Loupgarou is Resource Teacher for Dragonrise 2019, who shares some of the local history, mystery, myth and lore of Shropshire leading up to our camp – The Untamed Heart!
Outlaws and Wolfheads, Gods and Spirits
There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
(The Merrie Wives of Windsor: Act IV – iv 26-29)
Shropshire, in England, is where Dragonrise Witch Camp takes place. It is one of the counties that lie on the border with Wales whose rulers were known in medieval times as ‘Marcher Lords’. Subject then to fierce raids on either side, the borders were lawless and individualistic; being further away from the main cities of London, Winchester and Canterbury. Shropshire is one of the most sparsely inhabited counties in England and has a rich folk tradition of outlaws, bogeys (a common name for a variety of elemental beings), headless horsemen, black dogs and, of course, a Wild Huntsman.
Shropshire also has some remnants of ancient woodland that dates back to the 1600s (and may even include parts of old medieval woods). Maps show Shropshire was still heavily wooded up until the 13th century when more and more land was cleared or set aside for private hunting grounds, and this has a huge bearing on the myths and legends of the area.
Into the Forest
The Forest was a wild place – but wild as in the Middle English meaning of: undomesticated; untamed; unconstrained – and meant there might be trees (but could also refer to mixed areas with lakes, mountains, scrub heathland, fens and bogs). Even as the trees were cleared, the Forest as a whole still existed in memory, mythology and folklore as a place of terrors, a liminal lost space of savagery, danger and ecstasy – a place outside of domestic realities and controls.
In ages where safety was precarious and largely seen to lie within gated or walled communities and ‘agreed behaviours’ (right up into the 20th century) – interaction with the forest could be dangerous unless controlled. Folktales, oral histories and folksongs tell us that forests were places of magics: of trees that move, of spirits that can help or kill, of headless horsemen and apparitions of doomed lovers and strange talking beasts.
These were also places where dangerous beings live – animals ( boar, deer and wolves); and spirits (bogeys and wights). During the pre-Roman era right up until medieval times, village people stayed away from such uncontrolled, natural places if they could, apart from taking pigs to forage, or collecting nuts or digging turf together. The Forest was also known as ‘desert’ during Saxon times (solitudine) a word which echoed the ‘deserts’ of the Old Testament.
Forests were places of prohibitions and clichés about safety. Our folktales are full of proscriptions about going into the Forests – Stay away after dark! Or make sure you go there with others! Always take some food as an offering, or carry a black handled knife, turn your clothing inside out if you get lost, always treat anyone you meet with courtesy, or carefully avoid repeating the names of the ‘Folk’ who might live there.
As the idea of Forest became a place of ‘otherness’ – the domain of demi-gods, of monsters and sirens – inevitably, it also became the place of safety for outsiders from the towns and villages or escapees from invaders. The Forest became the home for those that didn’t fit within the domesticated close-shuttered lives or religiously controlled male or female roles– the ones who were seers, witches, rebels, atheists, worshippers of ancient Gods, single women (because if not controlled by husband, father, brother, or uncle they became common property to all men) and those who dared flout authorities and their laws. It became the home of robbers and thieves, charcoal burners with their rituals, seers and prophetesses, Toad Men and Horse Whisperers and travellers carrying the mistrust and suspicion of the towns and villages.
The stories of those that chose the Wild became mixed with the stories of the Elder and Other races, so stories that bear common features are still told of both historical and spiritual figures together – of the historical Mother Shipton or the historical Bess Bowyer and the demi-goddess figure of Black Annis (with her links to the Cailleach) as cave dwellers; of Guthlac facing demons, of Grendel as a demon, or Hereward the Wake both historical and leader of the Wild Hunt in the marshes of the fens in East Anglia ( fens were places of mist and connected with elves in medieval times); of Robin or Dick Turpin (who stabled Black Bess in the woods outside North London), of Herne or Edric. Their traces are left in the myths and legends of the Wood, or the Cave, or the Peak or Marsh. Over time their stories became mixed with the myths and legends and realities of older races so that historical people are conflated with the legendary, the mythological or the deities, with their gifts of healing, prophecy or oracles. As a prerequisite for their conflation with deity figures they seem to need to have been rebels or outlaws in some way and to have gone ‘wild’.
The Wild Huntsman
A recurring theme, that also occurs in other places around the world – including Canada, Spain, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Norway and throughout Northern European folklore – is that of the Wild Hunt. Usually appearing in the dark half of the year (although there have also been sightings in Midsummer during storms) they are described as spectral riders and hounds associated with thunder, lightning, fierce winds and darkness. The leader of the hunt is Odin or Woden, Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos, King Arthur (sighted near Cadbury Castle in Somerset), or Harlekin or Herlath – Gwynn ap Nudd, Arawn or Gwydion (the immortals from Wales) and Hellequin, Proserpina or Artus in France. In Germany and Austria, the Goddess Witch Perchta, Baba or Frau Holle are female leaders as are the Valkyrie in other legends. There is also some intimation that the Hunt shares some similarities with the Ghost Riders in North America.
The Wild Hunt consists of a Wild Huntsman and a pack of spectral riders on horses or goats or deer accompanied by ghostly hounds. Some legends say they take people to the halls of the Fae, others to Valhalla or the land of the dead, others to become hunters themselves, condemned to ride upon the dark winds of storm. They may also manifest as a torture of ravens on the winds around Samhain.
The hounds are known as Gabriel or Gabble Hounds, Wysht Hounds, Dandy Dogs, Annwn’s Hounds, Sky Yelpers, Gabble Retchets or Ratchet Hounds, depending on location and local legend. Tradition has it that the Hounds of Annwn are white with red ears – a colouration that also occurs in Irish myths for the hounds and bulls of the Tuatha de Danaan.
The Wild Hunt rides out to collect the souls of the living, in some cases of the newly dead, and take them to hell – or the underworld, or the homes of the Welsh Twyleth Teg – depending on your legend. The riders are ghosts, valkyrie, or fae and they have been reported throughout the ages up until the early 20th century in Britain and, of course much earlier: The Peterborough Chronicle, for the year A.D. 1127 relates:
Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was
commonly told all about the country that after February 6th, many
people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They
straddled black horses and black bucks, while their hounds were pitch
black, with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deerpark of
Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot
as far as Stamford…
In local areas of Britain, these spectral huntsmen are led by those who become a sort of genius loci or local guardian spirit associated with a particular area; Herne (whose legend has him as a forester for the King) stalks Windsor Great Park when he is not riding through the air; and Hereward the Wake as Wild Huntsman is seen in the Norfolk fens. The Sluagh Sidhe (The Host of Souls, or Folk of the Air) in Scotland come at the dark half of the year and ride above the clouds at Elphinstone.
In Shropshire the local circuit of the Wild Hunt is some 30 miles or so from where Dragonrise Witch Camp is held, taking in Clun Forest, Bishop’s Castle, Craven Arms, Ludlow and other places. The leader is Wild Edric – who, legend tells us was also known as Eadric Salvage or Silvaticus or ‘Savage’ or ‘Of the Forest’. The dates for sightings of Wild Edric and his followers galloping across the sky or through the woods include 1853 before the Crimean War, 1914 before the First World War and 1939 before the Second World War. They have an association with the ‘Seven Whistlers’ – six curlews or whimbrels calling for the lost seventh, whose appearance or sound presages a death – and of geese whose cries sound like the hounds.
In this case, there is also an historical Eadric who was a real Saxon Lord who was disinherited by the William the Norman and rebelled by fighting back with the Welsh (his former enemies) as allies, only to eventually be stripped of most his positions and become a Norman vassal. As is often the case, it is the rebel or outlaw Eadric that becomes associated with the Wild Huntsman and, consequently, Wild Edric and his men are supposed to sleep in a cave below the Stiper Stones (again not that far from Dragonrise) and be awakened when England is in peril. In some tales he even has a miraculous sword that ends up in Bowmere pool (shades of King Arthur in both tales).
This Wild Edric marries a woman of the Fae after stealing her away (common to many myths) and, of course, loses her by breaking a geis – or prohibition – never to mention her sisters. However, some reports of him as Wild Huntsman have him riding through the forest together with his Fae wife Godda – both dressed in green, and with him sporting a feathered cap – almost a descriptor for the figure of Robin Hood. He is reported in the 19th century as riding through Clun Forest accompanied by his spectral hounds and riders.
Stay tuned for Part II…
Loupgarou is a witch, priestess, writer, musician, Radical Faerie and one of the founders of Queer Pagan Camp in the UK. A magickal drummer who set up the 20-piece drumming group Wildskyn and has run trance dance workshops and drum classes as well as numerous magical workshops and rituals, Loupgarou is well versed in folklore and mythology, particularly in the Welsh and Irish traditions but also local to a variety of areas in the UK.