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Eyes In The Dark: What Do Feral Children Mean In A Urban Society?

Jul 14, 2008
They are invariably children, presumably raised by animals. Well documented, trustworthy accounts of these feral children are very rare, leading some researchers to fairly assume that all cases are nothing more than local folklore, misrepresentation of the handicapped or just plain-faced exploitation.

Of course the folkloric impact of the feral child story cannot be denied. Loaded with questions about the nature of humanity, nature vs. nurture and the power of the wild over the sophistication of civilisation. The feral child provides an interesting thought experiement, forcing us to question just how far mankind has managed to distance itself from the beast within.

One of the oldest well known stories of feral children is that of Romulus and Remus - the legendary founders of Rome. The brothers were the offspring of a priestess and Mars, god of war. With a bloodthirsty god for a father and with a wolf as a surrogate mother the brother's relationship was predicatably tempestuous. Romulus killed Remus when the brothers disagreed over what to call thier new city, hence Rome not Reme.

This early tale could be written off as a kind of early propaganda. The presence of a demi-god raised by one of the most feared creatures of the ancient world in the folklore of Roman culture not only inspired awe and devotion from the Romans but also put fear into the hearts of their enemies. However unlikely the story is, it cannot be denied that is clearly demonstrates the cultural power of the feral child mythos. It adds an element of mystery and danger to any character, the Romans used this to their advantage, using the danger of the feral human coupled with the sophistication of Roman society they created a super-hero like figurehead for their empire to both inspire and terrorise.

The feral child pops up with surprising regularity even in today's society, although reports of actual feral children are near unheard of nowadays they do appear in modern storytelling. Kipling's Mowgli, Ghibli's Princess Monoke, Barrie's Peter Pan and Rice Burroughs' Tarzan all fit the feral child archetype. It has been suggested that these tales were inspired by actual feral children, however it is far more likely that the concept of a child free from the shackles of social convention was fodder too good to pass over.

A relatively recent example of feral children comes from India. Two girls named Amala and Kamala were either "given" to a local priest by a local farmer who had trapped the wild children or they were perhaps "rescued" from a wolf's den by the priest himself depending on which version of events you hear. Apparently raised by a mother wolf who had lost her own natural young (a common thread in all wolf children stories.)

The girls walked on all fours and so had developed thick calluses on their hands and knees. On top of this the girls refused all attempts to dress them, snarling and baring their teeth at those who tried . They were primarily nocturnal, ate raw meat and displayed exceptional hearing and night vision. The priest who cared for them even reported an "intense blue glare from the eyes during the night." This kind of reaction is typical of the hyper-reflective retina of nocturnal creatures. It is unlikely the girls would have developed these natural night-vision goggles after a lifetime in the wilderness, never mind a few short years.

Inconsistencies in the priest's diary regarding the girls, photographs which clearly depict other children posing as Amala and Kamala, reports of the priest beating the girls and studies suggesting that at least one of the girls suffered from some level of mental retardation have led some to believe the entire incident was nothing more than exploitation. The girls appeared just as the priests orphanage was in need of finances, providing a much needed surge of interest.

Like Romulus before him Reverend Singh seems to have understood the impact the feral child myth is capable of having. By this time the idea of the "noble savage" had passed into mainstream culture. The idea of a child who experienced humanity without any of the extra baggage of culture was highly romanticised. In a time where cultural convention dictated a disproportionate amount of peoples dress, language and behaviour no doubt the idea of an individual free from all ties to society was not only intriguing but appealing.

Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was written in 1894, Mowgli, the lead character of several of Kipling's stories bears a striking similarity to Kamala and Amala, both raised by wolves and lost or taken from a small Indian village the stories seem to share more than just roots. It is distinctly possible that Reverend Singh did indeed exploit two severely handicapped girls to save his failing orphanage, drawing on India's rich folklore to ignite interest in local people.

Sadly, it would seem there is precious little mystery regarding children raised by wild animals, it is largely myth and folklore. It is highly unlikely that human babies would survive when raised by non-human parents. The likes of Edik, the Ukrainian boy raised by stray dogs only began living on the wild side after his first few years of life. The same is true of Ivan Mishukov, the "dog boy" of Moscow and Traian Caldarar, a young man who spent three years living with wild dogs in Romania.
Perhaps more even more compelling than the stories of the children is, just why is humankind so interested in these deviations from the norm?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of earths oldest recorded pieces of fictional writing, it dates from at least the 7th century BC and some suspect the story itself may date as far back as the 27th century BC . One of the primary characters is Ekidnu, a Tarzanesque character who was raised by animals. The fact that the feral child features in some of humankind's earliest texts speaks volumes. Like the afterlife, the wilderness has been somewhat of a mystery to urban humans and so we create characters to explore that exciting, forbidden world.

While we remain a city-dwelling, socially structured species we will continue to be fascinated by feral children, whether real or imagined because they occupy a world we can only dream of, the chaotic, almost alien world of the dark between the trees.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver and Show and Stay.
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