Medieval Wild Man relic discovered by treasure hunters has roots in ancient history
English metal detectorists have found a Medieval spoon handle depicting a figure of the Wild Man, a hairy, club-wielding legend who existed on the edges of civilization from ancient times. Stories about the Wild Man differ, some say he was a prophet, or that he went mad with grief over the loss of his beloved, or that he was a monster slayer and hero.
Two years ago the metal detectorists found the 15 th century AD metallic figure. It was declared a British national treasure at an inquest last week in Ipswich, reports the BBC. The spoon was likely owned by a person of the middle or upper class and may have been a warning about behavior, said Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. He told the BBC that the Wild Man was barbaric, chaotic and unrestrained.
Early writings about the medieval European Wild Man are known from ninth century Spain. He is usually shown in paintings or described in literature rather than depicted on objects like the spoon handle.
The Wild Man has a long history in humanity’s legends and myths. This photo shows the spoon handle found near Ipswich. (Photo by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service)
But stories of the Wild Man go back even further, as long ago as or longer than 5,000 years. Legends and myths from Asia to the Mideast to Europe tell of men who either by choice or force enter the wilderness and live barbaric lives. The Buddha himself lived as an ascetic in the forest for a time after leaving his pampered life as a prince. And Jesus was said to have gone into the wilderness for 40 days and nights of testing by the Devil. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist is another Biblical wild man, clad in a camel-hair shirt, eating locusts and honey and wandering the wilderness prophesying about End Times.
Man, Myth and Magic encyclopedia states:
One of the alarming creatures to be found in the forest of legend, and in the old days in the forest of reality, is a woodwouse (spelt in various ways, including woodwose and woodhouse), a wild man of the woods. Perceval is something of a wild man himself, in the sense of a ‘natural man’ or ‘noble savage,’ brought up close to Nature and far from civilization, so ignorant of the ways of the world that when he first sees mailed knights of Arthur’s court he takes them for angels.
A depiction of Wild Men by Albrecht Durer, 1499. (Wikimedia Commons)
A more orthodox woodwouse is the hero of Sir Orfeo, a medieval English poem based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. Sir Orfeo takes to the forest when his beloved wife is snatched away by the fairies. In his desperate grief he decides never to look at a woman again but to go to the wilderness, to live with wild beasts in the ancient woods. There he sleeps on the ground, gathering fruit and berries in the summer and in the winter reduced to digging up roots and gnawing on grass and bark. He grows cruelly thin, his beard long and shaggy, but on bright clear days he plays his harp. All the beasts of the forest gather round and the birds cluster on the branches to hear the sweetness of his harping.
Sir Orfeo wins back his love when he sees her with the Fairy King and his knights and ladies.
Another connection to the Arthurian fables is Merlin, who, the story says, was driven mad and wandered the woods as a punishment for inciting war. Tales of Merlin or Myrddin as the Wild Man of the Woods living in the Caledonian Forest have a corollary in the early Scottish tales of Lailoken, another prophetic wild man. Some say the legends of Merlin as a wild prophet owe everything to these Scottish tales.
There are also correspondences to Silenus of Asia Minor, a deity of the woods whom people tried to catch to make him sing and prophesize. He was said to be the oldest of all Satyrs, which are beings who consort with Dionysus in his revelries with the nymphs.
A fragment of the epic Gilgamesh in cuneiform from around 2003 to 1595 BC (Wikimedia Commons)
The Wild Man has also been equated with Enkidu of the ancient Mesopotamians, who was feral in contrast to Gilgamesh, a civilized, cultured hero. The two comprise a team of monster-slayers and heroes. In Babylon, Enkidu became the patron deity of animals because in the epic Gilgamesh he has many animal-like qualities.
Gilgamesh says of Enkidu’s creation by Aruru:
There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself. His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nsabaa, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with mated hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game. … He is the strongest in the world, he is like an immortal from heaven. He ranges over the hills with wild beast and eats grass …
Featured image: Main: A depiction of Wild Men by Albrecht Durer, 1499. (Wikimedia Commons). Inset: The Wild Man has a long history in humanity’s legends and myths. This photo shows the spoon handle found near Ipswich. (Photo by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service)
By Mark Miller