Lord of the Dead, Fairy Cavalcade, Psychopomp: The Mysterious Origins of the Wild Hunt & Its Many Faces in Popular Culture

By Romany Reagan

They both turned to stare as the clouds directly above them parted. A shadow grew in the air, darkening as it neared them: the figure of a man, massive and bound in armour, bareback on a red-eyed, foaming brindle horse—black and gray, like the storm clouds overhead. The horse came to a neighing, pawing stop at the foot of the Institute steps. The man looked up at them. His eyes were two different colours, blue and black. His face was terrifyingly familiar. It was Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord and leader of the Wild Hunt. And he did not look pleased.

Lord of Shadows, The Dark Artifices, Cassandra Clare 

Wild Hunt. It crosses our path at scarily unpredictable intervals, often through the sky and nearly always at night. It is very numinous and also doom-laden. Otherwise, no one knows quite what to make of it.

— Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Numinous & Doom-Laden

I have a guilty secret. At least, that’s what I’m supposed to say before such an admission: I love young adult fantasy novels. Someone with a PhD isn’t supposed to admit that, but what does ‘supposed to’ even mean? According to whom? One of the joys of getting a PhD—I kid you not—was feeling I could finally proclaim my love of pop novels and no one could make fun of me! But then you get this degree and you feel you have to Uphold the Code, or something… 

Well, no more. Hello world, my name is Romany Reagan and I love young adult fantasy novels. I’ve been known to take a break from my high-brow bookshelf to devour Cassandra Clare’s six-book Mortal Instruments AND Dark Artifices series in a go. I even loved all four Twilight books. I know, it’s madness. It’s like having an industrial goth fiancé who likes Dire Straits. 

But I’m not the only one. These books are international best-selling series, so there must be something they’re doing right. Some sort of cultural zeitgeist they capture or inner thrill they ignite in many people. 

In this post I focus my academic eye on analysing one aspect of the pop novel trope—the repurposing of the Wild Hunt myth for new generations. This piece investigates the evolution of the Wild Hunt myth (which features prominently in Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Dark Artifices series, led by Gwyn ap Nudd) from its mysterious multiple origins and how it has evolved over time to stay with us, re-emerging with new relevance in pop novels and video games.

The Many Faces of the Wild Hunt

‘The Wild Chase’, by Franz von Stuck, 1889

Wild Hunt traditions are extremely various and widespread, involving a complex overlay of Celtic and Saxon sources, of pagan and Christian beliefs, of national myth and local legend. Looking at different author’s treatments of the Wild Hunt we can see not only the variety of its origins, but also its potential to be evoked in different forms and for different fictional purposes. Some Wild Hunts are savage, amoral, and intensely powerful, embodying the irresistible force of nature itself. In his function as a Lord of the Dead, the leader of the Wild Hunt is the embodiment of living wildness. Accompanied by his consort (as he sometimes is) the fertility goddess, they represent the two sides of life and death, they are the complete cycle of renewal. 

Which is a tidy way of describing it; and if that were the way the Wild Hunt was always presented, then I could sign off this piece here. But this ‘cycle of life’ image is not the common manifestation. Other authors use the Wild Hunt as a device for exploring the internal fears and fantasies of the characters rather than a specific supernatural force that must be dealt with. Some writers position the Hunt as a flicker around the edges of the narrative, just out of reach and ambiguous. As children’s fiction scholar Catherine Butler so wonderfully puts it, describing our reticence to pin down the leader of the Wild Hunt: “Not in the sense of provoking doubt as to his existence, but simply because he contains too many identities to be held comfortably in one head at any time”. (Butler 194)

Although the term ‘Wild Hunt’ wasn’t coined until the 19th century by German mythologist and linguist Jacob Grimm (of Brothers Grimm fame), Ben Jonson wrote of a dark fairy cavalcade and hunting procession way back in 1610 in his play The Alchemist. Wild Hunt stories often mention a conglomerate of both fairies and other creatures of the Otherworld, along with doomed humans making up the group, and while Jonson didn’t invent this idea, it is one of the earliest works of popular entertainment working with the trope. 

In other incarnations, the Wild Hunt was euphemised and associated with historical or semi-historical figures, such as the Saxon nobleman Wild Edric, King Arthur, or Sir Francis Drake, or any number of squires and priests (such as the Cornish Squire Dando) foolish enough to go hunting on the sabbath and condemned to lead a spectral hunt in consequence. Alternatively, the huntsman might be none other than Satan himself, on the lookout for lost souls to snatch away to hell or press into his hunting retinue. In this form the Wild Hunt shares some of the characteristics of the Irish and Scottish Sluagh, a malicious fairy host given to tormenting (and sometimes abducting) unwary mortals who cross its path. (Butler 185) 

‘Gwyn and White Hart’ by Yuri Leitch, detail from a mural in Glastonbury, 2013

The Wild Hunt can claim such a diversity of mythological heritage as to almost be without definition. In the early 20th century, historical novelist Robert Graves combined three figures (Gwyn ap Nudd, Arawn King of Annywn, Herne the Hunter) identifying them as aspects of the same character. “Not only that, he also added a few others for good measure: the classical god Hermes, the Egyptian god Anubis, the archangel Gabriel from the Christian tradition, as well as King Arthur, and Bran from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. Graves interpreted Bran as a god of the underworld based on his idiosyncratic reading of a fragment of text in the Myvyrian Archaiology, the same fragment that inspired Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. By the time Graves was finished with him, Herne/Gwyn/Arthur/Bran was a highly complex persona, taking on myriad attributes supposedly originating from Britain’s ancient, pagan religion, but all of which should be viewed as an amalgam of wonderful fabrication.” (Femi 238-239)

This blending together of various myths to create the image of the leader of the Wild Hunt shares a similar lineage and mythological impulse as the development of the Horned God figure—also manifesting in Herne the Hunter—which I explore in depth in a piece I wrote back in April, Who Is the Horned God?

‘The Wild Hunt of Celtic Britain’, by Henri Lievens

In 2001 leading British experts in folklore, Hilda Ellis Davidson and Patricia Lysaght, both provided helpful definitions for the Wild Hunt. Davidson defined the Wild Hunt as ‘one of the many names for a company of dark riders who pass through the sky at night, or else along lonely roads’. She added that its leaders could be supernatural or legendary figures, or historical personalities, and that it was usually regarded as sinister and menacing. Lysaght, defined the hunt as ‘a group of ghostly hunters (horsemen) riding through the sky at night’. “What was especially significant about the developing employment of the concept of the Wild Hunt, by the end of [the 20th] century, was the major role which it has come to play in the popular imagination. In particular, it had achieved a prominent place in British works of fiction, and especially among those designed for children and young adults. Catherine Butler, who has made the pioneering study of this development, has aptly described it as ‘paradigmatic of the way in which mythological and folk material has been utilised within British children’s fantasy’. (Hutton 2019 175) 

Jacob Grimm (1785 –1863) German philologist, jurist & mythologist

One root truth, that eminent folklorist Ronald Hutton has sussed out, is that the concept of the Wild Hunt that we think of today owes its spark of life to the imagination of German scholar Jacob Grimm. Grimm drew his construction of the Wild Hunt from records of contemporary folklore, mostly German, which he combined with medieval and ancient texts. His idea was that all of this disparate evidence could be traced back to one single primordial pagan belief, shared across northern Europe, of a night ride of the herotic dead led by a god whom he identified as the Germanic Wotan, Anglo-Saxon Woden, or Norse Odin—sometimes along with that god’s consort, the goddess of fertility, in her many guises. 

Hutton has suggested that Grimm assembled his portrait of the Wild Hunt from three different, and originally unrelated, popular traditions, which appeared in the early to high Middle Ages: 

The first of these was a belief in the night-time rides by a group of spirits, usually female and often led by a superhuman female, commonly known as Diana, Herodias, Holle or Holda, Bertha, or Percht, but also by many local names and often just as ‘the Lady’. These roamed the world, frequently visited the homes of favoured humans, and frequently included other favoured living people in their company. The second was a concept of a nocturnal procession of penitential human dead, or of demons impersonating them. The individuals represented in it were often those who had met violent, premature, or sinful ends, and the group was commonly spoken of as having a male leader called Herlechin, Herelwin, or Hellequin, although he almost never actually appeared with them. The third was a tradition of individual spectral huntsman, riding at night with a ghostly pack of hounds. The hunter concerned could be variously the Devil, pursuing sinners or their souls; a former huntsman, doomed to wander the dark hours to pay for sins during life; or a wildman who pursued otherworldly prey, and sometimes took the livestock of humans as well. It was the individual spectral hunter who was known in some stories as ‘The Wild Huntsman’, and Grimm appropriated and modified this term for his much larger composite image. (Hutton 2019 176) 

Source: DreamWorlds RU http://dreamworlds.ru/uploads/posts/2011-10/1317988112_34c0531abd5c.jpg

There is no single source or form of the Wild Hunt legend, but rather a series of overlapping ones. All, however, represent it as a supernatural hunt, usually seen or heard in the winter, and led by a huntsman often, but not always, wearing horns or antlers. It may run by land or through the night sky, the sounds of baying hounds signalling its approach. “In northern England these are the Gabriel or Gabble Ratchets; in Wales, the Cwn Annwn; in the Southwest, the Wish or Yeff or Yell Hounds, or Dando and his Dogs; in Shropshire, Wild Edric’s Hunt; while near Windsor in Berkshire, the Hunt is associated with Herne the Hunter. Clearly, legends of the Wild Hunt are widespread although, as the variety of regional names suggests, it is often conceived of as a local phenomenon.” (Butler 2006 184-185) This linking of the spectral hunter with a pack of dogs ties the continental European myth in with local British stories of roving ghostly dogs, often portents of misfortune or death. “These spectral packs were known in Devon and Somerset as Whisht (Melancholy), Yell (Yelling), or Yeth (Heath) Hounds, in the North of England and the North Midlands as Gabriel Hounds or Gabriel Ratchets (also meaning dogs), in Worcestershire as the Seven Whistlers, in Sussex as Wish or Witch Hounds, on the Welsh Border as Hell Hounds, and in West Wales as the cwn annwn (otherworld or hell hounds).” (Hutton 2019 177) 

One aspect of the Wild Hunt that maintains across usages is the tension between menacing and helpful. On one hand the Wild Hunt is frightening, but in its role as a psychopomp (a guide of souls to the place of the dead) it is helpful.

Night Flight: Gwyn ap Nudd & the Throng of the Dead

‘Die Wilde Jagd / The Wild Hunt’ (unfinished) by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1856-57

The night flight is an ancient theme in folk beliefs. It represents the journey made by the living into the realm of the dead. This isn’t the image of a solitary ghost making its way across the landscape, the night flight is a ‘throng of the dead’ consisting of anyone from soldiers killed in battle to unbaptised children, who were led by various mythological characters on a journey to the beyond. In Welsh myth, its leader is Arawn of Annwyn, or Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Underworld.

In Celtic folklore, Gwyn ap Nudd is a wild huntsman who rides a demon horse and hunts in waste places at night with a pack of white-bodied and red-eared ‘dogs of hell’. Cheering on his hellhounds in a fearful chase, he hunts souls. A British god of battle, the otherworld, and the dead, Gwyn ap Nudd is a psychopomp who conducts the slain into Hades and then rules over them. He knows when and where all the great warriors fell, for he gathered their souls upon the fields of battle, and now rules over them in Hades, or some ‘misty mountain top’. Later semi-Christianised stories place Gwyn ap Nudd over a brood of devils in the Celtic otherworld of Annwyn. In Arthurian romances he was the king of the underworld and had a duty to control imprisoned devils and prevent them from destroying human beings. (Greenwood 197)

19th Century 

Illustration for the Mabinogion, collection of medieval Welsh poetry, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, by Alan Lee, 1982

Gwyn ap Nudd began life as a figure from medieval Welsh poetry: the heroic warrior and lover in the 12th-century ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and the 13th-century ‘Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. However there is no trace of Gwyn ap Nudd in Welsh folk culture between the end of the Middle Ages and the revival of interest in medieval Welsh text, and its popular impact, in the 19th century. The multiple uses of the Gwyn ap Nudd legend, according to folklorist Dimetra Femi, is a product of creatively adapting authentic Welsh material. The transformation of Gwyn ap Nudd can be traced from a valiant warrior and lover in early Welsh poetry to a god of the Underworld who leads the Wild Hunt. The later 19th-century interpretations of Gwyn ap Nudd turn him into “a ‘god of darkness’ and a ‘psychopomp’, riding through the night with his hounds, hunting the souls of those destined to die. […] Under this transformation, Gwyn, therefore, became a sort of Hades, to whom Rhys attached additional Welsh folklore tales about the horned leader of the Cwn Annwn (the hounds of the Otherworld), usually understood to be the devil.” (Femi 238) 

However, as we’ve seen, Gwyn ap Nudd is only one incarnation of the Wild Hunt leader. There are so many to choose from that tracing the antiquity of the tradition of ghostly nocturnal hunts is surprisingly hard to determine. As Hutton finds, “the motif of the ghostly hunter, doomed because of his misdeeds to carry on his sport or be the object of it, night after night, is both worldwide and ancient, being known not only across Europe but among the Iroquois and Malays and in the Vedic Hymns. It was certainly established in Britain by 1807, when William Wordsworth published his ‘Miscellaneous Sonnet 29’, which contained the lines: 

For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds 

Doomed with their impious Lord, the flying Hart, 

To chase for ever, on aerial grounds! 

The fashion for the Wild Hunt swept British literary society in the 1790s, a decade before Wordsworth wrote his poem. “But that was because of the impact of the poetic tales of the German writer Gottfried August Bürger, which were translated into English at that time. They were much read by the British poets and novelists of Wordsworth’s generation. ‘Der Wilde Jäger ’ (The Wild Huntsman’), a classic story of a sinful huntsman doomed to be hunted forever by Satan by night, was especially popular; it was translated again by Sir Walter Scott [in 1798]. There is also some indication that the motif grew in popularity in the course of the 19th century: no account of Dartmoor folklore was complete without a reference to a spectral hunt from the 1860s onwards, but a generation earlier Anna Bray’s careful account of the folklore of the western part of the moor was barren of any.” (Hutton 2019 179) 

Grimm’s construct of the Wild Hunt, and his hypothetical account of its origins, had a marked impact upon British scholars, but it was both selective and delayed. It really became apparent in the mid-19th century, and—naturally enough—mainly to authors who were interested in German and Scandinavian folklore, and in general theories of popular belief. 

20th Century

1971

One interesting note that Hutton points out, is authors of local folklore collections, during the Golden Age of Folklore (1870-1930) made no reference to the term ‘Wild Hunt’, despite the pervasiveness of the concept now, to the point of being canonical—at the time, it was granted merely a passing mention. It was in the latter part of the 20th century that the idea caught fire. From 1965-1985, there was a surge in collections of local lore, and also pop novels, discussing the Wild Hunt as an accepted as proven concept based on early British pagan gods. The concept was perceived to be so entrenched, that referring to spectral huntsmen or horsemen as ‘the Wild Hunt’ required no further explanation. 

The appearance of the Wild Hunt as a major theme in British novels was both sudden and a tightly bounded one, spanning most of the 1960s and 1970s and so matching, in a manner which can hardly be coincidental, the period of its apogee among folklorists. Equally noteworthy is that it was a phenomenon confined to fiction designed for children and young adults, which is not surprising as that was the genre in which fantasy drawing on older mythology, folklore, and imaginative literature was most pronounced. […] By 1975, the Hunt had become familiar enough in the genre to have a walk-on (or ride-on) part, in a novel by Diana Wynne-Jones for the same kind of readership, as if it was becoming familiar enough to need inclusion without an accompanying necessity to make it pivotal. Indeed, its form was one which was now becoming canonical: the dogs (again white with red ears); the antlered leader who emanates a huge power and is associated with the inherent magic of the land; and his linkage with a medieval mythology, in this case that of Arawyn, whose dogs these hounds represented. (Hutton 2019 184-186)

Much of the Wild Hunt’s fascination lies in its flexibility as a literary device. As Butler notes, it is “both familiar and alien, human and animal, natural and acculturated, as intimate and as savagely irrational as our own unconscious desires. Cooper writes of the mask of Herne: ‘It was a thing made to call out deep responses from the mind’—and so it does. It is hybrid, too, in being a composite formed over many years within a variety of different cultures and contexts of belief, so that, although the Wild Hunt in its various forms is a widespread phenomenon known throughout much of northwest Europe, its individual manifestations are normally tied to particular localities. Eric Fitch has written of Herne that he ‘could only have occurred in Britain, where the specific mix of ancient cultures have provided a background for the appearance of a figure of this type’.” (Butler 2006 194)

Continued cultural relevance through fluidity is the hallmark of good pop musicians just as it is for the hook of a good pop novel. One of the common throughlines of young adult fantasy novels is the frison between good and evil, and hand of help and a hand of destruction. Usually with a heavy dose of sexual tension that has the (usually human) protagonist at once drawn to and fearful of the supernatural entity that’s suddenly landed in their life. 

Gwyn & Diana, fan art, Tumblr https://www.tumgir.com/tag/diana%20%C3%97%20gwyn

Gwyn sat forward. His eyes, blue and black, were grave on hers. 

“Have you ever loved?”

She shook her head. She could feel the shaking all through her nerves—the anticipation, and the fear. “Not like that.” She should tell him why, she thought. But the words didn’t come. 

“That is a shame”, he said. “I think to be loved by you would be a tremendous honour.”

Lord of Shadows, The Dark Artifices, Cassandra Clare) 

The Wild Hunt in Pop Culture

It’s not only books that feature the Wild Hunt, there are quite a few songs and albums named for it, as well as video games and comic books. The Wild Hunt appears in the Thor comic book series by Marvel, led by Malekith the Accursed. For the Hellboy comic book series, Mike Mignola actually wrote two versions of the Wild Hunt myth, one lead by ‘Herne, god of the Hunt’ and the second by ‘King Vold, the flying Huntsman’, which Mignola based on the Norwegian folktale of ‘The Flying Huntsman (headless King Volmer and his hounds). 

In the MTV series Teen Wolf features the Wild Hunt as the main villains in the first half of season 6. The writers for Teen Wolf extend the legend with their own version that has those taken by the Wild Hunt erased from existence and forgotten by their human loved ones. 

In Dungeons & Dragons, the ‘Deities and Demigods’ expansion features the Wild Hunt under the Celtic Mythos sections as the ‘Huntsman and the Pack of the Wild Hunt’ where players can become either the hunted or be compelled to join the Hunt and participate in the slaughter of an innocent against their alignment and will. 

The Wild Hunt features in The Witcher series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and the spin-off role-playing video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is based on the books. 

The Wild Hunt is also featured in the role-playing video game series The Elder Scrolls, which conceived of the Wild Hunt as a ritual performed by wood elves for war and vengeance during times of desperation. For this Hunt, the elves transform themselves into a horde of horrific creatures who kill everything in their path. This version shows the Wild Hunt as a choice, a cruel tool. 

In Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Dark Artifices series, the Wild Hunt is led by Gwyn ap Nudd, who is based on the Welsh legend.

As mentioned in my introduction, the Wild Hunt has also of course featured in many modern popular novels: 

The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner, 1963

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Penelope Lively, 1971

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper, 1973

Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones, 1975

The Way of Wyrd, Brian Bates, 1983

Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, Guy Gavriel, 1984-86

The Wild Hunt, Jane Yolen, 1995

Tamsin, Peter S. Beagle, 1999

Dresden Files Series, Jim Butcher, 2005, 2006, 2012

Mistrals Kiss, Laurell K. Hamilton, 2006

Wicked Lovely, Melissa Marr, 2007

The Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare, 2007-2014

October Daye: An Artificial Night, Seanan McGuire, 2010

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Fred Vargas, 2011

The Brotherhood of the Wheel, R.S. Belcher, 2016

Dark Artifices, Cassandra Clare, 2016-2018

I leave you with Catherine Butler’s analysis of the use of the Wild Hunt in Diana Wynne Jones’s 1975 book Dogsbody:

The Master is a chthonic figure, but more specifically, he is the dark aspect of the natural cycle. He is the child of earth because, as he puts it, ‘Earth has the seeds of everything’, and death is implied in natural life. This mythological knowledge is not necessary for a satisfactory reading of Dogsbody. The Master warns Kathleen, and through her us, against too rigorous an analysis of these matters: ‘Don’t look too closely. The truth has no particular shape.’ His antlers—or are they shadows?—or dim horny trees?—should be allowed to remain indeterminate. Like the wave function in Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment, the multiply-mythic identity of the Master can be maintained only so long as it is allowed to remain essentially unresolved. This is not, like Lively’s a psychological question—is this real, or are we just imagining it?—but a statement about what is, for the human mind at least, an irreducible mystery. […] The mythic elements are all intended to be slightly out of focus, like an impressionist painting, and if you try to sharpen the focus you will lose something. (Butler 2006 193) 

Sources and further reading…

Butler, Catherine (nee Charles), Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in Children’s Fantasies, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press) 2006. Book. 

Femi, Dimitra, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, (Cardiff: Palgrave Macmillan) 2017. Book. 

Greenwood, Susan, ‘The Wild Hunt: A Mythological Language of Magic’, (Pizza, Murphy; Lewis, James R. [editors]), Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, (Leiden: Brill) 2009. Book. 

Hutton, Ronald, ‘The Wild Hunt in the Modern British Imagination’, Folklore, 130:2, p175-191, 2019. Journal. 

          —‘The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath’, Folklore, 125:2, p161-178. 2014. Journal. 

Spyra, Piotr, ‘Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: The Essential Guide to Early Modern Fairy Belief’, Folklore, 128:3, p292-313. 2017. Journal. 

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