A vast expanse of untamed nature. A place where our ancient ancestors had to establish a new encampment or village, but outside of the civilised homestead was a world they viewed as full of danger, mystery or adventure. Where all must tread carefully and to keep a watchful eye for the threats that lurk out of sight.
A prominent theme in mythology, the wilderness, is often used in storytelling as a moral and physical testing ground. Tales of learnt wisdom, warnings and strength have found no better place than in this great unknown.
But why do we see it this way? What is it about this natural space that’s so captivating? And what is it, aside from tests for survival, about the wilderness that creates such trials for humanity?
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors would not have travelled more than a few miles from where they were born. Anything outside of familiar surroundings and well-trodden paths would have been stepping into dangerous territory.
For a journey out of the encampment would have created anxiety with all the potential risks that lay in the unknown. Dangers from the landscape, bad weather, hostile animals and the myths we created about the wilds were all pause for thought. However, for some, there would have been a sense of adventure about untamed lands, a seed of mystery that spurred on wonder, but would have been cautioned against by the elders that knew danger lurked outside.
The ancient Greeks…
had a rather dour view of the wilderness and deemed it as a place of jeopardy. We can see this represented in the Greek God Pan, the god of the wild, where the word panic derives from.
There are Greek myths that talk of brave warriors who ignore the warnings of danger and wander far away from the safety of their homes.
The Greek legend of Actaeon, for example, tells the tale of a fearless (or possibly reckless) young man who strays deep into the forest. He chances upon the beautiful Artemis bathing naked and finds himself gazing upon her.
Humiliated and furious, Artemis uses her supernatural powers to turn him into a stag. Further peril ensures as his own pack of hounds turn on him and chase him through the forest, believing him to be nothing more than a wild animal. Despite his speed, they catch up with him and tear him apart.
There are some moral tales at play here, a warning to treat each other with decency, and a threat in the form of punishment for your sins. But what role does the wilderness play within this myth? It is not simply a place of the unknown and danger, but a place to explore the animalistic nature of humanity and our moral struggles against doing the wrong thing.
The wilderness was full of magical creatures who inhabit these mysterious lands. Fairies, Imps and Leprechauns, often portrayed as mischievous beings that wanted to trick and make fools of humans.
In many English folk tales and Norse mythology, the warning is to ‘stick to the paths,’ because you don’t know what’s lurking beyond. Whenever the brave, foolish or naive character strays from the well-trodden route they’re confronted with many creatures who wish to trick them or will do them harm for trespassing into their land.
From a troll protecting a bridge to fairies tempting the living to come into the supernatural world. There’s an unknown danger lurking in the wilds in a glittering or scary form.
Ancient Celtic myths,
speak of doors to the Otherworld that were found deep in the wilderness. This place shrouded in mystery was a supernatural dimension existing alongside our world.
Although it was thought of as a glorious place, it had a darker side, often threatening those of the living world. Take for example the myth of the Fairy Queen.
A supernatural creature that would tempt and invite people to enter the Otherworld. A beautiful temptress who many a man was confronted by after stumbling into the wilderness.
But despite the glories she appeared to offer, just one day spent with the Fairy Queen in the Otherworld would pass as one hundred years on earth.
This is a clear warning to be strong in the face of emotions and all the more so if you are alone. For it is only heartache, on the return to earth, for the person who discovered everyone they once loved died many years ago.
The Brothers Grimm are perhaps the most famous collectors and publishers of myths and fairy tales…
A vast number of these stories feature scenes of untouched nature where dangers lurked. The brothers collected these tales from their home country, Germany, that still to this day has some of the largest forest lands in Europe.
Tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, to name just a few, are glorious tales with a moral lesson in tow. They speak not only of folly but also of great bravery.
Hansel and Gretel fought back against a witch, sending her to a fiery death, who had imprisoned them and upon their escape, they were rewarded by finding a trove of gold.
Little red riding hood demonstrates the safety of staying in the village and the dangers that prowl outside in the wilds of the forest. Clearly showing the contrasts between civilised society and the great unknown.
All these stories brought to life in the swell of possibilities that rest outside the safety of our civilised lives. The attraction of the wilderness has bought us many great tales that in turn have been adapted into movies, books and plays.
If you take into consideration all the ancient myths from around the world the wilderness is often represented in the same way, as a setting where humans are confronted by great tests. Where weakness of character is tempted by delights, often supernatural or where great acts of will and strength are performed and the lessons passed on to us all.
To read further articles by me on the website medium please see how empathy and the use of monsters can create great drama! – Turning the Monsters Loose.
Or to read about the origins of ghosts and examples of their use in literature, please see – The Origins of Ghosts and famous accounts in Literature