20 February 2013

from The Wild Places, chapter 13, Saltmarsh (Robert Macfarlane)

Northern European myth tells of an event called 'The Wild Hunt'.  On tempestuous nights, Wodan would lead across the land the troop of warriors who had died in battle, accompanied by their war-hounds.  Travellers who found themselves in the path of the Wild Hunt were advised to lie face down.  In this way only the cold feet of the black dogs who ran with the hunt would touch them, and they would not be harmed.  The purpose of the Hunt was to collect the souls of the recently deceased; its riders were the summoners of the dead.  Many different versions of the Hunt exist: in a Christian form of the myth, it was said to occur when Gabriel rallied his angels into battle.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle detailed how, on 6 February 1127, the Wild Hunt galloped through the deer part of Peterborough and then through the woods up to Stamford: a 'furious host' rushing through the dark forest paths, across the heaths, over the fells, along the coast, and between the places of 'mirk'.  Gervase of Tilbury recorded in the thirteenth century that Arthur and his knights still led a Wild Hunt along the holloway that ran between Cadbury and Glastonbury.

The ur-myth of the Wild Hunt was almost certainly an explanation of the autumn migrations of wild geese - brent, snow, Canada.  Most years, the geese travel in skeins, in groups of fewer than a hundred birds.  Some years, however, they fly low and in large numbers, and when they pass overhead in the darkness, the noise of their wings is so loud that it can resemble a plane or - to pre-aviation ears - a war-host of angels.  An eerie German soldiers' song, composed in the trenches in 1917, spoke of how 'The Wild Geese rush through the night | With shrill cries to the North. | Beware, beware this dangerous flight | For death is all around us.'

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