Goddesses on the Wild Side

By Suzanne Corbie

More ancient than the stories of the wild hunts of Herne the Hunter and Gwyn Ap Nudd at the approach of Samhain, are the wild hunts led by the night goddesses that include Holda, Perchta, Bertha,  Diana, Herodias or Habondia, and their wild retinue is sometimes referred to as the Lussiferda, a host of witches called Lussi, who take to the skies around this time on a wild ride.

Particularly referred to around Samhain and Yule, (Jan 6th is Frau Holle’s Day, much like La Befana from Italy – another witch like goddess that rides the night skies on a broomstick and Perchta is busiest around the twelve days of Christmas),  they are winter goddesses that not only ride the night skies, but also visit houses to check that the spinning is done. As you would. Houses are blessed or cursed, depending on the respect offered to them, with flax always seemingly received well.

Holde and Perchta ride, according to Grimm, “to bring fertility to the land”.  Frau Holle is associated with the word hell and holy, as well as cave in German. Huld means gracious, friendly, sympathetic and grateful, not quite the image told to children for hundreds of years. She lives in a world at the bottom of a well and when her feather beds are shaken, snow falls on earth. The story goes that anyone who enters her realm is rewarded with exactly what they deserve, be that good or bad. Interestingly, the Norns, norse deities of fate and destiny, live at the foot of the tree of life, the Yggdrasil, next to the well of Wyrd.

Grimm tells us that “Holde, like Wuotan (Woden/Odin) can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wutende heer’” or the Wild Hunt. Riding with Holde is clearly a ride on the dark side and equivalent to riding with witches as a ‘furious host’ who collected the souls of unbaptised children – taking their pagan souls back to their pagan ancestors.

Perchta (meaning ‘the Bright One’) has a specific retinue, the Perchten and Krampus – a delightful monstrous group who have a modern equivalent in Austria and Germany each December, of folks dressed up in outstanding costumes, running amok and predominantly scaring the living daylights out of anyone who doesn’t think the spectacle is wonderful. She also blessed people and flocks and if supper was left out for her on twelfth Night eve, she would visit the home, eat and bless the house. But as with Holle, since the middle ages, she was known as the ‘belly slitter’ punishing those who weren’t in church and were eating drinking, or even spinning when they shouldn’t be.

Ronald Hutton in ‘The Witch’ write of the Wild Hunt as, “the dead presiding over the fertility of the soil and livestock and needing to be propitiated or driven off if wicked”. Hutton refers to the night rides as part of the greater ancestor worship and veneration of the dead, which acts as intermediaries between people and gods.

In north-eastern Italy, the Benandanti ‘witches’ rode the skies, travelling out of their bodies while asleep to struggle against malevolent witches (Malandanti) in order to ensure good crops for the season to come.

The French, ‘Lady Habondia’, roamed the skies at least three times a week, with a retinue of ‘good ladies’ and humans ‘whose spirits flew out to them whilst their bodies remained in bed’ (Hutton). Apparently Habondia and her ladies were spirits too and could pass through cracks in the walls or keyholes.

In Iceland, the wild hunt of Diana or Herodias rode on all kinds of wildlife, including birds, whales and seals and so the stories of the Wild Hunt travelled. Known as ‘night wanderers’, ‘night women’, ‘blessed ladies’, and alternatively, ‘the Benevolent Ones’ or ‘the Malevolent Ones’, I suspect, depending on your perspective.

From 314ce until the 13th c, the Canon Episcopi was the official doctrine of the church and included;

“Some unconstrained women, perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to fly over vast tracts of country, and to obey her commands as their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on other nights. But it were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many others into the pit of their faithlessness”. 


Despite this, it remained clear during those years, that women still laid tables for these ancient winter goddesses and left food out at certain times in the middle of winter when Holle, Habondia, Perctha and Diana and their retinues of wild witch women roamed the skies.

In the 1400s there were stories of the wild hunt and its leader, the horned man, who the Christians recognised as the devil or the embodiment of evil. In some cases his is identified with figures of the dead – a deceased warrior or such and the quarry becomes lost souls.

An anonymous account relates: Sometimes if you sleep with an open window, you might suddenly be woken up by a frightful hurly burly out in the forest. There is shrieking and shouting and the barking of a whole pack of dogs, the thud of horse hooves, the cracking of broken branches and so on. It’s dreadful and it’s no time to be out in the forest for the hind hunt’s on. You shake and quiver and your heart pounds at the sound of it. Sleeping is out of the question. If you are brave enough to take a peep out of the window in spite of it – O good gracious, seeing the hind hunt is even worse than hearing it’.

Other accounts verify the fear experienced by all who hear, let alone see the Hunt. Its coming is often announced by a terrible din, flashes of lightening, wind in the tree tops, the rattling of chains and the swinging of bells. The rider himself is variously described as carrying a whip, wearing antlers on his head, as having a skull for a face or no face at all.

I heard the Wild Hunt once. The noise was deafening, wild and mad, it froze me to the spot and as it got closer, the thumping of my heart seemed to increase as loud as the sound of the dogs, the wolves howling, the shrieking and the horns. I am not sure whether I felt excitement or fear or a bit of both. And then it passed by. I never saw it. And yet, I did not feel fear for myself. I didn’t feel threatened.

To my mind, the sound of the Wild Hunt is to experience the sound of the otherworld, the supernatural, the spirits that exist around us that we rarely come into contact with. It confronts us with our own sense of the search about what lies in the dark of our own characters and what lies even deeper, beyond that. It invites us to think about the dark, about our own mortality and those who have gone before, about the darkness that comes upon us in our minds and to embrace our shadow self as well as the shadow that is the darker side of life. There is blessedness in the day and the light half of the year and a sacredness in the night and the dark months and whilst midsummer afternoons and days in the woods may bring our attention to gentle devas, dryads and mischievous corn spirits, the nights and winter turn our attention to those that ride on the wild side – they are very different.