Briggs’ Beasties: The Wild Hunt
For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.
And now, on to the Wild Hunt!
The “Wild Hunt” is one of the many names given to a whole collection of similar portents that, while we’re looking at it from the perspective of English folklore, is actually present in a wide range of cultures. Even within our tight focus, it has a variety of labels. According to Briggs, it is also called the “Gabriel Ratchets,” the “Devil’s Dandy Dogs,” the “Sluagh” (slooa), or the “Host”–to name only a few. The essential picture is that of a powerful spiritual being (or sometimes beings) tearing through the night with a pack of spectral hounds on the hunt for sinners to devour. Woe be the unfortunate man, woman, or child who wanders into the path of this demonic cavalcade in the darkness. In contrast to last week’s Nuckelavee, I think that we can draw some positive lessons from it for our writing.
Interestingly enough, the Hunt is a surprisingly recent bit of folklore. Briggs mentions that she had heard of a sighting in 1940, and at least one internet source claims that it may have happened as recently as 1976. So, unlike other stories, this one has not completely died away.
One distinguishing characteristic of the Hunt is the sheer diversity of names and speculated origins. Some of the various titles can be accounted for by the fact that it is dangerous to refer to the sidhe directly and so the cultures who believe in them have created a slew of protective euphemisms to insulate their language from provoking unwanted spiritual consequences. Others seem to be genuine attempts to explain the hunts by guessing at what they are and who is responsible for them. A rogues gallery of pagans and demons seem to lead the hunt, including Lucifer himself, Herne the Hunter, Woden, and sometimes the fallen priest Dando of Cornwall. Less often, historic figures like Charlemagne or Arthur lead the chase. Perhaps the most common is some demonic form with the horns of a stag growing out of his head–the traditional form of Herne. Whoever it is, he leads a host of Hell, often demons or the unforgiven mortal dead, in a quest to claim human souls.
My own “encounter” with the Hunt took place this winter. As you can see from the pictures in this article, my family and I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Our house is in a small saddle between two peaks, one only sightly raised above the ground on which our home is set and the other much higher by hundreds of feet. We have a gorgeous view of the valley and the mountains that is the trade-off for the money we spend in gas getting here. The image below was taken from our door:
One night, I was outside when a cold front was about to plow across the mountain. As I made my way back up to the house, I stopped dead in my tracks. Ahead of me, up the ridge at the top of the higher peak, I could hear it: roaring, creaking, snapping, screeching and screaming. In the dim light our lamppost cast that far up the mountain, I could see the trees whipping and bending as it tore through them, up from the valley, over the top of the peak, and to who knew where on the other side. The air around me was completely still–not even a gentle breeze ruffled the last leaves lying dead underfoot.
I stood there in awe of what I was seeing and hearing–and then I thought of the Hunt. Even though I could make out no words and I had seen no hounds, a small chill worked its way up my spine. I went inside. Better to be safe than sorry!
Of course, by now you’ve probably figured out that another perk of living where I do is the strange weather phenomena I get to see first hand. In this case, I have no doubt, some of the stronger wind currents that usually stay higher in the atmosphere had been driven down by the cold front. They had gotten low enough to touch the top of the mountain, but not far enough down to reach our house in the saddle. It gave me a taste, though, of what seeing and hearing the Hunt firsthand must have been like. If the Hunt gets more real than that, I don’t want to be there!
Used properly, I think that the Wild Hunt can be quite effective:
- The Deepness of Mystery: While some versions of the Hunt are more thoroughly explained than others (see Dando and his Devil Dogs in Briggs), over all it contains more than enough mystery to impart a sense of imminent foreboding. It is just strange enough that it sounds entirely plausible to someone walking down a dark country road near a haunted wood (or someone reading about that someone). At the same time, it is not so strange that it sounds like a person simply made it up. I, at least, think most people would embellish it far better than the basic essence of what we see in the purer versions of the legend.
- The Flexibility of Diversity: One significant advantage to the massive number of different explanations and names for the Hunt is that there is no one single authoritative version out there. That gives authors the ability to borrow different parts from the stories or modify them without the risk of offending some unofficial sacred cow. Unlike some stories, we can’t “get it right” because there is no “right” way.
- The Fear of Judgment: Much of the terror that the Hunt holds for us gets down to the idea of sin–the Hunt is an embodiment of the idea that we are being “run to ground” and will be punished for the evil we all commit. The idea of sin is very unpopular today, and that might lead some to suggest that this is an aspect of the Hunt that won’t frighten modern readers. After all, if no one believes that he or she is a sinner, why should they fear paying the price for sins? I disagree, and, if you doubt me, just try passing judgment on someone for something they’ve done wrong.* Chances are, they won’t ignore you or just pass it off. The reaction–perhaps I should say over reaction–will most likely be to push back with a version of “How dare you judge me!?” Some will be more polite than others, but I think it points to the same fact: Our culture is terrified of judgment and the idea that we may one day pay for the sins we know, on some level, we commit. The more we deny it, the plainer it becomes. The Wild Hunt can strike squarely on that very raw nerve.
There is a lot to play with in the Wild Hunt. If you’ve never looked into it, here is a good place to start. Have a good week!
Next week: Another humdinger of a beastie–the Fachan!
*Perhaps even more effective, we can watch our own reactions when someone passes judgement on us personally. That sweeping indignation at their cheek…run through with the stabbing fear that they might be right! The instant temptation to lash out at them and deny not only that we are guilty but that they even have the grounds on which to make the claim is difficult to resist. Even the best of us fail to keep it in check sometimes.
- Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series:
Posted on April 13, 2012, in Brian Melton, Fairytales, Fantasy, Katharine Briggs, Monsters, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged folklore, Herne the Hunter, Lucifer, monsters, the Devil's Dandy Dogs, The Wild Hunt, writing-hints-and-helps. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.