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Hoofbeats of the Hunt
The weather is turning crisp here and the falling leaves are brilliant shades of orange, red and gold. The afternoons are still warm but evening is coming earlier. The rains have not started yet, but winter's shadow is on the land. We are finally in October, which for me means the onset of the busiest season in my spiritual year: the season of the Wild Hunt, which begins now and reaches its height at Yule. Samhain forms a major milestone along the way, but for me (and among Heathens in general) the time when the veil is at its thinnest, and the Hunt at its most active, falls during the twelve nights of Yule. After January 1st, things calm down somewhat, although there are still occasionally forays during the springtime, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, where our springs are often stormier than our winters.
As some of you may be aware, the story of how Odin claimed me is all bound up with the Hunt. Although I am not a hunter myself in an in-this-world way, the Furious Host seems to have lodged itself in my blood somehow, and two years ago around this time of year I formally agreed to ally myself with them and act as a doorway for them into this world.
Some of you are likely sputtering by now, reading this; I hope you haven't spilled your drinks on the keyboard! For those whose keyboards are safe (and are thus, I assume, unfamiliar with the Wild Hunt), the core of the legend is that a spectral band of creatures in hunting garb (be they dead, undead, never human, or all of the above) rampages through the night sky at a certain time of year (see above). This story seems to be deeply rooted in Indo-European culture, and most European countries have their own version of it; it is unaccountably ancient, and just as with the roots of Yggdrasil itself it's impossible to say exactly where or how it began. What this band is hunting is never completely clear in the folk tales, and can range from a woman, to a troll, to a kind of half-woman, half-forest creature known as a moss maiden. The leader ascribed to this band of ghostly riders varies with the country, but in Scandinavia, England and Germany the leader is traditionally Odin, and the Hunt includes, in this particular incarnation, the spirits of long-dead heroes and Odin's dead in general. The Hunt is accompanied by black dogs with red eyes, undead noblemen, and Odin's gigantic eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Jagermeister, Wilde Jaeger (Wild Hunter), Draugrdrottin (Lord of Ghosts), Valfather (Lord of the Slain)--these are all among Odin's many names that have to do with His function as Leader of the Furious Host. Most of the stories agree that it is dangerous for humans to see the Hunt or be seen by it. Some of the tales advise throwing oneself face down onto the path when the sound of the hunting horns is heard, others suggest various offerings--a piece of steel, a sprig of parsley--that might be useful in deterring the Hunt, or at least distracting it while you get to safety. At first glance and at last, this is a story to frighten not only small children but sensible adults too. The Hunt (along with the frigid Scandinavian winter) is the reason why Yule is traditionally a time for family to gather together behind closed doors by the fire, and to not go out after dark, and to allow the hospitality of one's home to visitors without question, especially during the twelve nights of Yule, when madness reigns in the skies.
As horrible as it sounds, however, there is a lighter, or at least more beneficial, side to the Hunt. In the Scandinavian legends, Asgard's Ride (as Odin's Hunt is sometimes called) is thought to somehow ensure the fertility of the crops and the livestock for the following year. I suspect this belief is related to a long-standing connection, in the Germanic mind, between fertility and the dead. Fertility comes from the earth, the dead are buried in the earth, dwarves and other types of elves who are connected with wealth and fertility also dwell in the earth (leading to these beings often being conflated with the dead), and over time all of these associations merged so that the burial mound became a symbol and source for inspiration, fertility, and wealth. This helps explain why, to the Germanic mind, the bloodline is such a powerful thing, a thread connecting the living with the ancestors and the Mighty Dead. It also helps explain why I--who am, as I have noted, not a hunter, but also not a warrior or even a farmer--have always felt such a deep connection with the Hunt. As an adoptee, I have no literal bloodline, but I do feel--and always have, quite strongly--a visceral connection to the dead, to the ancestors in general and to ancestors of the spirit who I have chosen or who have chosen me, to all of those whose hands have woven the pattern of wyrd from which my own threads are drawn. I have also always had an affinity for the dark, deep places of the earth and--let's face it--for those mythical beings many would call monsters.
I have seen the topic of "small gods" come up here lately in several blogs. The dead who ride with the Hunt are more than "just" dead people; many of their names live on in story and song; they are among the Mighty Dead. The never-humans who ride with the Hunt are something else entirely; some of them are dwarves or elves, spirits of place, spirits of events long passed. Many are somewhat gruesome, drawn to violence and blood. Others are nature spirits--which does not make them necessarily benevolent to humans, in an age when the earth and its creatures are so abused by us. Some of the especially dangerous ones are Jotnar, or giants, who can most easily be described as land or elemental spirits writ large. All of these beings are united in the Hunt under Odin's leadership, and yet they are not entirely subject to His will and could definitely be characterized as "small" gods in their own right. Small but hungry gods, the kind that many very ancient, probably stone age, religions were focused on propitiating.
Given all of the above, is this good work? Well, it is my work, and frankly someone has got to do it. How I got signed up for the task is, I suspect, a tale that began before my birth, since I have had this attraction to the Hunt and its lore for as long as I can remember. Even gods who may not have humanity's best interests at heart still have to be appeased, especially if they are gods who can, if not happy, withhold such things as a bountiful harvest, abundant livestock, or even the health and luck of the local inhabitants. The fact that Odin--who acts as humanity's champion in this work--is at the head of such an effort proves its importance to me, since He is not a god who wastes time on trivial things. And if that is not enough, consider that Frigga too, Asgard's pristine lady who is seen as a model of wifely decorum the rest of the year, during Hunt season doffs Her apron and rides out beside Her husband. I suspect that when I took my oaths to Odin, nearly ten years ago now, I sealed the deal on this particular duty as well; it just took a while for my tacit agreement to come to the forefront of things.
What does the work consist of? Many, many things: trance work, pathwalking, visits to the dead and to the wilderness, parting the veil, feeding the spirits, and above all of these things, being open and willing to being used as a tool. Most of it is work that comes naturally to me, while still being fairly depleting and demanding, and there are, of course, days when I would rather be doing something else, occasionally anything else. And yet, I did choose to serve; I was not forced or tricked into it. A few months ago, I wrote over on my own blog about choices and the role of choosing in my religious path. Considering that Odin's Handmaidens, the Valkyries, are literally "Choosers of the Slain," the impact of choice on both my personal devotion and my spirit work is something that has always been stressed to me by Him. This was also hammered home (so to speak) as my partner and I were listening to the audiobook of "Shadow of Night" (the sequel to "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness) the other day. To paraphrase, the hero (a vampire) said that he had realized that even after being formally Mated with His witch-wife, and having thus made a lifetime commitment to her, every day he was with her would consist of continuing to choose her--over himself, his obligations, and even his family. This is what making a commitment--and even more, swearing an oath--entails: choosing on a daily basis to keep it, regardless of inconvenience or hardship. I chose this path, and even though I am oathed to it now, the important thing is that I keep on choosing it, one task at a time and one day at a time.
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