Legends concerning a group of shaggy and primitive "Wild Men" have survived over the centuries. Some tales of the Wild Man are most likely based in reality. During the Middle Ages, a sub-culture existed on the fringes of society made up of outlaws and social outcasts. At times, individuals made their way into the towns and cities and the Wild Man-Wild Folk stories began. At the same time, the term was applied to the mythical race of dwarves who were called "Moss-Folk." One folklorist wrote, "they are considered to be dwarfs, and they live in communities. They are grey and old-looking, and are hideously overgrown with moss, giving them a hairy appearance."1 These Moss Folk weave the moss of the forests and protect it with a vengeance. They do help some people with their knowledge of the healing plants and herbs and they help crops to grow.
In folklore these Wild Men are sometimes helpful to humans in that they will locate lost cattle and have the ability to treat the illnesses of cattle, but, according to Philpot, they are "more often mischievous, having the propensity for stealing the milk and carrying off the children of the peasants."2
There is another aspect of the Wild Man as a creature removed from accepted society. The Wild Man subculture came to represent those things rejected by the "civilized" elements — natural elements found in animal and vegetable life as well as those more "primitive" aspects of humanity. These very basic characteristics of nature came to be those most feared by the Christian society of the day. "For much of the Middle Ages, hairy, cannibalistic, sexually omnivorous wild men and women had represented the
1. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest: Myths and Legends. London: Senate Publishers 1996, 93 (A reprint of the 1928 publication Forest Folklore published by George Allen & Unwin, London).
antithesis of the civilized Christian," wrote British historian Simon Schama.3 The many illustrations of the Wild Man of the Middle Ages show a naked individual completely covered in long, shaggy hair with only the face, hands, elbows (and the breasts of the female) exposed. Other illustrations show this very same individual covered in leaves instead of hair or fur.
Because of the association with leaves, some writers have linked the Wild Man to the Green Man archetype. Loren Coleman states directly that, "Clearly the Green Man comes from the tradition and evolution of the art form of the burly wildmen, the woodsmen, and thus the man of the woods and greenry."4 I disagree with this and believe that the depiction of the Wild Man covered in leaves refers more to his habitat in the forest rather than as an agricultural or fertility symbol and guardian of nature that the Green Man represents. An interesting folk festival-ritual was held in Saxony and Thüringen at Whitsuntide called "chasing the Wild Man out of the bush." Frazer wrote, "A young fellow is enveloped in leaves or moss and called the Wild Man. He hides in the wood and the other lads of the village go out to seek him. They find him, lead him captive out of the wood, and fire at him with blank muskets. He falls dead to the ground.5 In another village Frazer identifies as Erzgebirge there was an annual custom (at Shrovetide) that originated around 1600 CE. According to Frazer "Two men disguised as Wild Men, the one in brushwood and moss, the other in straw, were led about the streets, and at last taken to the market-place, where they were chased up and down, shot and stabbed. Before falling they reeled about with strange gestures and spirted blood on the people with bladders which they carried. When they were down, the huntsmen placed them on boards and carried them to the alehouse."6 Frazer noted that similar customs were still carried out in Bohemia during his day. While we may never know exactly what the Wild Man rituals originally were meant to express, Frazer believed that these represented a ritualized memory of actual Wild Man hunts. "It has been assumed," he wrote, "that the mock killing of the Wild Man...in North European folk-custom is a modern substitute for an ancient custom of killing them in earnest. Those who best know the tenacity of life possessed by folk-custom and its tendency, with the growth of civilization, to dwindle from solemn ritual into mere pageant and pastime, will be least likely to question the truth of this assumption."7
3. Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage Books 1995, 97.
4. Coleman, Loren. Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America. New York: Paraview Pocket Books 2003, 58.
5. Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Avenal Books 1981, 243. A reprint of the two volume edition published in 1890 by Macmillan, London.
An 1801 Illustration of a 'Wild Man' as it was thought to appear during the Middle Ages
Contrary to Frazer, Schama believes that prior to 1600 society itself transformed the wild folk into symbolic guardians of nature. "[B]eginning in the later part of the fifteenth century. wild men were made over into exemplars of the virtuous and natural life."8 Over the next hundred years, the wild man was "turned into conspicuously gentler creatures."9 An example of this occurred in 1515 as part of Henry Vlll's Twelfth-Night pageant at Greenwich, when eight "wylde-men, all apparayled in grene mosse sodainly came oute of a place lyke a wood"10 and battled with the royal knights. These eight "wylde-men" were representative of tree spirits and obviously acted as "symbolic guardians of nature".
Philpot also believed that the Wild People were wood spirits. Writing over one hundred years ago, she noted, "traditions concerning the wild people of the woods are current in all the more wooded countries of Europe.. They are often of gigantic proportions, dwell in woods or mountains, and originally were no doubt closely connected with the spirits of trees..From head to foot they are clothed in moss, or covered with rough shaggy hair, their long locks floating behind them in the wind."11 Her description is certainly one commonly applied to the Sasquatch, the Big Foot and the Yeti throughout time and distance.
The wild man became the symbol of popular discontent with the burgeoning cities and court society; he was, in a sense, a response of nature towards this unnatural existence and the destruction of the Wild Wood. According to Michael Cremo, the Wild Men "were said to be members of the animal kingdom, unable to speak or comprehend the existence of God."12
Many centuries earlier, however, the Wild Man was depicted on a silver Etruscan bowl, "on which," writes Cremo, "may be seen, among human hunters on horses, the figure of a large, ape-like creature."13 Cremo notes that the wild man figure was not one of the common mythological figures but "in
10. Philpot, Mrs. J. H. The Sacred Tree in Religion and Myth. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 2004, 21. A reprint of the 1897 edition published by Macmillan and Co., Ltd. London.
12. Cremo, Michael A. and Richard L. Thompson. The Hidden History of the Human Race: Forbidden Archaeology. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Publishing, Inc. 1996, 595.
the midst of a hunting party of well-armed humans mounted on horses. The creature has no satyr's tail [as some have said that the figure is that of a satyr] and appears to be carrying a crude club in one hand and a large stone, raised threateningly above his head, in the other."14 References to "hairy creatures in desert places" also occur in the Latin Bible in Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14.
Similar club-wielding "rustics" were common figures in medieval romances and it is this image that continues on with our contemporary tales of Big Foot. They are giants of huge size, of savage character and hideous features — but guardians of nature. Beatrice White tells us that, "The prototype can be found in Chrétien de Troyes's Yvain (c. 1173)...where Calogrenant describes the rustic he met in a clearing...in a wood. This fellow was sitting on a stump with a great club in his hand, a lout, black, big, and hideous, in fact so ugly that he defied description."15 According to White, it was this prototype "which was repeated ad nauseam from story to story — the huge, repulsive churl, the primal wild herdsman, guardian of beasts and of territory whose true ancestor is the giant Humbaba of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh — a deadly, terrifying forest warden, breathing fire, whose jaws were death."16
In the medieval romance these common wild men, according to White, all conform "to the same convention, impressive in size, repulsive in looks and manners, lurking in caves or inaccessible places, fighting as often as not with huge, iron-shod clubs, they are libidinous, predatory, cannibalistic. 'evil in their doings.'" 17
According to Thompson, "Aldrovandus describes several of these creatures, amongst whom were a man with his son and daughters who were brought from the Canary Islands, all covered with hair, and first shown in Bologna."18
In North America, the Wild Man is present in the ancient legends of Big Foot and Sasquatch 19 — huge human-like figures covered in long hair and leaves. Nineteenth-century American folklore tells of a family of Big Foot who attacked a group of gold miners in their California cabin one evening, destroying the building and tearing the men apart. Was this a response to the encroachment of "civilized" man? The characteristics of the two are very similar and they react in the same way. As Matthews writes of the Wild Man, "he can only dwell in such wild spots and avoids those places tamed by humankind, retreating ever deeper into the wilderness to escape the excesses of civilization — its cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy".20
15. White, Beatrice. "Cain's Kin" in The Witch in History, ed. by Venetia Newall. New York: Barnes & Noble 1996, 190.
18. Thompson, Dr. C.J.S. Mystery and Lore of Monsters. New York: Barnes & Noble 1994, 99.
19. "Sasquatch" is derived from the Salish, meaning "wild man of the woods."
20. Matthews, John. The Quest for the Green Man. Wheaton; Quest Books 2001, 110.
The Pacific Northwest forest is a breeding ground for Big Foot stories. An article in the April 1965 edition of Western Folklore gave the following account of an event near Eureka, California in 1958:
Two sturdy construction workers insist they have seen "Big Foot," whose 16-inch tracks have been spotted recently in the Northern California woods. "He — or it — bounded across the road in front of our car Sunday evening," said Ray Kerr, 43. "It ran upright like a man, swinging long, hairy arms. It happened so fast, it's kind of hard to give a really close description.
But it was all covered with hair. It had no clothes. It looked 8 or 10 feet tall
Several place names in the Pacific Northwest refer to these wood spirits. "Wampus" in Klamath County, Oregon, means "forest demon," named after "a solitary beast not unlike the far-ranging Sasquatch."22 The skookums are said to be evil and powerful forest gods that reside in strange and unusual places, such as Crater Lake in southern Oregon.
Ethnologist George Gibbs wrote of Oregon's Wild Men in an 1865 account:
One other race of beings I have classed separately, as they in particular are supposed to infest the earth, and do not appear to have been properly Elip Tilikum ('First People' in Chinook Jargon). They are Tsiatko.The belief in these beings is apparently universal among the different tribes, though there is a great discrepancy in their account of them.
By some, the Tsiatko are described as of gigantic size, their feet eighteen inches long and shaped like a bear's. They wore no clothes, but the body is covered with hair like that of a dog, only not so thick..They are said to live in the mountains, in holes under ground, and to smell badly. They come down chiefly in the fishing season, at which time the Indians are excessively afraid of them They are visible only at night, at which time they approach the houses, steal salmon, carry off young girls and smother children.
.Dr. Tolmie states that an Indian woman, married to a Canadian, who lived at Fort Vancouver some twenty years ago, told a story of having been taken prisoner by the Tsiatkos and carried into the woods between the fort and the mill.."23
Legends of these "timber giants" (called "Snanaik" by the Kwakiutl) are part of the Native American culture from Alaska and Canada to South America. Small children were always presumed at risk in Indian villages. "Many a
21. "Folklore in the News: California 'Big Foot'", in Western Folklore, Vol. XXIV, April, 1965, Number 2, 119.
22. Nash, Tom & Twilo Scofield. The Well-Traveled Casket: Oregon Folklore. Eugene: Meadowlark Press 1999, 100.
23. Gibbs, George. "Account of Indian Mythology in Oregon and Washington Territories-1865, pgs 313-314, in Oregon Historical Quarterly 57, 1956 edited by Ella E. Clark.
child was snatched from play," says writer Joseph Wherry, "stuffed inside a basket, and carried off never again to be seen."24
In Alaska, the Chilkat tribe of the Tlingit Indians spoke of the Goo-teekhl, a giant that destroyed many of their villages north of present day Juneau. Children were a favorite of this creature as well. As other tales of these forest wild men relate, the Goo-teekhl often threw large tree limbs at hunters as they sat around their campfires. Even though this Wild Man was a fearsome being, the Tlingit say that anyone who dreams of the Goo-teekhl will have good luck. According to Wherry, the Tlingit may still have totems of this giant which they feed eulachon oil on a daily basis as an offering of
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