Not to over-use a quotation I’ve encountered in at least three articles on the “Wild Hunt” myth (here’s one), particularly since it’s relatively young, but it gets the point across:
When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees – a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.
But then the barking of dogs fills the air, and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses
–Kveldulf Gundarsson, Mountain Thunder, Issue 7, 1992
I’ve discussed the Wild Hunt myth previously, and mentioned its association with Yule at that time, but I want to go a bit more in-depth, especially since it’s been so long since that post.
Yule is the annual mid-winter festival of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, and that name has continued to be associated with Christmas and the various celebrations that take place at the end of December every year. Of course, midwinter celebrations are far more widespread than in just those countries where Odin/Woden and Thor/Donar were popular. We’ve been trying to make the darkest days of the year slightly less terrible for a very long time, as far as we’ve roamed. “Yule” is the more specific set of traditions, such as the burning of the log, wassailing, and so on, that are particular to Germanic peoples.
The Wild Hunt is one name for a myth that’s a bit more uniquely European, and perhaps a bit more Germanic-flavored as well. A host of the dead rides through the skies, particularly during the twelve nights of yuletide, led by one or more of the gods, making the sounds of strong winds and storms, and taking the souls of the dead or incautious wanderers (humans and livestock) with them as they pass. Sacrifices were left to the gods of the Hunt, to ensure that no one was taken from their homes in the night
One of the most obvious links between these two traditions is Odin. One of Odin’s many bynames is Jólnir, “Master of Yule,” and the many feasts and traditions of Yule were typically dedicated to him. It’s worth noting also that Yule is understood to be a fertility feast. A celebration at midwinter might seem like a bad idea, with no clear idea of just how harsh the full winter will be, it would perhaps be prudent to continue rationing carefully until spring is imminent. This makes the Yuletide feast a genuine sacrifice, an offering to Odin and the gods in the hopes that their crops and livestock will be replenished in the next year.
The Wild Hunt is a kind of haunted hunting party, where ghosts come sailing through the air, making spooky noises, perhaps chasing a particular target or perhaps coming for the dead. That’s the link to Odin, who is, in addition to his many other roles, the god of the dead. Odin hanged himself to learn the knowledge of the runes, accepts human sacrifice as a form of worship, and even, in his role as god of war, accepts the deaths of fallen warriors not only for practical purposes at Ragnarok, but as devoted tribute. When the wild hunt comes to collect the fallen, whether that means the living, the recently deceased, or land spirits who’ve out-stayed their welcome (a big subject for another day), Odin is governing his natural territory. As the Wild Hunt is sometimes also called “the furious army” in other parts of Europe, Odin’s name’s definition as “furious one” also comes into play, with hints at shamanic magic and the eight-legged horse Sleipnir taking Odin on trips physical and metaphysical throughout the nine realms.
If Odin has a particular connection to Yule, and a particular connection to the Wild Hunt, what, then, can be said of the fact that these two events are occurring at the same time?
In pre-Christian times, the dead were understood to be closer to the living in winter time. With longer nights and shorter days, the spirits of friends, family, and ancestors had a greater opportunity to actively participate in life. While these spirits were venerated, even worshipped, and were understood to fight off grave robbers and protect the living, it was not necessarily the case that the spirits were all benevolent, or that their appropriate place was in Midgard.
But the Wild Hunt and Yule were a ritual cycle that helped the living move on from their attachments to the lost, and prepare for the new life that would come with the longer days and the spring which couldn’t be too much further away. As Odin’s howling host came and collected the dead, one could take solace in the fact that those whose time had come to pass now had the opportunity to do so.
The myth had a practical side to it as well, a ritual. Gifts were left for Odin and Sleipnir, for the other riders and their steeds, usually a sacrifice of food, hay, and oats. One description says that these gifts were put in a small boat and taken to the woods, about a bowshot’s distance from the back of the home. This seems particularly appropriate given the practice of ship burial among Germanic peoples, and a nearly explicit connection between the Wild Hunt myth and the recently deceased, perhaps a small payment, perhaps merely a gift for Odin to thank him for caring for the souls of that family’s ancestors.
And so the god of the slain and the father of Yule accepts sacrifices both for the dead and for fertility, in the hope that the ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth will continue as it always has. Those who are leaving gifts to Odin under their trees, though, are doing so to remember specific loved ones, the recently deceased, the beloved. Yule brings with it the broader cultural celebration, the shared hope that the gods will bring us all the blessings in the new year that they gave us in the last. But it is also a time to honor and remember those we love who are part of our lives in a different way now, and to embrace how new years, and new life, will help us honor them still.
And we should leave some cookies for Santa and his eight-legged horse, too.
Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe
Reaves (I think), “The Master and Mistress of the Wild Hunt” at Germanic Mythology
McCoy, “The Wild Hunt” at Norse Mythology for Smart People
“The Wild Hunt” at Orkneyjar
“Wild Hunt” at Jones’s Celtic Encyclopedia