Åsgårdsreien

The Wild Hunt

The wild hunt: Åsgårdsreien (1872)                                     by Peter Nicolai Arbo

The Wild Hunt, also known as Åsgårdsreien, is a European folk myth, typically associated with the northern, western and central areas of the region. While worldwide reports of the Wild Hunt can span the year, it is most prevalent in Scandinavia during the winter and Yule seasons. During this mythic hunt, a ghostly hunting party rushes across the sky and along the ground in frantic pursuit of their prey. While the hunters themselves may be phantasmal in nature, they still have all the hunting gear, horses and hounds that one would find in any regular hunting party.

It is believed that any human to witness the Wild Hunt in progress would fall upon hard times, often having a streak of misfortune that could ultimately lead to their death. The fate of those who mocked the huntsmen in their quest faced a harsher fate and were said to vanish along with the ghostly host. In some instances, even the souls of those sleeping would hear the call of the hunt and leave to join it. On the other hand, those who joined the hunt in earnest were rewarded with many of its spoils, sometimes including gold.

Regardless of the implications of the Wild Hunt for the individual people who witnessed or joined it, it was widely believed that the Wild Hunt was an omen of bad things to come. Typically, the hunt was the presage to storms, plagues, wars or a general series of misfortune and discontentment for the region.

As the chief of the Norse gods, Odin would lead the Wild Hunt on Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. He would also bring his two dogs to participate in the hunt, one with a soft bark and the other with a loud and fierce bark. During the hunt, people would report hearing the barks of Odin’s dogs in addition to a few shots. If his dogs grew tired during the hunt, people believed that Odin would hunt with large birds of prey, sometimes turning nearby sparrows into a host for his hunt when necessary.

As people continued to settle in the region, Odin’s path for the Wild Hunt remained unchanged. Once he traveled a road, he would continue to travel it for eternity, so people who tried to build their houses on the old roads he once used would find their home’s burnt down as a result of his hunt. In fact, it was best to leave his routes completely untouched, as anything within his path would be set ablaze in his wake.

To protect themselves during the Wild Hunt, people learned to throw themselves at the ground when the host stampeded through the area to avoid getting hit. They also took to carrying a piece of steel and a piece of bread with them as they made their way to church for Yule. They believed that throwing the bread for the dogs if they encountered them first would offer some protection. If, on the other hand, they first encountered a rider wearing a broad-rimmed hat, they would throw the piece of steel in front of them. Still others believed they could avoid being swept up altogether by the hunt if they asked the riders for parsley.

The God of the Hunt

“Wodan’s Wild Hunt” (1882)                                    by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

Although Odin is known by many names around the world, this chief among Norse gods who could appear as wind came to be known as the god of the hunt. Not only was he a fierce and wise battle god who would collect the souls of the dead from the field of battle, but these souls would later form the host that rode behind him during the hunt. Galloping through the skies on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, Odin’s hunt was a truly fearsome sight to behold.

Odin’s Hunt was also known as Asgardreia, the Raging Host, the Wild Ride and the Wild Hunt. In his role as leader and god of the hunt, Odin was known as the Wild Huntsman. The appearance of the Wild Huntsman and his host in the sky was generally accompanied by a strong storm conditions, including fierce wind, crashing thunder and bright bursts of lightning.

While Odin’s exact prey is seldom mentioned, though some believe it to be a young woman who may or may not have committed a crime, the appearance of the Wild Huntsman is believed to be a presage to hardship and turmoil. Even when the hunt is a symbol of changing weather in the region, war and unrest were typically sure to follow.

When Odin’s ghostly host appeared on the ground, misfortune and death could befall those who witnessed their passing. In fact, anyone who witnessed Odin on the hunt and attempted to mock it or stop it could have their soul swept away to become a permanent part of the hunting party as punishment. Something as simple as building a home on an old road once used by Odin during a previous hunt could result in the misfortune of a fire burning down the home during the hunt’s next trip through the area.

In order to avoid the ill-omen of seeing the hunting party, people stayed inside with locked doors as much as possible during the Yule season, as that was when dead souls were most likely to return as part of Odin’s host. The people who did venture outside were warned that feeling a wind that didn’t move the trees, followed by the barking of dogs would precede the appearance of the Wild Huntsman and the souls he’d claimed swooping down from the sky with fire and fury.

Not all who encountered Odin’s Hunt were doomed to die or spend eternity as part of the Raging Host. Instead, those who offered their assistance with the hunt in earnest were allowed to live, often with a reward. Some would receive silver and gold for their service to the Norse god. Others would receive a cursed leg of a slain animal that they could only get rid of by seeking the help of a magician or priest. For those wise enough to ask Odin’s huntsmen for something they could not provide – like salt – they  could usually force the hunting party to take back the cursed object without having to turn to anyone else for help.

 

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