How Feral Children Work

We Are the Wild

A 1915 illustration shows future powerful lady leader Semiramis surrounded by her family of doves.
A 1915 illustration shows future powerful lady leader Semiramis surrounded by her family of doves.
Philip and Elizabeth De Bay/Corbis via Getty Images

Romulus wasn't the only feral child of mythology to found a civilization.

In ancient Syria, a goddess named Derceto somehow offended the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite exacted punishment by using her love powers to make Derceto lust after an underage boy. After she had her way with the lad, Derceto became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter named Semiramis. The whole seedy business overwhelmed Derceto with shame so she killed her lover, left baby Semiramis out in the wild to die and drowned herself for good measure.

Luckily for Semiramis, there was a flock of helpful doves nearby. A group of the birds warmed the baby's body by covering her with their wings while another cohort fetched milk drop by drop from nearby cows. In this way, the doves kept their human charge alive for more than a year, going so far as to steal cheese from some cowherds who then discovered the bouncing baby alive and well. Semiramis grew up to become a powerful queen and is credited by some with founding Babylon [source: Siculus].

Taken individually, myths and stories about feral children often reveal much about the time and place in which they occur (the anxieties of 18th-century Europe, the chaos of post-Soviet Russia), and they often cast light on the deplorable ways we humans can treat the small, weak and vulnerable among us. But viewed as a whole, the very idea of feral children goes to the heart of our relationship with the natural world.

In the mythologies, a wild childhood is a source of strength and magical powers. Being nurtured by animals serves as a kind of baptism by nature that grants the hero or heroine special status. It's as though such a childhood gives these children access to a wildness that we all carry with us at our core. And those who reconcile this inner wildness with the outward manifestations of human civilization are capable of great feats.

Recent studies by animal researchers reveal with increasing certitude that there is no special quality that separates us from other creatures [source: Kolbert]. That's a finding confirmed by the true stories of feral children. They remind us that we are part of nature. We too are animals, and the difference between humans and other species is one of degree, not kind. Perhaps this is one reason why we remain perennially fascinated by tales of wild kids.

Author's Note: How Feral Children Work

I think I was about 10 when my parents took me to see Francois Truffaut's "The Wild Child." Although I can't remember much of the storyline, the images made a deep impression on me. Even though the film came out in the middle of the "flower power" era, Truffaut didn't romanticize Victor's childhood. Living in tune with nature should be celebrated, but a lonely childhood is a terrible thing, no matter where you are.

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