As a devotional to the Wild Hunt during this season when They are most active on earth, I will be writing a series of posts retelling some of the different stories of Their origins, leaders, and encounters with humans, as recorded in the surviving folk myths. To begin, I’ll note that Wild Hunt legends and lore are widespread throughout Northern, Western and Central Europe, but they tended to take on a distinctive local character in each region, varying greatly in terms of the identity of the band of hunters (who were variously described as fairies, the dead, demons, or all of the above) as well as Their leader and the object of Their Hunt. Despite the lack of direct mention of the Hunt in the Icelandic Eddas, Odin in His many guises is one of the most frequently cited Masters of the Hunt, and often there are details in an account that point to Him even where He is not directly named (as we shall see).
For my first tale of the Hunt’s origins, we’ll turn to Myths and Legends of the British Isles, by Richard Barber. In this compilation volume, the author includes a story originally appearing in Courtier’s Trifles, a collection of stories written by Walter Map–a follower of the court of Henry II–in the late 12th century. The story goes that Herla, an ancient king of Britain, was approached one day by a pygmy king (possibly a dwarf or elf) who informs him that he will shortly receive an offer of marriage for the French king’s daughter to become his queen. The pygmy puts before him a proposition: he will grace Herla’s wedding with his presence, and that of his servants, on the condition that Herla will return the favor at his own marriage one year hence.
Herla agrees, and the messengers arrive later that day with the news, just as the pygmy had promised. At the appointed time for the wedding feast, the pygmy king returns with his servants, who provide all the food,, drink, gems, and other luxuries the wedding guests could want; so much so that there is nothing at all left for Herla’s servants to do. After a feast of unsurpassed splendor, the pygmy king departs, with a reminder to Herla to mind his promise and return the favor a year hence.
Herla spends a year of happiness with his new bride, and then one day emissaries from the pygmy court appear one day to conduct the king and his retinue to the pygmy court to make good on his promise. After a short journey, the party travels deep into a cavern and then emerges again into the light, where the glorious palace of the pygmies stands. When the wedding festivities have ended, the pygmy king escorts the visitors to the boundaries of his kingdom, giving them each rich parting gifts including a small greyhound for each guest, with instructions that the dogs are to ride on the saddle before their owners, and that the men must not dismount from their horses before the dogs have leapt down to the ground.
After traveling for a short time, Herla’s party comes across a shepherd, and Herla approaches him to ask about his wife the queen by name. The shepherd seems confused at first, then tells Herla that he can barely understand his words, since he (the shepherd) is a Saxon while the stranger (Herla) is a Briton, but a queen by that name was said to have ruled two hundred years ago, wife of the legendary King Herla who rode away with a group of his men one day and never returned.
In shock at these words, several of Herla’s party leap to the ground, although their dogs have not moved, and crumble away to dust as soon as they have touched the earth. Herla warns his remaining men to remain mounted until their dogs have leapt down. He then rides on with his followers, but none of the dogs ever jump down, with the result that his band is forced to roam the earth forever as night-wanderers, whom men come to call followers of Herla, or Herlethingi, “an army of infinite wandering, of the maddest meanderings, of insensate silence, in which many who were known to be dead appeared alive.” On one occasion, in Wales, a group of men encountered this eerie troup and attempted to confront them…at which point Herla’s band simply rose into the air and vanished.
As a side note, I’ll mention that one of Odin’s many heiti (or by-names) mentioned in the Scandinavian sources is Herjan (Leader of Hosts), so even in this rather odd Hunt tale there is a link back to Him. Also worth noting in this tale is the presence of dogs, animals whose connection with the Hunt and the dead (both as psychopomps and guardians) are a recurring theme.