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The Wild Hunt

From Western Europe and Scandinavia from the 11th century onwards until the early twentieth century come some vivid and frequently lurid written accounts of the Wild Hunt through the skies.

The huntsmen and women are identified variously as newly deceased souls of the ungodly, discarnate spirits who never lived on earth; fairies and dark witches, led by former pagan gods and witch goddesses or by folk heroes such as Robin Hood or King Arthur.

Even disaffected deceased noblemen unwilling to give up the pleasures of the hunt in death, might according to local legend lead a pack of demonic howling hounds either through their former home forests or the skies over them. The prey of these Satanic hordes were the souls of the living who had lived wicked lives or innocents who saw the Hunt passing overhead and did not take shelter fast enough to prevent their souls being sucked out and their bodies tossed lifeless from the skies miles from where they were captured.

The Sluagh or Unseelie Court

The Wild Hunt most closely associated with fairies is the Sluagh or Unseelie Court of Scotland, believed to be composed of the spirits both of the ungodly dead and evil fey folk who were cast from the Seelie or noble fairy court for misdemeanours.

Accounts of the Sluagh appear as late as the beginning of the 20th century  recorded by the scholar WY Evans-Wentz who travelled through Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany from 1908Ė1910, obtaining first hand accounts of peopleís experiences with the fairy folk. These accounts Wentz reproduced in his book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1). Wentz gives a description from Barra in Scotland of a child apparently taken by the Sluagh, whose lifeless body was found at the back of the house with the palms of his hand in the holes of the wall next morning. It was believed the lifeless body was dropped down from a great height after the spirit of the child had been taken. Contemporaneous descriptions of the Sluagh also recorded by Wentz were of the Sluagh swarming together like a vast swirling cloud of black or grey birds (and they could have indeed been flocks of migrating birds such as geese that can pass overhead for an hour or more).

The fact that the dead body of the child was returned by the Wild Hunt, though usually the bodies were left many miles away, would suggest a more earthly hand at work. In this case it could have been a child abductor who had perhaps abused the child, murdered him and returned him home under cover of darkness, blaming the Sluagh. If the child was unwanted by a new parent or was disabled, a parent or stepparent might have murdered the little one or by hitting him too hard and accidentally killing him and used a paranormal scapegoat.

Often however, it was told that the Unseelie Court kidnapped less desirable humans to swell their numbers. Many disappearances of minor criminals and vagrants may have been attributed to this rather than earthly elimination processes, but this was no doubt of social benefit to communities.

The Sluagh were also said to fly in from the west to capture a dying soul before it was shriven or forgiven of sin in the Last Rites; for this reason, doors and windows on the west side of the house were kept closed if there was a sick person in the house, even until the early part of the last century in Scotland, to keep the huntsmen away. In the Orkneys the Wild Hunt, was apparently composed of trows, Scottish trolls who live in hollow hills on the Shetland and Orkney Islands who hate sunlight and are said to try to eat mortals unless they can escape by crossing a stream.

Leaders of the Hunt

Perhaps not surprisingly since the majority of written accounts come from Christianised times recorded by monks that former powerful pagan gods and goddesses loom large as the leaders of the demonic hosts. One of the most famous and enduring Wild Hunt mythology strands comes from Germanic folklore from Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, recounting how at  Yuletide, Woden or Wotan in the Anglo Saxon tradition or Odin in Scandinavian lands led the Wild Hunt through the heavens. In pre Christian oral traditions it would seem, however, Odin chased wood elves or, sometimes, beautiful maidens at the Midwinter Solstice around December 21, one of the main times the Hunt was seen.  Some accounts say he dropped gifts at the foot of his sacred pine for the faithful, possibly one of the origins of Christmas presents. Odinís eight-legged horse Sleipnir was the source for the legend of the eight reindeer of Santa Claus. Santa himself was the old Holly King/Odin and Saint Nicholas rolled into one.

When Odin was demonised (he can still be seen in his devilish persona as Black Peter or Black Rupert in St Nicholas Day processions in Europe) Odinís huntsmen and women became the ungodly dead, who unable to gain admission to heaven, were released from hell to hunt forówhat else but souls?

Seeing the demonic Host became in Christian times an omen of death within the year, an effective way of ensuring good folk were tucked up in their beds on the old pagan festivals. For the first appearance of Odinís hunt was traditionally recorded as occurring on the Scandinavian pagan festival of Winternights in mid October, a little earlier than Halloween when the fairies were traditionally out riding to their winter quarters and would also capture unsuspecting mortals.

The Hunt myth continued through Europe as a very useful deterrent by the clergy into Victorian times to prevent superstitious people frolicking illicitly after dark on pagan pursuits. The last appearance of the Wild Hunt each year was documented as coinciding with the major and most sexually riotous pagan fertility festival Beltane or Walpurgisnacht on the night of April 30, May Eve. What could be more off putting to making love in the fields and woods to fertilise people, cattle and corn than to risk your soul being snatched away by devilish huntsmen and evil fairies on their last ride before they were banished by the growing light?  

A Saxon version of the Wild Hunt mythology in England identifies the leader as Herne the Hunter, a form of the ancient Horned God, especially in the area around Maidenhead and also Windsor Great Park in Berkshire, UK, where the Hunt took place in the wild woods rather than in the skies(2).

The Christianised twelfth century Anglo Saxon Chronicles (3) describes the black hunters and hounds, the hunters mounted on black horses and goats, blowing their horns of doom. Not surprisingly the old antlered gods became associated with the Devil (see p00). These Christianised accounts therefore were an awful warning to those who continued with the old ways.

In British mythology another pagan survivor cum Hunt leader was Gwyn ap Nudd, who became by mediaeval times reduced to the status of a fairy demon figure. He was associated with both Wales and Glastonbury Tor, with his red eared white hounds, the Caun Annwyn. In Celtic myth Gwynn was the mighty Lord of the Dead, the guardian of the entrance to the Celtic Otherworld, who would lead the deceased to the land of gold apples and ever flowing fountains for healing and rebirth.

Red-eared hell hounds are also found in northern England, where they were known as Gabriel Hounds. Their appearance was also considered a portent of doom. Both hounds like others associated with different wild hunts became known as the hounds of hell owned by Satan.

The Witch goddesses and the Hunt

The witch goddess leaders were also strong contenders as hunt leaders and as with the pagan gods may have been a way of demonising the old religion where it was still popular among people in spite of Christianisation. Scandinavia particularly Sweden was not Christianized until the 11th century and the old pagan ways were still prevalent because of the vast and remote nature of the land until well into the twelfth century.

The Norse and Anglo Saxon Hulda /Mother Holle was also called Berchta, goddess of winter and snow. In the myths of Germany and the Netherlands, as she shakes her bed and the feathers from the eiderdown, snow falls. The Crone/Winter aspect of the Scandinavian Mother Goddess Frigg, Frige in Anglo Saxon, Hulda cared for unborn children and those who died young in her cave and fed them on the first berries of summer. She was considered a patron of magick gave flax to mankind and taught them how to hunt and so was generally revered. However by Christian times she had become leader of her train of ungodly souls and accused of stealing the children in death she once cared for.

In pagan Scandinavia and the Anglo Saxon world too Freya was the fertility and love goddess who with her Valkyrie maidens, once chose the worthy slain from the battle field. By the 12th century she was downgraded into a demonic witch, associated with the Brocken Mountain, the highest of the Harz range in North Germany; from here on Walpurgisnacht, April 30, later dedicated to the chaste St Walpurga herself a Christianised goddess, Freya and her demonic witch band, now hunted rather than saved souls.

But the most dramatic female Hunt figure was Diana, former Graeco- Roman Goddess of the Hunt and the moon who became the ultimate witch goddess and a consort of the devil (see p00 and p00). Diana was considered to lead the wild hunt of people who had died before their time, either in the flower of youth or by violent means. During the witchcraft persecutions of the 15th -17th century she was the goddess most of interest to the Inquisitors as they tortured her apparent band of witch devotees (though it is doubtful most of the peasant women accused had ever heard of her.

Fighting against evil spirits to save the community, the Benandanti, the good huntsmen and the benign werewolves

An ongoing conflict against evil was waged by the Italian shamanic Benandanti, members of an agrarian fertility cult called the good walkers, or good doers, in the Friuli district of Northern Eastern Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. They claimed to leave their bodies on the four Ember days, religious days at the beginning of the four seasons, associated with prayer and fasting that were originally pagan celebrations of nature. It is told how in their astral forms they fought sky battles against the Malandanti, local evil witches, demons, and spirits to ensure the safety of the harvest and their villages. The best account of their activities come from the research of the historian Carlo Ginzburg who has written a book based on the evidence collected during their trials(4)

They believed themselves to have been marked from birth to join the ranks of the Benandanti, by being born with a caul (the amniotic sac) covering their face, a rare event that in many cultures has identified the possessors as having magical powers. The caul carried as talisman identified a potential Benandante to his or her recruiters who around the age of twenty came to them in spirit during the night. Every Benandante insisted they travelled out of their bodies. Unlike the men who travelled to fight in the shape of mice, cats, rabbits, or butterflies and so undetected, Benandanti women in contrast claimed to travel to a great feast. Here they claimed to have danced, ate and drank with spirits, animals and faeries, and learned who amongst the villagers would die in the next year. There may have been some goddess worship as one account described the feast as being presided over by a woman sitting in splendor on the edge of a well (associated in many traditions with the granting of fertility by a water goddess).

Ginzburg has identified other similar fertility cults in Italy and Sicily but most intriguingly he described an isolated case in 1692 in Jurgenburg, Livonia, an area near the Baltic Sea when an old man named Theiss, tried for being a werewolf; claimed his spirit and that of unnamed others were transformed into werewolves. This was to prevent demons from stealing grain from the village.

Between 1575 and 1675 the Benandanti were tried as heretics under the Roman Inquisition, but the inquisitors had huge problems because the largely illiterate Benandanti insisted they fought evil witches for the faith of Christ since only they could save their villages. They were mainly punished by paying penance and temporary banishment from the town or region. However, the attention the cult received led to its decline, because some members used their claimed power over witches to sell cures to villagers for illnesses apparently caused by witchcraft and in the process denounced local people often connected with the sick personís family as being guilty of witchcraft.  This made them unpopular locally and some Benandanti for the first time under torture not surprisingly confessed to consorting with Satan and the evil witches.

Hallucinogens or shamanism?

The Benandanti caused a great deal of confusion since they claimed to meet only in spirit and apparently many independently described the same leader in detail and would also name  the same bad witches in villages other than their own. Of course they all were recruited by another Benandante apparently in spirit, but since they wore their cauls as talisman the recruitment was probably direct  and there could have been some connections directly at regional markets and fairs or through family visits. In this way information could easily have been shared. Indeed, though they were said to be a secret organization, there was probably a lot more common local and regional knowledge about Benandanti practices than was ever admitted. They were considered so important to the communities and must have shared knowledge with their families. Therefore at least some of the secret practices may have entered local folk lore so leading to common descriptions of apparently paranormal events.

But is out of body, astral travel or remote viewing where the mind can experience places beyond its eye range possible? Benandanti style astral travel is often associated with the state of lucid dreaming where a subject is aware of being asleep. Experiments have been carried out on out of body or mind travel for many years from the 1940s with and without the use of mind altering drugs; however, none of the studies have prove conclusive, except spontaneously through near death experiences. This is when people who have momentarily died during an operation or accident, have later reported leaving their bodies during the mini death state and in doing so seeing items well out of eye range (5).

The most promising new research on Near Death experiences and so on possibly verifiable examples of out of body travel was started in autumn 2008, coordinated by Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southampton, UK. Twenty five UK and US hospitals are participating in a three year study of 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors to determine whether people without a heartbeat or brain activity can have documentable out-of-body experiences. The results could shed light on the Benandanti claims, who may though they denied it, have taken mind altering drugs on the particular nights when they were apparently roaming the skies.

                

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