Across the Germanic Alpine region, celebrations for the goddess Perchta/Berchta are enacted every autumn. In these rituals, people dress as the fierce aspect of Perchta known as the Schiachperchten (ugly Perchten) to drive out “bad spirits” from the community. Typically, the processions of masked Pertchen were led though the town by a woman representing the Winter Goddess–Perchta or Frau Holda. It is my belief that this festival is a “reenactment” of the terrifying spectacle of the Wild Hunt.
Tales of the Wild Hunt are told in stories all across Northern Europe. A common thread in all the stories is that the hunt is carried out by a group of fearsome beings flying through the sky. They ride at some point during the cold nights of autumn, often it is said in November.
In the Alps, it was believed that the Wild Hunt was lead by Perchta. Her name means “The Shining One.” (The words peraht, berht and brecht mean bright, light and/or white.) She is the Winter Goddess and “The Lady of the Beasts” and is a guardian of the animals and nature in ancient Germanic hunting cultures. She is like her counterpart, Frau Holda (also Holde, Hulda, Hulle, Holl, Holle) the supernatural matron of spinning, childbirth and domestic animals, who is associated with the dark time of the year, witches as well as the Wild Hunt. Frau Holda’s name is related to Scandinavian beings known as the Huldra, the faerie women with animal tails who live in the forests of Scandinavia.
In some tales, it is the sky God Odin (Wotan, Woden) who leads the Wild Hunt -flying out from his home in heavenly Asgard. This is significant as Huldra gives her name to the great female seer shaman or völva, Huld of the Icelandic Sagas who was thought to be a human “mistress” of the god Odin. Interestingly enough, another name for the leader of The Wild Hunt, is Fau Gaue or Frau Gode. In Westfalian dialect, Odin’s wife is referred to with these same names. This may indicate that the character who became Odin first existed as a consort of the Goddess.
During The Wild Hunt, Holda, who held court inside Hörselberg Mountain, would ride forth with a host of terrifying spirits. In Northern Germany, she is described as leading a procession of the dead whereas Perchta, her close counterpart in the south, is described as being surrounded by the souls of unborn children, or children who died before they were baptized. This points to the Goddess’ dual role as the protectress of souls both entering and leaving this world.
Whoever is participating, through all the stories of the Wild Hunt the characters are in search of something. Sometimes the tales say they swarm across the sky to gather the spirits of the dead and take them to the Other World.
This is certainly consistent with the idea that the spirits of the dead can return during the darkest time of the year. During autumn, it
was thought that the “veils” between the realms of living and dead were “thin.” This allowed spirits to step back and forth from one world into the other. When the dead walk among the living, it is said to be cause for alarm and fear. The restless dead are capable of causing mischief and especially dangerous ones can capture the living to take them back to the realm of the dead.
It is said among the Orkney Islanders that during this time of year, a trow can steal you away. These creatures are said to live in hills or cairns where they on occasion, hoard great wealth. The Celts believed that hills were where the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated after their “defeat.” Their name translates as the “children of Danu” who is the Celtic Mother Goddess. These ancestral people of the Celts became the Sidhe or faerie folk. While there are some parallels to the Sidhe, the Orkney and Shetland trow is most likely more closely connected to creatures of Scandinavian origin known as a draugr.
The Icelandic dictionary defines the word “draugr” as being a ghost or spirit; especially the dead inhabitant of a cairn or mound grave. After death, the Old Norse people believed that a body placed in its grave continued to live on. This ghostly being would be free to leave and wander among the living particularly during the autumn. The draugr was said to occasionally possess magical powers, including the ability to control the weather and to have knowledge of the future.
So, the riders of the Wild Hunt who live in the mystical lands are magical beings/spirits that are variously described as ancestors, ghosts, faeries or deities! Depending upon the storyteller, it is either a beneficent Goddess and her court or the wrathful dead who ride across the sky. It is certain that the overlaying influences of the Christian Church have demonized the stories. Later tellings of the tales transformed the spirits that rode in the Wild Hunt into black devils on horseback who were accompanied by their black hounds and the spirits of the unbaptized dead-all hungry for human flesh. The older traditions however speak of an event when spirits functioning as guides could sweep the lingering spirits of the departed from this world. This role would also be an excellent description of the Goddess’ dual role as protectress of souls both entering and leaving this world.
Shamanic traditions across Siberia tell stories of shamans who fly. The traditional shamans’ costumes of this region are decorated with fringe. This fringe hangs from the arms like wings and dangles along the bottom of the tunic like tail feathers. When a shaman goes into trance and dances, the fringe provides the illusion of actual flight. This provides a tangible, visual metaphor for the shaman’s “magical” ability. When a shaman performs a shamanic journey, her/his spirit takes flight into invisible realms.
During the journey, shamans are in trance known as the “shamanic state of consciousness.” During these trance states, some shamans may appear unresponsive or “asleep” to the ordinary world. While entranced, the shaman works closely with their helping spirits, often relying upon them for protection and/or “transportation.” That is, the shaman may ride on helping spirits in animal form as they take their spirit flights and often do so while being accompanied by other spirit helpers.
A folk tale motif of a living person carried away by the Wild Hunt’s flying horde is particularly common in Germany and in Scandinavia. A curious form of this theme, which is unique to Norway has people undergoing a sort of involuntary separation from their bodies, which lie as if dead while their souls are traveling with the Wild Hunt. The author, Landstad in his Norske Folkeviser describes the fate of one such woman: “She fell backwards and lay the whole night as if she were dead. It was of no profit to shake her, for the Asgardsreid (Riders from Asgard, the home of Odin and the other Sky Gods) had made off with her.” The woman then awakes to tell how she had ridden across the sky. This story gives us yet another important clue about the WildHunt. What if, rather than a Germanic, Scandinavian or Anglo Saxon mythic tradition, the Wild Hunt is actually a tattered remnant linking the folk tales of Europe to a far older shamanic tradition?
I believe that the purpose of the yearly ride was to unburden the community. The Wild Hunt removed those spirits who had lingered after death and provided relief from other negative influences or “bad luck.” This is yet another parallel the work of the shaman. One of a shaman’s functions is to guide the dying and dead out of this world, as well as to petitions the spirits for good luck and bounty on behalf of their community.
Certainly the riders’ roles-as described in the folk tales-can be ascribed to the shaman. Typically, a shaman functions as a healer and protector of the spirits of those on whose behalf she or he practices. In concert with their helpful spirits, shamans “do battle” with the spirits that cause mischief and sickness, they guide the souls through the passages between life and death and they work with the weather and practice divination to foretell the future. Whatever forms their work take, shamans bring gifts to the living. In some stories the riders of the Wild Hunt also bestow gifts. In Austria and Scandinavia, the seasonal female figure-who can either be the kindly gift-giver or the fearsome demon-is St. Lucia. She is an echo of Perchta and Holda who are associated with animal-masking. Holda–as the protectress of the animals–is depicted with a cow skin and horns in Schleswig-Holstein, while a cow’s head or foot marks Lucy’s Day on some Scandinavian rune calendars. This again bears a certain similarity to the Huldra, those forest spirits who appear as a woman in front, but with a cow or other animal tail on the back.
Even the confusion about the Wild Hunt leader’s gender harkens back to the shaman. Across Siberia, Central Asia, and the Arctic, the original shaman is remembered as a female. It is told that she is a powerful, primordial being who “taught” the skills to humankind. This is so pervasive a belief that most Siberian shamanic costumes mimic female clothing-whether they are worn by men or women.
One of the roles of Freyja in Norse myth is that she is the Goddess of Prophecy. When flying through the spirit realms, cloaked in falcon feathers, she would visit the place where the Norns (Fates) lived and it was she who could read the threads of Life that they were spinning. That is to say that Freyja had the ability to divine the future and it is she who the shaman emulates in their journeys down into the roots of the World Tree.
Freyja is honored as the Goddess of Love, Beauty, Fertility, as well as the guardian of Animals and Nature. In addition, she is also the Goddess of War, Battle, Death, Magic, Prophecy, and Wealth! This diverse collection of skills fits well with “job description” of the Old European Great Goddess and has parallels to both the Germanic Perchta and Holda. Freyja although equal in power with the God Odin, did not live in his sky realm. Instead, Freyja lived in her own realm Vanaheim, which is in the western edge of Midgard or Middle World. There she reigns over the spirits of nature, the elves, the dwarves, and the creatures, which inhabit the land and ocean. She is petitioned by humans wishing her to intercede on their behalf for everything from a good harvest, or a successful hunt to having healthy children. In other words, Freyja is thought to bestow all forms of wealth and good fortune.
It also said that “wherever she rides to battle, she gets half the slain.” Freyja is also the chief of the Valkyries, the demi-goddesses who select the noble and heroic dead and carry them to the Realm of the Gods. Half of the valiant dead are taken up to Odin’s hall, Valhalla in the sky world of Asgard and half of those lost in battle are taken to Freyja’s palace Fólkvangr in Vanahiem to feast in her hall Sessrúmnir. Freyja is also patroness of women who attain wisdom, status, and power. This derives from the fact that the Valkyries begin as ordinary women, who became priestesses and then demigoddesses or lesser norns, capable of participating in the fates of people and of nations. Since Freyja leads these lesser norns, she is considered patroness of those who carried on the role of seer/shaman.
The Wild Hunt Today
Among some contemporary Western shamanic practitioners, the Wild Hunt is reenacted each year between Halloween and Yule. This work usually takes the form of rituals that include long psychopomp (soul guide) journeys taken by groups of highly skilled shamans during a dark autumn night. This work can sometimes be perilous. This is because the spirits of the lingering dead can be quite convincing “opponents” when they struggle to stay here instead of gently leaving the world of the living.
Oftentimes, the groups that gather for this work dress for “battle” carrying weapons staffs and shields into their journeys while wearing fearsome masks. They are guided and protected by their helper spirits and power animals-usually merging with them to keep their own spirits safe. If one was gifted with spiritual “sight,” this horde of shamans flying through the spirit world would certainly resemble those sixteenth century Schiachperchten, driving out the “bad spirits” in alpine villages!
Making a stand for all that is alive and vital, the contemporary shamans “do battle” with those forces that seek to cause harm or ill fortune. With their helping spirits, they clear the Earth of those spirits that have lingered after death. In working on behalf of the forces of Light and Love, they contribute to loosening winter’s dark grasp and pave the way for the return of the Sun on the Winter Solstice.
© 2013 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
* The author is presenting THe Wild Hunt on October 26th. For more information, click here: The Wild Hunt FLYER
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power, Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, the soon-to-be published A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools and contributor to Spirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare; Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. In joint practice with Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages, her web site is http://www.spiritpassages.com.