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What are the origins of the Wild Hunt myth?(r/AskHistorians)
Besides the discussion that /u/Searocksandtrees identifies, we might be able to add a bit more. British folklorist Mark Norman has a recent podcast that addresses the subjects of the Black Dog and the Wild Hunt. He suggests that the Wild Hunt originates with a belief in Odin/Woden flying through the air on the wind, gathering up souls, and that this became the basis for the Wild Hunt.
That’s certainly a good stab at the subject. More often than not, these sorts of motifs have many origins and are reinforced by various things in various places – it’s a complex matter to discuss origins that often can only be guessed at, and when one hazards a guess, it may be only part of the picture, but Norman is certainly on to something by suggesting that there was a pre-conversion spirit who gathered up the spirits of the dead, and that the souls traveled with the entity on the way to the netherworld. Norman’s podcast series is very good; I recommend it for the questions it has addressed so far (the one in question is #4).
It has also been observed the cranes or swans migrating at night would make a great clatter and that this could have resulted in real world observation of a strange if not terrifying phenomenon that people might link with a belief in the Wild Hunt. This isn’t a matter of the origin of the tradition, but rather something that may have reinforced belief in an existing tradition.
The following is an excerpt from my Introduction to Folklore putting the Wild Hunt in context:
>Europeans were fascinated by the idea of condemned souls, either of individuals or groups of people, who could not find rest. These unfortunates were forced to exist in a nether world, appearing occasionally before the living as evidence of their hideous or peculiar plight. Such motifs have been favorites with artists and writers. It is possible to identify six types of these beings.
>1. The “Wild Hunt” is probably the oldest, occurring in ancient Greek sources and Scandinavian mythology. A cluster of stories refers to ghostly riders who race across the landscape or the night sky, questing for some phantom quarry that they can never catch. Legends tell of people seeing this eerie phenomenon. There are occasional references to the leader as being the god of death.
>2. The “Sleeping Army” is a motif that appears in a variety of stories telling of a group of warriors killed in combat, who haunt the battlefield or wait inside a mound for some future conflict. People often believe such an army serves as a matter of last resort, a supernatural force that will rise up if their country is threatened with destruction. King Arthur’s knights are often regarded as sleeping in this way, waiting for the return of their king, healed from his wounds after recuperating in the western island of Avalon.
>3. The “Flying Dutchman” is one of the better known and often used motifs of the condemned souls. This motif describes a phantom ship of ghostly sailors who travel the seas but never find harbor or rest. Their only respite comes every one hundred years, when they are allowed to anchor at a legendary port. Their ship is seen in bad weather. The story seems to be of medieval origin.
>4. The “Wandering Jew” is also a motif belonging to this class. Like the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew appears to be of medieval origin. The legend tells of Ahasverus, a shoemaker of Jerusalem who refused to allow Jesus to sit while carrying his cross to Calvary. His fate is to wander the world, longing for rest.
>5. The Will-’o-the-Wisp is described in Chapter 4. The character was not good enough for heaven and made himself feared by the devil, and so he was exiled from hell. He carries a burning ember, a relic from the time when he briefly entered the abode of Satan, and with this phantom light, he lures nighttime travelers away from their destination. This character is common in Britain.
>6. There are also various legends of medieval origin about cities that sank underground or into the sea because of some collective sin committed by the inhabitants. These towns return to earth every hundred years for a few hours, only to sink back to their eternal existence in perpetual limbo.