Don't Be Afraid of a Wolf at the Door
I’ve always felt an affinity with wolves. Maybe because I grew up in the dense forests of northern Ontario and remember the depths of snow and the inky blackness of a lonely night sky in winter. Maybe because I love the way that wolves simply go quietly about their business. In particular, I admire lone wolves, who follow their own nature and choose not to run with the pack.
It’s a shame that these intelligent and elegant animals have had such a bad rap throughout history. Tales abound of their viciousness, aggression and treachery. None of them are factual.
Ellen J. Stekert, English professor at the University of Minnesota and past president of the American Folklore Society, writes:
“We all live in a world of symbols. The symbolism embodied by the wolf is vast and compelling. Wolves evoke powerful feelings in us, and these feelings can nowhere be seen better than in the expressive interactions we call folklore: in legends, folktales, proverbs, folk speech, beliefs, and material culture.
The wolf has coexisted with mankind for thousands of years, and as each culture experienced the wolf, the folklore of that people reflected their feelings about the animal. Today in most of Europe and North America the wolf is a singularly sinister creature - one associated with mystery, power, danger, and sheer evil. But the wolf has not always been seen negatively. Groups who were primarily hunters or whose life style emphasized living intimately with nature viewed the wolf as a positive symbol. There is good evidence that when humans were hunters, they lived in peaceful and respectful coexistence with wolves. Only when man began to farm and raise animals did the wolf become his adversary, a threat to his very life (and livestock). The farmer or herdsman had to contend with the wolf as a predator, not fellow hunter, and he fully realized that the animal was as skilled and intelligent a hunter as he once had been. In many ways, the wolf's living patterns are more like those of humans than those of most other animals, and this may well account for his power as a cultural symbol. After all, man cannot domesticate the wolf as he has the dog, and so the farmer and the shepherd have had a good reason to be concerned.
There are many examples of how our verbal symbolism reveals our negative feelings about the wolf: why not speak of "crying leopard", or sing "Who’s afraid of the big bad bear?" The man who is a womanizer is a "wolf," not a dog. No one "cries boar" no matter how appropriate the pun might be. We "wolf" down our food; we do not "fox it down." And the coyote would never be seen in a sheep's clothing. Such are the indications of our negative attitudes toward the wolf as reflected in our current folk speech.
We learn "acceptable" attitudes as we grow into our culture. Some adults can manipulate these cultural symbols to their own end, as Hitler did with the wolf during World War II ("the wolf packs" for his submarines and "The Wolf Lair" for his Prussian retreat). But it is virtually impossible to change such compelling stereotypes that have been learned from our earliest days: we resist, rationalize, and turn deaf when data is offered which does not support these beliefs.
The vast stores of international and local folklore show us that through time the wolf has symbolized widely different things to different people. The wolf is depicted along a spectrum encompassing human, nurturing, intelligent, graceful, foolish, cunning, rapacious, evil, and supernatural. Each culture has taken from this pool and created its own symbol(s) of the wolf: folklore that did not fit was dropped or changed. Thus folk tradition both reflects and influences cultural attitudes.
All folklore is not "false," but some of the "truths" incorporated in folklore are different kinds of truths from what we think they are; they are often truths about feelings and not about facts.
To one who has had the experience of hearing a wolf "sing" it will come as no surprise that the distinctive howl of the wolf is one of the most remarked upon, almost hypnotic and magical qualities of the animal and could be, therefore, a major motif in a folktale. Other foolish wolf stories with international distribution tell of the fox who tricks the oafish and gluttonous wolf into a cellar where the wolf overeats so that he cannot escape his hunters through the opening by which he entered. Then there is the story of the wolves who climb on top of one another to see what is on the other side of a wall: the lowest wolf runs away, causing all on top of them to land in a heap.
Certainly this is not the cunning, rapacious wolf from whom the woodsman saved Little Red Riding Hood. But this is a widely distributed option for the character of the wolf in international folktales. That the wolf is depicted as a fool is not surprising, for what is feared is often belittled, and one way to negate fear is to attribute to that which is feared the exact opposite characteristics of those which it possesses. Thus, the wolf becomes a fool rather than an intelligent creature. However, intelligence certainly is a characteristic of the wolf in other widespread folk narratives and folklore.
The wolf's intelligence is illustrated in numerous legends about "lone wolves,"or, in American West, the "lobo"wolf. These solitary wolves were stalked by professional hunters and some gained notoriety for being able to escape hunters with astonishing alacrity. Most striking about the "lone wolf" stories is the recurrent references to these wolves as if they were human outlaws, complete with nicknames ("Old Three Toes") and anecdotes about how they were able to elude traps and bullets. The intelligence credited to these wolves could easily come from observation of the wolf in a natural state, and folklore reflects this potentially positive trait. An English proverb nearly 400 years old says, "Wolves lose their teeth but not their memory." The wolf who stood guard over the severed head of St. Edmund (the ninth century martyr and king of England) until it received proper burial is a praiseworthy and intelligent model. Even the Boy Scouts who identify themselves as Wolf Cubs can be proud of such informed loyalty. The belief that wearing a wolf's tooth makes one brave, or that a wolf hide offers protection from epilepsy are but two uses of wolf parts as positive cures and charm.”
Click here to see the wolf design above on a number of products.
Two excellent movies that portrayed the wolf in a justifiably sympathetic manner were the 1983 film “Never Cry Wolf” (based on the autobiographical novel by Farley Mowat), starring Charles Martin Smith, and Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves".
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