My Encounter with the Wild Hunt

When I was a young adult living in Connecticut (US), I had an experience that shook me. I was in a park that overlooked the Housatonic River in late November. When the sun was setting, I walked back to my car. Suddenly the wind picked up, and the clouds boiled over in swirling blacks and reds. Loud barking and blasts from hunting horns assaulted my ears. As the hair on my arms stood up, I felt the temperature drop.

I fell to the ground, and just laid there cowering with my hands over my head. As blackness enveloped the park, the air grew heavy. The din became deafening as shadows flew over and around me. I continue to lay there, shaking uncontrollably.

Then complete silence. Softly the moon emerged in the clearing sky. In a daze, I got up, dashed to my car, and sped home. Arriving, I went immediately to bed and stayed there for two days. My family was worried for me but I could not say what had happened to me. Later, I had a nervous breakdown.

I had encountered the Wild Hunt, which of course I had no knowledge of at the time. A part of European folklore, the Wild Hunt has been sighted in North America. Here it is called “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” My French-Canadian relatives referred to it as “Chasse-galerie.” This “motif” entails a mythological figure leading a supernatural group of hunters and dead souls. The leader of the Hunt ranges from Odin to Herne the Hunter to King Arthur. Black hounds and horses with fiery eyes accompany the horde. Some believe that the Hunt collects souls, while others claim that the Hounds of Hell are chasing sinners. Whatever, it is considered a bad omen, foretelling doom.

People who encountered the Hunt are either taken, warned, punished, or rewarded. Staying in the middle of a road will keep the person safe. A person could cooperate with the leader’s requests and hope the Hunt will pass them by. I was saved by my nearby car and half-eaten sandwich in my jacket pocket. Bread and steel protect an individual from being taken, since the Hunt will avoid both elements. My adult life has been divided into before and after seeing the Hunt. What I experienced long ago still frightens me.

Ghost Riders in the Sky or the Wild Hunt

Going by many names, the myth of the Wild Hunt can be found throughout Europe. Although the details of the Hunt changes from region to region, the core remains the same. A troop of the Dead is lead by a God, notable figure, Cursed Hunter, or the Devil (in Christian versions). Dogs and livestock, such as horses or pigs, are included in the Troop of the Dead. Usually the procession is in pursuit of something.

The Furious Host are usually heard before They are seen. When the sky darkens, thunder rumbles and lightening flashes warning people of Their coming. Then the baying of the hounds, blowing of the horns or shouts of the Dead are heard.

The Wild Hunt can appear at any time. However most sightings are reported during the times when the Dead roam freely upon the earth. These are February, Midsummer, Winter’s Nights (October), and Yule.

A person encountering the Furious Host could escape by lying face down on the ground. They could also greet the Leader of the Hunt politely, and receive gold. A disrespectful person would be abducted or be told they were to die soon.

The Western song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” (Stan Jones, 1948) is a retelling of the Wild Hunt. The songwriter Stan Jones (American, 1914-1963) heard the story of the Wild Hunt in Arizona. He was a teenager riding the range with an old cowboy. Whilst watching an on-coming storm, the cowboy told Jones a Western version of the myth.

Jones’ song tells the following story. A cowboy riding a ridge sees a storm coming up. Suddenly, he sees and hears a herd of red-eyed cattle with shiny black horns. Possessing flaming brands, the cows also breathed fire. This was the Devil’s Herd passing by him.

Pursuing the herd was a group of gaunt, sweaty, and tired cowboys. They were trying to stop the stampede of the Devil’s Herd. The horses that the cowboys rode were also snorting fire. (Suffering riders is a motif in many Wild Hunt legends.)

One of the doomed cowboys calls the watching cowboy by his name. He warns him of his potential fate if the cowboy does not repent. He will then become one of the cursed group chasing the spooked cattle. Shaken by his experience, the cowboy returns home. (Being called by name and asked to repent is in Christian motifs of the Wild Hunt.)


Lyrics: Ghost Riders in the Sky :Released in 1979, album called Silver by Johnny Cash.

This song was written by Stan Jones on 5 May 1948. It was originally recorded by Burl Ives on 17 February 1949.

Johnny Cash’s version on You-Tube.

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi ooohhh
Yippie yi yaaaay

Ghost Riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
He’s riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain’t caught ’em yet
‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire
As they ride on hear their cry

As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies

Yippie yi yaaaay
Yippie yi ohhhhh

Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky

Works Used:

Berk, Ani and William Spytma, “Penance Power, Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt”, http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/forhunt.html

Boxell, Geoff, “The Wild Hunt or Fairy Raed”, http://geoffboxell.tripod.com/hunt.htm

Lecoutex, Claude, “Phantom Armies of the Night”. (book)

Sundlin, Michelle, “Stan Jones”, WMA Hall of Fame, http://www.westernmusic.org/performers/hof-jones-stan.html

—, “The Wild Hunt”, Orkneyjar – The Heritage of the Orkney Islands, http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/hunt.htm