It's one of the most popular activities in America, according to the most recent statistics, roughly 45 million people love to do it whenever they can, or about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Every day, people head outside and go hiking and it's hard to blame them. That fresh air, that distance from the bustle of everyday life and that connection to the natural world. Those are attractive things. Sure, it can also be physically challenging, but that's the price of admission for anyone who wants to take a trek into the wilderness.
But there are shadows in the forests as well. If you've ever hiked alone, you're all too familiar with that anxious feeling that happens when you hear a sound you can't identify or catch movement out of the corner of your eye. Despite all that beauty, what the woods have more than anything else is darkness. For thousands of years, people have filled that gloom with something that could help them come to grips with the unknown stories, even today, our collective folklore is a treasure chest of legends about who and what roam through the wooded areas of our world.
The forest, for many people, is sacred space. But the woods are more than just a place to visit their home to challenges, risks and even dangers, wild animals, difficult terrain and the dark side of all that peace and quiet, the lack of human assistance can all conspire to turn a pleasant afternoon into an unexpected tragedy. And it's been that way for as long as humans have been around. But if the tales are true, the forest might also be home to something else, something that we mere mortals are woefully unprepared to deal with dangers from another realm.
I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. I could start with legends of supernatural creatures. I could start with the intricacies of fairies or deities or the mythology of various cultures, but if I'm honest, the best and most efficient way to journey deep into the folklore of the forest is through one very specific bit of legend. And it's called the wild hunt. It's a small segment of European folklore that historians can trace back to at least the post medieval period, but those scraps are clearly evidence of something much older.
And in a lot of ways, it's unlike many of the tales we bump into on a regular basis. It might involve common players or ideas, but the way it's all put together is something special and very dark as well. Those who study the hunt typically break it into two distinct variations, each one originating from different parts of Germany in the southern region of the country, we can find tales of the Vuitton, this hair or the furious host. This is the sighting of a mysterious hunting party in the forest, accompanied by the sounds of horns and shouting voices.
A furious host is typically seen as a sort of omen, a sign that some kind of catastrophe was headed toward the people who witnessed it. It could be a natural disaster or one brought on by the darker aspects of our human nature, such as war or murder, or even the loss of a beloved leader in the northern parts of Germany. They call it the Villeda yarded, and this one is much more fearsome than its Southern counterparts. Stories of this hunt describe it as a party of warlike writers or a band of deadly hunters.
It's always led by a prominent figure. But rather than bring an omen of impending doom, this type of hunt has the chance of taking something with them, often a loved one. From one perspective, it's a supernatural hunt with otherworldly creatures on both sides of the chase. Those riding through the woods are thought to be the spirits of the dead or revenants, the dead who have returned to the land of the living while their quarry are monstrous creatures. Some legends say the hunters chase a dragon, while others feature them tracking down the devil himself.
In the process, this otherworldly hunting party would encounter human witnesses, sometimes these witnesses would stand up to the hunter and refuse to let them pass, but those people would be punished for that. Others chose to help the hunt, and if they did so, they would receive a reward, either in the form of money or some other valuable portion of the slain animal. But making a deal with these ghost hunters always came with a risk. Those who witnessed the wild hunt were said to be at risk of contracting the plague or of bringing war down on their homeland.
Others said that they risked being kidnapped by the fairies or dragged off to the underworld. But what's clear from all the legends is that the people believe these hunts really happened and they feared what could result from encountering them. And then, of course, there is the typical bit of suspicion that creeps into society in these stories, just as countless Europeans spent centuries afraid that their neighbors might be witches, some people were also accused of willingly participating in the wild hunt.
Locals claimed that these people can lay asleep in bed and yet send their spirits out to ride with the hunters. Whether Europeans were punished for the suspected crimes is something I've been unable to track down. And then, of course, there were the leaders of the hunt. They varied from place to place, but usually took on a few key characteristics. Each Hunt leader was someone who had failed morally in some way in these legends, their membership in the hunting party was a punishment for sins committed while alive.
A good example was the undead nobleman Count von Hackleburg. It was said that when he was mortal, this count blew off church in favor of taking his friends on a hunt. During the course of their fun that morning, they encountered two mysterious travelers, one angelic and one devilish. After mocking the angelic one. For some unknown reason, the Count's entire hunting party was coerced to ride off into the other world and is still hunting to this day. Other leaders of the hunt have included Wotan, also known in the northern lands as Odyn and elsewhere in Germany.
The leader was said to be Bhakta, the goddess of the Alpine Region, whose name translates as the bright one. Her southern counterpart, the goddess Holda, was similar in a lot of respects, even known as the white lady, but she was also referred to as the dark grandmother and was closely associated with German witchcraft. Early depictions of Holda show her riding a broom through the night sky. If that tells you what people thought of her. Over the centuries, these legends have evolved, we can blame a lot of that change on Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm fame.
His 1835 book, Deutche Mythology, included a collection of stories about the wild hunt. But in the process, he also blended them with more ancient theories about where they might have come from, giving them new life in an old school sort of way. But just because these tales are old doesn't mean they've stopped evolving as nations rose and fell and cultures spread out from Germany, they took their stories of the wild hunt with them. So it should come as no surprise that these old ideas found new soil on an island that was steeped in Germanic culture, Great Britain.
The wild hunt, it seems, was always on the move, and that might not be a good thing. On the surface, Germany and the U.K. are very different. They speak different languages, enjoy different foods and have cultures that are incredibly distinct. But as with much of life, all you need to do is dig a little deeper to find the commonalities. For example, the English language is actually Germanic in origin. And when you hear people talk about the Anglo-Saxon of Great Britain, that's a reference to one of the older people groups that settled on the island and they came from, you guessed it, Germany.
So naturally, if we go back far enough, we're bound to find some common beliefs and folk tales. And the stories of the wild hunt are one of them. In fact, there's a lot about the English version of that legend that will sound familiar. These hunts were seen as evil omens. There was always the risk that the hunt could sweep away innocent victims. And the leader of these hunts was always someone of corrupt moral standing. Of course, they also took on new elements after crossing the North Sea, England's love affair with tales of black dogs, sometimes referred to as Black Shuk or the Grim, found a wonderful home in the wild hunt stories which meant that the legend became more frightening over time.
Because now, instead of just a hunter in their party, locals also had to fear a gathering of powerful, magical black hounds. One tale from 1027 illustrates this perfectly written down by one of the scribes at Peterboro Abbey, which was located in a deeply Anglo-Saxon area. According to the scribe, their new Abbott, recently assigned there by the church, was a grasping, greedy man who had somehow received the appointment, despite already serving as abbots over another abbey elsewhere.
During his time in Peterborough, he did it make a good impression describe goes on to say that this Abbot and I quote, lived like a drone in a beehive, all the other bees gathered in, but he devoured all that he could take within and outside the abbey he took. It's then said that he put all of his gathering's onto a ship and sailed them back to his other Ebbie, according to describe this man's sin caused a rupture in the veil between this world and the next, which allowed in a dark coast.
Soon enough, a troop of mysterious hunters was seen in the woods around Peterboro, described as being pure shadows, riding upon the backs of enormous black stacks. And all around them, he claims, where dozens of pitch black hounds. And of course, folklorists find all manner of leaders to these shadowy hunting parties, some associated them with folklore about the fairies, while others connected them to ancient Welsh warriors. Some believe that the leader of the wild hunt was none other than King Arthur himself doomed to lead the hunt because of his adultery.
But one of the most common names attached to it is a character known as Wild Edric. It said that long ago Edric was in Earl in Shropshire, a county that sits on the border between England and Wales, Edric was said to be incredibly wealthy and a fierce warlord who was known by some as Edric the Savage, or Edric the Wild. And when the Normans arrived in 10 66, he gathered his soldiers and fought against William the Conqueror. Sadly, Edric was unable to defeat him and in the end he was forced to surrender and swear loyalty to the invaders.
In response, his own people turned against him, imprisoning Edric and his wife, Lady Gaga, along with their entire army inside an old lead mine beneath the ancient outcroppings known as the SteppingStones. To this day, many still believe that Edric takes his party out on hunts through the region and is always on call. Should England ever be threatened again? In fact, there have been reports over the last century and a half of just that in 1853, before the outbreak of the Crimean War, again in 1914 before World War One and then again in 1939, before the start of World War Two.
And in the case of the Crimean War, it's said that a local girl even witnessed Hedrick's hunting party pass overhead in the sky. She claimed that the legendary warlord wore a long green cloak over a green shirts with a flashing sword and a long hunting horn at his side. And that's an interesting detail because the color green comes into the legends of the wild hunt through another character as well, the Celtic God cartoonish. According to tradition, crunchiness was known as the Lord of the Animals or the Lord of the Wild Things, he was often depicted as a bearded man with long horns or antlers showing off his affinity to the creatures that he watched over.
And in some regions, he's deeply linked to yet another mythical being that's much more well known to us, the green man. Like her, Newnes, The Green Man is a bearded deity with close ties to nature and fact. So close are those ties that he's actually depicted as a green man, thus the obvious name. But in one small region of England, the tales of kindness and the green man blend together under the skin of one more legendary figure with close ties to the wild hunt, the ghostly figure of Hurn.
And I get it. One more name, one more legend. It's easy to feel a bit of folklore fatigue as we unpack all of this, but while Corniness Wild Edric and the others are important and influential, here in the Hunter is in another class. Why? For one very simple reason. Because modern people have actually seen him. He's less mythology and more local legend, but as we all know, it's those local stories that dig deep and feel vibrant, probably because they lean so heavily on locations we can see and visit.
And her and the hunter is no exception. Compared to figures like King Arthur or even Wild Edric, there's not a lot known about Hurn, although that doesn't mean he's difficult to find. In fact, all you have to do is open up a copy of Shakespeare's comedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor right there in Act four is most likely the first popular mention of him. Here's a modern transliteration of the old Shakespearean text. There's an old story that heard the hunter, who used to be a gamekeeper here in Windsor Forest, walks around an oak tree at the quiet hour of midnight all winter.
He has big, jagged horns and he strikes the trees with disease and cast spells on the cattle and makes the dairy cows give blood instead of milk and shakes a chain in the most terrible and frightening way. Other writers since Shakespeare's day have also worked hard in the Hunter into their stories, William Harrison Aynesworth discusses the legend in his 1843 novel, Windsor Castle, and our ever intrepid collector of folklore, Jacob Grim, weighed in on the tales as well.
It's not much, but it does show how well-known of a figure he was to the people of the day. Hurn, according to all of these retellings, was a hunter God who was closely associated with nature and the creatures of the forest, much like her Newnes, he even wore a crown or helmet of stag antlers, which were said to be a gift from the devil after he saved Hurn from a mortal injury, an injury caused by that same stag.
But her story really comes to life when you pay attention to the smaller details. There are two things included in almost every popular retelling of his legend, aside from those horns that he haunts a specific area of Windsor Forest and that he is connected to a specific tree there, a tree, according to legend, where he was killed today. The area that Shakespeare would have known as Windsor Forest is called the Windsor Great Park. It's a 5000 acre patch of land that was once a royal hunting ground and is now mostly accessible to the public.
Don't imagine it as all trees, though. Much of the park is wide open grass. But somewhere within that area, at least according to legend, stood Hearn's tree. One 16th century map even pinpointed its location, but in 1798, that tree was rumored to have been cut down. A few decades later, in 1838, a new tree was identified as Hearn's, but a storm blew it over in 1863, leading Queen Victoria to plant a new one in its place.
One final replacement happened in 1986, and that one is still standing today. A living reminder of an ancient legend. But that's not all that's still around. According to many, Hurn himself has never really left the forest. There are countless sightings of him and his hunting party have been recorded over the centuries, even up into the 20th century. And if they're true, they're also terrifying. In 1926, a local woman who lived in a farmhouse near the forest reported hearing the distant sounds of hounds barking as she sat up in bed, the sounds became louder and louder until it passed, along with the pounding of many writers right past her window.
A moment later, the noise faded off into the distance. In 1947, a woman reached out to the London Evening News with a horrifying story, she had been walking along the edge of the park very late at night and caught movements in the shadows out of the corner of her eye, stopping to peer deeper into the trees. She caught sight of something that simply should not have been there, the figure of a large man riding atop a black horse.
According to this woman, when the shadowy writer noticed her, he threw his head back and let loose an evil laugh before raising his hunting horn to his mouth and blowing loudly as he rode away. As you might imagine, this woman ran home as quickly as she could and most likely locked the door behind her. But the most recent story might also be the most chilling. In 1926, a group of schoolboys claimed that they were exploring the woods of Windsor Great Park when they stumbled across an ancient looking horn.
It was hollowed out, decorated with intricate lines and strung on a length of cord. One of the boys claimed that he actually lifted the horn to his lips and blew as hard as he could for a moment, only the fading sound of the horn blast could be heard in the quiet park. But then off in the distance, a second horn replied to theirs. And then the sounds of Bain horns and pounding hooves began to approach them. What arrived a moment later was enough to send the boys running for their homes frightened beyond words at what they had witnessed.
It was a pack of black dogs all standing around the legs of a tall man on a dark horse. But most terrifying of all was what these boys said the mysterious man was wearing on his head, the ancient weathered antlers of a stag. Folklore leaves a trail, not the sort of trail you might find after letting a wet and muddy dog back into the house, but something more like genetics, a trail that evolves as the centuries pass by, where the original strand becomes entwined with new elements, giving it texture in life.
But if you look closely enough, you can see elements of that original story in its descendants. I think that's one of the most important lessons for us to learn about stories really old holidays like Christmas, Halloween or Thanksgiving might look a certain way to us today with small variations from family to family, of course, but it would be wrong to assume we would even recognize those traditions two or three centuries ago. Time has a way of reshaping everything, even story.
Which is why it shouldn't be surprising to watch in retrospect, the traditions of the wild hunt evolve over the centuries into something different. It's what they were made to do in a way, to ride outside of Germany and take their stories with them. And on the island of Great Britain, that's certainly what they did. Yes, the tales changed to incorporate local legends and key historical figures, but they never lost their core elements that described the hunt. It remained an omen of impending doom, guided by a morally corrupt leader.
But the English weren't known for staying in one place, were they? So while they were colonizing the new world by transporting people and supplies and everything they needed to set up a New England far from home, they also brought stories with them. And those stories, just like the crops they planted, took root and spread. Around 1820, a young author put pen to paper and wrote a bit of fiction that incorporated elements of the wild hunt, but he also added in local details continuing that tradition of evolution and transformation.
He had heard tales of a Revolutionary War battle in New York known as the Battle of White Plains, that resulted in a frightening legend in the battle. One of the enemy soldiers was reported to have been tragically decapitated by an American cannonball, unable to locate the man's head. His body was buried nearby and life moved on. But soon, rumors began to spread, saying that the soldier had been returning from the dead each night to ride through the countryside looking for his head.
And this soldier, as it happens, was Hession, a mercenary hired by the English to help them fight the war. A soldier from Germany and these hession mercenaries were hated by the colonial rebels who considered them morally corrupt and agents of the enemy. So naturally, this soldier made a good stand in for the leader of the wild hunt. This story about the hunter and the town he terrorized along the Hudson River, part of a larger collection of tales, went on to be a bestseller and is considered today to be one of the defining bits of folklore in American history.
The writer, the tale and the town it was set in were all works of fiction, of course, but their ties to the ancient legends of the wild hunt has helped provide centuries of entertainment.
So much entertainment, in fact, that the real town situated roughly where the author set his fictional story, changed its name to match its in 1996. And the name of that tale, Washington Erving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
A tour through the Legend of the Wild Hunt is certainly one of folklore, is more thrilling rides. So I hope you've enjoyed the journey. But mysterious riders aren't unique to Germany or the English. And while they take on a lot of different forms, I've dug up one that I think you'll love. Stick around after this brief sponsor break to hear all about it.
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That's one hundred dollars off your mattress order at Casper Dotcom offer Kotler. The notion of a dead writer who returns to haunt the living is ancient and widespread. Even the specific folklore around headless writers like the one found in Sleepy Hollow aren't as unique as you might think. In Ireland, for example, there's the legend of the Dullahan. This figure is a type of fairy or supernatural creature that is known for being headless, as well as riding across the countryside on a black horse.
It's also rumored to use human spines as a whip to drive that horse along a horse that sometimes pulls a wagon adorned with skulls and funerary objects.
The Dullahan certainly has its own distinct flavor, but ghostly writers can be found in many other places. And one such story comes to us from East Texas in the decades before the Civil War. It was a time of plantation's slave owners, an elaborate social gatherings, but it was also a time of mystery. As this story will demonstrate. It said that in Sabine County, a local plantation owner loved to host parties at his large home. He and his wife were the perfect hosts, welcoming neighbors and distant friends alike.
And these gatherings were a regular occurrence for years. When the guests arrived, their coachman would steer the carriages into the drive, drop off their passengers and then park along the edge of the grass in front of the house. Then they would all gather around a small fire, share stories, laugh and enjoy some rare free time while they were looking after the carriages.
And so it was that on one summer evening, the hosts through another of their famous parties indoors, while the coachman all gathered around their fire outside. One of the guests that evening was a young man, a relative of one of the neighbors who frequently attended. And as it happened, this young man caught the eye of the daughter of the hosts. It said that the young couple hit it off at once and snuck away to enjoy some time together while the older guests laughed and drank.
It's hard to say how much time they were able to spend, but soon enough they were inseparable. The following month brought another large party at the young woman's home, and that evening she and the young man stepped into the crowd, called for their attention and announced their engagement. And much to their delight, every single person there, including her parents, were fully supportive of them. It was the way things worked, after all, and they were congratulated by everyone.
To celebrate, the young couple slipped outside for fresh air and a chance to get away. That's when the young man spotted the line of carriages along the drive. Taking her hand. He led her to the closest one, took the reins and urged the horses forward. A moment later, they were thundering down the road. The man in charge of that carriage, an enslaved man named Ben Smiley, chased after them. He shouted for them to stop, but the young man simply leaned over the side, looked back at him with a grin and said that he would be back soon.
But they weren't in fact, the young couple never returned home, somehow vanishing into the night forever, and that confused everyone who knew their parents. Why would this young couple elope when they were so supported and loved by their community? What would cause them to run away and never return? No one knew. But Ben Smiley had a theory. He believe that their crime stealing one of the carriages had made them targets of the spirit world, and much like the way the wild hunt could sweep through a community and take away loved ones, he believed that the spirits had tracked the couple down and ushered them off to the land of the dead.
Well, life went on after that, however tragic it was, the owners of the plantation still held regular parties, although I have to think that those were tainted with a feeling of loss and grief, but they gathered nonetheless. And it was many years later when Ben and the other coachmen were sitting around their small fire outside sharing old stories with the younger men, that one of them looked up and pointed toward the woods at the edge of the property.
They're drifting out of the dark.
Trees was a bright, glowing object. At first, it appeared to be formless, but as it moved down the drive toward them, it took on the familiar shape of a carriage and all of the men stood there in a loose circle around the fire and watched in awe as the ghostly carriage rolled past a carriage with no horse and no driver, but with someone recognizable inside. It was the figure of a young woman with a smile on her face and a hand raised in a wave.
This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Alexandra Steele and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There is a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts, Aaron makes cabinets of curiosities and unobscured, and I think you'd enjoy both.
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