An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry Yippie yi Ohhhhh Yippie yi yaaaaay Ghost Riders in the sky
“Riders in the Sky” was written by Stan Jones, and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949. My favorite version is the 1979 recording by Johnny Cash:
The old cowboy in the song sees the devil’s herd riding through the sky, chased by the exhausted ghosts of damned cowboys, who will never catch them. One of the ghosts stops and warns the old cowboy to mend his ways, or he, too, will be chasing the herd for all eternity.
The song is an American variation of the legend of the Wild Hunt, a folktale that is common throughout much of Europe. The supernatural hunters are seen riding across the sky, chasing… something. The version that I’m most familiar with has Odin (in his incarnation as Woden, the god of the wind) riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse, carrying the souls of the dead in his wake.
In this character he was most generally known as the Wild Huntsman, and when people heard the rush and roar of the wind they cried aloud in superstitious fear, fancying they heard and saw him ride past with his train, all mounted on snorting steeds, and accompanied by baying hounds. And the passing of the Wild Hunt, known as Woden’s Hunt, the Raging Host, Gabriel’s Hounds, or Asgardreia, was also considered a presage of such misfortune as pestilence or war.
After Christianity became the dominant religion in the regions where the Wild Hunt myth existed, the identity of the hunter changed from a diety to a human, usually a nobleman. The nobleman was impious in life — he would hunt on Sundays, or would abandon his dying father to go hunting instead. For his sins, he was cursed to hunt forever after he died, without rest. This brings us to a version of the story that’s more similar to the lyrics of Ghost Riders. It’s also pretty similar to the Flying Dutchman legend, but that’s for another post. D.L. Ashliman has a page of Wild Huntsman legends, both legends of the Huntsman’s origin, as well as stories of people who have encountered the Huntsman or his dogs.
There seems to be a story similar to that of Woden’s Hunt in Indian mythology, too. It is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, Canto 3, Chapter 14.
Diti, the wife of Kas’yapa, is feeling romantic — okay, horny — and she approaches her husband one evening while he is at his meditation. All his other wives have children, she says to him. Can’t he give her children, too? Right now?
Of course, he tells her — but wait a bit.
This very time is the time least favorable for it, it is the horrid time at which the ghastly spirits and their master are one’s constant companion. At this time of the day, oh chaste one, at dusk, [S’iva] the Lord and well-wisher of the ghostly ones who surround him, goes about as their king on the back of the bull [Nandî].
If I understand the commentary on these verses correctly, Kas’yapa is telling his wife that at dusk Lord Shiva rides on his bull, accompanied by the ghosts of sinners and suicides. If a woman is having sex during the time when Lord Shiva rides, he will put one of the ghosts in her womb, so it can be reborn. So, it’s really not a good idea to make love as the sun is setting.
Diti is a bit beyond reasoning with, unfortunately; she can’t wait, so she throws herself at her husband. Kas’yapa gives in. After she comes back to herself, Diti regrets her impatience. Kasyapa tells her that because of her impiety, she will give birth to two sons, bad men: “They will kill poor and innocent living entities, torment women and enrage the great souls” (Verse 41). But because Diti repented of her deed, her grandson will grow up to be a holy man.
He will be a virtuous and qualified reservoir of all good qualities, he will rejoice in the happiness of others and be distressed when others are unhappy. He will have no enemies and put an end to all lamentation in the world just like the pleasant moon does after the distress of the summer sun. Your grandson will, inside and outside of himself, behold the spotless form [of the Lord] with the lotus eyes, who assumes any form His devotee desires and who with a face decorated with brilliant earrings is the eminence of the beautiful Goddess of Fortune.
Always her fault, never his… .
Anyway. Let’s end this post on a cheerier note. Here’s Dick Dale’s turbocharged surf guitar version of “Riders in the Sky”. Please excuse the cheesy visuals from the Ghost Rider movie.