All cultures have myths that embody a basic belief system about nature
John Williams / 1996
All cultures have myths that embody a basic belief system about nature. Often myths originate from things encountered in nature and how they relate to man's existence. Myths can take many forms though and are not limited to the exploits of gods tossing lightening bolts, pieces of stone having special powers, or the stories of creation, but embrace any cultural experience that communicates something important about the world to the people of that culture. Unfortunately though, some myths relate things that are not rooted in truth or have little relevance to the human experience within a culture.
Many myths relate stories and wisdom drawn from animals in the world. Other myths relate fears and prejudices symbolized by animals, but one animal in particular has obtained an ubiquitous status in myth; the wolf. No animal has so thoroughly captured the imagination of so many cultures around the world. In European civilization, myths surrounding wolves evolved to eventually represent evil or malice and have become quaint stories as a result. The wolf in other parts of the world is frequently portrayed in a positive manner still holding much meaning in the lives of the people of those cultures. This positive portrayal of the wolf is perhaps best represented by myths of Native Americantribes of North America. What the wolf represents through myth in European culture is sharply different from Native American culture. These differences are illustrated clearly by how the myths of these two cultures treat the wolf. Nearly all European myth surrounding the wolf is irrelevant having little to do with actual day to day living of European peoples, or even the purpose of the wolf in nature. The wolf myths of Native American people, however, have great relevance and have many things to say about the day to day meaning of living of Native American people.
The first example of European irrelevance, and the most universal wolf myth not only in Europe and Native American culture, but throughout the world, is that of the werewolf (Religion 432). The werewolf myths have many variations through the ages, but by far the most prevalent are myths that originated in medieval Europe. The popular notion of the werewolf in today's world has its roots from this time. The fear of this imaginary man-wolf beast reached near hysteria in France reaching its peak in the 1600's and resulted in the killing of hundreds of innocents for their alleged powers by burning them at the stake or other cruel acts of punishment. Werewolf myths persisted in France until the mid nineteenth century (Busch 86). One theory why the belief in werewolves became so prevalent is attributed to a "mythical-religious complex of wolf gods or in rituals of the return of the dead"(religion 432) where the wolf figured prominently in the ceremonies and the catalogue of gods kept by ancient man. European fears surrounding the werewolf, such as the hysteria in France mentioned above, can be traced to religious beliefs about the wolf during the middle ages and medieval period.
As in the examples concerning werewolves, myths that induce the strongest beliefs are tied inherently to a prevailing religion or popular religious thinking and practice. This is true both in Native American and European culture. European religions tend to become disconnected through time losingtheir context to a culture or people, but certain themes seem to persist beyond the context where they originally had meaning (Deloria 66). Myth about wolves is just one such example of beliefs which had no real value to a people after the context of their origination had disappeared. However, the ideas persisted and were re-interpreted to fit a changing world. An example of realistic context falling away is the European Catholic church using the fear of werewolves to further its suppression of heresy during inquisitions (432). It was thought during the middle ages that werewolves are people who made a pact with Satan ( Bucsh 91) and the church capitalized upon these fears to further their own means. Belief in werewolves and the inquisition seem to have little relation to one and another, or for that matter people living in a more meaningful way as result of such beliefs.
European religious beliefs are plentiful outside of Christian tradition concerning wolves. They exemplify the wolf transformed from an animal involved in many important and meaningful processes of life to one primarily associated with evil as society evolved. For example, the classical Greek goddess of death, Hectate, had three heads, all wolves (Busch 86). Another is the ferryman Charon in Greek myth that traversed the river Styx delivering souls to Hades wore the ears of a wolf (86). Both examples show the wolf, or wolf qualities to be important in the spiritual transition of death. In older European traditions the wolf often symbolized transition, an emergence from one state to another (Religion 431). The Celts of the British Isles worshipped the wolf and deemed them the companions of gods (Busch 86). Even outside of Europe the wolf was worshipped as a great god. In Japan, Iran, and Scaythia the wolf is a god in these culture's archaic pantheons, too (Religion 431). In many of these cultures hunting was a primary means of existence. The wolf easily became the symbol of great hunting skill and was incorporated into religious tradition, but as European society shifted away from hunting to agrarian and animal husbandry as a means of living: "The wolf's reputation...became that of a voracious killer" (Busch 87) and the prevailing religious traditions supported and advanced this new belief. The religious tradition to have the most impact on European beliefs about the wolf is Christianity.
Early Christianity on the European continent employed the wolf, too, but instead of a symbol of nurturing or supernatural transition, the wolf became associated with evil and damnation as the agrarian way of life grew. The Bible describes Jesus as the shepherd protecting his herd of sheep from the wolf (The Bible, John 10:12). This would imply an intrinsic belief of the wolf as a symbol of sin and prurient influence. In Isaiah verse 11:16 of the old testament states "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb." This phrase is thought of as a metaphor of coming together of both the upper and lower under the Christian god (Religion 431), a stark contrast in comparison to the previous example and a throw back to an earlier time when the wolf represented more positive ideas. Another very prevalent notion in both the old and new testaments of the Christian Bible is the wolf as a tool of Satan and his henchmen. Wolves in this context are thought of as ravening or stealing away the souls of men (Religion 432). The wolf naturally preying upon domesticated animals easily transforms into the metaphor of Satan seducing the innocents of the Christian flock, drawing them away from their true nature as Christians into a state where they are compelled to unnatural acts. This is perhaps the most frequent religious wolf related thought to inseminate Christianity and popular European culture. The sad fact though is the image of the wolf in this context has little relation to anything based on reality and only serves not to enlighten thinking regarding this animal and its role in our world.
The fear and hatred of wolves European myths and religious thinking spawned over the centuries have resulted in the near extinction of the wolf upon the European continent and where ever European man has ventured. Bounties on wolves appeared early in both Greek and Roman civilizations and then in the rest of Europe by the fifteen hundreds (Busch 100). Europeans followed this pattern in North America, too. The first North American bounty for wolves originated with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid seventeenth century (100). This process of eradication reached its apogee with the settlers movement west across the North American continent. Between 1883 and 1917 nearly eighty thousand wolf carcasses were brought in for collection of bounty moneys in Montana alone (102). Many men made glorious careers out of wolf bounty hunting in the west of the North American continent.
This movement and subsequent eradication along the way of the wolf as Europeans crossed the American continent is the clearest example of European attitudes concerning the relationship of man and wolf. Throughout the majority of European myths and fables, whether religious or popular in origin, man has to fear and conquer nature. The only good nature is that nature which is controlled for the benefit of the European, or for that matter what could now be called Western Civilization. The wolf, wile and untamable, and also a fierce predator, easily becomes the symbol of uncontrollable nature. The European traditions of wolf myth show a belief of man eternally pitted against nature and the tragic results of such belief.
As Europeans crossed the North American continent they also came into contact with the cultures native to that land. These Native American cultures held a widely different view of the wolf in their traditions and way of living. It is obviously diametrically opposed to what Europeans thought to be the truth about man's place within the European tradition. Native American traditions perhaps reflect what early European traditions held before the Christian tradition and complex social and technological advances took root.
The native peoples of the North America have many myths and traditions associated with the wolf and most, if not all, have something intrinsic to tell the people how to live in the world. The Pawnee of the great plains identified so strongly with the wolf and what wolf stories and myth represented that their hand signal for the wolf and the Pawnee people were nearly indistinguishable (Busch, p96). The Pawnee and many of the other Native American cultures revered the wolf for its great hunting prowess and would emulate this animal in ceremonies hoping to embodying these desirable characteristics, but the wolf participated in many other important stories aside from hunting.
The Eskimos have a story of an aged women abandoned and forced to survive in the cold. She turned into a wolf to do so(Busch 96). The Eskimos admired the great survival skills of the wolf.. Native American shaman held the wolf to be the source of great spiritual power (Religion 433). In the pacific northwest, "the doctoring societies of the Quilete and Makah Indians"(433)did wolf dances to heal sick members of their tribe. For many other Native American tribes wolves were thought to represent the corn god (433). With these example it is quite clear that the wolf took on many rolls in the myth of Native Americans. It is also clear that the image of the wolf was often of a creature who could teach, or give man wisdom about the world.
Certainly the wolf is seen as an intrinsic part of the world around these peoples. Like European cultures that crossed the continent, the beliefs associated with the wolf are deeply rooted to the religions practiced by these peoples. Unlike the Christian tradition though, Native American religions are closely associated to how these peoples live. Vine Deloria Jr. makes this observation in the book God is Red concerning the differences between Christian traditions and Native American traditions, "American Indians and other tribal peoples did not take this path in interpreting revelation and religious experience" (Deloria 66) meaning Christian tradition is thought to be valid by how well it explains the cosmos and man's place in it. He goes on to say in regards to Native American tradition, "The structure of their traditions is taken directly from the world around them, from their relationships with other forms of life"(66). Man has a vastly different role contextually in the world around him in Native American tradition.
This contextual relationship of man to nature is illustrated very well in a wolf myth titled Who Speaks for Wolf? This myth is presented as a learning story passed from generation to generation about the journey of a people in such for a new home land. It is meant to teach many things about the world in which these people live, but most importantly though it uses the wolf and the relationship the people have with this animal to teach these lessons, something grossly missing in European culture. The story is related through a grandfather telling it to his grandson as they sit by a campfire. He tells the grandson how his people needed to find a new land to support their growing numbers. The elders sent out many young men to look for a new land where the people could be themselves. All had returned, each with a place selected, accept one, the one they called Wolf's Brother. Wolf's Brother knew all there was to know about brother wolf. The elders of the tribe listened to each young man: "They listened to each among them, he who understood the flow of the water, she who understood long house construction, he who understood the storms of winter" (Underwood 25) then after listening to each they reached agreement. Then someone amongst them cried out, "But Wait, where is Wolf's Brother? Who, then, speaks for wolf?, but the people were decided"(26). The people began to move to the new place, then Wolf's Brother returned. He asked about the new place and said at once after hearing where the people had chose, "You have chosen the center place for a great community of wolf...but the people closed their ears"(27). The people settled into the new land and thought it was good.
The people began to see after a time that food disappeared "and wolf beyond"(29) in the shadows. At first this seemed a fair exchange to the people, some food for a place to live. Soon though it became much more for wolf became bolder and ventured into the village looking for food. The boldness of wolf caused the women to fear for the little ones. The men devised a system where they would drive off wolf should he come too near. The people discovered this required much energy and none was left to prepare for the long winter ahead. The elders of people gathered and "saw that neither providing wolf with food, nor driving him off gave the people a life that was pleasing. They saw that the wolf and the people could not live comfortably together in such a small space" (32). They considered then to "hunt down this wolf people until they were no more....They saw, too, that such a task would change the people: they would become wolf killers. A people who took life only to sustain their own would become a people who took life rather then move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people"(34).
The boy asks his grandfather whether the people always remembered to ask Wolf's question and in reply the grandfather says, "They remembered for a long time...long time. And when the wooden ships came...what we accomplish by much thought and considering the needs of all, they accomplish by building tools and changing the earth, with much thought of winter, and little of tomorrow. We could not teach them to ask Wolf's question....Tell me now my brothers, tell me now my sisters, who speaks for wolf?" (40).
It should be clear now regarding the differences of these two cultures, European and Native American, and how their myths relate the world to them. The differences perhaps are best outlined as the, "Tribal religions find a great affinity among living things....Behind the apparent kinship between animals...and human beings in the Indian way stands a great conception....Other living things are not regard as insensitive species. Rather they are people in the same manner as...human beings are people"(Deloria 89).
European myth and beliefs fail to recognize this, and in fact maintains its subjective stance in regards to the world around us. Some progress has been made though, but only in the last generation. The peoples of European cultures are finally beginning to consider the all in questions they ask and the things they consider. As time progress hopefully the myths about the world we hold to be true, but irrelevant, will fade away and be replaced with ideas that have value not only to our selves, but to all creatures.
(c) Copyright 1996 by John Williams, all rights reserved.