Column: War and the Wild Hunt(s)

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In January 2014, Pope Francis—the Pontifex of Rome—released a pair of white doves after a prayer for peace in Ukraine. The doves were immediately attacked by a crow and a seagull. It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. Nor does it take an augur to interpret this omen, especially in retrospect. Almost two years later, the Institute for the Study of War reports that “Russian-backed separatists intensified attacks along multiple frontline positions in Ukraine in early December 2015,” and the war shows no signs of abating.

[Donetsk, August 2014 / Wikipedia]

Donetsk, 3 August 2014 [Photo Credit: Nabak / Wikimedia]

Warfare rages across territory disputed by the governments of Syria and Iraq, and various factions including Daesh, and ripples ever outwards in concentric circles (Institute for the Study of War Report, p. 9-10). This week has seen talks between rival governments in Libya and a ceasefire between the Saudis and the Houthis in Yemen, but both truces are still uncertain and Daesh has a rapidly growing presence in both countries, as does Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP) in Yemen.

Daesh and the Taliban control an increasing amount of territory in Afghanistan. Egypt is again ruled by a military dictatorship, but nonetheless is unable to defeat or even effectively contain Daesh’s Sinai Province: “the insurgency is extending beyond Sinai to other parts of the country.” And six months after a ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey ended, another ceasefire seems increasingly unlikely, as Turkey has fired 100 times more airstrikes at the PKK than at Daesh.

More than 119 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in an “uptick in violence [which] began back in early October.” In Nigeria, Boko Haram (now also a Province of Daesh) has killed over 17,000 people in six years. Violence, potentially along ethnic lines, is erupting in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor. In Mexico, “at least 100,000 people over the last eight years” have died in battles both between drug cartels and between the cartels and the government. In the United States, The Guardian reports that as of December 8, 1,058 people have been killed by police officers this year alone.¹

What does this all add up to? A lot of people slain in battle, or in other politically-charged violence.²

Valföðr, Father of the Slain

Odin is “called Father of the Slain,” either “because all those that fall in battle are the sons of his adopt[i]on” (Gylfaginning 20, trans. Bodeur), or because half of the slain go to Freyja and half to him:

Half of the dead
each day does she choose,
And half does Othin have
(Grimnisnal 14, trans. Bellows)

Gylfaginning calls Odin’s “adopted sons” Einherjar, etymologically derived from ein “one, alone” and arr “warrior.”

In Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead, Claude Lecouteux discusses possible connections between Odin, the Einherjar and the various folkloric entities often referred to as the Wild Hunt, which he defines as “a band of the dead whose passage over the earth at certain times of year is accompanied by diverse phenomena” (Lecouteux, 2011, p. 2).

Lecouteux spends quite a bit of time challenging existing scholarship and arguing that Odin’s associations with the Hunt may be of later provenance: “it is impossible to say whether this has been the case since the beginning or if he entered this legend much later” (p. 213), though he inclines much more towards the latter hypothesis. However, he acknowledges that questions of dates and definitive origins become less pressing when one considers the proliferation of diverse stories about the Wild Hunt and its cousins: “there was not one but there were many nocturnal hosts—often confused for each other, as we have seen, and some with a pronounced martial character and some without” (p. 214).

Odin and Sleipnir, Tjängvide image stone [Photo Credit: Berig / Wikimedia]

Unidentified rider astride Sleipnir, Tjängvide image stone [Photo Credit: Berig / Wikimedia]

Lecouteux traces “the first mention of Odin as the leader of a troop of the damned” to the Medieval Norwegian Dream Song or Draumkvedet of Olaf Åsteson, in which he appeared by the name Grutte Gráskeggi or “Graybeard” (Lecouteux, p. 223). He sees Gráskeggi as corresponding to one of Odin’s many names, Hárbarðr—also meaning “Graybeard.” Another contender for the “first evidence of the Hunt’s connection to Odin,” a fourteenth or fifteenth century charm “for protection against spirits of the night,” refers to “Wutanes Her,” but “it is impossible to know with any certainty whether Wutanes Her should be translated as Furious Army or Wotan’s Army” (Lecouteux, p. 241).

The first explicit mention of Odin by name is found in a text published by Nicolaus Gryse in 1593 in Rostock, Mirror of the Anti-Christian Papacy and Lutheran Christianity, which described the persistence among the peasantry of “invocations of Odin at harvesttime, for the pagans believed that this same diabolical huntsmen made his presence known in the fields at the time of the harvest” (Lecouteux, p. 224).

Furthermore, a 1654 Swedish book, Suebo-Gotland Antiquities by Uppsala University professor Johannes Locenius, reported the folk belief that “if any specter shows itself at evening or in the night on horseback or armed and accompanied by a loud din, people say that it is Odin passing through” (Lecouteux, p. 224). Lecouteux notes that those processions or apparitions with particularly warlike characteristics show strong thematic connections to Odin and the Einherjar:

The most solid argument in Odin’s favor is undoubtedly the fact that the Infernal Throng sometimes consists of warriors and horsemen. As the god of war and the owner of the horse Sleìpnir, Odin is at home in this context. He also finds a place as master of Jöl (Jölnir) [i.e. Yule], through his knowledge of necromancy and other magical practices that make him the god-shaman who has mastered the trance journey, and by his Einherjar, the dead warriors that make up the army with whom he will confront the powers of chaos during Ragnarök. (Lecouteux, p. 214)

Sometimes, too, the “Furious Army” is comprised of “criminals that have been broken on the wheel and hanged” (Lecouteux, p. 52), recalling Odin’s names Hangaguð and Hangatýr—both meaning “God of the Hanged.”

In his cataloging and analysis of various types of “ghostly processions,” Lecouteux distinguishes what he calls the “phantom army” phenomenon from those versions of the Hunt—often involving the “Doubles of sleepers” and led by female Powers such as Diana, Herodias, Percht, Frau Holle, Holda, or the euphemistically-named “Good Women” — which bring “prosperity with [them] as long as the rites are respected” (Lecouteux, p. 52). By contrast, however, “the passing of phantom armies is a bad omen: it heralds either some catastrophe or war” (Lecouteux, p. 52).

As with the crow and the dove in the Vatican, though, it should be painfully apparent to anyone witnessing a “phantom army” that “catastrophe or war” has already arrived. One detail to keep in mind, however, is the idea that “those who commit suicide or are those slain by arms cannot find rest and that wizards and witches are destined to transform into revenants and therefore become part of the nocturnal hosts” (Lecouteux, p.54). Thus, “phantom armies” may well be the result of widespread warfare as well as its harbinger. Like climate change, the full effects may not be visible yet, but they are surely inevitable.

Masked Warriors

In addition to apparitions of the literal dead, Lecouteux mentions Otto Höfler’s hypothesis that Wild Hunt stories may have originated in processions of the personified dead: “the Wild Hunt was possibly the image of brotherhoods that consisted of masked warriors. The mask permitted them to be identified with the dead. The festivals of this fraternity coincided with those on which commemoration of the dead was celebrated—in short, with ancestor worship” (Lecouteux, p. 229). Regarding the mask, it must be observed that “the same word in many languages was used to designate both the dead and masks—for example, the Latin larva and the Lithuanian kaukas” (Lecouteux, p. 177-178).

Dolon, ca. 460 BCE [Photo Credit: Jastrow / Wikimedia]

Dolon, Trojan warrior killed by Diomedes, Attic vase ca. 460 BCE [Photo Credit: Jastrow / Wikimedia]

The Spanish Società do Oso, which was “formed by living people,” is also cited as evidence in favor of Höfler’s theory. The Società do Oso was apparently able to accurately predict the deaths of individuals, and to “temporarily leave their bodies—that is, they created a Double” (Lecouteux, p. 229). Lecouteux writes that “the Double speaks in favor of ecstatic phenomena […] a sleeper emitted his Double, which joined with a procession of the dead and gained knowledge of his imminent death. On waking, he believed that he had really seen this procession and accredits its passage as such” (Lecouteux, p. 232).

He describes the ability to “divide into Doubles” as a “gift,” but also notes that “their duties were transferable” by handing their tokens of office (in one case, a cross and a font of holy water) to another human being. He further observes that “this transfer of power was strangely reminiscent of that of the Latvian werewolves, the name of a secret fraternity of men who could cast Doubles who would fight the wizards who had stolen the seeds,” and that “these particular werewolves were active on Santa Lucia’s Day, St. John’s Day, and Pentecost—dates that witnessed the passage of the Wild Hunt” (Lecouteux, p. 233-234).

Lecouteux concludes that “it is more than a certainty that ecstatic phenomena hid behind this legend complex, and it is more than sure that at its center were worship of the dead and fertility concerns” (Lecouteux, p. 235). Though the exact details are impossible to determine, he does mention his colleagues’ theories of strong connections, once again, to the warrior dead:

Höfler regards the members of these brotherhoods as soldiers, and we can find confirmation from our medieval narratives, which often depict armed men. Ronald Grambo belives that we have here the vestiges of an elitist cult of dead warriors. (Lecouteux, p. 235)


At Gods and Radicals, Lee Davies has written a four-part series entitled “The Hunt and the Hound,” which traces the Wild Hunt to the Proto-Indo-European Koryos—war bands “strongly associated with wolves and hounds” and who “masked, draped in skins or with painted bodies […] would not only embody the dead but literally and in actuality, to those people, become the dead.” Lee originally proposed creating “a spirit house in the form of a canine skull” and suggested that “there is a surfeit of political names which could be carved into lead and offered up for the Hunt to set its hounds upon.” The fourth and final part of the series details Lee’s experiences following up on what he had proposed: not quite as “originally envisioned,” but still unfolding.

In September, the same month that the first part of Lee’s series was published, Sable Aradia put forth a proposal—also posted at Gods and Radicals—for a ritual in which the magician or witch would “visualize the Hunt riding against the quarry you’ve requested.” In response, spirit-worker and writer Dver questioned the underlying premise “that the Hunt has the function of pursuing/destroying something wicked (and furthermore, destroying something we humans might want destroyed).” She pointed out that “I have never seen any indication that they can be petitioned to make our personal enemies their quarry, and it seems from the folklore that they would be just as likely to turn their rather terrifying sights on the person who drew their attention.”

Watercolor by Edgar Bundy, 1911. [Credit: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia]

“Death as general rides a horse on the battlefield,” Edgar Bundy, 1911. [Image Credit: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia]

Dver’s comment has already sparked discussion, and is surely part of an ongoing conversation. Lecouteux perhaps has something to offer, though he provides no easy answers. He describes the Wild Hunt as posing the “problem” of death for the living: “the entire legend revolves around the problem of our future in the otherworld or beyond the grave and what the fundamental implications of the unique status of the dead are for the living” (Lecouteux, p. 168). He, too, warns that the dead are often deliberately inscrutable and unpredictable: “depending on the nature of the texts, we meet souls in perdition as well as individuals who have no connection to purgatory and who lead a life about which we know nothing, for they overtly seek to conceal the purpose of their wanderings” (Lecouteux, p. 168-169). In the following paragraph, however, he makes the unsettling statement that “we can gain the impression that the Wild Hunt is a rite that both the living and the dead celebrate” (Lecouteux, p. 169).

So which is it—celebration or catastrophe? That question is unanswerable. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Everybody considers dying important, but as yet death is no festival. As yet men have not learned how one hallows the most beautiful festivals” (trans. Kauffman, “On Free Death”).

Nietzsche [Photo Credit: Isenhiem / Wikimedia]

Friedrich Nietzsche [Photo Credit: Isenhiem / Wikimedia]

He wrote, too, the challenge: “You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause” (“On War and Warriors”). A dangerous and highly suspect statement, to be sure, but there is an echo of the words, “Half of the dead/each day does she choose,/And half does Othin have.” The values for which wars are fought matter: they are the meanings we seek in our lives. But the meanings of some things in the world are beyond our comprehension. Some wars are bigger than picking sides, however good the cause. We would do well to remember that, especially at this time of year.

Folklore tells us that “the Wild Hunt appears most frequently” in the twelve days “between Christmas and Epiphany—that is, within the twelve-day Christmas cycle, when it is said that spirits have free rein to leave the otherworld and wander about the earth, performing various tasks” (Lecouteux, p. 17). Be forewarned.

And a passage from Viga-Glúm’s Saga, translated by George Johnston and quoted in Phantom Armies of the Night (Lecouteux, p. 52), reminds us once again that the Riding of the Powers is nothing to take lightly:

The ring-giver saw them riding
A snapping of swords must happen
It’s come, the grey spears’ greeting
As the gods ride [godreid] fast through the pasture
Odin exults to see
The Valkyries eager for battle
Those goddesses dripping forth gore
Drenching the lives of men.


1. Some may consider it hyperbolic to include this statistic in a list of ongoing wars and (counter-)insurgencies, but as is amply demonstrated by the example of Mexico’s cartel-related violence, law enforcement conduct necessarily has an effect upon and takes place within the context of what British General Frank Kitson called “low intensity operations.”

2. Sun Zi said, “The art of war is of vital importance to the State.” And Clausewitz wrote, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” And Foucault reversed Clausewitz: “politics is war by other means.”