Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Eve of the Wild Hunt

Tonight (December 24th) is Christmas Eve. All over the world parents are hurrying their children off to bed, telling them that they best get to sleep or else Santa Claus won’t come and deliver any toys.

This tradition, that one need be asleep before the arrival of Santa and his team of reindeer, goes back (like nearly all Christmas traditions) to the days of pre-Christian Europe when the reason for the season was not toys, candy and tidings of good will but the fear of the dark and what was lurking within it.

Long before Santa Claus and his reindeer, people living throughout Europe associated what we today call the Twelve Days of Christmas (Dec. 25th - Jan. 6th) with a celestial phenomena they called the Wild Hunt. As the name suggests the Wild Hunt was a great hunt held by a band of supernatural huntsmen who rode through the sky on flying horses (or goats or deer) in the company of fearsome hounds.

To hear the Wild Hunt was apparently a terrifying thing and men and women unfortunate enough to be out during the hunt would fling themselves to the ground or cover their faces when they heard it pass overhead. If one did not take such precautions the results could be dire including by not limited to misfortune, madness, and death. One also risked being “spirited away” by the huntsmen to whatever “otherworld” they hailed from. It is this belief that would later help to influence the idea that children needed to be in bed and asleep before Santa arrived.

While it was clear that one was best off avoiding the Wild Hunt at all costs, what was less clear was who led this great nocturnal event and why. In Scandinavia and Western Germany the leader was often identified as Odin (Wōden in German); King of the Teutonic gods. In Wales it is Gwyn ap Knudd, King of the Welsh Fairies, who leads the hunt. While in England, Scotland, and France the leader of the hunt was is either identified as being the legendary King Arthur himself or some other great national hero. The quarry of the hunt was equally mysterious but often proved to be some sort of mythical creature such wood-elves, trolls, or the nymph-like moss maidens.

With the advent of Christianity the Wild Hunt was demonized and became a hunt for damned souls and unbaptized babies. As for the hunt’s leader; cultural heroes were replaced with infamous villains while pagan gods were replaced by the devil or Death himself. As before it was still considered highly ill advised to look upon the Wild Hunt when it passed by and one rather morbid English folktale tells of how a imprudent onlooker returning from the market one night caught sight of the hunt and called out to the head Huntsman to inquire if he might share in that evening’s catch. In response the Huntsman tossed a small bundle down to the man and galloped off. When the man unwrapped the bundle he found his own dead infant son inside.

And if that doesn’t convince your children to go to bed I don’t know what will.

Merry Christmas!


At Top: Åsgårdsreien by Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892). Note: The leader of the hunt (adorned with a red cape, crown, and holding a traditional Norse war hammer) can be seen in the center of fray, while on the right hand side two hunters abduct up two beautiful, young, (and naked) women.

Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia ( 1996) by Carol Rose, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman, and Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking & German Myth (1997) by Jacqueline Simpson, et al.

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