Thursday 16 February 2017

Wodan and the Peasant

There is a great story about the Wild Hunt in Jacob Grimm’s ‘Teutonic Mythology’:

That the wild hunter is to be referred to as Wôdan, is made perfectly clear by some Mecklenburg legends. Often of a dark night the airy hounds will bark on open heaths, in thickets, at cross-roads. The countryman well knows their leader Wod, and pities the wayfarer who has not reached his home yet; for Wod is spiteful, seldom merciful. It is only those who keep in the middle of the road that the rough hunter will do nothing to; that is why he calls out to travellers: ‘midden in den weg!’

A peasant was coming home drunk one night from town, and his road led him through a wood; there he hears the wild hunt, the uproar of the hounds and the shout of the huntsman up in the air: ‘midden in den weg!’ cries the voice, but he takes no notice.  Suddenly out of the clouds there plunges down, right before him, a tall man on a white horse. ‘Are you strong?’ says he, ‘here, catch hold of this chain, we’ll see which can pull the hardest.’  The peasant courageously grasped the heavy chain, and up flew the wild hunter into the air. The man twisted the end round an oak that was near, and the hunter tugged in vain.

‘Haven’t you tied your end to the oak?’ asked Wod, coming down. ‘No,’ replied the peasant, ‘look, I am holding it in my hands.’ ‘Then you’ll be mine up in the clouds,’ cried the hunter as he swung himself aloft. The peasant hurriedly knotted the chain around the oak again, and Wod could not manage it. ‘You must have passed it around the tree!’ said Wod, plunging down. ‘Not I,’ said the peasant, who had deftly disengaged it, ‘here I have it in my hands.’ ‘Were you heavier than lead, you must up to the clouds with me!’ He rushed up quick as lightning, but the peasant managed as before. The dogs yelled, the waggons rumbled and the horses neighed overhead; the tree crackled to its roots and seemed to twist round.  The man’s heart began to sink, but no, the oak stood its ground. 

‘Well pulled!’ said the hunter, ‘many’s the man I have made mine, you are the first that ever held out against me, you shall have your reward.’ On went the hunt, full cry: hallo, holla, wol, wol! The peasant was slinking away, when from unseen heights a stag fell groaning at his feet and there was Wod, who leaps off his white horse and cuts up the game. ‘Thou shalt have some blood, and a hindquarter to boot.’ ‘My lord,’ stammered the peasant, ‘thy servant has neither pot nor pail.’ ‘Pull off thy boot,’ cries Wod. The man did so. ‘Now walk, with blood and flesh, to wife and child.’

At first, terror made the load seem light, but presently it grew heavier and heavier and he had hardly strength to carry it.  Bent double and bathed in sweat at last he reached his cottage and behold! – the boot was filled with gold, and the hindquarter was a leather pouch full of silver. 

‘Teutonic Mythology’ Book III  p924

I love the humour in this story: first that the powerful and terrifying hunting god is still too simple to realise that the peasant is tricking him; then the unwelcome gift of raw flesh and blood, of supernatural and uncertain origin, which the peasant must lug painfully home. (In other stories, the Hunt pursues harmless little creatures called woodwives, and sometimes a quartered woodwife will be hung up as a horrifying gift beside a helpful peasant's door.) One feels this peasant thoroughly deserves its fairy transformation into silver and gold once Wodan's little joke is over.

A very excellent book, ‘European Paganism’ (Ken Dowden, Routledge 2000) provides a comprehensive, fact-based overview of just about everything that is actually known about pagan Europe. At one point Dowden,  an academic at the University of Birmingham, discusses a type of Gaulish priest described by the Greek writer Poseidonius as wateis (specifically distinguished from druids or bards).  Dowden explains the meaning of the term:

Wateis is evidently the same as the Latin vates, a rather olde-worlde word denoting a prophet or seer, but in any case implying some inspiration: the Gothic word is wods, ‘frenzied or possessed’, as in the German Wodan or the daemonic Wütende Heer [furious army] that is let loose at Yule.

European Paganism, p236

In English, the meaning of ‘wode’ or ‘wood’ as ‘mad’ survived at least into the late 16th century. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Demetrius exclaims that he’s crazy for love of Hermia:

And here am I, and wood within this wood
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Act 2 Sc 1

The word can been traced back all the way to proto-Indo-European where it’s been reconstructed as *weh₂t- with the meanings ‘excited, inspired’, ‘possessed, raging’. So Wodan or Odin is an inspired, prophetic, raging, furious god, and this is certainly how he appears as one – maybe even the first, who knows? – of the many leaders of the European-wide Wild Hunt.  Ken Dowden tentatively connects this phenomenon with ancestor worship, and pagan festivals of the dead which were often held at the end of the year: 

Evidence for Yule as a pagan religious festival may be slender, but it is so very suggestive that this is the period when the Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd, or the ‘Raging Army’, Wütende Heer) flies through the air, a spectral army corresponding to the ancestors once worshipped in ritual. Does this awareness of the dead survive in the custom of Serbian coledari (derived from the Latin Kalendae), a sort of masked Christmas-carol group who include in their visits houses where there has been a death during the year, and ‘intone funeral chants and bring news from the departed’?  Have they taken on the character of the dead themselves? 

European Paganism, p266

Whatever the truth of it, the Wild Hunt has a very long history.

Picture credits:
Johann Wilhelm Cordes: Die Wilde Jagd, Wikimedia Commons 
Friedrich Wilhelm Heine: Wodan's Wild Hunt, Wikimedia Commons
August Malmstrom: Odin, Wikimedia Commons
Lorenz Frolich:Odin riding Sleipnir with the ravens Huginn and Munin, Wikimedia Commons