Civilizations from every era all over the world have each had their own version of a similar myth — that on the fringes of the known world lived savage, shaggy-haired humanoids.
Their names vary from the African Gorilla, the Woodwose of the British Isles, and Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. The medieval Germans called this creature der wilde mann, or “wild man”. These mysterious creatures, bridging the line between man and beast, appear in the legends of all the continents. Lying outside the realms of organized states and religions, der wilde mann, in all its incarnations, symbolizes the origins of the human species, perhaps even the lost freedoms which civilization attempts to suppress.
It’s not surprising that German-speaking territories were among the areas where the most references to the wild man are to be found. The highest percentage of forested land remaining in Europe can be found in Germany.
One of the last remaining wild places in Germany are the Harz mountains, where silver was mined since the Middle Ages. Legend held that the forests of this region, such as Brunswick-Luneberg and Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, were home to the wild man.
His image can be seen on a high percentage of the talers, or silver dollars and their fractionals, of the area. Coins are not the only place the image of the wild man can be found. The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe feature likenesses of wild men supporting flying buttresses. They also appear in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth sagas, where they are known as “woses”.
Today these inexpensive coins are popular with collectors and prized by numismatists world-wide. This could be because they contrast so strongly with the stereotypical image of industrial development, heavy machinery, and finely engineered automobiles for which Germany is known.
Even today, in German, to express an idea such as “I feel like a million bucks”, one might say “I slept so well I feel like ripping out trees.” The German language continues to be colored by its origins in the primeval forest.