Wild Men Before and After the Fire

The Danse des Savages – Before and After the Fire

Wild Men, by Albrecht Durer in 1499, influenced by his trip to Italy

Tales, stories, legends told over and over become myths – the influence of those legends sinks into everyday life from then to now.

There is the tale of the wild man – a Pagan or old English woodwose, wodewose or woodhouse – a man who has gone back to the wild and appears feral; he’s a man who seems to be covered in dirt, plants, animal skins and living by his wits in the wilderness.

Some say this was how original man was… but now the antithesis of civilized.

Was he (or she) a different strain of animal from humans, Big Foot or Yeti, but for sure his appearance was startling – both visual and olfactory – covered in hair, agile, wile, perhaps a naiad (often the subject of 19th century impressionist music by Ravel and Debussy), and similar to the characters in Tolkien’s Hobbit and Middle-earth.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the desolate caves in Sumeria, Mesopotamia 2750 to 2500 BC, there was Enkidu. And from the book of Daniel (634-562 BC) where King Nebuchadnezzar II goes mad, and spends seven years in the wilderness living as an animal.

This tale was adopted by European Early Christian cultures to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s wildness as God’s punishment for his giant ego and his rough treatment of the Jews. This story was a particular favorite of Medieval storytellers.

Modern medical science speculates Nebuchadnezzar’s condition might have been clinical lycanthropy, a delusion of being transformed into an animal, while others say he displayed symptoms of syphilis.

In Europe, in those middle years – Medieval – one was required to be religious, but rarely literate, and science was sacrilege (not allowed). In order to teach religion, believers were taught by tales, stories, legends sourced from both Pagan lore and the Bible. The wild man carried a primitive club – no bow and arrow; this wanderer was said to be uncivilized and “without God.” These stories were delivered to both royalty and country folk, and incorporated into entertainment.

Silvanus, Roman God of Wildlands

In Italy, the wild man was Silvanus from the Roman god of woodlands, a term used in the Tyrol and Germany, where he was also Orcus.  In France, the word for wild man turned into Ogre. In Britain, the word Wood was frequently used. There was even a legend in the King Arthur’s tales where Merlin goes mad and creeps into the forest; he watches wild creatures and soon becomes one himself.

For more than 1500 years, mothers have warned their children, “don’t go into the woods,” or “stay on the path,” or “don’t go alone.” “You don’t know what’s in the woods,” “You can’t be sure.”

There were many mysterious aspects of the wild man that could be very appealing: he was naked; he was frightening because he was unpredictable; he could be a hero when rescuing a lady in distress…but also a kidnapper. He was, in effect, the romantic beast, a composite of good and evil.

A tapestry from the 15th century shows a wellborn lady taming a wildman

This was the time of knights, chivalry and traveling troubadours who composed songs and stories, even theater, with music and dance. People longed to be amused, as life universally held two aspects: boredom or the opposite swing to survival of war and pestilence, in fact members of royalty instigated wars to relieve the boredom.

So what has changed , culturally…not all that much.

Here, a monumental brass plate from Bishop Godfrey and Frederick Von Bulow, Schwerin, Germany, crafted in the 1300’s shows the wild men out in the forest, serving the king, making wine, and cooking – meat on a spit and a pot on the fire.


The concept of chivalry had been developing since settlers claimed the land. There were tides of castles-building, providing strong fortifications to protect the royals. Also, towns around the castles needed thick walls for protection from barbarian hoards. In the earliest times people lived in fear of others and war was rampant. This picture demonstrates how brave the king is – with knights to protect him. Out in the forest, he is even in control of the wildmen or “woodhouse.”

The brass rubbing below – part of the series, with the other – shows a woodhouse kidnapping a young lady – a common occurrence in those times – carrying her off to the King, as he sits in his pavilion in the forest. Her knight leaves the castle on horseback in a mad attempt to save her.

The Art Form of Rubbing Monumental Brasses – This photo copy shows a rubbing made at the Tudor Guild Brass Rubbing Center, where visitors can make their own rubbing on various colors of paper, using a special hard wax crayon.

The Tudor Guild is located behind the theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival site in Ashland, www.tudorguild.org (check for days of operation). It is difficult to photograph a completed rubbing since the paper might be black with dark gold rubbing wax, an opposite in dark and light from the copy shown above. Essentially, this quality makes the work more valuable and rare – you want a real rubbing, not a copy, and it is especially personal when you do the rubbing.

Your finished work will be startlingly beautiful and a tangible connection to a past way of life.

The Danse de Savages – The tale of the wildman was turned into a play and frequently performed in the Middle Ages. The moral to the story of wildman vs. civilization was lost when men in furry suits danced around the floor, a club in hand, lunging, jumping and growling  – all the while making the audience laugh – with musicians playing in the background.

This painting comes from Froissart’s Chronicles. A small dog barks and the music goes on.

Bal des Ardent – This play was always a requested performance, once or more times a year, but this particular show was a historic happening. Some say, just before Christmas, while other sources say that on January 28, 1393, the French Queen, Isabeau decided to celebrate the marriage of one of her ladies in waiting.

The six dancers – including King Charles VI – wore tight-fitting costumes covered with a shredded fabric to simulate fur or body hair, applied with a resin pitch as glue.  The King was jovial and “facetious as usual – the jokester,” and all men were howling like wolves.

However the King was careful to keep the lighting at a minimum as a safety measure since lighting at night required wall torches.

Midway through the performance, the King’s brother, Louis d’Orleans entered the hall, his guards carrying torches. Louis was intoxicated and grabbed a torch, putting it close to one of the dancers to see who he was through his mask. A spark flew, setting one dancer on fire; then all the others were burning.

Painting by Master Anthony of Burgundy

Bal des Ardent means “The Ball of the Burning Men.”

It was chaos, a horrific sight. A dancer, Sieur de Nantouillet, escaped by jumping into a vat of wine. The King was saved by his young aunt, the Duchess of Berry, who threw her flowing gown over Charles, protecting him. The Queen was three months pregnant and fainted, but was revived. The other four dancers – members of French nobility – died from their burns.

The Count de Joigny died where he stood. Yvain de Foix, son of Gaston Phoebus, and Aimery-Charles de Poitiers suffered for two days, then died. The choreographer of the event, Huguet de Guisay, lingered a day longer but was said to be vituperative, swearing at everyone, telling them how stupid they were. Then he too died.

This true story offers an abundant source for a another collection of morals or screenplays – I leave your creative minds to conjure.

After the Fire – This ugly event has remained a signal point in history – it has not been forgotten. It is strange that the old tradition of the wildman taken far back into history, often relates to someone with mental illness. Is it because the acts of a wildman are seen as the complete denial of society as they or we know it – an abject aberration.

It is a strange coincidence that the French King Charles VI suffered a flare of mental illness, some months before the play was performed, and then afterwards throughout his life. Is it possible that the staging of the play was the work of a political faction to push him completely over the mental edge. It is a possibility, but the deadly outcome of the play was not staged.

The King’s brother was punished for this affair, but what is, is – what was, was. Though the deadly play was performed a very long time ago, it somehow seems amazingly real and timly… because the wildman theme is part of human nature, always with us to this day.

Burning Man 2012

People desire to show their wild side.

Art at Burning Man

Consider the event, Burning Man, held every year in the desert of northern Nevada…

or the movie “Savages,” where the star, Salma Hayek says she wants her character to be an icon, to be used for Halloween and the Day of the Dead.


For questions or comments, contact Charlotte Wilson at worldviewopinion.wvo@aol.com and www.worldviewopinion.net