As 2011 is officially International Year of Forests, this is the next in a series of articles.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is is an awesome, if long, work of literature. The hero Giligamesh was the king of Uruk, described as two thirds god and one third man and a giant in size and strength. He routinely used his strength and royal power to take advantage of both young men and young women (using a very early version of prima nocte). To protect their sons and wives from the kings lust, the people turn to their gods, and in particular the creator goddess Aruru, pleading with her to send Gilgamesh a companion. Aruru responds, and sends to Gilgamesh a man, Enkidu, who is massive in size, inspiring in physique, hairy like an animal, and with luxuriant tresses of hair “like a woman”. After their initial meeting, the pair go on many adventures together as friends, culminating in the slaying of the Bull of Heaven, for which Enkidu is killed as a punishment to Gilgamesh.
Above is a cylindrical seal showing the two men, one picking up a lion on the left, and the other with a bull on the right
Enkidu embodies the wild or natural world, and though equal to Gilgamesh in strength and bearing, acts in some ways as an antithesis to the cultured, urban-bred warrior-king. Gilgamesh’s grief after Enkidu’s death and their subsequent reunion in the afterworld with Enkidu’s ghost form the meat of the epic.
What I’d like to concentrate on is Enkidu being a representation of the wild forests and animals. It’s a theme we’ve encountered before as an aspect of the Green Man. The wild man, as opposed to the hunter and forest guardian aspects is also known as the woodwose. Also known as Woose, Wudewasa, Jack i’the Green or my personal favourite the simply named Hairy-all-Over, he is often pictured with a coating of hair and armed with a club:
The image continues throughout history:
The portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar II (ca 634 – 562 BC) in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible greatly influenced the medieval European concepts. Daniel 4 depicts God humbling the Babylonian king for his boastfulness; stricken mad and ejected from human society, he grows hair on his body and lives like a beast.
The medieval wild-man concept also drew on lore about similar beings from the Classical world such as the Roman faun and Silvanus. On top of the etymological evidence discussed above, several folk traditions about the wild man correspond with ancient practices and beliefs. Notably, peasants in the Grisons tried to capture the wild man by getting him drunk and tying him up in hopes that he would give them his wisdom in exchange for freedom. This suggests a connection to an ancient tradition – recorded as early as Xenophon (died 354 BCE) and appearing in the works of Ovid, Pausanias, and Claudius Aelianus – in which shepherds caught a forest being, here called Silenus or Faunus, in the same fashion and for the same purpose
The earliest medieval concepts of the wild man focus on him as a normal human driven wild by madness, as in the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar; this first occurs in Celtic societies.These Celtic stories attribute to the wild man poetic or prophetic powers. The 9th-century Irish tale The Madness of Sweeney describes how Sweeney, the pagan king of the Dál nAraidi in Ulster, 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 wild man 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 wild man 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 wild men 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.
In all these accounts the wild man, or woodwose is a savage untamed beast, often living in the liminal places, where civilisation met the wild. The first account of these was Enkidu, but there have been many more since, embodying the wilds and reminding us that not everywhere, nor everyone has a touch of civilisation.