Ghosts, Mystery, Myths, Portfolio, Travel

Pilgrims from hell

The Wild Hunt

Peter Nicolai Arbo

During his Spanish adventures, 19th century English travel author George Borrow heard of a spine-chilling legend that he would later include in his popular work The Bible in Spain (1843). Facing a vast desolate moor in Galicia, a region of strong Pagan tradition in the Northwest, he asks his local guide whether they’ll be able to reach the nearby village of Corcubión that night. The guide refuses to carry on walking any further: “We shall in no manner reach Corcuvión (sic) to-night, and I by no means like the appearance of this moor. The sun is rapidly sinking, and then, if there come on a haze, we shall meet the Estadea”. Prompted by Borrow, the guide describes the nature of his fear: “I have met (it) but once, and it was upon a moor something like this. I was in company with several women, and a thick haze came on, and suddenly a thousand lights shone above our heads in the haze, and there was a wild cry”. His previous experience terrified him enough to threaten Borrow with abandoning him to his fate: “I tell you frankly, my master, that if we meet (the Estadea), I shall leave you at once, and then I shall run and run till I drown myself in the sea”. [1]

These words capture the superstitious fear inspired by a mythical belief that has enkindled the Spanish imagination for centuries: the Santa Compaña or Holy Company, as it is most commonly referred to. Although the legend appears in other areas of Spain, it is in rainy, misty Galicia, a region with strong Celtic influences, where it is still told and feared the most. Galicians are reputed for being the most superstitious people in the country, and their attitude towards the paranormal is encapsulated in the traditional saying “Eu non creo nas meigas, pero habelas, hainas”, meaning “I don’t believe in witches but they do surely exist”. Pagan folklore and Catholicism have coexisted in everyday life for centuries, shaping deeply rooted legends that still persist, especially in rural areas.

As Borrow’s local guide recalls, the Compaña wanders around moors and forests once the sun is set, and has a preference for foggy nights. The smell of wax and the dim glow of a row of candles serve as a forewarning of their approach. Dogs bark and howl, cats flinch away in terror. The candle bearers are dressed in black (or white, depending on the reports), their features shadowed by hooded tunics. The procession marches in a column or two, reciting a litany in Latin. If their ritual is interrupted by the sight of a traveller, they will stop to offer him a candle. But their pious appearance should not fool any visitors, because these penitents are not human, they’re a procession of dead souls that have the power to drag the living with them in an endless pilgrimage. A traveller mustn’t speak to them or hold the candle he’s offered, or he will see his own flesh decay and will be turned into a skeleton, forever condemned to follow them.

Like the Irish banshee or the English black dog, the spirits of the Compaña are also harbingers of death. In Galician oral tradition there are many stories of terrified villagers who find the procession knocking on the door of a neighbour that will die a few days later. In most cases, the witness recognises the features of deceased locals under the black hoods, which suggests that every town has its own particular procession. In the nearby region of Asturias, where the Holy Company is known as La Güestia, the spirits walk three times around the house of the doomed, who will become ill and die shortly afterwards. Occasionally the stories describe the procession carrying an uncovered coffin where the astral body of the ill-fated lies, the funest precursor of their funereal cortège.

Its facet as a herald of Death is only visible by those who have the gift of second sight, or those who, during their baptism, were accidentally rubbed with the consecrated oil for the anointing of the sick. The priest’s macabre mistake would allegedly make these individuals more sensitive to the frontiers between this world and the world of the dead [2]. Individuals without psychic abilities would be able, however, to see it at least once in their lives: by their deathbed, when the procession comes to escort them to the Otherworld, finally willing to reveal its secret -the knowledge of what is beyond the threshold of death.

The dead travel together

Early written sources provide useful information when trying to trace the roots of the myth. The first known reference in Spanish literature to a phantasmal procession by a crossroads appears in El Milagro de Teófilo (c. 1260), by Gonzalo de Berceo, a deacon considered to be the first Spanish poet known by name. In the story, the main character, Teófilo, visits a Jew (anti-Semitism was common across Europe in the Middle Ages, and Jews were frequently demonised in stories at the time) who acts as a mediator for his pact with the Devil to achieve a position of power within the Church. During this process he witnesses what he refers to as the hueste antigua or “ancient host”, a group of demonic figures led by the Devil himself: “he saw people coming (…) carrying lit candles/ with their king [the devil] in the middle; they were all ugly and lightless”.

Similarly, in the anonymous epic Poema de Fernán González (c. 1260- 1266), the author compares the count Don Fernando with the devil, followed by his servants in a ghostly cortege. The phrase hueste antigua, that will appear in many subsequent works, is the adaptation that the newborn Spanish language made of the Latin hostis antiquus. It is also the etymological origin of the vocables estantigua or Güestia, still used to describe the Holy Company in some areas of Spain. Interestingly, the word antiquus, meaning “ancient”, was applied to describe the Devil, or the snake of the tree of Science, the “ancient serpent” in the Apocalypse of St. John, thus taking the implicit meaning of “enemy”. The cultural association between the old and the bad is especially obvious in the Spanish phrase that could be translated as “The Devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the Devil”. [3 ]

The image of Satan leading the troops from hell is, of course, a variation of the myth of the Wild Hunt of Indo-European tradition. Echoing dreadful collective memories of invasions and raids, this myth depicts a phantasmal group of huntsmen riding horses, usually followed by dogs, led by a divinity or a legendary warlord. In Scandinavian countries it was known as Odin’s Hunt, in Germany, Wotan’s Army, in French, la Mesnée d’ Hellequin. They all share similar characteristics: a spectral leader, a row of followers and several preceding signs, what folklorist Anatole LeBraz referred to as “intersigns” (clamour, lightning, dogs barking). Sightings of the Hunt were considered a presage of calamity, war, famine or death, and the horsemen were said to abduct passers-by to drag them to the realm of the dead.

Some of the earliest references to the Hunt appear in English mediaeval literature. In the 1127 Peterborough chronicle there’s a report of the Hunt seen between Peterborough and Stamford:

“The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers (…) In the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.

The Wild Chase, by Franz Stuck (1889)

The Wild Chase, by Franz Stuck (1889)

Inscribed within the Celto-Germanic mythological cycle, the Wild Hunt is fundamentally associated with the imagery of Death in war cultures, evocative of beliefs of the transit of the souls, showing the heroes rising up from the dead and the dead travelling together over the land of the living. In his Teutonic Mythology (1877), Jacob Grimm explained how Christianity transformed the leader of the gang into a demonic figure guiding a procession of dead souls that had escaped from hell. Sightings of the Wild Hunt were more frequent between Samhain and Yule, as it was a time consecrated to Odin and Wotan. By demonizing the procession, Christianity was utilising fear as a deterrent to stop people engaging in Pagan festivals. [4]

Through the ages, the myth accommodated other heroic figures, not necessarily divinities, as leaders of the Hunt: King Arthur reputedly appears by a small lane near Cadbury Castle and Sir Francis Drake and his troops roam Dartmoor. Stories of cavalcades of heroes and demons coexisted for many centuries, both sharing the same root. But how did the infernal procession led by Satan or the troop of warriors and warlords become a group of tormented souls?

Trapped in Purgatory

The story of the corrupt priest Dando, who appears on stormy nights in the bleak moorland around the Parish of St. Germans in Cornwall, followed by a pack of furious ember-eyed hounds, is a well-known example of a doomed character who becomes the leader of a Hunt to purge his sins. This variation of the story is reminiscent of the Biblical Cain, cursed to wander the earth and scavenge for all eternity, or the legend of the Wandering Jew (probably a derivation of Cain’s story), condemned to walk the earth until the Second Coming after having mocked Jesus on his way to Calvary. In Spain, the most famous example remains the 16th century legend of Count Arnau. In the story, this ruthless Catalan noble had an illicit affair with an abbess and was condemned for all eternity to ride a black horse with flames coming out of his eyes and mouth, followed by a pack of hounds from hell, while his flesh was eaten by the fire.

Although all these stories have an ancient root, there is a key element that forges the particularities of the Holy Company. According to anthropologist Carmelo Lisón, the critical component would be the introduction of the doctrine of Purgatory by Catholicism in the 13th century. This provided a fundamental change to visions of the afterlife: most souls didn’t go straight to Heaven or Hell, they would stay for an indeterminate time in a different realm, Purgatory, in order to purge their sins before they reached the glory of Heaven. The new Catholic dogma triggered the Lutheran Reform: for Luther this was no more than an excuse to encourage the faithful to pay for masses in which whole families would pray to facilitate the transition of the souls of their beloved ones from Purgatory to Heaven.

But the existence of Purgatory fitted in with an ancient tradition, the belief that people who died before their time (such as warriors or suicides) had to remain on earth, suspended in-between worlds. The souls of Purgatory were also waiting in a liminal realm, an Otherworld that wasn’t as remote as Heaven or Hell. And the relative proximity of this dimension would facilitate interaction between the living and the dead. Hence the dogma fed into traditional Spanish beliefs with unorthodox consequences.

The acceptance of the concept of Purgatory involves the distinction between souls that are condemned and souls in penance that still have a possibility of redemption. This distinction is important to understand both Compañas, the one that wanders the moors until the end of days, hunting souls as prey, trying to snatch them away, and the one that is composed by the grieving spirits of the dead, whose function as psychopomps reveal a will to assist the living. Whereas the first usually preserves the names estantigua or estadea (from “ancient host”), the second is generally referred to as Compaña, Santa Compaña, or simply las ánimas (“the souls”). But what is most astonishing is that they are all portrayed in a Christian manner. The souls are normally dressed in religious attire, mumbling prayers as they wander. Their members often carry objects with a Christian meaning: a wooden cross, a cauldron with holy water or a bell.

All Compañas are feared among the superstitious: these souls have already crossed the threshold of death, and in doing so they possess a secret that can’t be revealed to the living. After death, familiarity is turned into an otherness, and this otherness provokes fear.

These processions are always nocturnal. Oral tradition teaches us that walking unprotected at night is not a good idea, as the procession usually warns the living by saying “Andad de día, que la noche es mía” (“Walk in the daytime, for the night is mine”), [5] much like the leader of the Wild Hunt screams “Midden in den weg!”, or “Mitte den Weg” in modern German, to warn the passers-by that they won’t be harmed if they stay in the middle of the road.

There are many protective rituals against the Compaña. Some of them have a clear Catholic symbolism. The cross is a usual sign of defence, and safety is guaranteed by holding a wooden cross or stepping onto the base of a cruceiro, a stone or wooden cross sign. There are around twelve thousand in Galicia, and they were built to protect pilgrims and travellers against “bad” spirits, Christianising places attached to Pagan cults. Most cruceiros were placed at crossroads, traditionally regarded as thresholds where the Otherworld encounters the physical world just as the roads meet. Because of their crepuscular disposition, unprotected crossroads are among the Compaña’s favourite haunting spots.

Other protective measures have a distinctively Pagan nature: drawing a circle on the floor and standing in it, throwing salt around oneself or even throwing them a black cat, supposing there’s one at hand. Children were advised always to carry some breadcrumbs in their pockets to offer them to the spirits. And although it might seem strange that incorporeal entities could desire something so mundane, in Celtic tradition bread represents life and is a usual way of achieving protection against fairies and other supernatural beings. [6]

Away with the fairies

In some stories of the Holy Company, the leader of the procession is a living person who unknowingly carries out his task every night. The only way of noticing it is an alarming pallor and an unexplained tiredness during the day. This nocturnal activity will cause his health to progressively deteriorate and he will encounter death unless he finds an incautious traveller to replace him. The living person who unknowingly joins the procession every night reminds us of the mortal who dances with fairies and falls ill with extreme tiredness and deadly pallor. In both cases, it was a way of explaining consumption or tuberculosis [7]

Unsurprisingly, this is not the only similitude between the Compaña and fairy lore. In his edited Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, W.B. Yeats associated Fairyland with the space between Heaven and Hell, exactly what Catholics labelled as Purgatory. Fairyland has its own late medieval evolution of the Wild Hunt, the Fairy Raed, a fairy cavalcade where souls are chased as prey. Variations on this theme are the Welsh legend of Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fair folk who harvests human souls, and the tale of King Herla, who, after visiting the court of a dwarf king as a guest to his wedding, discovers that he’s been gone for two centuries and must roam for all eternity.

Although the essential nature of fairies has been widely discussed, folklore sums up many ways of protection against them. Some tales recount interactions between the world of the living and the world of the fairies, which may end tragically, like King Herla. The moral of such stories is that both worlds are meant to be kept separate, keeping an order imposed by Nature or God.

From Persephone’s journey to Hades to Back to the Future, oral tradition, folklore and storytelling tell us that when a living person encounters an Otherworld, it is very important not to alter that dimension in any way. Speaking to the inhabitants of the other realm or even interacting with material objects can prove fatal. This moral teaching also comes across in the popular legend known as Misa de las Ánimas (“mass of the souls”), closely related to the Compaña. The story begins with someone who walks around deserted town paths late at night, seeing a glowing light through the windows of a church –abandoned or not. When he walks into the church he discovers that a mass is being celebrated. He joins in, and at some point he discovers that it is none other than a ghostly assembly, presided over by a ghostly priest and attended by the souls of those who inhabit Purgatory. In some versions of the story, the intruder might even recognise the faces of the departed. But he must not interact with them, and he must take care not to take anything from the church, not even holy water, for if he does, he’ll never return to the world of the living.

But there are many tricks to chase ingenuous souls. The Compaña might occasionally have a banquet by the graveyard, perhaps the only rest permitted after so much walking. Any person who passes by will be offered food or drink. As we’ve learned, accepting anything from them is a fatal error that will lead to eternal doom. Avoiding interaction or pretending to be eating are the best ways to escape a fatal conclusion. [8]

But the most amicable side of the legend of the Holy Company suggests that those who left and those who stay can, and must, help each other. This is especially obvious in some popular practises that don’t exactly tie in with the most orthodox Catholicism, but that still persist in some Spanish homes. They involve asking the souls of Purgatory to wake the sleeper at a certain time in the morning, in exchange for a prayer for their salvation. This strange rite would involve being woken up by a soft, other-worldly voice calling the name of the solicitor –an uncanny, yet it seems, acceptable substitute for an alarm clock.

Like other Saturnian myths, the Compaña serves a social, vital function, ultimately connected with rituals of passage. The living and the dead help each other in the transit to the great beyond: the living pray for the dead to find their way, the dead come back to guide the dying. The underlying concept is clear: the journey to the Otherworld is not easy, and we must be prepared for it.

First published in Fortean Times no. 312
Alex Tomlinson's illustration for Fortean Times

Alex Tomlinson‘s illustration for Fortean Times


[1] Cape Finisterre, Land’s End for the Galicians, was the starting point of the last transit of the souls according to Pagan beliefs. Although Corcubión is 12 kilometres further East, it’s also part of the so-called Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death, a name probably related to these pre-Christian rites.

[2] See Brujería, estructura social y simbolismo en Galicia. Carmelo Lisón Tolosana. Accessed through GoogleBooks.

[3] See Constantino Cabal. Los dioses de la muerte. La mitología asturiana. Accessed through GoogleBooks.

[4] See Claude Lecouteux, Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead. Inner Traditions.

[5] See Aurelio de Llano Roza de Ampudia, Del Folclore Asturiano. Talleres de Voluntad.

[6] See Peter Narváez (ed). The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. Accessed through GoogleBooks.

[7] See Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Random House.

[8] See Vítor Vaqueiro, Galicia mágica. Accessed through GoogleBooks.