WODAN, MASTER OF THE WILD
What Jackson Crawford Left Out.
Despite various historical figures being placed at the head of this host, the Wild Huntsman himself is most often identified as Wodan. According to tales collected by Ernst Meier, he is described as handsome, proud and extraordinarily large, far superior to human size. He possesses inexhaustible wealth and, like his wife, commonly gives seemingly insignificant gifts which are later transformed into gold. His train is made up of souls of the dead. As such, we occasionally find death described as "joining the old host.” At the same time, we also find a woman, frequently identified as Odin’s wife, at the head of the host, shepherding the souls of unbaptized children.
While it cannot be maintained that all of this material hails from heathen times passed down to the modern era on the lips of common people, it is clear that the popular imagination further developed an existing idea, already widespread at the close of the heathen era. According to these legends, Odin hunts at the end of the year, especially in the time between Christmas and Twelfth-Night, when the winds blow their fiercest. As such, Júlnir or Jölnir, “Yule figure”, occurs among Odin’s names in Snorri’s Edda. The peasants were always careful to leave the last sheaf of grain out in the fields to serve as fodder for his horse, “for the pagans believed that this same diabolical huntsman made his presence known in the fields at harvest time,” according to Luthern clergyman Nicolaus Gryse, who first connected Odin’s name to the Wild Hunt in 1593. The object of the hunt varies and was sometimes a spectral boar, a stag, a white-breasted maiden or some wood nymph. In the late Middle Ages, when the belief in Odin was largely forgotten, the leader of the Wild Hunt became Dietrich of Bern, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, King Arthur, King Waldemar of Denmark, or some Sabbath-breaker like Hans von Hackelberg, who, in punishment for his sin, was condemned to hunt in the air forever. In lower Germany, there are many such stories of one Hakkelberend, whose name points back to Odin, for Hakkelberend literally means “mantle-bearer” (from OHG hakhul; ON, häkull or hekla; AS hacele, drapery, mantle, armor; and bär, to bear). Grimm was disposed to pronounce the Westphalian form Hackelberend the most ancient and genuine, suggesting that hakolberand was Old Saxon for a man in armor, based on Old Saxon wâpanberand (armiger), AS helmberend, sweordberend. The Huntsman sometimes appears as a lone Schimmelreiter (“Ghostrider”) on a white horse. On occasion he appears in a car drawn by four horses, cracking his whip as hunting horns blare in the distance.
At Ragnarök, when Heimdall blows his war-horn, Odin rides into battle with a helmet on his head (cp. Sigurdrifumál 14), leading valkyries and a host of fallen warriors (Einherjar) to face the assembled forces of evil. In the Icelandic sagas, Odin is pictured as a rider, clad in a long, dark-blue cloak and a broad-rimmed hat which shades his face. Likewise the Wild Huntsman frequently appears on horseback, clad in a broad hat and cloak. He is commonly accompanied by a train of spirits, consisting of both male and female apparitions, who are sometimes without heads or otherwise mutilated in some shocking manner. In the Norse myths, Odin himself is missing an eye (Völuspá 28). In Gylfaginning 41, we are told that for entertainment, the great troop of Einherjar residing in Odin’s hall, “got dressed in war-gear every day and went out to the courtyard to fight each other and fall one upon the other,” no doubt inflicting many injuries and hacking off limbs in the process which were miraculously restored each night. On occasion, the horseman himself is headless. In the Harz, where the Wild Hunt thunders past the Eichelberg, the Wild Huntsman appears mounted on a headless black horse, carrying a riding crop in one hand and a bugle in the other. Between blasts of his horn, he cries “Hoho! Hoho!”
Behind Wodan ride plenty of women, huntsmen and dogs. Sometimes, the Furious Host is made up of benign spirits, but more often of drunks, suicides and other malefactors. According to E.M. Arndt, this eerie rabble consisted of thieves, robbers, killers and witches. Is this because Odin’s original mission was to cleanse the air of evil spirits (cp. Hávamál 155) and rid society of unseemly elements, or perhaps simply because his role had been degraded to that of a demon in Christian times? “In the oldest Christian glosses,” Jacob Grimm observes, “wôtan stands for tyrannus, herus malus (tyrant, evil master)”; he remarks that “the form wuotunc seems not to differ in sense. An unprinted poem of the thirteenth century has Wüetunges her apparently for the wütende heer, the host led as it were by Wuotan,” now degraded to a fiendish, bloodthirsty being, whose name lives on as a form of cursing in Low German popular expressions, as in Westphalia’s O Woudan, Woudan! and in Mecklenburg’s Wod, Wod! In this regard, it is worth noting that Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445-1510), who preached on the wütede or wütische heer, claimed that all who died a violent death “ere that God hath set it for them” joined the Furious Host.
In heathen Lappland, similar beliefs about the Wild Hunt prevailed. There, a specific sacrifice to the Furious Host is described in 1673. As in many other locations, they are conceived of as a ghostly troop that rides through the air and forests at Yuletide:
"There are certain days which they regard with a great deal of superstition, especially the first day of Christmas, when the masters of families don't care to come to church themselves, but send only their sons, daughters and maids. The reason they allege for it is, that they dread the apparition of spirits, which they say wander about the air in great numbers on this day, and which must be appeased by certain sacrifices, of which we shall speak hereafter. …These they call the Juhlafolket (Yule Folk), deriving their name from the word Juhli (Yule), which now signifies as much as the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, but in former Ages was used for the time of the New Year. But it being their opinion that more especially about this time the air is filled with spectres, they have given it this name. ...The day before the feast of the Juhlian Company, being Christmas eve and on Christmas day itself, they offer superstitious sacrifices in honor of the Juhlian Company, the manner being thus: On Christmas eve they fast, or rather abstain from all sorts of meat; but of everything else they eat, they carefully preserve a small quantity. The same they perform on Christmas day, when they live very plentifully. All the bits they have preserved for these two days, they put in a small chest made of birch bark, in the shape of a boat, with its sails and oars; they pour also some of the fat of the broth upon it, and thus hang it on a tree, about a bowshot distant from the backside of their homes, for the use of the Juhlian Company, wandering at that time about the forests, mountains, and the air.”
The use of a boat sacrifice suggests a connection to the dead, often buried in ship-shaped mounds, interred within actual ships, or set adrift on such a vessel serving as a funeral pyre. Of Swedish peasants in 1870, Llewelyn Lloyd says: “the most singular and appalling superstition relating to ‘Jul-night’ is the belief—one pretty generally entertained—that the dead rise from their grave.” Jacob Grimm (ch. 29) observes:
“With the coming of Christianity the fable could not but undergo a change. For the solemn march of gods, there now appeared a pack of horrid spectres, dashed with dark and devilish ingredients. Very likely the heathens themselves had believed that spirits of departed heroes took part in the divine procession; the Christians put into the host the unchristened dead, the drunkard, the suicide, who come before us in frightful forms of mutilation. …Their ancient offerings too the people did not altogether drop, but limited them to the sheaf of oats for the celestial steed, as even Death (another hunter) has his bushel of oats.”
-An excerpt from "Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology" by William P. Reaves, 2018