Beltane always makes my mind dwell on one of my oldest obsessions; the Wild Man. The wodewose, meaning “woodland” or “of the wood,” was first mentioned as the character Enkidu in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first Wild Man popped up in writing, as several cultures convey hairy, leafy men existing in the forests. Without going into the mythos of the Green Man and all the fertility and vegetation gods and creatures that exist and have existed, I’m strictly speaking of Medieval Europe’s fear of the Wild Man and the woods he belongs to.
“…the Wild Man figure, considered an amoral beast, was a warning to Christians of what spiritual neglect could lead one into becoming. The drives, instincts, and passions were therefore viewed with suspicion by the church because it jeopardized the belief in man being ontologically distinct from animals. It followed that the primordial urges, a vestige of our animality, should be dominated lest one regress into a chaotic, insane, and ungodly existence” -Rory Alan MacLean
Throughout the 15th and 16th century, there was this primal fear of a forest (okay, there’s always been a fear of a dark forest and horror films don’t help with that). The belief of evil and darkness and uncontrollable chaos of Nature exists within those groves. Home to the monsters of God. Several writings of old literature state that when a man loses his sanity, gone mad, he grows hair all over his body and runs from society; exiled to the woods. Merlin did this in Arthurian myth: “…a strange madness came upon him. He crept away and fled to the woods, unwilling that any should see his going. Into the forest he went, glad to lie hidden beneath the ash trees. He watched the wild creatures grazing on the pasture of the glades. Sometimes he would follow them, sometimes pass them in his course. He made use of the roots of plants and of grasses, of fruit from trees and of the blackberries in the thicket. He became a Man of the Woods, as if dedicated to the woods” –Vita Merlini by Geoffrey Monmouth (1150 AD). And speaking of Arthurian myth, the same happened to Lancelot of the Lake when Guinevere chose Arthur over him. Also, there was mention of hairy men in the woods who did not understand human language in Norway in 1250, recorded in the Speculum Regale. This concept of fleeing the sanity and controlled structures of healthy societal mind and entering the thick forest was familiar and almost expected.
“There is something inherently disturbing in these images of the Wildman who simultaneously displays both human and nonhuman qualities. Our species tends to marginalize what it fears, and during the Middle Ages and earlier the Wildman was treated as an object of fear. At the heart of this treatment of the archetype lies a tension between two distinct portraits of the Wildman- on the one hand, as a potentially friendly being, and, on the other, as a savage creature” –The Quest for the Green Man by John Matthews
Why is this a thing? Before therapists who take off the month of August and benzodiazepines, people just ran to the nearest group of trees, arms flailing. A forest hides that which is within and keeps the sunlight out. What one cannot see, one fears. It is why so many of our fairy tales take place in the Black Forest of Germany (which btw, I explored during a foggy night a few years ago but did not meet any wolves that walked on their hind legs. Lame.) and why children fear the dark. It is where the beasts and supernatural beings live and dwell. So when everything in life turns its back on a man, even God, he knows this is the one place where he can belong. The mind is no longer structured and sensible; it has gone wild. And so, like attracts like, the woods comprise of wilderness and unsubdued Nature so ergo his retreat. Being such a widespread fear, the Wild Man popped up everywhere throughout the Renaissance in artwork, poetry, and architecture. Mummers and children dressed in leaves and cloth to mimic shaggy hair and danced and teased like a Fool. It’s possible this could be the origin of Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest or even werewolves, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about Wild Men (known as Dunlendings) as did other medieval warfare and sci-fi writers, and they were even included as circus attractions for a time.
I love the idea of going mad, growing hair everywhere, and fleeing to the woodland to live with the beasts; forfeiting all rationality. It’s both horrific and beautiful; to just give it all up and go. I do not fear the Wild Man; I envy him. And why can’t forests be a source of mental healing? Maybe that’s why crazy people ran to the woods of medieval times. If forest therapy is practiced in Japan, and a rejuvenating hike resets my perspective and feels refreshing for me; then maybe the wodewose had it right all along. Maybe we’re not meant to be cultured and societal, living behind brick and mortar; but intended to live in the darkest, thickest, and wildest of woods. What society calls “the crazies,” exiled and ostracized. Maybe there’s something there that we can learn from the Wild Man.
By Neil Gaiman
Shedding my shirt, my book, my coat, my life
Leaving them, empty husks and fallen leaves
Going in search of food and for a spring
Of sweet water.
I’ll find a tree as wide as ten fat men
Clear water rilling over its gray roots
Berries I’ll find, and crab apples and nuts,
And call it home.
I’ll tell the wind my name, and no one else.
True madness takes or leaves us in the wood
halfway through all our lives. My skin will be
my face now.
I must be nuts. Sense left with shoes and house,
my guts are cramped. I’ll stumble through the green
back to my roots, and leaves and thorns and buds,
I’ll leave the way of words to walk the wood
I’ll be the forest’s man, and greet the sun,
And feel the silence blossom on my tongue