Papa Bois is a well-entrenched figure in West Indian folklore. He has existed in the oral traditions of the region for centuries before any written accounts, and all accounts of him are generally similar. He is described as having a human-like upper body and the lower body of a hoofed animal. Some versions say that his entire body is furry, while other depictions only show fur from the waist down. His head is human-like, but he has elven ears, small horns, and wild eyes. As the protector of the forest, he punishes poachers and those who seek to harm the environment. Some stories say that he is accompanied by deer, while others say he has the ability to shapeshift into one. This deer is an important part of Papa Bois stories, as it lures indiscriminate hunters into the depths of the jungle, from where they would never return. As Anton Gonzales, lecturer at the University of the West Indies puts it; “he was not against hunting, he was against indiscriminate hunting.”
Who is Papa Bois? Was he an old world entity reimagined in a new setting, or was he a Caribbean cryptid encountered by the earliest Africans and Europeans in the region?
When compared with other legendary creatures across other folklore, Papa Bois most closely resembles the Fauns and Satyrs from Greco-Roman mythology. Fauns had the lower body of a goat, while Satyrs had the lower body of a horse. Both Fauns and Satyrs had small horns, and were considered to be woodland beings who inhabited wild places. The most well known of these mythical figures was Pan, a flute playing Satyr who served as a Greek god of nature and hunting.
Professor of antiquities at Oxford, Martin Litchfield West suggests that Pan may have developed from a basal Indo-European deity alongside other similar nature gods. This is due to the fact that these gods are all hybrids between a human and a horned animal, perceived as having mastery of the forest, and typically accompanied by deer or similar horned animals. An example of this is Cernunnos, a Celtic horned god who was shown cross-legged and surrounded by horned animals on a silver cauldron found in Denmark dated to around 100 BCE. This depiction is almost identical to another figure known as Pashupati who was depicted on a seal from the Indus valley, and dated to about 2000 BCE. Both Pashupati and Cernunnos represent a deity seen by scholars like West to be a “master of the animals” that bore a close resemblance to other horned nature deities found in different religions across Europe and Asia over thousands of years. West believes that Pan, Pashupati, and Cernunnos are different interpretations of an even older nature god that was venerated by people known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans who lived in Eastern Europe during the Late Neolithic period, over 5000 years ago. As they spread from that area, they took this idea of a horned forest protector along with them.
Other scholars believe that this figure actually predates the Proto-Indo-Europeans and may be associated with prehistoric religion. Archaeologist Nataliia Mykhailova has suggested that Cernunnos is related to depictions of horned figures that feature in prehistoric art, including one in a 13,000 year old cave painting from the Cave of the Trois-Frères in France, known as The Sorcerer that appears to be a deer-human hybrid. This type of horned, hybrid figure is a relatively popular motif in Mesolithic cave art from Europe. It is generally accepted by archeologists that this is either a depiction of a hunting god, or of a shaman portraying this hunting god.
A theory among archeologists is that early humans realized that their hunts were more successful when they wore deerskin and the antlers of a stag as camouflage. This deer costume helped disguise the hunters, while also masking their scent from the potential prey. Over time this developed into a ritualized ceremony where a shaman would wear the antlers and fur of a deer while invoking a hunting god in order to ensure a successful hunt. As humans moved away from hunting and settled into a more pastoral lifestyle, this horned hunting god declined in importance and developed into a guardian of the forest and master of animals. Then as old religious beliefs gave way to newer ones, this figure was further relegated to folklore. A further shift in the development of this folkloric figure came about after the invention of firearms, and the greater potential for overhunting. The being that early humans once venerated in order to ensure a successful hunt, evolved into a being that now punishes greedy hunters and poachers.
Even today in forested parts of France, Cernunnos has been conflated with a Germanic analogue to a Satyr called a Woodwose, and is seen in a manner to how Papa Bois is seen in the Caribbean; As a protector of the forest, and punisher of those who abuse nature. Literary critic and UWI Professor Gordon Rohlehr once remarked that he is “reminded of the figure of Pan” when he sees images of Papa Bois. Even the name is a reference to Pan, because while Papa Bois translates to “father of the woods” in French Creole, “bois” is a euphemism for male virility, which is a trait associated with Pan and Satyrs in general. The word “antlers” translated into French is also “bois”, so there are multiple meanings behind this word that all connect Papa Bois to the horned and hoofed forest deity of old.
It is easy to understand how European settlers in places like Saint Lucia and Trinidad would fall back on folkloric beliefs when confronted with the dark and dangerous Caribbean jungles. It is possible that many of them did indeed observe some sort of cryptid, and that the horned and hoofed mythical figure who was the master of the forest served as the best explanation for what they saw. Overtime, and with input from other ethnic groups, the ancient master of animals and protector of the forest came to be known as Papa Bois.