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The Wild Hunt
Once the Winter Solstice has come and the year is reaching its end in the depths of winterly darkness, the Wild Hunt is roaming the lands, led by the Stormgod Woden, haunting the farms and villages in the dark half of the year, especially during the twelve nights of Yule. In many cases offerings were made to the mythical hunting party, which we know of from reports, where people claim they have seen them sweeping about. In other instances they just roam through the town with a lot of noise. Here a report from 16th century Germany:
In the year 1550 the wild hunt was heard in Mösskirch. In a night in autumn time after ten o’clock it appeared in front of the Banholz wood with a great shouting across the Ablach river towards Minchsgereut, and when it had stayed around there for a good while, it came down the Herdt lane and then past the hospital and the church across the Ablach bridge, along the stream close to the town, up the Katzensteig hill-way, with a marvellous noisiness, loud screaming, ringing and a huge wind, which it brought along. It did thereafter, which the guards on the tower and elsewhere in the town could hear well, although they couldn’t see much in the darkness and distance, fare towards the Herdlin mountain …
(Zimmerische Chronik vol. 4, p. 122, translated by Iwobrand)
Although the Wild Hunt is not malvolent in itself, it is still dangerous to cross their way. Oftentimes the spirits of the dead follow the Wild Hunt, dead ancestors are even invited to the homes of the people and given food and drink in many regions during Yuletide.
A well-known figure even outside of the Alps is the Krampus or Percht: the horns of a goat, a grotesque face with pointed teeth and a wicked stare, covered with fur and bearing a whip or scrubby rod. Its undeniable demonic appearance has often been put in analogy with the Christian devil, or it has been deemed a demonisation of the Celto-Germanic Goddess Perchta. This demonic figure is not the only creature that we find. In opposition to the Perchten, or to be more specific Schiachperchten („ugly Perchten“), in some regions of the Alps there are also the so-called Schönperchten („pretty Perchten“), who give a cheerful and fair, often red-white, appearance and perform festive dances, rather than scaring away children and beating girls with their rods – which is what the Schiechperchten or Krampen do. Towards the north there are many similiar creatures, like Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, and the Julebuk in Scandinavia. Here we already know the dichotomy of gift-giving and punishment: The bad ought to be left behind and the good kept and rewarded, in order to start freshly into the new year.
Germanic Initiation Rites
These were two descriptions of different phenomena within Germanic folk tradition, one a narrative report from Yuletide folk belief, the other a physical ritual from the realm of Alpine Yuletide folk customs. Yet is has been claimed that both have the same origin. Lily Weiser gives highly interesting insight in a short book on Germanic initiation rites (Altgermanische Jünglingsweihen und Männerbünde, 1927). In comparison to the cult practices of primitive peoples, she decribes the period of initiation as a time of seperation from the tribe, ascetism, and in general a changed mental state. The human psyche can go through fundamental changes here, including memory loss, maturing of so-far childlike traits and ultimately the re-embodiment of an ancestral persona. The initiates are considered dead by the members of the tribe now, their neglected state makes them literally look like corpses. Through these frame conditions the initiates may reach a state of ekstatis, the dissociation of spirit and body that is also a precondition for the shamanistic practice of metempsychosis.
We know about a similiar ecstatic state from the Norse Berserkir („bear-skins“), whose trance-like rage was feared in battle by the enemy. Very similiar are the so-called Úlfhéðnar (“wolf-skins”) that we apparently see depicted in ornaments from Sweden and Alemannic Southern Germany. For further information on this, read my article on pan-Germanic warrior cults.
What the initiates experience during their transition period in the woods could probably only be understood by someone who did undergo the same procedure. After their return to the tribe they are considered reborn and now full members of adult society.
Winterly Cult Processions
The Perchtenlauf procession however is also connected to agriculture: By roaming the fields and making a lot of noise, the demonic Perchten prepare the soil for a good harvest in the coming year. The same also applies to the Wild Hunt – more evidence for their sameness. Weiser illustrates these cult practices as a form of fertility magic. This makes sense especially for Germanic people, as the cold winters of northern Europe cause nature to die, and the return of spring must have been yearned for to an even greater extend than in today’s modern comfort society.
Weiser’s approach was later picked up by Otto Höfler in his book on cult societies of the Germanic people (Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen, 1934), in which he mainly writes about the Wild Hunt and similiar phenomena around Yuletide in Germany and other Germanic countries. Höfler however shows that the Wild Hunt is tied to ancestral cult even more than fertility magic, which is more seen as a secondary effect by him. In general we can probably say, that vegetative and ancestral cycles of death and rebirth aren’t mutually exclusive, but go along hand in hand.
In terms of ancestral reincarnation, Höfler draws parallels also to Norse mythology: Óðinn is not only the God of wind, wisdom and magic, but also a psychopomp who guides the souls of the dead into the underworld, or to Valhöll, if the person has fallen in battle honourably. It thus becomes sensible that an initiate in ritualistic seperation would reincarnate as an honourable warrior of his kin, inspired by the magic of all-father Óðinn.
Not only does Tacitus mention ritualistic sword dances (Germania, 24). The notion that the initiates form a spiritually inspired warrior caste is in line with his report on the Germanic Harii, which Weiser brings up as a possible precursor of the Wild Hunt:
As for the Harii, not only are they superior in strength to the other peoples I have just mentioned, but they minister to their savage instincts by trickery and clever timing. They black their shields and dye their bodies, and choose pitch dark nights for their battles. The shadowy, awe-inspiring appearance of such a ghoulish army inspires mortal panic; for no enemy can endure a sight so strange and hellish.
(Publius Cornelius Tacitus: Germania, 43)
Höfler supplies a vast number of historical sources that make it most probable, that the Wild Hunt and secretive processions acted out by disguised humans around the time of Yule and Carnival (German: Fasnacht) are one and the same. Thus Höfler points out once more how important cult practices are for the understanding of the pre-Christian psyche and thus Germanic Paganism. Other than remaining an abstract and rational doctrine, the belief becomes something tangible and real.
A number of similiarities can also be shown between the Wild Hunt and the 15th to 16th century Schembartlauf in Nuremberg. Some of the young men taking part in this public Carnival procession were also dressed up as wolf-men. One of their procession carts was called „Hell“ and had the shape of a ship, just like some of the old sources tell us about the Wild Hunt carrying a ship of the dead along. Similarly the light of summer descends into the underworld on the sun-ship, just to return with the longer days at the end of winter.
Even though the original cult must have shifted into syncretic forms with the Christianization of Europe, it is stunning how much of the Pagan basis had been preserved until the 16th or even 17th century. What the early modern writers often report as ghostly invasions of the Wild Hunt might well have been a group of cultists in costumes. This might seem like a demystification to some, but the cruxial point in all this is that these people did not see their performance as a form of banal acting or deception, as rationalistic scholars might raise the claim. The participants rather seemed to shift their state of mind and embody what they were disguised as in a real sense. It’s just that modern man in his mental state is miles aways from such a possibility. The notion that there is something metempsychotic about these processions must have been alive for a very long time, not only among the witnesses who observed them from outside, but also for hooded folk themselves. In later times they were probably mostly the members of gilds, because in the supposedly worldly framework of these institutions non-christian cult practices were the most likely to survive. The secret nature of these cult practises will to a huge extend be owed to protection against the church, which obviously took fierce action against such pagan cults. If we look at Lily Weiser’s comments on initiation, it’s very likely that originally most members of the tribe were initiated at some point in their youth. The mysterious nature would also not least lay in the mysteries of the otherworldly realm that the initiates were tresspassing.
One point that is in question however is, why do the initiates and/or initiators wear animal hides, and how does this relate to an ancestral cult? The blackfacing, which also often occurs in the procession, can be explained by the scary corpse- or ghost-like impression that it gives. Animal hides however point towards a much more primordial aspect of the initiation: It must be linked to the interim of seperation from the tribe, the stay of the initiates in the woods. The initiates might have hunted for food, but the killing of dangerous animals, like the wolf or bear, might also have been a test of courage, in the course of which the spirit of a totem animal could be taken over. Petroglyphs in Tanum (Sweden) show beastlike men with lures, solar symbology and ships already in the Bronze Age, as the picture above shows.
We are with this potentially lead back into times of the European hunter-gatherers. This would also explain why there are many parallels within other cultures, like the Celtic, Slavic and Greek traditions. Just like the Wild Hunt is until quite recently linked to the warrior caste, the wolf cult might have been linked to the archaic prototype of the warrior caste – the group of predominantly male tribe members that scouted the woods for prey. Many of the initiates live from robbery, like some of the late Norse berserkers, or was even a holy right, like in the Spartan agoge. A report from 17th century Livland shows that even then members of syncretic cult societies still used to raid farms in the shape of werewolves. The old Thieß talks about stealing sheep and regaining the harvest for the next year from the underworld. The partitioners of the Wild Hunt thus embody not only ghostly ancestral souls but also the souls of the wicked natural spirits strolling through the forest in dark times of winter. Death and winter are yet again parallelized, the human and the natural are synchronized. Whether the Yule procession fetched the initiates from their homes, brought them back, or if it maybe served to pound farms for food during the time of initiation trial, the concrete process is hard to reconstruct today.
A lot would be to say about these topics. The books by Lily Weiser and Otto Höfler almost exclusively deal with male forms of initiation, but there will have been similar customs for girls. The Wild Hunt is not only led by Woden, but in some regions also by Holda, who under the name Frau Holle puts the virtuous female protagonist of the fairy tale under trials and releases her to go home as the shiny Goldmarie, while her bad step-sister is sent back as the black Pechmarie. Worth mentioning are the fights between different groups of Perchten or other creatures in folk customs, which can be compared to the Norse Ragnarökr. It must also be explained further how all this is linked to the time of Midwinter and the winter solstice. The single phenomena, be it Percht, werewolf, Wild Hunter etc., must be put in context with their respective folk cultural background and be appreciated and understood as such. This article had not much more than the aim of offering a first node point, from which further paths of investigation can be taken.
Höfler, Otto: Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen, vol. 1, Frankfurt am Main 1934.
Tacitus, Publius Cornelius: Germania.
Weiser, Lily: Altgermanische Junglingsweihen und Männerbünde. Ein Beitrag zur deutschen und nordischen Altertums- und Volkskunde, Bühl 1927.
Vikernes, Varg: Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia, Abstract Sounds Books Ltd., 2011.
Perchtenlauf in Pfarrwerfen 2016: