The Freischütz (from Marne)

There once was a farmer’s son, a wild young man, who would commit to no work - neither through pleading nor through threats - and would spend the entire day roaming the fields. His parents spoiled him somewhat and did not pressure him much to do anything. Thus, once he was grown up, he ran away in secret and dedicated himself to hunting so that he could live as he pleased. He finally married and attained a small estate in the middle of a forest. A small lot of farmland was included, and he fed his family partially from this but primarily from his hunting. They were not prospering and frequently they did not have bread in the house, for the hunt only allowed for an irregular income while they neglected their farming.

Once he went hunting starting in the early morning, but he had not been able to shoot anything by the evening. In a sour mood he set forth for home, but when he looked up he saw a stranger at some distance. This stranger must have been on the hunt as well, for he carried a rifle and a hunting bag. The huntsman doubled his steps to catch up to the stranger. But mysteriously no matter how much he hurried the stranger stayed at the same distance, even though the latter maintained a leisurely pace. The huntsman finally stuck his forefinger in his mouth and whistled in the manner of huntsmen: The high, shrill tone penetrated widely through the night, a few ravens were startled out of the old trees standing nearby and filled the air with their eerie cawing, but the stranger did not appear to have heard anything and walked onward without looking around. But when he had reached a crossroad he suddenly stood still and turned around to the huntsman.

He was a handsome young man and gave a friendly greeting. The huntsman returned the greeting and immediately noticed that the hunting bag of the stranger was filled to capacity. His first question was naturally how he had come to such a rich bounty, while his own efforts and dexterity had barely bagged any game as of late. The stranger replied that he was in possession of a great secret which ensured that his aim was always true and his bullets never missed their mark. Then he started as if he was about to turn to the next path, but the huntsman now was even more eager to learn more, held him back, and pleaded for the stranger to share his secret with him, promising to thank him in whatever way he was able. “I ask no further thanks from you than the fulfillment of a condition. If you promise me with an oath to share your secret with no other person, then I shall share it with you in confidence. This is the only condition, but it is a necessary one.” The huntsman was immediately ready to give this oath. In the moment when he raised his hand, the ravens came from the forest and circled the two men first in wide, and then in ever-narrowing paths while the stranger shared the secret with the huntsman. And when the two said their farewells, the birds dispersed into different directions.

From that moment on the huntsman was like a different person. Contrary to his previous habits he stayed within the house for days, quietly walking up and down and avoiding all questions of his wife. But she did not stop questioning him and finally, in a weak moment, she managed to get him to tell the entire story. Then she said that he ought to attempt this, for perhaps it would save them from their dire straits, the sin could hardly be that enormous, as well as further promptings and speeches until he finally decided to attempt the measure that the stranger had recommended. For if you want to attain the ability to become an infallible marksman, you must load your rifle with a piece of altar bread stolen from the altar in the church, and this was what the stranger had recommended to the huntsman.

Thus, on the next Sunday the huntsman went into church and when he received Communion he took the altar bread home with him. Then he took his rifle from the wall, furthermore packed a white cloth, and then went into the forest to a clearing to do everything as prescribed. The sun stood at noon’s height, he spread the cloth on the ground, stood on it with his feet, and loaded the rifle - but instead of lead he used the altar bread. Then he aimed the gun barrel at the sun and shot at it. Immediately a black cloud appeared and covered the sky, thunder and lightning broke loose, and instantly there was a storm as if the world was going to end. The huntsman now wanted to flee to his home, he bowed down to pick up the white cloth, but then saw that the locations of his footprints were marked with fresh blood. He ran away in mortal fright. But as he reached his home it was ablaze with bright flames and his wife and children ran towards him and wailed. At the same time the stranger he had encountered recently appeared before him, who was none other than the Devil himself. He told him that he would have to hunt forever from now on - with his wife and children accompanying him as dogs.

From this time on he lives over the old trees in the forest near the two ravens during the day, but at night he roars with much noise through the air, accompanied by his dogs. People are now calling this the Wild Hunt. When people hear him pass by and imitate the calls and the barking, he throws down bones. But he must bear this punishment until Judgement Day and cannot find rest until then.

Author’s note: Oral tale from Marne in Dithmarschen. This tale might have arrived there from the Harz mountain range, since it was frequently told by a now-dead weaver who immigrated from there. But the legend of the Freischütz is very widespread and known also in the Harz region (see Harrys’ Volkssagen, Märchen und Legenden Niedersachsens II, p. 22), similar to how it has been told in this volume about a hunter from Glücksburg. The Wild Huntsman is known in Ditmarschen and it is easily possible that the two legends were linked together there; this narrator has collected a lot of local stories during his stay in our region which he enjoyed telling in addition to his other narratives.

Source: Müllenhoff, K; Mensing, O. Sagen, Märchen und Lieder der Herzogthümer Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg. 1845, p. 366ff.

Notes & commentary: Infernal Marksman - The Freischütz