A paper on the myth of the “wild man” or “savage” in anthropology, with special reference to the work of Roger Bartra.THE WODEWOSE:
NOTES ON ROGER BARTRA’S WILD MEN
E. N. Anderson
Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521
San Onofre, CA
SUMMARY Roger Bartra, in his recent books Wild Men in the Looking Glass (1994) and The Artificial Savage (1997), has brilliantly chronicled the Wild Man, or Wodewose, in European myth and art. He has connected the stereotypic Wild Man with the image of the savage, or natural man, found in writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the early political economists. It is reasonably clear that this image, in turn, influenced early ethnology. Adam Kuper, in “The Invention of Primitive Society,” wonders where the early anthropologists found their conception of savage life. With Bartra’s help, we can now locate the origin of the concept in hallowed European tradition. This tradition constructed a mythic savage who was, as Bartra shows, the opposite (often the ironic opposite) of the properly civilized person. Ethnologists, perforce, made do with this paradigm until extensive field work revealed other, and hopefully more accurate, images.
“Farre in the forrest by a hollow glade,
Couered with mossie shrubs, which spredding brode
Did vnderneath them make a gloomy shade;
Where foot of liuing creature neuer trode,
Ne scarse wyld beasts durst come, there was this wights abode.” (Spenser 1912:353)
Most, perhaps all, anthropologists are aware of Thomas Hobbes’ characterization of the state of nature: “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 1950:104). Few, however, realize that Hobbes was not describing any actual society–however much he may have been inspired by his horror at the English Civil War. He was, rather, referring to a persistent European folk character: the savage or wild man.
Roger Bartra, in his superb two-volume study Wild Men in the Looking Glass (1994) and The Artificial Savage (1997), has finally brought to anthropological attention a creature long known to art historians and medievalists (Bernheimer 1952; Dickason 1980; Husband 1980; Salisbury 1994; Siefker 1996; White 1972). The wild man was a stock character in folk culture, from ancient Mesopotamia down to modern times. In Europe he was known as Homo sylvestris (“forest person” in Latin), whence our word “savage”–from sylvestris via French sauvage. The proper Anglo-Saxon word was wudawusa, which became wodewose in Middle English; this means “wood-dweller.” It incorporates a pun, since “wode” meant “mad” in Middle English /1/. In the Renaissance, wild men were known as “natural men” (cf. Pagden 1982), and came to be seen as the rootstock from which social humanity sprang, much as cows and pigs arose from wild cattle and swine.
Legends of wild folk go back to the very dawn of literature. With the very earliest recorded literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, we are already dealing with a developed wild man theme. Enkidu–solitary, hairy, and primal–was typical of the literary wild men who surface in countless epics, medieval romances, and novels, down to the present day (Kovacs 1985; Wells 1975) /2/. Phyllis Siefker (1996) has recently chronicled their literary careers, and related them to elves, gnomes, Robin Hoods, bears, and indeed just about every chthonic figure in Northern Hemisphere mythology–possibly too wide a net-cast. Closer to home is the Green Man, a stock character in European (and now in Caribbean) folk drama and folklore; spirit of vegetation and forests, he merges with the Wild Man on a broad front (W. Anderson 1990). Wild men naturally were associated with satyrs, dwarfs, and elves, to say nothing of such stranger creatures as sciapodes, blennyes, and all the other stock characters of travelers’ tales. However, wild men were men (and women). They were ordinary humans in a natural state. The blennyes and their ilk were quite other sorts of humanoid beings.
The most important source document for knowledge of all these beings was the Alexander Romance, a late Greek elaboration of the story of Alexander the Great. This work swept Europe and the Near East, becoming an all-time best-seller (see Stoneman 1991). It included a story of Alexander and his army fighting and subduing an army of almost invincible wild men.
The wild person differs from ordinary social humanity much as the wild ox differs from the tame, or as the wolf (not the real wolf, but the wolf of folktale) differs from the dog. Wild folk are covered with long, dense fur or hair. They live on roots, nuts and berries. Their technology consists of a club–usually no more than an uprooted young tree. They are large (sometimes giant) and extremely powerful. They endure the harshest weather, and even revel in it. They do not speak; they may produce a soft murmuring sound, or, alternatively, loud roars. They may go on all fours, like beasts.
Of more interest to anthropologists is their social life: for the most part, they live alone, or in nuclear families. They are ruled by their passions, not by reason or by civilized custom; this tends to preclude social life. However, whole societies of wild folk are known, and these social wild folk may have language and even sophisticated weapons. Wild folk often preyed on civilized folk, sometimes capturing them for food (as in one episode of The Faerie Queene).
Berkhofer summarizes the stereotypic wild man thus: “…the wild man was a hairy, naked, club-wielding child of nature who existed halfway between humanity and animality. Lacking civilized knowledge or will, he lived a life of bestial self-fulfillment, directed by instinct, and ignorant of God and morality. Isolated from other humans in woods, caves, and clefts, he hunted animals or gathered plants for his food. He was strong of physique, lustful of women, and degraded of origin (Berkhofer 1978:13-14).” Wild folk came in two sexes, of course, but it was the wild man that was famous in myth and symbol; wild women were usually portrayed only as parts of families, though sometimes they enjoyed some special recognition of their own.
The wild man lived in Nature, in a State of Nature (at least from the Renaissance on). Nature was that part of the world unaffected by conscious, deliberate human agency. The wild man, being nonrational, could not or did not affect his natural environment. Rather, he was its product, living in it more or less unthinkingly. In the medieval and Renaissance periods, Nature was not “good” (as it is now) but neutral or even bad. To some, it was a place for hunting, romance, and adventure. To others, it was a frightening realm, to be brought under control in so far as possible. Few idealized it.
The opposition of Nature and Culture was, of course, a cultural construct, very much like that defined by Levi-Strauss (1962, etc.). By the Renaissance, all of Europe had been extensively affected by humans for thousands of years. No part of Europe was actually “natural.” Like the origin of the wild man himself, the origin of the opposition of tame and wild must be sought in psychology, not ecology.
As such, the wild man is of very considerable interest to anyone interested in folk classification or traditional ecological knowledge. Scholars of folk classification usually take people to be excellent classifiers, well aware of their surroundings and well able to cognize them (Atran 1990; Berlin 1992). What, then, are we to make of totally imaginary creatures that were, and are, very widely believed to exist? As ethnobiologists, we are naturally concerned with the issue of imaginary natural history, since it tests all the generalizations in the ethnoscientific field. This point was first made by Ralph Bulmer (1968)–but his rationalistic “take” on the matter is different from the symbolic one found in most of the literature on wild folk, including the present paper. In the Middle Ages, animals had symbolic significance that might eclipse not only their practical use, but even such trivial questions as whether they existed or not. Wild folk were part of the “forest of symbols.” Thus does Joyce Salisbury discuss them, along with other monsters, in her study of medieval animal lore, significantly titled The Beast Within (Salisbury 1995).
Just as Nature was usually wild and dangerous but sometimes favorable, so wild men were often destructive but could be benevolent. One even became a saint: Saint Onuphrius, who was raised by wolves, Christianized by angels, and ignorant of other humans until his eightieth year (Bartra 1994). St. Onuphrius, covered with hair, was discovered by one Paphnutius and introduced to society.
In short, the wild man is simply the European form of a creature so worldwide that Jung surely must have seen him as archetypal. (I have not found a reference to them in his writings, but later Jungians have not missed their opportunity; see Estes 1992 on the “wild woman archetype.”) The Tibetan yeti, the Chinese ye ren, the Northwest Coast sasquatch, the Maya sinsim, and the Californian bigfoot are only a few of the wild folk distributed throughout the world (see the classic anthropological review volume Manlike Monsters on Trial, ed. by Halpin and Ames, 1980; and the far more credulous work of Sanderson 1961). South America and Africa, Australia and India all have native wild men. It seems to me highly significant that countless modern mainstream Americans and Canadians, up and down the Pacific coast, believe firmly in the bigfoot, sasquatch, or, on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaai), the “gogeet” (Haida gagitx or gagixit, “person turned into an otter demon by river otters”; E. N. Anderson, unpub. research; see Swanton 1905). Clearly, the story resonates. We want to believe.
This would all remain in the realm of quaint folktale, were not anthropologists so abundant among the self-deceiving. Today, only a few anthropologists seek the bigfoot or believe in the Savage, but, in the early days of anthropology, anthropologists had some difficulty escaping from the tendency to view “primitives” as wild folk. Thus, it is necessary not only to inquire into the history of early anthropological stereotypes of the Savage, but into the psychology of the wild man myth.
It is not enough here to invoke the oversimplified dichotomy of Self and Other that has lately infected anthropology. This dichotomy reduces an exceedingly complex and psychologically compelling universe of social categorization to a mindless slogan. The wild man is an Other, but a special kind of Other. By imagining him (or her), we create him as a part of ourselves, like Christopher Isherwood’s Vedantistic “dog beneath the skin.” Indeed, we label a part of ourselves as “wild,” and externalize it. Well did Henrika Kuklick give the title The Savage Within to her superb study of early ethnology (Kuklick 1991). Like Bartra, Kuklick invokes the mirror model; her first chapter is titled “Through the Looking Glass.” The final comment, as so often, lies with Arthur Rimbaud: Je est un autre, “I is another” (cited and discussed in Strawson 1993:80).
Thus the wild man with his uprooted tree crushes the self-other distinction, and makes a furry monkey of the pompous, portentous Self-Other rhetoric now faddish in anthropology. The wild man is one of the Others in the Self, and he stands in dialogue with the Selves in the Others.
Bartra’s first volume traces the wild man through the Renaissance, with references to modern survivals in folkloric performances in central Europe. In this he follows the basic text of wild man studies, Richard Bernheimer’s Wild Men in the Middle Ages (1952) /3/. There are those who have continued the story. Jacob Pandian, for instance, has connected the wild-man motif with later concepts of savages (Pandian 1985:62-69). Berkhofer (1978) showed how images of the wild man colored early accounts of Native American peoples.
An important work by Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man (1982; see also Berkhofer 1978), chronicles the vitally important debate in sixteenth-century Spain over the nature of the newly discovered inhabitants of the Indies. Were they fully human, or were they natural (i.e., wild) men who could be treated as subhuman and thus robbed and enslaved? Ironically, the people taking the latter position called themselves the “humanists,” while the people holding the former were the conservative churchmen. Fortunately for the Native Americans, the churchmen prevailed, and American Indians were duly ruled humans with human souls. The conquistadors did not stop robbing and enslaving them, but at least some reduction in the savagery of the conquest was effected.
The political implications of belief in the “ignoble savage” (Meek 1976) are almost sickeningly obvious in such cases. They go far to explain the widespread credence in the myth. They do not, however, entirely explain its wide and deep popularity. For one example, the Haida and their Anglo-Canadian neighbors have no evident political reason for continuing to believe in the gogeet.
Meanwhile, apes were becoming known to Europeans. In the 17th century, we find Nicolaas Tulp illustrating an orang-utan as Homo sylvestris (Marks 1995:4; see also Dickason 1980, esp. p. 74); one wonders if he was consciously using the Latin name for the traditional European wild man, or simply translating the Malay phrase orang utan into Latin. Perhaps he was doing both, aware that the Malay and Latin phrases mean the same thing, both literally and notionally. In 1699, Edward Tyson’s famous description of the chimpanzee appeared, labeled “pygmie,” thus setting the stage for later beliefs (Marks 1995:5).
Natural man, however, continued to exist in the minds of European writers. Bartra’s second volume (1997) details at length the influence of the wild man myth on writers from Shakespeare and Hobbes to Defoe and Cervantes. Shakespeare immortalized him as Caliban, whose name is an anagram of “Can(n)ibal.” (See Dudley and Novak 1972, passim.) Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (1975, orig. 1690) based their theories of humanity on the wodewose, not on any real human society they knew. Locke gives us American Indians who are poor and bare: “rich in land and poor in all the comforts of life…a king of a large and frutitful territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day labourer in England (Locke 1924, orig. 1690:136).” These are Natural Men: “…in the beginning, all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was anywhere known (Locke 1924, orig. 1690:140).” Apparently he thought the recent Americans were far enough from the state of nature to have some concept of wealth and property.
Pufendorf was even less fond of the state of nature. In an excellent short study of the state of nature and natural law, Blandine Kriegel traces the evolution of the wodewose’s world from the Spanish debates onward to Pufendorf: “A similar view of nature devoid of values and spirit is at the root of Pufendorf’s hostile, almost horrifying account of the state of nature: ‘In one [the natural state] there is the rule of passion, war, fear, poverty, ugliness, solitude, barbarism, ignorance, savagery; in the other [the community], the rule of reason, peace, security, riches, beauty, society, refinement, knowledge, good will'” (Kriegel 1994:158, quoting from Pufendorf 1927, chapter 1, paragraph 9). This foreshadows the Enlightenment view. Indeed, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, humanity was seen as evolving from the “state of nature,” i.e. the life of the wodewose, to the pinnacle of civilization, i.e. the life of the European elite (see Meek 1976).
To this, Jean-Jacques Rousseau opposed a revealing counter-vision. All anthropologists know that he idealized the “noble savage.” Less well known is that he did not change the stereotype very much; he merely changed the evaluation he put on its characteristics. Strength, independence, freedom, and ability to follow one’s heart were considered good. The trammels of civilization were considered artificial, restraining, and unnatural. Yet, Rousseau was no Nietzsche, nor even a Theodore Roosevelt; he realized that we have become inescapably civilized. We cannot go back to the natural state, nor would we find it pleasant to try. He hoped that we would at least open up the world to more natural growth and feelings.
Even less well known is the fact that Rousseau was not talking about an imaginary creature, nor about any creature we would call human. He had found his natural man: the chimpanzee and the orang-utan (Rousseau 1986:214-218). In his Discourse on Inequality, he wrote of savage children in Europe, raised in the wilds and walking on all fours; he compared them with the chimpanzee, quoting extensively from accounts of this animal that he obtained from travelers to Africa. These tales gave the chimpanzee a rather more human-like behavior than most would now credit (though intriguingly similar to the chimp as seen by Frans de Waal, 1996). Rousseau saw his noble savage clearly portrayed in them.
Modern social scientists have been influenced by Hobbes, Grotius, Locke, Rousseau, and the other ancestors of social science (Bartra 1997). There is a need for serious research here. The actual links from wild-man tales to the classic social thinkers and from these thinkers to 19th-century anthropologists appear in Bartra’s second volume, but more research on this matter is needed. Perhaps yet a third volume is in store. In the meantime, let us speculate a little.
Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were, of course, well known to early anthropologists. On the other hand, truly simple societies were not. The founders of our discipline knew the “Hottentots,” Australian aborigines, and other “primitives” only from travelers’ tales. These tales were heavily colored by the wild man stereotype; they often described the “natives” in terms that owe everything to Hobbes and Pufendorf and nothing to observation. One suspects that observation was often limited to viewing the “natives” from the deck of a ship standing well offshore.
Even those who actually dealt with the “natives” could see them only through wodewose-colored glasses. Consider Mark Twain in his early years (he later became much more tolerant) on the subject of the Gosiute Indians of Utah: “…the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen…small, lean, ‘scrawny’ creatures…silent, sneaking, treacherous…prideless beggars…who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities…(Twain 1871:131-132).” And so on. James Cowles Prichard, in his Researches into the Physical History of Man (1813), saw the “Negro” as the ancestral human, partly because he “is particularly adapted to the wild or natural state of life.” Giving birth easily, having extremely sharp senses, and having lower intellectual facilities typify these primitives. “Wherever we find the people naked, destitute barbarians running wild in the woods, there we also observe them to be black, and to partake considerably of the Negro form and character (Prichard 1973 :235-236).” Here we have a large part of the wodewose stereotype projected quite gratuitously and inaccurately on the dark peoples, and then this inaccurate claim used as evidence for a theory of human evolution. Lepowsky (1995) adduces many other 19th-century accounts of “South Sea savages” that draw heavily on wild-man stereotypes.
The first anthropologist to do serious modern-style field work, Lewis Henry Morgan, knew his Iroquois were nothing like “natural men,” but he also knew they were relatively high on his evolutionary scale. His “lower state of savagery” was pure wodewose: “Man in this condition could scarcely be distinguished from the mute animals by whom he was surrounded. Ignorant of marriage, and living probably in a horde, he was not only a savage, but possessed a feeble intellect and a feebler moral sense. His hope of elevation rested in the vigor of his passions, for he seems always to have been courageous…. Were it possible to reach this earliest representative of the species, we must descend very far below the lowest savage now living upon the earth” (Morgan 1877:500). Though gone, they left relics for Morgan to find: the more or less promiscuous mating Herodotus and others described for some barbarian tribes, and other ancient evidences of planless, lawless, passion-ruled society (Morgan 1877:501).
Edward Tylor, even less constrained by actual experience with “savages,” was less aware of these fine distinctions. His “savage”–with examples from Australia, Africa, North America, and Indonesia as evidence–has rude virtues of honesty and courage, but: “The ideal savage of the 18th century may be held up as a living reproof to vicious and frivolous London; but in sober fact, a Londoner who should attempt to lead the atrocious life which the real savage may lead with impunity and even respect, would be a criminal only allowed to follow his savage models during his short intervals out of gaol. Savage moral standards are real enough, but they are far looser and weaker than ours….on the whole the civilized man is not only wiser and more capable than the savage, but also better and happier…” (Tylor 1958 :31). We are back with Hobbes, almost with Pufendorf. “Savages”–they are all pretty much the same, everywhere–are Natural Men, ruled by passions, especially the fiercer ones. Unlike Morgan, Tylor believed the wodewoses to be still with us, as contemporary “primitives.” Even Tylor, however, did not credit the current travelers’ tales of hairy men who walked on all fours, such as those reported from Brazil (Tylor 1958:382). The extent and sharp limitations of his enlightenment on such matters is well captured in the following quote: “We know how sailors and emigrants can look on savages as senseless, ape-like brutes, and how some writers on anthropology have contrived to make out of the moderate intellectual difference between an Englishman and a negro something equivalent to the immense interval between a negro and a gorilla” (Tylor 1958:380).
These two authors may be singled out for two reasons: first, they were the founding fathers of modern comparative cultural anthropology in the United States and England respectively. Second, they were as enlightened and tolerant as anyone of their time; they both stood near the left end of debates on race and culture, championing the nonwestern against even more intolerant coevals (Kuper 1988; Stocking 1985).
Time and space forbid enquiry into further authorities of the period. The obvious next step is to survey, systematically, the concepts of “the savage” and “the primitive” through the major social science literature of the 19th century. This would be a valuable project, and we hope the present paper stimulates someone to carry it out.
Morgan and Tylor were, of course, key figures in the development of the theory of cultural evolution. This theory was first stated in essentially modern form by Adam Ferguson in mid-18th century Scotland, and given fame by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (MacDonald 1993; Smith 1910). Morgan, in particular, enormously elaborated upon the model and provided comparative data relating to it. Essential to this theory was the idea of progress: the human race has worked its way up from the lowly savage to the exalted level of 19th-century Victorian white males, but some savages are still with us. “Survivals” in their cultures preserve some or all of the “primitive” traits that once characterized all of us (the famous discussions in Tylor 1871 will be known to most readers).
Adam Kuper, in The Invention of Primitive Society (1988), provides an excellent account of ethnology from Morgan to Malinowski. In this book he speculates on what he sees as a mystery: how the idea of primitive society could have arisen and spread so fast. He appears to believe that the anthropological notion of the primitive was developed from the ideas of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, and won acceptance very rapidly. In fact, little of the stereotype was new. Kuper specifically refers to primitive society–the stereotypic one of the late 19th century–as being based on descent groups and characterized by animism (Kuper 1988;6-7). This very specific idea of primitive society did indeed spread rather late; the fascination with descent groups came mainly from Maine and Fustel de Coulanges, and animism was invented by Tylor (Kuper 1988; Tylor 1871). But it nested in the wider idea of the savage, with his simple society, uncontrolled emotions, “natural religion” (a broad concept that led naturally to Tylor’s animism), dirt, squalor, savage snarling curs, primitive food-gathering or rudimentary farming and barter (“natural economy”), superstition, witch-doctoring, and all the other cliches of Victorian explorer literature. These cliches all trace back directly to the earlier writers, and ultimately to the Alexander Romance and its kin (Dickason 1980 gives the best account of this, but see, again, Bartra 1994, as well as White 1972).
It is only a small step to assume that the stereotype of the savage was as psychologically evocative for these armchair anthropologists as it was for Renaissance humanists. The wild folk of ethnology, like those of the European forest, were projections of fear and wish, constructed by structural opposition. It appears that they were still the opposite of what civilization was taken to be, and of what people thought civilized folk were. They were still natural men–to be viewed with some envy as well as with some shudders.
Until Morgan’s research on the Iroquois, there were few (if any) adequate ethnographic descriptions of the actual societies that were labeled “primitive.” People simply went with what they “knew” from reading the classic works of Hobbes, Locke, Pufendorf, and the rest. The characteristics of savage society included its extreme simplicity, its lack of elaboration in thought or art, its passionate nature, and its idleness for want of anything much to do. Savages were impulsive, capable of great feats but usually lazy, and given to erratic and unfaithful sexual unions. They were fierce and courageous, but unable to govern their passions. They were strong, but susceptible to disease. They were often thought to have rudimentary languages, smaller brains, and other marks of inferiority. In psychology, and not infrequently in anthropology, “the child, the savage and the madman” were equated, and regarded as having more or less the same mental processes.
Yet, they could not seriously retain the whole Renaissance stereotype. Tylor dismissed the travelers’ tales of hairy people. Morgan knew that all living humans talked, lived in societies, and had at least reasonably complex cultures. No nineteenth-century ethnographer was free to construct peoples according to his vision or fantasy.
The “ape-man” was hairy, nonlinguistic, and powerful; living “primitive” humans were still savage, cruel, slaves to their passions, rapacious, sexual, and unable to resist alcohol, but they had lost their hair and could talk. As we have seen (contemplating Rousseau, above) this transition had already taken place, in its essential steps, before anthropology appeared on the scene. The nineteenth-century scholars worked it into their evolutionary frameworks.
Views of the primitive, then, became complex accommodations between the ethnographers’ imaginations, the traditional European stereotype of the wild man, and the emerging base of data on actual noncivilized peoples. Anthropologists /4/ were trying to find Natural Man. To find him, they apparently used several strategies. It appears that they looked into themselves and tried to imagine what they would be like without the veneer of civilization. They certainly looked to the great authors: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau. They also used their own structural imagination to construct an opposite of their civilized selves. And they looked to the data–what they had of it. From travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts, and from their own necessarily limited experiences, they tried to construct generalizations about primitive society. The less data they had, the more they had to rely on their own creative imaginations and the great authorities. The more data they had, the farther they got from their imaginative stereotypes, until eventually the wodewose died out in mainstream anthropology–however robustly he may survive in other intellectual enquiries.
Did the nineteenth-century scholars, then, see themselves in their heart of hearts as fundamentally simple, emotional, historyless, and deeply enmeshed in their family and descent groups? Evidently they did. This was their simple model of humanity. It is still influential (Wolf 1982.) Until overwhelming masses of data rolled in and established the vastly richer and more complicated countercase, they found their imagined inner selves in every ethnography.
This provides us with a far more interesting and complex model than the simplistic model of Self and Other. People create mental representations by interacting with the world and by looking into themselves. They create the concept of the savage, the primitive, the Natural Man, by trying to accommodate ethnographic data with data derived from introspection into the “uncivilized” sides of their own psyches. Thus, various nineteenth-century concepts of the primitive came to look, something like European stereotype, something like real people imperfectly described in available texts, and a great deal like the suppressed sides of the ethnogists’s personalities. Primitive society, when it finally reached the form in which Adam Kuper found it, took its form because that form seemed to be the most reasonable accommodation between these disparate sources of knowledge. It cannot be understood by recourse to any naive structural opposition.
The image of the wodewose slowly eroded, as more and more extensive reports came in from the field: Frank Cushing, Franz Boas, Alice Fletcher, W. H. R. Rivers, Bronislaw Malinowski. Boas was perhaps the first to come out foursquare against simplistic, uniform characterizations of “primitive man,” though even his works are not wholly free of stereotyping (see Boas 1911). By 1912, Durkheim was already somewhat nervous and apologetic about describing Australian native religion as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. He knew those forms were exceedingly complex and sophisticated–not the feeble murmurings of a wodewose.
The wodewose was not laid to rest. To some extent, he was simply pushed back in time, to the prehistoric period. He survived in the popular press, as “the cave man” or “the Neanderthal.” At last, the wodewose was consigned to comic strips, where, as Alley Oop, Fred Flintstone, or B.C., he provides sardonic comments on our own tortured society. He also survives in many carnivals and folk festivals around the world, where he provides the same delightful yet thought-provoking function (Siefker 1996). Siefker points out that the Wild Man and all his kin–all the sylvatic and chthonic figures of old myth–have undergone a steady cleaning and washing process since the Renaissance, and are now pretty and cute; even Santa Claus, who has more resemblance to Odin than to St. Nicholas of Cusa, has become benevolent. Once, he was not.
There is a Delta blues verse that–with gentle irony–provides perhaps the feeblest come-on line in all literature:
“I’m broke and I’m hungry, ragged and dirty too;
If I clean up, pretty mama, can I stay all night with you?”
Such is the fate of the wodewose in the modern world.
The popular image of the “cave man” is a descendent of the Renaissance “wild man,” as any comparison of our cartoons with the plates in Bernheimer (1952) or Husband (1980) will show. However, he is now preposterously ordinary and reasonable. Fred Flintstone is a 1950s dad, not a Spenserian savage. He comments with cheerful, matter-of-fact irony on our minor foibles. Our internal savage, whom once we studied and critiqued, now studies and critiques us.
The wodewose–ferocity and all–refuses to be consigned to the margins. The forest is still here.
In the 1960s the wodewose underwent a major revival, thanks to sociobiologists and primate students. Their speculations on “early hominid” society bear far closer resemblance to Hobbes’ and Locke’s than to anything that could reasonably be abstracted from their actual anthropological and primatological data. The hairy, nonlinguistic, savage, asocial, passion-ruled, sex-obsessed wild man was revived in full panoply, straight out of the Renaissance stereotypes. Readers will be aware of this literature; it is sufficient to cite just one example among dozens: Konner’s The Tangled Wing (1982), whose chapters are titled “Rage,” “Lust,” “Gluttony,” and the like. The extremely full and detailed data that has emerged from 50 years of primate studies have once again questioned the stereotype, but the popular press pounces on every deviant chimp or baboon that commits a “murder,” taking the poor animal as proof that all primates are Hobbesian at heart. Meanwhile, from Tibet to British Columbia and from Brazil to Africa, reports of yetis, sasquatches, and other humanoid fauna pour in (Halpin and Ames 1980). They are staple fare of the supermarket tabloids, but they also make their way into mainstream newspapers and journals.
Clearly, we are dealing with a stereotype that refuses to go away–a true archetype. Books with such preposterous titles as Demonic Males (Wrangham and Peterson 1996) still shore up men in their belief that they are all Viking raiders barely held down. Recent bestsellers on “wild woman archetypes” (Estes 1992) may tell us little about cross-cultural attitudes toward wild women, but their phenomenal success tells us a great deal about what American women want to believe they are. Without following the Jungians into the collective unconscious, we must yet seek some psychological grounding for this myth. No story can persist so stubbornly, in the teeth of overwhelmingly disconfirming evidence, unless people desperately wish to believe it. We recall the millennium-long best-seller status of the Alexander romance (full of bizarre hominoids), and the importance of Caliban in Shakespeare’s last and most symbolically complex drama.
This is doubly interesting because the wodewose does not seem like the sort of thing one would want to believe. Several theories have been, or might be, proposed to explain why we do indeed desire it (Dudley and Novak 1972; Kuklick 1991.)
We all know, within us, the Steppenwolf, the Dog beneath the Skin. We are dealing with human Nature, in the Levi-Straussian sense (Levi-Strauss 1962), as opposed to all human Culture. The structural opposition is a beginning, but does not explain the emotional attraction of the image.
From the terrifying enemies of Alexander the Great to the fierce Bigfoot and the sociobiologists’ Killer Ape, most wild men are cruel, implacable, and harsh. It would seem that people like to see their inner nature, or their undomesticated self, in such light.
But is there really a savage within? It is now quite safe to say–on the basis of modern psychological findings–that we are not really seething, fulminating hotbeds of sex and violence just waiting for Society to relax its iron grip (see e.g. Kohn 1989). Roy Baumeister’s recent study of evil confirms, explicitly, Hannah Arendt’s famous comment on its “banality” (Baumeister 1997; it is truly interesting to compare Baumeister’s work, founded on thorough research, with the wild imaginings of certain sociobiologists).
No one contemplating modern Hollywood can deny or ignore the appeal of sex and violence to the socialized hominid. The truth seems to be that we are in fact very tame animals under it all, but we love to dream and fantasize that we would be mad savages if we had the chance. The wild man appears to be a projection of our more antisocial wishes–not of our real selves.
But, of course, we will never know. A culture-free human society is unimaginable. Hobbes was not inventing the “war of each against all”; he was describing England in the Civil War. He had seen what happened when social institutions failed. What he failed to see what that he was not seeing a reversion to Natural Man; he was seeing a nation of very thoroughly encultured and socialized men (and women) set against itself by cynical political and religious leaders. Doubtless, he failed to see this truth (evident to us today) because he was steeped in the tradition of the Wild Man and found it psychologically plausible.
Then we must ask: Is the wild man within us actually a Noble Savage? Are we really the wondrous wodewoses presented to us by Hans Sachs (Bernheimer 1952; Bartra 1994) or Chateaubriand (1952)? Few would argue so; if we were innately so pure, why are we so generally corrupted? In fact, the Noble Savage seems as much a culturally-constructed projection of dreams as the Savage Savage.
In the most moving (to us, at least) of all descriptions of wild folk, Edward Spenser combined the implacable savage and the gentle, caring, voiceless wild man (Salisbury 1994; Spenser 1912, esp. pp. 352-356; the start of this key passage is quoted above). Somehow Spenser seems closer to what we feel is our inner unsocialized or uncultured nature. We feel wild passions, and we know they must be constrained by society. But we also feel gentle, caring emotions, which seem to rise spontaneously in spite of the best efforts of the postmodern world to make us callous, uncaring, and indifferent to human suffering. Is the wild man, then, a residual–a creature made up of all we feel in ourselves but cannot express in a decorous, proper manner?
Clearly, at the very least, he is some deep-rooted part of what we think we are. He is what we think we would be if the trammels of culture are removed (this point is made in detail by many of the cited authors: Bartra 1994, 1997; Dudley and Novak 1972; etc.).
He thus serves as a kind of projective test. The macho male, repressed by coat and tie in an academic environment, dreams his Mel Gibson dreams. If the Yanomamo aren’t fierce enough, he will (in books) make them so. The gentler soul may wish Chateaubriand’s Indians had really existed, and describe, say, the !Kung San in Chateaubriand’s terms.
Perhaps, though, we are not the only ones who find ourselves most poignantly captured in Spenser’s beautiful evocation of the savage. Spenser’s Natural Man is tough and callous but, in the end, deeply compassionate. Unthinking, he does not calculate the risks of chasing the villain or the costs of helping the hero and heroine. Following his emotions, his “base” and “low” estate lets him find his own heroism and his own transcendence. When he encounters the villain, he is “enraged…Like to a Tygre that hath mist his pray.” But this is because, earlier, he had been so moved by the hero’s wound
“That euen his ruder hart began to rew,
And feele compassion of his euill plight” (Spenser 1912:352).
/1/ The name of the god Odin (or Wodin; also Wedne, giving us “Wednesday,” no doubt the day of wild men) is probably cognate (Dickason 1980:71).
/2/ Enkidu is so perfectly prototypic of the wild man that some lines about him deserve to be quoted here:
“His whole body was shaggy with hair,
he had a full head of hair like a woman,
his locks billowed in profusion like Ashnan.
He knew neither people nor settled living,
but wore a garment like Sumukan [the god of animals, clothed in skins].
He ate grasses with the gazelles,
and jostled at the water hole with the animals;
as with animals, his thirst was slaked with (mere) water.” (Kovacs 1985:6.)
He was trapped, and then tamed by a harlot, who introduced him to sex:
“she performed for the primitive the task of womankind.
His lust groaned over her;
for six days and seven nights Enkidu stayed around
and had intercourse with the harlot…” (Kovacs 1985:9.)
This makes the wild beasts shun him; he smells of humanity.
Then she introduces him to beer, and, like stereotypical “savages” everywhere (including “Indians” of modern American stereotype), he is a sucker for it:
“he drank the beer–seven jugs!–and became expansive and sang with joy!” (Kovacs 1985:16).
Note the mixture of censure and admiration here.
In short, the hairy, untutored, grass-eating, lustful, powerful wild man, unable to resist alcohol when he discovers it, is already present a couple of millennia before the Christian Era.
Contenau (1966) sees Mesopotamian gods and heroes as harking back to a wodewose-like precivilized past: “The gods are violent, gluttonous, uncontrolled, faithless and vindictive; they are an epitome of the primitive people from whose imaginations they sprang” (Contenau 1966:201). Clearly, Contenau has his own wodewose within. The truth is that the Mesopotamians were simply expressing–not without humor–their own stereotypes of the dwellers of the mountains that ring the plain. (Enkidu is a mountaineer.) They thus provide us with another case of astonishing parallelism in worldwide stereotypes of the primitive. It is most unlikely that the Epic of Gilgamesh–lost for millennia–had any direct influence on the early European texts.
/3/ Did Bernheimer’s name–“the one from the home of the bear”–may have something to do with his fascination with wild folk?
/4/ And–of course–psychologists, sociologists, and others, but the influences of these wild models on e.g. Sigmund Freud are outside the scope of the present paper.
Thanks to Myra Anderson, Silver Damsen, Steve Gravely, J. C. Laursen, and Christopher Steiner, for bringing wild men and books about them to our attention, and to the students and faculty of the Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, for enduring a great deal of discussion on the topic.
1990 Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth. London and San Francisco: HarperCollins.
1990 Cognitive Foundations of Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1994 Wild Men in the Looking Glass: The Mythic Origins of European Otherness. Translated by Carl Berrisford. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1997 The Artificial Savage. Translated by Christopher Follett. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1997 Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Berkhofer, Robert, Jr.
1978 The White Man’s Indian. New York: Vintage.
1992 Ethnobiological Classification. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1952 Wild Men in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
1911 The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: MacMillan.
1968 “Worms that Croak and Other Mysteries of Kalam Natural History.” Mankind 6:621-639.
Chateaubriand, Francois-Rene de
1952 Atala and Rene. Tr. by Irving Putter. Berkeley: University of California Press. (French orig. 1805.)
1966 Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria. New York: W. W. Norton.
de Waal, Frans
1996 Good Natured. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dickason, Olive Patricia
1980 “The Concept of L’Homme sauvage.” Halpin and Ames 1980:65-82.
Dudley, Edward, and Maximillian E. Novak (eds.)
1972 The Wild Man Within. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
1961 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Collier. (Fr. orig. 1912.)
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola
1992 Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine.
Halpin, Marjorie M., and Michael M. Ames (eds.)
1980 Manlike Monsters on Trial: Early Records and Modern Evidence. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
1950 Leviathan. New York: E. P. Dutton. (Orig. 1651.)
1980 The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1989 The Brighter Side of Human Nature. New York: Basic Books.
1982 The Tangled Wing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Kovacs, Maureen Gallery (tr., ed., intro., annot.)
1985 The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
1994 “Rights and Natural Law.” In: Mark Lilla (ed.): New French Thought: Political Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pp. 155-163.
1991 The Savage Within. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1988 The Invention of Primitive Society. London: Routledge.
1962 La Pensee sauvage. Paris: Plon.
1995 “Cannibal Islands.” Paper, American Anthropological Assn., Annual Convention, Washington, D.C.
1975 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Orig. 1690.)
1924 Two Treatises of Government. New York: Everyman. (Orig. 1690.)
1993 The Early Origins of the Social Sciences. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
1995 Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
1976 Social Science and the Ignoble Savage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, Lewis Henry
1877 Ancient Society. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
1982 The Fall of Natural Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1985 Anthropology and the Western Tradition: Toward an Authentic Anthropology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
Prichard, James Cowles
1973 (orig. 1813) Researches into the Phyusical History of Man. Edited by George Stocking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pufendorf, Samuel von
1927 On the Duty of Man and Citizen. Tr. by Frank Gardner Moore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Book 2.
1986 The First and Second Discourses, Together with the Replies to Critics, and Essay on the Origin of Languages. Tr. and ed. by Victor Gourevitch. New York: Harper and Row. (Fr. orig. of Second Discourse cited above, 1755.)
1995 The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages. New York and London: Routledge.
Sanderson, Ivan T.
1961 Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co.
1996 Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
1910 The Wealth of Nations. New York: Dutton Everyman. (Orig. 1775.)
1912 The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Ed. by J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1985 Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press (division of MacMillan Co.)
1991 The Greek Alexander Romance. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
1905 Haida Texts and Myths. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology. Bulletin 29.
1987 Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. Chicago: University of Chicago.
“Twain, Mark” (Samuel L. Clemens)
1871 Roughing It. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Tylor, Edward B.
1958 The Origins of Culture. New York: Harper. (Modern edition of the first part of Primitive Culture, originally published 1871.)
Wells, D. A.
1975 The Wild Man from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein. Belfast: Queen’s University.
1972 “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea.” In The Wild Man Within. Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak, eds. Pp. 3-38. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
1982 Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wrangham, Richard, and Dale Peterson
1996 Demonic Males. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
The classic wild man stereotype vs. the 19th-century savage:
Solitary (or small groups) No; “kinship” all-important
Nonlinguistic (typically) No, but languages
Naked No, but clothing
Club-wielding Yes (typically)
Powerful Yes (usually)
Senses sharp Yes
Lives in Nature, in State of Nature Yes
Resists all weathers Yes (typically)
Inferior mentally Yes
Lacking formal government Yes
Ruled by passions, esp. agonistic Yes
Violent, “savage” Yes
Weak or no self-control Yes
Lack of true reasoning ability Yes (usually)