Packs of spectral hounds are said to have been seen in full cry all over Britain - in the North they are generally known as the Gabriel Hounds, in Devon the Yeth (Heath) or Wisht Hounds, in Cornwall Dando and his Dogs or the Devil and his Dandy Dogs, in Wales the Cwm Annwn, the Hounds of Hell. Sometimes they are said, like the cross-road haunting Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shock, to be great black hounds with fiery eyes - often eyes as big as saucers, like the 'wide-eyed' Peterborough hounds. Generally, however, they are not seen, only heard passing overhead on cloudy or stormy nights. In this form they may be identical with the mysterious Seven Whistlers, of which Jabez Allies (1846) writes:
"I have been informed by Mr. John Pressdee of Worcester, that the country people used to talk a good deal about the 'Seven Whistlers' when he was a boy, and that he frequently heard his late grandfather, John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold's Knoll, in Suckley, say that he oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, heard six out of the 'Seven Whistlers' pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by any one else to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end."
Certainly the hounds are everywhere supposed to be portents of death and disaster, and a belated traveller hearing them would fling himself face downward on the ground to avoid seeing them (cf. the precautions taken by the miner and his daughter, in Clun Forest, seeing Edric the Wild and the Hunt prior to the Crimean War - Edric is said to appear whenever England is threatened with invasion and leads the Hunt towards the foe). Henderson (Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties, 1879) tells us:
"Sometimes they appear to hang over a house, and then death or calamity are sure to visit it. A Yorkshire friend informs me that when a child was burned to death in Sheffield, a few years ago, the neighbours immediately called to mind how the Gabriel hounds had passed above the house not long before." The Manx 'Moddy Dhoo', that haunts Peel castle, causes those that look into his eyes to follow him. When later found, the victim has a look of indescribable horror on their face.
The northern name Gabriel Hounds or Gabble Retchets (dogs) had nothing to do with the Angel Gabriel but contained an old word for 'corpse', explained by the traditions concerning them. Sometimes it is the Devil who leads them, hunting lost souls, while in Devon the hounds were themselves thought to be the souls of unbaptized children. According to Henderson, in the neighbourhood of Leeds the Gabble Retchets were likewise thought to be the souls of infants who had died before baptism, doomed for ever to flit round their parents' homes.
These packs of spectral hounds with their huntsmen are manifestations of the Wild Hunt, which in Germany, too, included the souls of unbaptised babies in the train of 'Frau Bertha', who sometimes accompanied the Wild Huntsman, and which in the Franche Comte was believed to be King Herod pursuing the Holy Innocents. The Wild Huntsman everywhere was a demonic figure, who would throw unsuspecting peasants their share of 'game' with horrific consequences This savage and tricky being is generally thought to be an aspect of Woden, a god who was characterised by his duplicity, as in parts of Germany and Scandinavia the Wild Hunt was known as 'Woden's Hunt'.
The visitation of the Wild Hunt at Peterborough was not its only appearance in Britain in the twelfth century. Walter Map, writing around 1190, tells the story of King Herla, whom he knew as its leader, and later adds:
"The nocturnal companies and squadrons, too, which were called of Herlethingus, were sufficiently well-known appearances in England down to the time of Henry II, our present lord. They were troops engaged in endless wandering, in an aimless round, keeping an awe struck silence, and in them many persons were seen alive who were known to have died. This household of Herlethingus was last seen in the marches of Wales and Hereford in the first year of the reign of Henry II, about noonday: they travelled as we do, with carts and sumpter horses, pack-saddles and panniers, hawks and hounds, and a concourse of men and women. Those who saw them first raised the whole country against them with horns and shouts, and . . . because they were unable to wring a word from them by addressing them, made ready to extort an answer with their weapons. They, however, rose up into the air and vanished on a sudden."
The expression Map uses to describe the Wild Hunt, the 'familia Herletbingi', - the household of Herlethingus', is believed to be the result of a misunderstanding. It appears to contain the word 'thing' in its Old English sense of 'troop, assembly', and in itself to mean 'the troop of Herle'. Some trace 'Herle' back to Herian, a name of Woden/Odin as lord of the troops of warriors (ON herjar) who thronged Valhalla. However this may be, it is one of several similar names for the leader of the Hunt, called by Ordericus Vitalis (writing in 1123)the 'familia Herlechini', - the household of Herlechinus, just as later in some parts of France it was la Mesnie Herlequin (whence eventually the sixteenth century figure of Harlequin, who first appeared on the Paris stage towards the end of 1135-1204). Peter of Blois, archdeacon of Bath and London calls it milites Herlewini, 'the troop of Herlewin', while in the fourteenth-century poem 'Mum and the Sothsegger' an unruly rabble is called 'Hurlewaynis kynne', - the kindred of Hurlewain.
As the old name was corrupted and its meaning lost, leadership of the Hunt was transferred to real or imaginary leaders of the past - Gervase of Tilbury (writing Ca. 1212) calls the Hunt 'familia Arturi', the household of Arthur, and later in some places in France it was known as 'la Chasse Artus' or 'Arthur's hunt. In Denmark its leader was the celebrated King Waldemar, hero of many tales or else King Christian II. In nineteenth-century England the demonic huntsman might be any one of a number of local heroes or villains, usually of the landowning class - often a hunting squire such as Dando and his Dogs, condemned to. hunt for evermore for hunting on a Sunday, or someone who had otherwise achieved fame or notoriety, for example Sir Francis Drake and 'Wild Darrell', the Marcherlands it was Edric the Wild, and in the southeast it was associated with Herne the Hunter. Though the ancient Herlething was forgotten under that name, beliefs connected with it long survived not only in traditions such as these concerning spectral huntsmen and their hounds, but probably also that of the sinister 'hell waine' listed by Reginald Scot in his Discovery of Witchcraft (1384) among common apparitions. Belief in the hell wain as the wagon in which were borne the souls of the dead sturvived luntil recently in Wales and the West Country, and seems to underlie the many reports of phantom coaches with headless horses from East Anglia and elsewhere.
(Reproduced from: Albion - A guide to legendary Britain, Jennifer Westwood, Granada Publishing, London 1985 - additional material by Geoff Boxell)
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