“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” – Niels Bohr

The ruins of Castle Rodenstein.

Some people don’t think of German as a particularly sonorous language.  This is silly, particularly when you can open a story with, “Deep in the Odenwald, nestled in the mountainous uplands of the Kurfürstentum von der Pfalz, a historical territory whose imperial vicars were ranked among the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, lay the crumbling ruins of Castles Rodenstein and Schnellert”.  Positively melodious in comparison to “Once upon a time in 14th Century Germany”.  Now, ruined castles in the Odenwald are fairly common, including the infamous Frankenstein Castle and this is largely because aristocratic feuds that escalated into full-blown neighborhood warfare were a popular pastime in the Sacrum Romanum Imperium, which by the 14th Century was a limited elective monarchy, largely composed of hundreds of sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, and other domains that competitively viewed each other with varying degrees of suspicion.  Sadly, for your average knight who liked a good dust up, by 1356 the Papal “Golden Bull” that institutionalized a lot of the constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman Empire, the ascendance of a politically significant bourgeoisie class, and an interregnum of relative peace left those with a predilection for the traditional violent squabbling in a relative state of idleness.  The solution, of course, if you can’t be a war-mongering monster in life, is to assure yourself a place in the afterlife as a spectral hooligan and perennial harbinger of conflict.  Such was the eternal fate of one Hans von Rodenstein, a fate related to his erstwhile noble drinking buddy (or possibly his mortal enemy) Weiprecht von Schnellert, although the circumstances under which Rodenstein secured himself a ticket to the immortal and phantasmagoric Wilde Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) that periodically thunders through the Odenwald is a matter of some dispute.

In the 14th Century, the respective estates of the two knights Rodenstein and Schnellert were separated by a mere 8 kilometers in the centrally located Fränkisch-Crumbach region of the Odenwald, which is a forested set of low mountains that cuts across the modern German states of Hesse, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.  Surprisingly, there is a great deal of controversy among folklorists and historians as to how the Odenwald got its name which are even more surprisingly, germane to our story.  Literalists argue that it simply means “Odin’s Woods”, which would seem to end the questions, except that Odin is the god’s Norse appellation, whereas his Teutonic name was Wotan, particularly in Southern Germany, but further complicated by the fact that in Old High German, it may have been “Uuodan”.  That sounded reasonable until some joker pointed out the area was the Roman Empire’s administrative unit of Civitas Auderiensium (named for the local barbarian Auderienses tribe).  Let’s face it, history is a game of academic one upsmanship, so others waded into the fray, helpfully noting that in German, “öde” initially meant “thinly settled”; that the Old High German expression “odan” meant to give land in return for a pledge of service (and the Odenwald was thusly given to the Bishopric of Worms in 628 A.D. by King of the Franks Dagobert I); and a 16th century geographer and troublemaker named Sebastian Münster threw out the possibility that it was simply a reference to an old local chief named Odo (hence “Odo’s Wood”).

Why do we care?  Slow down cowpoke, give a guy a minute to explain himself.  The reason we’ve taken an obsessive-compulsive detour into the etymology of the Odenwald name is that from roughly the 14th-18th Century, the little tract of land between Castle Rodenstein and Castle Schnellert has been host to periodic visitations in the form of a “Wild Hunt”, a folkloric tradition identified by Jacob Grimm  as common throughout Northern, Western, and Central Europe involving occasional raucous visitations of a supernatural host of hunters that occasionally can be heard or observed in frenzied pursuit of elusive quarry.  The Wild Hunt motif has very close association with Odin (or more broadly, the Proto-Germanic Wōđanaz).  So you see Sparky, it’s a “chicken or egg” thing.  Was Wotan “wild-hunting” through the Odenwald before it was the Odenwald?  If the area was already predisposed to such shenanigans, Rodenstein was simply carrying on a bold historical tradition, or became the latest assignee to lead the charge, a position he has been associated with since at least the close of the 14th Century.

Many persons will have heard of the “Wild Troop of Rodenstein”, but few are aware of the curious amount of evidence there is in favour of the strange belief which prevails amongst the inhabitants of that region. The story goes, that the former possessor of the Castle of Rodenstein and Schnellert, were robbers and pirates, who committed, in conjunction, all manner of enormities; and that, to this day, the troop, with their horses and carriages and dogs are heard, every now and then, wildly rushing along the road betwixt the two castles. This sounds like a fairy tale; yet so much was it believed, that up to the middle of the last century regular reports were made to the authorities in the neighbourhood, of the periods when the troop had passed. Since that, the Landgericht or Court Leet, has been removed to Furth, and they trouble them-selves no longer about the Rodenstein Troop; but a traveller named Wirth, who a few years ago undertook to examine into the affair, declares the people assert that the passage of the visionary cavalcade still continues; and they assured him that certain houses that he saw lying in ruins, were in that state, because, as they lay directly in the way of the troop, they were uninhabitable. There is seldom anything seen, but the sound of carriage wheels, horses feet, smacking of whips, blowing of horns, and the voice of these fierce hunters of men urging them on, are the sounds by which they recognize that the troop is passing from one castle to the other; and at a spot which was formerly a blacksmith’s, but is now a carpenter’s, the invisible Lord of Rodenstein still stops to have his horse shod. Mr. Wirth copied several of the depositions out of the court records, and they are brought down to June 1764. This is certainly a strange story (Crowe, 1848, p316-218).  

Now, the broad brush strokes by which this supernatural cavalcade is explained reference the fact that Rodenstein and Schnellert were idle and dissolute nobility who longed for the good old days of heavy drinking and wantonly bashing people’s head in, finding themselves karmically doomed to continue their depredations in a phantom form long after they had reached their expiration dates, but the details of how they achieved their spectral status vary rather widely.  As most tales of woe evince, the common thread among the extant back stories involve a woman.  Elector Palatine “Old Rupert” (1309-1390), or alternatively Rupert “the Red” was not a woman, but our story starts with him.  Following his brother’s death in 1353, Rupert inherited the entire Palatine of the Rhine which he administered from his capital in Heidelberg, and while he devoted a great deal of time and treasure in support of scientific endeavors (founding the University of Heidelberg), but knew he needed to gratify the chivalrous inclinations of his noble subjects, who longed for the more free-wheeling days of crushing folk’s skulls with abandon.  He proclaimed his desire to host a knightly tournament and consequently, the aristocracy flocked to his Heidelberg Palace from Neckar, Odenwald, and the trans-rhenane Palatinate, eager to showcase their martial skills and break a few bones.

Hans von Rodenstein was not the last to present himself at the festival. There had been a long interval of peace and he was weary of the tedious life he led in his secluded castle, which lay buried in a woody nook in the Odenwald, where his only diversion by day consisted in chasing the stags and boars that abounded in the mighty forests, which stretch as far as Krumbach and Erbach to Reichelsheim and the Malchenberg, and in drowning the hours of night by drinking and carousing with his wild companions. The knight was of a reckless and violent character, he had been reared amid feuds and the excitements of war. Huntsmen and warriors had been his only companions since the premature loss of his parents; and he now drew towards the close of an uncontrolled and irregular youth without ever having experienced the influence of gentler feelings (Reumont, 1838, p346-347).

The fairest maiden of Rupert’s consort was selected to present the victory garlands to the tournaments winner.  This stunning beauty was the lovely Lady Maria von Hochberg, and when introduced to young Rodenstein, a man who had never felt the blush of love, he fell head over heels for her, thusly determining to win the tournament’s prize of valor and possibly her resulting favor.  Dude, been there.  Rodenstein resoundingly dominated the tournament, but more importantly seemed to all to be changed man, eschewing his former pastimes of drinking, carousing, and fighting and immersing himself in romance.  His vassals celebrated the day that He rode through the gate of Castle Rodenstein with his blushing new bride Maria von Hochberg at his side.  The domestic bliss was short-lived.  Rodenstein quickly returned to his former ways, hanging around with his profligate buddies and spending more time away from home and hearth.  One day, having received an insult from his neighbor the Lord of Schnellert, Rodenstein declared that it could only be washed away in blood, and over the now pregnant Maria’s desperate protestations, assembled his men-at-arms and sallied forth to attack Castle Schnellert.

On arriving at the hamlet of Oberkriesbach, the party determined to halt till the night came definitely on. The men-at-arms concealed themselves in the cottages; and the moody chief, retiring to an empty barn, endeavoured to relieve the turbulence of his feelings by striding rapidly up and down through the gloom. As the shadows of evening thickened around, they seemed to weigh upon his very heart. He gasped for breath. The silence was preternatural. He would have rejoined his companions, but was withheld by some mysterious influence, which he in vain endeavoured to refer to “My wife! My wife!’ cried the knight, as a sudden pang shot like lightning through his soul. A wild shriek rose in the distance, and Rodenstein rushed in horror out of the building. It was almost dark. The night-wind was beginning to rise, and the battling clouds drove in heavy masses along the sky. It was the hour when, according to old tradition, the spirits of the forest held their mystic carnival; and the knight, as he fled towards the cottages, could not refrain from turning his head in the direction. “Baron of Rodenstein!” cried a distant voice at the same moment. His heart quaked at the sound—for it was like the voice of his wife! A human figure, the outlines of which he could not distinctly perceive, was approaching in the gloom. “No!” exclaimed he with a gasp, as a faint beam of the struggling moon revealed the black garments of the comer—” It is phantasy! Wherefore do I fly? Fiend though it should prove, there is but one! What, ho! who comes ?”—and he drew his sword, and kissed the cross on the handle.   “It is I!” said the voice; and his wife, dressed in black garments, stood before him. “Maria” stammered the knight, while he felt his blood freezing in his veins, “What would you? Why come you? Speak!” “I have brought the heir of his house,” she replied, “to the lord of Rodenstein” and, raising her mantle, she showed him a dead infant that lay upon her dead arm. “Man of blood !” continued the phantom, ” Thou whom nor love nor pity could stay in thy career, go, finish thy destiny—slay and then be slain; but expect not to find peace even in the peaceful grave! Still shalt thou wander through the forest and climb the mountain; and the repose which thou hated when living shall be denied to thee when dead. Let it be thine to predict and herald the war thou canst not join. I give thee the far sight of the bird of prey, and the keen scent of the blood-hound. Be thou unto the people as a prophet and a forerunner of evil for ever—the angel of desolation and death!” (Ricthie, 1833, p61-62).

That’s a tough break-up.  And driven mad, Rodenstein is said to have then assaulted Castle Schnellert, the defenders of whom had already been alerted by the ruckus, and the attackers, including Rodenstein, were slain to the last man.  The very next night, it seems that Maria’s condemnation took effect.

The neighbouring convent bells had scarcely tolled twelve upon the following midnight, ere the inhabitants of the Odenwald were aroused from their slumbers and struck with consternation, by the most hideous and extraordinary apparitions. Frightful noises and howlings arose around and over the Rodenstein. A spectre horseman with a ghastly countenance, like that of the slaughtered knight, was seen scudding wildly through the air, mounted upon a coal black steed whose nostrils snorted fire and whose hoofs rung with the dire echo of rolling thunder. At his heels came a thousand hellish fiends of horrid and fantastic shapes, some half resembling men, some beasts, some dogs, who pursued him, until the crowing of the village cocks announced the approach of day (Reumont, 1838, p347).

Of course, there are more charitable and patriotic depictions of Hans von Rodenstein that credit him with a far more sedate corporeal lifestyle and a decidedly more altruistic afterlife.  Odds are this is a more modern affectation, as Rodenstein was much more likely to be an avid supporter of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than Germany.

Lord of Rodenstein, a champion of the German fatherland; one who swore to fight for his country against all foes and to love it forever. Wishing to give his whole life to his country, he refused to marry, and lived in his castle quite alone; so there was no one to mourn for him when one day he vanished and failed to reappear. It was reported that he had been killed in battle, but the peasants insist that he did not die, but withdrew into the vaults of the castle, only to reappear when danger threatens his beloved fatherland. They declare that whenever a war has broken out a tramp of mailed steeds is heard in the ruins, and at nightfall a shadowy army, led by the Lord of Rodenstein, is seen sweeping across the sky in the direction from which the danger comes. As peace is proclaimed the ghostly band returns to Rodenstein, and re-enters the castle, singing a hymn of victory, there to lie quiet until another danger urges them forth to the defense of their country (Stieler, 1899, p199-200).

Charles Dickens similarly jotted down some notes on the Rodenstein legend in the Victorian weekly literary magazine he edited, suggesting that rather than mortal foes, Hans von Rodenstein and Weiprecht von Schnellert were lifelong pals and partners in nefarious crimes.

Not very far from Darmstadt are two ruined castles, of which one, called Rodenstein, perched on an eminence of moderate height, looks formidable enough with its array of ivy, wild roses, and so on ; whereas the other, called Schnellert, is almost ruined out of visible existence. Now, some seven hundred years ago, when both these edifices were in sound condition, the latter was occupied by Weiprecht von Schnellert, a young knight of proclivities so wild that he was known in the neighbourhood as Mad Wipert, while he had a counterpart in Hans von Rodenstein, another knight, who dwelt in the castle below. Richly endowed with vices of every description, with the exception of those failings that lean to virtue’s side, and very properly detested by all who knew them, these two brutal specimens of mediaeval chivalry were devotedly attached to each other, and, whether engaged in business or pleasure, they were rarely to be seen apart. Their business chiefly consisted in highway robbery, practised on travellers between Heidelberg and Frankfort; and their favourite amusement, when they had nothing more profitable to occupy their time, was to hit upon devices that would make the lives of their serfs as wretched as possible (Dickens, 1875, p593-594).

Dickens furthermore attributes the sad fate of Rodenstein and Schnellert to their condemnation by an old monk named Justin.  Justin had noted an instance of Rodenstein and Schnellert engaged in one of their typical pursuits of elaborately torturing animals, and subsequently refused to confess and absolve Schnellert.  When Justin later died, he was said to haunt Schnellert incessantly.  This was somewhat alarming.  Schnellert resolved to do something pious (where he could still bash some brains in) and joined the Second Crusade, quickly marrying off his sister Metchtild to his buddy Rodenstein, and leaving him in charge of his estates.  Years later, Schnellert returned with a fair Saracen bride (he was said to have converted to Islam in order to marry her) to find that Metchtild had died.  As he was obviously still a jerk, this didn’t bother him too much, but when he paid a visit to Rodenstein he was taken with Metchtild’s daughter, just as Rodenstein was enchanted by Schnellert’s Saracen wife.  In a disreputable arrangement, they swapped.  Eventually, the Bishop of Wurzburg determined that the two had simply gotten out of control and needed to pbe put down, dispatching an army under Masrhal Conrad von Bocksberg to administer an official smackdown.  The castles of Rodenstein and Schnellert were razed.  In their final moments, the two errant knights were said to have been contrite, and the specter of the monk Justin appeared to offer them a bone.  Sort of.

In a solemn voice he told them that, as they had given some signs of contrition in their last hours, mercy would be extended to them; and that, having learned what bodily pain was, they might close their eyes without the fear of incurring punishment in another world. A singular retribution was, however, in store for them. As by their marauding expeditions they had brought discord into peaceful valleys, it should be their office to appear as the heralds of any war that occurred in Germany to the end of time; their limbs would, on every occasion, be restored to their full vigour, and be animated by their souls; and, with the skeletons of their hounds, the two knights would hunt the animals they had tortured, which would likewise be restored to life, from Schnellert to Rodenstein. When a war approached its termination, they would again be seen returning to Schnellert (Dickens, 1875, p595).

As one can see in all versions of the tale, and in concert with many forms of the Wild Hunt mythology, the goings on of the deceased Lord of Rodenstein are said to be an excellent barometer of future war as well as a predictor of when peace breaks out.

His departure forbodes an impending war, or one already broken out, as his return does a concluded peace. From 29th of September, 1743, to June 11th, 1796, an efficient register was kept about this legend, and the protocols are said to have amounted to a large heap. The author of An Autumn on the Rhine gives some additional particulars, and the slight variation, that special battles are frequently foretold instead of the general warfare. About nine miles south-west from Erbach, between Weichelstein and Belstein, a wild and secluded district, surrounded by forests, lies the Castle of Rodenstein, the seat of that singular superstition, Der Wilde Jager, who, issuing from out the ruined walls of the neighbouring Schnellert, his usual abode, announces approach of war by traversing the air with a noisy armament, to the Castle of Rodenstein, situate on a mountain opposite. The strange noises heard on the eve of battles are authenticated by affidavits preserved in the Village of Weichelstein: some are of so recent a date as 1743 and 1796, and some persons affirm to have been convinced by their eyes as well as their ears. In this manner the people assert they were forewarned of the victories of Leipzig and Waterloo (Bell, 1852, p122-123).

It’s a bit disturbing to consider the possibility that the afterlife may very well involve an alternative form of employment, such as calculating the odds of geopolitical war and peace and publicizing the results.  I suppose that’s why the nicest thing we can offer the dead is the opportunity to rest in peace.  Luckily, Rodenstein’s eternal job should be relatively easy.  After all, it’s not hard to imagine that violence and strife will break out somewhere in the world continuously and consistently.  Frankly, he can pretty much head out on the Wild Hunt whenever he feels like it, and it won’t compromise his predictive credibility.  Nobody is really going to pay close attention anymore because as former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold said, “Nobody wants a prediction that the future will be more or less like the present, even if that is, statistically speaking, an excellent prediction”.

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