For fans of The Witcher or, most recently, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, The Wild Hunt will sound very familiar. It’s been a popular motif used in fantasy stories like Hellboy and others since well into the 19th century but what is the Wild Hunt? And why is it so popular in North European folklore even today?
What is the Oskoreia in Assassin’s Creed?
In the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, there is an event that takes place between 11th November – 2nd December called the Oskoreia. In the game, the normally-green and lush village of Ravensthorpe is suddenly bedecked with spooky grey lanterns and boasts a ship decorated with ghostly apparitions.
Villagers speculate on what the coming days hold for them before saying “Oskoreia isn’t a celebration. It’s when the veil between the worlds grows thin and the dead will haunt us if we don’t honour them. The Gods come to Midgard to hunt. Not just beasts, but men also.”
Standard fare for fantasy stories but then the main character does something a little unusual. He tells the villagers that they’re wrong to fear The Hunt, instead they should organise a series of trials to show the gods that they are not “easy prey”.
Now, this works well to set up games within a game but there’s actually more to it than meets the eye. Something more fundamentally folkloric and ancient.
What is the Wild Hunt?
The Wild Hunt is a tradition found in northern, western and central Europe. It involves a hunting party full of ghoulish horses and terrifying hounds that tear through the night, scaring anybody who’s unfortunate enough to witness it. The leader of this hunt, however, depends on where the story is told.
In northern Europe, it’s generally Wodan / Odin, who leads and this is evident in the names given to the hunt there. Oskoreia is a derivative of Ásgård-reið, meaning literally “Asgard Riders” and refers to a “Yuletide” dreamlike event which is scary, yes, but whose timing is vitally important.
The Harbingers of Evil
In many folkloric traditions, “The Hunt” was thought to signal some calamity that was set to befall the local populace. These otherworldly apparitions were seen as the harbingers of immediate death for the witness or they predicted plagues or surprise wars.
(Note: wars are generally only ever a surprise to those who have to fight in them rather than those who just profit from them, obviously. Please excuse this catty digression, let’s carry on.)
Then again, there are some scholars who believe that the ‘ghoulish’ aspect of The Wild Hunt was a Christian misrepresentation, a deliberate attempt to literally demonise a pagan tradition. These scholars remind us that many of the witnesses of The Hunt did not die but their spirits were transported to some ethereal realm.
As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
The Harbingers of Change
The timing of The Hunt is important because it coincides with one of the most important changes in the ancient year: autumn-winter.
Jim Baker’s magnificent Cunning Man’s Handbook describes ancient magic in terms that are more ‘realistic’ than the fluffy-floatiness you often find in books about paganism today. In it, he says that magical practitioners didn’t see Nature as an all-round benevolent being. To ancient pagans, using today’s vernacular, Nature was a Bad Bitch, who was perfectly indifferent to you dying from illness, starvation or just generally being frozen to death.
The onset of winter was a time to hunker down, make sure all your stores are in order and firewood is kept dry. The appearance of The Wild Hunt was a reminder that there are dangers on the horizon and you should prepare for them.
In Assassin’s Creed, the main character’s decision to set up a ‘series of trials’ to show the gods that they’re no easy prey is exactly in-keeping with this line of thought.
Winters Were Harsh: So What?
Well, they still are. Regardless of what you believe about the pandemic (this is a mythology article and I’m a dopey storyteller, so I wouldn’t touch that subject with a god’s bargepole) the next few months are full of snotty noses that can turn nasty in the blink of an eye.
Winter is still a time to wrap up warm, protect yourself from the elements and take advantage of your ‘stores’ to celebrate the end of the year with loved ones. It’s a time to throw a homeless person money that flutters rather than jingles, just this once, so they can fend off The Wild Hunt themselves.
And don’t forget, it can’t always be spring but there’s no spring festivities unless we go through the darkness. So, let’s go through it together with mad stories about myths and monsters!