Green Men and Woodwose have stood in European cathedrals for a thousand years now, so why are they not well known? From Gods to the magic of Merlin what is the origin of these strange carvings? Unicorns, Werewolf men, and Mermen also make guest appearances.
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Hello my friends, to another episode of Strange Origins. As I’m nearing my fiftieth episode I’ve realized that there is little I haven’t at least mentioned in one of my many episode topics. I feel like I’ve touched on a million different things including the supernatural, religion, fairy tales, metaphysics, you name it.
But a large topic I have yet to have covered is the idea of the wild man. If you live anywhere in the upper part of the United States, you’re more than likely familiar with the concept of a wild man referred to as Bigfoot, or maybe even Sasquatch.
While the concept of Bigfoot is a ginormous chunk of cryptozoology that I’m sure I’ll investigate in more detail later on, I wanted to go back in time and research all the different versions of hairy human-like creatures in the forest there have been recorded in history. One of the lesser-known versions of this half-man half-animal has been referred to as woodwose for thousands of years. But before I discuss exactly what a woodwose is, I feel the need to go back and tell you how I first was introduced to this topic. To do that I need to tell you about an icon referred to as The Green Man.
The Green Man
What little knowledge I had of The Woodwose began when my parents went on a trip to England and Scotland a few years back. After visiting a lot of castles and a lot of churches, my mom brought back with her a fantastic knowledge of different architecture and local history. One of the things I became interested in was the statues of The Green Man that seemed to have been featured in a great number of stone buildings built a millennia ago that have managed to survive to this day.
The Green Man can usually be identified by the branches of vines that sprout out of its face, or by the flowers or fruit surrounding its features. Sometimes he is seen in mosaics sporting a full green and leafy beard or tree-like hair or is depicted as a man hiding as only a pair of eyes under dense foliage.
Something interesting I read about the Green Man is how he is classified under three very interesting names. First, you have The Foliate Head, where the green man is depicted as being completely covered in green leaves. The second classification is called The Disgorging Head and is usually pretty easy to spot as he can be seen spitting out or throwing up vegetation. And the third classification, called the Bloodsucker Head, features the Green man with vines coming out from his ears, his nostrils, his mouth, and even his tear ducts.
While he can be found in both religious and non-religious buildings, what’s so interesting about him is that no one really understands why he was built into so many structures. While it’s obvious that he serves a decorative purpose, most of the time that kind of meticulous detailing served a purpose in telling a story. Usually, that story was focused on religious iconography.
Some people believe that The Green Man was integrated into those structures as a way of helping to bridge the gap between Pagan worshippers and Christian worshippers when the two religions began to feud and merge. It’s unclear how many names he has gone by, but before being referred to as The Green Man for the first time in 1939 by a Lady Raglan in a piece for Folklore magazine, he was actually referred to as Jack in the Green. What’s interesting about this theory that he was created to serve Medieval purposes is that he was actually created long before the Medieval period.
Green Men have been found in Lebanon and Iraq and seemed to have been first carved in the 2nd Century. It’s interesting to me that you can track his travels through time, as it was well documented that his artistic concept hitched a ride with artists who toured Asia Minor and ended up being featured in Neo-Gothic Victorian architecture in the 20th century.
While the story of the Green Man is a little easier to understand, it’s the similar Woodwose that has left me fascinated. Seen in many similar places as the Green Man, the Woodwose seems to also be a motif focused on nature, but instead of a vegetal face, it is the full figure of a man. He also usually looks as if he is fully covered up by fur. Sometimes his artist covers him with a wreath of green leaves on his head and hips, but other times you can clearly see he stands like a satyr, or in other words; half-man, half-animal.
Something that helps historians identify Woodwose is the fact that he can often be seen holding a weapon of some sort, usually a wooden club. This is because is he has been known to fight off mythical creatures such as dragons, though occasionally you can find a depiction child etched onto the club. Much like hags were thought to consume children who went wandering into the woods, woodwoses were also used as a kind of boogeymen to help keep children away from the forest and away from danger.
Also in accordance with the bogeyman theory, it was said that Woodwoses had superhuman strength, which isn’t too surprising seeing as they were painted as fairly large creatures. But something else also written about the creatures was that they were quote “deaf to the word of God”, meaning they were most likely vilified and painted as Pagan. So in the war between Christianity and the older Pagan worship, Woodwoses became a demonized character that wouldn’t think twice about bludgeoning
your children and eating them. Adults weren’t safe from harm either, as males woodwoses were said to drag young maidens into the forest, and female woodwoses were said to transform into beautiful human women in order to seduce men.
According to the stories surrounding the carvings of the creatures if his club is pointed up as if he is going to attack he has yet to convert to Christianity, but if his club is pointed down he has found God and has been converted.
Who is the Wild Man?
Theories are endless as to what or who actually inspired the Woodwose. We know one thing for sure though; the word woodwose means literally, Man of the Woods. Other than that, you’re guess is as good as mine. Like the Green Man or even Bigfoot, the Woodwose is thought to reside in the forest and to be one with nature.
In Medieval times it was the popular theory that the Woodwose were a group of people who had simply just wandered out into the woods, and the same way animals have adapted to nature, grew their hair out for protection from the elements. Another, less popular idea was that the Woodwose were people born with a genetic disorder that caused them to grow fur like an animal, which has been nicknamed the Werewolf Syndrome. Seen as far from normal they were banished to the woods where they lived isolated in the wild. And another theory proposed by some modern researchers is that woodwose were simply sightings of neanderthals in Medieval Europe. That theory doesn’t seem likely to me, though, as neanderthals disappeared from Europe around 40,000 years ago.
Despite where they came from or didn’t come from, Woodwoses have actually changed modern pop culture more than you might realize.
A fascinating fact about Woodwoses is that during medieval times the theory of hairy, wild, brutish men living in the forest became so popular that at one point it was the theme of a party. In 1393 King Charles VI, along with five other men attended one of these balls which had been organized by the then queen of France. To prepare for the party they dressed up in costumes made from linen that had been soaked in highly flammable material which they then stuck frazzled hemp fibers to in order to make it look like they were covered in hair. Along with the rather hairy outfits, they were also chained together.
Despite the fact that everyone had been warned not to bring any open flames to the party, the king's brother came running in with a torch, obviously unaware of the situation. Four of the men burned alive while the king escaped injury. The particular party went down in history as the Ball of the Burning Men and was memorialized by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story titled Hop-Frog, which is one of the more bizarre short stories I’ve ever read.
Gods or Men?
Unlike Bigfoot, both the Green Men and the Woodwose were never thought to be ape-like, but rather godlike. The Green Man is thought to have been a depiction of quite of few Godly figures. There is Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility, Odin, the Germanic god of wisdom and war, or Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and pleasure. A god I was previously unfamiliar with that the Woodwose is often thought to be related to is Silvanus, the Roman god of the countryside. While Silvanus has a bit more power, he is also believed to be the Roman version of the Greek Faunus, who is the half-man, a half-goat creature often referred to as Pan.
In an ancient book titled “The Kings Mirror” which was written in Norway around 1250, there is a fantastical description of a wild man that some believe could have been a Woodwose. It states that quote:
“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.” end quote.
Others believed The Green Man to have been a depiction of Father Christmas, which makes sense when you imagine characters like the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol who is known for his lush costume of greenery. But the most popular figures the wildman is confused to be is that of Christ, or when featured as a couple, Adam and Eve.
Surprisingly, Woodwose can actually be found carved alongside depiction of wild women, a lot of who seem to be his equal in body hair. A famous tapestry now hung in the Basel Historical Museum is titled Wild Woman with Unicorn and features a woman sitting in a field with a unicorn only she could tame. Something peculiar about the wild woman and what sets her apart from other maidens is that thick curly hair covers everything on her body with the exception of her breasts, neck, and face.
Sweeney & Myrddin
A famous Celtic myth that might explain the origin of the Woodwose is the Irish tale called the Madness of Sweeney. In the 9th century tale, a pagan king assaults a Christian bishop and is cursed with madness as a consequence. Afterward, he begins to grow feathers and talons and can fly like a bird. He spends years traveling naked through the woods and composes verses with the other madmen of the woods, which personally, doesn’t sound that bad of a punishment. In an attempt to be forgiven he writes a poem praising the Christain God before dying.
Another, probably more recognizable character that once played the role of the man in the woods was Merlin, from Arthurian Legend. Originally referred to as Myrddin Wyllt, Wyllt originally translated to mean wild. As I mentioned in my second Witches episode, Myrddin is thought to have been a real man who, after witnessing the horrible events of war in 573 fled to the woods to live with the beasts and to, eventually, receive the gift of prophecy.
In the story titled Vita Merlini, written around 1150, it’s said of Merlin that quote “...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.”
One of the most widely recognized references to woodwoses I discovered was in J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord of the Rings Universe. In it, there is a race of creatures called Druedain, which I probably just butchered the name of, who are also nicknamed the woses, and who are described as quote “living few and secretly, wild and wary as beasts.”
The Orford Wilman
One story, written around 1200 and recounted in Myths and Legends of Britain and Ireland by Richard Jones, tells of a creature that seems like a mix between a woodwose and a merman. The story probably wouldn’t have become such a popular folktale if not for the survival of his depiction in stone at the base of baptismal fonts in several local churches.
The story goes that fishermen in the area were astonished one day when they pulled up a strangely human-looking creature. It was described as covered in a thick matte of hair, with a long beard, and a bald crown at the top of its head. It would also only communicate in grunts. They took the creature to a castle built by Henry II and kept him there where he lived almost like a prisoner.
Some stories say that they fed him fish, which he always wrung the water out of before consuming raw, while other accounts say that he only drank the water that came from the fish, instead of the freshwater they gave him. And attempting to bring the creature to God, they forced it to attend a church service at Orford Church, which he seemed very disinterested in. While he seemed happy at his prison in the castle, he escaped one day after his guards allowed him to exercise by swimming in the ocean water. He was never seen again.
Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall is famous for having documented the case of the Orford Wildman, several years after the events were supposed to have happened, in a book called the Chronicon Anglicanum.
Woodwose Around The World
After he was featured in the magical Sweeney and Merlin tales, the concept of the woodwose evolved, or should I say devolved, into something a little less human and a little more monstrous. Today it just takes a quick google search to find a plethora of information on modern wildmen. And it doesn’t matter where you travel, you can find a version of a woodwose in pretty much every country and culture.
In Brazilian Folklore, the Mapinguari is said to live in the Amazon rainforest. This creature, besides being a large, hairy beast, is often described as being a cyclops, meaning it sees out of one eyeball situated in the middle of the face, and its mouth is conveniently situated where its belly button would be.
In Australia, the boogeyman that roams the wilderness is called Yowie. Known mostly from Aboriginal folklore, the Yowie, also called the Yahoo, or the Hairy Man is famous for being one of the more aggressive versions of the bigfoot type cryptid.
And in the Chinese forests, it is believed by many that a hairy creature referred to as Yeren descends from the mountains only in search of food and prisoners. It’s said there has been a constant string of sightings since 340 BCE, and obsession with the creature culminated in the so-called “Yeren Fever” of the 1960s and 70s.
The concept of nature vs man has always intrigued me, but something that’s even more interesting to me is what happens when man succumbs to nature. Despite all the good civilization has done for the safety and comfort of humans, I sometimes wonder what cost we’ve paid for refinement. To me, the story of the woodwose is the story of spirituality vs. religion or humanity vs. instinct. I guess it’s also interesting to point out that in the end, we all die anyway. And so in one way or another, we all are going to return to nature in some form or another. So, were the wild men and women really so crazy for making peace with their surroundings? That’s kind of too big of a question for me to answer, so I’ll just leave it to you to think about.
Thank you so much for joining me for this episode of Strange Origins, my friends. I hope you learned something you didn’t know before today (because I know I did,) and don’t forget to keep it strange.