In the Summer of, say, 1864, a young Norwegian student hiked through the mountains of Hallingdal, all alone. The weather had been wonderful, unbearably warm even. But all of a sudden our student saw dark clouds appearing behind the snowy peaks of the mountains. A mighty storm was approaching, and with some pace. Just in time the young man managed to find shelter in a hole between some large boulders. In his autobiography, written almost sixty years later, he recalls the events:
It became as dark as night, and then it started pouring down, the storm dashed forward as a raging pack of horsemen in large, black, wavering cloaks. Singeing lightning of lances in the sky. Ruffling on shields, bursting thunder strokes, the earth shook, and the rocks above my head groaned.
It was the ride of the Valkyries. They came from the mountains – howling, screaming in the storm right above the place where I sat and cowered.
This young student was Stephan Sinding (1846 – 1922), who would grow up to be one of the more talented sculptors of his generation. In 1910, he finalized a sculpture that for him captured the overwhelming and terrifying force of Nordic nature that he had experienced so many decades earlier: a screaming Valkyrie lusting for war riding an equally fierce and aggressive horse, her cloak hurling around her like a dark cloud. Visitors to Copenhagen can admire this statue in the Churchill Park, not that far from that more famous, and way cuter, statue of Andersen’s little mermaid.
An Ancient Folk Myth
In his autobiography, Sinding had invoked an image of the so-called Wild Hunt, a folk belief that is not exclusively Scandinavian, but that in different varieties also appears for example in German, Dutch, English, Czech, French, Spanish, Slovene, and Polish folklore. Common factor is the wild pursuit of hunters across the sky. These hunters, then, can be fairies, or elves, or the dead, or, in the case of Scandinavia, Valkyries who are selecting the fallen warriors worthy of joining them in Walhalla. In other versions of the folk myth, the wild hunt forewarned bad weather, or even war and disaster. It was believed that he or she who did not hide properly during the raging cavalcade was in serious danger of being stolen away or struck by the gods’ punishing lightning. Sinding, in other words, had done well to dive away between the rocks.
The leader of the pack likewise varies according to the specific tradition. In some traditions it is a biblical figure like Cain, or Gabriel, or the Devil, while in others the pagan element is dominant. So, in Germany it can be Wodan, or Krampus, or Frau Holle; in Brittany and England King Arthur; and in the Scandinavian countries it is often Odin and sometimes Thor.
Sinterklaas and Odin
In Holland, and later in the Netherlands in general, there existed various versions of the myth, in which also Wodan played a part. According to one version, the procession was headed by non other than Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas in Dutch). It has been suggested that the bearded Odin riding his white, eight-legged horse Sleipnir formed the cultural template for the bearded bishop from Myra on his white horse, wielding a lance or staff like the Norse god had done. Also the custom of Germanic tribes to exchange gifts in December became conflated with the new Christianized tradition. We can furthermore identify a parallel between the Valkyries deciding between the worthy and the unworthy, and Sinterklaas rewarding good children and punishing the bad.
Save the punishment/reward narrative, Valkyries do not have a lot in common with Sinterklaas’s helper in Dutch folklore, Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), most definitely not in terms of their appearance. Krampus, the dwarf-like and dark-skinned companion of Wodan, seems to be a more likely pre-christian inspiration here. In the south of Germany and in Austria the figure of Krampus still forms part of the St. Nicolas celebrations. In the Netherlands, however, Piet’s looks seem to have been unfortunately affected by the 19th-century colonial context, given his stereotypical ‘blackface’ features, including curly hair, golden ear rings, and bright red lips. No wonder that this ill-conceived guise has caused a heated public debate in the Netherlands over the recent years.
The Wild Hunt in the Arts
But back to Scandinavia! Throughout the 19th century, the Wild Hunt formed a popular motif for writers, poets, and painters. The most well-known examples are all from Norway. Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807 – 1873) wrote a poem entitled Asgaardsreien – the Asgard Ride – after the name often used for the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia, referring to the dwelling of the gods. Welhaven’s poem (an English translation can be found here) formed a major inspiration for Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831 – 1892), who dedicated several monumental paintings to the theme, including the featured picture to this article, which can be enjoyed in its full glory in the National Gallery in Oslo.
Arbo’s painting features many supernatural beings, including Valkyries and Thor, who is clearly recognizable through his hammer and chariot. The considerable army flies over a desolated landscape, possibly a battlefield, as seems to be suggested by the vulturine raven that accompany the horsemen (note that in Old-Icelandic poetry fallen warriors were often referred to with the kenning ‘carrion for raven’). The spear-wielding Valkyrie in the dead center of the picture shows remarkable similarities with Sinding’s later statue.
Finally, the Wild Hunt is used in Hærmændene paa Helgeland (The Vikings at Helgeland), Henrik Ibsen’s flawed attempt to build a Norwegian national theatrical tradition on the style of the Old-Norse sagas. In the final scene, the heroine Hjørdis commits suicide and is taken up by the procession of horsemen flying over head. She had just killed her lover Sigurd hoping that they would then be united in Walhalla for all eternity, not knowing that Sigurd had earlier converted to Christianity; he would thus be travelling elsewhere after drawing his last breath.
In Hærmændene paa Helgeland, then, the pagan-Germanic and the Christian are not to be united, quite unlike the Sinterklaas and Christmas traditions of today, which borrow from both in equal measure. Just be especially careful during the holiday season for horsemen in the sky. As Welhaven wrote over a century and a half ago:
The Wild Hunt of Asgard raids the county
Whilst fall and winter at stormy nights.
But it favors to travel at Yuletide…
Knut Ljøgodt, Historien fremstilt i bilder (Oslo: Pax Forlag, 2011).
Stephan Sinding, En Billedhuggers Liv (Christiania: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1921).
Works with this motif
Henrik Ibsen, Hærmændene paa Helgeland (1858)
Johan Sebastian Welhaven, Nyere Digte (1844)
Peter Nicolai Arbo, Asgaardsreien (1870)
Peter Nicolai Arbo, Asgaardsreien (1872)
Johan Gustaf Sandberg, Valkyries riding to Battle (1820)
Stephan Sinding, Valkyrie (1910)