Thursday, August 28, 2014

Creature of the Month: The Green Man: Woodwoses of Ancient Europe by Micah Hanks


Myth knows only one shade; that of darkness. It is from that darkness of the realm of legend that a figure arises, pervasive throughout legends worldwide, that has become so common, and yet remaining obscure enough that most overlook it.

High among the caved cliff tops of China, there are tales of a beast called the Yeren that lives apart from humans, but with a form not unlike that of man. Elsewhere, similar legends have described a beast in the Himalayas called Yeti, purportedly with feet oriented backward on the ends of its legs, to aid it in climbing along steep slopes. In the Americas, the Sasquatch is said to haunt the lonely back roads of the country’s more remote portions; and even in the proverbial underworld of Oz, the Australian outback is riddled with tales of a manlike beast called Yowie that stalks the bush by night.

For many, this narrative begins, and ends, by the remote tales of man-monsters that seem to haunt the legends of people all over the world. How familiar a beast, it would seem, and one so much like us; arguably, if any such creature could truly exist, it would be more like us than any other living animal. Stepping over the line of distinction between the thinking, feeling man and his beastly opposites of the wild, this proverbial thing we have called the “wild man” might very well be human, to some extent.

But the story untold here is one that reaches much further back than the scattered reports and retellings of “monsters” said to be in our midst. There is, in fact, a cultural concept that has emerged many times, interweaving itself between our storied legends and mythic representations much like that shadow said to lurk between the trunks of tall trees in the forest. From within the man, the darkened wood, and his woes, a beast emerges… and yet, something that may not really be so much a “beast” at all.

It is, instead, a strange green man, clad in hair all over.
Throughout European myth in the Middle Ages, there were tales of the beasts that were called Woodwoses. These are viewed by many scholars today as cultural renditions of the enduring “wild man” of legend, as well the supernatural werewolves, which betrayed a more occult component, or at least, some cursed nature that afflicted a normal man with the onset of “wildness”.

Stemming from old English forms such as wudu, the prefix of the term seems to clearly depict an etymological precursor to "wood", or that which comes from within the forest. The rest of the term (possibly of the ancient Anglo-Saxon meaning to be alive) seems to flesh out the term in a way that could be interpreted today as essentially meaning “forest dweller” or perhaps “man of the wood.” Hence, the notion of the man coming from the wood may literally have contributed to a man that is also of the wood, bearing not only the beastly traits of his forest familiars, but also the literal coloration of his leafy surroundings: a literal “green man”, as it were.  

Among the most famous tales to tell of this Green Man of folklore, there is the tale of Arthur’s loyal Sir Gawain, whose meeting with a Green Man is featured in writings dating back to the late fourteenth century. Here, the Green Man is described thusly:

For scarce was the noise not a while ceased,
and the first course in the court duly served,
there hales in at the hall door a dreadful man,
the most in the world’s mould of measure high,
from the nape to the waist so swart and so thick,
and his loins and his limbs so long and so great
half giant on earth I think now that he was;
but the most of man anyway I mean him to be,
and that the finest in his greatness that might ride,
for of back and breast though his body was strong,
both his belly and waist were worthily small,
and his features all followed his form made
and clean.
Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
            he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.

While prevalent in legend, the story of the Woodwose is not typical to most writings on cryptozoology. This is largely because the creature discussed here is, rather obviously, not intended to be construed as a physical animal per se, so much as it is a representation in legend of a concept of which our modern “Bigfoot” and “Abominable Snowman” no doubt represent a sort of continuance. No less among those who drew such parallels had been Ivan T. Sanderson, the astute, but at times credulous Scottish zoologist who helped put Bigfoot on the map beginning in the 1950s and 60s in magazines like Argosy, and in his exhaustive Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life. To Sanderson, the stories of the Woodwoses were “readily distinguishable and quite distinct from depictions of apes and monkeys on the one hand, and people in costumes playing the parts of these wild men in traditional, religious, or secular plays and carnivals on the other hand.” Furthermore, the consistency of key features in various artistic renditions of the creatures suggested, to Sandserson, "representations of relic knowledge of some fully haired Primitives or Subhumans that once inhabited Eurasia," with special attention given to the creature's feet in many depictions over the centuries:
[E]ven more convincing… is the care with which they depict the feet of each of these creatures, [here being] greater significance than any other anatomical detail in distinguishing between hominid and pongid anthropoids.

Sanderson similarly pondered the significance of the Woodwose’s accessories, namely the clubs they tended to wield, which he compared with modern reports of Abominable Snowmen:
The crude clubs carried by the Wudewasa types are invariably of the same form and size, and are nearly always carried in the left hand, even if the right hand is free…. Also, the clubs carried by the Wudewasa's are deliberately and carefully shown to be but crude logs with rounded ends and of somewhat lesser diameter at the end held by the hands; the weapons and tools alleged to have been also carried by Abominable Snowmen.

It is interesting that the Woodwoses were often depicted carrying snakes in their free hand; as much as the color of the fabled “Green Man” had been associated with fertility and rebirth in European folklore, the snake has often depicted sexuality, regeneration, and a host of other things; the two can equally be contrasted in relation to ancient European beliefs in that both snakes, and the color green, often depicted evil and wickedness.

The idea of studying a legend in order to perceive its modern, realistic counterparts may seem counter-intuitive; but in truth, at the essence of the Bigfoot mystery may one day be resolved—or perhaps at least broadened—by seeking to understand its requisite components. These must include the earlier myths from parts of the world where the literal existence of an animal the likes of our “Bigfoot” seems far less plausible, when compared with the remoteness of the greater American wilds. Indeed, it seems impossible that such a creature would inhabit Europe, or that it ever could. Why, then, the prevalence of such legends?




Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.

He is author of several books, including his 2012 New Page Books release, The UFO Singularity, The Ghost RocketsMagic, Mysticism and the Molecule, and Reynolds Mansion. Hanks is an editor for Intrepid Magazine, and consulting editor/contributor for FATE Magazine and The Journal of Anomalous Sciences. He writes for a variety of other publications, and produces a weekly podcast, The GralienReport, which follows his research.

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