A mass of ferocious men ride across the sky on giant black goats and black horses, making a fearsome din as they charge to the hunt, baying black hounds at their sides. Those who hear the approaching noise must not look or they risk being dragged into the Wild Hunt of the dead.

With plenty of local and national variations, this image of phantom hordes of huntsmen or soldiers has deep roots in Northern European culture, most firmly associated with Woden. We first find it recorded in the middle ages in various forms, and after that it never really leaves. Jacob Grimm named and described it in Deutsche Mythologie (Teutonic Mythology) Volume III, arguing that Germans didn’t drop their stories of the gods when they became Christian, but merely assigned them new roles. What he called the Wild Hunt took on the name Hellequin’s (or Herlechin’s, or Helething’s) Hunt, from the Germanic roots heer (“army”) and thing (“assembly”), and a new religious meaning.

A Purgatorial Procession

The first written record of Hellequin’s Hunt comes from Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142), an Anglo-Norman monk at the Abbey of Saint-Evroul, although linguistic cues suggest more ancient oral traditions may have informed its ultimate shape. Like Bede, Orderic is regarded as a solid and trustworthy historian of his age, which makes his inclusion of Hellequin’s Hunt in his Ecclesiastical History quite interesting. Orderic clearly regards the source as unimpeachable and the tale as true. We are even told the date of the event: January 1st 1091.

The narrator is the priest Walchelin, “a young man, strong and brave, well-built and active.” Walchelin was in charge of the Church of St. Aubin the Confessor in the hamlet of Bonneval. On the night in question, Walchelin was returning from a sick call when he heard the sound made by the passage of a great army. Assuming it was the forces of Robert of Belleme, a notoriously fierce lord, he decided to conceal himself in a grove of four medlar trees just off the path. Instead, he found his way blocked by a huge knight who lifted a great mace above his head and said, “Stand! Go no further!”

Walchelin stopped and leaned on his staff. The knight came to stand near him, and together they waited for the approaching horde.

First to come into sight were people on foot “carrying across their necks and shoulders animals and clothes and every kind of furnishing and household goods that raiders usually seize as plunger.” These goods, however, gave them no pleasure, and they moaned and carped at other. Walchelin noticed some villagers who had recently died among their number, and they wailed because they were in torment for their sins.

The giant knight left the priest to join those next in the procession: bearers carrying five hundred biers, and on each was a dwarf with a barrel-shaped head. In this group two Ethiopians carried a beam astride which was a demon. Hanging below the beam was a man tormented by this demon, who whipped his back and dug his spurs into his sides. Walchelin recognized the man as the murderer of a priest named Stephen two years prior.

Next came the women, with many highborn and fashionably dressed ladies among them, riding sidesaddle upon saddles bristling with red hot nails. Gusts of air would lift them up and drop them back down on the saddles over and over again. Their sin was “sensuous lechery,” and the women cried “O woe!” for their punishment. Horses and empty carriages recognized by Walchelin were in the procession, awaiting women he knew were still alive.

At the next vision Walchelin had to steady himself on his staff, for those in line were bishops, priests, and monks, including many figures who were highly regarded in life and known to him. They moaned and complained, and some even called to him by name asking for his prayers. Among the procession was Hugh of Lisieux, Mainer of Saint-Evroul, and Gerbert of Saint-Wandrille. “Human judgement is often in error,” Orderic writes, “but nothing is hidden from God’s sight. Men judge from outward appearances,; God looks into the heart.”

Behind the religious figures was vast array of black knights bearing black banners and riding immense horses. Thousands upon thousands of men were armed as though poised to charge into battle. One among them, Landry of Orbec, who was dead less than a year, shouted to the priest to take a message to his wife, but his fellow soldiers drowned out his voice, saying “Don’t believe Landry! He’s a liar!” This knight had risen from humble birth to become sheriff of Orbec, but was corrupted and used his position for personal gain. “Because he closed his ears to the cries of the poor when he had power,” Walchelin writes, “in his suffering no one would listen to him.”

“This is most certainly Herlechin’s rabble,” Walchelin tells himself. He had mocked those who claimed to have seen it, and knows that he too will be mocked unless he can bring back some proof. He determines to steal one of the many riderless horse marked for men not yet dead, and ride the terrible beast home as his proof.

The first horse he grabs escapes, but he mounts the second, only to feel burning in his foot where it touched the stirrup and cold in his hands where they touch the saddle. The horse exhales an icy breath that coalesces into the form of a tree.

Welchelin's Burning Wound

At that moment four knights approach him and condemn him for trying to steal their property. Three of them try to carry him away, but the fourth stops them and asks him to deliver a message to his wife. He is is William of Glos, son of Barnon, steward to William of Breteuil. He confesses to many sins, but the one that torments him the most is usury. “I leant money to a poor man, receiving a mill from him as a pledge,” even though he knew the man would not be able to pay him back. For taking the mill, he must carry a burning mill-shaft in his mouth. He asks the priest to tell his family to restore the mill to its rightful owners.

Welchelin refuses, saying he cannot know if his words are true and that Roger of Glos would mock him for a fool if he even tried. In a rage, William reaches out and grabs him by the throat with a hand that burns like fire. The priest cries out “Blessed Mary, Mother of Christ, come to my aid,” whereupon another knight gallops up and draws his sword.

“Wretches!” he shouts. “Why are you murdering my brother? Leave him and be gone!”

The other knights ride off, leaving Welchelin with his brother. “Don’t you recognize me?” the knight says. “I am Robert, son of Ralph the Fair-Haired.” And by many proofs and recollections convinces the priest who he is.

“It would have been just for you to be carried off with us,” Robert says, “but since you said mass this morning, you are saved, and I have been allowed to appear to you. After we spoke for the last time in Normandy, I went to England where I died according to the will of my Creator, but with many unshriven sins still weighing on my soul. The weapons we carry and the armor we wears burns and gives off an hideous stench, and pulls us down with an unbearable weight. But when you were ordained priest, our father was freed to heaven and the heavy shield I bore dropped away, leaving me with only this burning sword. I bear it as my just punishment, but and faithfully await being relieved of it within the year.”

At this point, Welchelin noticed something like a clot of blood in the shape of a human head dangling from his brother’s spurs. When he asks in horror what it is, his brother says, “It is not blood, but fire, and weighs more heavily on me than if I were carrying to Mont Saint-Michel. Because I used bright, sharp spurs in my eager haste to shed blood I am justly condemned to carry this enormous load at my heels. But I cannot speak longer, for I am compelled to hasten after this wretched host. Remember me in your prayers and in alms-giving and at the altar of the Lord. One year from Palm Sunday I hope to be released from torment by the mercy of my Creator. See to your own salvation. Your life is stained by many sins, and you must know that this cannot last.” He then orders his brother to say nothing for three days.

So saying, his brother rode away. Upon returning home, Welchelin fell ill and remained so for a week. When he recovered, he told Gilbert, bishop of Lisieux all he had seen, and lived another fifteen years. Orderic Vitalis received the story from Welchelin’s own lips, and saw the burn mark where fiery hand of the knight had grabbed him.

The Role of Purgatorial Visions

What do we make of this? Orderic is no ordinary source: he's the Venerable Bede of his age. Anglo-Normans liked their miracles and marvels, but the insertion of this tale in the context of history indicates how seriously he considered it. Is the account meant to be literal, a mystical vision, or a pedagogical tale shaped in the retelling?

The tale often is misinterpreted as procession of the damned or cursed at the hands of secular writers. It actually has a more interesting theological point to make. This is very clearly a purgatorial vision, like St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Robert of Glos states explicitly that he has already shed one of his purgatorial burdens and anticipates salvation when his time of cleansing is done.

This elaborate account is part of the process of the Church deepening our understanding of Purgatory. Jacques LeGoff incorrectly called this period “The Birth of Purgatory.” In fact, Purgatory and prayer for the dead has roots in both scripture and the Church Fathers, but like all dogma it deepened over time and found new means of expression. A more elaborate economy of Purgatory began to evolve at this time, with prayers, alms, and masses helping the departed shorten the time or torments of purification. It's less a Birth of Purgatory, and more like a adolescence. 

Purgatorial processions and visions increase sharply during this period as the more complex theology and praxis takes shape. The increase in visions was perhaps a gift from God to help people grasp this crucial development. The shapes it took—sometimes transforming familiar lore into new Christian expressions—tracks the history of revelation and evangelization, as God’s people are led gradually through a thicket of worldly belief to the final truth of His glory, and the Church "baptizes" what is good in pagan thought. God works with human clay, and the vast body of non-Christian culture and folk practice is the language man understands most naturally. 

What did Welchelin see? He saw what he would understand: the many different kinds of people who made up the three estates (nobility, clergy, commoners) of man as understood by the medievals. They are all represented, and shown suffering for their earthly sins, but with a promise of salvation. These punishments are very literal in that they are elaborate trials of the body. Yet they are also clearly figurative, with punishments matched to sins. That's very typical of the period, and illuminate the imaginitive world of the medieval Christian. No Catholics today would envision women riding saddles studded with red-hot nails as a literal account of purgatory (at least, no Catholics I'd want to know) but these strange visions illuminate the nature of sin and penance, and spoke directly to the people who produced and read them.

We've over-corrected in the other direction and lost any real sense of the weight of sin, the glory of heaven, the horror of hell, and the pains of purgatory. These earthier visions of the afterlife can help us recalibrate, moving away from the flatly un-Christian sense of a wholly disembodied and gently ethereal afterlife for everybody. Hell is real and awful. Heaven is glorious. Purgatory is penitential. Penance isn't pleasant, but it is a promise that glory awaits those who go through great tribulation and are found worthy to wear robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb.