The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wild Hunt

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WILD HUNT (Ger. Wilde Jagd; also Wüthenheer), in German folk-lore, a fancied noise in the air at night, most usually supposed to be heard between Christmas and Epiphany. The sound is compared to that of a spirit host rushing along, accompanied by the shouting of huntsmen and the baying of dogs. The root of the notion is thought to lie in the Christian degradation of the old heathen gods. Like Odin, the lord of all atmospheric and weather phenomena, and consequently of storms, the wild huntsman also appears on horseback in hat and cloak accompanied by a train of spirits — by the ghosts of drunkards, suicides and other malefactors, often without heads or otherwise mutilated. When he comes to a crossroad, he falls, and gets up on the other side. Generally he brings hurt or destruction, especially to any one rash enough to address him or join in the hunting cry, as many persons valiant in their drink have done. Whoever remains standing in the middle of the highway, or steps aside into a tilled field, or throws himself in silence on the earth, is supposed to escape the danger. In many districts heroes of the older or of the more modern legends take the place of Odin: thus, in Lusatia, Dietrich of Bern; in Swabia, Berchtold; in Sleswick, King Abel; in Lower Hesse, Charles the Great; in England, King Arthur; in Denmark, King Waldemar. The legend has in recent times attached itself to individual sportsmen, who, as a punishment for their immoderateness or cruelty in sport, or for hunting on Sunday, were condemned henceforth to follow the chase by night. In lower Germany there are many such stories current of one Hakkelberend, whose alleged tomb is shown in several places.

Another version of the wild hunt is to be found in the legend prevalent in Thuringia. There the procession, formed partly of children who had died unbaptized, and headed by Frau Holle or Holda, passed yearly through the country on Holy Thursday, and the assembled people waited its arrival, as if a mighty king were approaching. An old man with white hair, the faithful Eckhart, preceded the spirit-host to warn the people out of the way. In one form or other the legend of the wild hunt is spread over all German countries, and is found also in France and even in Spain. In England we meet substantially the same notion in folk-lore — phantom dogs, like the black Shuck-dog of Norfolk and the Mauthe hound of Peel in Man, the “Wisht Hounds” of Dartmoor, headless horses, a ghostly coach and horses swept along in a storm of wind. Such tales, with innumerable variants, are found in the mythical and legendary records of all the older peoples.