Monday, December 24, 2012

Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead

Book Review: Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead by Claude Lecouteux –translated by Jon E Graham (Inner Traditions 2011 – originally 1999)

This is a good folkloric study by an apparent scholar of medieval European literature. He utilizes medieval text sources and folk traditions from all over Europe to unravel the pre-Christian and post-Christian manifestations of the Wild Hunt motif. Lecouteux also examines scholarship about the Wild Hunt folk-myth, particularly that from French and German researchers. His simple definition of the Wild Hunt is this:

“… a band of the dead whose passage over the earth at certain times of the year is accompanied by diverse phenomena. Beyond these elements , all else varies: the makeup of the troop; the appearance of its members; the presence or absence of animals; noise or silence; the existence of a male or female leader who, depending on the country and the region, bears different names – the devil, Wode, Mother Hulda, Dame Holle, Percht, Hennequin, and more.”

The author notes the dynamism of folk myth and its ever-changing forms in different places and times. This, he says, contributes to the difficulty of uncovering in detail the earliest models of such beliefs. He also notes that the Church sometimes re-introduced pre-existing mythic beliefs in new forms, most usually to further the aims of the Church.

European stories about the astral doubles of women who roam the night as in the witch’s sabbat genre begin in the 800’s referring to a time in 314 CE when paganism would still have had a strong effect in Southern Europe. The leader of the troop was Diana or Herodias or sometimes Frau Holda and she was considered later an agent of Satan and the troop a demonic horde. Burchard of Worms wrote in 1066 that it was the devil himself who provided the astral body and limbs to the night travelers. Apparently, he did not understand previous shamanic conceptions of an external soul such as the Scandinavian hamr, or the Latin animus. The author notes that the Diana of this later time may be different from the Roman goddess. The Celtic goddess Di Ana, or Anu is implicated as she had a consort, the god Di Anu – as Diana was consort to Dianus, or possibly Dianum, in a probably later Tuscan tradition. Herodias comes from the bible as an anti-Christian woman who betrayed John the Baptist. For this, in some accounts, she was condemned to fly in the sky in the night and became leader of the flying witches. Dame Abonde (Abundia, also Satia) is another such character though in folk traditions these goddesses also have beneficial aspects – particularly related to fertility. Indeed, the author makes a very good case that these troops of the dead relate what is known as the “third function” in Indo-European societies, that of fertility and agriculture. Such is clearly the case with the Italian Benandanti – who would fight astral battles representing good and evil, fertility and sterility, success and failure. Further east in Bavaria it is the goddess Percht who is the leader of these ladies of the night. Food is left out for these ladies – uncovered - so that Christians would later consider it unclean and pagan. Most often their appearance of propitiation occurred during the twelve day Christmas cycle – as in Frau Holda’s night aka “Mother’s Night” in the midst of the cycle. This was a time of foreshadowing and divining for the next year and its agricultural cycle. The goddesses of fate are also active this time of year and incorporated into the myth. The Celtic Matronae, the fate fairies which include Morta (death) and the Scandinavian alfablot, or sacrifice to the elves and ancestors and the disir who fly through the night are also invoked this time of year. Valkyries, psychopomps who deliver selected slain warriors to Valhalla, can also be related – also appearing in troops and among storms. The Wild Hunt motif seems to have few parallels among the Irish Celts, an exception being the Sidhe army – or army of fairie folk. Continental versions are found all over France, Spain, all Germanic and Scandinavian lands, and northern Italy around the Alps. Bottom line is that there is clear connection between ancestors, ancestor veneration, and fertility.

When the Church came to power, all these beliefs that were found to be unpalatable were demonized. Any night troops became phalanxes of demons. There were also stories of revenants, the living dead with broken limbs and severe body distortions, like zombies. Stories of flying ghost-like animals are common to Scandinavia, such as Gloso, the glowing sow, who is propitiated during the twelve days of Christmas in order to ensure a good harvest.   

Beginning around 1010 CE there are stories of people having visions of armies of the dead. Sometimes there is a known recently deceased person among them which seeks to communicate to the one having the vision. Dangerous and murdering revenants occur in literature referring to earlier times such as the Saga of Snorri the Godi (Eyrbyggja Saga) written in 1230 (Norway?) but referring to the time period 884-1031. Here is the story of Thorolf Twist-Foot, “a wicked man who returns after his death and causes the death of the inhabitants of Hvamm.” He was thought to be a leader of a troop of the dead. There was a strong belief that people who died prematurely, at a young age, or in battle, could band together and travel in groups as revenants. The predominant Christian version of this is that the dead who have not atoned for their sins or left unfulfilled vows must remain in a purgatory, hell, or underworld existence until their penance is completed.

 The motif of the band of warriors suggests the initiatory brotherhood of the war band (mannerbunde) of Germanic tribes. There is a folk notion of an eternal battle and several stories to this effect where warriors are revived and continue the battle daily. This suggests the same function as in the slain heroes of Valhalla and indeed visions of battles in the sky were reported. Since it was thought that every person had a similar allotted number of days the slain warriors can be thought of as waiting out their days.

Lecouteux divides the stories of the hunter into three types:

         1)      The diabolical huntsman – a demon in pursuit of a specific person, usually on a horse and accompanied by a pack of hounds

   2)      The wild huntsman – a tracker/stalker of supernatural beings (humans in supernatural form)

   3)      The cursed huntsman – a man on horseback who pursues a prey that eternally eludes him – usually an animal.

He goes through several of the textual sources of these motifs. The diabolical huntsman was often chasing a human who committed “sins” and is most often a creation of Church clerics. The wild huntsman seems to most closely resemble the ‘lord of beasts’ but also the spirit of the land which controls fortune and misfortune. The story may involve a giant or ogre chasing a woman through the spirit world. In one group of stories it is a giant called the Wunderer chasing Dame Fortune as Frau Saelde as she is promised to him as a wife. The author thinks this may be an old mythic motif of a sacred marriage for the sake of tribal prosperity. In 1250 was the Eckenlied (Song of Ecke) where Dietrich von Bern (Theodoric the Great) meets a wild maiden named Babehilt who is pursued by a giant named Fasolt who rules over wild lands. Fasolt also occurs in a charm as a weather demon.

The author notes the work of Phillip Walter who recently proposed that the name of the wild huntsman as Hennequin (Hellequin, later Harlequin) comes from the German (han, henne) and Norman (quin). The first is the cock/rooster and the second the dog. Dogs and roosters were often sacrificial victims – the dog representing death and the rooster resurrection. He sees the ‘union of the cock and the dog’ as the hunter pursuing the virgin mother goddess for a similar ritual hierogamy for fertility. The horse is also a common figure in the Wild Hunt and often the horses have extra limbs (like Odin’s Sleipnir) and deformations and horses have long been associated as the chief means of travel to and from the Otherworld. The cock is also associated with night as in the stages of cock crow from midnight to dawn.

The cursed hunter motif is most often a Christianized version of a man atoning for his sins with a penance of pursuing an elusive prey. Foresters in Britain noted visions of seeing the army of King Arthur – a damned Arthur atoning for his sins as in some stories he did not live an exemplary life. Arthur is also the quintessential dormant king under the hill, sovereignty attached to the land, and sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt has also been associated with other kings such as Charlemaigne and Barbarossa.

The original Wild Hunt may have involved the aforementioned nature hierogamy and the psychopomp function of transferring the dead. The author sees the wild hunt leader as one similar to the Celtic god Dagda, “who killed men with one end of his staff and resuscitated them with the other, and whose attributes included a rooster and a dog, which symbolically reflected his dual function.” Shakespeare tells a tale of a forest keeper called Herne the Hunter who has been compared to the lord of beasts, Cernunnos. He is said to be toxic or as the author calls it – the malefic side of the third function (fertility).

Around 1180 the first text story came out of the Legend of King Herla. There are two differing versions – one by Orderic Vitalis about the Mesnie Hellequin and the other by Walter Map about King Herla. King Herla was said to be a king of the Britons who met a dwarf king riding a goat who described himself as a king among kings who was sent to him as a messenger. He said that Herla was a special king with a special relationship to him and that he would attend Herla’s wedding and that Herla must also attend his wedding in the dwarf realm - a double pact. The dwarves, along with the elves, long associated with ancestors and the dead, attended Herla’s wedding to a Frankish princess bearing the riches and lavish foods of the otherworld. Herla came through with his part of the pact and the dwarf king sent him off with animals including a wolfhound in the arms of one of the men. His instructions were that the men were not to dismount until the hound leapt from the arms of its bearer. Unfortunately, as in several Celtic narratives Herla’s return from the otherworld leaves him a few centuries ahead in time as he is met by a Saxon who cannot much understand his speech. A few of his men dismount and are instantly turned to dust – presumably gone back to the otherworld. The dog does not leap and King Herla and his men are said to wander for eternity – as an army – trapped by otherworldy forces – represented by the dog. The author suggests that the story arises from the very old belief that at death one’s life continues as oneself but in another realm. King Herla may also be a representation of the sleeping or dormant sovereign who dwells in the land – being now tied to otherworlds. Some have suggested that since the rule of order in the land was now established (in Saxon times) that King Herla and his band were no longer needed and so wander in dormancy.  

The cleric Orderic Vitalis’s story about the Mesnie Hellequin is dated to before his death in 1140 and refers to the year 1091 or 1092. Here in Normandy are described visions of an army that appeared much like a funeral procession with some known dead townspeople, grossly disfigured beings with large heads, dead men being tortured for crimes, etc. Some of the currently living were seen as well which is traditionally a sign of the imminence of their deaths. But Orderic’s tale is wrought with ulterior motives of inspiring fear to inspire repentance. Some of the wandering dead are in a purgatory state from which they can eventually escape. Often the witness to such a procession is protected by an angelic force who may leave for a time and subsequently he is attacked by demons and saved when the angel guide returns. The name Herla has been associated with the Germanic Hel but that is probably not plausible. It may mean Herla’s dog. The name is also associated with King Charles V of France who was killed in battle and said to wander with his own Furious Army. Herlequin may also refer to the “kin” of Herla. One interesting explanation is that of “ Herla’s wain, the cult wagon of the Angles, which became Charles’ Wain, the name of the seven brightest stars of the Big Dipper …” The Big Dipper is also called “Odin’s Chariot” in the Netherlands.

Cistercian monk Helinand of Froidmont said in the 1100’s that Virgil was the source of the belief in the Mesnie Hellequin as it was Virgil that said arms and horses accompanied one beyond death and that one also retains one’s form after death, albeit in another realm.

Some versions have it that this state is temporary and that the dead are gathered until they can travel on to their final destinations. Other narratives occur where the troop consists of crafts people working their arts in a procession- blacksmiths, cobblers, tanners, weaver, and woodworkers.

Some legends include an army of the dead heading to Jerusalem on crusade, or pilgrimage. Many of the troops involved making a great racket of noise sometimes akin to the noise of storms. The Wild Hunt in Spain was called the Huesta or the Santa Campana. Some of the Spanish accounts suggest that the dead mass together in a wandering before going to their destinations. Here and in Brittany the procession of the dead was thought to travel the path of the Milky Way to a personal judgment before final judgment. The Milky Way as a path of the dead is a very old belief – possibly stretching back many thousands of years.

Another motif is that of the members of the troop being bound together with a rope or chain. This brings to mind old Roman accounts of the Celtic god and psychopomp Ogmios with his tongue bound to the ears of others. In Switzerland the Furious Army is often called the Furious Bond. Sometimes a figure bearing a cross precedes the procession and identifies it as funerary. Certain funerary routes involved many sightings and were likely magically charged places. Another preceding figure is called by the author – the Warning Figure. The Loyal Eckhart from German stories is such a warning figure who precedes and protects others from harm by the Wild Hunt troop. There is a danger of being kidnapped.  Loyal Eckhart is also said to precede the winter night troop of Dame Holle in some accounts. Other versions involve The Good Women and Dame Abundia and Percht of the Long Nose. The troop is often said to consist of unbaptized children, warriors and criminals who died before their time, and ecstatics (both crazy people and witches). Hooded figures are also noted. The author goes through many variants and indeed there are quite a few throughout Europe.

Another related motif is processions of masked figures – a masquerade, often associated with a funeral procession. The Romance of Fauvel from 1316 involves this in the form of a wedding. The loud and dissonant noise and music of the Charivari – a folk custom where people would do this in a parade often to express disapproval of unwed mothers and  widows who took another husband, but also of wife beaters. A similar din was associated with the Wild Hunt and indeed Hellequin later came to be associated with the Charivari. The Padstow tradition of the Hobby Horse at New Year is another involving masks, a horse, and the dead. Indeed masks have often been associated with the dead. Masked processions are associated with the 12 days of Christmas in Scandinavia and with Percht in Germany and Austria. One goal of these masked feasts was likely the “expulsion of the harmful dead” as well as propitiation of the ancestors for good fortune in the coming year. Mesnie Hellequin also found its way into the Carnival traditions which can be said to have a similar banishing function. The author also suggests these masked processions as a possible parody of burials. Masked men or spirits appear in the “Terrifying Ride” or Oskoreia of Norway and Scandinavia. In some stories spirits go into wolf form and steal beer. The Lapps would offer food hung in trees to the Jol Army. The woman Gudrun Horsetail was said to lead the Norse Oskoreia sometimes accompanied by young Sigurd, the hero in the Saga of the Volsungs. Gudrun possibly connects to the female spirits called Disir, which have similarity to the Valkyries and are also connected to Odin, another legendary leader of the Wild Hunt. 

Odin as leader of the Wild Hunt is well known and was proclaimed by Jacob Grimm in 1835 and many others but some scholars disagree. H. P. Hasenfratz has suggested masked secret societies (likely originating with Odinic war bands) as a cognate for the army of the dead. These ecstatic cults fit in with Odin as the god of ecstasy. They may have indulged in ancestor worship as well. Ecstatics, able to project their “astral doubles” in order to wage battles with spirits in spirit worlds, such as known Latvian werewolf societies, may have been a shamanic prototype of the Wild Hunt.

Christians have long likened Odin to the devil and some have even suggested “quin” as “king” and Hellequin as king of hell – which is very unlikely. Certainly the melding of ancestor veneration with fertility and fortune suggests ecstatic means to bring this about.

The Wild Hunt has long been associated with weather and intense storms with cold and fierce winds. The Indo-Aryan version of Rudra (the howler) or Indra and his troop of Maruts is a likely prototype for the Wild Hunt. Here it was said that these wind spirits were also fierce warriors armed with spears and that they were very powerful and capable of making the earth tremble with their storming thunder. Indeed the word “Maruts’ is a likely cognate of the Roman war god  “Mars”. Their horses urine was said to be like wild rain and parallels of the sweat of horses occur in Norse tales. Rudra was a patron of hunters, thieves, and brigands. On the other hand, the author suggests that Odin corresponds more to Varuna while Tyr corresponds more to Indra but time and distance may have obscured such associations. Thor as lord of thunder and bearer of the hammer also matches much with Indra as the bearer of the vajra. In India there is also Vayu (Air) as the god of winds and storms. So, many of these names and functions overlap in various ways. Odin also fits in as lord of the Wild Hunt as he is the master of Jol. Regarding fertility it should also be noted that it is dependent upon rain from the sky and storms so that storm gods are also fertility gods. Devotees of Dame Holle would roll their yarn during her Yuletide rites.

Apparently, the first literary reference to Odin as leader of the Wild Hunt is from 1593 in Nicolaus Gryse’s Mirror of the Anti-Christian Papacy and Lutheran Christianity. Here Odin is called a false god and indeed Odin has long been associated with the Devil. Of course, Odin may have been associated with the Wild Hunt long before this. Numerous later accounts throughout Germanic lands associate the Wild Hunt with Odin, Woden, Gooden, Waur, and Goor. Flocks of noisy migrating birds are even compared to the Wild Hunt.

The author’s concluding remarks include: 1) Orderic Vitalis’s account was the first to begin the association of Wild Hunt motifs with Christian propaganda; 2) the leader of the Wild Hunt was a psychopompic deity before the Christians made him into a demon; 3) there was likely a belief in the seasonal return of the dead – though they could appear at any time – just more likely at certain times; 4) the Wild Hunt is an enduring and captivating theme that has persisted in many variant forms for a vast time period.

Finally, there are several appendixes. One is about – The Society of the Bone – from Veran (Spain) which is apparently a secret society that attends and predicts death, and utilizes bones and candles and maybe masks as well. They are said to be able to perform premonitions of death and to walk between the worlds.

This is a very interesting study that shows the Wild Hunt and likely the Yule Season as a time of ancestor worship and the related functions of fortune and fertility for the coming year. The Wild Hunt is an army of the dead, a zombie apocalypse of antiquity that has always fascinated humans.

The excellent essay below points out some interesting ideas. One is that the otherworldly or ghostly status of figures such as King Herla, or the Mesnie Hellequin allows the king to be remembered as lore, a sort of immortality through remembrance – so ghost manifestations become noticeable and remembered ancestral forces.

Here is another short blog piece about the Wild Hunt:






No comments:

Post a Comment