The Wild Hunt - ghost riders in the sky

The Wild Hunt - ghost riders in the sky

Throughout Northern Europe, tales were told of ghostly dogs or spirits on horseback riding through the night skies – hunting down the living to join their ranks in the Underworld.

The Wild Hunt is often heard or seen through the tumult of a stormy night, with barking dogs, hoofbeats and hunting horns, and glimpses of helmets and spears amongst the racing clouds.

The leader of the hunt is often an historic or legendary national figure. He has sometimes been identified as Odin or Woden, the chief god of the Norse pantheon, Satan, King Arthur, or Herne the Hunter. The Wild Hunt itself has been portrayed as diabolic in some eras, or as a phenomenon of the faery otherworld in others. There is a legend at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which is often cited as the place where King Arthur's Camelot once stood, that on wild winter nights the king and his hounds could be heard rushing along an old lane nearby called King Arthur's Lane.

Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague. People encountering the Hunt might also be abducted to the underworld or the fairy kingdom. In some instances, it was also believed that people's spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.

In some parts of Britain, the hunt is said to be that of hell-hounds chasing sinners or the unbaptised. In Devon, these are known as Yeth or Wisht Hounds, in Cornwall Dando and his Dogs or the Devil and his Dandy Dogs, in Wales the Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of Hell, and in Somerset as Gabriel Ratchets or Retchets (dogs). In Devon the hunt is particularly associated with Wistman's Wood, high-altitude oak wood on Dartmoor which is probably very ancient. The name may derive from the dialect word "wisht", meaning "eerie/uncanny" or "pixie-led/haunted". In Britain the legend of the Wild Hunt bleeds into stories of ghostly Black Dogs, who appear alone, a portent of death or ill-omen.

This northern European myth has inspired various stories and works of art (such as the painting above, The Wild Hunt of Odin (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo). The idea has also crossed over to North America and has combined well with Native American myth and cowboy stories. Its influence can be seen in songs such as Stan Jones' Ghost Riders in the Sky and Riders on the Storm by the Doors.

Further reading

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