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Reality and the Wild Hunt by Sebastian Morello

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Reality and the Wild Hunt

"The Hunt in the Forest" (ca. 1470), a 65 × 165 cm oil painting by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), located in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.

The Wild Hunt is a recurring European folkloric motif. In Germany and in much of Scandinavia, Odin, the lord of the Norse gods, led the Wild Hunt. In France, it was the ghost of King Herod. In England, the Wild Hunt was led by a great antlered spectre named Herne the Hunter who terrorised farmers and frightened cattle. In Wales, the Wild Huntsman was Arawn, god of the Underworld. Whilst chiefly Northern European and often associated with Odin’s crazed antics, the Wild Hunt also crops up in Spanish folklore, where a Catalonian nobleman—damned because of his raping of unsuspecting virgins—is said to ride out with his hounds from the gates of hell to momentarily escape the eternal fires. In Italy, the Wild Hunt is led by King Theodoric, an Arian heretic who killed the philosopher and Christian saint, Boethius. In Slovenia, the Hunt follows the Springtime sprite, Jarylo, who was brutally murdered by his wife for his adultery (she then built a house out of his hacked-up body parts); Jarylo forever hunts because of his general proclivity for venery, in more senses than one. 

In all these accounts, the Wild Hunt is something diabolical. The pack is often made up of black hounds and wolves, with a great flock of corvids flying over the hunt, making an appalling noise. The hounds drip blood, whining and yelping constantly. The horses are jet black. Valkyries, goblins, trolls, elves, ghouls, and naked harlots all ride along in the demonic hunting party. In nearly all accounts, the Wild Huntsman is frequently replaced with the devil himself. The Hunt, when it arrives, is a terror, and often taken to be an omen, heralding that some happening has empowered the prince of this world.

In 1127, Dom Henry d’Angely was elected as Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Peterborough. He turned out to be an especially terrible abbot. The Peterborough Chronicle tells us that on the night of his abbatial election, the Wild Hunt came to Peterborough (where today the Festival of Hunting takes place every Summer):

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.

Witnesses said that night after night for many weeks this hellish horde returned to torment the town, a calamity that persisted until Easter Sunday of that year.

The Wild Hunt rages deep in the European psyche. Clearly pagan in origin, we Europeans have failed to shake it off. The Wild Hunt has haunted us, inspiring nightmares in every era. It has pursued us down the centuries. Like so much of our pagan past, however, we were never supposed to cast off the Wild Hunt—but redeem it. Indeed, what is a European if not a baptised pagan? As the Gospel spread, the Wild Hunt became increasingly associated with St. Guthlac the Hermit in England, with King Arthur throughout much of France and Northern Europe, and with Charlemagne in Germany. The Hunt ceased to be simply a terror and became a moment of redemption and sanctification.

In the first century, the Roman general St. Eustace, whilst out hunting with his hounds, encountered a great stag between whose antlers was a miraculous crucifix (an exquisite 15th century fresco depicting this event can be found in Canterbury Cathedral). Six centuries later, St. Hubert underwent a great conversion due to a similar vision, and later became the patron saint of hunting. The monks of St. Hubert, in the Northern Lowlands, specialised in breeding scent hounds which, predictably, were called St. Hubert hounds. To these hounds the modern-day bloodhound can be traced, which was itself an important breed for developing the foxhound, harrier, and hunting basset. Traditionally, on St. Hubert’s Day, a liturgy with hunting horns would be celebrated, followed by a blessing of hunting packs. The hunting Season would often begin with such liturgical events too.

As the Season has drawn to a close, I have been reflecting on the meaning of hunting. Some hunts this Season have transported me into a timeless experience into which, no doubt, many hunting people have been taken. It is as if the Wild Hunt, now a hallowed procession, arrives and gathers one up into the mystic hunting party, no longer comprised of ghouls but of all our ancestors who have worked to make the land into a place of peace and dwelling, cultivating it from a threatening wilderness into a source of sustenance and a home.

Over the Season, I have learned to ‘whip-in,’ that is, help to control the pack as they seek to pick up a trail. Recently, our hunt headed into a glorious open valley flanked by a strip of woodland on either side. The huntsman ‘cast’ the hounds. I went up near the woods and peered into the dark cover where coppiced hazel grew like giant spider’s legs. Two ‘couple’ (four hounds) became separated, and so, with whip in hand, I guided them back to the pack, which they quickly located due to the sound of the huntsman’s horn. Into the woods the pack ran, silently sniffing as they worked. Then, on the hillside, in the heart of the woods, they picked up a trail—the sound of their cry echoing through the trees was almost numinous. I found myself in a world as yet unsubordinated to the great machine of modernity, and still bearing the imprint of the centuries upon its face.

“Wodan’s Wild Hunt” (1882) by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921), the title page in Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden by Wilhelm Wägner, Leipzig & Berlin: Otto Spamer, 1882.

Has hunting, though, really been redeemed, or is it as evil as Odin’s Wild Hunt would make you believe? Certainly, hunt-saboteurs consider hunting the very epitome of wickedness. Indeed, so much so that they feel wholly justified in putting death-threats through the front doors of hunt followers’ homes and threatening to burn down pubs that welcome the hunt—both of which have happened in connection with my own hunt.

Yet few, if any, argue that wildlife management in the countryside must stop altogether. Indeed, when the UK Hunting Act came in 2005 (after which hunting with hounds has continued only in pursuit of an artificial trail), no one to my knowledge suggested that this Act should be taken as the first step to ending wildlife management altogether, only that such wildlife was not to be managed by the use of hounds.

A fox, however, can run faster than a foxhound. A hare can run faster than a harrier, beagle, or basset. When quarry is caught, therefore, it is inevitably old or sick, and thus also a threat to the healthy population of its own kind. Moreover, the hunting Season ends as mating begins. Hunting with hounds, then, was a way of managing the population of a given species that was simultaneously discriminatory. What we are left with now, however, are ways of managing these species that are indiscriminate—toxins, snares, and shotguns—making no distinction between a young, healthy, or even pregnant animal and a sick or old one. Furthermore, these methods often entail the slow death of the animal over many hours, or even days, rather than the remarkably quick death achieved by a pack of hounds. These methods of managing wildlife have become more widespread, and will naturally continue to increase, since hunting quarry with hounds has been stopped. So, what have the ‘antis’ achieved? Well, they certainly have not improved the situation of the animals for which they claim to have so much affection, but they have successfully weakened the rural community, which was so intertwined with the hunt. And all this, due to childish sentimentalism.

This situation was foreseen by the Victorian writer, D.W. Nash, who gave a voice to the fox in his poem The Fox’s Prophecy:

Yet think not, huntsman, I rejoice

To see the end so near;

Nor think the sound of horn and hound

To me a sound of fear…

Too well I know, by wisdom taught

The existence of my race

O’er all wide England’s green domain

Is bound up with the Chase.

Better in early youth and strength

The race for life to run,

Than poisoned like the noxious rat,

Or slain by felon gun.

Consider also the case of the American mink. This animal was, wrongly, brought to the UK in the 1930s for its fur. Many escaped, and, by the 1960s, there were minks living in most of the nation’s rivers. Minks are an invasive species, doing significant damage to the freshwater fish population, and the populations of our beloved waterfowl and songbirds. In response, minkhound packs—mostly made up of retired foxhounds—were founded. They were effective, killing around 1,500 minks a year. After the Hunting Act, there remains no effective way to manage mink numbers, at least not without doing great harm to other species. Today, there are estimated to be around 109,000 American minks in the UK, causing considerable damage.

It was for these reasons among others that James Barrington, former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports, who has been involved in animal welfare campaigns for over 40 years, ‘switched sides’ and is now the welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance and the Council of Hunting Associations, and also a committee member of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. Barrington, like a grown-up, dispassionately considered the evidence and concluded that the position he had hitherto taken was mistaken.

One answer to what I have written is that we ought to just leave nature to do its own thing, and we should get on and do our thing. This, however, assumes that we are not a part of nature, with our own role in relation to other species and the environment around us. Furthermore, the agricultural and pastoral land which we share with wild animals is not natural in the sense of a wilderness or jungle. It is precisely a creation of the human ingenuity that, over many centuries, has transformed and cultivated the wild into an orderly and reliable source of food and clothing. We must, in truth, manage what we have made.

If what I say is true, and the ‘animal cruelty’ argument does not stand up to scrutiny, as I claim, then why are we prohibited by the law from hunting quarry with hounds? As noted, those who campaigned for the Hunting Act did not campaign for an end to wildlife management altogether. So, what is it about hunting with hounds that was deemed so objectionable? This takes us back to my passing reflection on the intoxicating experience of being carried up into the Wild Hunt. For the antis, what is really objectionable is that, over the centuries, rural communities have found a way of managing wildlife which is also thoroughly enjoyable. If animals must be killed, the antis think, then those doing the killing should at least feel miserable about it.

There is something to this argument with which I have great sympathy. Given that ‘animal rights’ do not exist, any sound ethical argument against hunting must focus on the person hunting rather than the animal. ‘Animal rights’ cannot exist, for animals do not enjoy the innate faculties to make moral claims over things or claim moral powers to fulfil duties by which they deem themselves bound. A tigress that abandons its cubs is not a miscreant and does not deserve punishment. Animals are not moral agents, and therefore cannot have rights. Does this mean, then, that we are free to torture animals for our amusement? No. It does not. Not because the animal can make a moral claim on us, but because torturing an animal will morally corrupt us as the agents of such an act. In fact, the desire to torture animals is an early sign of psychopathy.

Antis purport to be concerned with animal welfare, but in truth their object of attention is the psychology of the people hunting, and in this they are absolutely correct. This is the crucial issue: does hunting with hounds make us crueller? Wildlife management, which entails the killing of animals, may indeed make us crueller. In turn, the great challenge is both to find a method of killing animals that kills them quickly (and is therefore not unnecessarily cruel), and also raises the activity of wildlife management into the realm of culture and ritual, in which the animal’s death is no longer the focus, but rather enjoyment of community, ceremony, and the land. Both imperatives are satisfied by hunting with hounds. So much is this the case that ‘a good day’s hunting’ may just as likely be one during which no quarry is caught (indeed, hunting with hounds has only increased in popularity since the Hunting Act, after which, as noted, hunting has continued in pursuit of an artificial trail).

I stress the point of wildlife management because it conveys that hunting with hounds has real instrumental value. In an age in which communal membership, tradition, ritual, locality, even nature itself, remain obscure for many people, such arguments are important. But in the hunting field, if one were to ask the followers or staff why they come out to hunt, they would not say ‘wildlife management’ or ‘the kill.’ They would say that they have a love for the hunting community, for watching the hounds work, for the farmers who welcome the hunt onto their land, and for the rural way of life. The emotional life of people who hunt, then, is not something over which we need to worry; the psychological stability of those who terrorise field-sporting pensioners, however, is far more questionable.

“Hunter walking on Arno’s banks in Florence” (1872), an oil painting by Raffaello Sorbi (1844-1931).

If the real joy of the person who hunts is derived, in short, from the experience of the countryside, can the desire of the hunter be satisfied by the activity of the hiker? Hiking, or leisure-walking, emerged in the late-18th century precisely in response to the rationalism and industrialism that had warped our relationship with nature to the point that we no longer saw ourselves as a part of it. People, intuiting that modernity had severed them from the world, went wandering about in it like visitors from another planet. This can still be seen in the respective garb of these two types of people whom one might encounter in the countryside: the hunting coat, tweed or ‘ratcatcher’ of the hunter and the florescent synthetic materials of the hiker testify to two different ways of relating to the rural environment. One is that of a dwelling person who is a part of the land, the other is that of a foreign visitor who has dropped in for a rare breath of fresh air.

Up in the hills, as I heard the hounds ‘speak’ in the woods and the valley thunder with their cry, I suddenly became aware of myself. This self-awareness struck me as unusual because I had not been aware of myself all day. My consciousness had been absorbed into the collective thrill of the Wild Hunt. In its midst, I had become a part of the landscape. At that moment, after hours of being awake and present to the world, I slipped back into the slumber of self-awareness—self-obsession, even—that characterises modern man’s condition. In response, I gripped my hunting whip and refocused on the hounds, waking myself up again to the world and returning to reality.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.