The Woodwose (Old English: wuduwasa) or Wildman of the Woods is a mythological figure that appears in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe. Images of woodwoses appear in the carved and painted roof bosses where intersecting ogee vaults meet in the Canterbury Cathedral, in positions where one is also likely to encounter the vegetal Green Man. The woodwose, pilosus or "hairy all over", and often armed with a club, was a link between civilized humans and the dangerous elf-like spirits of natural woodland, such as Puck. The image of the wild man survived to appear as supporter for heraldic coats-of-arms, especially in Germany, well into the 16th century. Early engravers in Germany and Italy were particularly fond of wild men, wild women, and wild families, with examples from Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer among others.
"Wild man" and its cognates is the common term for the creature in most languages; it appears in German
as wilder mann
, and in French
as homme suavage
as huomo selvatico
. A number of local forms also exist, including the Old English wudewasa
and the Middle English wodewose
. These English terms suggest a connection to the woods and remain present in Modern English, for instance in the name of the author P. G. Wodehouse
. Old High German
, which appear in glosses of Latin works as translations for fauni
, or pilosi
, indicating that the creature named was a hairy woodland being.
Some of the local names suggest connections with beings from ancient mythology, for instance the term salvan or salvang, common in Lombardy and the Italian-speaking parts of the Alps, which derives from the Latin silvanus, the name of the Roman tutelary god of gardens and the countryside. Similarly, folklore in the Tyrol and German-speaking Switzerland into the 20th century included a wild woman known as Fange or Fanke, which derives from the Latin faun. Various languages and traditions include names suggesting affinites with Orcus, a Roman and Italic god of death. For many years people in the Tyrol called the wild man Orke, Lorke, or Noerglein, while in parts of Italy he was the orco or huorco. The French ogre has the same derivation, as do modern literary orcs.
Woodwoses and Christianity
The woodwose was unsettling to Christian writers. Augustine
reports the Gaulish name of "Dusii" in City of God
XV, ch. 23: Et quosdam daemones, quos Dusios Galli nuncupant, adsidue hanc immunditiam et efficere, plures talesque adseuerant, ut hoc negare impudentiae uideatur
— "Certain demons
, whom the Gauls call Dusii, consistently and successfully attempt this indecency [intercourse with women]. This is asserted by many witnesses of such character that it would be an impertinence to deny it," and perhaps the early 7th century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville
has picked up Augustine's reference for his Etymologies
- Pilosi, qui Graece 'panitae', Latine 'incubi' appellantur - hos daemones Galli 'Dusios' nuncupant. Quem autem vulgo 'Incu-bonem' vocant, hunc Romani 'Faunum' dicunt — "Satyrs" are they who are called "Pans" in Greek, Incubi in Latin, these daemons the Galls call Dusi. What vulgarly are called "Incu-bonem", these the Romans name "Fauns".
Other early references
"Wildmen of the Woods" feature in a number of Celtic stories, which often describe them as normal men who take to the woods in fits of madness, and are thereafter associated with poetic or prophetic powers. The 9th-century Irish
tale Buile Shuibhne
(The Madness of Sweeney
) describes how Sweeney, the pagan king of the Dál nAraidi
, assaults the Christian bishop Ronan Finn and is cursed with madness as a result. He spends many years traveling naked through the woods, where he composes verse. The Welsh
told a similar story about Myrddin Wyllt
, the origin of the Merlin
of later romance. In these stories Myrddin is a warrior in the service of King Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio
at the time of the Battle of Arfderydd
. When his lord is killed at the battle, Myrddin takes to the Caledonian Forest
in a fit of madness which bestows him with the ability to compose prophetic poetry; a number of later prophetic poems are attributed to him. The Life of Saint Kentigern
includes almost the same story, though here the madman of Arfderydd is instead called Lailoken
, which may be the original name. The fragmentary 16th-century Breton
text An Dialog Etre Arzur Roe D'an Bretounet Ha Guynglaff
(Dialog Between Arthur and Guynglaff
) tells of a meeting between King Arthur
and the wildman Guynglaff, who predicts events which will occur down to the 16th century.
Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts the Myrddin Wyllt legend in his Latin Vita Merlini of around 1150, though here the figure has been renamed "Merlin". According to Geoffrey, after Merlin witnessed the horrors of the battle:
- 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. So for a whole summer he stayed hidden in the woods, discovered by none, forgetful of himself and of his own, lurking like a wild thing.
A woodwose is described in Konungs skuggsjá (Speculum Regale or "the King's Mirror"), written in Norway around 1250:
- It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking.
King Charles VI of France and five of his courtiers were dressed as woodwoses and chained together for a masquerade at the tragic Bal des Sauvages (later known as the Bal des Ardents) at the Queen Mother's Paris hôtel, January 28, 1393. They were "in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, "so that they appeared shaggy & hairy from head to foot"". In the midst of the festivities, a stray spark from a torch set their highly flammable costumes ablaze, burning several courtiers alive; the king's own life was saved through quick action by his aunt, Joann, Duchesse de Berry, who covered him with her dress.
The term wood-woses or simply Woses is used by J. R. R. Tolkien to describe a fictional race of wild men, which are called also Drúedain. According to his legendarium, other men, including the Rohirrim, mistook the Drúedain for goblins or other wood-creatures and referred to them as Púkel-men (Goblin-men). He allows the fictional possibility that his Drúedain were the "actual" origin of the Woodwoses of later traditional folklore.
Both folklorists and cryptozoologists apply the term "wild men" to European woodwoses. "Wild men" has a wider definition than "woodwoses"; it is also used for worldwide reports of hair-covered bipeds resembling Bigfoot, but tends to be most often applied to beings that seem more human than ape, or that have strong mythological or supernatural overtones.
Neil Gaiman makes reference to this creature in his poem "Going Wodwo", which is itself part of the anthology Fragile Things.
- Richard Bernheimer, Wild men in the Middle Ages, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1952; New York : Octagon books, 1979, ISBN 0-374-90616-5
- Rachel Bromwich (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
- Timothy Husband, The wild man : medieval myth and symbolism, Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, ISBN 0-87099-254-6, ISBN 0-87099-255-4
- Rebecca Martin, Wild Men and Moors in the Castle of Love: The Castle-Siege Tapestries in Nuremberg, Vienna, and Boston, Thesis (Ph.D.), Chapel Hill/N. C., 1983
- Norris J. Lacy (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Michael Newton. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. ISBN 0-7864-2036-7