by Jim BennettThe Great God Odin wears many masks. From the dawn of Northern European prehistory He and His shamans wore the antlered headdress and led the hunters to herds of reindeer to feed their families. In times of Chiefdoms and centralised political authority, Odin becomes the Great Chief of the Gods and Leader of the Wild Warriors who transform into the wolf and the bear. In this guise, Odin is known by the titles, Glad of War; Spear Thruster and Father of Battles. During the time of the Christian conversion he sacrificed himself upon the Tree of Knowledge to bring the runes and salvation to a people spiritually uprooted and confused by a Middle Eastern God. He was also known as Woden among the Saxons – the personification of the wise and just ruler. Always at Christmas he gave gifts, and in disguise, brought good fortune to those who provided hospitality to lost travellers. Through the tears and pain of human history, Odin has always been amongst us, hiding behind many faces. To illustrate one important face of this shape-shifting God we will know turn to a story that might have been:
Cerdic, son of Sturl, and great swordsman among the warriors of the Chief, was an oath-breaker and a murderer. Although bound by oath to respect the marriage of Elga, fairest of all the maidens in Saxon Berkshire to Oswald Taeppa’s son, in a fit of murderous passion he ambushed Oswald and killed him as he returned home from celebrations only a few days before the wedding.
Knowing himself outcast and condemned, Cerdic fled for his life into the great forest that was later to become Windsor, on the evening before the Midwinter solstice. Crashing drunkenly and blindly into the forest, he heard what sounded like hissing whispers among the branches of the great oak and ash forest. The wind whispering through the trees mocked him – sounding like laughter to his anguished imagination. Cursing himself and the Chief of the Gods he stumbled down a steep ravine and fell against a great oak. Amidst the whispering of the leaves, a low rumble was heard, and a vibration that twisted his guts in a great vice, sending every hair erect all over his body. His eyes darted frantically right and left as the rumble grew in intensity until the sound of a thunder clap seemingly split his skull in twain. The lightning that illuminated the sky with jagged fingers of silver caused his eyes to blaze with incandescent terror.
A sound that threatened to rip his very soul from his sorry carcass reverberated through the wind-swept, thrashing branches – the sound of a hunting horn, the thunderous crashing of hooves and the trumpeting cries of dead warriors could mean only one thing – his doom and eternal damnation. For Woden, foremost among the Gods, resplendent in his headdress of bloody antlers, was hunting for him and the wolves that ran beside this commotion of avenging souls were prepared to tear him limb from limb. Crouching like a babe in the womb, Cerdic squeezed his eyes shut and trembling did not see the blazing single red eye that pierced the night – he only felt the gigantic hand that swept him up like a bird in flight. High into the night sky he flew falling into the jaws of the two ravenous wolves that fought to tear him limb from limb. That night such a storm swept the land that people called it for generations, Woden’s Storm.
The people of Cerdic’s village never saw him again, but spoke in whispers of the Wild Hunt and the Bringer of Justice to whom no man or woman could ever escape.
The Brothers Grimm were the first scholars to identify Odin with the wild hunt. Variations of this title exist all over Northern Europe. In the Netherlands the wild hunt is known as the Woedende Jager. In Denmark it is known as the Odinsjagt. In Germany it is known as the Wodensheer and the Wutanesher. One story comes from Hannover in Germany, collected by folklorists whose storytellers did not doubt for one moment the truth of this encounter:
The dogs of the air often bark on a dark night on the heath, in the woods, or at a crossroads. Country dwellers know their leader Wod and pity the traveller who has not yet reached home, for Wod is often malicious, seldom kind. The rough huntsman spares only those who remain in the middle of the path. Therefore he often calls out to travellers, “In the middle of the path!”
One night a drunken peasant was returning home from town. His path led him through the woods. There he heard the wild hunt with the huntsman shouting at his noisy dogs high in the air.
A voice called out, “In the middle of the path! In the middle of the path!” But the peasant paid no attention to it.
Suddenly a tall man on a white horse bolted from the clouds and approached him. “How strong are you?” he said. “Let’s have a contest. Here is a chain. Take hold of it. Who can pull the hardest?”
Undaunted, the peasant took hold of the heavy chain, and the huntsman remounted. Meanwhile the peasant wrapped his end of the chain around a nearby oak tree, and the huntsman pulled in vain.
“You wrapped your end around the oak tree,” said Wod, dismounting.
“No,” responded the peasant, quickly undoing the chain. “See, here it is in my hands.”
“I’ll have you in the clouds!” cried the huntsman and remounted. The peasant quickly wrapped the chain around the oak tree once again, and once again Wod pulled in vain. Up above the dogs barked, the wagons rolled, and the horses neighed. The oak tree creaked at its roots and seemed to twist itself sideways. The peasant was terrified, but the oak tree stood.
“You have pulled well!” said the huntsman. “Many men have become mine. You are the first who has withstood me. I will reward you.”
The hunt proceeded noisily, “Halloo! Halloo!” The peasant crept along his way. Then suddenly, from unseen heights, a groaning stag fell before him. Wod appeared and jumped from his white horse. He hurriedly cut up the game.
“The blood is yours,” he said to the peasant, “and a hind quarter as well.”
“My lord,” said the peasant, “your servant has neither a bucket nor a pot.”
“Pull off your boot!” cried Wod.
He did it.
“Now take the blood and the meat to your wife and child.”
At first his fear lightened the burden, but gradually it became heavier and heavier until he was barely able to carry it. With a crooked back and dripping with sweat he finally reached his hut, and behold, his boot was filled with gold, and the hind quarter was a leather bag filled with silver coins.
In Britain, the Wild Hunt is associated with Herne the Hunter.
Odin wears many disguises and bears many names. One of the God’s titles is known as Herian, or War Leader of his elite band of warriors, the Herjar. In this guise, Herian or Herne the Hunter roamed Windsor Great Park and was known by the Christians to lead damned souls in a monstrous, ear-splitting Wild Hunt across the sky. Immortalised by William Shakespeare, the legend was already very well established in Elizabethan times. Where a great mound nearby in Taplow attests, the culture of Berkshire’s Woden worshipping ancestors remained very much alive.
It is now the early Middle Ages and England is ruled by the King Richard II. Long forgotten are the shrines and temples of the Old Saxon Gods. However, the folk memory of the power of the Horned God and Woden live on. One day the King was hunting in Windsor Great Park with his favourite royal huntsman, Richard Horne. Richard could smell the ground to find game and had a sixth sense which led the King to many a victorious hunt. One day however, after dismounting to kill a wounded stag the dying beast thrust itself at the King. The huntsman threw his body between the King and the beast, receiving the grievous wounds to protect his sovereign. While the King and his companions grieve a mysterious stranger named Phillip Urswick, a wise and cunning man, tells the King to cut off the horns of the stag and tie them onto the head of the dying huntsman. This is accomplished and Horne makes a miraculous recovery. However, in order to live the huntsman had to lose his almost supernatural gift in knowing where to lead the hunt. After a while, desolate, forlorn and fallen from favour the poor huntsman makes his way to a Great Oak and hangs himself from a branch. From that time, his ghostly apparition appears as the leader of the Wild Hunt, a time when the souls of the damned rampage across the sky with thunderous hooves and baying hell hounds. No one who encounters such a host can survive the experience.
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, performed on the evening of April 23rd 1597.
There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns –
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes the milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner…
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed had received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.
During the time of the Victorians, the memory of Herne the Hunter was featured in an opera written by Edward Oxenford called Herne. A Legend of Royal Windsor (1887).
Tis nigh two hundred years ago
That Herne was Hunter to the Crown
And none so deft with spear and bow,
As he who still enjoys renown.
He’d bring to earth the fleetest hind,
Defy the fiercest boar at bay,
Train up the hawk, the bugle sound
Unearth the fox, the badger slay.
But soon a gentler task arose,
He sought to wind a maiden’s heart;
Of love he felt the keenest throes,
And bared his breast to Cupid’s dart.
The maid he loved was vowed to God,
A nun within a convenet nigh;
Yet from the holy paths she trod,
He wean’d her feet, alas! To die!
For soon, in a fit of jealous rage,
He slew the maid he loved so well;
And in remourse, the sinner’s wage,
A self-made gift to death he fell.
Chorus: Yes, on that withered oak he died,
A murderer and a suicide.And since the day he joined the dead,
He roams at night the forest land,
With antlers on his ghostly head,
Surrounded by a phantom band…
An epilogue to our story. In 1962 CE, a group of teddyboys, doubtless fuelled by copious drink and suspicious substances were partying near the modern site of Herne’s Oak. It was a pleasant summer evening and the stars were shining their dazzling display in the sky. Staggering across the uneven ground, one of the lads kicked a large, archaic hunting horn out of the bushes. Odd he thought in his brain-soaked confusion, that someone would leave such an artefact on the grounds for anybody to find. Unaware of the dire warning oft repeated by storytellers from ages long past, the lad put the horn to his lips and blew one loud blast. Suddenly, amidst a great clap of thunder and with an ominous rattle of chains, an enormous black figure appeared before them with flaming red eyes, an enormous rack of antlers surmounting his head. Fearing that the devil had appeared, they fled from the sight in great anguish and terror.
So kind audience, there we have four stories, separated by centuries but united around a single Entity – loved, venerated, respected and most of all – feared. The story doesn’t end here for at Midwinter even still the cry of Odin or Wotan rings loud and long as pagans gather around the Royal Oak and in countless places across this fair island to worship the Gods, Goddesses and Nature Spirits of old. The story of Odin is not finished in the 21st century, his time dear friends is only beginning.
This article was published in Wiccan Rede, Beltane 2004.