The Wild Hunt: An Anglo-Saxon ghost story

The concept of the Wild Hunt – a ghostly host streaming across the night sky – has ancient roots.

Whilst it is popularised in Northern European folklore, particularly in the Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions, it has representations in other belief systems – particularly those of an Indo-European root.

It’s echoes can be seen in Vedic beliefs from India and even in Abrahamic faiths.

The story of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer-drawn sleigh could even owe its origin to the legend.

The leader of the Wild Hunt has been chopped and changed over the centuries with both the Windsor Forest-dwelling deer-headed spectre Herne the Hunter and Norse god Odin being described as the head huntsman.

The terrifying procession can be seen as a representation of the souls of the dead rampaging across the sky and visible to the living.

As such it has connections to Samhain and, therefore, Halloween as well as Christmas.

After a recent visit to the magnificent Peterborough Cathedral, I was reminded of an account of the legend that centred on the historic site and the surrounding countryside.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of this fearful gathering of apparitions.

It read: “It was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry.

“They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes.

“This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford.”

The related Peterborough Chronicle details the sighting with further embellishments.

It claims the Wild Hunt materialised after the appointment of a disastrous abbot at the monastery, which is now the cathedral, called Henry d’Angely, in 1127.

It read: “Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting.

“The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.

“This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.”

Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ tells of the Herne-led hunt in Act 4, Scene 4.

It read: “There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter (sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)

“Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

“And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

“And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

“In a most hideous and dreadful manner.

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

“The superstitious idle-headed eld

Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age

“This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.”

Was the Peterborough tale a folkish wish for revenge against the new Norman orthodoxy?

Or was this a retelling if a truly ancient myth with contemporary details added?

Either way it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset and traditions of the people of 12th century England.

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