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Weird Norfolk County: King Arthur's Hunt
Apparitions I have known, or at least read about
In 1669 two intrepid Sulpician priests, Francois Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée, were sent up the lakes from Montreal on a missionary expedition to the Ottawas. They, along with seven companions, arrived at what is now Port Dover in October, and as the hunting was good, they opted to over-winter there. We know all this because de Galinée kept a journal, which is a great read. They killed and smoked deer and bear, gathered walnuts and chestnuts, made wine from wild grapes, and generally speaking spent an easy and contented winter. (I do think of them every time I stop at the Arbor for a foot-long hot dog).
After setting up a commemorative cross over-looking the lake and claiming the land for King Louis XIV, they broke camp on March 26, 1670, “the day after Annunciation.” As you may have guessed, this was a bit early in the season for happy canoeing along the Erie shore. The wind flummoxed them. After making only a few miles on the 26th, they pulled for shore and made camp for two days. But someone forgot to secure de Galinée’s canoe, which blew out into the lake and could not be retrieved. This was a mess, since now they had too much gear and too many men for the canoes in hand.
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They split into two parties, a canoe party and a land party, the land party setting off immediately. But then they hit what is now Big Creek, a labyrinth of marshes at its mouth, steep banks and deep spring freshets higher up. They struggled inland along the east bank looking for a ford or a convenient tree fall, but found none. Finally, they made camp for the night, deciding to retreat to the mouth the next day and build a raft. This is precisely when the most interesting thing happens. Here is de Galinée’s description.
We slept that night on the bank of this river, about two leagues from its mouth, and it was at this place that we heard towards the east voices that seemed to us to be of men calling to each other. We ran to the river bank to see if it was not our men looking for us, and at the same time we heard the same voices on the south side. We turned our heads in that direction, but at last were undeceived, hearing them at the same time towards the west, which gave us to understand that it was the phenomenon commonly called the hunting of Arthur. I have never heard it, nor have any of those who were of our company, which was the reason we were deceived by it.
The hunting of Arthur is a branch of an ancient north European story complex often called the Wild Hunt or der wilde Jäger. The nub of the myth is that some hunter, warrior, nobleman, or demigod commits an unpardonable sin and finds himself cursed to spend his days hunting in vain, despairing and alone.
Here are stanzas from “The Wild Huntsman” by Gottfried August Burger.
The Wildgrave flies o'er bush and thorn With many a shriek of helpless woe; Behind him hound and horse and horn, And, "Hark away, and holla, ho!" With wild despair's reverted eye, Close, close behind, he marks the throng, With bloody fangs and eager cry; In frantic fear he scours along. — Still, still shall last the dreadful chase Till time itself shall have an end; By day they scour earth's caverned space, At midnight's witching hour ascend. This is the horn and hound and horse That oft the lated peasant hears; Appalled he signs the frequent cross, When the wild din invades his ears. The wakeful priest oft drops a tear For human pride, for human woe, When at his midnight mass he hears The infernal cry of "Holla, ho!"
Usually, the Wild Huntsman hunts alone, except perhaps for a horse and a dog, but often his entourage expands into a host of warrior retainers (see the painting at the top of the post), and instead of those mournful hunting cries, lucky observers hear the clang of swords and battle axes, battle cries and the screams of the wounded and dying men. There is a warrior version of the legend called Charlemagne’s Hunt, which is the basis of that wonderful John Irving short story “The Pension Grillparzer,” the writing of which is the best part of his novel The World According to Garp. In her dreams, the grandmother observes tired, dusty knights riding up to the hotel well for water. It is a dream of death.
She saw the soldiers, or dreamed them, twice more while they stayed there, but her husband never again woke up with her. It was always sudden. Once she woke with the taste of metal on her tongue as if she’d touched some old, sour iron to her mouth — a sword, a chest plate, chain mail, a thigh guard. They were out there again, in colder weather. From the water in the fountain a dense fog shrouded them; the horses were snowy with frost. And there were not so many of them the next time — as if the winter or their skirmishes were reducing their numbers. The last time the horses looked gaunt to her, and the men looked more like unoccupied suits of armor balanced delicately in the saddles. The horses wore long masks of ice on their muzzles. Their breathing (or the men’s breathing) was congested.
This story has bears, circuses, Vienna, and a large goofy family. It contains the seed of everything Irving wrote from then on. It has always seemed eery and beautiful to me, better than all the rest.
But this is a tangent. What also surprised me about de Galinée’s account was 1) it happened in Norfolk County where I grew up, and 2) the casual, almost off-hand way he accepts the existence of the ghostly company. He’s never heard this phenomenon before, but he has no reason to doubt it, and accepts it as fact.
Here is a photo of me in a canoe on Big Creek, trying to replicate de Galinée’s experience. Notice that like de Galinée and his friends, I found the canoeing difficult.
I wouldn’t have paid nearly this much attention to de Galinée’s story if the phenomenon hadn’t manifested in Norfolk a second time 150 years later. Not exactly in Norfolk County, but near enough. In 1829 and 1830, a particularly pernicious case of witchcraft and haunting occurred in a Scottish settlement on the Chenail Écarté on Lake St Clair. Such was the fame of Norfolk’s famous witch doctor, Dr. Troyer, that a mission was sent to engage him in expelling the demons. A farmer named John McDonald, much afflicted by the witches, undertook the journey. At a place called Longwoods just north of the Thames River, he encountered the same unholy host, this time in a more militant form.
Witchcraft accompanied them through the Longwoods, a stretch of about thirty miles of forest, north of the Thames, without a single dwelling on the road, and in which they had to pass the night. McDonald was terrified by the melancholy wind stirring the tree-tops, owls hooting, wolves yelping, then the heavy tramp, tramp of a vast multitude, inarticulate voices of men, crashing of boughs and snapping of twigs, and then the rush of some great unseen host. Soon there was the sound of combat in the air with an opposing multitude, followed by groans of the wounded and shrieks of the dying.
This time the observers had no idea what they are hearing. To them, it was just more witchcraft. Unlike de Galinée and his friends, they had lost touch with the conscious thread of their own culture. But it still inhabits their dreams, their imaginations. To me, credulous and romantic as I am, the fact that they don’t know what they are hearing makes it more probable that they heard something of the like. Either that, or these old stories were being told in the long cabins of southern Ontario, settler to settler, mother to child, long after people stopped paying enough attention to write them down.
Sadly, we don’t hear these things in Norfolk any longer. It’s all farms and suburban sprawl and gaudy mansions along the lake shore. But on moonlit nights, I still stand under the tulip tree in the backyard and listen.
“Galinée’s Narrative and Map” Ontario Historical Society, Papers and Records, V. IV, 1903.
Recorded in James Coyne, “David Ramsay and Long Point Legend and History,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 1919.