By I. M. Knosp
In Europe there are many animals of note; the Bear king of beasts, the Eagle regal symbol of empires, the Stag whose antlers adorn gods and kings. Yet there is one animal whose history and impact upon Europe has enjoyed a state of infamy. Some may say he is big and bad, bewitching and wicked, yet in the paw prints of this animal we find a trail of European lore going back to the point of myth and wonder, a point where the soul beckons us to follow the pack as they run through the woods and mountain peaks, their chorus lighting the sky, and haunting us in moonlit nights, suckling babes and fighting devils. I speak of course of the Wolf.
The wolf has always held an important place in the lore of Europe though intentional meddling by the Church relegated it to a less honorable even despicable station. No longer was it an honored creature, totem of warriors and spirit workers, instead merely a beast, another demonic creature that prowled the forests eager to greedily consume whatever it could spread its maw around. Tales of Wolves became more about how wicked they were often portraying the antagonist to a hero in more modern stories such as those of Reynard the Fox where the Wolf Ysengrimus often fills this role. Or even in films such as Disney’s Robin Hood or Old Yeller.
In folklore the wolf is often made the fool by the Fox, being treated as foolish more akin to a brute than the proud animal he once was. This attitude is often placed backwards onto the Pagans of the areas as if the Christian idea of the wolves was prevalent and the animal was but a monster to be slain.
People still quake in fear of the wolf coming and consuming their sheep or chickens or gods forbid their children. To the point even the idea of the animal being near is enough to rally cries of extermination of the wicked beast. Such is the fear placed upon the animal, while like any predator there is always the concern if they are hungry or desperate that they will attack, on average wolves have little interest in going toe to toe with another predator, of which we are ourselves a rather dangerous one, this sheer terror we see has been placed there. While in Pagan beliefs Europeans were strong relatives of the bear, wolf, boar, stag, horse, or any number of powerful northern animals. Under the church we became the sheep for them to shepherd and in doing so, the symbol of all that was wrong with the world all that could corrupt or consume became seen in the Wolf. This conditioning still lingers to this day.
The Evil Wolf & The Lamb of God
To understand what the wolf once was we must first see what it became. The Wolf had already had its more negative attributes accentuated in the folklore of Greece where the forces of civilization and the influence of cultures further East had begun to force the wolf towards a darker role. Greece was not without positive depictions of wolves (Which will be discussed later) but plenty had been done to shame them up to the time of Christ and the subsequent birth of his revealed religion.
The myth of Lycaon depicted the form as a punishment for the cannibalistic tendencies of the egotistical Lycaon. Via Aesop’s Fables we find a myriad of tales that depict the wolf as symbolic of everything wicked. The Wolf devouring the lamb or the flock, the famous tales of the boy who cried wolf or that of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The sheep was also sacred to several gods including the popular Hermes. Greece was becoming civilized and its interactions with its neighbors had inevitably shifted its culture.
Yet in the other half of what we call the Classical world, Rome, this change was not so easily done. The Wolf was far more entrenched for the very founding of Rome was tied to the nurturing She-Wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Though this very element of the wolf, and its ties to the very being of Rome, would seal its inevitable role in Christian symbolism centuries later. Who or what Jesus Christ actually was has very little bearing on the Mythic Christ, or as he was called “The Lamb of God” Jesus was a shepherd and his flock of sheep needed to be protected from the wickedness of the devil. A symbol that the Wolf fell so naturally into representing. Not only was it the constant antagonist of sheep in folklore of the time it was also the symbol of one of Christ’s and his followers earliest antagonists (And ironically eventual benefactors) Rome. The Christian Sheep stood stalwart against the Roman wolf and was (seemingly) victorious.
The Wolf would then become something driven out by the “civilized religion” of Christ. Alongside the bear and any other animal that posed a danger either physically or spiritually to the Church. Though the Church would flirt with a more positive association over the centuries, notably with Saint Francis of Asisi, patron saint of animals. Who would protect and even care for a wolf, discouraging villagers from attacking the starving creature. Though largely the Wolf had been vilified and buried. Saints would appear often filling the void left by the Wolf. Saint Blaise is a notable one, a Wild Wizard of a Saint who would live in caves and cast spells. Reminiscent of an animalistic wild man or animal god in the Celtic world. The Wolf had been shifted from animal of renown to a servant of evil, and so he would remain…..
The Wolf as God
But peeling back the years to before the reign of the church, or parallel where their influence had yet to be felt, the Wolf was still a being of renown. Magical, majestic, powerful, and commanding. It is unclear how much wolves were understood by our ancestors in Europe, but we know that there was an element of the divine found within them. Greece itself had its share of divine wolves notably Lycaon in his role as a culture hero, which predated the more negative and despotic king presented in the well known tale, Zeus in Arcadia was even venerated not as a bearded king but as a Wolf. A clue to a different possibility for the supposed cannibal king. Zeus was not alone in the Greek pantheon to have wolves in their association. Apollo was also associated with wolves, as one of his Epithets was “Apollo the Wolf Born”. A reference to a version of his and his sisters birth via the goddess Leto. A version where Leto takes the form of a she-wolf. Some versions even have her children born as wolf cubs, only later taking human form. As mentioned above the association of Wolves would eventually sour in Hellenic culture, yet it is undeniable this was a later development and not some long standing grudge and disgust. Nearby in Dacia (Modern day Romania) one can find another wolf legend. That of Zalmoxis and the Big White Wolf.
he story goes that before Dacia was invaded by the Romans, the Dacians had their god Zalmoxis (Bear Skin) and he had a priest who despite his youth had pure white hair and beard, he would go around tending to the people and the animals, Zalmoxis asked him to come and stay with him. Eventually Zalmoxis saw how well he treated the animals, but the wolves were the only ones without a leader. To fix this and to provide the land with a protector he offered his priest the chance to change into “The Big White Wolf” and in doing so he became the leader of the wolves and with his wolf pack he would often run forth into battle with the Dacians, him and the wolves fighting beside them. Eventually the change was permanent and The Big White Wolf would continue to fight, but when the Romans invaded many cowards became scared and began to kill the wolves in hopes of offering the head of the Big White Wolf to the Romans, to save their own lives. With tears in their eyes Zalmoxis and the Big White Wolf fled into the Sacred mountain, it is said the Big White Wolf is still in Dacia (Romania) and appears time and again in the folklore, and that to this day you can hear his howls from the sacred mountain.
Without leaving the Southeast corner of Europe we find yet more deities associated with wolves. In Serbia the god Dajbog functions as a wolf Shepherd, tending the forest animals especially the injured wolves who become his loyal companions. Nearby another Slavic deity, Weles, was also associated with the wolf. His head was even that of a wolf in depictions of the deity. In Russian mythology the Demigod Volga often transforms into a wolf, in Poland the Moon goddess was associated with wolves as was the Mother goddess of the area (Perhaps Marzanna). Just beside Poland in the Baltic we find the goddess Medeina, who was often seen as a she-wolf, or surrounded by a pack of wolves around her voluptuous and youthful visage. Across the Baltic sea we find the Nordic pantheon replete with wolves.
Hyndla, a giantess, sleeps in a cave filled with wolves and travels across the realms astride one. There is also Angrboda the Wolf Chieftess who tends the Ironwood full of Witches, Troll Women, and deities in the shape of wolves, she is mother to the Great Wolf himself, Fenrir, and by extension related to his children Hati and Skol. Among the Aesir Odin is sometimes considered a wolf god, for he is accompanied by his two wolves Geri and Freki. Across the sea in the British Isles we find deities such as the Morrigan taking the form of a wolf, across the straits the Continental Gauls possessed numerous gods associated with wolves, one of which though unnamed was covered up with St. Blaise during Christianization. Other deities included Cernunnos who some claim road atop a wolf, while Sucellos was at times depicted wearing a wolf skin. The Iberians further West had a wolf god themselves, Vaelico, a god of the underworld, who was depicted simply as a wolf. As we come full circle and arrive in Rome we find the aforementioned legend of Romulus and Remus and the mother wolf. A festival, Lupercalia, was even held every year to honor the twin founders and the she wolf who suckled them. There are many many more examples but suffice to say pre-Christian Europe was replete with gods who appeared as wolves, used them as messengers, or had them as companions. The wolf was neither evil nor greedy often serving as an honored being with a myriad of associations.
The Wolf as Ancestor
Many tribes of Europe trace their lineage through to the gods. Creating a divine wing of our various families, and from here the wolf becomes the symbol of a divine ancestor. A role much more commonly held by the bear yet not unknown in Europe. The modern day Romanians continue the ancient veneration of Wolves that the Dacians practiced long ago. The howls of wolves across their mountains are constant reminders of the wolves who they consider their divine ancestors, even leaving out offerings for the wolves many of which are ancestors in spirit form. In Poland a tradition exists where young children are passed through a wolf skin after which it would be proclaimed they were “Born of the she-wolf”. An Earth goddess of unclear name who remained in the folklore as a shape shifting she-wolf.
Tales of her remain and some resemble those of the Selkie in Ireland and Scotland, with her removing her skin to change from wolf to human, only to have her skin stolen and forced to marry the man who captured it. Much as with Romulus and Remus, and the tale of Leto and Apollo, this She-Wolf too had two sons who grew into strong men. They would eventually find their mothers skin and after taking it from them, she would return in wolf form to run amongst the trees once more. Her children much like Apollo were descended of a wolf, a divine one at that. Tales such as these are fairly common as origins for a people, hero or clan. Just as with tales of Heracles, Perseus and other demigods the descent from a divine god in human or animal form, or the animal itself often served as the founding myth for an entire culture.
Yet perhaps the most notable Wolf ancestor is Lycaon himself. Both barbarian and civilizer, a king of Arcadia, and grandfather of the origin of its name Arcas. There is little doubt that the role Lycaon and his descendants played in Arcadian mythology was important, yet one cannot help but wonder if something has been done as the more prominent Greek cults subsumed the other cultures especially in the literature that has come down to us from Ancient Greece. Lycaon is considered at once a near cannibalistic barbarian and a civilizing force that brought the worship of Zeus to Arcadia. Suspiciously Zeus is in Wolf form, something that isn’t really common in other parts of Zeus’ legends. Rather one wonders if these three generations that of Lycaon, his daughter Callisto, and his grandson Arcas are not something more important than at first glance. Perhaps Lycaon truly was a culture hero and king, who became a wolf. Just as perhaps Callisto is just a princess or nymph turned into a bear by Hera for being seduced by Zeus, and then giving birth to her son as a bear. Her son Arcas would go on to found the very Kingdom that she and her father supposedly already lived in and ruled. Greek myth by its very nature is somewhat contradictory. It is not a single tradition but a myriad of tribal ones whose cults and regional traditions slowly melded, and in the literature the confusion is dialed up heavily. Many of Zeus’ regional wives, were goddesses of high import that had been dominated by larger city states and were often relegated to affairs and little more. Though the culture heroes and mythic founders they produced were a bit harder to downgrade so they were often made the son of Zeus. All of these odd traits together make it hard for me to believe what has been presented to us about Lycaon and his line. I think much more is here than at first glance. Especially as via their founder Arcas, the Arcadians effectively were descended not only of a deity, but a bear and wolf respectively. Something that would become much more pertinent as we discuss the wolves functions beyond a godhead and ancestor.
Perhaps the most notable reference to Wolves is as a symbol of Warriors. The Wolf was a fierce and cunning fighter. Being the totem animal of many warriors most notably the sub-class of Berserker known as Ulfhednar, Who adorned themselves in wolf skins before heading into battle. There seems to have been little difference between these wolf-berserkers and werewolves by the time the Nordic myths were put to writing. As in the Volsung Saga Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli kill men who wear cursed wolf skins. After putting them on they are cursed with a kind of Lycanthropy. Earlier in the tale an enemy of theirs would come in the form of a She-Wolf and consume and kill all nine of Sigmunds brothers.
Though the Ulfhednar is not the only place in which “Wolf Warriors” or werewolves would serve as powerful combatants, this was also seen in Ireland where entire tribes of Werewolf warriors lived. Two of the most notable groups were the Laignach Faelad of Tipperary and the Ossorian werewolves of Ossory. The former was known for their immense battle prowess. Considered people who were “Half Men and Half Wolf” they could be hired out as warriors but at a steep price, as they demanded a human infant as payment. The legends say that these pagan warriors ate these infants. Yet especially given when the legend was written down, the Medieval Era in the text Coir Anmann, it is far more likely these pagan warriors would take infants as payment to replenish their numbers in a time where the land was increasingly hostile to pagans and their culture. Most likely bringing the child up in the old ways and perhaps teaching them to be Wolf-Warriors as well.
The latter Ossorian Werewolves were not much different. Though they are never mentioned as taking the flesh of infants as payment. They dressed in Wolf Skins and adopted lupine haircuts. They would go on raids known as “Wolfing” This was not a unique ability as it was said that everyone in Ossory once had the ability to turn into wolves at will. As such the totem animal of Ossory was of course the Wolf. Though like much of European lore of Werewolves, the physical transformation seen in modern film was not so literal. Two other forms of shape-shifting existed that were far more common. One involved the casting of ones consciousness into another being or “borrowing” as one might call it. Odin is seen doing this in Ynglinga Saga. Another much more common version is that of casting ones soul out into the world where it would take the form of an animal. The Werewolves of Ossory were likely the latter as the idea of the human body laying lifeless while the Wolf ran around or fought is mentioned in their legends. Implying that the spirits of the Ossorians were those of wolves. Their dress and actions of embodying the wolf in their styles and by wearing the animals skin calls to mind the Ulfhednar of the Nordic tribes, yet the casting of their soul from their body is much more well known in the more spiritual side of the legends of Werewolves.
Wolves and Spirit Walking
The traditions of war and spirituality are not separate entities but interlinked, the Wolf functions as both. It is both a being of immense spiritual connotations but also many warlike ones. Both of these traditions fed into the legend of the Werewolf. Among those who were spiritually inclined whatever their title or their tribe, a common element appears across Europe of the casting of ones soul out in the form of an animal. Though as mentioned above there were two main forms of shape-shifting in Europe. Before getting into those it is important to look at one more, a version that occurs in a land we have already discussed, Arcadia. Here the legend of the Werewolf is rather ingrained, it is the heart of the very word Lycanthropy, and Lycaon was not the only one to “turn into a wolf” nor were his sons. Rather here we find an old legend concerning the changing of a man into a wolf. It is said that in Arcadia a tradition exists where a person takes off their clothing and hangs it on a tree, they then swim across a small lake, at the other end they emerge a wolf, and must spend nine years as a wolf without harming another human being. These legends tell of them living amongst wolves as one of the pack, changing not their bodies, but their inner selves, their souls. This trial, if it can indeed be called that, resembles the trials faced by Berserkers and Ulfhednar such as those seen in the folklore in tales such as Bearskin. The abilities, information, and skills picked up in this life as a wolf (whether truly in wolf form or merely clad in skins, or even buck naked) could then be brought back to the people. The idea told in the common tale of Lycaon’s transformation as a punishment doesn’t seem to truly hold up when this practice is taken into account. Rather Lycaon becomes more an arbiter between the animal side and human side, perhaps a culture hero who understood some secret of the wolf, or perhaps he was a deity supplanted by Zeus and then vilified. Perhaps Callisto the Bear mother of the Arcadians was in fact his mate or if still his daughter, definitely a goddess herself. Or perhaps in the cultural elements of Lycaon, Arcas, Callisto, and Pan (who was also Arcadian) we find remnants of an animistic tradition that dominated much of Arcadia in the time of myth and legend.
Regardless, the Wolf transformation in Arcadia was by no means a negative punishment but rather an odd blessing or helpful curse. Perhaps even a trial, for what exactly who can tell. Though the transformation from man to wolf is far less physical in other parts of the lore. Throughout much of Europe Wolves were associated with witches. For good reason, the same people demonized as witches were often the same who could be considered werewolves. Able to cast their soul from their body and partake in spiritual combat for the good of the people. Others would ride them such as was a common depiction of Wolves in folklore, especially in Scandinavia where two Witch like goddesses Hyndla and Hyrrokin rode wolves, and many witches shape-shifted into or rode atop wolves. The same beings who would be the wolves with Angrboda in the Ironwood.
Werewolves were not always something feared or even considered odd. Some areas would not even bat an eye if one were to suddenly cast their soul as a wolf, casually remarking that that was a werewolf battling spirits. A more detailed account of such an individual comes from “The Land of Werewolves” the Baltic Land of Livonia. This is the account of Old Thiess, an eighty year old man who claimed to be a werewolf along with many others who were “The Dogs of God” they would transform into wolves equip themselves with Iron whips to do battle with devils and sorcerers at the edge of the sea to take back the fertility of the fields. A common practice of spirit warfare for the fertility of the land found across Europe. Old Thiess was whipped for his insolent beliefs, even if he framed them in a positive and pseudo-Christian light that he probably believed. These werewolves and witches were an ancient custom and in some cases priests of a god, such as with the Slavic god Simargl. They did not have nearly as many negative connotations as they do today, yet this is where once again we must look to the evil wolf that Christianity so arduously built, only then can we begin to see how to move forward, from where we once were.
The Demon Wolf
As mentioned before The Wolf came to symbolize everything the church loathed, while its fall from grace was not quite as dramatic as say the bear, we still see it all the time. In the lore Ysengrim who was the wolf in the tales of Reynard the Fox is often made the fool by his clever counterpart, including castration or disfigurement, and is even made the cuckold by the smaller canine. So the ferocity of the Wolf had been dealt with, where it could not be removed however, it was vilified. Wolves are by no means dumb, brutish or violent creatures, they will help humans at times, and are capable of getting help from us when they truly need it, they have devoted family structures and unlike domestic dogs who can end up killing an entire coop of chickens if improperly trained, wolves tend to kill only what they need. As such Wolves were once easily placated by the weaker members of a farmers herd. Being given the stillbirths, unfit calves, or elderly offering themselves up. As such the domestic herd could be guarded by the wolves similar to wild ones. Though with the added benefit of the farmers protection. The Wolves placated would then guard the flock from other potential predators.
That is the way wolves are, now what did wolves become?
Wolves under the rule of the church and of the soft and civilized Greco-Roman cultures of the time of Christianity’s inception were not so disciplined or understood. Civilization had long ago pushed away the Wolf and people no longer understood the animal, they only feared the pack of large predators. Armed with claws and a maw of sharp fangs. To the shepherds of late stage Greece and Rome, The Wolf was certainly a very dangerous animal. It would consume their sheep they feared, their whole flock devoured by the blood soaked maws of the wolves at the door. Combining the hysterical fear of the wolf, with the spiritual devotion it had in the North. It was inevitable that just as the association with their old enemy of Rome had led the Wolf to being the symbol of all that was wrong with the world, that the Wolf found its vilification and eradication continue as the Church went North. Step by step the wolf was killed, dismissed, and made increasingly monstrous to the point the line between Wolf as animal and Wolf as demon was incredibly blurred. It became the quintessential villain of folklore, save the odd survival of pagan beliefs. The Wolf had changed from ancestor, deity, guide, respected fellow being to monster and demon. It was truly at this point that “The Big Bad Wolf” would come into being.
Yet even in the most famous instance of the Big Bad Wolf in folklore we find an animal not malicious, but simply hungry. The tale of Red Riding Hood (AKA Little Red Cap) involves a little girl with a Red Riding Hood, cloak or cap and food for her grandmother traveling down the path in a wood to deliver said food. During this errand she encounters a wolf, the wolf is clever and beguiling and tricks the girl after finding out about her grandmother into wandering off the path. The Wolf then consumes the Grandmother, and then Red Riding Hood herself. Only for them all to be released by a Woodsman later on, the Wolf then tries to consume them again but this time is tricked into falling down a chimney into boiling water, and is himself killed as a result. This common tale combines both the foolish wolf that had been built in literature and the monstrous man eater that had been cultivated in the minds of those who never saw the animal itself.
Yet, there is an older version, one where the Wolf is far less the monster of the tale. In it the Wolf hungry and afraid of the Hunter (in this version a thinly veiled deity) he asks for her cloak for warmth and after rejection leaves only to return to ask for food. Eventually desperate, hungry, cold, and afraid for his life the Wolf finds the Grandmothers house and consumes her and Red Riding Hood. Though he himself is later consumed by the Hunter along with the contents of his stomach (The Hunter here is far from a humanoid god). We can see how easily the tale can be twisted to serve the idea of “The Big Bad Wolf” as opposed to a more balanced view.
This effect was not only in Christian lore and post-Conversion folklore. It is also found in the lore of various pagan traditions. The Celtic Pagan werewolves mentioned before were plenty vilified by the Church, and the Wolf gods of Norse Lore were framed squarely as the villains of the tale. Fenrir consumes Odin, Hati and Skol the sun and the moon, the giants many of which rode wolves are pitted against the gods in Ragnarok. Yet Hyrrokin a giantess is placed on a runestone to honor the deeds of the dead on the Hunnestad Monument. Hyrrokin, a giantess who was almost killed by Thor for helping them bury Balder, such is the distaste shown for her in the Eddas. It doesn’t require much thought to see issues begin to brew with how the primary Norse sources deal with certain characters. The Wolves by this point had been so thoroughly demonized even the Pagans who had once honored it so, could only be allowed to have thought of it as a monster.
In bestiaries the Wolf was given many nonsensical beliefs more befitting some kind of mythic creature than the animal itself. Including if a man is seen by a wolf before he sees the wolf he will lose his voice, at the tip of a wolf’s tale is a hair that can be used for making a love potion when captured the wolf will bite it off so no man will have it, the wolf kills everything it walks on, its breath is evil, that Wolves only mate for twelve days (probably a hold over of Werewolves being active on the Twelfths). The animal is even directly compared to the devil as the congregation is to sheep:
“Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church. As the wolf gives birth when thunder first sounds, so the devil fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men. As the wolf cannot turn his neck, so the devil never turns towards the correction of penitence. Like the man who, because of the wolf has lost his voice, can save himself by removing his clothes and banging two rocks together, so can the man who is lost in sin be saved by stripping off, through baptism, his worldly self and then appealing to the saints, who are called “stones of adamant”.
The Wolf was no longer an animal of renown gone were its roles as ancestor, deity, messenger, guide, or honored beast. Instead it was the Big Bad Wolf, a dog of Satan, or Satan himself. Werewolves too had changed from their role of Spirit Warriors to monsters to fight even being used as the psychosis for serial killers such as Peter Stumpp “The Werewolf of Bedburg” who killed eighteen people in Germany during the 16th century. He claimed he had received a belt that turned him into a werewolf from the devil when he was twelve.
In the 18th century we find most likely the most famous of the “Killer Wolves” or Demonic creatures that are described as wolf-like, The Beast of Gévaudan. With over 300 victims, a varied description that sounded like everything from a Chimeric monster of Arthurian or Hellenic lore, to a large wolf, sometimes the beast sounds closer to an overgrown Pine Marten.
Some theorize it was a Hyena that had escaped from a Menagerie. Whatever the case the general fervor, eventual finale, and cultural impact of the legend of this beast has cast it as a wolf or group of wolves, sometimes even a Werewolf or Wolf Whisperer (One capable of controlling wolves). The horrific deeds of the beast, seem an outstanding example of the evils and horrors of the Wolf. Yet looking closer we see that Gévaudan was an area very much Wild, it is certainly possible that a rather large amount of fully grown wolves would have caused the deaths of all these people. Yet I have to wonder if that is truly the case. Partly I suspect this is a situation similar to Stumpp where many were in fact victims of serial killers and murderers who used the hysteria surrounding the beast to hide their crimes. The fact most of the victims were women or children also points to either a Human killer or an animal disinterested in taking down stronger prey. Wolves would not leave most of their kill to rot, nor would they kill the way the Beast did. Its description of Reddish fur, with a heart shaped mark on its chest is indeed closer to a Pine Marten as is the method of killing and consuming the victims. While more than likely some of the victims were a result of Wolves, the chance of a successful kill for wolves being mostly wasted is just unlikely for them to be the main culprit. Though the rather large wolves of Gévaudan were indeed hunted, and the death of the animals supposedly stopped the killing. Today the Beast plays a role in many fictional werewolf mythologies and has become something of a landmark for such conceptions. The fully formed Demon Wolf.
With this much against it one would think the Wolf had lost, no way would it ever again reach its heights of spiritual and cultural influence. Doomed to be a boogeyman, a monster, a terrifying carnivore, the Devil itself! Yet…. as the Church lost power their efforts began to falter, the wolf would not stay down, though the damage done would take forever to begin to heal, bit by bit the Wolf reclaimed ground.
The Wolf Today
As the years passed the Wolf did not easily regain its positive associations. In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Wolf is firmly on the side of the White Witch. Wargs (named after Wolves of Norse Mythology) are ridden by Goblins and Orcs in Tolkien’s Middle Earth series of books. Cartoons often depicted the wolf as lecherous, greedy, and foolish often lusting after a female character. Disney often placed the Wolf in a more negative light with its films. Their version of Robin Hood casts the Sheriff of Nottingham as a Wolf against the Thief and Hero Robin Hood who is the Wolf’s nemesis the Fox. Time and again the Wolf is the bad guy. Recent films such as The Gray even cast the Wolf as the villain themselves. With the main character hounded and being forced to fight for his life against a pack of wolves. The fear that had been ingrained in the civilized and soft area that birthed Christianity has continued to the modern day. Routine culling of the Wolf is performed despite its status as an endangered species. Just this year (2021) a culling took place of numerous wolves in Idaho over fears of the population growing too large. Farmers worry over small animals like badgers and weasels, the idea of letting a wolf near their farm fills them with fear and anger. Time and again the Wolf continues to take a beating, but as time has gone on the Wolf has seen its prominence arise once more. No longer merely a monster the Wolf was able to slowly but surely fight back, and cracks have begun to appear in the story of the Churches Evil Demon Wolf.
These changes have happened gradually but surely. Perhaps due to the nature of Wolves of living in the woods, fields, and other wild places it was natural that it would take a land where the churches reach was minimal and wilds were plentiful to begin the repairs, America.
Early American settlers were not immune to cultural biases regarding animals, but those who came across the Atlantic were somewhat self selected to fit well over here. As they were those who could not thrive or fit in, in a Europe in the grip of the Christian Religion in one form or another. So early on in American folklore, the Wolves role would begin to again take prominence. Folkloric heroes such as Johnny Appleseed; friend to animals, hermit of the woods, the American Dionysus. This Wandering Wise Man burly chested and wild bearded traveled with a wolf at his hip, a loyal companion who had joined him in one of his many adventures. Other folk heroes like Pecos Bill would be raised by a pack of Coyotes (The Wolf’s notoriously sneaky and rather cowardly cousin), a clear continuation of children raised by wolves in the folklore of Europe. Which appears not only in folklore but also in literature, perhaps the Jungle Book despite its setting could not help but mimic the European mythic traditions that its author Rudyard Kipling would know and love.
Even recent shifts in culture have begun to repair the perception of Wolves. Films such as Balto began to turn the tide of the Wolf from monster to regal respectable beast. The idea of the lecherous beast began to fade as scientists proved this supposedly lustful animal was actually a devoted parent and mate. Perhaps most notably the Wolves near extinction forced people to decide whether to allow its end or to protect it. The idea of losing the wolf was too terrible and it became a protected species though outcries against it from those who never knew them still continued.
Yet the proof of the Wolves true nature is coming about bit by bit, scientific study and human interaction is forcing a new viewpoint of the animal into focus. Their importance in the ecosystem let alone the culture has begun to be recognized. As famously in Yellowstone when the elk and deer were left alone the land began to grow barren, as the herbivores greedily picked it clean. When the wolves were reintroduced, life returned. The Wolves kept the population of the deer species at healthy levels and kept them on the move so they never destroyed an area completely.
The Wolf bit by bit crept into the hearts and minds of people once more. A veritable wolf cult began to develop once more in various forms, conservationists, pagan practitioners, and even just fans of Wolves and Werewolves began to consider the importance of the Wolf, rather than its former demonic self.
The Werewolf had seen a similar return to form as film and literature began to view the monster with renewed vigor. Films such as the Wolfman laid the groundwork for all that came after it. Though films like Teen Wolf, Twilight, and a number of supernatural shows, films, books, and comics have made what was a terrifying monster into almost an attractive proposition. People even form “werewolf clubs” pretending to be werewolves. While much of this can be relegated to teen angst or running the gambit of all possible ideas for an overdone premise. I would argue the very saturation has forced people to look further into the lore in hopes of putting something ‘original’ out and behold Werewolves as sacred guardians, Werewolf or “Wolf Walkers” as a form of spirit walker. In recent years stories more true to the lore of Europe have become more and more prevalent as films like Wolfwalkers and shows like The Order come out. Only time will tell how much of this repairs not only the idea of werewolves but of wolves period. How far out of the mire that the Church cast the wolf can the Wolf climb?
A Howling Conclusion
The Wolf is not alone. The wolf is never alone. To quote one of the most positive turns for the wolf in recent history “The Lone Wolf Dies but the Pack Survives”, it may be a line from Game of Thrones yet it is the truth. The Wolf remains because people demanded the Wolf stayed alive. Among the anger and fear of billions enough spoke up to guard the wolf that it remains. Now that it can catch its breath, even if barely, and now that it has not only its fellow wolves in its corner but those who have lived next to it for eons it can finally begin to regain some ground. From its place as demon and fool of proverbs, fables, film and literature it can return to what it once was. The Kin of Man, the Messenger of Gods, or even a god in its own right. The likes of Vaelico, Hyrrokin, Fenrir, Dajbog, Weles, Romulus, Remus, Lycaon, Apollo, and many more are still there in our lore and in our hearts. One day, with the force of legends, lore, history, and science the Wolf and ourselves will run free once more.
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