the beasts. Occasionally, Perchta and Odin would ride together, leading an army of dark elves from the fairy world. Their appearance prophesied a coming calamity like war or famine or, best case scenario, the death of whoever saw them.
As Christianity began to spread throughout Europe, tales of the Hunt did not subside. In fact, they grew even more dark and menacing. Priests who associated pagan mythology with their idea of hell began to conflate Odin with the devil himself. Instead of portending war, the Wild Hunt was now on the lookout for the wicked and unbaptised. These demon elves would drag the unrepentant to hell. According to the German legend, Odin’s wife Perchta would sneak into the homes of the disobedient, slit open the bellies of their children and stuff them with coal. Odin would preside over the proceedings with his booming, menacing laugh. This laugh came to be his trademark. If you were alone at night and you heard an echoing chuckle in the distance, you’d better hope you’d made peace with your maker.
A French priest in the first century reported seeing this with his own eyes: a procession of dark men and women, wreathed in flame. “Is is no doubt the Harlequinn’s troop,” he would write. “I have heard say that many have seen it, but rejected the report with incredulity and ridiculed it.”
As this interpretation became more and more common — the idea that it was indeed a satanic Odin figure leading this terrifying profession of demonic fairies — the Hunt grew more closely associated with the winter, when it was known that the fairy world and our own human one were most closely aligned.
History is riddled with stories of otherworldly visitors from the clouds. In Hebrew mythology, Jevovah’s love was said to exist “as high as the heavens are above the earth.” In Ancient Greece, Zeus and his pantheon of gods lived on Mount Olympus, from where they would administer judgment on the mortals. The Bible tells of wise men who found the Hebrew messiah by studying pagan astrology, and discovering the star which led them to Bethlehem. Even Satan has been called “The Morning Star.”
These visitors could be benevolent, like, Cupid who would float down from the clouds bringing romantic love. Or they could be wicked, like the Harlequin, the devil and of course, witches, who were regarded as meddlesome troublemakers, descending from the night sky on broomsticks charmed by black magic.
And they could be a little bit of both. Boiled down to their essence, fables are simply humanity’s way of explaining the unexplainable. The explanations were farfetched because life has a lot of things are difficult to explain. The explanation might morph and shift over time to come to grips with new information, or a new cultural feeling that just didn’t like the old version. Sometimes those shifts are small. Sometimes, they can be huge.
Over time, new tales began to be told of the Wild Hunt. It was said that on occasion, Odin would stop the pursuit and ask mortals to mind his hounds for the evening. If they did so, he would reward them with a trifle; a flower perhaps, or even a gold coin. It was said that his demonic elves began to outfit their night horses with jingling bells, to announce their arrival. Odin’s wife Perchta was said to be fond of children – especially the obedient ones. Instead of slitting bad boys and girls open and stuffing them with coal, she merely left a little coal behind as a warning to do better in the coming year.
The legend continued to shift. Odin did not ride a flying black horse, but was rather pulled by a carriage of them. His menacing laughter became more cheerful. Even, one might say, jolly. As Odin had always been associated with the midwinter, the Wild Hunt was now came to signify not death and war, but the natural changing of the seasons and as Christianity coopted the myth, the coming of the Christ child. He was known as Jonir, Scandinavian for “Master of the Yule.”
But Catholic leaders felt that Odin was becoming a little too kindly for a pagan religion, so they started swapping him out with a certain wellknown priest who had become famous for his love of gift giving. Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker took Odin’s place, the horde of demonic elves became a band of merry toymakers, and the pack of hideous hounds became a team of tiny reindeer.
And yet, while seeing Santa Claus today is a sign of peace and goodwill, the hints of his earliest origins remain. On the bleakest night of winter, if you were to look up and see a stern old elf soaring through the night sky who promised to reward the good and punish the evil?
Well, you would definitely hope that he was not out hunting for you.