Picture this: you are walking home late at night from some Yule activities, full of booze and happiness. It’s dark out. You’ve seen all your friends home and your house is just through the woods.
All of the sudden, you hear the horns and become aware of the fact that there are things moving towards you in the dark. Hounds are baying. The snow is crunching with the sound of hooves.
Do you run? You probably should. If the Wild Hunt catches you, they’ll bring you along for a ride, and like so many who have interactions with the dead or beyond, it’s pretty likely that you would either be dragged along for unfathomable miles, or never seen again. You could join it, by will, if you had your hunting gear with you. But it is always dangerous to interact with those from other worlds. Whatever you do, you mustn’t mock or laugh at the hunt or its contenders. To do so means a curse.
As your crouch behind the bushes, hundreds of riders, dogs, horses, more come charging through. They are all dressed in black; their hounds and steeds are completely black. They blow terrifying horns and gallivant around after invisible charges. And maybe, among them, you see the faces of a brother-in-arms who fell in battle earlier that year, or a long-lost family member, following ever faithful after the great huntmaster, who rides a horse with eight legs.
You spend the entire night there, hiding. In the morning, when it’s over, you return to town, only to find that everyone you know was also kept awake in their homes from the bellows of the ghostly horns and the baying of the undead hounds.
The Wild Hunt, also known as Åsgårdsreien, is a spectral event from deep within the psyches of northern and western Europeans. It crops its head up in folklore all over the continent, but in Scandanavian and Norse culture, it’s particularly prevalent due to the role of the leader: Odin.
Among his many jobs (which include vagabond, poet, Gandalf lookalike contest winner, cunning linguist, frenzied warrior, and more) Odin is also the god of the dead–sort of. Hel is technically the goddess of the dead, but it’s Odin who rules over Valhalla, which is where dead warriors go. And it’s Odin who chooses the warriors that go there– because not just any can. Most people go to Helheim. Which is,meh, alright, as far as Otherworlds go. But Valhalla is just really the tits.
Living people could join the Wild Hunt, in some cases. It usually happened when you were asleep– you would sort of astral project and leave your body to join the dark legions. You had to be pretty good at magic to get to this state though.
The Norse revered and respected their dead, but especially those who fell in battle. The purpose of the Wild Hunt is a little uncertain, but like the Sacrifice to the Elves (which we discussed earlier this year), it’s a way for the living and the dead to interact between the veils. It could also be a way to explain those who go missing on cold nights– for it’s a far kinder thought to think of them hunting with their revered ancestors and the great Odin then to think of them falling, drunk, into a ravine or ditch and freezing to death.
If you’re looking for a modern take on the Wild Hunt, look no further than Swedish metal band Bathory. The Wild Hunt is a common theme in their music– and the album Blood Fire Death uses it directly as an inspiration and theme.