The more one digs into the history of Christmas, the more connections one will find to the Wild Hunt. I found in this Advent Calendar project that I can't ignore it any more because an understanding of this ancient archetype is prerequisite to understanding other holiday themes and characters. So let's dig in.
In a nutshell, the Wild Hunt is a time where gods, goddesses, ghostly hordes, famous kings or queens of the past, and/OR other dieties go through the night and gather up the dead spirits of the people who died during the year and take them home. Or, something like that. There are so many legends and myths about the wild hunt and it's purpose that the details are kind of blurry.
The Wild Hunt isn't necessarily tied to the Yuletide season. Those familiar with Samhain/Halloween may recognize the idea of a special time of the year when the viel between the spirit world and the mortal realm is thin. Celtic Wild Hunt. In Nordic and Germanic mythologies, the Wild Hunt was more associated with the winter solstice, when the nights were longest. In other stories, the Wild Hunt might be as late in the year as Easter, or even Beltane (May Day). Those who lead the Wild Hunt might be benevolent, beloved leaders who are simply continuing the cycle of life. Leaders like Odin, Frigga and her Valkeries, even King Arthur. Something to anticipate if you had been a good girl or boy because if you left food for the animals in your shoes, you might be rewarded with sweets and gifts. Sound familiar?
Or it might be something more sinister, the stuff of nightmares. In most stories it was something of both. Stay inside, and respect the ghostly host while they ride through the night.
The video below was superbly done, and I highly recommend it!
Our modern perception of ghosts is something of a spooky nature, something to be feared. But to really understand ancient attitudes about the Wild Hunt in its benevolent forms, I think a basic understanding of Heathen beliefs can help.
Ghosts are far less scary if they are someone you know and love. My Grandmother recently passed away and had a beautiful funeral. There were many people who shared their experiences about feeling her presence. Her sister said she knew when she died before anyone told her because she felt a warm hug that could have only come from my Grandma. Others said they knew that my Grandpa was there. That her parents (my great-grandparents) were there. And I absolutely believe that they were. The most spiritual experiences I have had in my life have been when I have felt the presence of loved ones who have passed on, whether I knew them in person or not. For many, the Wild Hunt was tied to a special opportunity to reconnect with loved ones. Samhain was a time to set out an extra plate or leave an offering for ancestors, when the veil was thin. It was the similarities of Samhain and Aztec Dia de los Muertos, originally held in the summer, that led Catholic priests to meld the two holidays into one, making the beloved Latino holiday at end of October and beginning of November. Similarly, Anglo-Saxons had their "Modraniht", or "mothers night". This is a special winter holiday now remembered once again by many modern Pagans that honors female ancestors recent and ancient, as well as all the goddesses of the pantheon.
And yet, even with the opportunity to reconnect with ancestors, and the hope of treats for the children, the Wild Hunt was still a night for the dead, or worse, undead. Or a night of the Faeries. Or a night of any other mystic terrifying beasts that may be a part of a given stories. And that's still scary. Winter in the far north was cold and harsh. It was a time when more people died than any other time of the year, sometimes a long and hard death brought by starvation. With or without mythology, winter was more often than not a time of very real death, and tragic memories for the people left behind. I think the fears connected with the long winters were appropriately represented in the metaphors in some of these ancient stories.
I think it is beautiful that even in these terrifying stories, there is also a good deal of hope. A prosperous year may be ahead. The spirits might reward you with treasure. They might bless your home with good health. Hope. Hope more than anything gives us the courage to persevere through the hardest times. And The Wild Hunt gives us a great deal to be hopeful for.
The first video by Overly Sarcastic Productions is the one I would recommend if you only have time for one. But for the gaming community, this second one is also very good and gives additional insights into the lore. I haven't played "The Witcher" and don't really intend to, but it isn't a requisite to appreciating the content in the video. And it shows that even in our modern 2020 when many people have forgotten about the Wild Hunt that used to be so incredibly widespread in Europe and beyond, it lives on in our psyche and reemerges in our pop-culture in surprises places. I have a great appreciation for video games in general for how it has become a safe-haven place where exploring and keeping alive the ancient culture happens more than anywhere else. We are drawn to it. There is something in our psyche is drawn to our ancient past, and it thrives in our popular entertainment, even when we don't understand it. I suppose it is a place where we let go our our inhibitions and allow ourselves to embrace a part of ourselves that we have forgotten.
For more information, Norse Mythology for Smart People has nice article with good sources.
Also, Wikipedia's main article is usually not a bad place to get one's feet wet for topics like this, and here we have no exception.
It's 2020, and and we're all getting tired of hearing "Stay Home, Stay Safe", so I won't say it again. But perhaps we would all be wise to remember that Santa and his reindeer are not the only ones who fly through the night at Christmas, and they might bring more than a lump of coal for misbehavior.
Christmas History Advent Calendar
The Wild Hunt is day 9.