An autumn morning in the studio with Borges
"Into the Woods" series, 54: Following the Hare

"Into the Woods" series, 53: The Wild Hunt

Week Down Cross, Dartmoor, photograph by Nilfanion

The approach to Halloween is a time for telling stories of ghosts, ghouls, and the Unseelie Court (the underside of the Faerie Realm), and for paying wary respect to the Dark Gods of the land as we move into the dark months of the year.

Beardown Man, a prehistoric menhir on Dartmoor, photograph by Jon ConstantOne of the more frightening tales of Dartmoor is the legend of the Wild Hunt, which thunders across the moors by night in pursuit of any man or beast foolish enough to cross its path. 

"Stay indoors, attend your hearths," warn Ari Berk & William Spytma in an excellent article on the Hunt. "Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time."

The Wild Hunt, they explain, "is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history....

'Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoof beats along with the Huntsman's shouts of  'Halloo!' Death and war often follow in their wake."

Tilly on Dartmoor near Belstone

The Hunt is led by a variety of figures, depending on where the tale is told: Odin, Woden, Herla, Herne the Hunter, Dewer, the Devil, Gwynn Ap Nudd (the king of the Welsh Otherworld), and even King Arthur under a curse. Whatever his guise, the Huntsman rides with hunting hounds that are just as fearsome as he: usually black as night, with eyes like glowing coals and breath of flame.

In The Folklore of Dartmoor, Ralph Whitlock reports on the Hunt that runs on the open moor near Chagford: "Sabine Baring-Gould says that in old times the Wild Hunt was known locally as the Wist Hounds. J.R.W. Coxhead has heard them called Yeth Hounds or Heath Hounds. He writes: 'The sound of the Dark Huntsman's horn and the fierce cries of the Yeth Hounds are supposed to have been heard many times in the lonely parts of the moor by belated travelers, and by resident inhabitants of the Dartmoor area. It is said that two of the favorite haunts of the spectral huntsman and his pack of demon hounds are Wistman's Wood and the Dewerstone Rock.' He adds that when, on a stormy night in 1677, Sir Richard Cabell, lord of the manor of Brook in Buckfastleigh parish, died, the Demon Hunt raged around the house all night, waiting for the soul of the wicked knight."

Stone row and circle near Down Tor, Dartmoor"These black, spectral hounds bear almost as many names as the Hunt," note Berk & Spytma. "In the North they are called Gabriel's Hounds. In Lancashire they are described as monstrous dogs with human heads who foretell of coming death or misfortune. In Devon they are known as Yeth, Heath, or Wisht hounds. These hounds issue from inside Wistman's Wood on the eve of St. John (Midsummer), a night when by tradition the careful eye can see the spirits of the dead fly from their graves. Here, among the ancient dwarf oaks and greening stones, Dewer (the Devil), kennels his hounds, and it is still said that no real dog will enter these woods at any time of the year. The Yeth hounds are also associated with the souls of unbaptized children, which they chase across the moor as their prey. But related traditions hold that the dogs are themselves the souls of the unbaptized babes, and they instead chase the Devil across the moor in repayment for his hand in their fate.

Stall moor row, southern Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

Hut circle at Grimspound, a Bronze Age settlement, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

"In Wales the dogs are the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) often white with red ears and bellies. The corrupt priest Dando had his own beasts, called the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Great black hounds were known as the Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shuck. The Hounds of the Hunt all bear a striking resemblance to the 'Black Shuck,' a solitary creature that has stalked East Anglia for centuries with fiery eyes as big as saucers. In England such solitary dogs are often the ghosts of deceased people, changed as punishment, and will sometimes help people if treated kindly.

"In several Norse versions of the Hunt, the Huntsman would leave a small black dog behind. The dog had to be kept and carefully tended for a year unless it could be driven away. The only known way to get frighten it away was to boil beer in eggshells, a curious ritual act seemingly related to the traditional method of getting rid of a Faerie changeling."

The Unseelie Host snatching up mortals, a drawing by Alan Lee (from ''Faeries'')

Faeries, too, have their form of Hunt: the Host, a group from the Unseelie Court, swarms through the skies on cold, moonless nights, snatching up mortals who cross their path and whisking them into the dark. If their victims live to limp back home, they report being forced to making mischief on other mortals and to raid faery cattle from the Seelie Realm. Shaken and battered, those hunted by the Host are said to age years in a single night.

Saddle Tor

If you'd like to learn more about the Wild Hunt -- and it would be wise to do so at this chancy time of year -- I recommend reading Berk & Spytma's fascinating article in full. You'll find it here.

"The Wild Hunt Rides Over Paris," a post by Katherine Langrish (on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles), is also a treat, as is Carolyne Larrington's new book: In the Land of the Green Men, Penelope Lively's YA novel based on the theme, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Jane Yolen's middle-grade novel, The Wild Hunt, illustrated by Mora Francisco.

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

Dewerstone RocksPictures: The drawing above is by my friend & Dartmoor neighbor Alan Lee, who knows a thing or two about Wild Hunt legends. It's from his book Faeries, a collaboration with Brian Froud. Descriptions and photographer credits for the Dartmoor photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Words: The passages quoted above are from "Power, Penance, & Pursuite: On the Train of the Wild Hunt by Ari Berk & William Spytma (The Journal of Mythic Arts & Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002) and Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock (BT Batsford, 1977). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Comments

And speaking of ghostly things, don't miss the new "ghosts and hauntings" episode of Tamsin Rosewell's folk music show:

https://www.mixcloud.com/tamsinrosewell1/phantasmagoria-folk-songs-of-ghosts-spirits-and-hauntings-tamsin-rosewells-folk-show/

Fascinating stuff, terri. Thanks. Son Adam and I are writing the second graphic novel of three set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, a noir mystery series called The Stone Man Mysteries. This one is called Hounds of Hell, so fits right in with your blog today.

And of course my children's novel, Wild Hunt, relied on a lot of Herne/White Goddess research.

Jane

How could I forget Wild Hunt??? I'm adding it to the post now.

Beware the Wist Hounds!

There are powerful echoes of the Wild Hunt in Sarah Crowe's excellent children's book, Bone Jack, which I can highly recommend.

And one of the finest descriptions of a Wild Hunt in children's literature is to be had in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising.

Incidentally, Wist or Whist Hound is most commonly considered to refer to the baleful wailing the supernatural beasties make (as in wistful or sorrowful) but it has also been suggested the name my be a corruption of 'wyst' in the Old Norse - a name associated with 'Odin,' always 'the wyse.'

Thinking of the many names given to the Hunter and His Hounds, one of my favourites is 'The Devil and His Dandy-dogs.' There's an account in Thomas Quiller-Couch's 'Folklore of a Cornish Village.' It's very short, so I'll reproduce it here (it's out of copyright):

"A poor herdsman was journeying homeward across the moors one windy night, when he heard at a distance among the tors the baying of hounds, which he soon recognised as the dismal chorus of the dandy-dogs. It was three or four miles to his home; and, very much alarmed, he hurried onward as fast as the treacherous nature of the soil and the uncertainty of the path would allow; but, alas! the melancholy yelping of the hounds, and the dismal halloa of the hunter came nearer and nearer.

After a considerable run, they had so gained upon him, that on looking back -- oh, horror! -- he could distinctly see hunter and dogs. The former was terrible to look at, and had the usual complement of saucer-eyes, horns, and tail accorded by common consent to the legendary devil. He was black, of course, and carried in his hand a long hunting-pole. The dogs, a numerous pack, blackened the small patch of moor that was visible; each snorting fire, and uttering a yelp of an indescribably frightful tone.

No cottage, rock, or tree was near to give the herdsman shelter, and nothing apparently remained to him but to abandon himself to their fury, when a happy thought suddenly flashed upon him, and suggested a resource.

Just as they were about to rush upon him, he fell on his knees in prayer. There was strange power in the holy words he uttered; for immediately, as if resistance had been offered, the hell hounds stood at bay, howling more dismally than ever ; and the hunter shouted "Bo shrove!" "which," says my informant, "means, in the old language, the boy prays." At which they all drew off on some other pursuit, and disappeared."

But don't forget to leave your door open on All Hallow's Eve and put out a bannock and a cup of wine by the hearth for the ancestors for when they come back to warm themselves.

:)

Sorry, I spelled Sara's name wrong (I do it all the time). It's Sara Crowe, the author of Bone Jack.

Hi Terri

What a fascinating and chilling post on the specter and legacy of "The Wild Hunt". I love the legends explained here as well as the drawings and wonderful pictures of the "hunt circle and henge" The scenery of Dartmoor is haunting and naturally evocative of the borders between life and death, the human world and spirit world. With Samhein soon approaching, this is a time that opens the gates of the imagination and memory. A time when some of us ( prone to old tales, legends and customs) feel hunted by and hunting for something. Haunted places and Haunting things storm into our hearts/minds with an intense and mysterious ferocity that holds us spellbound to the unknown, the unveiling of the two worlds. A few years ago around this time, I was listening to Loreena Mckennit's "Samhein Nights" among other songs, and was inspired to write this poem about a wild storm and the spirit waiting to be summoned within the human form. It has a rhythmic, urgent sense of being called, almost hunted down.


The Storm

She conjures with her drum
and her dulcimer
hammering flashes of light,
the wild spirit that sleeps
within me, this pale casement of bones.

I leave my body’s frame, woman
gowned in air and flame, wandering
toward the western shore
where stones meet the gale,
where tides meets the sand.
and shadows patch the sea.

She conjures with her song
a deeper scent of salt and pine.
Oh! Brine, Oh! Brisk Juniper
become my perfume, my way

of enticing the dead
to rise and come. My young highwayman
give me your hand, your wrist
and let us share for these spare
moments an immortal pulse.
____________________________
Thank you for this!
Wendy

Amanda Stuart's compelling "mongrel country" was shown at Brenda May Gallery back in 2013
http://www.brendamaygallery.com.au/details.php?exhibitionID=187-Amanda-Stuart
Richard Mockler & Sami-Jo Adelman made a brilliant documentary called Wild Things about Amanda's work, here's a trailer-
http://www.theloop.com.au/richardmockler/portfolio/wild-things/78126

I love the dark of the wild hunt and am haunted by your wonderful way with words.

I've often thought that the cowboy song from the American west, 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' owes at least part of its origin to tales of The Wild Hunt.

I'm thoroughly intrigued by the Wild Hunt too, you're so lucky to have so many wonderful stories of the hunt around Dartmoor! I visited a few of the Dartmoor wild hunt sites a few years ago and blogged about them: http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Dartmoor

I recommend this book too, 'Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead' by Claude Lecouteux

All Hallows Eve

The moon has lost its way
Among the clouds that drape the skies
And the wisest heed the warning
In the magpies’ raucous cries

Tonight it’s time for Tricks and Treats,
A night of daring revels
While the faeries hold solemnities
Disguised as beasts and devils

The wheel is turning once again
For leaf and bough and fae and men

Take heed, my children,
Linger not about the city’s streets,
But hurry home and count
Your blessings as you count your sweets!

The faeries’ masque is not
For mortals and their prying eyes
It’s a strangeling bacchanalia
Made of spells and sweat and lies

The wheel is turning once again
For leaf and bough and fae and men

Beware, rash one, and seek not
To espy their darker rite
For the tide of blood and power
Floods the crossroads on this night

The Wild Hunt is a-prowling!
You can hear the hellhounds’ cry
And the brimstone of their footfalls
Lingers on as they pass by

The wheel is turning once again
For leaf and bough and fae and men

Their quarry is a luckless soul
Who’s doomed ever to run
From the teeth of savage winter
When the dark swallows the sun

Oh, stop your ears, avert your eyes
And hide away in fear
For the faeries make their revels
At the turning of the year

Old Night is coming once again
For leaf and bough and fae and men.

-Emily Crum

Wonderful post. Sharing now!

This is gorgeous, almost ritualistic. I want to hear it chanted with drumming behind....

Thank you! I didn't know about her work.

*blush*

I never thought of that...but now I will. :)

Thank you for the link AND the book recommendation, Laura.

Thanks for the Quiller-Couch tale, Austin, and the reminder of other good uses of the Wild Hunt in fantasy. I love the Crowe and Cooper books too.

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