Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Wild Man of the Pyrenees

     This is my 50th post, and it appears I shall have to go back to translating, because I have run out of English language material. It seems only yesterday, but in reality it was a quarter century ago that Michel Raynal sent me his paper, in French, about the alleged "wild man of the Pyrenees". In effect, it is a local form of a legend which extends throughout Europe, and which used to be portrayed in pageants, and on the façades of churches and other public buildings, not to mention coats of arms. In English the term was wose or woodwose, from which the surname, Wodehouse derived. Classically, the wild man was conceived as solitary, hairy, speechless, and armed with a wooden club. Whether the idea related back to anything substantial is an open question. After all, the same people believed in the little people: fairies, elves, call them what you like. There is only a limited number of variations on the human form which the imagination can call upon to populate the local area. Very small humans is one variety, and another is the beast-man, who bridges the conceptional gap between humans and the natural world. Just the same, there is good evidence for similar such creatures in the Caucasus, so it cannot be ruled out that they once extended deep into the primeval heart of Europe, where they left residues on the collective memory.
     M. Raynal's paper was entitled, L'homme sauvage dans les Pyrénées et la survivance des néanderthaliens, and was published in an obscure journal, Bipedia, vol 3 (1989), pp 1-16. The original can be found here and, if you wish, you can use the "translate" facility to compare a human translation to a computer driven one.


     On 6 June 1972, before the Archaeological Commission of Narbonne, an unexpected paper on "The abominable snowman in the Pyrenees" was read out by a teacher of French from that town, Paul Ornières (Ornières, 1972). Having heard about the matter in 1981, I immediately contacted the widow Ornières, who kindly put at my disposal her husband's library, and in particular, his as yet unpublished study on "The Neanderthals in the Pyrenees", written two years later (Ornières, 1974).
     For the sake of brevity, I shall pass over a dissertation of more than two pages concerning Neanderthal man, and the nature of various unknown bipedal apes in the Caucasus, the (then) USSR, and Indo-China. It is an article of faith among French and Russian cryptozoologists that these bipeds, which they call "snowmen", are surviving Neanderthals, but this position is untenable. The "snowmen" are undoubtedly animals, and typically solitary ones at that. The Neanderthals were human, albeit of a different form of humanity from ours. They used fire, made stone tools, possessed a major gene for speech, and hunted big game. They almost certainly possessed a similar social organisation to our own. If you wish, you can refer to the original article, using the translate facility. Alternatively, you can check here for a summary of the Caucasus creatures, and here for those of norther Pakistan.

     Throughout the whole of the Pyrenees there runs the legend of John-of-the-Bear, the most popular tale in this region: it exists in dozens of versions, constructed around the following central core: a bear kidnaps a young girl, carries her into his cave, and hold her prisoner there by closing the grotto with a heavy slab. He begets a son, hairy and strong like a bear,  as per his name, who, on growing up, becomes strong enough to move the slab aside and escape; he becomes a blacksmith and, after a number of adventures, which notably evoke the Cycle of the Round Table, which were obviously added subsequently, as can be established by comparison with the Basque legends of Basa Jaun (see below). A human-bear hybridisation is, of course, genetically impossible, but does it really relate back to a bear? The manual dexterity lent to the offspring of these unnatural loves suggests a primate hand, not the paw of a bear (as well as the episode of the slab, as far as the father is concerned). Might it relate back to a confused memory of a hybridisation between a type of primitive human and a women? But to continue ...
     We return to this theme of a bear kidnapping a young woman in the "bear's festival", as at Prats-de-Mollo, Arles-sur-Tech, or Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans in the eastern Pyrenees. The bear's festival also exists at Ariège, and Daniel Vigne was inspired by this for a sequence in his film Le Retour de Martin Guerre ["The Return of Martin Guerre"]. In all these cases, a person playing the "bear", often armed with a stick or a club, carries off a girl, and is pursued by the hunters, who end by capturing him, killing him (or shaving, or castrating him), and liberating the young woman. Indeed, it follows very precisely the theme of the "wild man hunts" in the medieval carnivals and music festivals of central Europe (Bernheimer 1952). [Note: in this, and other quotes, the spaces indicated by three dots were present in the original.]

     Numerous Pyrenean traditions are still alive regarding the Wild Men. At Arles-sur-Tech, simiots, "frightful monsters, with split teeth and crooked hands, roam the night on the rooftops, descending into the houses down the chimney, uttering mournful howls (Blanc 1979); tradition holds that it was the local saints, Abdon and Sennen who conquered them. Furthermore, the so-called "bear" of the above mentioned carnival of Arles-sur-Tech carnival is always called the simiot. [The word obviously derives from the Latin simia, a monkey.]
     In Haute-Ariège, the Wild Man was called the ome pelut ("hairy man") or iretgge, which might have been a corruption of "heretic".
     At an undetermined period, towards the XII or XIII centuries, there lived in the forest of Barthes, two wild men (iretgges), naked, hairy, each armed with a knotty stick, coming from no-one knows where, having as shelter only the caves of our mountains and, as sole nourishment, only the spontaneous products of the soil or whatever game they could capture.
     In order to get rid of these undesirables, one villager had the idea of leaving some red shorts in the forest where the iretgges used to frequent, so as to attract their attention. The villagers sprang onto them, and made them prisoners, as they were hindered in their movements (Piniès 1978).
     In this legend one in fact meets the old myth of the Wild Man was his club, but also, and this is even more significant, the old legend about a method of capturing monkeys [or apes, the words are identical in French], by making them put on boots, which renders their gait clumsy, which one finds in Africa (Heuvelmans 1980). The question which is posed is to know which local "ape" would have been able to inspire this legend, which is also recounted in the Aude with clogs in place of shorts or boots (Maffre 1939).
     From another case, where someone lends an iretgge a scimitar, it is evident that the memory of the former presence of Moors in the Midi has been superimposed. The presumed lewdness of the wild men, their nocturnal habits (the night being favourable to demons in the popular imagination) can only accentuate their diabolic character, thus heretical in the eyes of the good people . . . The characters in which they approach the billy goat (see later), thus in the popular image of the Devil, must have also contributed.

     In the Basque country, both French and Spanish, there run legends of the Basa-Jaun, the local Wild Man (or more exactly, the Wild Lord):
     Basa-Jaun does not differ significantly from a wild beast. He is covered with hair like a bear; he feeds only on herbs or game; he does not leave the mountains or the forests; he is cruel, he is a thief. [...] He is not subject to infirmities; he always retains a strength without equal; he is insensitive to the inclemency of the seasons; he walks around by day and night . . . (Cerquand 1875-1882) 
     The one surnamed "billy goat man" is accused of haunting the shepherds' cabins in the mountains, where he comes to warm himself next to the fire, or to simply purloin their milk and their cheese, such a veritable parasite (Webster 1879). Of course, in various tales, he is accused of carrying off women and begetting on them young which are hairy and uncommonly strong (Sébillot 1904-1907), which reminds us of the legend of John-of-the-Bear. We may add that he seems to possess a long head of hair (including Basa-Andere, his wife), and that many of his exploits take place at night.
     Of course, this character is present in numerous Basque tales, and is considered (or was recently considered) as a real animal; that Goupil [the fox] of the Romance of Renart, as well as the other animals of the forest, speak like men, does not mean that the fox, the Vulpes vulpes of the zoologists, does not exist! Quite the contrary, a zoological (and in particular ethological) reading of this medieval masterpiece tells us a lot about this animal; that it lives in a den, that it is omnivorous, but mainly carnivorous, that is it cunning to the extent of playing dead, etc, etc., and on the anatomical plan it must resemble its "cousin" Ysengrin the wolf (Canis lupus), but with a red pelt - all things perfectly exact, and amply demonstrated thereafter.
     Thus, therefore, two centuries ago at most, the woodcutters of the Iraty Forest used to affirm having encountered its footprints, and others to have heard it, and the memory was still being recently perpetuated in the evenings around the fire:
     "Two mountaineers, so it has been well heard, at night, among the rocks, when they were desperately searching for some stray beasts [. . .]
     Lost in the mist, they were ascertaining their position by identifying themselves with the piercing cry which they call the irrintzina, when one of the two realised that it was the Basa-Jaun who was imitating him! (Duny-Pétré 1960).
     If a number of the stories are extremely mythified, in fact truly fabulous tales, there are some which are astonishingly realistic; I wish to tender as proof only the one about the "Basa Jaun at the cayolar", which deserves to be cited in full:
    There were once two shepherds in a shepherd's hut. One evening, after supper, they were watching some chestnuts grilling in the fire. While they were roasting, they lay down a moment, for they had become very tired, during the day, guarding their flock, and sleep overtook them.
     A noise coming from the door wakes them up; they await something which is agitating the latch of the door. Terror seizes them, for they say among themselves that it is surely Basa Jauna. They remain silent, not speaking, and pretend to sleep.
      They were in no way mistaken: they see a Wild Lord enter, all black and covered with hair. He approaches them, and they feel a rough, trembling hand pass over their faces. They think that it is all over for them, that the Wild Lord is going to devour them, and they are so afraid that they can hardly breathe. But no: Basa Juana sets himself down in front of the fire, warms himself, and retrieving the chestnuts from the ashes, eats them all. While eating, he is all the time watching to see if the shepherds are waking up. The latter, scared to death, don't even move at all.
     The Wild Lord, after having eaten the chestnuts, gets up, takes whatever he likes in the cabin, and departs without doing harm to anyone."
     A tale? Yes, certainly, but one which has an astonishing aroma of authenticity: one would almost believe it a typical report from the Caucasus, such as Marie-Jeanne Koffmann has collected. [See my comment later.]

     In the Pyrenean Wild Man dossier, there is not only folklore: we also possess testimonies concerning the hairy humanoid creatures observed right up to a recent period, and this precisely in the country of the Basa Jaun.
    It is thus that a naval engineer, Julien David Leroy, in his work on forest exploitation in the Pyrenees (1776), makes mention of several stories of feral children, like the celebrate Victor of l'Aveyron, to whom the late lamented François Truffaut consecrated one of his most beautiful films (L'Enfant Sauvage [the wild child]): these are only children abandoned, and therefore returned to the wild state, unrelated to our subject. In revenge, he cites a much more troubling case.
    Two years ago [therefore in 1774] the herdsmen of the Yraty Forest, near Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, often noticed an wild man who inhabited the rocks of this forest. This man was of great height, hairy as a bear, and alert as a chamois, of cheerful disposition, with the appearance of a gentle character, since he did harm to nothing. He often used to visit the cabins without carrying off anything; he knew neither bread, milk, or cheese; his great pleasure was to make the flocks run, and to disperse them by making great peels of laughter, but he never did them any harm. The herdsmen used to often set their dogs after him; then he would run off like a dart, and never let them approach very close. One single time, he came in the morning to the door of the cabin of workmen who were making oars, and which had retained a great abundance of snow fallen during the night; he stood erect at the door which he was holding with two hands, and was laughing as he looked at the workmen. One of these people softly slid [forward] so as to attempt to seize him by his leg; as soon as he saw him approach, he redoubled his laugh; then he escaped. It was judged that this man would have been thirty years old; as this forest is of great extent, and communicates with immense woods belonging to Spain, it is presumed that this might be some young child who was lost, and who had found the means to subsist on the vegetation.
     This last explanation shows a great naivety, inspired by the legend of the hairy hermit, who wishes to live in the wild and ends up acquiring a hairy pelage, a legend bereft, it must be said, of all foundation.

     Other testimonies have been collected by Gomez-Tabanera (1978); last century [written 1989] a "mujer salvaje" (wild woman) was pointed out in the mountains of Cantabria. Nicknamed "la Osa de Andara" (the she-bear of Andara), she used to take refuge in the grottoes; "her arms and legs were hairy, with a pelage comparable to that of a bear". She used to feed on milk, chestnuts, roots, raw maize, fruit and berries (strawberries, gooseberries, etc), honeycomb, but also occasionally little goats.
    "I have seen her devour one of these animals", writes Joaquin Fusté y Garcés in 1875: "at that moment she would by roaring like a real savage beast and flashing lightning with her eyes."
     She used to possess a sort of tray or pan for the milk, and a knife fashioned out of a piece of horn, and she wore around her lions "a sort of skirt of which one could not tell whether it was made of hair or cloth."
Sculpture of the so-called "She-bear of Cornellana"
(Asturias, Spain). Photo: J. M. Gomez-Tabanera
     Gomez-Tabanera also reports the legend of the foundation of the monastery of San Salvador de Cornellana in Asturia. A child had formerely been carried off by a monster termed an osa (she-bear). After a long search, they were both discovered in the forest, "the above-mentioned she-bear suckling the child, which was quietly resting in her hirsute pelage." The lord of Doriga , in order to thank heaven for the miracle, had the monastery constructed and the scene scultured (see photo).
[Note: Although this is "just" a legend, I don't find it extraordinary. Female animals which have just lost their young have been known to adopt babies of completely different species.]

     Thereis perhaps a still more recent testimony, reported by Daniel Fabre (1969), in his study on John-of-the-Bear:
     Mme Gomez (born 1926), an inhabitant of Lézignan (Aude), recounted to us how, in the village of her birth, Cuevas-Bajas (Málaga Province) around about 1920, a young couple (the Palmares) departed into the Sierra Morena in order to tend cattle. They used to live isolated in a cabin. One day, when her husband was absent, the young woman disappeared. The villagers did not pursue their search very long, thinking that she had been devoured by the wild beasts which infested the region. But some time later the woman returned to her home and related her astonishing story.
     She had been carried off by an ape when she was washing her linen in the river. It had led her into his grotto and had raped her. During its absence, she had succeeded in running away. Some months later, she gave birth to a daughter who was baptized Anica, and who was better known as "the daughter of the orang-outang" (la hija del orang-outang) [N.B.: more exactly, orang-utan]. She had partially inherited the physique of her father's: long arms, hairy body; her face was that of an ape in the lower part, that of her mother in the upper part. Furthermore, this daughter afterwards had two sons who are still alive in the town of Labisbal (Gerona Province): the first is absolutely normal, but the other is nicknamed "the cheese" because of his simian ugliness.
     Man x ape hybirdisation is generally held to be impossible, although the possibility has not been genuinely explored for ethical reasons. However, the case of the childbirth at Vichy (a girl who used to live held captive by her father in a caravan, in the company of a chimpanzee, and who gave birth to a monstrous stillborn baby) is well documented, and none the less disturbing (Duvic 1973). Nevertheless, such a hybrid, if it existed, would be non-viable: the anatomical differences between man and the Pongidae (anthropoid apes) is such that it is hard to see, to give one example, an intermediate state between a running foot on the one hand, and a tree-climbing prehensile one (transformed into a hand) on the other . . . In the case of Mme Palmares, with the usual reservations (second hand testimony,  prior to the birth of the informant), the hybrid in question is hairy, her upper limbs are long, and "the bottom part of her face" is simian: that would mean a receding chin, and perhaps no visible lips . . . That the father was designated an orang-utan should not be taken seriously: it is obviously a general term; today we talk of an "ape-man" or a King Kong. Besides, its cave-dwelling habits have nothing to do with the arboreal ones of the big red ape of Sumatra and Borneo.

COMMENT: The author then continues with a discussion of the identity of the Wild Man of the Pyrenees almost as long as the rest of the article, attempting to relate it to the almasties of the Caucasus, and to Neanderthal Man. But, to cut to the chase, the issue is the same as I identified in the introduction. The Wild Man legends of Europe might be simply products of the imagination, or they may be ancestral memories of a time when the almasties extended further west into the continent. If the latter, then they may have continued to exist in the Pyrenees until very recently. Or the stories, second hand at best, may have simply grown like Topsy.
     Applying Occam's razor, one would conclude that there is nothing in it. However, we must remember that individual bits of weak evidence can accumulate into a corpus which is much harder to dismiss. Also, M. Raynal was quite right to compare the story of the chestnuts with reports collected by Marie-Jeanne Koffmann from the Caucasus. Three years ago I translated one of Dr Koffmann's articles, and if you open this link, you will find two of these accounts ("Eaten by Dogs" and "The Nocturnal Meal") which exactly parallel that tale. Of course, it is possible that Koffmann's informants were making it up, but it can be certain that they are completely independent of the Pyrenean story.
     M. Raynal wrote a follow-up article, which I shall translate at a later date. In meantime, lest you imagine that this is all something of the past, I shall finish with this story which I took from the excellent Bigfoot Encounters website.
In June 1993 a group of speleologists (scientific study and exploration of caves) prepared to spend the night at the ruins of a church near Collada de Vallgrasa in the Catalan Pyrenees Mountain Range of Spain. They heard strange noises resembling those of an enraged cat. When they came close to the church's large doorway, the scientists saw a frightened, weird, shaggy creature, approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet tall) flee from the building. He was of enormous bulk. The wild man appeared again in the woods between Farga de Bebié and Ripoll (Gerona). Two hairy beings pounced on two paleontologists then ran away from them. (Citation: De la Rubio Muñoz and Dr. Myra Shackley, Wildmen: Yeti, Sasquatch and the Neanderthal Enigma (London: Thames & Hudson, 1983) ISBN 0-500-01298-9 (also published as Still Living?: Yeti, Sasquatch and the Neanderthal Enigma ISBN 0-500-01298-9)
     1952  Wild Men in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Harvard University Press
BLANC, Dominique
     1979  Récits et Contes Populaires de Catalogne [Reports and popular tales of Catalonia],
      Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1: 133-138, 146
     1875-1882 Légendes et Récits Populaires du Pays Basque. [Popular legends and reports of
      the Basque country] Paris, Ribaud: 10, 70
     1960 Basa Jauna, le Seigneur Sauvage, dans les Légendes Basques [Basa-Jaun, the Wild
      Lord, in Basque legends], Bulletin de la Société des Sciences, Lettres et Arts de Bayonne,
      no 92-94, 87-105, 120-159, 177-222
DUVIC, Patrice
     1973 Monstres et Monstruosités [Monsters and monstrosities], Paris, Albin Michel: 9- 29
FABRE, Daniel
     1968-1969 Recherches sur Jean-de-l'Ours, Conte Populaire. [Research on John-of-the-Bear,
     a popular tale], Folklore, Carcassonne, Vol. 21(3-4): 2-41 and Vol. 22(2): 2-36
     1978 La Conseja del Hombre Salvaje en la Tradición Popular de la Peninsula Iberica [The
     myth of the wild man in the popular tradition of the Iberian Peninsula] in Homenaje 
     a Julio Caro Baroja, Madrid: Centro do Investigaciones Sociologicas: 471-509
     1980 Les Bêtes Humaines d'Afrique [The human beasts of Africa], Paris, Plon
LEROY, Julien David
     1776 Mémoire sur les Travaux qui ont Rapport à l'Exploitation de la Nature dans les
      Pyrénées [Memoire on the works in relation to the exploitation of nature in the Pyrenees],
      London: 8-9
     1939 L'Homme Sauvage et le Lait [The wild man and milk], Folklore, Carcassonne,
      no. 12: 31-34
     1972 (Communication). Bulletin de la Commission Archéologique de Narbonee,
      vol. 34: 36
     1974  Les Néanderthaliens dans les Pyrénées. [The Neanderthals in the Pyrenees],
      unpublished study, Narbonne, October: 1-9
PINIES, Jean-Pierre
     1978  Récits et Contes Populaires de Catalogne [Reports and popular tales of Catalonia],
     Paris, Gallimard, vol. 1: 110-119
     1904-1907 Le Folklore de France, Paris, E. Guilmoto.
WEBSTER, Wentworth
     1879 Basque Legends. London, Griffith and Farran: 47 - 63


  1. Why,oh why,do people speculate with ludicrous postulations on these impossible type stories...an instance is here ... " ome pelut ("hairy man") or iretgge, which might have been a corruption of "heretic"." ...this is simply grasping at straws and is a ludicrous attempt to make sense of the attitudes etc that were commonplace hundreds of years ago by placing today`s interpretations upon them...it`s a nonsense and ought to be avoided...but an interesting tale nonetheless.

  2. For more information about the wild man of the Pyrenees, can consult the blog Cryptozoology in Spain (in Spanish): http://criptozoologos.blogspot.com.es/


    And more....

    Thanks !!

    Javier Resines
    Criptozoología en España

    1. Great! I shall be following them all up in due course, and providing translations, if considered appropriate.

  3. I was wild camping in the Midi Pyrenees sometime around the early Noughties, returning from the running of the bulls in Pamplona with two friends. We encountered something that seemed very displeased with our presence. It never revealed itself but was making such a loud cat-like scream that was extremely disturbing while violently shaking a tree on the opposite side of a small gulley. We built a very large fire and stayed close to it until morning. It was that scream that made us all freeze instantly that I'll never forget. The volume and general quality of the sound was beyond the range of any human.


The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.