The Huntsman and the Hermit

The legendary folkloric figure of the wild huntsman is universal throughout northern and central Europe, from the British Isles to Central Europe, from Iberia to Scandinavia. In northern countries, the wild huntsman was identified as Odin.

The spectral figures of the huntsman and his galloping retainers represent its leader as a ruthless figure identified with the devil or diabolical forces. While anthropology may trace the legendary huntsman to ghosts and spectral figures imagined in the wild winds of dark autumn forests and forbidding winter nights, the typos of the wild huntsman also suggests the strong opprobrium of the peasant classes for the rural aristocracy. The famous fox and stag hunts were emblematic of the arrogance and cruelty of the resented lords, counts, and barons.

An example of a German version of the wild huntsman is quoted by H. A. Guerber in her 1895 book Legends of the Rhine, cited by the folklorist D. L. Ashliman:

The Löwenberg, [one] of the Seven Mountains, was once the daily hunting ground of a neighboring knight, who was so fond of the chase that he even hunted on Sundays, and once pursued his quarry to the foot of the altar where a priest was celebrating mass. Outraged by the insolence of the knight, who then and there slew his game, the priest solemnly cursed him. At the same moment the ground opened beneath the hunter's feet, and a pack of hounds from the infernal regions fell upon and tore him to pieces. Ever since then, on stormy nights, this sabbath-breaker's restless ghost hunts wildly through the air, followed by a spectral train of huntsmen and hell hounds, for he can find no rest, though dead, and is condemned to lead the wild hunt forever. This legend, which originated in the myth of Odin, leader of the Raging Host, is told with slight variations of many places along the Rhine, where sudden wind storms, rising during the night, are still considered by the credulous peasantry as the passing of a mysterious heavenly host.

The German romantic poet Gottfreid August Burger (1747-1794) captures the spectral agent's diabolical character in his ballad "Der wilde Jager" (published 1798). But the poet adds the pivotal figure of a hermit for contrast. As Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (1766-1817) rightly observes of Burger's ballad, in her 1810 comments on German literature, the poem is "extremely original." She describes the story line thusly:

Followed by his servants and a large pack of hounds, he [the huntsman] sets out for the chase on a Sunday, just as the village bell announces divine service.

A knight in white armor presents himself, and conjures him not to profane the Lord's day; another knight, arrayed in black armor, makes him ashamed of subjecting himself to prejudices, which are suitable only to old men and children.

The huntsman yields to these evil suggestions; he sets off, and reaches the field of a poor widow; she throws herself at his feet, imploring him not to destroy her harvest by trampling down her grain with his attendants.

The knight in white armor entreats the huntsman to listen to the voice of pity; the black knight laughs at a sentiment so puerile; the huntsman mistakes ferocity for energy, and his horses trample on the hope of the poor and the orphan.

At length the stag, pursued, seeks refuge in the hut of an old hermit; the huntsman wishes to set it on fire in order to drive out his prey; the hermit embraces his knees, and endeavors to soften the ferocious being who thus threatens his humble abode: for the last time, the good genius, under the form of the white knight, again speaks to him; the evil genius, under that of the black knight triumphs; the huntsman kills the hermit, and is at once changed into a phantom, pursued by his own dogs, who seek to devour him.

Gottfreid August Burger's "Die wilde Jager" was translated into English by Sir Walter Scott in 1797 as "The Wild Huntsman."

"The Wild Huntsman" by Gottfreid Burger, translated by Sir Walter Scott

The Wildgrave winds his bugle-horn,   
To horse, to horse! halloo, halloo!   
His fiery courser snuffs the morn,   
And thronging serfs their lord pursue.   
The eager pack, from couples freed,
Dash through the bush, the brier, the brake;   
While answering hound and horn and steed   
The mountain echoes startling wake.   
The beams of God's own hallowed day   
Had painted yonder spire with gold,
And, calling sinful man to pray,   
Loud, long, and deep the bell had tolled:   
But still the wildgrave onward rides;   
Halloo, halloo! and hark again!   
When, spurring from opposing sides,
Two stranger horsemen join the train.   
Who was each stranger, left and right,   
Well may I guess, but dare not tell:   
The right-hand steed was silver white,   
The left, the swarthy hue of hell.
The right-hand horseman, young and fair,   
His smile was like the morn of May;   
The left, from eye of tawny glare,   
Shot midnight lightning’s lurid ray.   
He waved his huntsman’s cap on high,
Cried, "Welcome, welcome, noble lord!   
What sport can earth or sea or sky,   
To match the princely chase, afford?"  
"Cease thy loud bugle's clanging knell,"  
Cried the fair youth, with silver voice;
"And for devotion's choral swell   
Exchange the rude unhallowed noise.   
"To-day the ill-omened chase forbear,   
Yon bell yet summons to the fane;   
To-day the warning spirit hear,
To-morrow thou mayst mourn in vain."  
"Away, and sweep the glades along!"  
The sable hunter hoarse replies;   
"To muttering monks leave matin song,   
And bells and books and mysteries."
The wildgrave spurred his ardent steed,   
And, launching forward with a bound,   
"Who, for thy drowsy priest-like rede,   
Would leave the jovial horn and hound?   
"Hence, if our manly sport offend!
With pious fools go chant and pray:   
Well hast thou spoke, my dark-browed friend;   
Halloo, halloo! and, hark away!"  
The wildgrave spurred his courser light,   
O'er moss and moor, o'er holt and hill;
And on the left and on the right   
Each stranger horseman followed still.   
Up springs, from yonder tangled thorn,   
A stag more white than mountain snow;   
And louder rung the wildgrave's horn,
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"  
A heedless wretch has crossed the way;   
He gasps, the thundering hoofs below;   
But, live who can, or die who may,   
Still, "Forward, forward!" on they go.
See, where yon simple fences meet,   
A field with autumn's blessings crowned;   
See, prostrate at the wildgrave's feet,   
A husbandman, with toil embrowned:   
"O mercy, mercy, noble lord!
Spare the poor's pittance," was his cry,   
"Earned by the sweat these brows have poured,   
In scorching hour of fierce July."
Earnest the right-hand stranger pleads,   
The left still cheering to the prey,
The impetuous earl no warning heeds,   
But furious holds the onward way.   
"Away, thou hound! so basely born,   
Or dread the scourge's echoing blow!"
Then loudly rung his bugle-horn,
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"
So said, so done: a single bound   
Clears the poor laborer's humble pale;   
Wild follows man and horse and hound,   
Like dark December's stormy gale.
And man and horse and hound and horn   
Destructive sweep the field along;   
While joying o'er the wasted corn,   
Fell Famine marks the maddening throng.   
Again uproused, the timorous prey
Scours moss and moor and holt and hill;   
Hard run, he feels his strength decay,   
And trusts for life his simple skill.   
Too dangerous solitude appeared;   
He seeks the shelter of the crowd;
Amid the flock's domestic herd   
His harmless head he hopes to shroud.   
O'er moss and moor and holt and hill   
His track the steady bloodhounds trace;   
O'er moss and moor, unwearied still,
The furious earl pursues the chase.   
Full lowly did the herdsman fall:   
"O, spare, thou noble baron, spare   
These herds, a widow’s little all;   
These flocks, an orphan's fleecy care."
Earnest the right-hand stranger pleads,   
The left still cheering to the prey;   
The earl nor prayer nor pity heeds,   
But furious keeps the onward way.   
"Unmannered dog! To stop my sport
Vain were thy cant and beggar whine,   
Though human spirits, of thy sort,   
Were tenants of these carrion kine!" 
Again he winds his bugle-horn,   
"Hark forward, forward, holla, ho!"
And through the herd, in ruthless scorn,   
He cheers his furious hounds to go.   
In heaps the throttled victims fall;   
Down sinks their mangled herdsman near;   
The murderous cries the stag appall,
Again he starts, new nerved by fear.   

With blood besmeared, and white with foam,   
While big the tears of anguish pour,   
He seeks, amid the forest's gloom,   
The humble hermit’s hallowed bower.
But man and horse and horn and hound   
Fast rattling on his traces go;   
The sacred chapel rung around   
With, "Hark away! and holla, ho!"
All mild, amid the rout profane,
The holy hermit poured his prayer:   
"Forbear with blood God's house to stain;   
Revere his altar, and forbear!   
"The meanest brute has rights to plead,   
Which, wronged by cruelty or pride,
Draw vengeance on the ruthless head:   
Be warned at length, and turn aside."
Still the fair horseman anxious pleads;   
The black, wild whooping, points the prey:   
Alas! the earl no warning heeds,
But frantic keeps the forward way.   
"Holy or not, or right or wrong,   
Thy altar, and its rites, I spurn;   
Not sainted martyrs' sacred song,   
Not God himself, shall make me turn!"
He spurs his horse, he winds his horn,   
"Hark, forward, forward, holla, ho!   
But off, on whirlwind's pinions borne,   
The stag, the hut, the hermit, go.   
And horse and man and horn and hound
And clamor of the chase was gone;   
For hoofs and howls and bugle sound,   
A deadly silence reigned alone.   
Wild gazed the affrighted earl around;   
He strove in vain to wake his horn;
In vain to call, for not a sound   
Could from his anxious lips be borne;   
He listens for his trusty hounds;   
No distant baying reached his ears:   
His courser, rooted to the ground,
The quickening spur unmindful bears.   
Still dark and darker frown the shades,   
Dark as the darkness of the grave;   
And not a sound the still invades,   
Save what a distant torrent gave.
High o'er the sinner's humbled head   
At length the solemn silence broke;   
And from a cloud of swarthy red   
The awful voice of thunder spoke:   
"Oppressor of creation fair!
Apostate spirit's hardened tool!   
Scorner of God! scourge of the poor!   
The measure of thy cup is full.   
"Be chased forever through the wood;   
Forever roam the affrighted wild;
And let thy fate instruct the proud,   
God's meanest creature is his child."
'T was hushed: one flash, of sombre glare,   
With yellow tinged the forests brown;   
Up rose the wildgrave's bristling hair,
And horror chilled each nerve and bone.   
Cold poured the sweat in freezing rill;   
A rising wind began to sing;   
And louder, louder, louder still,   
Brought storm and tempest on its wing.
Earth heard the call! her entrails rend;   
From yawning rifts, with many a yell,   
Mixed with sulphureous flames, ascend   
The misbegotten dogs of hell.   
What ghastly huntsman next arose,
Well may I guess, but dare not tell;   
His eye like midnight lightning glows,   
His steed the swarthy hue of hell.   
The wildgrave flies o'er bush and thorn,   
With many a shriek of helpless woe;
Behind him hound and horse and horn,   
And, "Hark away! and holla, ho!"
With wild despair's reverted eye,   
Close, close behind, he marks the throng,   
With bloody fangs, and eager cry,
In frantic fear he scours along.   
Still, still shall last the dreadful chase,   
Till time itself shall have an end.   
By day, they scour earth's caverned space,   
At midnight's witching hour, ascend.
This is the horn and hound and horse   
That oft the 'lated peasant hears;   
Appalled he signs the frequent cross,   
When the wild din invades his ears.   
The wakeful priest oft drops a tear
For human pride, for human woe,   
When, at his midnight mass, he hears   
The infernal cry of "Holla, ho!"