The Wild Hunt And Its Leaders, Wodan & Gwynn ap Nudd
The wind is howling just outside your window. The bitter cold seeps in from under the door. The season’s formidable storms are coming…and so is the Wild Hunt. Be ye witch or be ye familiar, you may choose to partake in this festive procession and join your infernal comrades amidst the storm. But be ye frightened of specters, wild gods and wraiths, it’s best to stay inside in your warm bed…yet, you never know when it’s your time to be swept up by the heathen hunters. In this untamed Wintry article, we hop atop our brooms and meet the Furious Host while they’re out for a tirade through the dark Winter sky.
What is the Wild Hunt?
What is the Wild Hunt, exactly? Other names: Furious Host, Wild Infernal Hunt, Woden’s Host, Elf Ride, and Oskorei which means “noisy riders” or the “Ride of Asgard”. It is a comparative myth in Northern European, specifically Germanic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon mythos. And is a grand and sometimes terrifying spiritual procession of gods, ghosts, witches, demons, elementals and animals that ride across the sky particularly during the Winter months and during brutal oncoming storms. The most common time for the Wild Hunt is during the 12 Days of Christmas (or Yuletide), but basically all Winter long and in the British Isles during Autumn as well.
There’s a myriad of superstitions and folk tales featuring the Wild Hunt
Barns with opposite doors were believed to be passed through by the Wild Hunt (think Liminal space here). The spirits of the Wild Hunt were likely once pagan gods that were downsized and demonized over the centuries. By the middle ages, after conversion, most people were taught to fear the Wild Hunt. And that if you were caught outside during one of their rides, you might be swept up and dropped off somewhere else completely random OR your soul would be “collected” by the riders.
Others believed you could go blind, mad or be ill after seeing the procession. In the mid 1800s, a boy from Norway claimed to be taken up by the Wild Hunt and visited a strange land of “splendor” (this particular tale tells me the Wild Hunt is very similar to the witches’ sabbat…when a witch is whisked off into a procession of night-riding spirits, devils and witches, sometimes to visit Elfhame, meet her familiar, join other witches to celebrate esbats etc.)
In certain regions in Germany, for example in Thuringia, the Wild Hunt began on a high mountaintop called Horselberg, also known as Venus-berg, of which was once likely a sacred place for a Germanic goddess (later associated with the Roman Venus). Some believe it was likely Freya who was worshiped on top of Horselberg…and of whom would become a leader of the Wild Hunt herself (as well as the Night of Witches aka Walpurgis Night on May 1st).
Leaders of the Wild Hunt in Germanic Lore
Woden / Odin
Odin is probably the most widely-associated leader of the Hunt. So much so that howling wind is still associated with Odin’s wagon (as thunder is to Thor). When Odin is heard or seen leading his crew, he is typically hunting, driving and riding with his Valkyries and his ghostly warriors from Valhalla. It makes sense to me why Odin or Woden is so closely linked to the Wild Hunt, since he is the most popular and influential god in the Norse and Germanic pantheons. And he is known as a wanderer or traveler through the realms.
A Germanic goddess whose domain is over the household, including domestic chores like spinning, and is also referred to as “Frau Holle”. She’s featured in a fairy tale called Mother Holle in which a girl falls down a well, into Holle’s land, which is likely the Underworld in this tale. Frau Holle is also said to “shake out the downy sheets” which causes the first snow to fall. Eventually she would be said to lead the Wild Hunt, which featured a horde of spirits and witches. I see the definite link with her and Midwinter as well as with the dead and the Underworld.
One of our favorite goddesses, and one of whom we’ve recorded an entire Deity episode about, Berchta is also known as a leader of the Wild Hunt. But she is said to lead a host of unbaptized babies through the Winter storms.
She is often conflated with Holda, according to Jacob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, “Her annual progress is made to fall between Christmas and Twelfth-day, when the supernatural has sway, and wild beasts like the wolf are not mentioned by their names, bringing fertility to the land… At the same time Holda, like Wotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror….Holle-riding, to ride with Holle, is equivalent to a witches’ ride. Into the same ‘furious host,’ according to a wide-spread popular belief, were adopted the souls of infants dying unbaptized; not having been christain’d, they remained heathen, and fell to heathen gods, to Wuotan or to Hulda.”
The reason for the unbaptized babies being included in Berchta’s Wild Host is because she was once a goddess who protected women, children, and guided the souls of those to the afterlife. So again we see the demonization of the old ways in the newer Christian concepts. It’s also believed that Krampus parades and the Perchtenlauf parades were inspired by the mythos of the Wild Hunt (if you’d like to see what a Krampus parade or Perchten parade looks like, simply google it. They are wild!)
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Saint Lucy (Lussibrud – Lucy’s Bride)
Saint Lucy’s Day is celebrated in Scandinavia and Italy on December 13th and honors Saint Lucia Syracuse but likely was once a celebration of the Old Norse sun goddess Sol or Sunna. December 13th in today’s calendar would have once been the Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar up until the 1800s in Scandinavia. In Sweden an old belief was that the night of Saint Lucy’s was Lussinatta or Lussi Night, which was an ugly witch who would ride through the night sky with her terrifying horde of followers called the Lussiferda.
Freya and Walburga are also mentioned as being goddesses that lead wild processions through the air, often beginning on the Brocken, a specific peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany where witches are believed to gather. These wild processions are said to happen in the Winter but also in the Spring on Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night (May 1st)
The Wild Hunt Leaders from the British Isles & Ireland
In the British Isles, the Wild Hunt is referred to in a few different ways including Wodan’s hunt, Cain’s hunt, Herod’s Hunt and the Devil’s Dandy Dogs. According to Mythology Source, “An English account from 1127 claimed that several reliable witnesses, including monks, witnessed the Wild Hunt riding between Peterborough and Stamford over a period of nine weeks. Twenty or thirty huge riders went by on black horses and goats. While early medieval accounts portrayed the Wild Hunt as demonic, later romances imagined it as a host of fairies. English leaders of the Wild Hunt included Nuada, King Arthur, Herne the Hunter, Wild Edric, and King Herla.”
Gwynn Ap Nudd (pronounced Gwynn ap Neath)
I find Gwynn ap Nudd particularly fascinating, as he’s said to be the leader of the Welsh Fair Folk or Tylwyth Teg (pronounced tull-with teg). He’s also the nephew of the goddess Arianrhod. And the ruler of the Welsh Otherworld, Anwen; a great warrior of Welsh legend. He’s often equated with the English Herne the Hunter.
Herne the Hunter
Herne the Hunter is a legendary figure linked to the Windsor Great Park in England and believed to have been a mythical manifestation of the Horned Lord or Horned King or Cernunnos, a wild god motif across European traditions. He haunts the Windsor Forest with antlers on his head, riding a dark horse, rattling chains. Interestingly, he might also descend from the Anglo-Saxon worship of Odin, a belief these people brought to England before conversion. The name Herne might come from the name Herian, which was a title used for Wodan by the Saxons in his role as a leader of fallen warriors.
The Christian Devil
I think this is obvious why the devil was also believed to be a leader of the Wild Hunt. If the processions and celebrations began with old pagan gods like Odin, Cernunnos and Gwynn ap nudd, it only makes sense that with their fall from grace they were equated with the devil. And the wild hunt procession became something to fear…hence the gods would be forgotten and the devil would come to lead the wild hunt at some point.
And in Ireland, Finn MacCool and Manannan Mac Lir lead the Irish version of the Wild Hunt called the Fairy Cavalcade.
Witches and the Wild Hunt
It’s interesting to note the Wild Hunt didn’t just take place in the Winter. At least not if we compare to the Germanic celebration of Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night (Hexxennacht) or witches’ night that takes place on April 30th – May 1st. Witches were said to gather on the Brocken along with their leader (either Berchta, Walburga, Holda or Freya). And then fly through the air and cause mischief, etc.
Animals in the Wild Hunt
Animals associated and seen with the Wild Hunt almost always have some sort of connection to the dead and the Underworld or Otherworld AND an inseparable link to witches and witchcraft. Horses which are a common psychopomp in many traditions. Dogs as they are guardians of the Underworld and feature prominently in Celtic and Germanic mythos in relation to the afterlife. Pigs and wolves are also common animals in the Wild Hunt and are also linked to the gods and witchcraft.
What is actually happening in the Wild Hunt?
Some speculate this motif is based on ancient pagan festivals particularly involving large hunting parties. Others believe it’s the idea of spirits that “ride at night” and those who astral travel alongside of them. This theory supports the Germanic belief that the veil between the living and the dead was thin at Midwinter (in opposition to the Celts and Samhain). My opinion is the wild hunt myth is reflective of ancient pagan festivals and parades in the physical, and the ability for magical folks to project into the astral and “fly” to the witches sabbat, etc. in the spiritual.
When the church rose to power, they sought to throw down the old gods and old wild processions by demonizing the gods and spirits involved and by making the people terrified to go outside on the old sacred nights. At the same time, it could be reflective of old beliefs in death, dying, and the afterlife which is why psychopomps are part of the hunt or its leader like Berchta and Gwynn ap Nudd.
Other more practical theories, like people using a myth such as the Wild Hunt to deter others from going outside during the Winter, make a lot of sense too. We discuss more of our theories and the origins of this comparative myth in our podcast episode you can listen to here: