Norway’s Wild Hunt is a darker side of Jul
M. Michael Brady
Oskoreia is the Norwegian version of The Wild Hunt, an ancient European folk myth found in many societies across the Continent. Its genealogy is unclear. But the repercussions of an event described in an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 793 suggests a Viking origin:
“In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.”
The “heathen men” were Vikings. “God’s church” was a monastery and a center of Celtic Christianity. Lindisfarne was and still is a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. The raid shook Christendom and triggered the Viking Age. For 300 years, the Vikings were influential in Europe and beyond, taking their beliefs and customs wherever they went. It was the Viking Age poets who forged the earliest myths that have come down to us in folklore.
Versions of the Wild Hunt share a common scenario: a phantasmagoria of dream-like images of hunters and the hunted engaging in battle and in pursuit across the sky or along the ground. The hunters and the hunted may be alive or dead, real humans or deities, insignificant or noble, male or female. Otherwise, the versions vary by society and have been modified with time.
In Britain, the Peterborough Chronicle gave an account of a Wild Hunt that took place in 1127 following the appointment of Henry d’Angely as abbot of the monastery there. Later, a Wild Hunt was believed to include King Arthur, and on winter nights as late as the 19th century near Cadbury Castle in Somerset, on winter nights the King and his hounds were said to charge down a lane bearing his name.
Norwegian etymology* provides a link to the mythology of the Viking Age. Oskoreia is understood to be a variant of Åsgårdsreia (literally “Åsgård riders”) in which Åsgard is the home of the gods of Viking times. Dialect synonyms of Oskoreia include Julereia (literally “Christmas riders”) that suggests Christian influence on the myth.
The warning to the citizenry was clear: prepare to celebrate Christmas least you risk being swept along should an Oskoreia or Julereia come your way. That retributive aerial version persisted through the 19th century. Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Åsgårdreien painting of 1872 (owned by the National Gallery in Oslo) shows tortured souls in battle with cavalry raging across the sky.
By the 20th century, the mood had become more cheerful. Norwegian painter Nils Bergslien’s Julereia painting of 1922 shows earthbound trolls and humans, one a fiddler riding a reindeer, and many apparently tipsy, in a ribald procession through a traditional farmyard. Its message apparently is that being swept along might be naughty, enjoyable or both.
There are traces of the Wild Hunt or Oskoreia in other Northern European pre-Christian myths that have survived to this day. The most familiar in the Nordic countries is the tradition of the “Christmas goat”: Julebuk in Norwegian, Juleged in Danish, Julbock in Swedish, and Olkipukki in Finnish. Originally a Julebuk was a goat slaughtered for the Christmas feast. With time, the word also was applied to a Christmas play based on Oskoreia and then to the practice of gå julebuk (“Christmas goat walk”) in which masked and costumed people, now usually children, go from door-to-door, singing carols for rewards of sweets.
* Norsk Etylmologisk Ordbok by Yann De Caprona (Oslo, Kagge Forlag 2013, 1920 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-82-489-1054-1) is the contemporary reference of choice.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 26, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.