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Wild Hunt


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This is the general term for any ghostly or demonic huntsman or group of huntsmen, accompanied by phantom hounds, seen—or, more often, simply heard—galloping across the sky by night. Local terms include Dando's Dogs in Cornwall, Wish Hounds on Dartmoor, Gabriel Hounds in northern England, Seven Whistlers in Worcestershire. They were thought to be either demons pursuing dead sinners, or damned souls themselves. They were an omen of disaster; Henderson was told in the 1860s that ‘Sometimes they appear to hang over a house, and then death or calamity are sure to visit it, ‘as had been noted when a child was burned to death in Sheffield’ (Henderson, 1879: 97–106). In Cornwall, the leader was sometimes said to be the Devil himself (Hunt, 1865: i. 247), sometimes a notorious local landowner who had defied God by going hunting on a Sunday. Stories of this type have been recorded in Cleveland (Atkinson, 1891: 70) and Oxfordshire (Briggs, 1970–1, B. i. 602–3). The earliest description comes from the Peterborough Chronicle, telling how after the appointment of a wicked abbot in 1127:Then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that there were between this town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night.

Then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were big and black and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that there were between this town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night.

Such apparitions, however, were not necessarily demons and lost souls. Walter Map describes King Herla's phantom riders as under enchantment, while Gervase of Tilbury had heard of others who were Arthur's knights. Many keepers in the royal forests of Britain and Brittany, says Gervase, would tell how: ‘… about noon, and in the first part of the following night if there is a full moon, they have frequently seen a host of knights with hunting dogs and heard the sound of horns. To those who challenge them, they answer that they belong to the fellowship and household of Arthur.’

Westwood, 1985: 32–4, 155–7;Petry, 1972.


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