Some 45,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, when huge beasts like the wooly rhino, the mammoth and the saber-toothed cat still roamed the continents as the megafauna, a culture that produced figurines of these creatures began to emerge. They are known as the Aurignacians, and their precise composition still remains something of a mystery. The most likely explantaion – though by no means a certainty, or universally accepted – is that they were a mixture of Neanderthals1 and what is now known as AMHs, or “Anatomically Modern Humans.” Above right is a reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis, ancestor of both AMHs and Neanderthals. He was already extinct 45,000 years ago, but both AMHs and Neanderthals retain some of his physical characteristics.
Early attempts to represent the appearance of the Neanderthal were – to say the least – misleading. Using modern forensic techniques - same ones used to identify bodies of crime victims - the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia2 has reconstructed a Neanderthal Clan, as seen in the museum photo above – a far cry from the almost simian images of a generation ago. Neanderthals were shorter than we are, and other anatomical differences also exist, but they’re clearly human
like in their appearance, though there is also a striking resemblance to H. heidelbergensis. Below is another reconstruction of a Neanderthal – this one of a young boy
The Aurignacians were huntergatherers who made tools from worked bone or antler points with grooves cut in the bottom. Their flint tools include fine blades and bladelets that were struck from prepared cores rather than using crude flakes. They also produced some of the earliest known cave art, such as the animal engravings at Aldène and paintings at Chauvet cave in southern France, along with anthropomorphized depictions, such as the Lion Man, below, that could be inferred as some of the earliest evidence of religion. They also made pendants, bracelets and ivory beads, and may have fashioned the first flute.
But perhaps most significant of all, about they developed the first lunar calendar.(pictured, at left) around 34,000 years ago. Initially, some tried to dismiss the etchings as meaningless doodles, but between 1964 and the early 1990s, Alexander Marshack engaged in breakthrough research that established that the marks were carefully made by artisans, who controlled the line thickness so that the etched lines and crescents would be easily perceived. He then deciphered the mathematical and astronomical language of those lines and crescents and established a correlation with the lunar phases. 3 But if hunters and gatherers knew astronomy, and recorded the cycles of the moon and other celestial cycles, they would certainly not be doing so to optimize a harvest. Rather, due to their shamanic practices and ability to use both
sides of their brains, due to their shamanic practices and ability to use both sides of their brains, they had recognized that the Universe was alive and conscious, and thus organized spiritual and ritual activities around a calendar that was in synch with universal cycles. In short, they did so for cosmic, mystic, sacred and metaphysical reasons, and were in touch with life in ways that we’d now consider to be spiritual.
Fast forward some 25, 000 years. By now, the Neanderthals have become as extinct as the mammoth, wooly rhino and saber-toothed cat – or have they? The ice age has receded. Europe is now covered with temperate rainforests, separated by plains. A pair of different and distinct AMH populations now share the continent:
oral accounts passed on from the farming
populace, claim they tended to be quite
hairy – perhaps like tinier versions of H.
heidelbergensis, a common ancestor of
both Neanderthals and AMHs.
The years passed, and the farming population was replaced by other AMH tribal and ethnic groups, first by the Celts, and later, throughout much of the European continent, by the Germanic tribes. But the tinier, hunter-gatherer population remained – ever on the margins of society, living the ancient equivalent of a “hippie-like” lifestyle, relatively non-violent when compared to their more warlike neighbors, and possessing a knowledge of nature that seemed to straddle boundaries between science and the supernatural. Some of them could occasionally be prevailed upon to interact with the various farming peoples as healers or midwives.
Sadly, as can happen with outsiders, they were often scapegoated as the cause of misfortunes in the community, as well as falsely accused of theft, kidnapping – even ritual killings. They accordingly learned to disappear into the forest on very little notice. They tended to wear forest green clothing, mixed with earthtones, allowing them to blend in easily there. They were expert archers and woodsmen; while they preferred to hide instead of fight, they could, if necessary, dispatch persistent intruders with minuscule bows and (sometimes poisoned) arrows. As a result, numerous superstitions arose about “wee folk” having “supernatural” powers (stories which they found convenient to perpetuate as they learned of them).
But generally, they were peaceful and gentle. They played the flute and at least one form of bowed instrument – possibly more. They loved to dance, and their revelries often lasted well into the night – likely the ancestor of the elfin and faerie dances deep in the forest, that are described so often in fairy tales.
They bartered with the outside world, trading for goods they wanted in exchange. They are known to have worked with wooden tools, and were proficient woodworkers. Goods were deposited at a pre-arranged spot. As the
seller hid, the purchaser came, took such goods as he liked, left goods in payment, and then disappeared. The seller then emerged to pick up the goods left in payment. It is echoed, later on, in stories of the transactions between men and faeries, elves or dwarves.
They are known to have been panentheistic.5 Their deity not only encompassed the whole of creation, but also the inception and termination of everything, the forces of birth and death, yin and yang, with life as a harmoniously flowing force amongst it all. This deity was in no sense anthropomorphic, a concept that was lost on the Romans when they sought to conceptualize just what the nature of this deity was. In trying to grasp its nature and finding an equivalent word, a single word kept coming up in translation: “Pan.” Now this meant “pan” in a Greek linguistic sense of all or everything, as well as “Pan” the Greek nature god (whom the Romans had already conflated with their gods, Faunus and Silvanus), but the Romans concluded – quite erroneously – that the little people worshiped a deity like Pan/Faunus/Silvanus.
Given the supposedly hirsute appearance of the little people, it mightn’t have been unreasonable for the Romans – who’d already failed to grasp
the concept of a non-anthropomorphic and intangible deity – to assume that these people would worship an anthropomorphic god who looked as they did. The deity of the wee folk never did become any anthropomorphic figure, but another figure did arise from the attempt to make him so: The Woodwose.
You can see what appears to be two different versions of the Woodwose on the upper right. They are the side panels from a portrait painted by Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) in 1499. We have no idea what he was originally called, but the name, as we know it today, comes from Old English (Saxon) – likely wudu-wāsa or wudewāsa, “wudu” and “wude” being the word for woodland or forest. The word “wāsa” is less clear, but appears to be a noun derived from the verbs “wesan” and “wosan, which mean “to be” or “to live” – hence, “being.” He was also known as “Orke”, “Lorke”, or “Noerglein”, in parts of Italy as “orco” or “huorco”.Ogres have a similar derivation, as do J. R. R.Tolkein’s orcs.6 There were also female versions of the woodwose, sometimes called Maia, after the Roman fertility goddess, more often called Fange, Fanke or Famke taken from the Latin “fauna”, the feminine form of “faun”. 7, 8.
He shouldn’t be confused with the Green Man of the Forest (shown under the Dürer painting), though they’re often erroneously conflated. Unlike the Woodwose, the Green Man once represented an ancient Celtic deity – guardian of the forest and all life therein – usually believed to die/depart on the autumnal equinox (Mabon), to return/be reborn/revived at the vernal equinox (Ostaria). Both separately appear in decorations on the walls of Canterbury Cathedral.
But in the concluding part of this series, we’ll see that the wee folk could also play a far more sinister, almost demonic, role, deriving from Norse mythology. Every autumn, the Norse god Odin rode through the air on a gray horse named Sleipnir, performing both
magic and miracles. But Odin did not travel alone. Accompanying him was Norwi, god of the dark, son of Loki (pictured left) trickster of the gods, and a constant shape-shifter. We know little about Norwi, but he seems to have been a more benign form of his father. We’ll explore how the wee folk merged with Norwi entity, how the “dark” side evolved, why “dark” does not necessarily equate with “evil,” and how the sides merged in certain instances.
1 Recent research has established that Neanderthals were capable of behavior that is regarded as modern, calling into serious question the established view of modern human superiority over Neanderthals 2 This museum is incredible, covering not only the Neanderthals, but human evolution in general, and in juxtaposition with other life forms.
It’s well worth a side trip from Zagreb or Maribor, if you’re in the area. 3 See, e.g., Marshack, Alexander, The Roots of Civilization: the Cognitive Beginning of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. New York: McGraw-Hill (1972) 4. Aside from persons solely of African descent, every AMH racial stock on Earth has traces of Neanderthal DNA, but 4% is inordinately high. 5.
Unlike pantheism, in panentheism, God and the universe are not ontologically the same. In panentheism, God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the tangible part of God, or that the cosmos exists within God, who, in turn, transcends or pervades the cosmos.
Pantheism asserts that “All is God;” panentheism goes further, to claim that God is the whole of creation, and inseparable from it, but is more besides – a transcendent being or force that governs and guides it. 6. Tolkien, Christopher, The War of the Jewels, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1994) 7, As to the foregoing, see, generally, Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men in the Middle Ages; a Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon books (1970) 8. Warning, possible spoiler alert. As novels in my series progress and our hero Reggie moves to the U.S., he’ll meet a young girl whose first middle name is “Famke.” He’ll learn that this is neither coincidence nor accident. 9. Warning, possible spoiler alert. Similarly, we will learn that the heroine of the series (whom we’ve yet to meet) has done exactly this to a “wild” spectral entity