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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Hellekin, leader of the Wild Hunt

Fairy King, Commedia dell’Arte trickster

Hellekin or Hellequin or Herla or Harlequin is a figure of German, English, French and Italian folklore, helle kin in Old Frisian (similar to Old English) meaning “kindred of Hell.”

Harlequin - Picasso 1918
Harlequin - Picasso 1918

In the 12th century, the character first appears in Orderic Vitalis’ Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History) as Herlechinus, a Giant who wields a huge club. He is the leader of the Wild Hunt, associating him with the Norse god Odin, who was also worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons as Wodan. In Historia Ecclesiastica, a Norman priest called Walchelin bears witness to an account on New Year’s Eve, 1091, of a mysterious procession of knights, ladies, priests, monks and commoners, “like the movement of a great army”, among whom he recognises “many of his neighbours who had recently died.” Upon seeing them, the priest mutters to himself, “Without a doubt, this is Herlequin’s household.” Walchelin seizes the reins of one of the horses and experiences a burning pain, and at one point one of the knights grabs him by the throat, leaving a scar that will never fade. Everyone in the procession is being punished for their sins, the weapons they carry weighing them down, overwhelming them with their stench, and burning them with everlasting fire.

Fifty years later, the character re-emerges in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialum as Herla, King of the Ancient Britons. In Map’s story, Herla encounters a diminuitive man with a long red beard whose legs ended in goat’s hooves, similar to the Ancient Greek god Pan. The little man tells Herla that he himself is king of a vast realm. He foretells Herla’s future marriage and strikes a bargain with him, saying that he will attend his wedding on condition that Herla attend his wedding one year later. Herla agrees to this and the little man attends Herla’s wedding to the daughter of the King of Gaul. He brings with him a retinue of little people like himself all dressed in wonderful rich raiment and bearing splendid wedding gifts.

A year after Herla’s wedding, the little man returns and asks Herla to fulfil his end of the bargain. Herla and a number of his men follow the little man into a cave in a very high cliff, and, after journeying through a long dark tunnel lit with torches, they arrive at the little man’s glorious mansion. The wedding takes place, and after three days, Herla and his retinue return home loaded with gifts, riches, offerings, dogs, horses, hawks and other things pertaining to hunt. The little man guides them through the tunnel and then gives Herla a small bloodhound, telling him that none of them are to dismount from the horses until the small dog leaps from its carrier. Bidding them farewell, the little man returns home, disappearing into the darkness of the tunnel.

When Herla and his men reach the light of day and his kingdom once again, they meet an old shepherd. Herla asks the man for news of his queen, using her name, and the shepherd stares at him, astonished. The shepherd tells Herla that he can scarcely understand him, for he is a Saxon and Herla a Briton. He says that he only knows the queen’s name from history, as the wife of King Herla of the earliest Britons, fabled to have disappeared with a dwarf at that cliff and never to have been seen again. His kingdom is long since gone and the Saxons have held the realm for two hundred years, having driven out the former inhabitants. In a panic, some of Herla’s men jump down from their horses even though the small bloodhound has not left its carrier, and they are instantly turned to dust. Herla forbids any more of his men to descend until the dog has leapt down. To this day, the dog remains in its carrier and King Herla rides on with his mad train, without home or rest, doomed forever to lead the Wild Hunt, also known as Herla’s Rade, on moonlit nights.

In Adam de la Halle’s 13th century satirical French romance Li Jus Aden or Le Jeu de la Feuillée, in which Lady Morgan (Morgan le Fay) visits contemporay Arras, the character appears as Hellekin, the King of Fairyland, who is Morgan’s lover. Thus, in French medieval literature, he morphed from the Wodan-like Giant and Ancient Briton King into a sprite or spirit of the air, with supernatural powers of lightness, speed and invisibility. He later also became a stock figure of medieval French passion plays as Hellequin, a black-faced envoy of the Devil, who roamed the countryside as the leader of a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil humans down into Hell – a character very close to his origins as the demonic leader of the Wild Hunt. The French incarnations of his character may also have been influenced by tales of a 9th century French knight named Hellequin of Boulogne, who died fighting the Normans, and whose death gave rise to stories of pursuant devils and spirits.

The physical appearance of Hellequin influenced his next and most famous incarnation in Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Hellequin morphed into the famous Harlequin (Arlecchino), a clever and mischievous servant character, maintaining the traditional colours of the demonic Hellequin’s face in his black and red mask, while retaining the nimble quickness and trickster qualities of the French fairy king Hellekin. His Italian name is thought to be an amalgam of Hellequin and the name of a devil who features in Dante’s Inferno, Alichino. The actor Tristano Martinelli first adapted the character from French folklore and played him as Arlecchino on stage in the 16th century, and Harlequin later appeared in Lewis Theobald’s 1734 Arthurian pantomime Merlin; or the Devil at Stonehenge.

Harlequin Magie di Carnevale

Hellekin appears as the character Hallekin in the Fata Morgana Series. He is a child Morgan first encounters on her adventures in Book III.

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