Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead
Inner Traditions, 2011
Reviewed by Uloboridae
As the title promises, this text is a detailed introduction to the “Wild Hunt” literary theme found throughout Europe. Dr. Lecouteux frames the entire book around the hypothesis that the Wild Hunt theme is an ancient pagan fertility (“third function”) motif of Indo-European origin that was later modified for Christian uses.
The first two-thirds of the book is spent looking at the various figures within the stories, their origins, and the many ways the stories were used for promoting a Christian worldview, particularly regarding sinful actions. This is mainly organized as a timeline, with the first chapters starting with the stories in early 1000s and gradually becoming more recent in later chapters. This is where he identifies, and then separates, the Christian additions from what he recognizes as the original Pagan framework. This method results in quite a large chunk of the book dedicated to explaining Christian clerical beliefs. The author starts out with the “Good Women” troops and the troops of the dead, and then goes into the troops that participate in a hunt or a procession of some sort. The troops of the dead reappear in later chapters to clarify the differences between these types of processions.
He also identifies the regional variations of the figures and stories, focusing mainly on Germanic regions (primarily today’s UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and parts of Scandinavia) and Germanic-influenced regions in Spain, France, Italy, and Central Europe. Attention is given to famous figures such as King Herla, Hellequin, and Perchta along with lesser known ones such as Oskeria, Dame Abundia, and Guro. Little attention is given to non-Germanic cultures, which is disappointing, but understandable, given that his professional background is specifically Medieval Germanic literature.
Eventually the author ends his timeline-based exploration in chapters 11 and 12 with the evolution of the Wild Hunt stories in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He discusses the romance of Fauvel to lead into the more exploratory aspects of the processions, such as the rowdy troops of the living that imitate the dead and devils. Pausing briefly for a chapter on Scandinavian folklore that resemble more basal Wild Hunt stories, the author then ties up the previous 12 chapters with a review on shared themes and other scholars’ interpretations.
The author then concludes with a dismissal of Odin as a Wild Hunt leader, going into detail as to why he is not a true huntsman figure, and an exploration of living processions that are linked to the lore processions. His final chapter recognizes the fact that no true conclusion can be met about the nature of the Wild Hunt and related stories, a refreshing attitude for books of this subject. The appendixes are translations of old stories and poems that depict or refer to the Wild Hunt and other processions, free of Dr. Lecouteux’s interpretations (those are given in earlier chapters).
Overall, I found this book to be informative from both a historical and a religious viewpoint. There are times where he asserts an idea as if it were fact (particularly with linguistic connections being used to “prove” or “disprove” an aspect or being of the Wild Hunt), which one would not be able to check unless they were familiar with the field. This situation forces a regular reader to either accept his word, or ignore it, which I find a bit distracting. I prefer to have context and information to support either decision, rather than mentally flipping a coin to decide which way to go. Usually I end up just ignoring the unsupported assertions, which thankfully does not interrupt the rest of the book.
This book is written in an academic voice, requiring some sections to be reread to fully comprehend them. Occasionally the book felt dragging due to the repetition of ideas and interpretations. Dr. Lecouteux also has a tendency to pack his books with information, which can be both good and bad. Good because historical Pagan information is limited and many of us need every bit we can find. Bad, because there is often no room left to give context to the random tidbits. Since the book was originally written in French, the references are mostly French and German sources, so trying to trace the information is nearly impossible for other language speakers to do. For someone like me who wants to double-check something for “truthfulness”, this can be irksome.
However, the author is excellent in keeping a neutral, professional tone in his work. He does not promote or degenerate Christianity or Paganism, nor does he reveal which “side” he is on (if any at all). His interest is solely academic, allowing this book to appeal to a variety of readers. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves European and Religious history and lore, as well as those seeking to understand the differences between Christian and Pagan worldviews. It will make an interesting addition to their library. However, due to the lack of context for some ideas, I would not recommend this book to those new to historical paganism. This is a “201” book, something to read after basic knowledge on Pagan worldviews has already been obtained and understood.
Three and a half pawprints out of five.