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 The Wild Hunt of Odin. Artist: Peter Nicolai Arbo. Courtesy Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway.

Riders of the Night
Jul 06, 2009

The ‘Wild Hunt’ is a name for the spectacle of an often frightful troop of hunters seen to move across the sky or on the surface of the earth.

The members of the hunting party often have a ghostly aspect, including among their ranks the disembodied souls of lost family members, tortured saints or other legendary characters, as well as horses and dogs. The hunted game is seldom seen and the mysterious throng do not engage with their stunned witnesses. European reports of the procession reach back to the Middle Ages and may well have existed long before.

The tacit assumption that the Wild Hunt was an entirely delusional concept is challenged by theorists who explain the baffling theme as eyewitness accounts of ritual processions performed by ‘secret societies’ consisting of initiated, male members. The historical evidence that such Männerbunde existed is quite strong and the proposition certainly throws light on cases where the hunters were really seen to move on earth.

This cannot be the whole story. For one thing, the sacred rites of such initiation cults typically sought to reenact certain mythical events, so what was the original template for enactment of the Wild Hunt? The leader of the host was often identified as a mythical or legendary character, such as Woden or Arthur. The spectral band was usually observed to move through the heavens, not on earth. Finally, analogues are known from many other cultures. In Malay tradition, hantu si buru refers to the phantasmal 'huntsman and his dogs’, while the Māori, of New Zealand, cast the storm god Tāwhiri-mātea as ‘the wild huntsman in the raging host’.

The impression that a specific celestial phenomenon is at work is strengthened if the definition is widened from ‘hunting troops’ per se to other swarms of spectral beings – Hecate’s band of departed spirits, Indra’s terrifying retinue of rock-hurling Maruts, trains of theriomorphic fertility demons such as Satyrs, Nymphs and Gandharvas, and phantom armies such as reported throughout history. Folklorists like to relate such heavenly ‘ghost armies’, riding forth on windswept nights, to the mythology of the thunderstorm, but thunder and lightning as we know them do not give the impression of a large congregation of filing spirits. Clearly, the hunt for the heavenly hosts is still on.

To cut to the chase, observations of the aurora borealis and its southern counterpart offer a far more promising solution. It is no secret that the polar lights were often perceived in terms of marching hordes. In medieval Europe, chroniclers referred to them in such terms as Acies cruentae, ‘bloody ranks’, Acies militum, ‘ranks of soldiers’, Acies diversorum colorum, ‘ranks of different colours’, Cohortes peditum, ‘cohorts of foot soldiers’, exercitus equitum, ‘army of horsemen’, hostes sanguinei, ‘bloody enemies’, and so on.

At dawn on 14th, October 908 CE, the Chinese reported the emergence of “a vapor like a great crowd of human figures all lying bent over” in the west. The popular belief that the souls of the dead reside in the northern lights is too well-known to require fresh documentation.

Descriptions of this kind were most likely inspired by auroral rays and bands showing rows of discrete rayed filaments that, conjointly, form meandering curtains. The vertical rays would easily remind of banners, lances, spears or swords, while the red ‘blood’ is caused by the excitation of molecular and atomic oxygen at heights of between 250 and 1000 kilometers above the earth.

In keeping with this, it cannot be coincidental that the Wild Hunt was usually seen at night and showed a propensity for the darkest nights of winter, between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, just when the aurorae are most frequently observed.

On occasion, however, the hunters appeared by day – and so do auroral manifestations. At about 3:00 PM on Thursday, 2nd. November 1893, the Norwegian Arctic explorer and scientist, Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), witnessed “a remarkable display” that began with a vision of “light clouds … swept together – like a cloud of dust rising above a distant troop of riders. … Then dark streamers of gauze seemed to stretch from the dust-cloud up over the sky … a little higher up, farther from the sun glow, they grew white and shining, like fine, glistening silver gauze.”

Despite initial doubts, Nansen eventually concluded that “they were northern lights, changing gradually in the southwest into dark cloud-streamers, and ending in the dust-cloud over the sun. Hansen saw them too, later, when it was dark. There was no doubt of their nature.” With all this, it is surprising that an auroral interpretation of the Wild Hunt is seldom, if ever, voiced by modern scholars.

In pursuit of the Wild Hunt and associated motifs, the hypothesis of a distinct category of polar light exemplifies an approach one might call the ‘plasma mythology of contemporary transient events’. This is concerned with strands of folklore and mythology that are not directly anchored in the mythology of creation, but suggest intermittently recurring events even in the contemporary age.

From a methodological point of view, it is useful to distinguish themes of this type from grander ones that relate to the supposed creation and destruction of the world, to a bygone ‘age of the gods’ or ‘golden age’, when our environment had a different appearance than it has today. As a rule, global elements in the mythology of creation benefit from the hypothesis of extremely rare and drastic fluctuations in the state of the earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere. On the other hand, more recurrent themes without a clear link to illud tempus are better understood in relation to remarkable though less sporadic electromagnetic phenomena, such as the aurorae, lightning including ball lightning, meteors, earthquake lights, comet tails, and so on.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:

The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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