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“Army of the Damned”: Hellequin’s Hunt and SEFER HASIDIM

Tue, December 18, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Federal 1 Complex

Abstract

First mentioned in the eleventh century and having acquired the name ‘Hellequin’s Hunt’ at the end of the twelfth, this troop of the dead wandering on Earth was spotted on different occasions over the course of the high Middle Ages. Rooted in ancient Germanic legend and pre-Christian beliefs, the accounts of Hellequin’s Hunt became Christianized during the medieval period. What was once a fearsome spectacle of a violent armed band of mounted dead soldiers is transformed into an encounter with a pitiful troop of ordinary dead who march endlessly on Earth as punishment for their sins, some of whom seek aid from the living. Several ghost tales in the thirteenth-century German Jewish ethical work, Sefer Ḥasidim, reflect Hebrew versions of the Hunt. In this paper, I seek to demonstrate the common elements that link accounts of the Hunt with the tales of Sefer Ḥasidim and argue that the presence of this narrative within the Pietist work attests to more than just the absorption of religiously neutral ideas couched within popular stories that circulated in the environment. Instead, it demonstrates Pietist identification with a form of posthumous punishment of sinners that is at odds with Rabbinic teaching and validates specifically Christian notions of sin and punishment.

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