“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is . . .
“Think about it. There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”
—Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Wolves indeed have a central place in the folklore of cultures from the North American Arctic to the Indian jungle to the Chinese tropics.
The roles of wolves in mythology are diverse, and include the “Big, Bad Wolf,” the wise hunter, and the fiercely wild animal. These roles are called archetypes.
Archetype: Big Bad Wolf
The legend of the evil wolf stretches nearly as far back as recorded history. Fenrir, a giant wolf, is one of the most terrifying figures in Norse mythology, for instance. Fenrir is a monster that threatens the worlds of humans, gods, and giants. The gods could only trap Fenrir with magic chains, kilometers beneath the earth. A giant sword propped between his jaws keeps him from biting.
The sly, villainous nature of the evil wolf archetype can also be found in “The Wolf of Zhongshan,” a fairy tale from southern China. In the story, a wolf pleads with a scholar to help him escape hunters. The scholar hides the wolf in his bookbag, saving its life. Later, the wolf asks for another favor—for the scholar to give up his life to save the wolf from starvation. The scholar consults both human and natural communities to judge if this is fair. Plants and animals, thoughtlessly used by human society, side with the wolf. Farmers side with the scholar, and doubt such a fearsome creature could even fit in a bookbag in the first place. The wolf proves the story is true by again crawling into the scholar’s bag. The farmers, recognizing the wolf as one that terrorized their community, beat the wolf to death.
The most familiar evil wolf archetype, of course, is the Big Bad Wolf himself. In “The Three Little Pigs,” this villain represents a threat to a community. The Big Bad Wolf preys on the weakest members of the group, and the pigs only survive with hard work and unity. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the Big Bad Wolf is a threat to the family, targeting both a young girl and her aged grandmother.
Archetype: Wise Wolf
The wise wolf archetype finds some of its most colorful representations in Native American communities. Chibiabos, for example, is a great wolf-spirit in Algonquin mythology. Chibiabos is considered a fair and kind ruler of the land of the dead.
The wise wolf’s association with the underworld is also present in the mythology of the Pawnee, themselves nicknamed the “Wolf People.” The Pawnee call the Milky Way, our galaxy, the “Wolf Road.” Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is the “Wolf Star.” The nightly appearance of Sirius, and its disappearance with the dawn, is symbolic of the cycle of life and death throughout the animal community.
A world away, Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of the “Eternal City” of Rome, Italy, were famously saved by a wolf. Abandoned by their parents, a wolf allowed the twins to nurse on it until a friendly woodpecker (and, later, human step-parents) provided food for the infants. Ancient stories associate the (allegedly) protective nature of the Roman Empire to the wolf nurturing Romulus and Remus.
Archetype: Wild Wolf
The untamed nature of the wild wolf is another popular archetype. Mowgli, the orphan boy raised by a wolf pack in British author Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, grows to be an honorable, thoughtful young man. Ultimately, however, he must abandon his wolf family and wild instincts in order to adapt to the rules and structure of civilization.
In the musical fairy tale "Peter and the Wolf," by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, it’s the wolf that must adapt to civilization. In the story, each character is represented by a different musical instrument and melody. Powerful French horns playing a tune in a minor key are the “wolf.” Peter (represented by stringed instruments such as violins and cellos) saves the wolf from hunters . . . but the wolf must spend the rest of his life in a zoo, never again wild and free.
Consult National Geography Standard 10.1 (8th grade): There are many different cultures, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Therefore, the student is able to compare the cultural characteristics of different cultures.
- Discuss the role of wolf archetypes in different cultures. Why do students think the wolf can represent such dissimilar concepts?
- The role of wolves in mythology often has to do with the society creating the myth. Agricultural societies may be more likely to view the wolf as a sinister figure—a threat to livestock and settlements. Societies based on hunting might tend to view the wolf as a resourceful and respected fellow hunter.
Wild Wolf Archetype: Vuk (wolf in Serbian), and variations such as Vukasin and Vukan, are common men’s names in Serbia. This may date from an ancient tradition blaming infant mortality on witches—who were afraid to attack wolves.
Wise Wolf Archetype: Many myths trace the ancestry of the Turkic people to the wolf Asena. Asena gave birth to a litter of half-wolf, half-human male cubs who became the Turks.
Evil Wolf Archetype: In Europe, the fearful legend of werewolves can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. Lycaon was a king who killed a man and served his flesh to Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus punished Lycaon by turning him into a wolf, and the mythical concept of people transforming into wolves took on his name—lycanthropy.
Wise Wolf Archetype: In Japan, wolves are often mountain-spirits who are excellent judges of character. With their unique eyebrows, they are able to “see” good and bad characteristics. (People with negative characteristics are usually animals taking human form.)
Wild Wolf Archetype: Morrigan, a goddess in Irish mythology, is sometimes depicted as a wolf. Morrigan is a goddess of independence and sovereignty. In her wolf form, she is a threat to livestock and a defender of her territory.
Evil Wolf Archetype: The “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is a Biblical metaphor for a manipulative, lying person. The wolf, a traditional predator of sheep, pretends to be a sheep. Allowed into the flock, the wolf preys on the vulnerable sheep.
to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.
wide collection of cultures and people speaking a common language group, originally native to what is now northeastern and central Canada and the United States.
supposed or presumed.
recurring cultural symbol.
region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
group of organisms or a social group interacting in a specific region under similar environmental conditions.
a person who writes music.
group of stars that form a recognizable shape.
to seek advice from a trusted source.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
first appearance of daylight in the morning.
soil or dirt.
to get away.
folk story often involving magic or supernatural creatures, such as elves or dragons.
group of organisms that come from the same ancestors and share similar characteristics. Family is also a classification in chemistry and math.
person who cultivates land and raises crops.
wild or savage.
traditional stories and legends associated with a people, place, or idea.
to start or establish something.
collection of stars, planets, gases, and other celestial bodies bound together by gravity.
fair, of good character, and respected.
to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.
natural motivation or behavior.
device for making musical sounds.
tropical ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
traditional or mythical story.
main part of a song or other musical composition.
galaxy in which the Earth and sun are located.
legend or traditional story.
person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.
stories, traditions, and beliefs of ancient Scandinavia.
child with no parents.
group of animals, usually arranged in a family-like structure.
people and culture native to what is today the U.S. states of Nebraska and northern Kansas.
to beg or sincerely appeal to someone for something.
animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.
to support and prevent from falling.
to stand for a person, community, or idea.
(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.
brightest star in Earth's sky, in the constellation Canis Major. Also called the Dog Star.
cunning, wily, and shrewd.
large community, linked through similarities or relationships.
large ball of gas and plasma that radiates energy through nuclear fusion, such as the sun.
dying from lack of food.
system of organization.
serving as a representation of something.
to domesticate or make useful for humans.
to cause deep fear.
to scare or be a source of danger.
region generally located between the Tropic of Cancer (23 1/2 degrees north of the Equator) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23 1/2 degrees south of the Equator).
mythical or legendary place for the souls of the dead.
antagonist or evil character in a story.
place where animals are kept for exhibition.