Nobody today believes in dragons or ogres, werewolves or vampires. They are creatures of the imagination, nebulous products of our shared dreams and nightmares. Yet throughout human history, one monster is sighted time and time again. It may be the sasquatch timidly picking its way across the vast forests of Canada. It could be the yeti, safely hidden from prying eyes, even when the Himalayas are clogged with tourists and sightseers. In Medieval Europe, it was commonly known as the wodwo or wild man of the woods.
The wodwo or wodwose was commonly depicted as a man (or woman) covered in fur that sprawled and spun around its spindly body. This hair was usually grey or brown, and the wildman would often be armed with a club or shield, such as in this fabulous example from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City:
Shield with Greyhound Held by Wild Man
Martin Schongauer (German, Colmar ca. 1435/50–1491 Breisach)
Even the name “wodwo” tells us we are dealing with something that is very, very old. Words containing the letter W are usually of Anglo-Saxon origin. This is why the Anglo-Saxon expert J.R.R Tolkien spend most of his time on the Oxford English Dictionary writing definitions for words beginning with the letter.
Even for a master philologist such as Tolkein, the word ‘wodwose’ remained obscure. ‘Wod’ is undoubtedly from ‘wood’, but ‘wose’ has no clear origins, although it appears to be the plural of the word. Like the wodwo itself, it is a fragment of a larger whole, sighted for a moment and then disappearing back into the mulch and darkness of the trackless forest.
So what is the attraction of this mythical creature? Perhaps it is because like the dragon, there was plenty of “evidence” for its existence. Even in the ancient world, traders on the silk route through central Asia could have seen enormous fossilised bones and eggs, giving rise to legends of fabulous creatures with giant wings and scales.
In the case of the wodwo, human beings have constantly stumbled across our simian ancestors, or, should I say, simian co-habitants of this planet. While modern scientists still debate how close we are to the apes, the Malays have long ago made their decision. They describe the orang-utan as “the person of the forest” and there’s no doubt that these great apes are extremely close to us genetically as well as in terms of behaviour. They are however, not the only wodwo-esque beings to inhabit the islands of Indonesia.
Sumatra is also said to be the home of an ape-man hybrid, known as the orang pendek. In 2011, the Guardian reported a new expedition which was going in search of this legendary animal: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/sep/08/orang-pendek-sumatra-mystery-ape. Whether these cryptozoologists find it or not, it is fascinating to me that people still launch campaigns to seek out the wild man.
However, whatever their similarity to us, apes cannot be the origins of our European wildman, unless they arrived with other legends from the Orient. No chimpanzees were swinging through the forests of ancient Britain.
Is it possible that the wild man of the woods belongs to an older, oral history? A sort of race memory, passed down through myth and legend, ballad and artwork? Is it possible that the wild man of the woods was once our neanderthal cousin, living near us but hidden, semi-civilised but savage, human-like, but covered in hair?
It sounds fanciful, but it may be possible. The scale of written history is very short. A centenarian today has already lived through 1/20 of all the years between our age and the time of Christ. We have no clear idea of when the neanderthals died out. In fact, genetically speaking, they never died out at all: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17527318. Could that be the answer to our fascination with wodwo? Not that it was a mythical creature, but that it was a ghost of the past, the road not taken, the being that chose not to make houses, farms and villages, but instead chose to slip back into the forest to dwell among the wild, untamed places of the world.