This is an excerpt from my book 'Fairycraft'
The Wild Hunt is a collection of spirits - some say ghosts, or fairies - that travel through the air in storms led by a Huntsman. Who the Huntsman is varies as widely as the geographic areas the hunt is found in and the names it is known by. There have been entire books written about the Wild Hunt - and I highly recommend Claud Lecouteaux's "Phantom Armies of the Night: the Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead" - so this section will by necessity be very limited in its scope but I'd like to offer an overview. I have encountered the Hunt myself a time or two and it is likely that another follower of a Fairy-based witchcraft will also meet them or see them at some point and its best to go into that with an understanding of who and what they may be.
So, to begin, the Hunt is found in Germany, France, Denmark, Normandy, Sweden, Norway, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the United States (Jones, 2003). The Hunt is interesting though in that although found across a wide geographic area and among different cultures it always takes on a unique local character, often with a specific local spirit or God taking on the role of Huntsman. In the Germanic areas the Hunt is often led by Odin (Wodan), Frau Hulde, or both together, the Welsh Hunt is led by Gwynn ap Nudd, and the English by Herne, while in France it is led by Harlequin, and in other areas a variety of fictional or historic figures including sir Frances Drake (Jones, 2003). The hunt in Germany is also sometimes led by Frau Perchta or the White Lady, Frau Gauden, who led groups of dead children or witches through the sky and were seen as good omens of abundant crops in the coming year (Berk, & Spytma, 2002) Some modern sources try to relate the Hunt led by Harlequin to the Norse goddess Hel, but it more likely that the name derives from the 12th century term "Herlethingus", a word used to describe wandering spectral troops during the time of Henry the 2nd (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). In Orkney the Hunt is led by Odin but may also be the trows riding out on pale horses to steal cows (Towrie, 2013). In Scotland the Hunt is the Unseelie Court, perhaps relating to the Irish idea of the Slua Sí, the fairy host who travel through the air attacking the unwary. Often when the Huntsman - or woman - is not a God or Otherworldly spirit it is said to be a person who so loved hunting in life that they rejected any other afterlife but to continue hunting and were rewarded or cursed to perpetually hunt for all eternity (Grimm, 1883).
The Wild Hunt is known by many names. In Orkney it is called the Raging Host (Towrie, 2013). Associated with Odin the Hunt was called Odin's Hunt/Odensjakt, Odin's Army, Wilde Jagd, the Wild Ride, Asgardeia, Oskerei, Horrific Ride, Thunderous Ride, and also the Ride of the Dead, and the Family of Harlequin (in France) (Towrie, 2013; Berk, & Spytma, 2002). Other names include the Furious Host or Wild Host and in America, the Ghost Riders.
The Wild Hunt travels in the air, and appears as a group of dark riders, led by a Huntsmen who may be headless, with a pack of fearsome hounds, and accompanied by a horde of spirits who sometimes appear as the newly dead or battle dead (Jones, 2003). When the Hunt is led by Gwynn ap Nudd the hounds are white with red ears, and are called the Cwn Annwn or Gabriel Hounds (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). The Hunt always includes horses and hounds, both usually black, but sometimes white or grey, and always fierce; in some accounts the animals breath fire and they are often missing limbs or with extra limbs and may display the same gruesome wounds as the battle dead accompanying the Hunt (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). The presence of the Hunt is signaled by the unearthly sound of hooves, hunting horns, and baying hounds appearing usually in the night sky and sometimes in storms (Towrie, 2013).
Mary Jones gives us a classic description of the Hunt from 1127 CE:
"...it was seen and heard by many men: many hunters riding. The hunters were black, and great and loathy, and their hounds all black, and wide-eyed and loathy, and they rode on black horses and black he-goats. This was seen in the very deer park in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods from the same town to Stamford; and the monks heard the horn blowing that they blew that night. Truthful men who kept watch at night said that it seemed to them that there might be about twenty or thirty horn blowers. This was seen and heard...all through Lenten tide until Easter." (Jones, 2003).
This description gives the time the Hunt appears as during "Lent" which might be assumed to be roughly March and April. In Switzerland the Hunt was said to appear during summer nights, and those who do not quickly get out of the way of the passing Hunt will be trampled by it (Grimm, 1883). More often in folklore the Hunt was said to ride in late fall and winter, particularly during the 12 nights of Yule. Grimm tells us that in Germany it was believed the Hunt rode during the time from Christmas to 12th Night or whenever the storm winds blew (Grimm, 1883). Yule was seen as a time of high supernatural influence when the Dead were more present (Towrie, 2013). In my own experience with the Ghost Riders of America they appear around Samhain and ride until the first week of January, but in times of great unrest or disturbance they may appear as well.
In many cases the Hunt is connected to Fairy in some way, but it is equally strongly connected to the spirits of the Dead. Towrie conjectures that the Orkney trows, themselves connected to the Wild Hunt, may have originally been considered spirits of the dead (Towrie, 2013). The dead are often seen in the retinue of the Hunt and that includes both those who may be recognized as recently dead as well as the ancient battle dead, some displaying hideous wounds. Some folklore also says that the wild Hunt rides out seeking the dead, chasing certain types of ghosts or spirits.
The Hunt appeared for different reasons depending on where it was - in some cases hunting a mythic animal or creature, in others pursuing lost souls or even seeking to punish wrong-doers (Towrie, 2013). As a Fairy Rade* the Hunt is usually hunting human beings, either with the purpose of kidnapping them or tormenting them; in some cases the person might go mad (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). In some cases the Hunt might offer to take a living person to ride with them, but the risk of doing so was great; the person might never return or might become a permanent part of the Host**. Seeing the Hunt could be an ill-omen and the Hunt itself could kill or drive a person mad, but conversely in some areas it was believed meeting the Hunt bravely and politely could earn a person great reward. There are several folk tales, like the story of "Wod, the Wild Huntsman" where the main character meets the Hunt and comes away with gifts of meat and gold as a reward for his cleverness. Showing proper respect would also earn a person a reward, but conversely rudeness would result in the person being thrown a severed human limb, if he was lucky, or his own dead child, if he wasn't; in some cases the Hunt would turn on the person mocking them and tear the person to pieces (Berk, & Spytma, 2002; Grimm, 1883).
Protection from the Wild Hunt is best achieved through avoiding them by not traveling at night, especially during Yule or other dangerous times. Shelter can also be sought at the first sound of hunting horn or hounds in the air. However, should those fail or not be possible and should you meet the Hunt, and do not feel like taking your chances with them, there is this charm from 14th century Germany:
"Woden's host and all his men
Who are bearing wheels and willow twigs
Broken on the wheel and hanged.
You must go away from here."
(Gundarsson, trans. Höfler; Berk, & Spytma, 2002).
*The Fairy Rade or Fairy Ride is a concept seen in many cultures of a procession of higher ranking fairies who ride out together, often at specific times of year like Samhain and Midsummer. Crossing paths with a Fairy Rade is dangerous, although we can see examples in stories such as the tale of Tam Lin where a mortal is recovered from the fairies after being won back during a Rade. The Fairy Rade sometimes is similar to or confused with the Wild Hunt.
**Some modern spirit workers and traditional witches do choose to ride with the Wild Hunt. I won't say I've never done it, but I also won't encourage other people to try it. There is always a danger with the Hunt that you won’t come back.
Towrie, S., (2013) The Wild Hunt.
Jones, M (2003) The Wild Hunt. Retrieved from http://www.maryjones.us/jce/wildhunt.html
Gundarsson, K (2007). Elves, Wights, and Trolls
Berk, A., and Spytma, W., (2002) Penance, Power, and Pursuit, On the Trail of the Wild Hunt.
Grimm, J. (1883) Teutonic Mythology volume 3