Ruth Barker

All Wolves Are Not of the Same Sort



A New Critical Analysis of the Image of The Wolf 



The Wolf at the Door.


'The Wolf', as a figure in our contemporary Western culture, is rich with association, though it is a spectre so distanced from our every day lives that few of us will ever encounter a wild one. Persecuted and hunted almost to the point of extinction, they have been given the staple shape of terror in many of our fairy tales and horror stories. There are surely not many among us who do not recall from childhood the ever present threat of the Big Bad Wolf, whether he was chasing the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood herself, and perhaps few of us again who did not graduate to fearing Hollywood's grown -up werewolf versions.

The wolf to us today is a strong and iconographic symbol, and seems to have often been found such, resonating as it does through a rich selection of cultures. However, humanity does not always appear to have equipped it with such an unfavourable set of associations as those we now accept. Long cast by ourselves as the bogeymen of the wilderness, it seems obvious to us now that wolves are of such a frame, though actual evidence of their habits lies to the contrary. Other cultures at other times have started from very different assumed standpoints, though no less socially constructed.

On beginning to research the figure of the mythological wolf, the wolf as beleived rather than as animal, I began to find different threads of belief running throughout cultures and continents. Regularly difficult to decipher, often inconclusive and nearly always engagingly different to those we are immediately familiar with, the stories, rituals and beliefs which I began to be aware of, and to collect, began to take shape. I found that certain themes were recurring, and so I decided to focus my research on a few fields.

Within this essay, I have grouped the examples into chapters concerntrating on, in the first place, wolves who appear to be connected with aspects of fertility and abundance; secondly, wolf figures in the (various) afterlives (and in related aspects); and I will then go on to discuss the presence of the wolf as a totem animal held up by various groups, and then from this to the topic of werewolves.

I hope to conclude the essay by giving an overview of the subjects discussed, and asking what may be gained from such a study. I will also briefly chart some of our contemporary Western beleifs, in order to reaffirm the context, asking how these attitudes may have evolved, and finally questioning the effect which our cultural constructs may have on our treatments of the real wolf.

Throughout the essay, my intention is, within it's limitations, to explore a fraction of the differing roles which wolves have played in the schemas of human mythology and folktale. I intend to suggest hypotheses for the development or origin of trends of belief only when it is appropriate, while being aware of the difficulties and limitations of doing so. For the most part I hope to chart similaries as opposed to answer the multifaceted questions of 'why' as I beleive that to attempt to do so with any kind of true mythographic rigour or finality would be outside the scope of this essay, while to attempt it without would be to fail to do the issue justice.








Chapter One

Wolves and Their Place Within Fertility Beliefs and Ritual.


In this essay, then, I intend to examine some of the roles that wolves play in a cross section of the stories, legends and pantheons in which they make an appearance. I will, further, try to group these wolf protagonists or symbols in terms of common ideas that they might represent, and try to explore their origins and development cross culturally.

The first of the largest groups which I found that I could collect stories into was that of 'wolves who make a significant appearance in rituals or beliefs concerning fertility and abundance'; a group made up of stories from a disparate selection of cultures, through geographical 'themes' may be traced. The aspects of fertility which the beliefs range through are several, but I feel that, practically, it is fair to group them generally under this common heading.

The first stories concern a perceived link between wolves and the abundance of food generally, although those which follow go on to refer more specifically to the growing of crops and the success of the harvest. I will then go on to make mention of Roman beliefs surrounding human pregnancy and sterility.


To begin, an early but undated Native American story told as 'The Origin of Maize and Game' by Joseph Campbell in his 'Way of the Seeded Earth'[1] establishes a link between wolves and the ability to have enough to eat, as well as suggesting the presence of a more general cyclical pattern.

The tale itself is of the original provider of food. Obeying strict magical rules to ensure that the supply will never dwindle, a lone initiate to a never-ending, continually renewed food store provides for his family, guarding his secret carefully. Mankind is so provided for, until the initiate's sons (one birth-son and one adopted) seek to overthrow and replace him, and so he is forced to leave his home and travel to 'join the wolf people'. He then becomes one of their number and the foolish sons who are not wise enough to know how to ration the amount which they can take from the store upset the order of the provision of food, and end the golden age of plenty.

Although the tale is quite formulaic in that it concerns the coming to an end of a mythical 'golden age' when food was both rich and plentiful and man lived in a harmonious balance with nature, (a story which reappears many times, cross culturally), there are still interesting idiosyncrasies. Perhaps most relevant is that in the story as it is told by Campbell there is a clear implication that the secret of eternal plenty travels with the father, the initiate, to the wolves with whom he lives after being betrayed by his human family. This knowledge is so lost to mankind, and from then on belongs only to the wolves, who naturally refuse to share.

A related belief is suggested by the Canadian - Amerindian story which tells of how the shamanic-hero figure of Kamlugyides saves his people from starvation[2]. According to the story, the town of Towq is in the grip of a terrible famine which threatens to decimate the population until Kamlugyides, the hero, comes to the aid of a lone wolf who has, for the duration of this time of hardship, been haunting the area where the famine's hold is strongest, howling pitifully. The wolf (the town's totem animal) is emaciated, and when Kamlugyides examines it he finds, lodged in its throat, a deer-bone, which he dislodges. In gratitude for his act of kindness, the wolf then proceeds to lead the hero to a fresh game carcass each night with which he can feed his people until the famine breaks, stepping into the role of the reviver / restorer of plenty. Another point which may be noted in this version of the story is that it is specified that it is while the wolf cannot feed (due to the obstruction in its throat), that the village starves. When the bone is removed, the wolf has the power to restore the town's food supply. Although on the surface the story may be interpreted as a simple morality tale, the suggestion may be read that the story implies a kind of 'sympathetic magic[3]'. If these were the case, the misfortune which occurs to the wolf would be transferring itself in kind to the people. Another possibility is that the wolf may, alternatively, represent a protective spirit, who, while incapacitated, is unable to help the town's people relieve the famine.

The suggestion of a link between the wolf and fertility specifically in the sense of the growth of crops and the fruition of the harvest is clearly identified by Sir James Frazer in his celebrated collection 'The Golden Bough'[4]. There he records several European beliefs which still held at the time of his writing.

He refers to the existence of a persistent and recurring belief in the wolf as a 'corn spirit' which he found still prevalent throughout rural France, Germany, and a number of Slavonic regions. Typically, he tells us, the spirit of an entity referred to as the 'Corn Wolf' was thought to reside in the last sheaf of corn to be processed. Whoever cut, or in some instances bound, this last sheaf 'has' or 'is' the wolf for one year, before the spirit returns into the growing crop ready for the next harvest. The beliefs and rituals associated with those who 'have the wolf' differ, but, generally, the spirit was though to be a protective one whilst in the crop, but, once released, it and the person within whom it had become rooted, were to be feared.

Frazer tells of a similar belief he finds in Russia, where the wolf was thought to keep the power to bestow fertility in its tail. If a wolf runs through a field with its tail raised, it must be chased away (and in many cases slaughtered), but a wolf with its tail lowered was, conversely, said to be a heralder of a rich and bountiful harvest. This belief seems to parallel the French and German traditions in that the wolf is clearly being linked to some sort of fertility belief related to the success of the harvest which may have evolved from earlier related beliefs in an actual fertility deity. This deity seems either to take the name (and in some instances, the form) of the wolf, or, as in the Russian version, to use the wolf as some sort of vessel. Though Frazer's examples are all from the beginning of the twentieth century, we seem to find far older echo of a similar theme in the text of Virgil's eighth eclogue when he (writing two centuries after Theocritus), mentions a sorcerer who can transform into a wolf at will, and who, while in this shape, has the power to "move crops that have been planted in the fields." Here again we have a reference to a wolf with power over the harvest but who, this time, is man who takes the role by choice in direct contrast to the French Corn Wolf who seems almost to take possession of it's human agent.

Virgil's crop moving werewolf seems by chance, to have a strange parallel in the testimony of a Livonian man named as Theiss by Adam Douglas in the 1992 edition of his book 'The Beast Within - a History of the Werewolf' [5]. The story is dated to 1692 and is a documentation of the statement which Theiss allegedly gave (willingly, Douglas reports) at the hearing of the trial where he himself had been charged with being a werewolf. 'Werewolf trials' (similar in brutality to the more famous witch-hunts with which they were contemporary) were prolific throughout many areas of Europe during the 1500's, although the craze was almost over by the time Theiss was prosecuted. This may explain the comparatively detailed records which appear to have been kept, as well as the (relatively civilised) manner in which he seems to have been treated. Livonia, an area close to the Baltic Sea, was also outside the area where most of the trials were executed, (the epicentre of which was focused around the Alpine areas of Western Europe) and so the general werewolf-hysteria would presumably have been lower. Theiss's statement may be seen as significant because it does not, in structure or content, follow the accepted 'werewolf narrative' which was strongly prevalent at the time, and to which almost all other cases seem to adhere.[6]

Theiss, an eighty year old man, testified that on three nights every year - the night of St. Lucy, before Christmas, St. John's night, and the night before Pentecost - he joined the other Russian and Livonian werewolves with whom he travelled to Hell, which, he stated, could be found 'at the end of the sea'. There, in werewolf form, they battled the Devil and his sorcerers, who were armed with broomsticks wrapped in horse's tails, with their own iron whips. The Devil, he explained, had stolen the shoots of the grain, and unless they, the 'Dogs of God' won the fight for their return, he would keep them for himself, the harvest would fail, and the people would starve. Theiss stuck adamantly to his story, refusing point blank to adhere to his interrogators 'suggestions' that, far from fighting the Devil, he had actually been making satanic pacts. Theiss, it is reported, stuck stubbornly to every point in his story, except to eventually be forced to 'admit' that Hell was actually located under the ground. His fate, sadly, Douglas does not record.

Theiss's account of the 'Baltic Werewolves' as they have been termed, differs so remarkably from the usually reported European werewolf trials and convictions that it is tempting to suggest that they stem from an entirely different set of beliefs perhaps in some way similar to the fertility rituals discussed earlier. It seems possible to make the hypothesis that it may represent a relic of an older, more shamanistic belief system which may have been partly modified or developed in accordance with the growing Christian fundamentalism of the time. Evidence for this suggestion may be found Ginzburg's reports of the strikingly similar fertility ritual practised in Friuli, a region of North Eastern Italy at least as late as the seventeenth century, which was uncovered during the witchcraft trials of that time. In this version, the participants in the ritual called themselves not Dogs of God but benandanti, and travelled out on four nights of the year, again in the guise of animals, to battle against their diabolical witch enemies in a fight to preserve the fertility of the fields which the witches had stolen.

A great number of stories from Western Europe, then, seem to continually reassert that there is some link to be made between wolves and the continual abundance of food, both generally and, in particular, due to the reaping of a successful harvest. There is, however, another facet of their role as ensurers of fertility which we have not yet mentioned, though it's relevance here may be considered. The examples of wolves as protectors of crops which are quoted above originate in the most part from Western Europe; Russia, Normandy, Livonia, France and Germany etc. However, Roman folklore also casts the wolf as an ensurer of fertility, albeit human fertility.

During the reign of the Emperor Augustus, for example, the rite of Lupercalia was customarily performed, a festival closely associated with the cave of Lupercus on the Western slopes of Rome's Palatine Hill, which was the legendary site of the she - wolf's suckling of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome ('lupa' being, perhaps significantly, the Latin for both 'she-wolf' and 'whore'). The festival contained a strong element of the fertility ritual, as, towards the end of the proceedings, the young men who had been taking part clad only in animal skins, would beat out a circle with their februa (a type of thong), a blow from which, if it fell on any of the women present, was said to prevent infertility. The ceremony was also presided over by a group of vestal virgins who offered up the first ears of corn from the harvest, implying that a more general fertility belief was also being represented.

Wolves make another appearance in Roman folklore when we learn, again from Douglas[7] that the gateposts of newlywed couples were customarily smeared with wolf fat after the ceremonies in order that the marital union might be a fruitful one.

The question then surely begs as to why wolves have been chosen time and time again to represent such beneficent figures as the provider of food, the protector of the harvest and an icon to prevent sterility, as the examples quoted above imply that they have. The links seem tenuous. The wolf is certainly not the animal which first springs to mind when said traits are offered, although the typical structure of a wolf pack does represent a very stable environment for their members.

Celibate for 10 months out of every 12, wolves den in early summer, producing small litters of cubs which are raised by loyal parents. The pack habitually brings food back from the hunt to feed new mothers and cubs, for whom the meat is regurgitated so it is soft enough to eat. Wolves often mate for life and generally seem to exist within a fairly close knit social group which is often remarkably human in it's behaviour[8]. Such a set of species characteristics could suggest support for the suggestion that wolves may have been appropriated for such a symbol simply because these traits were recognised and admired in them. Such a supposition would seem to account for the fact that the stories in which they are used such do not seem tied to any one particular culture or geographical area.

However, it should be noted that much of the information which we now have concerning the habits and behaviour of wolf packs in the wild has only recently come to light. Due to the elusiveness of the animals, their high intelligence and their strong desire to protect the vulnerable members of the pack from prying eyes (especially the nursing mothers with cubs), it is difficult to imagine very many people in isolated rural communities without the benefits of contemporary tracking and surveillance technology actually knowing anything at all about the private life of the wolf.

Coupled with this is the fact that if a few characteristics were to be singled out as representative of wolf pack life by people who generally encountered them as a threat to every day life and livelihood, surely their ferocity and cunning would be more suitable for folktales - a supposition borne out by the fact that these are the traits which still cling to contemporary conceptions of the wolf most tenaciously.

One suggestion which has been made is that the reason why the image of the wolf is so frequently linked in folklore and ritual to the continued abundance of food has it's roots in aspects of the man/wolf relationship which existed in Palaeolithic times. Palaeolithic man, argues J B Lancaster[9], was a greatly different animal than his contemporary cousins, and it may be supposed that perhaps as wolf and man were in direct competition for food some kind of symbolic association came into being.

Unless evidence of ancient lupine fertility gods / goddess is ever unearthed, however, such a hypothesis remains absolutely unverifiable, and perhaps reconciled to the realm of fancy. As with many of the trends of 'wolf depiction' which I tend to examine here, conclusions seem difficult to draw. There is very little published writing which actually attempts the crucial question of 'why', a fact which in itself is frustrating. There seems to be little logical progression chronologically within the stories and traditions which might otherwise have helped us to find 'the beginning' which we assume we should be looking for. Perhaps, after all, this is not the most important factor in bringing these tales together. Perhaps it is actually more profitable to regard them in terms of just how broad the spread of roles is which one 'animal protagonist' 'totem' or 'icon' may assume in folklore.







Chapter 2

The Wolf in the Land of the Dead


The wolves in this group are clearly different to those who may be found in the last one, though similarities between them may still be explored. Again we find a disparate group of characters from a variety of situations and eras who appear to share vital traits which it is tempting, though perhaps folly, to assume may stem from the same root.The group is a fascinating one as it's constituent stories, from which I have chosen a series of examples to discuss, do range so widely in their geographic origins. The consistent cross-cultural repetition of ideas which becomes apparent through these examples, I feel, lends the grouping validity.

Here I intend to give an overview of the topic, exploring some of the different ways in which wolves have been reputed to appear in some of the many different forms of afterlife which have been believed in. Through a brief examination of some aspects of Norse mythology, I will then suggest some reasons why wolves may have been repeatedly associated with these roles.


To begin with the Sabine religion, we find that Soranus, their God of Death, had as his underlings, his servants, priests called hirpi, or 'wolves' who waited upon him, ready to do his bidding. Similarly, if we look to the complex mythology of ancient Egypt, Anubis the god of the dead (or 'God of the Hallowed Land'[10]), was depicted with the head of a jackal, a close cousin to the wolf both in respect to it's appearance and it's behaviour. The realm of the dead is actually termed, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead[11], as the 'Mansion of Him who Finds Faces... The Mansions of Anubis.' Classical Greek mythology, on the other hand,  gives us both the examples of Charon, the wolf-eared ferryman of the river Styx known to flow through the Underworld, and of Hecate, a Goddess of Death. Sometimes interpreted as one of the three aspects of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, Hecate was often depicted with three animal heads, typically those of wolves.[12]

In each of these cases, then, the wolf is not only the guardian of the dead  (taking the role of Guide, in a position of power within the assumed realm), but, and more significantly perhaps, it seems to repeatedly represent some manner of bridge between the two worlds. The implication here is that wolves have repeatedly been considered as being in some way linked with the actual crossing to be made between the state of life and the realms of the dead.

Interestingly, Within Norse mythology, we find clues which indicate that when a warrior entered the halls of Valhalla after death, they expected to find wolves as their co-inhabitents as, together with the raven, wolves were considered the chief among Odin's creatures. This Norse example is unusual in that we may be able, through knowledge of the Norse pantheon, to shed some light on it's rationale (and to suggest a hypothesis for some of the other, related myths), due to the specific reference made to the wolf as being Odin's creature.

Odin, as the Norse 'Lord of Hosts', had strong connections with the carnage of the battlefield. H. R. Ellis Davidson, in her 1964 text 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe', tells us that the wolf, in this same role, is 'mentioned in practically all the descriptions of a battle in Old English poetry' and verse, as, very specifically, a devourer of the slain. The jump between this role and the wolf's then appearance as a figure to be encountered in the afterlife, then becomes a logical one. This in turn could be read as an implication that (as the eating habits of wolves change very little the world over), some of the other traditions wherein wolves represent similar figures may have their roots in the same kind of observations. Simply, an awareness of the naturally predatory scavenging traits which wolves typically employ.

In a related vein, Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough mentions what could conceivably be another relevant tradition here. This time he writes of a European midsummer festival which at the time of his writing was still apparently being practised in Normandy[13], but which I have been unable to find mentioned in later research. Frazer's description relates a young man being dressed, named, and put into the role of the 'Green Wolf' and being covered in his entirety with fresh leaves and vegetation. He is then, through a series of actions and dances, symbolically 'burned' and 'mourned' and then returns to be celebrated exuberantly with great feasting and drinking.

Frazer does not tell us the origins of the tradition, if, indeed, these were known to him, but from the structure of the festival it is difficult not to suggest that it might be linked to regenerative beliefs of life and death. It is possible that the Green Wolf as recorded by Frazer may be a vestige of a far older and more complex rite with some greater religious or cultural significance, although, with such limited evidence, it would clearly be problematic to draw any further, more concrete, suppositions. What appears to be significant, however, is that again the figure of the wolf is being linked to beliefs involving the crossing of the boundary between the state of life and the circumstance of death.

Perhaps to find the best example of a culture that  makes consistent use of the wolf as a general symbol of regeneration, death and rebirth, we should return that of the Norse. As well as the example mentioned briefly above, several other tales may be found in which the Norse explicitly link wolves with not only personal, but also global, apocalypse.

In the Norse creation myth outlined by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda[14], after the Gods have created the world, they must find away to create the days and order Time. This is done by setting Day (a girl-child) and Night (a boy) up into the heavens on carefully allotted paths. Day and Night were forbade ever to rest, and to guard against the possibility, the Gods set a pack of great wolves to chase them ceaselessly. When the greatest of the wolves succeeds in running down and swallowing the Sun, the Earth will be plunged into darkness, and the time of Ragnarok[15] will be imminent. The second portent will be the breaking free of all shackled monsters whom the Gods have fought and fettered in the past, and who will then seek to destroy them in the greatest of matched combats. Odin, the Lord of Hosts, will be pitted against the great wolf Fenrir, whose gape was said to stretch from Heaven to Earth (an example of the symbolic wolf 'physically' bridging the two states), who will destroy him before dying himself of the wounds inflicted by the God. Garm, the huge wolf (or sometimes wolf hound) believed to be the guardian of the Underworld, will rise and defeat Tyr, the God of law, justice and battle. In this way, all the old Gods will battle and be lost, though the children of the Gods will survive. When the fighting is over and the dust has settled, the children of the Gods will establish their rule. This new generation of Gods would be lead, it was believed, by Balder, one of the old Gods who had been slain unfairly in his prime, and who would then be resurrected. The world will then be reborn, with the new Gods guiding it in it's new incarnation fresher and closer to perfection than before.

Several parts of this passage are particularly significant in terms of beliefs concerning death and regeneration, and the place of the wolf within these. The wolves pursuing the sun and moon are a rather poetic example of how the regenerative link has been stretched further, becoming ultimately more complex. The wolves are placed to keep the world turning, and night and day in their allotted order. However, by doing so, by keeping time progressing in any kind of forward motion, they are hastening the inevitable time when it must end. When this time comes, the time of Ragnarok they are it's heralds, announcing it as they swallow up the sun. Wolves in various guises, as Garm, Fenrir, etc, then ensure the future rebirth of the world as they finally cleanse the old one by seeing to the necessary destruction of the old Gods, again taking an essential role in the process of the world's 'death' and it's coming execution.

Wolves in the Norse mythology then appear to be loaded with associations which spread far wider with respect to figures linked with the passing out of life than had been seen previously. Rather than simply being a symbol to be invoked as believers crossed into the afterlife (as had been recognised in the other examples from Egypt and Greece), the Norse belief system incorporates them into the very fabric of their world-view. They become essential aspects of not just the end of this life on a human scale, but on almost every level, as they account for the time of Ragnarok.

When seen in the context of the other, related beliefs, this may perhaps be treated as an example of simple extrapolation, as the original sets of core associations between wolves and the dead are expanded upon. These beliefs themselves, that wolves may be linked to the final crossing of the boundary between life and death, appear to be borne out of an awareness (and perhaps fear) of the opportunistic scavenging habits of wolves. Wolves, like most carnivores, will readily devour carrion if it is available to them, as it represents a meal which may be taken with minimal energy expenditure in the form of killing. However, to people well aware that the remains of those whom they had known were at risk from such lupine opportunists, these scavenging habits may well have at some point taken on more symbolic associations. From this, combined with the enigmatic, shadowy presence which the wolf as an animal presents to those who encounter it, may have emerged this group of wolfish doormen, guiding the passages other, unknown realms. Again, however, we may only be able to conclude that conclusions are, at best, difficult to resolve. So little hard evidence exists, so few mythological lineages may be traced that any supposition we may make may resigned to being just that. Though we do tread on firmer ground here than in some of the other fields which we may explore, we may still find the going at times treacherous underfoot in terms of success in finding the root cause of a family of beliefs. What may be said for certain is the figure of the wolf continued to be an important one throughout a series of cultures, and was one which they frequently associated with the crossing of the barrier between life and death. The placing of the wolf in such an undeniably significant role must surely reflect something of the power which the animal has been able as a totem, a symbol, and the recurrence of such beliefs perhaps also implies the wolf's importance as such a symbol, as well as reinforcing the idea of the wolf being at it's core a truly multifaceted figure.





Chapter 3


Wolves as Totem Animals and as Shape Shifters.


These two groups I have amalgamated, as it seems clear to me that they overlap considerably in terms of the cultures and ideas discussed. I intend to begin with a description of some of the points of evidence which suggest that wolves have been repeatedly chosen as totem animals for various groups, and then go on to talk about the implications of this; one of which seems to be the emergence of a belief in shape shifters or 'werewolves'.

Wolves seem frequently to have been used as 'totems' for a number of groups cross culturally, although examples seem primarily to stem either from the Norse tradition or, alternatively, from the Native American mythologies.

Typically when an animal is adopted as such a symbol by any group, it is done with the intention of bringing something of the positive qualities of that animal to their own people. The totem animal tends also to become tightly enmeshed within a complex system of mythology and may also, in some cases, serve as a metaphorical vessel for shamanic journeys undertaken by group members. As well as providing the group with a strong identity, then, the symbolic animal is held up as an ideal which the group members are expected to seek to emulate. In the case of Wolf Clans such as those we will examine, it is, naturally, the image of the wolf which has been taken up as such a symbol, and whose positive qualities the group hope to appropriate.


A prime illustration of such a group may be found in the description of the Native American Nootka people given by Frazer's Golden Bough[16]. Described is the Nootka initiation rite in which group members must participate before they are considered formally part of the clan. During the rite the initiate is formally 'brought into' the group by being symbolically 'killed' and 'mourned', before being 'reborn' again as a wolf and a clan member. In order to become part of the group, in other words, the initiate must submit to the 'death' of their old self, their previous identity, to be then symbolically 'reborn' as a wolf, a clan member, during the initiation. In this way the group seeks promote, above all, loyalty and identity - characteristics which, it could be claimed, are also all important within the actual, animal, wolf pack.

The group so seeks to appropriate certain key desirable features of the wolf for themselves, in order to facilitate the continued prosperity of their particular community. In this case, the specific properties which the group members are encouraged to imitate are not mentioned, though we may assume that the wolf's success in the hunt and their ability to find food may be valued, along with their tendency toward cohesive pack strategy and tight co-operation.

The process of initiation which is alluded to here is indicative of what could be considered an essential element. The group itself seems to be closely knit, a supposition backed up not only by the necessity of such, but by the process in which any new 'would be' member must pledge their allegiance so absolutely that 'rebirth' becomes an appropriate metaphor. Initiation is a common theme within stories which incorporate wolf totem groups within them. Though many initiation rituals are, as in the Nootka, concerned with impressing upon the new member the importance of loyalty to their new 'family', some seem to take the form more of some form of test or period of endurance through which the initiate must prove themselves strong enough, either mentally or physically, to be worthy of joining the clan.

In the Norse Volsungsaga[17], we find a description of what appears to be a vestige of such a rite, involving the legendary hero figure Sigmund[18]. The Volsungs were again a wolf clan, reputed to be descended directly from Odin, and again the tale involves the initiate stepping into the role of, or believing himself to be, a wolf.

In the story as it is related, the hero Sigmund takes his son Sinfjotli (whose mother is also Sigmund's own twin sister), into the woods. In the depths of the forest they find two men clad in wolf skins which may only be removed on every tenth half day. Sigmund and Sinfjotli don the skins and so lose their human shape, immediately becoming wolves. They too may remove the wolf-skins only on every tenth half-day, and so father and son say they will separate for this time. They agree that they will remain within the forest, but that if either comes upon more than seven men whom they have to fight at one time then they should howl, summoning the other for help. They part, but Sinfjotli disobeys his father by fighting and killing eleven men on his own. Sigmund, furious that the other did not honour their agreement, punishes him by attacking him, cutting deeply into his windpipe. He waits, and watches quietly over the body of his son until he is rewarded by the sight of two weasels passing by. The weasels before him turn upon one another and fight, the bigger one biting the other's windpipe and severing it before restoring his adversary by applying a certain leaf. Raising his eyes, Sigmund spies a raven flying toward them, carrying in it's beak this same leaf, with which he knows Sinfjotli may be healed. Sigmund then helps his son, and they wait in the forest until the allotted time at which they may remove the wolf-skins, afterwards burning them.

The story seems to include many of the elements which might be associated with an initiation into a wolf-totem group.

The older, wiser figure of Sigmund, the proven hero of many other adventures, takes his son, the initiate, into the forest for the duration of the episode, isolating him from the rest of the community. They take on the qualities and appearance of wolves (the Volsungs being a wolf clan) by disguising themselves in wolf-pelts, and the 'enchantment' which is upon the skins means that they actually physically change shape. The son is asked to prove both his courage, his fighting skill, and his obedience, and though his surpasses both the requirements of the test and the expectations of his elder with respect to the first of these, in the latter case his pride causes him to fail. He is therefore punished for his rashness, as a result which he enters a deathlike state, or trance, still in the guise of a wolf. The elder member of the clan then performs a vigil over him and afterwards revives him with the help of the God, Odin[19]. They may then return home after the specified amount of time has passed, with Sigmund accepting Sinfjotli's bravery and skill, and welcoming him back into the clan.

The focus here seems to be on an initiation to the ways of battle rather than the hunting of game, as with the Nootka, but the structure seems bear several similarities to the Nootka rite. It is indubitably relevant to mention her that the Old Norse word for 'outlaw' is the same as that for 'wolf', and that the physical changing of the two into wolves may actually have originally been a metaphor for the isolation which they must experience during the proceedings.

Perhaps the closest parallel with this Norse tale which may easily be found in mythology actually seems to come from Greece. C. Kerenyi , in his book, 'The Heroes of the Greeks'[20] tells us of the son of Hermes (conceived through trickery and deceit) who was named Autolykos, literally 'The Wolf Itself', and who was the archetypal master-thief, an expert engineer of cunning. He was also the Grandfather of the hero Odysseus, and so it was Autolykos, the wolf, whose task it was to take the young hero out, away form his fellows, into the forests, in order to initiate him into the secrets and techniques of hunting boar.

Further European examples in which wolves have become totem animals to be imitated come in the form of the Norse 'Berserkers', terrifying warriors who were reputed to be both impervious to harm and tireless in their attack. The name is generally translated as deriving from the term for 'bear' - ber, and 'shirt' - serkr implying a warrior dressing in skins in order to become the animal[21]. Together with the Berserkers we have evidence, significantly, of the existence of the related 'wolf-coats', 'ulfhednar' also mortally feared on the battlefield.

We have here, then, evidence of a select few who are again deliberately separated from their fellows and initiated into a group whose members have the power to draw upon the properties of certain totem animals in order to ensure success in the hunt or, in this case, in battle. Snorri, quoted by Ellis Davidson, tells us that the Berserks and Wolf Coats took their power of ferocity from Odin himself[22], who was believed to give aid in battle in this way, suggesting a shamanistic link between the totem animal which is imitated, and the God. Mention is also made here that the Wolf Coats are likely to have worked in small groups or 'packs' rather than fighting individually like the Berserkers. We are told that the Heimskringla refers to the Berserks of King Harald Fairhair of Norway as Wolf Coats, and defines them as 'men of tried valour who never flinched at battle.'[23] Ellis Davidson also makes mention of a text by G. Dumeziel[24] in which he suggests that Berserks could only call themselves such after a ritual process of group initiation wherein they may have been promised immortality in turn for absolute obedience to the will of the War God whom they served - Odin (himself a shapeshifter), who appears again with his sacred wolves. Adam Douglas makes it clear when discussing the Vatnsdoela Saga that the wolf coated fighters were indeed related to the Berserks, whom they closely resembled, but from whom they could be distinguished as they wore 'wolf shirts[25] for mail coats' and 'howled' like wolves (as did Sigmund and Sinfjotli) during the battle. Their 'bestial fury', as termed by Douglas, however, was reputably just as brutal.

The question as to why the wolf in particular has been so consistently imitated again remains largely unanswered. It seems likely, however, that part of the reason may the easily observed similarities which exist between our two species. Both group hunters, both in competition, at times, for the same food, and both making use of communicative skill rather than solely strength and force, for success in the hunt. In aspects such as these, however, man would have many times found himself surpassed by the speed and ferocity and physical hardiness of the wolf pack, and may have sought to appropriate these aspects of his competitors for himself. It follows that these are the qualities which do seem most desired by those wolf - totem groups which we have briefly examined, though, as we have seen, they have often been extrapolated from their hunting origins, for use on the battlefield. The hypothesis of 'imitative hunter' would seem to be borne out in that, cross culturally, several different animals have been repeatedly chosen as totem animals, and generally they do seem to have been the dominant carnivore in that geographical area with which people may have seen similarities. Evidence for a number of bear cults seems to exist within several cultures where bears have been proliferate in the past, while in Africa, the well documented example of the 'Leopard Men Societies' also has obvious similarities[26].

Whatever the origins, it seems clear that beliefs and traditions such as these, where warriors fought as bears and wolves and initiates were reborn as their totem animal for the good of the group, could, in time, give rise to other tales of lycanthropic shapechanging. The gap to bridge, in general, seems small, if, indeed, it need be argued that the two states are essentially qualitatively different in any case. A lycanthrope, in essence, may be defined as one who exists under the impression that they have become a wolf, but whose physical state remains unaltered. The term werewolf is used to indicate a human being whose outward appearance actually changes into a resemblance of that animal, and it can clearly be seen that in the wolf cults I have mentioned above, examples of both states may be found

Werewolf references more generally have been proliferate throughout many cultures from the Ancient Greek, where we find some of the first recognisable werewolf tales in the first century AD, through to twenty first century American movies. In 1920's Germany, for instance, the werewolf was adopted as a totem animal for the Nazi party as it launched it's 'Operation Werewolf' (allegedly complete with a bewildering range of initiation rituals), a name which was actually revived during World War Two by Goebbels just as Himmler urged the Germans to be 'like werewolves' in their struggle against the Allied Forces[27].

Evidence that the origin of such an image of the shapechanging werewolf may be connected to the practices and beliefs of wolf cults may be found not only in the many examples quoted in which initiates believe themselves or others to change shape, but also in that many early pockets of belief in shape-shifting may be found in geographical regions where it is believed that wolf totem groups have also existed, perhaps at an earlier date and time.

This is well illustrated in the case of the Greek region of Arcadia. Here a great number of wolfish rituals and beliefs are recorded by Pausanias in the second century AD. Arcadia at this time was an isolated region of inhospitable landscape, with a history rich in myth. Here, for instance, the river Styx was reputed to begin its legendary passage to the underworld, and it is also, interestingly, the region where the Greek version of the mythologically staple Deluge Myth was reputably sited.

Pausanias claims that the inhabitants of Mount Lykaion, within Arcadia, annually practised certain rituals in order to appease the Lykaian Zeus, a Sky God, and that during the course of this worship one among them would be turned into a wolf. Then, if this werewolf had not tasted human flesh after nine years, they would find themselves turned back into a man; if they had, they remained a wolf forever. Pausanias elaborates, telling us that the Arcadian boxer Damarchus was able to compete in the Olympic games after previously being transformed into a wolf for nine years. A story told first by the Greek writer Euanthes, and then retold by Pliny, is of an Arcadian family called Antaeus. Lots were drawn, apparently, and a youth chosen who was to be taken to great Arcadian lake. He then removed his clothes and left them on a tree before swimming out across the water to the other side, where he was transformed into a wolf, in which form he would remain for eight years. Again, if he had not eaten human flesh in this time, he would be able to recross the lake, collect his clothes, and rejoin the human world. If his morals had lapsed during his time as a werewolf, then he was destined to remain as one for the rest of his life.

The beliefs which Pausanias reports to have been held by the Arcadians seem to be linked to the earlier story of King Lykaon of Arcadia whom the Gods changed into a wolf as a punishment for sacrificing a baby to Zeus. However, it is possible that they may come from an even earlier source.

Walter Berkert[28], discussing the Arcadian myths refers specifically to the possibility that 'wolf brotherhood' rituals may have had some connection with the origin of such beliefs. According to Adam Douglas, the Spartans, living in geographical proximity to the Arcadians, incorporated into their military training exercises in which young men lived in the wild for a time, as 'animals', in order to equip them mentally and physically for the adversities of the army life ahead of them. Such an ancient practice may have something of a shared root with the Arcadian animal sacrifices and lycanthropic transformations practised atop mount Lykaion, if we assume as Berkert does that these may have evolved from hunting rites and rituals practised by the Arcadian's ancestors. He suggests that the rituals involved may have once been designed to instil, through fear, the importance of the group of initiates, who may then have had to prove themselves by living 'as wolves' in the wild as the Spartans then continued to do during their army training.                                  

This hypothesis would be more convincing if backed up by more substantial archaeological evidence, although scientists did, in 1902, unearth an altar of earth and ash at the peak of Mount Lykaion. This contained, on closer inspection, the remains of several animals including cows and pigs, in a manner which implied that they may have been used in some form of sacrificial ritual.

The limitation with evidence such as this, however, is that though archaeology may show us the physical sites of a place of worship, it usually has greater difficulties in corroborating more intangible aspects which could tell us more about exactly how the site was used. In effect, archaeological finding can often be interpreted in a variety of different ways in order to support differing suppositions. However, the altar found at Mount Lykiaon does go some way to corroborating the evidence offered by Pausanias, in a way which tantalises towards a more complete excavation of the site.






Chapter 4 .



And as I sit, leaf through and look at this pile of wolfish faces flattened to the breadth of a photograph, I watch them looking back at me and I read the lines of their eyes. Heads raised, aggressive, on thick muscled necks. That are lowered in canine submission. That may be quick, alert or wary. Which bound through snow, trail through dust, fall hung, shot, trapped, skinned. Who gaze through chickenwire or are badly drawn in forests. The images are never-ending, proliferate, images of 'other'. They remind me, visably, continuously, of the space of difference which seems so palpable. Difference between them and me. Between our stories and those of others. Between their bodies and their symbols.

These then, are my Big Bad Wolves. My werewolves - these smallish, brownish, doglike, not doglikes, sitting and rising and watching again. They are the gateways to the afterlife of others. The ideal behaviour template. The promise of a harvest. But not for this time, this culture. Here they are the perennial Baddies, the latent threat of the wilderness we have become so alienated from.

As Western Europe became increasingly reliant on agriculture and farming during the twelth century, so the wolf became increasingly hated and feared as a threat to both to livestock and livelihood. Simultaneously, again during the eleventh and twelth century, images of Christ begin to increasingly represent Him as the 'Lamb of God', a trend which pre-empted a corresponding increase in satanic / lupine associations. The later werewolf trials which reached their peak during the end of the sixteenth century in Western Europe, and during which Lopez[29] claims that the numbers of the executed ran  into hundreds, continue the explicit diabolising of the image of the wolf. The werewolf trials may also have their roots in the much earlier, but no less strenuous efforts, made by the Christian church to similarly diabolise the beleifs of any and all other religions they encountered, including those which incorporated elements of animal totemism. The werewolf trials induced a very real fear which has still, perhaps, not entirely abated. In their wake came the fairy-tales, childrens bogeymen hot on heals of adult terror. Little Red Ridinghood and the rest, Wolf as threat to innocence, and as a sexual rather than simply a carnivourous, predator.

Here then lie the bones of our belief, jumbled and broken but close enough to be rearticulated. They tell more about us then they do about real wolves. Much more. About our fears and prejudices, about our history and development as a people. So too may the examples found elsewhere within the text illuminate.

It has not been my self - appointed task to lay bare the origins of the beliefs which I have recounted. Nor have I sought to impose rationalisations where they did not seem required, and I would draw few conclusions from this matter. A 'conclusion' implies not only an answer found to a question posed, but also an ending to a problem solved. I feel unable to view this essay in such a light.

I have found a great deal with respect to the grouping and catagorisation which I have begun to undertake. I have discovered cross cultural agreement, similarity and parallel which I did not expect, and came out of the excercise with a renewed respect both for the complexities and the power which such stories and beleifs may wield. Above all I have emerged with a strong sense of the richness which the wolf represents as a multifaceted symbol, and the complexity with which the elements of such are interrelated. Aside from the light which such a study might begin to shed on ways of 'reading' cultures other than our own, I feel that the greatest 'conclusion' which I am able to hazard regards the fallacy of our own constructs. We may the beleifs of others difficult to assimilate due their unfamiliarity, however, it is worth remembering that our own views on many issues rise out of set of equally artificially shaped social constructs. Though the sonority of the ideosyncracies of civilisations should be valued for what they are, it seems that when they in turn influence action, and when that action translates as violence or prejudice as the West's near extermination of the wolf, (sanctioned by the associations which we typically, and wrongly, attatch to it), illustrates, then such beleifs, however ingrained, should perhaps be critically questioned.






[1] Joseph Campbell, 'The Way of the Seeded Earth' Vol. 2 in the Historical Atlas of World Mythology, see pt. 2  'Mythologies of the Primitive Planters' Perennial Library, Harper and Row, New York, 1989 pp 131. 'The Origin of Maize and Game' is originally an Ojibwa story, first recorded by Schoolcraft in 1835, and then adapted by Longfellow in 1865.


[2] As told by Adam Douglas in 'The Beast Within', Chapman's Publisher's, 1992, pp 37.


[3] Also a common motif in European tales of werewolves. The first example of a belief in werewolves with sympathetic wounds which though inflicted in wolf form would transfer to it's human state, was recorded by Petronius, a Roman author, in 1AD. 


[4] Sir James Frazer, 'The Golden Bough', Wordsworth Reference, 1993, first published in 1890.


[5] Adam Douglas, 'The Beast Within' pp 151 - 6. Also mentioned in 'Ecstasies; Deciphering the Witches' Sabbat' by Carlo Ginzburg (translated by Raymond Rosenthal),  Hutchinson Radius 1990 153 ff.


[6] Most other reports of the testimonies of alleged werewolves follow the stereotype quite closely. It is generally agreed that this is because the 'testimonies' were predominantly the work of the interrogators, who repeatedly asked the same (leading) questions until they got the 'right' answer. Werewolves tended to be lone individuals isolated within communities (such as hermits, tramps etc.)  6 (cont.) ...who were typically accused and convicted of committing cannibalism, murder, infanticide and indulging in Satanic rituals etc. all whilst in wolfish form.


[7] 'The Beast Within' pp 59.


[8] Jonathan Glancy 'The Wild and the Innocent' Guardian Weekend Section, 03/06/2000


[9] J B Lancaster, 'Primitive Man', Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1936, pp 109.


[10] 'Sacred Symbols of Ancient Egypt', Thames and Hudson, 1995, pp 71 -2


[11] Phrase found throughout 'The Egyptian Book of the Dead', (from circa 1250 BC), translated by Dr. Raymond Faulkner, Chronicle Books, 1994.


[12] All from Adam Douglas' 'The Beast Within', 1992 pp 36 - 40.


[13] Sir James Frazer, 'The Golden Bough' pp ??


[14]  From circa 1220, translated by Brodeur, Oxford University Press, 1916, and a section of it by J I Young, Bowes and Bowes 1954. Quoted by H. R. Ellis Davidson, 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe', Penguin books, 1964, pp 27 - 8, 46, 197 - 202.


[15] Ragnarok - popularly considered as the Norse time for the end of the world, but more properly translated as the end of the established and recognised order.


[16] Sir James Frazer, 'The Golden Bough' pp??


[17] Translated by G. K. Anderson in 'The Saga of the Volsungs', Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982, pp 65 - 7


[18] Also discussed in H. R. Ellis Davidson, 'Shape-Changing in the Old Norse Sagas' - essay in 'Animals in Folklore', eds. W. M. Russel with J. R. Porter, The Folklore Society, pp 126 - 42, 258, 260.


[19] The Raven, along with the wolf, is traditionally strongly associated with representations of the God.


[20] C Kerenyi, 'The Heroes of the Greeks', Thames and Hudson, 1959 pp??


[21] Although the name 'Berserker' may be interpreted as referring to the word berr or 'bare' as opposed to ber or 'bear' (i.e. not clad in bear skins but merely fighting without mail coats), evidence from stories such as the tale of Bodvar Biarki in Hrolfs Saga Kraka (in which a mighty warrior becomes a ferocious fighting bear in the hear of battle), suggest that Berserkers were linked in folklore and legend to animal shapechangers, and specifically bears, indicating support for the usual translation.


[22] H. R. Ellis Davidson, 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe', pp 66.


[23] HR. Ellis Davidson, 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe', pp 67.


[24] G. Dumeziel, 'Mythes et Dieux des Germains', Paris, 1939.


[25] Termed 'vargstakker'


[26] The so called Leopard Men of Catal Huyuk and the African continent were a secretive and tribal society who practised ritual initiation into a leopard -totem hunting group of formidable reputation (Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, Chapman's publishers, 1992 pp. 26). Earliest evidence of their existence comes from wall paintings of circa 6000 BC, while they were still in existence into the earlier years the twentieth century.


[27] Quoted by Adam Douglas in 'The Beast Within' pp 26


[28] Walter Berkert, 'Homo Necans',  English translation, University of California Press, 1983 pp 120


[29] Barry Lopez  'Of Wolves and Men', Scribner, 1978, pp 206-7.



Anderson, G.K.

The Saga of the Volsungs

University of Delaware Press, 1982


Berkert, Walter

Homo Necans

University of California, 1983


Campbell, Joseph

Historical Atlas of World Mythology. Vol II - The Way of the Seeded Earth,

pt II - Mythologies of the Primitive Planters.

Perennial Library, Harper and Row, New York, 1989.


Davidson, H.R. Ellis

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

Penguin, 1964


Douglas, Adam

The Beast Within; A History of the Werewolf

Chapman, 1992


Eisler, Robert

Man into Wolf

Spring Books, 1950


Faulkner. Dr. Raymond (transl.)

The Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Book of Going Forth by Day

Chronicle Books, 1994


Frazer, sir James

The Golden Bough

Wordsworth Reference, 1992 edition


Fudge, Erica

Perceiving Animals; Humans and Beasts n Early Modern English Culture

MacMillan Press, 2000


Ginzburg, Carlo (trans. Rosenthal, Raymond)

Ecstacies; Deciphering the Witches Sabbat

Hutchinson Radius, 1990


Graves, Robert

New Larouse Encyclopedia of Mythology



Ham, Jennifer, & Senior, Mathew

Animal Acts - Configuring the Human in Western History

Routledge, 1997


Heroditus (Griffith, Tom, gen. ed.)


Wordsworth Classics, 1996 edition


Kerenyi, C

Heroes of the Greeks

Thames and Hudson 1959


Lancaster, J.B.

Primitive Man

Holt, Rinehart & Wilson 1935


Lopez, Barry

Of Wolves and Men

Scribner, 1978


Sacred Symbols of Ancient Egypt

Thames and Hudson, 1995


Warner, Marina

From the Beast to the Blonde; on Fairytales and their Tellers

Vintage; 1995


Warner, Marina

No Go the Bogeyman; Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock

Chatto and Windus, 2000



Essays and Articles



Davidson, H.R.Ellis

'Shapechanging in the Old Norse Sagas'

Essay in 'Animals in Folklore' eds W.M. Russel & J.R. Porter

Pub. The Folklore Society.


Glancy, Jonathan

The Wild and the Innocent

Guardian Weekend Section 03/06/2000