The Bewitched Midwinter Night

The participants in the wild hunt of Odin were ghosts and the restless souls of the dead. The long midwinter nights were filled with supernatural creatures and danger.

Norse gods riding over a desolate landscape

Text by Senior Curator Learning Ellen Lerberg

Peter Nicolai Arbo based his monumental painting The Wild Hunt of Odin on Norse mythology, archaeological excavations and the National Romantic poetry of the day. A major inspiration was Johan Sebastian Welhaven’s eponymous poem, whose opening line is

Through the nightly air stampedes a train of frothing black horses

(from Nyere Digte [Newer Poems], 1844)

Menacing hordes

Arbo’s interest in history led him to paint several versions of this motif. In the watercolour version the group is headed straight at the viewer, while in the painting we have a side view of them. The menacing hordes that are threatening us above a dramatic sky are portrayed in great detail.

Rushing headlong comes the wild band.

To support them they have only the clouds.

They hasten over valleys, over meadows and moors,

Through the darkness and shadows; they pay it no heed.

The traveller casts himself onto the ground in terror.

Listen to the clamour – it is the wild hunt of Odin!

– Johan Sebastian Welhaven, 1844

Norse gods

The celestial riders swarm forward through the desolate, moonlit landscape, closely followed by the ravens belonging to Odin, the chief god in Norse mythology. Thor, the god of war, thunders ahead with his hammer held high, calling out to the goats Tanngnjost (Teeth-barer) and Tanngrisne (Teeth-grinder), who are pulling his chariot. A fiery light appears in the wake of the group – can it be a glimpse of Helheim, the realm of the dead?

Then the horns resonate, then there is a clamour

Of bells and jingling bridles,

Then the swarm howls and the people tremble in their huts

While they listen with growing dread.

– Johan Sebastian Welhaven, 1844

Inspired by Romanticism

The apocalyptic atmosphere and dramatic composition of the picture were inspired by typical characteristics of Romanticism: contrasts between life and death, light and shadow, near and distant. 

Best to stay away

Both Welhaven’s poem and Arbo’s pictures portray the wild hunt as a menacing and terrifying horde, and popular belief held that it was best to stay away when they were charging through the skies.

Peter Nicolai Arbo

  • Born: 18 June 1831 in Drammen, Norway
  • Died: 14 October 1892 in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway

The origins of the word

It was followers of the National Romantic movement of the 1800s who began using the word ”Åsgårdsreia” – the Wild Hunt of Odin. The original word was Oskoreia. Poet and philologist Ivar Aasen believed that the word oskoreia derived from ofsleg and reida, meaning a frightening horde on horseback.


  • Nasjonalmuseet. Høydepunkter. Kunst fra antikken til 1945, 2014 (National Museum: Highlights. Art from antiquity to 1945. 2014
  • Marit I. Lange and Anne Berit Skaug, eds. (1986). Peter Nicolai Arbo 1831–1892. Drammen Museum of Art and Cultural History [Exhibition catalogue]