Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands by Jo Dacombe

  Animals in the woods, The Hunter and the Hunted, Colwick Woods

 

Animals in the woods, The Hunter and the Hunted, Colwick Woods

I have been researching appearances of animals in folklore and myth.  I started doing this alongside my Reliquary Project, to think about what animals represent to us and how this has changed over the centuries, but inevitably this interest has started to influence other projects I'm working on.


Because I'm inspired by the image of the reliquary, a Medieval Christian notion, I have been reading around the medieval period. A wonderful book is Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art1 a book on marginalia, those intriguing images that decorate the margins of medieval texts. Here animals appear in strange guises. Dogs dress as humans or hide under their cloaks, there are snails that attack medieval knights in armour, hares become archers intent on the murder of humans, and rabbits scamper about and nestle up against pretty girls. A lot of this is believed to be sexually suggestive, and I love the book's whole thesis that the margins are where the artist defiles and pokes fun at the righteousness of the page's main text.
It's the theme of running wild, of humans believing they are central, but around the edges are these wild creatures rampantly ignoring the preaching of the text:
"One of the most powerful statements that the monstrosities of marginal art make is that they violate the taboo that separates the human from the animal." 

  Becoming animals, Colwick Woods

 

Becoming animals, Colwick Woods

In Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages 2 animals again represent the wildness, but in these old stories their relationship with the divine is complicated and contradictory. The stories seem to me to be a constant battle between wildness, or freedom, and those in authority.  Sometimes the authority is simply that of the human, who believes that he has dominion over the earth and the animals, but finds he cannot control the wildness all around him. Sometimes the authority is the Church, but often the wild and natural creatures are seen as closer to god than humans and, although crude and base, are actually more akin with the purest of Christian hearts. The religious hermit chooses to live in the forest with the creatures because they are not tainted by the deceitfulness of humans. Again the hare often appears, as a symbol of wildness. In stories such as St Anselm and the Hare and in the topos of the hermit and the hunted animal, the hare may represent the soul chased by its demons. The hermit is able to rescue the hunted animal because he lives outside of human society.

  LJ and I discussing the hawthorn in Colwick Woods

 

LJ and I discussing the hawthorn in Colwick Woods

The hare is of particular interest to me. It does have a really wild appearance, and a strange otherworldly quality. I came face to face with one in Dukes Wood, and now I'm working on another woodland project I'm thinking about him again. This time I'm working with Laura-Jade Klée, a curator I work with under the name Sidelong. The project is commissioned by Ordinary Culture, who also curated The Dukes Wood Project. Their current project, View From the East, takes place in Colwick Woods in Sneinton, Nottingham. Some of the themes of wildness and control are bleeding into this project, rubbing up alongside the tales we have unearthed about the woodlands itself, and LJ and I have become fascinated by the contrasts of the woodlands, the joy of the natural world but also its more threatening side. There are many dark deeds that have taken place in these woods, as well as a real sense of playfulness and enchantment. We are calling our project The Hunter and the Hunted, and through storytelling we are playing with the contrasting ideas of the woodland of a place of safety where you can hide from the hunter, but also a place of fear where you can easily become lost.
LJ and I will be running a stall on the afternoon of the Colwick Woods Gala Day, Sunday 5th July, where we will have activities for families - seek us out if you can! 
All photographs in this post by Matthew Vaughan.

1 Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, Michael Camille: Reaktion Books, London, 1992 
2 Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, D Alexander: Boydell Press, 2008