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.
One 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."
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."
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
Pictures: 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.