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March, 2009 : Essay:

My Search for the Wild Hunt

And trotting scatheless through the gorse,

And bristling in the fell:

Lord, it is death upon the horse,

And they're the hounds of hell!

John Masefield from "The Hounds of Hell"

There is a rock band on YouTube called Therion who has recorded a song called "The Wild Hunt." I came across them while searching for a story by Charles deLint (mis-remembering the title). While this musical genre is not really my cup of tea, I do have a fascination with the story of the Wild Hunt and finding this band served the purpose of renewing my personal "Search for the Wild Hunt." With a cup of Darjeeling (which is my preferred cuppa tea...) and a little Celtic fiddle on the radio I will begin my tale...

Many years ago, before career and grown-up responsibilities set in, I attended a dinner gathering with kindred spirits who, like me, loved to gather odd bits of folklore and spent evenings sharing music from the ballad tradition of the British Isles and Appalachia. It was a rare balmy October evening in Seattle and we stepped out to look out over the city's lights onto the wide deck that graced our meeting place: a Queen Anne era home on Capitol Hill. While we were enjoying the view, the moon rose over the horizon full and brilliantly scarlet—a perfect Hunter's Moon. Awed by the sight, we were silent for a while. Then, one attendee spoke to the moment by sharing a folktale concerning the Wild Hunt and the Autumn Hunter's Moon.

When the sounds of howling dogs and screaming hags fill the air with hunters following behind calling, "Wod! Wod! Midden in dem Weg!" the wise traveler will immediately cover his eyes and throw his or her body face down into the middle of the road. If he or she is lucky, no harm will come other than the cold feet of the Black Dogs running over them and a lingering sniffle from lying in the muddy road. If not, the tormented souls and spectral hunters on great back horses with burning red eyes thundering overhead will catch up the unwary into their host and be forever after at the beck and call of The Hornéd Man, their leader. Those who join in get a piece of human flesh as their share of the nightly booty. He finished by saying, "When you hear the horns, hide, because anyone who is caught up in the Hunt will never be the same again..." and launched into a spirited rendition of Sally Oldfield's "Night of the Hunter's Moon."

This folk tradition of ghostly riders accompanied by hellhounds and tormented souls who thunder through the sky in the train of the Hornéd Man is a hoary tale from our collective past. Folklorists often refer to it as an "explanation story" for a thunderstorm, and though the details may vary, at the heart it is always the same: during the Hunter's Moon a thundering horde of faeries, lost souls, baying hell hounds, and hunters mounted on black horses with iron hooves and fiery red eyes ride across the autumn sky. Those caught by this "Furious Host" never live to tell the tale because they've been forced to join the hunt, or, if not, they are driven to madness by the sight. Early in the twentieth century, mythologist H. A. Guerber said,

The object of this phantom hunt varied greatly, and was either [that of] a visionary boar or wild horse, white-breasted maidens who were caught and borne away bound only once in seven years, or the wood nymphs, called Moss Maidens, who were thought to represent the autumn leaves torn from the trees and whirled away by the wintry gale. (1909/1992)

In Germany, the "prey" of the Wild Hunt were "Wood-Wives" who could escape by fleeing to and crossing a rowan tree—long held to be a tree sacred to fairies. In some places, this hunt is led by the Devil himself and occurs on Ash Wednesday.

Some folklorists believe this image to be a "memory" of time past when women were carried away by raiders and invaders from foreign lands. Ari Berk and William Spytma (2002) explain the Wild Hunt this way:

The Wild ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted.

Berk and Spytma go on to say that in the Norse tradition, the Hunt is sometimes shown as...

...chasing a beautiful Otherworldly maiden—perhaps a memory of grim night chases conducted by invading armies for purposes of stealing wives from their enemies. Such imagery also seems to refer to struggles for supremacy between rising patriarchal gods (embodied in the Hunt and its antlered warrior leader) and ancient European goddess cults. (Berk and Spytma, 2002)

The Wild Hunt is also used by modern fantasy novelists exploring "faery" such as Peter Beagle in his classic tale, Tamsin (1999); Guy Gavriel Kay's trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry (1984), Charles de Lint's tales set in the fictional town of "Newford," and Emma Bull's original War for the Oaks (2001). In fantasy fiction, the Wild Hunt is often described in the language of Scots Gaelic as the Unseelie or "unholy" fairy court. This court is presided over by the Queen of Air and Darkness and her consort, The Hornéd Man or the Green Man in one or several guises. Crossing genres slightly into science fiction, Poul Anderson's classic tale, The Queen of Air and Darkness (1973) used this imagery to create a world where war is immanent between human colonists and an elusive alien race. Not to be left out of this list is epic fantasist Robert Jordan's use of the imagery of The Wild Hunt in his Eye of the World series in The Great Hunt (1990).

Literary Tropes, W.B. Yeats, Trooping Fairies, and Solitary Fairies

The twin fairy courts of Scots' lore are Summer fey or sidhi (seelie), who are beautiful and generally good-natured (if mischievous) spirits associated with love making, music, reveling, agriculture, and the natural world. Winter bogans and goblins (unseelie) are up to no good and include such creatures as murderous Far Darrig (Red Caps), Night Mares (mareridt), the Yorkshire nursery-room bogeys Genny Greenteeth and Black Anis, "black dogs" (including the Yorkshire Barghest hound that haunted Sherlock Holmes), and the Wild Hunt. While this classification has become a literary trope used throughout the genre (particularly in urban fantasy), the folk traditions are more ambiguous. Early writers, such as Irish poets Jane Francesca Agnes (Lady Wilde) and Wm. Butler Yeats (that unqualified expert on faery) divide the fairy courts into "Trooping Fairies and the Solitary Fairies" (1888). Trooping fairies are called such because they tend to go in long processionals (such as is described in the ballad, "Tam Lin") while solitary fairies live in—as the name suggests—solitude and dislike company. Yeats (1888) has this to say about trooping fairies, "Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music."

Current writers, such as Brian Froud (2000, 2008) and Nancy Arrowsmith (1997), divide the classifications further: "good," bad," "light" (friendly, good natured), "dark" (wicked and spiteful), and "dusky" beings who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, such as the Gaelic sea-going merrows or the Welsh Tylwyth Teg ("the fair folk").

The Wild Hunt is a party, under Yeats' classification system, of trooping fairies. Arrowsmith would call them "dark fairies," while Froud would say these creatures are just plain bad. The King of the Tylwyth Teg is Gwyn ap Nudd, who is depicted, at times, as the leader of the Wild Hunt. Christina Rosetti (1856/1997) also found a troop of what could be called "unseelie" in her classic poem, "Goblin Market":

...The wicked, quaint-merchant men,

Their fruits like honey to the throat

But poison in the blood...

(Rosetti, ln. 553-5)

One finds the echoes of these denizens of the twilight realms in de Lint's "Hard Men" in Forests of the Heart (2000) and "bogans" in Widdershins (2006). These tales darkly echo the trope once used by educated ladies in Paris salons of dividing the fairies into "good" and "evil" in tales called préciosité. A literary style called précieuse, invented by literary-minded aristocratic women, called précieuses, retold fairy tales much in the same spirit as modern "faery" genres within fantasy fiction. Literary précieuse style was an influence on Charles Perrault in his collections of fairy stories for children, which altered and expurgated stories from oral folk traditions. Unlike modern fantasy, the heroes and heroines of fairy tales written by the précieuses often appeared as shepherds and shepherdesses, royal or noble by nature or birth, where their natures are tested and—generally—remain unclouded by circumstance.

Halloween and the Hunter's Moon

In most of the Northern Hemisphere, November is when harvest ends and winter weather begins with the ancient festival of Halloween. Our ancestors from France to Scandinavia knew to stay indoors and away from wild heaths and lonely roads, with the shades drawn and the fires lit, between November eve (Halloween) the feasts of Winter Solstice (Yule) and Twelfth Night (January 5), when the returning light could be visibly measured. This was the time when the unpredictable and wicked unseelie faeries would "go abraid." It is when the Hunter's Moon rises at the cusp of Winter's dark, stormy days and the time of the Unseelie Court that the Wild Hunt is to be seen. This "cavalcade" is associated with the dark days and fallow time between November eve (Halloween—which according to Yeats is when the taidhbhse tais (ghosts) are abroad and "... dance with the fairies.") (1888) and Winter Solstice.

The Wild Hunt is known by names such as Wotan's Horde, Wilde Heer, or Wilde Jagd, and Wuet's Army in Germanic lore, the Familia Herlechini ("Family of Harlequin") or Mesnee d'Hellequin in France, the Oskorei (Horrific or Thunderous Ride) or Gandreid (Ride of the Dead) in Norway, Odensjakt (Odin's Hunt) in Denmark and Sweden. In English speaking countries it is referred to as The Furious Host, The Faery Rade, or Woden's Hunt.

Riding alongside the Wild Huntsman are hellhounds sometimes called Whist (eerie) Hounds. The reputed home of the hounds is in Devon where an ancient oak copse called "Wistman's Wood" is located on the banks of the West River Dart. Elsewhere the hounds are called Gabble Retchets or Gabriel's Hounds - not for the Archangel, Gabriel, but from an old word for corpse. In Cornwall it's "the Devil's Dandy Dogs" who thunder about scaring the living daylights out of travelers. One story chronicled is this one from Edwin Sidney Hartland in his 1890 edition of English Fairy and Other Folk Tales:

A herdsman was journeying homeward across the moors of Cornwall one windy night when be heard at a distance the baying of bounds, which he was not long in recognizing to be the dismal yelp of the Devil's Dandy-dogs. He was three or four miles distant from his home; and, much terrified, he hurried onward as fast as the treacherous nature of the soil and uncertainty of the path would allow; but the melancholy yelping of the hounds and the fiendish shout of the hunter came nearer and nearer. After a long run they appeared so close upon him that he could not help turning round to look at them. He was horror-struck, for he could distinctly see the hunter and his dogs. The huntsman was terrible to behold. He was black, had large fiery eyes, horns, a tail, and carried in his clawy-hand a long hunting-pole. The dogs, a numerous pack, blackened the ground as far as it could be seen, each snorting fire and yelping in the most frightful tone. What was the poor rustic to do? No cottage was near, no rock, no tree to shelter him—nothing remained but to abandon himself to the fury of these hell-hounds. Suddenly a happy thought flashed into his mind. He had been told that no evil spirit can resist the power of prayer. He fell on his knees, and at the first holy words he uttered the hounds stood still, but yelped more dismally than ever; and the huntsman shouted, "Bo Shrove I!" which "means," says the narrator, "in the old language, The boy prays!" The black huntsman then drew off his dandy-dogs, and the poor herdsman hastened home as fast as his trembling frame permitted.

The leader of The Wild Hunt is often a fierce man with the horns of a stag or a ram. Other times he is depicted as headless. A published account of peasants seeing this "furious host" galloping across the sky is in an obscure medieval text chronicling the life of monks, reported to have occurred at the onset of the rule of a disastrous and cruel abbot of the order:

The first full description of a procession of ghosts was written in Paris about a night in January of 1092 (Ordericus Vitalis). The priest Wachlin, coming back from visiting a sick person, saw a swarm led by an enormous warrior swinging a mighty club in his hand. The shapes that followed wept and moaned over their sins; then came a horde of corpse-bearers with coffins on their shoulders—the priest counted some 50 coffins. Then women on horseback, seated on saddles with glowing nails stuck into them; then a host of ecclesiasticals on horseback. The priest knew many of these people who had died recently. He concluded at last that he had seen the "familia Herlechini," of whom many had told him, but in whom he had never believed: Now he had truly seen the dead. (Gundarsson, 1992).

Again foretelling disaster for a medieval monastery, in the British Peterborough Chronicle, the chronicler attests to the Wild Hunt's appearance. Around the year 1132, an anonymous monk wrote:

Then the hunters were black and large and terrifying, and their hounds were all black and broad-eyed and terrifying, and they rode on black horses and black goats... (c. 1132; Ingram, London, 1823)

The Hunt is also reputed to contain the souls of unbaptised children, cannibalistic hags, and criminals hanged for murder. It is led by a spectral, and always terrifying figure variously called Wotan, Knecht Ruprecht (or Krampus), Berchtold (or Berchta), Holle (or Hulda), and Selga. Historical figures are sometimes shown leading the Hunt including Sir Francis Drake (called "Old Crockern"), Charlemagne, Eadric the Wild (a Saxon rebel during the Norman Conquest), and Roland the Standard Bearer. King Arthur has had his turn at the head as well as lesser-known mythic figures: Hereward the Outlaw, an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon leader also involved in resistance to the Norman conquest of England, el comte Arnau, a legendary nobleman from Ripoll's known for his cruelty. He was cursed for his cruelties (especially toward an abbess in Catalonia) to ride through the countryside on a black "hell-steed" which breathed fire accompanied by fierce hellhounds.

In Germanic societies, The Wild Hunt was also known to be led by several female deities, Perchta, Holda, and the White Lady known as Frau Gauden all led processions of unbaptized children and witches through the night sky, extending their reign into Walpurgisnaught festivities. Even Gudhrun Gjúkadottir, a heroine of the Norse saga, the Nibelungenlied, as Guro Rysserova took her place at the head of the Wild Hunt. In Italy, Herodias, later called Aradia in Stregheria lore, leads Italian witches in a sea hunt for wicked sailors. In parts of England and Wales, the Huntsman is Gwynn Ap Nudd, called both Lord of the Dead and King of Welsh "otherworld" Fairy realm of Cwn Annwn (anglicized as Avalon) and in Westphalia, we find the Cailleac Bhuer, the Blue Hag or Black Annis who eats small children who wander too far from home leading the horde. In some parts of Europe, Diana, the Roman hunter goddess associated with the moon leads the host. For this event she wears antlers, an ancient symbol of both the hunter and the hunted. In Shakespeare's day, it was Herne the Hunter who rode the night sky:

There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter

(Sometimes a keeper here in Windsor forest)

Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns,

And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner.

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

The superstitious idle-headed eld

Receiv'd and did deliver to our age

This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.4.28-38)

In the ballad tradition we find a re-telling of Ovid's Orpheus and Eurydice as Sir Orefeo, the King of Fairy. In it we find this verse describing the Fairy hunt or Rade:

There often by him would he see,

when noon was hot on leaf and tree,

the king of Faerie with his rout

came hunting in the woods about

with blowing far and crying dim,

and barking hounds that were with him;

yet never a beast they took nor slew,

and where they went they never knew.

(trans. Tolkien)

Some History, Samhain, and Dia de los Muertes

The autumn holiday Celts and Neo-Pagans commonly call Samhain or All-Hallows, and that our children, friends, and neighbors call Halloween, is a very ancient feast day with roots as old as European civilization itself. Samhain is generally translated from Goidelic-Celt (Irish, Scots and Cornish Gaelic) as "Summer's End." In England, the holiday became All Hollows Eve, shortened by the changes in language over centuries to All Hallows e'en and then to Halloween. During the early Middle Ages, the Church made an attempt to assume the day into the calendar (as people insisted upon marking the holiday) as the night before All Saints or All Souls Day, a day to go to mass and pray. During Puritan times, the All Hallows e'en became, like most holidays, "evil and Pagan" a sin and a crime to celebrate punishable by ostracism and even time spent in the "the stocks" in the public square. These early Protestants equated such things not with Paganism, per se, but with what the English after Henry VIII called "the Old Religion": Catholicism. Puritans felt the same way about Christmas, Carnival, Lent, Lady Day (The Feast of the Assumption), May Day, and Easter—outlawing "frivolity" such as masking, mummer's plays, pantomimes, and—especially—all forms of dance and folk drama. Their zeal is the root of the modern day fundamentalist assault upon Halloween. These people also reveal their true agenda when they bring up the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertes in the same breath.

During the Roman Empire, Halloween, called the Feast of Kalends, was the End of the Old Year, and although the Celts may have celebrated it as the New Year (as the Medieval Welsh tradition of "Calendais" suggests), when the calendar was set for most of Europe by Empirical decree, Samhain fell during "Kalends," the end of harvest and beginning of the "unlucky time": the fallow of the year. The New Year was celebrated at the end of this fallow time, in late February or early March. Nobody did business, signed contracts, traveled without a good deal of consideration, became engaged, accepted a commission in the military, was coronated as royalty, or married during the unlucky months of the fallow. It is possible that the custom of holding engagement parties and university entrance examinations in April and marrying and granting degrees in June began in the Roman Empire.

It is an interesting aside to note that brides of those by-gone days would also have been horrified at the thought of a May wedding, as the Goddess Maia (or, Britomartis as she was also called) hated the institution of marriage and would curse them with unhappiness and infertility. These were so important to the Romans that Ancient Roman brides wore saffron dyed tunicas and red veils as an act of sympathetic magic to ensure prosperity and fertility. An end-of-harvest "Kalends" wedding certainly would have caused scandal.

The Days of the Dead—Dia de los Muertesare celebrated at the same time as our Samhain by Latino cultures and are a mixture—in a wonderful, creative, living folkloric sense—of native customs of Mexican, Meso- and South American Harvest festivals and imported Spanish culture that included Carnival and Moorish customs from N. Africa. Paper roses, marigolds, "deaf feasts," beautiful altares with animales and angelitos, spending the day cleaning and decorating the tombstones and picnicking on the graves of relations are customs from S. America and Mexico. Dia de los Muertes has become a popular holiday throughout the American Southwest with parades, festivals, and parties, each one reflecting and incorporating the culture of the region. For example, in Albuquerque's Old Town, where I recently visited, a veritable festival of chilies, music, and cuisine reflecting the desert peoples of New Mexico is to be enjoyed by one and all. In San Francisco, a festival with music, dancing and beautiful public altares is to be found throughout the week leading up to Dia de los Muertes. During the celebrations, the dead are seen as returning for one night of revelry in a grand procession of animales, departed relatives, saints, and angelitos: the souls of recently dead children. The dead are welcomed, spoken to, and invited to share in a feast laid out for them by relations.

We wear costumes and masks during this season for a couple of reasons: it is the "memory" of Carnival, the great festival held in Europe mostly just before Lent, but in some places, as the celebration of Martlemas or Martinmas on November 11. In Celtic countries, people went masked on Samhain night (the Celts, as you may recall, went Everywhere, and took their bagpipes with them). Gang abraid on Samhain night was a little dangerous, the fairies (like the dread Phuka, Wil'o'the Wisp, or Kelpies) and (unlike the angelitos of Dia de los Muertes), the "unrestful" dead relations in Celtic lore played nasty tricks on the living and tended to drop body parts around. In order to stay "invisible" to such beings, one traveled in disguise. If you were unlucky enough to meet Feys or Sidhi abroad, an Irish traveler would offer a gift of acorns, hazelnuts, and rowanberries. It was also an old custom that the harvest not brought in by All Hallows at the edges of the fields, was left for the "Tinkers, Gypsies [—not the same], gleaners, and fairies"a sharing of the wealth. Of course, by November, the weather in the British Isles would have made harvesting fairly miserable in any event.

...and, here I found the Wild Hunt...

In very ancient times, November was also the time when culling of the herds was completed. The Wild Hunt that races through the sky during the red Hunter's Moon of the fall is connected to the culling, butchering, curing, and storing of meat for the winter ahead. With the culling of the herds, the death and funerary imagery of The Wild Hunt and Riding of the Dead on Samhain becomes clear. While there is a specific date and time for the Hunter's Moon in both British and Native American lore: generally, the first Full Moon after the Harvest Moon (the Full Moon nearest the Autumnal equinox) around mid-October, it is also discussed in folk traditions as the autumn full moon when it appears to be red. The bright red hue was equated with the blood of the hunt and the culling of the herds.

Today, we know that when the moon in autumn rises deep red, it is the atmospheric conditions of the season and the likelihood of smoke in the air that changes the moon's color from white to golden (the "Harvest Moon") to deep crimson (sometimes called a "bloody" or "sanguine moon"). The moon also changes from its normal white to a deep scarlet during a lunar eclipse. The early evenings of November would have found our ancestors gazing at the moon rising against a dark evening sky. The optical illusion on the horizon of a brilliant red full moon is such an evocative sight that one can imagine the Hornéd Man and his Wild Host galloping over the horizon.

Folk plays, Stan Jones, ...and the Faery Rade rides forever and ever...

Young men in Norway enacted the Wild Hunt at Winter Solstice until the beginning of the 20th century. Costumed and masked, their task was to punish those who violated the rural traditions, usually by stealing beer and livestock. If the riders were given food and drink, however, they brought prosperity. The figures of the Hunt populate the folklore of many winter seasonal celebrations: it is easy to see the Hornéd Man in the British Holly King at Winter Solstice. Until recently, Mummers during their seasonal performances in Richmond, Yorkshire would sing,

My hide unto the Huntsman

So freely I would give,

My body to the hounds,

For I'd rather die than live:

So shoot him, whip him, strip him,

To the Huntsman let him go;

For he's neither fit to ride upon,

Nor in any team to draw.

Poor old horse! You must die! (trad.)

In the Alps, Krampus with his Perchten followers is an "incubus" or anti-saint who accompanies St. Nicholas the two weeks of December. Krampus scolds and punishes incurably wicked children with a "light birching." In the Eastern Alps on Dec. 5, Kranpusnaught, young men in grotesque masks cavort in the streets whipping young women with birch brooms and generally scaring children. In Victorian times, the devilish and horned Black Peter or Black Rupert (who, after having been thrown out of both Heaven and Hell, hunted "unclean souls") appeared during December revels. He also accompanies St. Nicholas on his Saint's Day (Dec. 6) processionals as Knecht Ruprecht or Rupelz in Alsace. As an aside, an article on reports that,

During World War II, Krampus shamefully pandered to the Nazis in such postcards, doing a series of propaganda appearances in which he trounced and embarrassed British and French citizens and soldiers. After WWII, it was rumored that Krampus fled to Brazil and took part in an evil cloning scheme, but our team of investigators has failed to confirm those reports.

The story of the Wild Hunt remains with us today: Hern the Hunter is said to appear frequently when Britain is under threat of invasion in and around Windsor Great Park. As recently as the 1950s, he was said to appear near Windsor Castle where he frightened three young boys. In Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook, Cassandra Eason (2007) writes:

...three boys were damaging trees when one saw a hunting horn and picked it up and blew it. Immediately, baying hounds were heard close at hand, plus the obligatory huge dark shadows. It is told that two of the boys ran to a convenient nearby church. But the third boy, the one with the horn, fell. The hounds were very close, an arrow was heard being shot from a bow and the boy died, though no arrow and no injury that could be seen.

Hern and the Wild Hunt was reported in 1962 when he appeared on a white stag before a group of boy scouts in Windsor Park, (Ogden, 1999), although this may be an urban legend based upon the account about it in Eason's book. The last sighting of reported was in 1976, when a guardsman on duty at the Castle claimed that a statue in the Italian garden grew horns and came to life. The guardsman claimed to have had no prior knowledge of the Herne legends. (Ford, 2001). David Nash Ford on his site, Royal Berkshire History, recounts this legend from Devon:

To those who believe in the supernatural there is certain proof. One night, in February 1855, a series of, what appeared to be, hoofprints were discovered in the snow all across South Devon. They stretched over one hundred miles, from Teignmouth to Exmouth, at one point jumping the two mile wide Exe Estuary. The prints went up walls and over roofs, and their appearance soon became known as "The Great Devon Mystery." However, the locals all knew from whence the prints came: They were the work of the Devil and his Wild Hunt. To return to Windsor, a man living in Burnham (Bucks) once heard Herne and his followers thundering through the night's sky above his house. In the morning he discovered hoofprints impressed right over his roof! (2001)

My search for the Wild Hunt came to a (temporary) end in the American West with a performance of the familiar cowboy standard, "Ghost Riders in the Sky", at a music venue in the unlikely locale of Berkeley, California by singer-songwriter Doug Blumer. "Ghost Riders in the Sky" is a folk song written in 1948 by songwriter, Stan Jones. On can quickly see the connection between the tales of the Wild Hunt and this tune. Oral tradition has it that Stan Jones, as a young boy, rode to the top of a hill in Arizona to check on a windmill. A "mighty storm was a-brewin' up" and the blades had to be locked down to prevent damage. As he worked, the lightning flashed and the wind blew, an old cowhand told him that if he weren't careful, "The devil's herd would be after them both...." Sure enough, in the boiling clouds, Stan could make out the angry red eyes, the pounding hoofs of the herd, and the shouts of the devil's phantom cowpokes themselves. Feeling the hot breath of the herd behind him, the terrified boy leaped on his horse and rode home as fast as he could. Forty years later, Stan Jones sat on his front porch in the (aptly named) Death Valley and wrote the immortal country standard made famous by the likes of The Sons of the Pioneers, The Westerlies, Peggy Lee, Gene Autry, and Johnny Cash and still performed today at the Grand Old Opry by a new generation of "pickers and strummers":

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel,

Their horns were black and shiney and their hot breath he could feel.

A bolt of fear shot through him as he looked up in the sky,

For he saw the riders comin' and he heard their mournful cry.

Yippee-yi-ya, yippee-yi-yo, ghost riders in the sky.

(1948, Stan Jones)

In popular music, beyond the rock band Therion and Sally Oldfield's 1970's folk song mentioned at the beginning of this essay, according to oral rock and roll legend (accredited to band member, guitarist Robby Krieger) this song also inspired Jim Morrison's final song, the haunting "Riders on the Storm":

Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm

Into this house we're born

Into this world we're thrown

Like a dog without a bone

An actor out alone

Riders on the storm... (Morrison, 1971)

The Wild Hunt lives on in fantasy literature and music, even in recent films such as Ghost Rider (2007) and Valeri Roubintchik's The Wild Hunt of King Stakh (1980).

Finally, to bring this tale into 2009, several folk "faerie" performers have recorded songs concerning the Wild Hunt. Some are better than others, but there are a couple worth mentioning: Chalice & Blade, offers their first CD, "Wild Hunt"; a Berkeley metal band called Wild Hunt is making some waves, and at the other end of the music spectrum Frasnz Liszt's early Romantic composition Wild Hunt 8 in C Minor, recorded recently by Earl Wild and Russell Sherman, has received good reviews.

And so ... my search continues, in music stores and libraries. What has it brought me? At least I will know what to do if I hear the horns of The Hunt on some lonely road in autumn when a red moon rises...or, I think I do.


Wild Chase, Franz Von Stuck (18??)

Wild Hunt of Odin, Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Works Referenced

Arrowsmith, N. (1977). Field Guide to the Little People. Farrar Straus & Giroux:

Gordonsville, Virginia.

Berk, A. & Spytma, W. (2002). Penance, Power, and Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt. Realms of Fantasy magazine, April 2002.:

Sovereign / Homestead Publishing: Herndon, Virginia.

Eason, C. (2007) Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Greenwood Press 1,1 Mb: Santa Barbara, CA

Froud. B. (2007). World of Faerie. Insight Editions: San Rafael, CA

Froud. B. (2000). Good Fairies, Bad Fairies. Pavilion Books: London

Guerber, A. H. (1909/1992). Myths of the Norsemen. George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd: London.

Gundarsson, K. H. (1992). The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host. Mountain Thunder, Issue 7, Winter 1992.

Ford, D. N. (2001/2005). Beware the Ghostly Hunt - Folklore or Fact? on Royal Berkshire History Nash Ford Publishing: Finchampstead.

Hartland, E.S. (1890). English Fairy and Other Folk Tales. Walter Scott: London

Krampus (2006). Rotten Library - Mountain View, California

Rosetti, C. (1856/1997). Goblin Market. Chronicle Books: San Francisco.

Tolkien, J.R.R. and Hostetter, C. F. (1975) Sir Orpheo, A Middle English Version. Trans. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ballantine: New York. Also appears in Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004) 85-123

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (1912). Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #17 Translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823) Everyman Press: London,

Ogden, T. (1999). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. Alpha Books: Indianapolis, In.

Wilde, Lady, F. S. (1887/2008). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. London: Ward and Downey, Boston: Ticknor. Reissued: Samhain Song Press: Missouri

Yeats, W. B. (1888). Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats. Walter Scott: London

Other articles by the author concerning ghostly events:

Le Vampyre, the Gothic Novel, and George Gordon, Lord Byron

Ladies of the Darkness: Trows, Rusalki, Vampires, and White Ladies of Literature and Folklore

Other resources and links:

Therion is found here:

Video: Johnny Cash sings "Ghost Riders in the Sky":

Tribute site for Ghost Riders in the Sky:

Singer songwriter Doug Blumer's website:

Sally Oldfield's "Night of the Hunter's Moon" is found on her classic 1976 LP, Waterbearer, recently remastered on CD and fount at:

About Samhain, the Celtic New Year:

Mything Links:

Dia de los Muertes website:

Video from Albuquerque:

The Roman Calendar:

Copyright © 2009, Lezlie Kinyon. All Rights Reserved.

About Lezlie Kinyon

Poet, artist, writer.


Mar 6, 04:49 by Bluejack
Comment Below!
Mar 7, 17:47 by JM Cornwell
Andre Norton used the wild hunt in several books in the High Hallack stories in the Witch World series, calling it That Which Runs the Ridges. At its center was a maiden being chased by the wild hunt. In a later story, the maiden is freed from the Wild Hunt and turns out to be the sister of the Lord of the Hunt.
Mar 8, 02:37 by Blue Tyson
Susan Cooper's famous Dark Is Rising, too, of course.
Mar 8, 02:48 by Bluejack
And, of course, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series has all sorts of Wild Hunt references, most explicitly as it opens in The Book of Three.

A bibliography of Wild Hunt occurrences in fantasy fiction would probably be quite extensive. I particularly loved the Alexander books as a kid though.

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