The Wild Hunt of the Fallow Lands
A Journey Across the Fallow Lands
It was on a day when I had undertaken a lengthy journey across the Veluwe and had spent a rather long evening with friendly country folk. It was already quite dark and the darkness was rapidly increasing because of an approaching bank of clouds, in which the sun had sunk away without leaving the slightest display of colour in the grey sky.
Once out on the heath, I could see, bunched up against the grey mass of clouds, a few thundertorches1, with their brown-violet glow. Entering the forest, the wind began to strengthen. It was completely dark beneath the whispering trees, making it difficult to find my way, until I finally noticed I had strayed onto the wrong path, and one unfamiliar to me. To my estimation I could not be more than a few hours from home, but I wasn’t sure and did not dare to continue my way. To prevent myself from wandering around aimlessly, I quickly turned back.
On a byway I had seen what appeared to me to be a hut in the forest, where log peelers stayed during the summer months. It was to that place I made my way, so I could gain some certainty.
I thought I saw a very faint flash of lightning. Near the hovel was a clearing, where the coppice had been cut back, and there an old man stood closely regarding the sky, which whirled and trundled and had a peculiar sheen, such as one can see on old metal.
At my question, the man first looked at me wonderingly, with his strong grey eyes, and then said: ‘Yes, that road is fine, though it is the long way ‘round, but if you want to get home dry, you’d better wait here for a while, as there’s heavy weather coming.’
A few big drops and a whirling wind followed his words. In that manner we entered the hut together, where a younger man stood next to a small fire, pouring two cups of coffee from a blackened kettle.
The hut consisted of a roof made out of pine trunks and turf, which covered a square pit dug into the soil.
At the back of the hut they’d left a hole in the roof, above the fire, in the old Germanic way, to allow the smoke to escape.
At the sides of the hut a few benches had been made out of sand, covered with straw, which also served as sleeping places. The fire weakly illuminated the sparse room.
Soon the three of us sat cosily around the fire, each holding a mug of coffee, the two men eating their evening bread.
The Wild Hunter
In the distance we could hear the approaching thunder; and I don’t know how the conversation arrived at this point, but when the elder had eaten his bread, the spoke of the wild hunter2.
‘Once upon a time there was an old farmer, who had an only son who gave him little pleasure. He let his old father do the work and wasted his time drinking and hunting. Especially hunting was the joy of his life. He only returned home when he was hungry, or had to feed the dogs. Neither the exhortations of his father nor the pleas of his mother could bring him to lead an industrious life at home.
One day, when he arrived back at the house, he found his father lying ill in bed and his mother sunk in gloom. At night the old man’s illness worsened and the next day he was dying; which didn’t prevent the son from making preparations for a new journey. While he was busy with that in the backroom, his father called out to him in a weak voice, in order to point him to his duty one last time. But the son pretended not to hear.
His mother came to him with tears in her eyes, begging him to go to his father and stay at home.
He turned away surlily, whistled to his dogs and made for the forest.
The elder heard of this on his deathbed with sadness, sighed and spoke: ‘So thou shalt hunt forever’; then his head sank into the pillow and he died.’
The old man paused his tale for a while; the wind had risen and we heard the rain pouring down.
‘After the funeral,’ he continued, ‘the mother moved in with a relative and in the night, after she’d left, the house sank into the depths, with all that belonged to it. No one now can tell you where it used to stand.
From that day on, the son wandered restlessly, never able to find his old home.
At night one could often hear him roaming through the forest, calling for pity. His hounds run ahead of him, werewolves and ghosts follow at his heels, and then the whole forest shivers.
The entire wood shakes with their barking and howling, as if thousands of unhappy spirits, chased by dogs or wolves, run through the woods, screaming and sobbing.’
The Passing Storm
Suddenly we heard a terrible din outside. Storming and raging, the wind chased through the trees. The greybeard was silent, his old voice overpowered by the noise outside. The glow from the fire illuminated his old weathered countenance and his white hair. In his loyal eyes shone a gentle glow.
The three of us listened to the voices of the storm. One thunderclap followed the blow of the other.
‘That is the wild hunt,’ mumbled the elder.
Suddenly a bright light overmastered the weak glow of the fire and a strange rush of air passed around us. It was directly followed by a tremendous peal of thunder. The small hut shook. Something heavy fell onto the creaking roof and into the fire, extinguishing it, so the ashes and sparks flew up around our ears.
Paralysed by fright we sat there, speechless in the dark.
I will never forget what we heard then; it’ll stay with me like a frightful dream filled with fearsome terror. We heard the branches creak and break, and the ground shuddered under our feet.
I don’t know how long we sat there; it seemed an eternity.
When the weather had calmed down and we silently stepped outside, we could see, near the hut, an ancient oak that had been struck by lightning. A heavy branch had been torn off and lay half across the hovel. The wild hunter had passed, but he’d left traces of his presence throughout the forest.
When the greybeard and his son showed me on my way, the silent, gigantic dome of the night stood high above us, the sacred stars glowing in it.
From Legends of the Veluwe/Veluwsche Sagen by Gust van de Wall Perné, published in 1910-1912 by Scheltens & Giltay and translated by Eva Weggelaar
1. Poetical kenning for narrow, high-rising thunderheads.
2. The legend of the Wild Hunter is common throughout N.W. Europe, a remnant of the old Germanic religion. He is Wodan/Woden/Odin with his ravens and wolves, followed by a host of ancestors and abandoned gods and goddesses.
The Dutch legends speak of Wodan, Gait/Derk/Henske with his little dogs, Derk or Dirk the Boar or Bear, the Glowing Horse, Ronnekemère, or Berend van Galen. When Dirk the Bear heard you whistle or sing on an autumn night in the forest, or saw you walking across the heath, he would come down and ask you to hold the leashes of his fierce, baying hounds. By the time he came back, the dogs had naturally torn themselves loose and then Dirk, in anger, would likely wring your neck.
In the form of the good Saint Nicholas (though he is, like Santa Claus, an amalgam), who rides on his piebald horse and whose feast is celebrated in the Netherlands on the fifth of December, he lives on even now.