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Wolf Folklore and Legend

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Wolf Folklore and Legend

The wolf appears in many legends and tales.

Image © Getty Images

Few animals capture people’s imagination quite like the wolf. For thousands of years, the wolf has fascinated us, frightened us, and drawn us in. Perhaps it’s because there’s a part of us that identifies with that wild, untamed spirit we see in the wolf. The wolf features prominently in myths and legends from many North American and European cultures, as well as from other places around the world. Let’s look at some of the stories still told today about the wolf.

Celtic Wolves:

In the stories of the Ulster cycle, the Celtic goddess Morrighan is sometimes shown as a wolf. The connection with the wolf, along with the cow, suggests that in some areas, she may have been linked to fertility and land. Prior to her role as a warrior goddess, she was linked to sovereignty and kingship.

In Scotland, the goddess known as Cailleach is often associated with wolf folklore. She is an old woman who brings destruction and winter with her, and rules the dark half of the year. She is portrayed riding a speeding wolf, bearing a hammer or a wand made of human flesh. In addition to her role as destroyer, she is depicted as a protector of wild things, like the wolf itself, according to the Carmina Gadelica.

Native American Tales:

The wolf features prominently in a number of Native American stories. There is a Lakota tale about a woman who was injured while traveling. She was found by a wolf pack that took her in and nurtured her. During her time with them, she learned the ways of the wolves, and when she returned to her tribe, she used her newfound knowledge to help her people. In particular, she knew far before anyone else when a predator or enemy was approaching.

A Cherokee tale tells the story of the dog and the wolf. Originally, Dog lived on the mountain, and Wolf lived beside the fire. When winter came, though, Dog got cold, so he came down and sent Wolf away from the fire. Wolf went to the mountains, and found that he liked it there. Wolf prospered in the mountains, and formed a clan of his own, while Dog stayed by the fire with the people. Eventually, the people killed Wolf, but his brothers came down and took revenge. Ever since then, Dog has been man’s faithful companion, but the people are wise enough not to hunt Wolf anymore.

Wolf Mothers:

For Roman Pagans, the wolf is important indeed. The founding of Rome – and thus, an entire empire – was based on the story of Romulus and Remus, orphaned twins who were raised by a she-wolf. The name of the Lupercalia festival comes from the Latin Lupus, which means wolf. Lupercalia is held every year in February, and is a multi-purpose event that celebrates the fertility of not only the livestock but people as well.

In Turkey, the wolf is held in high regard, and is seen in a similar light as to the Romans – the wolf Ashina Tuwu is the mother of the first of the great Khans. Also called Asena, she rescued an injured boy, nursed him back to health, and then bore him ten half-wolf half-human children. The eldest of these, Bumin Khayan, became chieftain of the Turkic tribes. Today the wolf is still seen as a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Deadly Wolves:

In Norse legend, Tyr (also Tiw) is the one-handed warrior god – and he lost his hand to the great wolf, Fenrir. When the gods decided Fenrir had been causing too much trouble, they decided to put him in shackles. However, Fenrir was so strong that there was no chain that could hold him. The dwarves created a magical ribbon – called Gleipnir -- that even Fenrir couldn’t escape. Fenrir was no fool, and said he'd only allow himself to be tied with Gleipnir if one of the gods was willing to stick a hand in Fenrir's mouth. Tyr offered to do it, and once his hand was in Fenrir's mouth, the other gods tied Fenrir so he couldn’t escape. Tyr's right hand got bitten off in the struggle. Tyr is known in some stories as the "Leavings of the Wolf."

The Inuit peoples of North America hold the great wolf Amarok in high regard. Amarok was a lone wolf, and did not travel with a pack. He was known for preying upon hunters foolish enough to go out at night. According to legend, Amarok came to the people when the caribou became so plentiful that the herd began to weaken and fall sick. Amarok came to prey upon the frail and ill caribou, thus allowing the herd to become healthy once more, so that man could hunt.

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