The Role of Fox, Lynx and Wolf in Mythology

KORA Bericht Nr. 3, April 1998: "Workshop on Human Dimension in Large Carnivore Conservation


Astrid Wallner

Swiss Fed. Inst. of Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland



The role animals play in mythology might be one reason why people seem to be more frightened of the wolf than of the lynx or the fox. The lynx is hardly non existent in mythology and the fox is a well known cunning figure in fables. But the wolf plays various different roles, ranging from a demonic, evil figure and werewolf myths to the nursing wolf of the city founders of Rome.

The study of the public acceptance towards the wolf is another part in the research of existing or lacking acceptance towards predators in Switzerland. Interviews will be conducted with representatives of sheep farmers and hunters associations, nature conservation groups and the tourism industry. Since this study has just started there are no results to be presented yet, but it could be possible, that people will be more frightened by the return of the wolf than of the lynx. One reason for this might be the role predators play in mythology. A very short overview of the role of the fox, the lynx and the wolf in mythology is given here. Since it was hard to find material about the lynx and most material about the fox focuses on fables, the statements about these two animals are rather short. A lot of material exists about the mythological role of the wolf and therefore there are some more lengthy explanations concerning the wolf.

The Fox

In pre-Christian Times the fox was seen as a symbol of gods, like for example, as a symbol of the god of vegetation or as a symbol of forest- and mountain-spirits. This changed in Christian Times, from where on the fox was seen as a demonic creature. The fox is a very famous figure in fables and usually is described as greedy, dishonest and tricky. At the same time of all the helpful animals in fairy tales the fox is said to be the most helpful one. Most fables tell about how the fox tricks other animals to get food, but no legends or fairy tales have been found telling about the fox attacking humans.

The Lynx

The lynx is not a very prominent figure in mythology. No fables or legends concerning the lynx have been found . There are a few proverbs concerning the lynx like for example "to wangle something out of someone" in German means "jemandem etwas abluchsen", which reminds us that the lynx is a very intelligent and quick hunter (Schenda 1995).

The Wolf

The big bad wolf is very well known from fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Seven Little Goats". According to those fairy tales the wolf is evil, vicious, cunning and rapacious. Numerous proverbs also depict the wolf as a bloodthirsty killer, especially as one that kills more lambs than he can actually eat. And there is no hope that he will ever change, for "the wolf may loose his teeth, but never his nature" (Limpach 1993). Wilhelm Grimm has even described the wolf as the most evil animal of all (Bächtold-Stäubli & Hoffmann-Krayer 1927-1942).

Indo-European mythology generally describes the wolf as being of demonic origin. In the Edda, the ancient Icelandic sagas, for example, the wolf is the symbol of mysterious powers: Odin, the god of war and death, was accompanied by two wolves; it was a wolf, Fenrir, that played an important role in the destruction of the world; two wolves chased sun and moon and at the end of the world they catch up on their prey (Grimm 1887). Today, at the eclipse of the sun, some people still say that the wolf is eating the sun (Lenz 1974). In Egypt the wolf was seen as the guardian of the underworld and as god of death. The earliest East-Indian legends described the wolf as deceitful and evil, and Christianity went even further and set the wolf equal to the devil. There are various legends from East-European countries, Russia and Scandinavia telling about the devil's creation of the wolf (Dähnhardt 1912).

The word "wolf" itself has a very negative meaning: The Swedish and Norwegian term for wolf is varg, in Icelandic vargr, which not only means wolf but also is used for a wicked person. The Gothic word vargs (warg in Old High German, warc in Middle High German, verag in Anglo-Saxon) stands for murderer, strangler, outlaw, and evil spirit. The verdict "thou art a warg" declared the culprit an outlaw. Those people were banished forever from human society and were forced to live in the wild. Some authors argue, that the werewolf-traditions of Germany and Scandinavia arose from this practise, since the convicted person was thought no longer a human being. It was forbidden to help him with anything, be it food or shelter, even if the giver was his own wife. Witches were also closely associated with wolves: Witches were believed to appear disguised as wolves. And the Latin word lupus is an abusive word for witch.

But there are also positive traits of the wolf found in mythology. In one of the early East-Indian legends for example, the wolf is described as a sympathetic and helpful animal. There are several legends telling about female wolves nursing children, the most famous being the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The Mongols viewed themselves as "sons of the blue wolf", descended through Genghis Khan from a mythical wolf that came down from heaven. For the Romans the wolf was the symbol of the god of war. Connecting the wolf with war and death was not meant in a deprecatory way, it rather referred to the death of a big warrior or chief, and warriors have been called raging wolves, so there has also been something heroic about the wolf, which could also explain the numerous personal names connected with the word wolf, like for example Wolfgang, Wolfdietrich, Wolfram (Ward 1987).

In native North American mythology the wolf was often looked favourably upon. Some tribes identified their clans with particular animals and looked to them for guidance or inspiration. Especially on the Northwest coast the wolf was used as a totem. The wolf was revered because it is a good hunter. It is often associated with the special spirit power that man had to acquire to become a successful hunter (Stewart 1979). Some tribes also have creation myth where wolves play an important part, for example the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. One of their myths tells how the ancestors of the people took off their wolf masks and became humans (Steinhart 1996). According to the Ute, a tribe from the Rocky Mountain area of Colorado, the wolf played a major role in how the people came to the earth. The wolf had carried a heavy bag on his back and therefore could only move very slowly. After a while the bag became so heavy, he hardly could walk any further and decided to lay down. While doing so, the bag burst and all the people poured out and went to the different places on earth (Läng 1989). But some tribes saw the wolf as dangerous and evil. The Navajo, for example, feared wolves as human witches in wolves' clothing, and the belief in werewolves provides them with explanations of otherwise inexplicable phenomena (Lopez 1987). Other tribes believed that the nether region of their spirit world were inhabited by wolves, which, in this context, were enemies.

Of course, native North American mythology does not influence the European public in its acceptance of the wolf, most probably it doesn't even influence the non-native North Americans. But the comparison between Indo-European and native North American mythology showed that there are very similar images of the wolf existing in different parts of the world. It could be assumed that the images of the wolf in Indo-European mythology and the fairy tales constructed out of them influence the public's acceptance of the wolf. This however, still has to be proven by empirical studies.

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