Enkidu, from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, arguably marks the beginning of the ‘wild man’ genealogy. Both “an animal and a man,” he is the prototypical pre-human, a liminal man-beast, not quite wild and not quite tame (that is until he is domesticated by the goddess Shamhat with sex and beer, as so many are). Enkidu fights a losing battle with Gilgamesh, and from that brawl they “became bonded in friendship.” Enkidu represents our primal roots in nature, suggesting that people are fundamentally animals. The battle between Gilgamesh and Enkidu enacts civilization’s struggles as it emerges from the wilderness, but also serves as a reminder of how superficial that difference can be. Their friendship points to humanity’s bestial genesis.
Imagine how potent this message must have been during civilization’s infancy, when the vast majority still lived as hunter-gatherers and the cultural memory of that earlier state was not so distant. This first wild-man allegory was followed by similar stories. There are biblical accounts of the hirsute Esau who is ‘red, all over like a hairy garment’ and is later supplanted by his younger brother Jacob. There are the giant Nephilim, and there is the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar reduced to a brutish state. Wild men also appear in classical accounts of fawns and satyrs, and the animalistic Pan could be seen as a type of ‘Sasquatch,’ even if he is more caprine than apish. Medieval Europe had its wild men, its woodwoses, its fairies and fays, and its Green Men, all examples of intermediaries between culture and our animalistic beginnings.
There is one version of the wild man that, through contrast, helps to explain the Sasquatch: the ‘noble savage.’ The idea of the ‘noble savage,’ particularly in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is humankind in pristine, uncorrupted, natural perfection. He represents the virginal innocence of our species’ origins. The noble savage is a natural inhabitant of Eden—and so is the Sasquatch. Both hark back to the prelapsarian simplicity of life before civilization corrupted us, an era before government, law, industry, commerce and war. The difference is that, while the ‘noble savage’ has an air of admirable innocence, the Sasquatch is uncanny, a creepily distorted reflection of our most primal nature. The historian of science Brian Regal writes in Searching for Sasquatch (2011) of these ‘apish’ monsters that are “disturbingly like us,” which have “stalked the dark parts of the human psyche, as well as forests, for millennia.”
The wild man takes part in a mode that I (only partially tongue-in-cheek) call the ‘Sasquatch Pastoral.” Pastoralism is identified with Virgil’s Eclogues and Horace’s Epodes, with the Renaissance poetry of Petrarch and Boccaccio, of Spenser and Marlowe—things that might seem rather far from a comedy such as Harry and the Hendersons. The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms explains that pastoral literature is defined by “interest in the relation of the human to the natural world,” allowing for “imaginary rustic diversions.” Does not the allure of the Sasquatch relate to that definition of the pastoral? But the Sasquatch Pastoral is more unsettling, indeed disquieting, though it fulfills much of the same catharsis that the more traditional pastoral does. The Sasquatch Pastoral is the wild, bestial inversion of the classical view, a kind of uncanny Arcadia.