A very Happy New Year to you all. As we swing through January, let us cast our eye on the savage folklore of the Wild Man, especially within the context of the Pyrenees.
We have all felt him near us, when wandering out in the forests, around the mountains and across the meadows in our youth. I am not referring to any deity, but to a far more intoxicating figure in our collective imagination, the Wild Man. Lurking in a variety of guises in folk tales, behind the masks in village celebrations, within the majority of Western traditional art, church sculpture and most appropriately in our minds when we are surrounded by foliage, the Wild Man and his consort the Wild Woman lie at the heart of our complex European relationship with the natural world. Figures which have been feared, despised, admired and even envied, they encapsulate the changing perceptions of our place within nature and the shifting ideologies that dominate our societies.
The Wild Man emerges out of characters we all have known and loved; each forest dwelling sage, sorcerer, ‘noble savage’, witch and hermit from folklore resonate with his presence. In Gilgamesh we find Enkido, fashioned from the very saliva of the Gods mixed with clay, providing an early link between the Wild Man and a wholly natural state of being closest to the divine. Enkido is created to humble Gilgamesh, and lives as a wild creature raised by animals until he is bedded by the sensual Shamhat, who tempts him away from the wild to live in ‘civilisation’, becoming the companion of Gilgamesh after equalling him during a wrestling match. Enkido acts as the flip side of the coin to Gilgamesh’s urban, cultured warrior-caste character. Wild, fiercely strong, loyal and deeply loved by Gilgamesh, Enkido helps the king during numerous adventures until he is killed, spurring Gilgamesh to undertake a quest to find immortality to escape his own death. Whilst a casual glance at this summary would find a simple example of ‘the other’ who becomes assimilated and ‘one of us’, look more closely. Enkido is the first literary Wild Man, the antithesis to the courtly wrangling, deceit, weakness and seduction of Uruk, possessed of immense strength, honesty and loyalty, whose own natural appetites (i.e. lust) allowed him to enter the court. Enkido also interprets dreams, fulfilling the role of seer, a role which is much more fully explored by future literary Wild Men in the Medieval West such as Merlin, and the folk figures of cunning men, witches and hermits. Adam too was Wild; naked, living within nature, untroubled by feelings of guilt or morality, what a great irony that within the Christian tradition it was from a Wild Man that we sprung, and during Christianity’s most dominant social and political period the Wild Man was an official image of everything which a goodly, God fearing Christian should revile! What a tragic irony that such origins were lost on the Church, or more unpalatably, used to turn Eve – his consort, the Wild Woman – into a pretext for the subjugation and systematic repression for centuries to come. But let us turn away from polemics at this early point and return to the Greenwoods of Medieval Europe; the realm of pagan hangovers, liminal figures, monotheist neuroses and enduring folk figures.
An Assyrian relief possibly showing Enkido as ‘Master of Beasts’. Photo taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org
The ‘Wodewose’, the Wild Man appears in numerous tapestries, Romances, paintings and most interestingly in the stone ornaments of church roof bosses, seat and doorway carvings across Medieval culture. The dichotomy of Medieval man’s attitude towards the Wild Man is worthy of mention and typifies the multilayered thinking with which we should more readily credit our ancestors. The Classical relation with wild humanoids living within nature was based on their extensive and, frequently sympathetic, collection of myths in which God and beast copulated, the woodlands were filled with personifications of nature such as satyrs, nymphs and fauns. In short, these creatures were seen as part and parcel of the supernatural pantheon, not always benevolent in nature but not necessarily figures of fear, and intrinsic parts of the landscapes of the Classical world. However, within during the Medieval period the Wodewose, shaggy, moss covered, primal and bestial, became associated with both a protectoral role of the woodland against encroaching agricultural reforms which began to break and clear forests for pasture, and also as existing outside God’s salvation, operating without adherence to the constant companions of Medieval man; guilt and fear of God. Officially it represented the antithesis of Christian man: uncivilised, beyond God (even unaware of God!), living as a beast in the land yet with some human characteristics – at least anatomically. Unofficially the Wild Man carried on a thread from pre-Christian myth and folklore, and gradually adapted within the mind of the rural peasantry as they to adapted mentally to Christianity. It survived as a mysterious figure who was connected and represented the land, sometimes angry, other times mischievous, and this mutation and survival can be seen on the carvings which bear the image of that perennial folk figure, the Green Man, in churches across the West. Young brings to light the merging of animal and man within the concept of the Wild Man: ‘[This] locates a being that is sometimes purely animal yet which on other occasions takes on markedly human characteristics. This liminality calls into question any fixity of medieval and early modern conceptualisations of humanity not only by making delineations of human and inhuman dependent on textual representation, but also by at times combining animal and human attributes in one being’. (Young, 2009, 41). They possessed extraordinary powers: ‘Caesarus of Heisterbach, in the thirteenth century, reports that he witnessed a wild man suddenly begin to grow until he towered over the entire forest.’ (Husband, 1980, 15).
‘The Fight in the Fores’ by Hans Burgkmair, depicting a mighty Wodewose and his club. Image taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons
Shapeshifters, dwellers in the deep dark wood, they retained a primordial connection to the land which the Church frequently attempted to dispel through portraying them as connected with demons and the Devil. They were also seen as teachers of magic wisdom, that which was of more use to the rural peasantry than the ‘magic’ of the Christian priest. Connections were drawn between them and madness, illustrated through Merlin going insane following the deaths of his brothers, and living wild in the forests of Celydonn. These flight into wilderness, madness and isolation, have been argued to represent surviving traces of shamanic initiation, portraying an inner journey, returning changed, re-aligned with nature, able to converse with beasts and look into people’s souls. In Valentine and Orson the Empress of Constantinople is accused of adultery and thrown out of the court, giving birth to twins in the wilderness. Orson (potentially etymologically linked to ‘Ursus’ son’) is stolen by a female bear and raised in the wild. At length, the wild twin is civilised but retains huge strength, then returns to the forest as a Wodewose. In these tales, it is the story of the homo silvaticus who obsessed the medieval imagination and who, when encountered in literature and art, was always asked: “Are you man or beast?”
Reflected in the perceptions and attitudes towards the Wild Man in art and literature were social conditions and constraints. Haydon White in his essay ‘The Forms of Wildness’ writes that their transformation from objects of loathing to figures of admiration and envy dovetail, not coincidentally, with the breaking down of the mechanisms of sublimation and societal control that occurred towards the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (White, 1972). This resulted in their later portrayal during as representations of simple living, honesty and health, much like Tacitus’ descriptions of the Germanic tribes in contrast to his own Rome. The Wild Man had become examples of virtue, honest healthy living, reverting back to images of pre-Fall man, the ‘noble savage’, and reflected Renaissance trends in investigating and admiring the earthly domain rather than concentrating on the heavenly one. Nature became a source of inspiration, and this is well expressed through Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting of St George, wherein the saint occupies only a tiny fraction of the canvas, the rest being taken up with foliage and great towering tree trunks. In these primeval forests the Wild Man was reborn as a figure of admiration and envy, living freely and simply, and inspired the following verse by Meistersinger Hans Soch:
And so we left our wordly goods
To make our home in these deep woods
With our little ones protected
From that falsehood we rejected
We feed ourselves on native fruits
And from the earth dig tender roots
For drink pure springs are plentiful
For garments grass and leaves we make
Our homes are made of caves and stone
And no-one takes what’s not his own’
(Hans Sach ‘Lament of the Wild Forest-Folk about the Perfidious World’)
The Wild Man and its family had become ‘exemplars of the virtuous and natural life’, and as cultural and social attitudes towards nature evolved further through the Renaissance and Romantic periods, they became then turned into gentler creatures still, the natural no longer being seen as bestial and brutish but instead as honest, divine and eternal.
But what of the Wild Man in the Pyrenees? Michel Raynal’s 1989 paper ‘L’Homme Sauvage dans les Pyrenees et la Survivance des Neanderthaliens’ (The Wild Man in the Pyrenees and the Survival of Neanderthals) provides evidence of numerous sightings, as well as an intriguing origin theory for the Wild Man himself within the Pyrenees. In the Ariege, the Wild Man is known as ‘l’om pelut’ (homme poilu/hairy man) or ‘iretgge’, which may be a corruption of ‘heretique/heretic’, and Piniès describes the movements of two Wild Men in the 12th or 13th century, who lived in the forest of Barthes, covered in hair and armed with a gnarled club each, residing in caves and capturing game. Eventually the villagers left some red shorts in the forest to attract the Wild Men or iretgges, and the they captured these two unfortunates and made them their prisoners (Piniès, 1978).
In Arles-sur-Tech Wild Men are known as ‘simiots’, and an account of their activities reads thus: ‘monstres affreux, aux dents fourchues, aux mains crochues, rôdaient la nuit sur les toits et descendaient dans les maisons par la cheminée en poussant de funèbres hurlements’ (frightful monsters, with split teeth and crooked hands, roam the night on the rooftops, descending into the ohuses down the chimney, uttering mournful howls) (Blanc 1979). In the Basque Country we see the Wild Lord of the Forest, ‘Basa-Juan’, who is covered with hair, like a bear. He eats herbs and game, is incredibly strong and walks around naked day and night (Cerquand, 1875 – 1882). He is also accused of haunting shepherd’s cabins, looking to make use of the hearth and steal their dairy products (Webster, 1879). He is also accused of carrying off you women, which links him to the Bear tradition of the Pyrenees – as does the bear of the Arles-sur-Tech festival, whose name is also simiot which appears to derive from simia (Latin for monkey).
An engraving of a Simiot from the Valle du Tec. Image taken from (and more information available at) http://es.mitologiaiberica.wikia.com/wiki/Simiot
As written in one of the very first Perennial Pyrenees articles on bears, one sees a great link between bears and humans within the Pyrenees, even so far as to suggest mythologically some manner of hybridisation between the two, resulting potentially in the folkloric Pyrenean Wild Man, with his shaggy fur, preference for caves, game and herbs. An alarming first hand account of some herdsmen in the 18th century also mentions the ‘bearishness’ of the Pyrenean Wild Man:
‘Il n’y a pas deux ans [ donc en 1774 ] que les pasteurs de la forêt d’Yraty, proche de Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, aperçurent souvent un homme sauvage qui habitoit les rochers de cette forêt. Cet homme étoit de grande taille, velu comme un ours, & alerte comme les hisards, d’une humeur gaie, avec l’apparence d’un caractère doux, puisqu’il ne faisoit de mal à rien. Souvent il visitoit les cabanes sans rien emporter; il ne connaissoit ni le pain, ni le lait, ni les fromages ; son grand plaisir étoit de faire courir les brebis, & de les disperser en faisant de grands éclats de rire, mais sans jamais leur faire du mal. Les Pasteurs mettoient souvent leurs chiens après; alors il s’enfuyoit comme un trait, & ne se laissoit jamais approcher de trop près. Une seule fois, il vint un matin à la porte d’une cabane d’ouvriers qui faisoient des avirons, & qu’une grande abondance de neige tombée pendant la nuit retenoit; il se tint debout à la porte qu’il tenoit des deux mains, & regardoit les ouvriers en riant. Un de ces gens se glissa doucement pour tâcher de le saisir par une jambe; plus il le voyoit approcher, & plus son rire redoubloit; ensuite il s’échappa. On a jugé que cet homme pouvoit avoir trente ans; comme cette forêt est d’une grande étendue, & communique à des bois immenses appartenant à l’Espagne, il y a à présumer que c’étoit quelque jeune enfant qui s’y étoit perdu, & qui avoit trouvé les moyens d’y subsister avec des herbes ‘
(Two years ago [therefore in 1774] the herdsmen of the Yraty Forest, near Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, often noticed an wild man who inhabited the rocks of this forest. This man was of great height, hairy as a bear, and alert as a chamois, of cheerful disposition, with the appearance of a gentle character, since he did harm to nothing. He often used to visit the cabins without carrying off anything; he knew neither bread, milk, or cheese; his great pleasure was to make the flocks run, and to disperse them by making great peels of laughter, but he never did them any harm. The herdsmen used to often set their dogs after him; then he would run off like a dart, and never let them approach very close. One single time, he came in the morning to the door of the cabin of workmen who were making oars, and which had retained a great abundance of snow fallen during the night; he stood erect at the door which he was holding with two hands, and was laughing as he looked at the workmen. One of these people softly slid [forward] so as to attempt to seize him by his leg; as soon as he saw him approach, he redoubled his laugh; then he escaped. It was judged that this man would have been thirty years old; as this forest is of great extent, and communicates with immense woods belonging to Spain, it is presumed that this might be some young child who was lost, and who had found the means to subsist on the vegetation.)
Gomez-Tabanera (1978) records that in the 19th century a ‘mujer salvaje’ (wild woman) was identified in the mountains of Cantabria, nicknamed ‘la Osa de Andara’ (the she-bear of Andara), with hairy arms and legs like a bear and who fed on chestnuts, milk, fruits and berries and the occasional small goat (Gomez-Tabaera, 1978).
Raynal suggests that these Wild Man legends are linked to relics of Neanderthals:
‘Thought to be extinct since 35 000 years, Neanderthal Man was cold-adapted, as it can be conjectured from the proportions of its limbs, the shape of its nose, the protection of its brain by a prominent torus supra-orbitalis, etc. It is very likely that it was also hairy, as hairyness is the most common cold-adaptation. In the Pyrénées and in the Iberic Peninsula, traditions, folklore, artistic representations, and even recent enough sightings about Wild Men have been recorded. They are quite similar, if not identical, with modern accounts of Hairy Wild Men in the Caucasus, Mongolia, Tibet, etc, who have been supposed to be relic Neanderthal Men by several authors, mainly Porshnev and Heuvelmans. Ormières and Gomez-Tabanera have proposed a late survival of Neanderthal Men in the Pyrénées, an hypothesis which has gained new support recently after the discovery in Spain of a Neanderthal lower jaw in a level of late Würm III.’
Certainly, it is feasible that some manner of early hybridisation between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis (which through recent archaeo-genetic studies seems increasingly more common than previously thought) may have produced unusually hirsute offspring, or even late surviving Neanderthal pockets which haunted the imagination of modern -man, however one should be cautious when ascribing such bombastic theories to a world-wide phenomena.
The Fete des Ours at Prats-de-Mollo, wild men and women indeed! This annual festival is soon to be videoed for this project mid-February 2018. Photo taken from http://anglophone-direct.com/ap_img/fo6.jpg
At the risk of repeating oneself, the work of Rosalyn Frank and Fabio Silva (2012) provides a mixture of anthropological, ethnography and genetic research, focussing on the seemingly simple premise that Basque bear hunters have long held that the Basques believed themselves to be descended from bears. This interesting but seemingly isolated origin myth began to form links, and another legend was unearthed which told that the Wild Man is the son of a union between a bear and a woman, caught between two worlds of being. Many of the Wild Man folk costumes capture this, being neither human nor animal, but something in between, covered in branches, furs, bells, ashes and sackcloth. For example, we have names like ‘The Straw Bear’ in Britain and ‘Stohbär’ in Germany. In Prats-de-Mollo, France, a man is covered in soot and fur and acts as ‘the bear’, kidnaps a shepherdess, is captured and brought back to the town square, where it is ‘shaved’ into a human appearance. Here we see it shedding it ursine qualities and displaying its human origins as a Wild Man! Bones and bells jangle against animal skins, a ‘bear’ is captured, fearsome female figures in gruesome masks and veils march along rural tracks and huge beast men leer out at villagers from behind horned and hair covered faces. Are these remains of a prehistoric bear cult, the ‘UR-sine’ cult? If so, then the recent reintroduction of bears to the Pyrenees presents a beautiful example of things coming full circle, the return of an animal to the lands where it was once revered as humanity’s progenitor, and the potential origin of the Pyrenean Wild Man.
BLANC, Dominique (1979) : Récits et Contes Populaires de Catalogne. Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1, pp. 133-136, 146.
CERQUAND, J.F. (1875-1882) : Légendes et Récits Populaires du Pays Basque. Paris, L. Ribaud, pp. 10, 70.
GOMEZ-TABANERA, José-Manuel (1978) : La Conseja del Hombre Salvaje en la Tradiction Popular de la Peninsula Iberica, in : Homenaje a Julio Caro Baroja, Madrid, Centro do Investigaciones Sociologicas, pp. 471-509.
HUSBAND, Timothy (1980) : The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
LEROY, Julien David (1776) : Mémoire sur les Travaux qui ont Rapport à l’Exploitation de la Nature dans les Pyrénées, London, pp. 8-9.
PINIES, Jean-Pierre (1978) : Récits et Contes Populaires des Pyrénées. Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1 , pp. 110-119.
RAYNER, Michel (1989): L’Homme Sauvage dans les Pyrenees et la Survivance des Neanderthaliens. Le Bulletin de la Bipedie Initiale, Bipedia no. 3. Available online here: http://initial.bipedalism.pagesperso-orange.fr/3.htm#1
WEBSTER, Wentworth (1879): Basque Legends. London, Griffith and Farran, pp. 47-63.
WHITE, Hayden (1972): ‘Forms of Wildness: The Archaeology of an Idea’ in The Wild Man Within: An image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, eds. Edward Dudley & Maximillian Novak. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 3 – 38.
YOUNG, Helen (19??) : Wodewoses: the (In)Humanity of Medieval Wild Men. University of Western Sydney. Unpublished. Available here: http://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/files/14264740/Young._Wodewoses_the_Inhumanity_of_Medieval_Wild_Men.pdf