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THE SPIRIT OF THE WOLF
Ever since man’s dimmest, prehistoric beginnings, no other animal has haunted our imagination more so than those slinking-shadows encircling the campfires of our ancestral memories; amber eyes signaling enigmatically from the outer-dark as though whispering “Remember, little brother, we ran the tundra together back when you were young and still covered in furs. We remember the hunts. Back when we were worst of enemies and yet at times also best of friends…” Our unending obsession with the wolf, no less diminished now than the last ice-age, a fascination seemingly equal parts fear and admiration, has made of the wolf an archetype featuring prominently in folklore and popular culture across the world in more cultures than not.
These archetypes are as diverse as are the cultures that gave life to them. The fabled founders of Rome, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were abandoned as infants by their father the Roman god of war, Mars. He was fearful they might one day usurp his thrown. Left defenseless in the wild, the babes were soon discovered by a great she-wolf that protected them and nursed them. And so, suckled on the teats of this ferocious beast, the twin brothers and subsequently the Roman people were endowed with the wolf-like virility and tenacity which came to characterize their empire. In Celtic folklore, especially that of ancient Scotland, the goddess known as Cailleach is known as the bringer of winter, ruling the dark-half of the year and she is most often depicted riding astride a giant wolf. Also apparently transmuted by her association with the wolf, the goddess took on the wolf-like traits of not only being a great destroyer of the works of man but also as a protector of all things wild. Unsurprisingly, Native American folklore is replete with all manner of tales starring wolves. In one particular Lakota fable, a woman was injured while travelling and so quite incapacitated she was left to her fate in the wilderness. There she was found by a pack of wolves that not only nursed her back to health but also taught her a great many secrets about survival. Once fit to travel, she returned to her tribe and shared all her newfound knowledge, benefitting her people as a whole. In keeping with this maternal theme, in ancient Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the fable goes that a she-wolf rescued an injured boy and after nursing him to health she bore him ten half-wolf and half-human children. The wolf is thus considered the mother of all their great Khans and the eldest of her sons, Bumin Khayan, became the supreme chieftain of the Turkic peoples.
The wolf, however, is just as frequently portrayed in a malevolent light and made out to be veritable monsters—true agents of havoc and destruction. In Norse mythology, Tyr is one of elder gods on par with Odin and Thor. A peerless swordsman and a god of war, law and justice, Tyr lost his arm, his sword-arm no less, to the gigantic wolf Fenrir. As the ravenous Fenrir caused untold devastation, the gods decided that the beast should be shackled, yet no chains could withstand the monster’s prodigious strength, the links coming apart like wet parchment. The dwarves were then instructed to fashion a magical ribbon said to be indestructible and beyond the might of even Fenrir. The canny Fenrir offered that he would submit to being tethered by this magical ribbon under one condition: one of the gods must place his hand in his massive jaws. Selfless and truly heroic, Tyr volunteered and his arm was ripped off in the ensuing struggle. Henceforth Tyr was known as the “Leavings of the Wolf”. An example of a similarly deadly wolf is that of Amarok, the great lone-wolf of Inuit legend. Amarok was known for preying upon hunters foolish enough to venture beyond the safety of their campfires at night. One particular tale describes how the Caribou grew so large in number that the herds became sickly and unfit for human consumption. Amarok then came to the rescue, preying upon the weakest and infirm of the caribou until the heard grew fit and strong again. Amarok restored nature’s cardinal law, the survival of the fittest and so the Inuit could once again hunt healthy game and so prospered.
If a sort of tripartite could be claimed in regards to the common perceptions of the wolf, it might be composed thusly: Protagonist, Antagonist and finally that of the Shamanistic: existing independently of our simplistic perceptions of good and evil. Almost universally, within the beliefs of Shamanism, the wolf represents extreme independence birthed of a fierce intelligence, quiet confidence and the apotheosis of self-reliance. An individual acting on their own with no help from any other persons or institutions is not called a “Lone Wolf” for nothing. It is no surprise then that an almost fanatical need for freedom is linked to the wolf, a predator with one of the largest territorial ranges of any mammal. All these traits naturally fashions a rather level, resolute, resilient and fearless individual which would explain why one of the other most prominent lupine characteristics is that of leadership. The typical Alpha male or female is renowned for their loyalty and inspiring trust in others. Interestingly, since wolves can live in rather large packs, they have a complex hierarchical system closely resembling those of our hunter-gatherer beginnings. Is it possible, a great many millennia ago, that a band of troglodytes closely observed the orderly habitat of the wolves, their social structure and was inspired to follow suit? Is this the possible origins of those enduring tales of wolves rearing human infants and teaching them how to survive in the wilderness? Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” after encountering variations of this tale and true to form chose the wolf pack as the guardians of his little protagonist, the man-cub Mowgli.
Perhaps the reason the wolf has managed to sink its fangs so deep into our psyche is precisely that they were there at our very beginnings. We have been unable to escape each other. We were hunting the same plains, competing for the same prey and both species must have feared and respected the other to varying degrees. No wonder, having so much in common, we developed such an affinity that the wolf became the first animal to be domesticated. We allowed this beast to approach our campfires and shared our hard-won meal with it. A peculiar yet unbreakable bond formed between our species and we eventually allowed them the ultimate trust of watching over our sleeping infants, knowing they would die protecting our progeny. Through centuries of cohabitation, the untamable wolf became our most trusted and loyal companion, the family dog. From prehistoric times and during the long march through the millennia to the modern world, they were right next to us, their loyalty and devotion unmatched. They have truly become man’s best friend.
An unsettling thought, unsummoned yet glaringly obvious might now give you pause for consideration. Seeing as dogs are descended from wolves and we then compare our average pooch with the sleek and powerful wolf, one can’t but marvel how such a majestic predator could be watered down to became the somewhat goofy, awkward but always lovable mutt that is so utterly dependent upon us. Something essential, something majestic and almost magical has been lost when we compare our lapdog to its fierce progenitor. What if we too, like the dog, have become lessened, degraded by the so called “diseases of civilization”? What if the wolf looks at us with the same kind of pity and critique? Knowing what we were long ago when we hunted the plains with them, one wonders if they too marvel how such fierce beasts-of-prey could now more resemble the dull-witted, cumbersome and herd-minded prey we used to hunt side by side.
Perhaps the wolf laughs at us, seeing our imagined accomplishments as nothing but broken toys which nature shall reclaim soon enough. When confronted with the wolf, those denizens of the outer dark; prowling the vast stygian realms beyond man’s campfire and the light of his understanding—what frightens us most is that the wolf reminds us where we came from, that man’s rationality ends there at the rim of light cast by his little fire and utterly blotted out when the wistful howling start—and when those lupine shadows cut across the periphery of our fearful gaze, marked as they are by eldritch specs of light betraying watchful eyes, we know the demarcation of where only superstition can reign in its abode of primordial darkness. And that darkness, which we not so long ago stepped out of, sniggers at our feeble light which it knows must flutter out sooner than later— “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph” — ROBERT E. HOWARD
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--Article by Wolraad J.Kirsten, Author of "Varangian: Book One Of The Byzantum Saga"