The Many Faces of King Herla

While King Herla is an interesting story in and of himself, I found it even more interesting reading about the many variations on the story, tie-ins to it, extensions on it, and suggestions of who King Herla really was.

The basic story of King Herla, told in last week’s post, is of a king who attends a dwarf king’s wedding, in a deep cavern, and emerges after three days of celebration to find that two hundred years have passed in his own world.

In more detailed accounts, we find out that King Herla goes on to be the leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is only one name for a concept that seems to be found all over Europe and North America. The Germans speak of the Wilde Jagd (Wild Chase) and the Wildes Heer (Wild Host). In Old English, there is the Herlaþing (Herla’s Assembly). Oskoreia or Åsgårdsreia is the Norwegian’s Ride of Asgard, and the Mesnée d’Hellequin (Household of Hellequin) was written of in Old French. The Welsh told tales of Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of Annwn.

King Herla time travel medieval Scotland legends myths

Even in English, the concept is known by various names: Gabriel’s Hounds, Woden’s Hunt, Devil’s Dandy Dogs, Herod’s Hunt, Cain’s Hunt, and the Ghostriders.

The story, of course, is fairly obvious from the name. A group of ghostly huntsmen rides forever. While various tales say they are fairies, the ghosts of the dead, the hounds of hell chasing sinners to the underworld, lost souls, or various historical and mythical figures, seeing them, whoever they are, usually means disaster is on its way, in the form of plaque, famine, war, or the death of the unlucky observer. If you hear them storming down your suburban street tonight (or any night for that matter), follow the advice in one tale: put your apron over your head and do not look!

Of course, that’s the usual early medieval interpretation. Later medieval interpretations tend toward the more romantic view of the night riders (not to be confused with my own Night Writers, please) as fairies. Still, I don’t necessarily recommend looking closely enough to determine whether the Wild Hunt coming down your street appears to be early or late medieval.

As to who is credited as leader of the wild hunt, there are as many leaders as names for the group itself. In Scotland, the people of the Blue Bells Trilogywould have known it as King Herla, king of the Britons. The story dates back at least to Walter Map’s telling of the story in De Nugis Curialumin the late 1100’s. Other stories, however, tell of the huntsmen being led by Odin in Sweden; Fionn mac Cumhaill in Ireland; Knecht Ruprecht, Perchta or Berchtold in 16th Century Germany, or Frau Holda; in England, St. Guthlac, Hereward the Wake, and Woden (he’s a story in himself, being regarded as everything from a god of Anglo-Saxon paganism to a historical king to the prototype of Father Christmas, but that will have to wait). The most familiar names on this list to modern readers would be King Arthur and the devil, also at variously times named as the leaders of the pack.

This is only a partial list. The full one is quite long. What I found interesting in researching was that one of the leaders are the ultimate evil (the devil) while several others are associated with Christmas. Knecht Ruprecht, for example, was said to be the helper of St. Nicholas. Perchtaroamed the country in winter and during the twelve days of Christmas would enter homes to leave a small silver coin in the shoes of children or servants who had been good. (Unlike the St. Nicholas who she sounds so very much like, however, if the children or servants were bad, she would slit their bellies, remove their guts, and fill them instead with straw and pebbles. That’s the Christmas spirit! (Actually, Perchta herself ranges from benevolent to malevolent in various incarnations of her story.) As mentioned earlier, Woden is considered by some to be an early forerunner of Father Christmas.

On an interesting sidenote, while Hereward the Wake makes no such claims to Santa Claus-hood, some do argue that his parents were the infamous Leofric of Mercia and his better-known wife, Lady Godiva. In addition with being credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt, some of the legends that grew up around him have also gone on to be retold as adventures in Sherwood, thus making him a bit of a prototype for Robin Hood.

Of great interest to me in studying King Herla was how many of the stories are very specific with dates, locations, and names. Although I’m no scholar of legends, I am not familiar with myths and legends typically being so specific, especially in regards to dates.

The story of Herla himself, for instance, is very precise in the shepherd’s dates. He tells Herla there is a story of a king of the Britons, but the Saxons (of which the shepherd is one) have ruled the land for two hundred years. It is even more specific in when and where Herla and his wild huntsmen were last seen (or scene, if we want to make a movie of it). They largely disappeared from England in ‘the first year of the coronation of our King Henry’ (that’s the II), moving on to Wales, and soon after were seen by many witnesses to sink into the River Wye, at Hereford in the year 1133.

Herne the Hunter, another leader, is stated specifically to be a huntsman of King Richard II in the last quarter of the 14thCentury. He is said to roam Windsor Forest, and very specifically, the Great Park within it. Ordnance maps have placed the location of the tree from which he was hanged after falling out of favor with King Richard. Herne makes his first appearance in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and much later, interestingly, also shows up in the 1984 series Robin of Sherwood. It is fair to say here, of course, that whether he was an actual historical figure is debatable. The story places him very specifically in history, and yet goes on to tell stories which could hardly be true, of his revival from fatal goring being accomplished by a wizard attaching stag horns to his head. You can find more details here.

The Peterborough Chroniclegives a very specific report of a sighting of the Wild Hunt. For this to have any meaning, it is important to know that the Peterborough Chronicle is one of 9 surviving documents that make up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is regarded as ‘the single most important historical source of its era. The Peterborough Chronicle reports:

…many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns…

A collection of very brief re-tellings of many Wild Hunt stories can be found here. Happy reading, and keep that apron handy to pull over your face in case you hear any of the many Wild Hunts with any of their many leaders!


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