A terrifying cacophony of noise crashes across the night sky; demonic howls hang on the wind and blast through the dark forest; deep thunder rumbles across the moorland and lightening streaks across the bruised purple sky. Children cower and hide in fear, while their parents hurriedly murmur a quiet prayer; it is the passing of the dreaded Fantastic Hunt.
In Brittany, several superstitions once attributed marvellous origins to the strange noises heard on the wind during the dead of night. Such noises, reverberated, amplified and distorted by fear or lack of understanding, were believed by some to have been produced by supernatural hunts from the Otherworld or armies of the dead in the throes of some great battle that traversed the night sky.
Belief in such Fantastic or Wild Hunts was fairly widespread throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages; these chases usually took place in the sky but in some areas, locals believed that the ancient forests were the eternal hunting grounds of choice. In some traditions here, the hunt was led by the Devil, driving his demons and hell hounds across the night sky in pursuit of their prey but other hunt leaders were also known.
In eastern Brittany and along the border with Normandy, the most renowned hunt leader was a mysterious character known as Hellequin. Folklorists continue to debate the nature and origins of this character but many regard it as a development of the legend of Herla, a legendary king of the ancient Britons who struck a bad deal with a dwarf king. According to a 12th century account, a dwarf king with an enormous head, long red beard and hairy body that degenerated into goat’s feet invited himself to Herla’s wedding and, in exchange, proffered an invitation to attend his own the following year.
A year later, Herla and his retinue were led to the underground domain of the dwarf where they enjoyed three days of feasting and, at parting, received generous gifts of horses, dogs and hawks. In bidding farewell, the dwarf king gave Herla a final gift; a small bloodhound, to be carried in arms, strictly forbidding any of Herla’s company to dismount before the dog should leap from its bearer. Returning to daylight and his own lands, Herla asked a passing shepherd for news of his queen but the man could barely understand him for he was a Saxon and they had driven out the natives over two hundred years before.
King Herla could scarcely believe so much time had passed and some of his men dismounted in wonder, only to be immediately turned to dust. Recalling the words of the dwarf king, Herla instructed his men not to touch the earth before the dog did but the dog never descended. King and company were thus condemned to eternal wandering, making mad marches without stay or rest.
In the same region, some Fantastic Hunts were said to be accompanied by the spirits of priests and nuns who, having loved each other whilst alive, had died without having atoned for their sin and were condemned to run for eternity, pursued through the air by troops of demons and the damned. Other traditions claimed that the hunts marked the passage of demons carrying through the air the bodies of the damned, or that the hunt was crossing the sky in search of those about to die.
It was believed that the characters who participated in the Fantastic Hunts did so to expiate sacrilegious acts or, more rarely, to atone for their cruel behaviour in life. The infernal hunters were most often said to be those men who, in life, had indulged their love of hunting to the extent of violating the laws of the Church to satisfy their passion during a day consecrated to the Lord. They were punished where they had sinned and were condemned to relentlessly pursue, until the Day of Judgement, a prey that, according to some accounts, they would never catch. However, several of these hunts were said not to pursue imaginary game; some tales tell of men misfortunate enough to ask for a share of the prize only to be thrown severed limbs or bodies torn from the grave.
The contours of the character of Hellequin were, perhaps deliberately, poorly defined but he was predominantly presented as the leader of a fierce retinue; a feudal lord at the head of his troop of hunters. Hellequin presents an appropriately shadowy figure for a shadowy theme that draws heavily on the motif of the eternal wanderer that fired the medieval imagination. The infernal interpretation of the Fantastic Hunt was accentuated quite markedly in the 13th century by clerics trying to recover the popular oral traditions and overlay them with Christian moralising. Thus, around 1250, Vincent de Beauvais affirmed that the participants in Hellequin’s Hunt expiated their sins during their night rides and it was this theme that ultimately dominated all others.
Over time, literature presented Hellequin as a demon of the mysteries, eventually morphing him into the character of the trickster, Harlequin. Given its vagueness, the character of Hellequin readily merged with those of other hunt leaders; some were known in only a relatively small corner of Brittany but others, like King Arthur, were renowned across the Celtic lands.
King Arthur’s representation as the eternal hunter here is as vague and fluctuating as that of Hellequin but his presence leading the Fantastic Hunt has been attested as early as the first mentions of Hellequin. According to the 12th century writings of Gervais of Tilbury; “the foresters of Britain and Brittany say that they often see, on certain days in the first part of the night, when the full moon shines, a company of knights who hunt amidst the clamour of dogs and horns. To those who question them, they answer that they are from Arthur’s court.”
There are several legends that try to explain why the beloved King Arthur leads the Fantastic Hunt. One tells that he was attending mass one Sunday when he heard the sound of a hunt and his pack of dogs barking furiously nearby. Listening only to his passion for hunting and without waiting for the divine service to conclude, the king left the church to take part in the hunt. As punishment for his sacrilege, God condemned him to hunt, without rest or satisfaction, until the Day of Judgement.
A similar tale says that Arthur was celebrating mass on Easter Day when at the moment of the consecration he heard the fury of his dogs who had thrown a boar. He immediately left the church but was still upon the threshold when a sudden whirlwind carried him into the air, along with his pack of hounds and all his retinue. Since that time, he has been hunting in the air, destined to catch no game; cursed to lead an unfinished hunt until Judgement Day.
In some parts of the region, Arthur’s damnation is due to the fact that, one day, whilst hunting, he encountered a priest who carried blessed viaticum. Too focused on the hunt, the king failed to stop and show due respect to the holy Host. Other variants to the legend are known which say Arthur had the temerity to push a priest aside or that he blasphemed while hunting a hare and that it was a marvellous white stag that he was cursed to pursue but never to catch.
Some believed that Arthur’s Hunt only passed as the major Church festivals, especially Easter, approached. Others, that the sounds of his hunt were actually made by wild cats on their way to attend a Sabbath. The diabolical association with Arthur’s Hunt was also noted around Saint-Malo where it was said that the hunt claimed the lives of all the people and domestic animals that were in its path; only wild beasts were safe from its clutches.
In all the legends surrounding Arthur’s Hunt, it is always some act of religious sacrilege which caused his damnation. His more famous roles as king and warrior have no bearing on his fate; the figure of the Arthur the hunter takes precedence. Driving home the message that, with its violence and fury, the thrill of the hunt debased man by returning him to a lower, wilder version of himself and if such lapses could happen to a man as great as Arthur then all men were vulnerable to the eternal tortures of Hell.
Arthur was not the only king to be found leading Fantastic Hunts in Brittany. In the south-east of the region, a king named David was said to haunt the forest of Retz, leading King David’s Hunt. Local legend tells that David was doubly cursed; not only did he hunt every Sunday during high mass but he was also hard on his tenants whose entreaties and complaints he ignored. Since the day he and his entire revenue drowned whilst in pursuit of a deer, the king and his party was said to return at night to resume their fruitless chase.
There are examples of other, very localised, traditions surrounding the characters who once led Fantastic Hunts here. South of Janzé, the forest of Teillay was held to be the scene of a Fantastic Hunt led by the ghost of the Lord of Coetenfao; a Huguenot nobleman renowned for his cruel nature and dissolute lifestyle. Said to have terrorised the peasants of Brittany while he lived, his damned soul continued to spread fear with the infernal hunts he had been condemned to lead as punishment for his sins. The spectral lord was reported on foot, on horseback and even riding a carriage, driving on his baying hounds and often passing them like lightning. Sometimes, only the cry of his voice or the sounds of his horse were heard.
Just 35km south, the forest of Gâvre was, in the early 19th century, reputedly the home of a flaming-eyed giant known as the Mau Piqueur who was typically reported to have held an enormous black dog on a chain that appeared to be searching for a scent to follow. The giant’s appearance was said to herald the approach of the great hunt of the reprobates and was taken as a very bad omen, for whoever encountered the hunt was thought certain to die.
A little over the border in neighbouring Normandy, tradition attests to a Fantastic Hunt in which it was the victim rather than the villain who suffered the torment of damnation: the ghost of another protestant noble, the Baron of Hertré, was said to hunt in the forest of Perseigne at night, accompanied by the cries of his huntsmen and the barking of their dogs. The hunt was said to have always headed towards but never reached, the village of La Fresnaye; the site of his murder.
Anyone finding themselves in the path of the Fantastic Hunt risked serious danger; that of being reduced to prey, being taken or even slain. Certain rituals were believed to protect those unfortunate enough to find themselves outside during the passage of the hunt. It was thought that the hunt could not enter a circle drawn by a human hand and so, to be preserved from its evil, it was recommended to draw a circle around yourself with a stick or some other object. Cutting the air around you with any object made of plain iron was said to be the best way to protect oneself from the dangers posed by the Fantastic Hunts of the forest.
In Brittany, there is little surviving evidence to suggest that the notion of the Fantastic Hunt merged with a similar tradition noted elsewhere in Europe; that of the army of the dead. This manifestation is related to the theme of the eternal battle and the belief that those who fell in battle were not fully dead and so, returned at night to continue their combat. While both concepts share some common characteristics, such as being composed of the ghosts of the damned, condemned for eternity. The army of the dead presented a warlike phenomenon, generally a battle or a movement of troops on land or across the sky. Several examples of such ghostly battles, ranging from those first fought during the Hundred Years War to the Revolution, were noted across Brittany but all remained firmly aground.
The Bretons once believed that death roamed at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld that were collected and transported on a cart with creaking axles. Belief in the Kar ann Ankou or Death’s Chariot was quite widespread even into the late 19th century but interestingly, isolated pockets in both the east and west of the region held the belief that this chariot was not confined to the land but could fly into the air and cross the night sky where it was sometimes said to have been drawn by birds, swift as the wind.
Another old belief here held that children who died without baptism roamed the air as birds. Forever wailing plaintive cries, they were doomed to roam the skies until the Day of Judgement when they would fly directly to Heaven. However, another legend tells that the souls of unbaptized infants were drawn into the air by packs of dogs who, driven by the Devil, chased them across the night sky. It is worth noting that belief in the transmigration of the soul was noted in the Celts of antiquity and many legends from across the Celtic world feature human characters reborn as birds after death.
Perhaps the notion of fantastic hunts once formed part of the wider tradition of death’s chariot and other legends of night flights and soul hunters here; all vestiges of ancient beliefs that the Church was able to re-paint with a Christian veneer but never completely supplant.
By fighting against the confused beliefs related to Fantastic Hunts and applying Christian motifs to them, the Church likely helped unify them and give them a form and consistency that they probably did not originally possess; that of the cursed hunter. If the popular folklore of the time spoke of great kings such as Hellequin or Arthur who had passed to become kings of the dead, the clerics sought to ensure that people grasped that glory was only found through salvation and the two kings of yore were now simply desperate souls trapped in Purgatory.
The nocturnal aspect of these hunts struck a chord in the popular imagination because if the land was invisible under its cloak of darkness, it was not necessarily silent. With no mountains to speak of, any noise here carried on the wind for miles; strange sounds became suspicious even fearful. Moreover, it was accepted that the night was reserved for the dead and the ghosts of the damned. The Fantastic Hunt therefore became a frightening image designed to remind people to resist sin in order to evade Hell and its demons.
One cursed hunter that became popularly known across Brittany might easily have stepped directly from the Sunday sermon into the popular imagination; the 8th century saint, Hubert. A nobleman who was said to have devoted his life to hunting but who renounced the chase in order to consecrate himself to the service of God after having encountered a white stag, carrying a luminous cross between its antlers, while hunting on Good Friday. In renouncing the hunt, Saint Hubert’s behaviour was evoked to encourage people to act with discernment and to temper their passion for hunting.
Although the story of Saint Hubert is strongly influenced by the earlier legend of the 2nd century Saint Eustace and his miraculous stag, its popularity in the 15th century saw Hubert supplant Eustace as the patron saint of hunters. This was likely also the time when the contrite hunter was named as leader of a Fantastic Hunt which he was condemned to ride with until the Day of Judgment, for having once been too devoted to hunting in his life. The idea clearly took hold because Pierre Mathieu’s History of France and Memorable Events (1605) mentions only Saint Hubert’s Hunt in his discussion of marvels such as Fantastic Hunts.
In addition to hunting, Saint Hubert was, for centuries, popularly invoked to protect against or cure rabies. While rabies may have claimed fewer victims than other diseases such as typhoid or dysentery, its scourge was highly feared and held a special place in the popular imagination, not least because it revealed in the mildest person, the savage beast within. Disease could be said to share many of the characteristics of hunting: it erupts, carries away those it encounters and spreads before disappearing to suddenly reappear elsewhere. Disease and death were the supreme predators, so, little wonder the Bretons of yesteryear saw themselves as defenceless prey in the face of so many unrelenting hunters.
Even into the 1880s, Breton peasants attested that they heard the sounds of a Fantastic Hunt approaching in full fury; the cries of exhausted horses, the noise of furious galloping, the calls and blasphemies shouted by the huntsmen over the excited din of blaring horns. Like their parents before them, they had themselves seen, in the dim light of night, the aerial forms of phantom dogs followed by hunters on their horses arcing over the indistinct ground. The notion of the night hunt was clearly a theme too long-rooted to have been easily eradicated and the wide number known, illustrate just how popular such notions still remained here into the 19th century.