A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley

The YULETIDE 'Wild Hunt', a bringer of storm and death

It is possible that Bertilak's Hunt alluded to the Anglo-Saxon, 'Wild Hunt', a hunt traditionally led by 'Woden' at Yuletide, as the hunt in the poem held at this time of year.

The folkloric references to Woden's wild hunt were particularly evident in Northern England. (Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Frithgarth, England: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994.)

The long, cold, dark nights leading up to Yule heralds the start of a period in which the spirits are let loose – free to walk the earth, or join the raging host in a wild hunt across the stormy, nighttime skies. To see the Wild Hunt was a very bad omen, usually foretelling a time of strife or death.

Woden persisted as a figure in folklore and folk religion throughout the Middle Ages.
 
'Wild Hunt' - At the root of the myth lies the Teutonic god Woden, or Odin, to use his Norse name.
Odin, in his guise of wind-god, was thought to go rushing through the skies astride his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir.
As it was thought that the souls of the dead were wafted away on the winds of a storm, Odin became regarded as the leader of all disembodied spirits - the gatherer of the dead. Eventually, storms became associated with his passing.
Throughout the years, the mythology of the hunt adapted to suit the geographical area and the time period. (Sigurd Towley – Orkneyjar, the heritage of the Orkney islands.)

Bertilak's hunt alludes to the 'Wild Hunt' as Gawain is not to take part in it or even leave the castle where he may have had the misfortune of witnessing it (to see the Wild Hunt was a very bad omen, usually foretelling a time of strife or death). This was another reason why the poet had Bertilak's wife keep Gawain occupied/imprisoned, Gawain was not to see the hunt as he was NOT ultimately destined to meet his death.

The purpose of suggesting the 'Wild Hunt' in the poem - It must be remembered that the ghostly Wild Hunt is always a local phenomenon. Local heroes of history and legend get called up to join the ranks of a long succession of strange, spectral Hunt leaders, each particular to and retaining something of his or her own landscape and historical period.
Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoofbeats along with the Huntsman's shouts of "Halloo!" Death and war often follow in their wake. Though the leader of the Hunt varies by location, its association with death imagery remains a constant. Its most frequent master is Odin (Woden) or one of his many avatars, and no doubt his role as the god of dead heroes makes him particularly appropriate here. (Penance, Power, and Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt by Ari Berk and William Spytma.).

In the poem the final, dreaded day opens ominously with a fierce winter storm that keeps Gawain up at night. Was this an analogy to the night/morning that the 'Wild Hunt', a stormbringer, had taken Chandos' soul? Chandos had lived a day and a night after his wounding in a skirmish during the Hundred Years War and died on New years Day. Chandos had lived "a day and a night", suggesting that he died during the early hours of New Years Day, the time when Gawain heard the fierce winter storm.
If Chandos is our Garter Knight of the poem, the analogy of the 'Wild Hunt' would  have been easily recognised, Chandos, Keeper and Surveyor of the Cheshire Forests was a notable huntsman, as testified by Gaston Febus.

Odin's horse, Sleipnir, is suggestive of funerary imagery: its eight legs are thought to represent four men (two legs apiece) carrying a corpse. (Berk and Spytma.)

Again, if Sir John Chandos, Garter Knight, is linked to this poem, he may have also been seen, by those who knew him, as the one-eyed hunter God Woden (see 'Description of Woden') in charge of the wild hunt. Froissart tells us of Chandos' mortal wounding, that: "he (Chandos) had lost the eye on that side (the side of the death blow) five years ago, on the heaths of Bordeaux, at the chase of a stag."

This analogy to the most famous hunter of all, he would surely have approved of, he may have even referred to it in life. Despite his many virtues as extolled by the chronicler Froissart, Chandos could be vain.
He no doubt knew of all the old Saxon stories of the wild hunt at Christmas. It seems most men involved in the sport seemed to be obsessed by it, and all things connected to it, as Febus. Chandos was an English Gaston Febus, who loved poetry, music and hunting. He had brought songs from Germany, he perhaps had an interest in Saxon mythology too, especially those myths connected to hunting?

Description of Woden - various sources: The Germanic god of wisdom, war and magic, he was worshipped throughout Britain, wherever the Vikings and other Nordic tribes settled. Many places are named after him, as also a day of the week, Wednesday. “Woden's day”.
Odin/Woden was born of giants named Borr and Bestla. The god is depicted as a strong and tall middle-aged man, with a long beard, one eye and a grey cloak with a blue hood. He often walked in the mortal world observing the ways of men; he would always appear in a blue cloak and a wide brimmed hat, which was pulled down over his face to hide his single eye and his true identity.
Woden was all knowing and all seeing, and much of his knowledge and wisdom was hard won: He gave up an eye to drink from the Mimir's Well of Knowledge, and hung pinned to Yggdrasil with a spear for nine days, so that he could gain the knowledge of the runes.
In Britain the one-eyed hunter God, Woden was seen as a leader of the wild hunt and roamed the countryside with his pack of hounds searching for the souls of men. Later King Arthur was portrayed as leader of the wild hunt. Woden's horse Sleipnir had eight legs, and could ride faster than any mortal horse.
Woden was believed to be an ancestor of the Kings of Wessex, Nothumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

 

Next page: The Gawain poet's landscapes

 


 

by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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