Episode 38: King Herla & The Wild Hunt

Tales of Britain and Ireland
Tales of Britain and Ireland

A storytelling and folklore podcast.

Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.

Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.

Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com

38: King Herla & the Wild Hunt
byTales of Britain and Ireland.

This episode is the second from the collection of Medieval chronicler of oddities, miscellanea, and forteana – Walter Map. Featuring two weddings, a suspicious contract, dust, a cute little goat man, the wild hunt (but not really) and a dog that just won’t quit. One of the earliest of the many stories that has been classified as being about “The Wild Hunt”. Musical credits and sources on the episode page: https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-38-king-herla-the-wild-hunt/ #myth #mythology #folklore #legends

“Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen”

A rather dramatic Germanic Wild Hunt

This episode is the second from the collection of medieval chronicler of oddities, miscellanea, and forteana – Walter Map.

Featuring two weddings, a suspicious contract, dust, a cute little goat man, the wild hunt (but not really) and a dog that just won’t quit.

One of the earliest of the many stories that has been classified as being of the “The Wild Hunt”.

Listen to the episode above and then scroll down for some extra Wild Hunt content.

“A compact is formed between us”

— The Satyr King, riding roughshod over all the norms of contract law
Asgårdsreien  by  Peter Nicolai Arbo: The famous image of the hunt. The wild hunt in the story did not look like this

Featured chronicler

You can read more about Walter Map here:

Walter Map

A brief biography of Medieval Welsh chronicler Walter Map, taking a brief look at his work De Nugis Curialium, focusing on his weirder tales

Keep reading
A Satyr from a Medieval Bestiary – our Satyr king was more human than this – but I like this image

Other “Wild Hunt” legends in Britain and Ireland

In addition to the Herlethingi, as discussed in the episode, there are a lot of other Wild Hunt type legends from Britain and Ireland.

Now as I said on the podcast, and I’ll reiterate again here: “The Wild Hunt” is a bit of a misnomer, or at least a misleading categorisation when it comes to classifying folklore and legends.

It’s a modern creation that has been used to group together stories that don’t necessarily have much connection to each other, and are in fact are very different, but just happen to have one or more of the elements that are included in the more modern Wild Hunt story.

Examples includes stories about spectral huntsmen, stories about processions of the dead, and stories about souls of the dead who might hunt, but don’t otherwise look like the Wild Hunt, and don’t have a leader. There’s also other categories – stories that really just seem to be explanations of weather events or of noises at night – particularly migrating birds.

So these are not are all variations of the same story.

Nevertheless the siren call of this term “Wild Hunt” is strong, so I’m going to listing some of the other folktales that have been classified as “Wild Hunts” here, with a little bit of detail, while hopefully giving enough detail to show how they differ from each other. Note that these are but a small number of the many such stories recorded!

  • Dando’s Dogs (Cornwall)

Dando was a sinful priest who liked to hunt, until one day the devil took Dando up onto his horse and carried him away to hell. In some versions of this story the Dogs are pursuing their Master and the Devil into hell and are simply heard at night, though in other tales Dando is now a huntsman with a pack of hellish dogs, looking to find new souls to steal. If you’re out at night watch out for him hunting you down.

  • The Sluagh (The Hebrides and Ireland)
A more “procession of the dead” type Furious Army, quite unlike the modern Wild Hunt.

The Slaugh, meaning host, is quite different from many of the other entries on this list as it has no connection with dogs at all. It is an air born horde, said to be made of the spirits of those who have died and in some cases also of fairies.

It is said to appear in great clouds, like the murmurations of starlings, and to take up people into them, sometimes dropping them from great heights and killing them. Slightly different account have the Sluagh fighting battles in the sky, the blood spilling from them to the ground.

While many well known accounts of the Sluagh come from the Gaelic speaking communities in the Hebrides some twentieth century accounts also record the Sluagh in Ireland, where it is closely connected to the ideas of the fairy whirlwind, the Gaoithe sidhe, and the fairies more generally.

  • Wish(t)/Yeth Hounds (Dartmoor)

Numerous accounts tell of a demonic/giant huntsman and his equally unearthly hounds, the dogs described as being fiery, black with glowing “saucer shaped” eyes, searching for souls.

There is no agreement who the Huntsman is. Some say the Devil himself, some say an evil Squire, others claim it is Old Crockern – a spirit of the moor, and yet others have it as Sir Francis Drake who lived on the moor in life.

The hunt here is very often connected to Wistman’s Wood, a small wyrd looking wood, where the hounds are sometimes said to originate.

Wistman’s Wood (Alex Jane CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Cŵn Annwn (Wales)

Packs of hounds roaming both in the air and on the ground. There are a large number of variations of this legend: sometimes they are said to hunt on certain nights of the year and their quarry varies – sometimes it is sinners, at other times simply people out at night, and at others the souls of those who are to die in the next twelve months.

In this latter they might take on the prophesising death type role, like the Gabriel Hounds (below).

Once again there is a leader and the dogs but no other hunters. The leader of the pack is usually identified as the ruler of Annwn, the otherworld. However in Welsh mythology exactly who that is differs!

In addition sometimes Annwn is almost directly an analogue for hell, while at other times it is more a fairyland type otherworld, as per the King Herla story. Which it is leads to very different conceptions of the Cŵn Annwn. Typical leaders of the otherworld and the pack are Gwyn ap Nudd and Arawn.

There is a strong linking of these hounds to those that appear in the First Branch of the Mabinogion, however while those appear supernatural: shining white with red ears, they do not display any of the typical hell hound characteristics, so seem quite different from the Cŵn Annwn of later folklore.

  • Mallt-Y-Nos/Matilda of the Night (Wales)

Strongly associated with the Cŵn Annwn, a legend of the Mallt-Y-Nos tells of a noblewoman obsessed with the hunt who declares she will not go to heaven if she can’t hunt there.

A patreon episode will appear on her soon.

  • Gabriel Hounds/Ratchet (North of England)

A widespread legend from across the North of England – recorded in Cumbria, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and as far south as Birmingham. Exciting for me personally there is an account from Sheffield, my home town.

They are most often described as a spectral airborne pack of dogs. They are said to be heralds of death, and their name is likely to be derived from the words for “corpse-hound” in Middle English.

Deaths in houses would be prophesised by the hounds flying over it at night, making their distinctive baying, a sound which some have attributed to the call of Wild Geese migrating!

Some say that the pack was made up not of dogs at all – but rather the souls of unbaptised children crying out!

In some accounts Gabriel hounds were more like the hellhounds and even had a leader “Gabriel”, however this is less common and seems to be a case of back-applying this name to other hunter type stories.

  • Familia Arturi/Arthur’s Family (Britain and Brittany)

Recorded by Gervase of Tilbury in the 1210s, slightly after Walter Map was writing, these are very similar to the Herlething. They are a host of Knights and hunting dogs complete with hunting horns, seemingly relatively normal looking but with clearly supernatural origins.

When questioned they say they are the Knights of King Arthur, some 800 or so years after he is said to have lived.

A note on the Herlethingi and Walter Map’s complaints about the court of Henry II

King Henry II – presiding over the very worst court before or since, apparently

As I say in the episode Walter Map uses the Herelthingi stories he includes as an introduction to start complaining about the court he has served in.

Now as per Joshua Byron Smith’s account it seems likely that the whole tale of King Herla is a parody of the court.

However true this is there’s no doubt that after telling the stories Walter Map goes on an extended rant about how bad the court is which is unmistakeable, even if the satire in the story itself is more subtle.

Map introduces this idea by noting that the disappearance of the Herlethingi in 1154 was also the year King Henry II was crowned, and says that the Herlethingi passed their troubled wanderings onto the court of King Henry II.

Directly after the King Herla story he says (using the Tupper translation, listed in the sources):

“But from that hour that wild march ceased, just as if these rovers had handed over their wanderings to us for their own peace.”

And after his briefer second mention he really gets into his stride on it writing a furious “old man shouts at cloud” type rant about just how awful everything is, exactly like the Herlethingi were:

“seemingly it [the disappearing Herlethingi] hath bequeathed to us foolish folk its errant ways, through which we wear out garments, lay waste provinces, break bodies and those of our beasts, and are never free to find a cure for our sick souls ; no benefit cometh to us unbought, no recompense availeth us, if losses are requited; we do naught in measure, naught at leisure, so futile and fruitless is the haste by which we madmen are borne onward ; “

And this is just the first sentence – this rant continues for about five times that length and then concludes in the most hyperbolic way possible with this amazing claim that:-

“no court of the past hath yet been heard of like unto it, nor is a future one feared.”

Walter Map, being hysterical about how bad his court is

I’m not saying it wasn’t bad, but the man really could do with some perspective

Surely this little guy couldn’t be any trouble? Photo: Hoss (CC BY 2.0)

On Fauns, Satyrs and Pan

He’s not this type of Satyr!

So in the episode I mention that I am referring to the Otherworld King as a Satyr, particularly a Roman or Renaissance Satyr – with goat legs, this is however to be distinguished from the original Greek Satyr.

Thought I’d just take a moment to expand on this a bit. In traditional Greek depiction’s Satyrs have ears and tails of a horse and typically a massive erect phallus, but otherwise are human. However this hasn’t really made its way into modern representations at all.

Even in ancient Greece artistic representations of Satyrs over time became more bestial and less human and developed more goat like features – becoming combined with the images of the god Pan, who is typically shown as half goat.

Confusing this further in Roman mythology Satyrs became conflated with the nature spirits fauns, who also have the half goat aspect.

Since then Satyrs have basically dropped their human lower half and since the renaissance have been shown in exactly the same way as Faun and Pan, with the depictions of all three of them being interchangeable, excepting that Pan is a singular figure, with his pipes.

It’s this kind of figure that the Satyr King resembles.

More like this – but without the pipes and riding a goat
Another story from Walter Map

Episode 32: The Shoemaker of Constantinople

Walter Map’s charming little tale of a Princess, ambition, obsession, one of the most taboo acts known to humanity, an unlikely weapon from an unlikely source and, of course, shoes.

Warning: this is a very Not Safe For Work story

Keep reading
The Satyr King also didn’t look like this but I came across this picture while looking for Faun images and isn’t it just amazing? – The Faun, Carlos Schwabe, 1923

Selected Sources

Musical credits for Episode 38: King Herla & the Wild Hunt

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