(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend, American West, Apollo, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Cap Watts, Children of Bodom, Cowboy, Die Apokalyptischen Reiter, Frankie Laine, Gene Autry, Ghost Riders, Gwynup Nudd, Herder, Hermes, Hunter, Impaled Nazarene, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Northern Europe, Odin, Pastoralist, Peggy Lee, Riders on the Storm, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Stampede Mesa, Stan Jones, Teutonic, The Doors, The Ramrods, Theodric the Great, Valdemar Atterdag, Vaughn Monroe, Wild Hunt, Wilde Jagd, Wod, Woden
Folklore is about translating collective primal fears into tangible narratives. That is how thunderstorms become phantom armies thundering across the heavens, and the wolves in the misty forest become lycanthropes lusting for human flesh. We are warning ourselves about the real or imagined nightmares that civilization just barely holds at bay. The Gallic/Teutonic mythology of “The Wild Hunt” (German = Wilde Jagd) has been repeated in numerous cultures and regions (Wales, Cornwall, England, Northern France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Galicia) and “is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. It’s most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history” (Berk & Spytma, 2002). The basics are usually the same – a mounted host of ghostly horsemen (led by a locally important figure: Woden, Theodric the Great, Valdemar Atterdag, Gwynup Nudd) and hounds charging across the sky in pursuit of quarry, portending catastrophe, and often scooping up the souls of those unfortunate enough to witness them to join their mad chase.
The majority of folklorists who examine the ancient myth of “The Wild Hunt” identify an American version in the cowboy folktales of ghost riders in the sky over the American West, best represented by “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” , a song written by Stan Jones in 1948, and originally recorded by Burl Ives (listen to the original recording, track 1 at http://archive.org/details/Burl-Ives-11-20) to the melody of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, based on a campfire story told to him by an old cowboy named Cap Watts on the Slaughter Ranch in Cochise County, Arizona when he was 12 years old, covered over the years by The Outlaws (for their rock version, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmpvpypXKf0), Vaughn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Marty Robbins, The Ramrods, Johnny Cash, Peggy Lee, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Gene Autry, Children of Bodom, Impaled Nazarene, and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter, and thought to have inspired The Door’s “Riders on the Storm.” The song is thought to be one of the most recorded Western songs in history.
An old cowboy went ridin’ out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
Plowin’ through the ragged skies, and up a cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire, and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders comin’ hard, and he heard their mournful cry
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost herd in the sky
Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred their shirts all soaked with sweat
They’re ridin’ hard to catch that herd, but they ain’t caught ’em yet’
‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire, as they ride on, hear their cry
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost riders in the sky
As the riders loped on by him, he heard one call his name
“If you want to save your soul from hell a riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today, or with us you will ride
Tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd, across these endless skies”
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
(“Ghost Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend”, Lyrics by Stan Jones, 1948)
Folklorists generally believe that the story that Stan Jones was told was a version of a Texan legend surrounding events at Stampede Mesa in Crosby County, Texas in 1889.
Early in the fall of ’89 an old cowman named Sawyer came through with a trail herd of fifteen hundred head of steers, threes and fours. While he was driving across Dockum Flats one evening, some six or seven miles east of the mesa, about forty-odd head of nester cows came bawling into the herd. Closely flanking them, came the nester, demanding that his cattle be cut out of the herd. Old Sawyer, who was ‘as hard as nails,’ was driving short handed; he had come far; his steers were thin and he did not want them ‘ginned’ about any more. Accordingly, he bluntly told the nester to go to hell.
The nester was pretty nervy, and seeing that his little stock of cattle was being driven off, he flared up and told Sawyer that if he did not drop his cows out of the herd before dark he would stampede the whole bunch. “At this Sawyer gave a kind of dry laugh, drew out his six shooter, and squinting down it at the nester, told him to ‘vamoose.’
Nightfall found the herd straggling up the east slope of what on the morrow would be christened by some cowboy Stampede Mesa. Midnight came, and with scarcely half the usual night guard on duty, the herd settled down in peace.
But the peace was not to last. True to his threat, the nester, approaching from the north side, slipped through the watch, waved a blanket a few times, and shot his gun. He did his work well. All of the herd except about three hundred head stampeded over the bluff on the south side of the mesa, and two of the night herders, caught in front of the frantic cattle that they were trying to circle, went over with them.
“Sawyer said but little, but at sunup he gave orders to bring in the nester alive, horse and all. The orders were carried out, and when the men rode up on the mesa with their prisoner, Sawyer was waiting. He tied the nester on his horse with a rawhide lariat, blindfolded the horse, and then, seizing him by the bits, backed him off the cliff. There were plenty of hands to drive Sawyer’s remnant now. Somewhere on the hillside they buried, in their simple way, the remains of their two comrades, but they left the nester to rot with the pile of dead steers in the canyon.
And now old cowpunchers will tell you that if you chance to be about Stampede Mesa at night, you can hear the nester calling his cattle, and many assert that they have seen his murdered ghost, astride a blindfolded horse, sweeping over the headlands, behind a stampeding herd of phantom steers. Herd bosses are afraid of those phantom steers, and it is said that every herd that has been held on the mesa since that night has stampeded, always from some unaccountable cause (Dobie, J. Frank, 1924, p.282-283)
Consider the possibility that the identification of the American mythology of the “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the ancient “Wild Hunt” results from our modern tendency to seek out ultimate, converging historical origins, to validate the significance of a particular myth by reference to older, universal parent traditions. This makes a certain amount of sense as the social sciences are especially interested in our shared humanity. While there are undeniably superficial similarities between “The Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “The Wild Hunt”, it may be that enthusiastically regarding the ghost riders as a recapitulation of an important and specific Teutonic mythology involves confounding the distinctly different mythologies of warriors, hunters, and herders. The “Wild Hunt” falls firmly in a symbolic complex of warrior-hunter mythology, whereas “The Ghost Riders in the Sky” is more likely rooted in a herder mythology. Both mythological complexes may very well derive from primal explanations for the cacophonous majesty of thunderstorms ripping across the landscape, equating it with the sound of stampeding people, horses, and herd animals, as storms, while natural, can be unnatural in their fearsomeness and wanton destruction, but as they say, the devil is in the details. The difference between the hunter and the herder (pastoralist), both ecologically and culturally, is significant. The hunter follows, “where the hunt leads them, without fixed destination. If the hunt takes them in a given direction they continue to get further apart. It is this which accounts for the fact that peoples who speak the same language are sometimes found separated by distances of over six hundred leagues, and are surrounded by people who don’t understand them” (Turgot, 1844, p.629), as contrasted with herders and pastoral peoples who “with their subsistence more abundant and secure, are more populous. They become familiar with the spirit of property. This tendency is increased in the agricultural stage” (Harris, 1968, p.29). Obviously, with an increased emphasis on individual property rights, we would also see an increasing tendency in folk narratives to emphasize more legalistic concepts of justice. In the “Wild Hunt” we see an emphasis on the chase, a headlong rush of ghostly riders after an elusive quarry with no particular destination. An extremely early European version of the Wild Hunt associated with Wod (or as we know him, Odin), captures the furious, indiscriminate nature of the tradition.
The dogs of the air often bark on a dark night on the heath, in the woods, or at a crossroads. Country dwellers know their leader Wod and pity the traveler who has not yet reached home, for Wod is often malicious, seldom kind. The rough huntsman spares only those who remain in the middle of the path. Therefore he often calls out to travelers, “In the middle of the path!” One night a drunk peasant was returning home from town. His path led him through the woods. There he heard the wild hunt with the huntsman shouting at his noisy dogs high in the air. A voice called out, “In the middle of the path! In the middle of the path!” But the peasant paid no attention to it. Suddenly a tall man on a white horse bolted from the clouds and approached him. “How strong are you?” he said. “Let’s have a contest. Here is a chain. Take hold of it. Who can pull the hardest?” Undaunted, the peasant took hold of the heavy chain, and the huntsman remounted. Meanwhile the peasant wrapped his end of the chain around a nearby oak tree, and the huntsman pulled in vain. “You wrapped your end around the oak tree,” said Wod, dismounting. “No,” responded the peasant, quickly undoing the chain. “See, here it is in my hands.” “I’ll have you in the clouds!” cried the huntsman and remounted. The peasant quickly wrapped the chain around the oak tree once again, and once again Wod pulled in vain. Up above the dogs barked, the wagons rolled, and the horses neighed. The oak tree creaked at its roots and seemed to twist itself sideways. The peasant was terrified, but the oak tree stood. “You have pulled well!” said the huntsman. “Many men have become mine. You are the first who has withstood me. I will reward you.” The hunt proceeded noisily, “Halloo! Halloo!” The peasant crept along his way. Then suddenly, from unseen heights, a groaning stag fell before him. Wod appeared and jumped from his white horse. He hurriedly cut up the game. “The blood is yours,” he said to the peasant, “and a hind quarter as well.” “My lord,” said the peasant, “your servant has neither a bucket nor a pot.” “Pull off your boot!” cried Wod. He did it. “Now take the blood and the meat to your wife and child.” At first his fear lightened the burden, but gradually it became heavier and heavier until he was barely able to carry it. With a crooked back and dripping with sweat he finally reached his hut, and behold, his boot was filled with gold, and the hind quarter was a leather bag filled with silver coins (“Wod, The Wild Huntsman – Germany”, Colshorn, 1854, p192-193).
A version of the Wild Hunt from the Netherlands captures the soul-retrieval aspect common in many Wild Hunt legends.
The concubine of an ecclesiastic having died, the night after her decease, as a soldier and his comrades were riding through a forest, they were surprised at hearing a woman’s voice crying for help. Shortly after they saw the woman running towards them. One of the soldiers then descending from his horse, made a circle round himself on the earth with his sword, into which he drew the woman. Immediately after they heard a fearful noise in the air, like that of many huntsmen and dogs, at which the woman trembled violently. But the soldier, giving his horse to one of his comrades, took hold of the woman’s long tresses and wound them round his left arm, while in his right hand he held his sword stretched out before him. When the wild hunt drew nigh, the woman whispered to the soldier, “Ride without me, ride without me, there he comes.” The soldier, however, continued holding her fast by the hair, but she tore herself away and fled, leaving her long tresses in his hand. But the huntsman soon caught her and threw her across his saddle, so that her head and arms hung down on one side, and her legs on the other. Next morning, when he entered the town, the soldier related his adventure and showed the hair on his arm. The people at first would not believe him, but went and opened the coffin, and there found the body lying without hair (“Wild Hunt folktale from the Netherlands”, Thorpe, 1852, p.218-219).
Transitioning from hunter to herder invariably involves a symbolic transformation in respect to food animals. Whereas the hunter regards the prey with a measure of respect, and awareness of its sacrifice, herder mythology tends towards to commodification of the herd animal. It is a resource, not an honored brother or sister. At its core, The Wild Hunt is about furious pursuit and competition between man and nature. In the American West, folktales about Ghost Riders and their spectral herds are far removed from this symbolism. As the Story of Stampede Mesa exemplifies, the ghost rider and his stampeding cattle are re-enacting frontier justice eternally in retribution for a violation of the social norms of cattle-herding, and we even see the amalgamation of the Christian theology of condemnation to Hell if one does not reform their ways consistent with the social order of the time. The symbolic references of the Ghost Riders have more in common with Herme’s theft of the Cattle of the Sun from Apollo than with Odin’s Hunt. While the Wild Hunt is indiscriminate, simply sweeping up souls that are foolish enough to cross its path, the Ghost Rider traditions are about vengeance or punishment for wrongdoing.
Whether the Ghost Riders are a re-enactment of the Wild Hunt or not, if you happen to be travelling in the American West, see the storm rolling in, and here the cries of “Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay!”, get out of their path, and consider reforming your ways, cowboy.
Berk, Ari & Spytma, William. “Penance, Power, and Pursuit: On the Trail of the Wild Hunt”. Realms of Fantasy Magazine, 2002.
Colshorn, Carl & Colshorn, Theodor. Der wilde Jäger, Märchen und Sagen aus Hannover. Hannover, 1854.
Dobie, J. Frank. “Folklore of the Southwest”. Chronicles of Oklahoma 2:3 (September), 1923.
Harris, Marvin. The Rise of Anthropological Theory. New York: Crowell & Company, 1968.
Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands, vol. 3. London: Edward Lumley, 1852.
Turgot, A.R.J. Plan de Deux Discours sur l’Historie Universelle. Original 1750. Translation, 1844.