Of Wuduwāsan and Wild Men

The “wild man” is a folkloric figure who appears often as a motif in medieval European artworks and literature.  In these depictions, he is frequently portrayed as hirsute, brutish and uncivilized, attributes which lend themselves well to the “wild man” moniker. While there are many theories as to the origins of the wild man motif, the possible connections to earlier, pagan genii (deities or guardian spirits of a person, place, etc.)[1] is of paramount importance here.

Wuduwāsa (Middle English: wodwo, Modern English: Woodwose) is a word employed in several Old English vocabularies as a gloss for a satyr, faun and silvanus.  The wudu element of the compound corresponds to the Old English word for ‘wood’, while wāsa is of an unknown etymological origin[2].  While the etymology may not provide us with much in the way of clues pertaining to the wuduwāsa’s (pl: wuduwāsan) pagan origins, we may be able to glean more insight into their pre-Christian character through studying similar beings and their role in their respective religious traditions.

Satyrs and Fauni

In the Greek religion, satyrs were a group of beings which accompanied their leader, Silenus and the God, Dionysos in their bacchanalian processions. Their connections to fertility were clearly illustrated by their large, permanently erect penises[3], ram’s horns and in the earliest depictions, their goat/horse-like hooves and tails.  As Dionysian beings, satyrs are said to be fond of the physical pleasures of the world, revelling in sex, drink and music. Satyrs are often depicted alongside the maenads, who they vociferously pursue in an attempt to satisfy their lust.  Though this act appears at first glance as playful freedom, Sheila McNally suggests that this was not the case, quoting several depictions where the lustful satyr is rebuffed by a hostile maenad, or where the maenad is effectively abducted and raped by her pursuer.

“In an art full of eroticism and abduction sexual conflict is rare, and Dionysiac revelry produces most of it. The supposed release gives rise to unparalleled tensions. We might conclude that the Greeks felt the most natural sexual relationship to be one of hostility, only restrained by the contracts of civilization. The depictions of conflict between satyr and maenad are not, however, ubiquitous enough to support that interpretation. They are limited to specific situations and reach a climax at one period: the end of archaic and beginning of classical art. There are two probable reasons why the deviation has not been adequately examined. In the first place, the evidence consists solely of scenes in art. In literature hostility may be directed from outside toward Dionysos or his followers, but they do not fight among themselves. In the second place, even among works of art the scenes of conflict are the exception, not the rule. The most striking examples are a few red-figure vase paintings executed between 500 and 470 B.C. The majority of Dionysiac scenes are indeed as carefree as one could wish.”[4]

Satyrs are commonly depicted holding a thyrsos, a large stalk of fennel topped with a pine cone associated with Dionysos. According to Ioannis Kakridis, the thyrsos acted as a symbol of phallic fertility and hedonism, with the stalk being representative of the shaft and the pine cone being the “seed”[5].

In Roman religion, fauns were half-man, half-goat beings of a particularly amoral disposition. Unlike their Greek counterparts, fauns were less sex-crazed and more prone to trickery and deceit. In Republican era ideology, fauni are representative of pastoral life and the farmer, via Virgil’s works- the
numina of rustic peoples.

In Aeneid Books VIII-XII, woodland fauns are represented as being born from the trunks of trees and from hard oak. In this depiction, the fauns are associated with pre-agrarianism and pre-civilization and Virgil refers to them as indigenae “indigenous inhabitants”, suggesting that belief in fauni was both ancient and indigenous[6].

“These woods were first the seat of sylvan pow’rs,
Of Nymphs and Fauns, and salvage men, who took
Their birth from trunks of trees and stubborn oak.
Nor laws they knew, nor manners, nor the care
Of lab’ring oxen, or the shining share,
Nor arts of gain, nor what they gain’d to spare.
Their exercise the chase; the running flood
Supplied their thirst, the trees supplied their food.”[7]

In the Republican-era, fauni appear as disembodied voices that echo within the natural and rural landscape.  Regarding this interesting quality, Di-Giusto posits that it may be evidence of fauni belonging to a “higher class of divinity”, invisible to those who encounter them, and perhaps more akin to the spirits of the place.[6].

Fauni were associated with Faunus, God of woods, plains and fields, presenting a juxtaposed image to that of Greek satyrs and Pan. While this particular tangent would serve as interesting reading material, it would likely do little to elucidate the character of wuduwāsan further. Suffice to say, Pan and Faunus were both deities who, like their followers (the satyrs and fauns respectively), represented fertility and rustic abundance. As a rustic deity, Pan was rarely worshipped indoors in man-made structures, but instead in caves and in grottoes[8].


Silvanus is the Roman tutelary God of forests and fields. As Roman society progressed, Silvanus went from being the menacing God of unreclaimed wild spaces on the fringes of society to that of woodland pastures, gardens, boundaries, villas and parks[9].  Silvanus’ role as a God of the natural landscape and its inherent fertility is also illustrated through his syncretism with Faunus, both of which possess goat and lupine theriomorphic tendencies. Faunus’ lupine nature is asserted by Ovid, who suggests Pan/Faunus as the central figure of the earliest Lupercalia celebrations[10].  

Silvanus’ iconography is difficult to pin down given its changeability and fluid nature. P. Dorsey states that “Ancient deities were complex religious entities with many seemingly unrelated or contradictory sides, overlapping more often than not with those of other divinities.” [11]

Roman engineer Dolabella stated that Silvanus was the deity responsible for setting up the first boundary markers used to delineate the organized farmland from the wilderness outside. He also indicated that each estate was home to three Silvani, suggesting a plurality as opposed to a singular deity. A Silvanus Domesticus (Silvanus of the home), Silvanus Agrestis (Silvanus of flocks and farmstead) and Silvanus Orientalis (Silvanus of the estate boundary) are listed as the genii loci who preside over the typical Roman homestead[12].

Silvanus Orientalis was given the title of salutaris, or “salutary”, because he was considered a benefactor of the home.  He is the spirit of the forest, the silva, and likely the multitudes of beings that dwell within it, as the Indo-European suffix -no implies sovereignty[13].

His functions are implied in the many epithets associated with his name. Pecudifer, Lactifer, Glandifer, Poncifer, Cannabifer, Linifer mean, respectively, “He who encourages the reproduction of flocks,” “He who produces milk,” “He who produces acorns,” “He who produces fruits,” “He who makes the hemp grow,” and “He who makes the trees grow”[14].  In his Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville gives him the name rusticorum deus, or “God of the peasants.”

In Latin works, Silvanus is regularly depicted as a kindly, bearded old man who carries the trunk of a cyprus tree[15]. This depiction is mirrored in medieval and Renaissance images of woodwose who are regularly depicted carrying clubs or the uprooted trunk of a tree.


The nature sprite of Slavic folklore combines both anthropomorphic and demonic traits, manifesting as a very large or very short, hairy man akin to the woodwose[16].  In some depictions, the leshy (Russian: Ле́ший, Belarusian: Лешы, Polish: Leszy, Czech: Leši, Serbian: Лешиј, Croatian: Lešij, Leši) [17] appears with goat legs and hooves, reminiscent of Roman Faunus.  In others he is depicted as an old, grey-bearded man dressed in a white or in a coniferous green cloak[18].  Leshy are shapeshifters, able to transmute in size and shape at will- transforming into both bird and beast. They are exceedingly territorial, with felled trees and frightened animals considered the result of their calamitous territorial disputes[19].  Each tract of woodland is thought to be home to a single male leshy and his family. Similar to the of the fauni, leshy are frequently encountered as disembodied voices in the forest, but are seldom seen, which is suggestive of an incorporeal entity as opposed to that of a corporeal one[20].

Leshy are avid tricksters and, like the fauni, are known to lead hapless travellers astray. While this might suggest an inherent malevolence, this view is tempered by stories of leshy shepherding woodland creatures, protecting them from hunters and striking mutually beneficial deals with humans who rely on the forest’s bounty. If the human end of the deals are met, the leshy would help the hunters trap animals, keep watch over beekeeper’s hollow logs and protect shepherd’s flocks and ensure the health of cattle[21].  Wolves and bears are often among the leshy’s entourage and, like the woodwose, they are said to carry clubs representative of his rulership over the forest[22].

The Medieval Woodwose

By the twelfth century, the woodwose became a common fixture of roof bosses and as supporters of German coats-of-arms. In Lombardy, woodwose were referred to as salvan, or salvang, both of which are derivatives of Latin, Silvanus. In Tyrol and German-speaking Switzerland, the wild man was known as Fange or Fanke, which derive their name from a feminine form of faun[23].

Dorothy Yamamoto demonstrates that the Medieval wild man was the embodiment of fears pertaining to cultivated space of mankind and the wilderness beyond it.

“In the wild man the dividing line between the centre and the periphery seems to have vanished altogether. How can the prevailing discourse cope with him? The region he inhabits has always been one of absorbed speculation, and also of profound anxiety, since his presence within culture suggests that the membrane between humanness and otherness is frighteningly permeable- that there might, in fact, be circumstances in which men might lose their humanity, and revert, or sink, to the level of beasts”[24].

There are several later folk traditions which may have been remnants of an earlier, pagan practice. In Grisons, Switzerland, peasants reenacted the capture and binding of the “wild man”, demanding his secrets in exchange for his freedom. This practice is reflected in earlier accounts relayed by Xenophon, Ovid, Pausanias, and Claudius Aelianus, where shepherds captured Silenus or Faunus for much the same purpose.[25]


Now that we have explored lore pertaining to satyrs, fauni, Silvanus, leshy and woodwose, we can attempt to piece together a completed picture of what the Anglo-Saxon wuduwāsa may have looked like, and how they might be incorporated into modern Fyrnsidu practice.

Based on the examples above, we can posit the role of wuduwāsan as that of genii loci of both boundaries and of wild, uncultivated space. Based on comparisons to satyrs, fauni and later depictions of woodwose, the wuduwāsa was likely thought of as hirsute, or bestial in appearance, able to assume the form of various woodland creatures. Wuduwāsan were also likely able to change their size at will, or disappear completely, becoming nothing more than a disembodied voice.

Wuduwāsan were deities associated with fertility, via their associations with Silvanus and the Dionysian procession – a comparison which is suggestive of an unbridled, unpredictable nature.  As amoral beings concerned more with the well-being of woodland creatures than of men, the wuduwāsa should be approached with caution.  While entering into a reciprocal relationship with the local wuduwāsa is likely possible, as is illustrated in fauni and leshy lore, the risks of angering one may outweigh the potential gains.

If offerings are to be left for wuduwāsan, it may be advisable to stick to those propitiatory sacrifices typically associated with Silvanus, such as: grapes, ears of grain, milk, meat, wine and pork[26].  These sacrifices should be left in wild, liminal spaces like caves, grottoes or the hollows of trees – preferably oak or pine.  Due to the leshy and Silvanus’ role as protectors of cattle, offerings of beef might be ill-advised.

While it may be unwise to assume a singular, Anglo-Saxon deity akin to Pan, Faunus, or Silvanus, given the evidence above, accepting a broader group of woodland genii loci, based on comparative study, and survival of the later medieval woodwose is more tenable.



[2] Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Wudu-wása. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 13 May 2017.
[3] Dictionary of Greek Mythology by Hellenica.
[4] McNally, Sheila. The Maenad in Early Greek Art
[5] Kakridis, Ioannis. Ελληνική μυθολογία Εκδοτική Αθηνών 1987
[6] Di-Giusto, Tammy. Faunus and the Fauns in Latin Literature of the Republic and Early Empire. University of Adelaide, Discipline of Classics. Faculty of Arts. October 2015.
[8] Horbury, William (1992). Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
[9] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silvanus-Roman-god
[10] Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.32.3–5, 1.80
[11] Dorsey, Peter. The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion. (1992)
[12] Dolabella. ex libris Dolabellae, in “Die Schriften der rômischen Feldmesser”, edited by Karl Lachmann, Georg Reimer ed., Berlin, 1848
[13] Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices. (pp.50)
[14] Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices. (pp.51)
[15] Virgil. Georgics I.20-1
[16] Anglickienė, Laima . Slavic Folklore DIDACTICAL GUIDELINES (pp.137)
[17] Krinichnaya, Neonila Artyomovna. (2004) Русская мифология: Мир образов фольклора [Russian Mythology: The World of Folklore Images]. Akademicheskii Proyekt. Moscow. ch. 3, “Leshy: Totemic origins and the polysemy of images”
[18] Anglickienė, Laima . Slavic Folklore DIDACTICAL GUIDELINES (pp.137)
[19] http://mythandlore.blogspot.ca/2012/04/leshy.html
[20] https://www.britannica.com/topic/leshy
[21] Anglickienė, Laima . Slavic Folklore DIDACTICAL GUIDELINES (pp.138)
[22] Green, Gary. The Slavic Pagan World:Slavic Pagan Beliefs, Gods, Myths, Recipes, Magic, Spells, Divinations, Remedies, Songs. (pp.121)
[23] Bernheimer, Richard . Wild men in the Middle Ages, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1952; New York : Octagon books, 1979
[24] Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature
[25] Bernheimer, Richard . Wild men in the Middle Ages, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1952; New York : Octagon books, 1979. (pp.25)
[26] Horace. Epistles II.1.143


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