Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ghost Riders in the Sky or the Wild Hunt

The wild hunt: Åsgårdsreien (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Going by many names, the myth of the Wild Hunt can be found throughout Europe.  Although the details of the Hunt changes from region to region, the core remains the same.  A troop of the Dead is lead by a God, notable figure, Cursed Hunter, or the Devil (in Christian versions).  Dogs and livestock, such as horses or pigs, are included in the Troop of the Dead.  Usually the procession is in pursuit of something.  

The Furious Host are usually heard before They are seen.  When the sky darkens, thunder rumbles and lightening flashes warning people of Their coming.  Then the baying of the hounds, blowing of the horns or shouts of the Dead are heard.

The Wild Hunt can appear at any time.  However most sightings are reported during the times when the Dead roam freely upon the earth.  These are February, Midsummer, Winter’s Nights (October), and Yule.

A person encountering the Furious Host could escape by lying face down on the ground.  They could also greet the Leader of the Hunt politely, and receive gold.  A disrespectful person would be abducted or be told they were to die soon.

The Western song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” (Stan Jones, 1948) is a retelling of the Wild Hunt.  The songwriter Stan Jones (American, 1914-1963) heard the story of the Wild Hunt in Arizona.  He was a teenager riding the range with an old cowboy.  Whilst watching an on-coming storm, the cowboy told Jones a Western version of the myth.

Jones’ song tells the following story.  A cowboy riding a ridge sees a storm coming up.  Suddenly, he sees and hears a herd of red-eyed cattle with shiny black horns.  Possessing flaming brands, the cows also breathed fire.  This was the Devil’s Herd passing by him.

Pursuing the herd was a group of gaunt, sweaty, and tired cowboys.  They were trying to stop the stampede of the Devil’s Herd.  The horses that the cowboys rode were also snorting fire.  (Suffering riders is a motif in many Wild Hunt legends.)

One of the doomed cowboys calls the watching cowboy by his name.  He warns him of his potential fate if the cowboy does not repent.  He will then become one of the cursed group chasing the spooked cattle.  Shaken by his experience, the cowboy returns home.  (Being called by name and asked to repent is in Christian motifs of the Wild Hunt.)

Works Used:

Berk, Ani and William Spytma, “Penance Power, Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt”,

Boxell, Geoff, “The Wild Hunt or Fairy Raed”,

Lecoutex, Claude, “Phantom Armies of the Night”. (book)

Sundlin, Michelle, “Stan Jones”, WMA Hall of Fame,

---, “The Wild Hunt”, Orkneyjar – The Heritage of the Orkney Islands,

No comments: