The Legend of St Hubert: From opponent of hunting to symbol of European hunting tradition

story of hubertus as created by artificial intelligence

“The Balmoral Test”, Episode 2, Season 4 of “The Crown” TV series, finds the British royal family in a state of agitation, if not to say excitement. A “14-pointer”, that is, a red deer stag with 14 points on its antlers – an enviable hunting trophy – has crossed over from a neighboring property into the royal Balmoral estate in Scotland. That neighboring property made money on offering trophy hunting trips to paying clients, and one of those clients only wounded that magnificent stag. The guides pursued the wounded beast to the borders of Balmoral, but couldn’t cross over, and it was now up to the royal family to find the stag and put it out of its misery. And the royal family rejoiced – not at the fact that a deer had been wounded, but that they finally had a chance to bag a real trophy!

I’m sure that the scene had some viewers bolt in disgust, and left others in bewilderment. Especially hunters from outside the United Kingdom, who might have wondered, were the members of the royal family such lousy hunters, that they couldn’t get anything as good? Or, did their staff do such a poor job of wildlife management that the royal estate failed to produce proper trophies? The answer is no to both. And the explanation lies, in fact, in events that might have never happened 1200 years before in the woods of Ardennes in modern Belgium.

Sculpture of saint Hubert and a deer

The Legend of Saint Hubertus 

Hubertus, or Hubert (circa 635 – 727) was a historical figure, a count of the Frankish Kingdom. After his wife died at childbirth, he retired to the woods of Ardennes to lead a solitary life, and, according to the legend, spent most of his time hunting. He would neglect church for the chase even on Sundays and most important holidays. Once, on Good Friday, his hounds put at bay a magnificent red stag. But, as he approached to deliver a killing blow, he beheld a silver cross shining among the stag’s antlers. 

Realizing it was more than a mere animal, Hubertus fell to his knees, and heard the voice of God lecturing him on the wrongness of his ways. After that Hubertus repented his sins, abandoned his wealth and privileges, became a priest and later the Bishop of Maastricht and Liege. He is honored as a saint by the Catholic Church, and recognized as patron saint of archers, dogs, forest workers, trappers, hunting and huntsmen, mathematicians, metal workers, smelters, and the city of Liège.

Thus runs the ecclesiastical part of the story, but not the hunting part. For, according to the Western European hunting lore, the stag didn’t just tell him “”Hubert unless thou turnest to the Lord and leadest a holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into Hell.” The beast, or the Christ speaking through his lips, went on to explain the basics of ethical hunting and wildlife management. 

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Saint Hubertus Rules of the Hunt 

The stag told Hubertus, according to the legend, that wild beasts were creatures of God as much as humans, also had feelings, and were equally entitled to compassion and mercy. From this on follows the first rule of hunting ethos: Do not cause unnecessary suffering. Each hunter should strive to kill the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The ideal kill scenario is when the hunter’s arrow or spear only spares the beast from an imminent death from longer and more painful causes, such as winter cold or fangs of predators. A hunter must, between an old and a young animal, choose the old one; between a sick or injured and a healthy animal – choose the sick or injured one. And of course, do anything in your powers and then some to catch up with and finish an animal you’ve wounded. The body of the fallen beast should be treated in a respectful manner, and utilized as fully as possible.

Overall, it is a duty of the hunter to respect and protect game, and ensure its overall well-being. The animals may not suffer from lack of food or shelter, and the chase should not interfere with or hinder reproduction. Every living thing has to die someday – but ideally not before it fulfills the Lord’s command to reproduce and multiply. Hunters must not kill more animals than can be born, and should avoid, as possible, to kill the young, the females – and the stags in the prime of their life. The ideal hunter’s quarry thus is an old stag with the antlers showing the signs of decay (or a young stag whose antlers are deformed).

This hunting code has been widely accepted all over Europe, and is the reason why German Union of Hunters (Deutsches Jagdverband) recognizes St. Hubertus not only as a patron saint, but also as the forefather of sustainable hunting.

The Legend and the Reality

Frankly speaking, the legend has probably very little to do with the real Hubert of Liege. Ecclesiastical historians point out that no contemporary or early description of his life mentions an encounter with a stag as an event that encouraged him to turn to God – not until the XV century. Even then it was likely a deliberate or involuntary confusion with the vita of St. Eustachius, a martyr from the early II century, who is believed to have converted to Christianity after beholding a stag with a cross in the antlers while hunting, and who was also honored patron saint of hunters. And there’s an even earlier story in the Buddhist canon, dated circa 270 b.c., about the Devanampiya, King of Ceylon, who experienced a spiritual transformation after giving chase to a stag that emitted unearthly shine. 

In fact, there’s doubt whether Hubertus was a hunter at all. There is historical evidence that the Bishop of Liege was a staunch opponent to hunting and forbade the clergy to participate in the chase (the rule is still in force for all Catholic and Orthodox priests). So, it is not without justification that some people claim St. Hubertus should be the patron saint of animal rightists rather than hunters.

Some points of the code of ethics attributed to St. Hubertus may appear strange and even shocking to modern hunters. For example, while killing females with the young is generally not encouraged, if the hunter must kill one such animal, he should try to kill the fawn before the doe. This is because a fawn is unlikely to survive the winter without the mother, so killing the mother first causes two deaths, and one probably painful, rather than one. (If you’ve seen Lars von Trier’s “The House that Jack Built” and wondered where the hero got his notions about hunting from – well, now you know).

But all this doesn’t matter much. What is indisputable is that the hunting code of conduct, attributed to St. Hubertus, really existed as early as the Middle Ages, and probably even earlier. Another evidence that the hunting community has been caring about wildlife and its wellbeing well before the general public even noticed this question. And if the medieval nobility attributed it to a well-respected saint, and consequently to Christ himself, it only means they believe the issue was important enough to warrant the status of a divine law.

Hubertus Tradition in Modern Europe

The Hubertus tradition lives on in modern Europe, especially in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Baltic nations and France. Thousands of hunters will attend the special service on November 3, St. Hubertus’s day, and many hunting clubs and associations schedule a special hunt for the day. Dozens of gun shops, shooting ranges, and hunting clubs bear the name “Hubertus”, and the stag with the cross in his antlers graces the logos of countless products and companies, most famously the Jägermeister liquor.

Even more deep and serious is the influence of the code of conduct attributed to Hubertus. In America, many hunters discard the tongue, liver, and kidneys of the deer they kill; in Europe, even parts of the intestines may be used as shells for traditional wild boar sausages. The “last bite” ritual, wherein the hunter honors the taken game by placing a branch of a tree with green leaves, or a bit of grass, in the animal’s mouth, followed by a minute of silent contemplation, is a symbolic representation of St. Hubertus tradition. So is keeping the trophies: most European hunters feel obliged to preserve not only their biggest or most memorable ones, but the antlers, horns, or tusks of every animal they take, so that each gets equal respect.

In Great Britain, you don’t often encounter a Hubertus symbol, but look deeper, and you’ll see that big game hunting and wildlife management follow the same principles. In “John Macnab”, the novel we covered in a previous post, the hero has no reservations about killing a deer on someone else’s property – but holds his trigger finger as he wonders if it’s right to kill the best stag in the forest. A few years ago, I interviewed a British huntress who at the time held the world record for moose. She said she was proud of her achievement, but would be a lot happier if the bull’s antlers showed the signs of decay, meaning the animal was nearing the end of its natural existence – even if it would mean the antlers would be smaller. She also described her conversation with an American trophy hunter, and how shocked he was to hear her say it.

And, of course, the British Royal Family, especially considering their close ties to Germany, can’t help but hunt and do the wildlife management in the spirit of Hubertus. The events shown in “The Crown” – just as the legend of St. Hubertus – probably never happened or didn’t happen exactly as portrayed. But there’s little doubt that the real protagonists would behave in a similar way under similar circumstances.

Hunting is as old as humankind itself, and has accumulated numerous rituals and traditions ever since. Not all of them have stood the test of time. But it is important to maintain those parts of the hunting lore that make hunting sustainable and humanistic. St. Hubertus’s tradition is one of those. 

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