Peter Nicolai Arbo’s monumental painting The wild Hunt of Odin is based on a mix of Norse mythology and archaeology and contemporary national romantic poetry, above all Johan Sebastian Welhaven’s poem of the same name, whose opening line is “Through the nightly air stampedes a train of frothing black horses.” Folklorist Peter Christen Asbjørnsen had also written several articles about the myth of the Wild Hunt of Odin, and it seems fairly certain that Arbo, with his interest in history, would have known of these writings. The Wild Hunt was a procession of the Norse gods hurtling across the sky and spreading terror in the midwinter. The restless souls of the dead were part of this company, which according to Norwegian tradition was headed by the hero Sigurd Fåvnesbane (Sigurd the Dragon-slayer) with the troll witch Gyro Rysserova (Gudrun Horse-tail) serving as the rear guard. Those who had failed to properly hide themselves before the hunt careered over them could easily be stolen away by the hunters.
Arbo’s painting (of which there are several variants) includes a host of supernatural beings, which along with the landscape elements are depicted with convincing realism. The celestial hunters pour forth above a desolate, moonlit landscape, followed by the ravens of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, while the war god Thor thunders ahead, hammer in hand, in his goat-led chariot. The picture’s apocalyptic atmosphere and dramatic composition takes some of its cues from romanticism, such as in the contrast between life and death, light and shadow, and nearness and distance. As conveyed through Welhaven’s poem and Arbo’s painting, it is not hard to envision the Wild Hunt as a raucous, terrifying procession.
Text: Ellen J. Lerberg
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0