Imagine a horde of ghostly hunters, sounding their horns as they ride through the countryside at night on black horses (and sometimes black stags) behind black dogs with eerie, glowing eyes. Such a ghostly experience is common to European folklore, but especially in the most northerly countries. It is called the Wild Hunt, and Dan McCoy has posted an excellent brief summary of the legend.
As McCoy explains, the Wild Hunt (also called Odin’s Hunt, Odin’s Army, the Terrifying Ride, etc.) is usually said to take place in midwinter, the coldest and darkest part of the year. Those who came upon it by accident were caught up in the ghostly procession. Others, witches and such, might join in voluntarily in a kind of astral projection.
The leader of the Hunt is variously named and variously described, but the Hunt is most often associated with the god Odin or Wotan in Germanic lands.
What is the meaning of the Hunt? As McCoy explains, it has strong ties to death and the cult of the dead:
In the body of lore surrounding the Wild Hunt, we find a number of themes that connect it powerfully with the dead and the underworld. For one thing, there’s the ghostly character of the hunters or warriors themselves. Dogs and horses, animals that were closely associated with death (amongst a great many other things), were almost invariably present. In some accounts of the Hunt, the riders can hardly, if at all, be distinguished from land spirits, who were themselves often conflated with the dead, as if the two were thought of as being in some sense one and the same. Finally, for the ancient Germanic peoples, the worlds of the living and the dead were especially permeable during midwinter, which goes a long way toward explaining why this troop of apparitions haunted the land during that particular part of the year. In the words of Claude Lecouteux, “[T]he Wild Hunt fell into the vast complex of ancestor worship, the cult of the dead, who are the go-betweens between men and the gods.”
It was as if the very elements of midwinter – the menacing cold, the almost unrelenting darkness, the eerie, desolate silence broken only by the baying winds and galloping storms – manifested the restless dead, and the ancient northern Europeans, whose ways of life and worldviews predisposed them to sense the spiritual qualities in the world around them, recorded the sometimes terrifying fruits of such an engagement with the more-than-human world in their accounts of the Wild Hunt.