Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.
The Wild Hunt is ubiquitous across Northern Europe, with variations in the Nordic and Germanic countries as well as the United Kingdom. England's Wild Hunts were originally hosted by faeries, and were often headed by the antlered Herne the Hunter, the Welsh trickster-magician Gwydion, and eventually King Arthur. Herne, a forest spirit, was first committed to paper by William Shakespeare in Merry Wives of Windsor:
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.
Herne the Hunter, illustrated by George Cruikshank, c.1843.
A variation of England's Wild Hunt includes the ancient Anglo-Saxon deity Wodan, as does Germany's. Wodan, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin, was considered a guide to the afterlife for dead spirits, or what is called a "psychopomp" by mythologists (in Disney's oeuvre, Charon from Hercules and Davy Jones and eventually Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean occupy the same role). It is not difficult to see how ancient Germanic peoples could derive stories of Wodan going on the hunt, picking out the souls of the deceased, or how that could translate to the Headless Horseman. Another version casts the goddess Freyja as the hunter. A prime Nordic and Germanic goddess, Freyja is notable here for her collection of souls from fallen warriors. Freyja keeps her home in the realm of Fólkvangr, and in the aftermath of great battles, half of the slain warriors are received by Odin in Valhalla and the other half by Freyja in Fólkvangr. Modern scholars are not exactly sure why this mythology has two different forms of the arfterlife, but some speculate that nested in the names are identifications for two different breeds of warriors (i.e.: Valhalla for "knights" and Fólkvangr for "soldiers," etc.). In the Scandinavian countries, it is Odin himself who hunts, usually tracking down trolls, elves and gigantic jötnunn.
Odin on the Wild Hunt. Illustration by August Malmström.
A third variation in the German version makes the supernatural Wild Hunt a punishment for cursed noblemen like Hanns von Hackelberg, another obvious translation to the Headless Horseman. Hanns von Hackelberg was the huntsman of Duke Julius of Brunswick during the late 1500's. One evening before the hunt, he saw in a dream that a strong boar would grievously injure him and he would die. Despite the pleas of his men, Hackelberg went on the hunt, and sure enough, he was attacked by a boar. Using his skill and weapons, he emerged victorious in the battle with hardly a scratch. At that evening's feast, however, Hackelberg raised the head of the slain boar and began mocking it and his dream. The head slipped and the boar's tusk sliced into his foot. By the next evening he had passed away from infection, but not before cursing himself with riding forever on the roaring gale with his horse and his two hunting dogs.
Halloween seems a particularly appropriate time for Wild Hunts, but traditionally they were held in the dead of winter between Christmas and Epiphany (i.e.: New Years') with the occasional one held around Good Friday. As one might glean from those dates, the Christianization of Europe through the Early Middle Ages transformed these stories from the exploits of the deities to the poltergeists of the angry and cursed. A traditional Canadian version, called the "Chasse-galerie," involves a group of French Canadian Voyageurs who want to enjoy New Years' with their sweeties back in Montreal but are stuck wintering in the north country. They make a deal with the Devil to fly them home in a supernatural canoe, but at a price. If they curse the name of God or touch a steeple, their souls are forfeit. This is problematic, of course, because nearly every swear in Canadian French is sacrilegious and trying not to touch a steeple in Quebec is like trying to swim without getting wet. The Voyageurs agree not to drink in order to maintain control of themselves, but one is not so disciplined...
La Chasse-galerie, illustration by Henri Julien.
If one happens to come across a Wild Hunt, Christianity also offers some protection. Typically you have nothing to fear from a Wild Hunt if you have nothing to fear from God (and you better be sure about that). For added security, it is best to avert your eyes and prostrate yourself, or better yet to hole yourself up and pray like the Hebrews in Egypt during the Tenth Plague. If you treat it frivolously - mocking it, provoking it or even deliberately peeping out your window for a look - be prepared to suffer the consequences.