Stories of the Wild Hunt are mainly known in the Norse and Germanic countries, with a smattering in Great Britain. It’s when Wodan leads a noisy hunting party of the dead through the air, when the nights are longest and the days coldest. It’s supposed to be a harbinger of doom. Despite Christendom removing most pagan traditions, we can still find traces of the Wild Hunt, though Wodan has lost his place to figures like the pagan deity Herne the Hunter, or King Arthur, in England, and Hellequin in France.
In the Nether-Saxon area, the north-eastern quarter of the Netherlands, you’ll also find the Rider on the White Horse, who also comes as an omen of natural disasters. This Rider too is identified as Wodan or St. Nicolas, and can be seen as a budget version of the Wild Hunt.
Folklorist Eilina Huizinga-Onnekes collected the following stories:
“The evening before Sunterkloas [St. Nicholas] several people from Ezinge had seen Sunterkloas. He rode over the field on a white horse and he himself was completely in white. And he had been wearing a big hat. Wiebe was afraid of nothing; he’d seen him too and had found it strange. So he had walked towards him and had said: “Have you already seen Sunterkloas?” And what happened with him then, he wouldn’t tell afterwards. But never again would he ask something like that. He’d been cured of that.
Sunterkloas is something completely different than some people imagine!“
1932, Ruigezand, close to Niehove
“On a stead at Ruigezand there always were a lot of hauntings. At Midwinter a cart always flew by. The doors always flew open with a bang. The farmhands often nailed the barn doors shut, but with a bang they’d all fly open again.“
1915, Panser, between Zoutkamp and Vierhuizen
“Well, you do know of the rider on the northern lane of Panser? On Old Year’s Night [New Year’s Eve] between twelve and one a horseman on a white horse rides up and down. Man with a high pointy hat and a rough cloak. He rages through the sky and once he flew over Geessie and her fellow. He had a big sword in his hand. Around that time there’s no-one about.“
These three stories centre around the Reitdiep river, and despite its dykes flooding must have been a genuine fear throughout the ages. Panser is the name of the farm where there used to be a stronghold of the same name, on a wierde, a man-made hill. It’s the place with the oldest signs of human habitation in the area; pot shards from the 6th century b.c. have been found there.
In her Groninger Volksverhalen, Huizinga-Onnekes gathers stories of another leader of the Wild Hunt. It is said in East-Friesland (Northern German) that on Old Year’s Night, King Redbad rides with his wildly galloping horses through the Westermars. The barn doors fly open, but also close by themselves. Redbad, who died in 719, was the last pagan king in Europe. He was King of Frisia, when it stretched along the Dutch and German north coast. He refused to be baptised, saying: “I’d rather be with my forefathers in hell than with the Christians in heaven!”
Huizinga-Onnekes’ contemporary K. ter Laan notes another remnant from pagan times.
“A fiery wagon, pulled by four or six dogs, rides on the lane of the milking place of the erstwhile abbey of Rottum (once a pagan temple), where the rectory grounds are now.“
One of the earliest and most important histories of the Anglo-Saxons was The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They had the same roots as the Germanic and Norse tribes and broadly shared their folklore. The following is said to have happened in 1127.
“Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after 6th February many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild ride as near as they could tell.“
M.D. Teenstra, in his 1840 Volksverhalen en Legenden, in which he gathers the folklore of the northern regions.
“Ever since the 24 September 1731’s infamous pyres of Faan, there walk from Niekerk to Lettelbert some rough black dogs, with burning eyes, in front of an iron cart, making a terrible shrieking and moaning noise.“
De Faan was where the overzealous headman De Mepsche burnt dozens of people accused of sodomy; even in my mother’s childhood it was said that on the evening of that day, the horizon was burning and columns of smoke and fire could be seen. Not too far away from there, in Zevenhuizen, close to Leek, one can encounter the wild hunter with his dogs in the peat grounds.
A footnote points towards Nicolas Westendorp, and his 1826 essay on Norse myths. Following these breadcrumbs leads to this gingerbread nugget from Germanic mythology.
“It is told of Holla, that she sometimes treks through the land on a cart and gives it fertility; that she especially at midwinter (Christmas time), when passing through, rewards industrious spinsters yet punishes the lazy; often she gives prosperity and richness. In the Hessisch mountains lies a lake, the Hollenteisch, which is about 40 or 50 feet wide: women who climb in this well are made fertile by Holla: she gives from her well children to families, and hands out many flowers and cakes, which come from her own bountiful gardens. Sometimes she appears in the middle of the lake, in the shape of a beautiful white lady.
She also rides at the head of a furious hunt, and in Thuringen she is accompanied in that by the loyal Ekkert with his white stave: then you hear the barking of dogs in the sky, the blowing of horns, and the roaring of wild animals, and everything becomes pitch dark. In her parade you many times saw recently deceased people bound on wheels, or in other very painful positions. Ekkert warns people to get out of the way.“