Friday, December 21, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Today of all days, with Krampus behind us, Yule upon us and Frau Holda just about to come in for supper, seems the best choice for a discussion of The Wild Hunt. This mythology spreads from Eastern Europe, down through the Mediterranean, up to Celtic and Nordic lands and clear across the Atlantic to North America. If you've ever heard the famous Stan Jones country hit "Ghost Riders in the Sky," you know how the legend has been kept alive to this day.

The Wild Hunt is a tricky myth to pin down. Because there are legends about swift riding, death-dealing hunts blackening night skies all over Europe and Russia, it is hard to say where exactly the story originated. Most anthropologists now settle on a Teuton/Viking origin, probably due to the fact that the Vikings took their mythology over almost half the earth. Here the leaders of The Wild Hunt are usually Woden/Odin and/or his wife Frigg.

In the stories, which are uncannily similar, a maelstrom of hunters straddling ghostly horses and accompanied by baying hounds rides either across land or, more often, sky at a pace that proves they have no human origin. Sometimes the Hunt was actually seen by humans, sometimes witnessed only as a violent storm and on other occasions never seen but only heard. Almost always, people were advised to hurry for shelter or at least avert their eyes when the Hunt approached. One story tells of a Briton father, caught in an open field with his daughter when the Hunt swooped down, telling his little girl to lift her apron up over her face. By this gesture, the girl was unknowingly giving respect to the Old Gods and - more importantly - avoiding their deadly gaze.

As Christianity infiltrated the pagan nooks and crannies of the North, Woden and Frigg were replaced by  Satan as the leader of the Hunt. It was said that those in the open without proper protection - consecrated medals, crucifixes, or recent communion - would be swept up by the Hunt, carried away breathlessly through the air and dumped in a strange place with no way of knowing how to find home. The Hunt was also a collector of souls; those who saw it sweep over graveyards swore they saw some of the recently dead pulled up and along by the riders. No doubt these were the evil doers, on their way to their just punishments in Hell.

This remaking of godly hunt into a carrion collection party may stem more from Celtic than Teuton myth. It was the Morrigan, that beautiful, blood soaked goddess of sex and death, who collected the fallen souls in the aftermath of battle. She may have been confused with Hel, the Teutonic queen of the Underworld, in the post-Christian mind and the idea of a hunt that featured spectral Amazons may have been thought to include a sort of reaping of souls.

In later centuries, when the fear of Hell was overtaken by more scientific anxieties, the Wild Hunt became something of a children's story that came out particularly around the end of the year holidays. By the 19th century the leader of the Hunt was not the Devil but the devil-esque figure known as Krampus. Krampus was the helper of Saint Nicholas who brought switches to parents to punish their less-than-good children while the good kids got gifts from the saint. In cases of unrepentant bad behavior, Krampus would bundle up the child in his black bag and drag the mischief maker back his cave.

The Hunt is also loosely associated with Frau Holda, a Baba-Yaga type figure who will put children who fall into her magickal well to hard work in her home. Capable children will be sent home with gold; lazy monsters will return to their parents covered in pitch. Holda is often compared to the Italian whitch-lady La Befana who, something like Santa Claus, brings presents to the children of families who feed her when she shows up for supper on Christmas Eve.

As to that American Wild Hunt mentioned earlier, click over and listen to the immortal Man in Black sing it as only he can. Here's Johnny Cash with "Ghost Riders in the Sky" live. Enjoy! And a Happy Yule/Solstice to you all.

Header: Asgardsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo 1872 via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

So much goodness in that post, Pauline!

I had no idea that was what "Ghost Riders in the Sky" was about.

Is it too last for Krampus spankings?

Mike Hebert said...

Very interesting Pauline! I've heard that song a bunch of times but just thought it was weird and cool. I had no idea about the myth story.

Captain Swallow introduced me to the Krampus on YouTube and I was blown away with that story. I had never heard or seen anything like it. And I listened to a lot of Heavy Metal when in high school. lol.

Rocky Sexton wrote about Christmas in a small Louisiana community with German heritage. He talks about how the tradition changed to a nicer, gentler American style Santa Claus. But I bet the old people had brought "Krampus" type ideas with then when they came to Louisiana. Check it out when you get a chance!

"All the young boys of the neighborhood dressed as Santa Claus, and they were mean. They would come in with sticks and chains and all they would says was in German, "beten sie" which means pray, and if you didn't get on your knees and said a little prayer they would take the little switch and switch you . . . and one of them had a sack on his back which was supposed to have been to put the bad children in."

--quote from Rocky Sexton's: A Kinder, Gentler St. Nicholas: Transformation and Meaning in a "Louisiana German" Tradition

Pauline said...

Mike: There are so many of these myths that intertwine and come out the other side - I'm hesitant to compare them to a digestive system but, if the shoe fits - that it is hard to know where one starts and the other ends.

And leave it to the Captain to throw out a disarming story or two ;)

Timmy! Yes; yes it is.