Wood-wives, Protectors of the Forest
The wood-wives of folklore are known by many different names depending on the popular local tradition; green woman, skoggra, skogsfru – wood-wife, wish wife, wood maid and wood women. They were believed to fall into the same fairy folk class as elves, dwarves and spirits and to dwell deep in the heart of the ancient forests. They seem to have had a similar role to the dryads of ancient Greek myths, in that their lives were intertwined with the health of the forest. It was said that if the stem of a young tree was twisted until the bark was ripped off a wood-wife would die.
As with their name their appearance can change according to which tradition you are reading. In German folklore, the wood-wives are described as beautiful tiny creatures, with pale skin and long flowing gowns of green, red and blue. The appearance of the wood-wife bears close semblance to descriptions given of a female spirit which was believed to haunt the woods and forests of Sweden; the Skogsra. The Skogsra was also of a diminutive stature, beautiful dressed and friendly except towards hunters who regarded a meeting with the Skogsra as bad luck. This is probably down to the fact that in place of fingernails she had claws and disliked hunters in her forest. The only way to placate her was to give her a portion of their catch or kill.
The wood-wives were mainly associated with Southern Germany and it was believed that prior to the introduction of Christianity, they were attendees at the court of the old gods, whose thrones were held between the branches of the trees.
It was said that wood-wives would often be attracted to the smell of baking coming from the houses in and around the forest. They would approach and ask for a cake to be baked for them. Sometimes they would appear with a tiny broken wheelbarrow which they would ask to be fixed. On other occasions, a wood-wife would emerge from deep within the dense forest to eat from the woodcutters’ cooking pot. If met with welcome, she would leave wood chips in payment which would eventually turn into gold coins. These coins would stay in their gold form as long as their source was never revealed.
There is another group of fairy folk which are often confused with wood-wives: these are the moss people. In many ways their behaviour is very similar to the wood-wives, especially in regards to their connection to the forest. The major difference, as you can imagine from their name, is their appearance, in which they more resemble dwarves. They are also known as wild-folk or forest-folk or in reference to the young females of their race, wood-maidens. In some stories they are portrayed as small, about the size of young child and as “grey and old-looking, with their bodies hideously overgrown with moss, giving them a hairy appearance“ and in others as tiny moss-covered creatures, with small wings on their backs. The females are said to wear cocked hats and dresses of green, faced with red.
A vivid description can be found in the poem or song The Moss Woman and the Widow in The Fairy Family, a collection of German folkloric ballads.
As with their wood-wife cousins, the moss people would often approach humans for assistance. They might ask for human breast milk for their young or to borrow items but would always leave generous gifts or impart helpful advice in return, getting extremely angry if their gift is refused. They seem to have developed a reputation as healers, tending to sick animals and were also known for helping humans with their tasks for which they were given some form of payment in the shape of a bowl of porridge or bread, but only plain bread. They seem to have had a particular loathing for caraway bread. The leaving of caraway bread would infuriate the moss people who would complain bitterly, “caraway bread, our death” . Confusingly enough they were seen as being responsible for causing plagues whilst also helping people find medicinal herbs to heal the sick during times of extreme suffering.
Their fickleness of behaviour is common to most tales of fairy folk. This duality can be compared to the power of nature, which is sometimes benevolent and sometimes destructive.
Germanic folklore also refers to a certain type of wood-wife known as a Dirne-weibl who lived in the forests of Bavaria. She was usually dressed in white but in one forest was said to wear a red gown and walk the forest carrying a basket of apples which she happily gives away and which if taken, turns to gold. She will often ask that person to accompany her and if she is refused, she returns to the wood weeping. It seems that wood-wives spend a good part of their lives crying, so much so that the phrase ‘you cry like a wood-wife’ became a common saying in Germany. Often used as a rebuke to a anyone who became upset over nothing. Jacob Grim wrote a great deal about fairy folk and included a story about how when he had lost his way, he was helped by a wood-wife who he had discovered wailing beside a stream. .
Unfortunately, the lives of both the wood-wives and the moss people could be far from pleasant. There is a German superstition that on Ash Wednesday the Devil hunts wood-wives for sport but it is the Wild Huntsman who is their true enemy. For some reason they seem to have incurred his wrath. The wood-wives could save themselves from the Wild Huntsman if they could find a tree with a cross cut into it. They would then be able to dive into the centre of the tree and sit there secure and safe until the hunt was over. There is evidence that woodcutters in Germany at one time, would also cut three crosses into the bark of felled trees in order to aid the little wood-wives of whom they were fond of. There is one rather gruesome tale of a man who had joined the Wild Hunt and as a reward had found a quarter of a wood-wife hanging on his stable door. .
Another story very similar to that of the Wild Huntsman relates to a different spectral hunter known as the Grönjette. He hunted in the wood of Grünewald on the island of Möen and also specialised in tracking and killing wood-wives. A story is told of him having been seen with a dead wood-wife hanging over his horse, to which enquiring look he replied, “Seven years I had chased her, now in Falster, I have slain her” .
The Fury of the Wild Hunt
The question then arises, who is this Wild Huntsman who brims with hatred and desires the blood of little fairy folk. The Wild Hunt was first written about by the German folklorist Jacob Grim. In Germany the Wild Hunt is also called the Wild Army or Furious Army. Grim wrote that Wodan, the god of the wind and the dead had originally been credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He believed that under the ancient gods the hunt had been viewed by mortals as an act of benevolence on the part of their deities seeking to reward their devotions and accepting their offerings. It was only with the rise of Christianity which aimed to overthrow and disparage any pagan practices which obstructed the control of the Church that the hunt changed from that of a “solemn march of the gods” to being “a pack of horrid spectres dashed with dark and devilish ingredients”  and with it Wodan, “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power…a spectre and a devil.” .
The association of the hunt with ancient gods survived longer in the Scandinavian countries where the Viking traditions were deeply rooted in its people’s consciousness, here Odin is given the title of Wild Huntsman.
In Germany where the legend of the Wild Hunt was popularised, there are many variations in the folkloric tale of the Hunt and its origins. Here the Wild Huntsman was sometimes referred to as either Wodan; as entities based on the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg or as undead nobles whose irreligious deeds in life together with their fanatical love of hunting condemned them to hunt forever as souls transformed into demonic spectres.
Cursed By Heaven
In Southern Germany, the main realm of the wood-wives, one of the most popular tales tells of how in 1521, the Chief Master of the Hounds to the Duke of Brunswick, Hans von Hackelnberg lying on his death bed refused to listen to the parson’s speech regarding his entry to heaven. Hackelnberg scoffed and replied “The Lord may keep His Heaven, so he leave me my hunting”. To which the frustrated parson answered “Hunt then to the day of judgement”. Doomed to lead a never-ending hunt in the forests of Lower Saxony, he is accompanied by a night owl which locals called Tutosel. Tutosel was believed to have been a nun who after her death for some reason decided to join Hackelnberg on his infernal rampage. His approach is heralded by the baying of hounds and the sounds of carriages and horses.
Another Huntsman’s legend from Saxony concerns a rich and powerful prince who loved hunting beyond all things and punished severely anyone who broke his forest rules. A boy who had taken a piece of bark from one of the trees to make a whistle was on the prince’s orders killed and his entrails wrapped around the tree. On another occasion he had a peasant fastened to a stag that the man had shot at. This cruel prince was finally killed when he broke his neck riding into a beech tree. Now cursed, he can never stop hunting. He has been seen wearing armour, riding a white horse, cracking his whip and followed by a swarm of hounds. His war cry of “Wod, wod, hoho, hallo I” strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear him. He is said to hunt all manner of beasts and humans including witches, thieves, robbers and murderers.
Sometimes the Wild Huntsman would stop and speak with passers-by. In one tale, Eberhart, the Count of Wurtenberg heard the sound of the ghastly hunt approach. He then meets the demonic Wild Huntsman who tells him how he came to be damned. He hears how the Huntsman when alive could never satiate his lust for hunting and prayed that when he died, he would be allowed to hunt until the Day of Judgement. His prayer was granted but as with all such wishes that go against the natural order of things, it came at a price and for nearly 500 years, he has been hunting a stag that he can never overtake. Eberhart said that the Huntsman’s face was as “wrinkled as a sponge” .
Wood-wives versus The Huntsman
There are many such tales about the Huntsman and his Hunt, his origins and the people that crossed his path. Sometimes the encounter ended well and on occasion through either luck or shrewdness they would be rewarded with gold and silver. Sadly, in many cases, they were not so fortunate. The same can be said for the unlucky wood-wives that were unable to reach the safety of a cross engraved tree. Maybe the reason for this antagonism was that they stood for polar opposites beliefs. The wood-wives protected the forest; the animals and the trees. There are even stories of huntsmen found with their throats cut, a gruesome act which was attributed to the anger of the wood-wives towards those who threatened the balance of nature. At the other extreme the Wild Huntsman epitomised the power and the unremitting fury of the hunt and the bloodthirsty need to destroy.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore, Theresa Bane, 2016
Beware the Vengeful Wood-wives, https://www.vampires.com/beware-the-vengeful-wood-wives/
Moss People, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moss_people
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Alexander Porteous, 2002 (originally published in 1928)
Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grim, 2010 (originally published in 1835)
Wild Huntsman Legends, ed. D.L. Ashliman, https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/huntsman.html
The Wild Hunt, https://norse-mythology.org/the-wild-hunt/
Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People, https://www.heathenhof.com/spirits-forests-moss-people/
Wild Hunt, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt
Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilisation, Hans Peter Duerr, 1985
The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath, R.E. Hutton, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2014.896968