Crying Wolf - The Wolf as Symbol in Folklore

By: Ellen J. Stekert English, Professor at the University of Minnesota.

She is past president of the American Folklore Society and she has written numerous articles and books on folklore.
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.
Even in urban centers where the nearest living wolf is in residence at the local zoo, we still adhere unrelentingly to the negative symbol of the wolf. We can best see this by looking at some of the "throwaways" of our cultural symbolism: the expression we use, the small belief patterns we hold, the legends we firmly believe is true. For example, why didn't the president of the University of Minnesota tell us last year that "the grizzly is at the door" when he wished to express the potential fatal effect of ever-increasing financial pressure upon his institution? The metaphor actually would have been closer to the truth since grizzlies are most dangerous and irrational when their territory is threatened, and there are certainly more documented cases of human deaths caused by bears than by wolves in the United States.
There are many more examples of how our verbal symbolism reveals our negative feelings about the wolf: why not speak of "crying leopard", or sing "Whose 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 which 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 which did not fit was dropped or changed. Thus folk tradition both reflects and influences cultural attitudes.
As each person walks into the "Wolves and Human" exhibit at SMM, he or she carries a store of folk beliefs about wolves. Hopefully the exhibit will allow each visitor to emerge with a fuller understanding of how these symbols were formed and how well the fit the scientific data. 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.
Folktales about the wolf which have international distribution reveal interesting patterns. In some cultures, such as in Russia, the wolf is often depicted as foolish rather than fierce, while the same tales in Germany and Skandinavia have the bear as the dupe. In one tale the wolf is the dog's guest at a party. The dog, wishing the wolf ill, gets him drunk so that the wolf sings at the top of his lungs, thus revealing his hiding place to hunters who kill him. 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 him 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 is certainly 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 the 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 say "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 praise worth 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 offer protection from epilepsy are but two uses of wolf parts as positive cures and charm.
In some international folktales the wolf is in fact, a very desirable human. Several tales are based upon the unfortunate circumstance of the hero or heroine being unwillingly transformed into a wolf (not werewolf in this case). The plot revolve around the successful attempts of the love to disenchant the "wolf" and thus allow it to regain human form and reunion with the lover. These tales have been found in Chile, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. Many North American Indians view the wolf as an integral part of their historic and individual life cycle. The Menomini myth of the creation of the earth and all things on it tells of how the first man born was a twin to a wolf. The Cheyenne have many legends of brave warriors whose skill and success was in part due to their identification with the wolf.
There is also a body of international folklore in which the wolf helps man and even rewards him for benevolent behavior. From Lithuania comes a tale very close to that of Androcles and the Lion, where a wolf fetches a man to remove a thorn from his cub's paw and in return does not attack the man's livestock. From Japan we have a touching tale of a young man who removes a large bone from the throat of a wolf by thrusting his arm down the wolf's throat: the wolf rewards him by bringing him a fat pheasant ( to the dismay of the man's friend who are in the midst of a party when the wolf returns with his gift). This latter tale is found in different form as one of Aesop's fabler where it is a crane rather than a person who helps the wolf. In the fable form it was probably well known before 550 B.C., and the tale has been collected throughout Central Asia, the Far East, and Europe.
No aspect of folk narratives attests as eloquently to the affectionate bond humans have felt with the wolf as does the extensive lore about humans and deities who have been nursed by wolves. The Romulus and Remus legend is one of the most famous examples. It is found in numerous ancient versions. There is an Irish legend about a king who was suckled by a wolf, and the well-known character, Mowgle, of Kipling's Jungle Books, was raised in the same manner. Kipling heard legends about wolves nursing human children during his childhood in India. In fact, his father had a post at the University of Bombay and wrote a book entitled Man and Beast in India which included remarks about these legends.
In contrast too these positive stories about the wolf, there are tales of the rapacious killer, the wolf of "The Three Little Pigs" and of "Little Red Riding Hood." In North American and in European tradition these tales show the wolf not simply as a foolish glutton, but as a crazed killer, and most often this danger is coupled with the additional threat of sexual abuse. No other animal can claim the dubious honor of symbolizing this doubled danger. That the wolf is both a mortal and sexual threat is most elaborately developed in the attitudes and stories about were wolves (treated below).
The rapacious wolf can be seen through myriad examples in Western tradition. Willa Cather's My Antoniaincludes a horrifying chase scene in which two Russian peasants are forced to throw a young bride and groom to pursuing wolves in order to survive. Legends abound about how wolves will kill for the sheer love of the slaughter, most often they are said to attack women and children. "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" have a world -wide folk distribution, although few versions have been collected from oral tradition in the United States. Regardless, the folk ideas incorporated by these tales are firmly held in America, for Walt Disney and other masters of the mass media have re-introduced the narratives into our pop-folk culture. When these two folktales are told in non European countries, the villain often changes. For example, it is an ogress (yamauba) in Japan and a tiger in China.
In Nordic mythology the wolf holds a special place. The great wolf, Fenrir, is the offspring of the handsome, scheming god, Loki. Fenrir becomes so huge and destructive that the gods decide he must be restrained. The god who accepts the challenge to place a leash around Fenrir's neck is Tyr, but Fenrir demands that Tyr place his hand in the wolf's mouth as he is bound. The result is that Tyr loses his hand but Fenrir is bound by a magical chord. The chord seems so light as so be gossamer, but in truth it is unbreakable, made from the invisible but powerful things of the earth such as the roots of mountains, the breath of fish, and the noise of cats as the move. When the world ends, Fenrir will break his bonds and he and other wolves will swallow the earth and sky. Fenrir himself will consume the god Odin. After Fenrir is killed by odin's son, the world will be reborn. The dangerous, powerful, consuming wolf is associated with death and rebirth in other cultures as well
When evil is added to rapaciousness, we find ourselves in the domain of the werewolf. Although religion has not always been an element in legends and folktales about people who shift their shape into animal form, the merging of the concepts has been tenacious since the Middle Ages in Europe. During that period people who supposedly had the power to turn themselves into wolves in order to accomplish all manner of evil deeds were actively sought out and dramatically punished. Werewolves were thought to be in the service of the devil. Though they were recognized as different from "real" wolves, it was virtually impossible to tell the two apart as wolves. However, if a werewolf were somehow wounded during its escapades, the human body would have a wound in the same relative place once the werewolf returned to its human form. Such a wound was certain proof that someone was a werewolf. Many believed that unlike the werewolf, the natural wolf would go to the aid of any good Christian to tear apart heretics, or guard religious treasure. But somehow the natural wolf's reputation could not survive such distinctions through time, and the dangerous killer wolf merged with the evil, supernatural wolf. To this day the wolf is not only a symbol of danger, but of evil.
The idea that humans could change themselves at will, through rituals, into animals is both ancient and widespread. In Northern Europe the bear was the animal of choice: in Abyssinia, the hyena: in South Africa, the lion: in India, the tiger: in the Hebrides, the seal. Not only men, but women too, we believed able to transform themselves into wolves in order to kill, indulge in sexual depravity, and commit sinful acts. Werewolves were especially dangerous during the feast of the Nativity, when they would run wild and attack humans. Women werewolves were regarded as murderous sluts, male werewolves as killer rapists. During the Middle Ages Prussia was said to overrun by werewolves: sixteenth-century France saw numerous werewolf trials Diverse, unpleasant tests were inflicted upon suspects, such as flaying and hacking in order to find the telltale sign of a hair underskin.
Although folk traditions through time have depicted wolves and werewolves both "good" and "bad," the predominant traditional belief today in North America and in Europe is one of which views the wolf as evil. An English proverb says that " the wolf doth something every week that keeps him from church on Sunday." In French "avior vu le loup" (to have seen the two means to have been seduced)." To be among wolves" is an English proverb meaning to adopt a group's behavior even if you disapprove of it.
Evidence that the folklore about shape shifting still influences us can be seen in the many references to skins in symbolic folklore about wolves. It was widely believed that the animal skins could be donned and shed to accomplish transformations into and from the status of werewolves is old but still current. Italian proverb says that" the wolf changes his coat but not his vices": an English proverb tells us that "the wolf must die in his own skin."
Although folklore has given us the option of viewing the wolf in many ways, our traditions tell us that the wolf more than not symbolizes what we fear and condemn. Our way of living has departed great from that of the hunter-wolf, yet we can still see some of our own traits in the untamed, powerful, and intelligent creature. We know that we are animals. What we fear we condemn, and what we condemn we call "evil." Do we fear the animal in us so much that we must condemn the wolf? Certainly the wolf is a dangerous animal, but so are other animals whose symbolism is not nearly as negative. What is our folklore telling us about ourselves? Is it possible that our pet dog or cat might have the answer?