Howling Symbolism: Wolves in Advertising, Insignia, and Totems

Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska


Those who study linguistics and philosophy eventually encounter a certain truth about our species: we respond readily to symbolism, for emotional, moral, spiritual, and political reasons. And as with so many facets of human culture, wolves appear readily in symbolic form of communication.

Past Wolf Song of Alaska articles have featured wolves in heraldry and wolves in the visual arts, but not as general symbols before. And with contemporary technology and mass media, messages have never been easier to get to a curious and often impressionable public.

Take the television commercial from several years ago for a Toyota 4Runner: the ad features a person desperately trying to escape from a pack of growling, snarling wolves which are chasing him through a gloomy forest. There, in a clearing, he finds salvation: a shiny new SUV in which he can find respite from this hungry, furry mob. While we do not take sides regarding the purchasing of particular motor vehicles, we nonetheless could not help but notice the extremely negative imagery of the wolves in the ad. And there is no documented evidence that a wolf pack has ever chased a person like that, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.

Then there are the Chicago Wolves and the Minnesota Timber Wolves, a minor league hockey team and a major league basketball team, respectively. As with our earlier article on the Wolf Song web site about team mascots, here the attempt is, presumably, to use wolves like any other species which gets selected as a team name. Predators are used exclusively; we have never found sports teams with names like Bunnies or Deer, for example. Curiously enough, sports team names inspire familiarity and loyalty, so here are two examples of the use of wolf imagery which may have had more positive effects.

Wolves also can be found as totemic spirits, acting through dreams and beliefs in the roles of guides or destroyers, depending, one supposes, on how a person perceives wolves initially. Indigenous American, African, and Australian tribal groups all rely heavily on the implementation of non-human animal spirits, but since wolves are not found in Australia, and are only found in very small numbers in certain parts of Africa, it is easiest to see evidence of this with the American Indians. Lakota, for example, noted that wolves wander, and can thus offer useful advice from their travels. And differently-sounded howls in imitation of wolves could allegedly elicit various atmospheric effects, like raising a fog to confuse enemies, or revealing prey animals to human hunters. Even more than the Lakota, the Pawnee had a particular kinship with wolves, even being known as the Wolf People for their adoption of howls, furs, family structure, and implementation of parts of wolves in medicine and ceremony.

During our opportunities to teach children, we at Wolf Song of Alaska often ask groups who the villain is in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Then we will typically also inquire after the villain from The Three Little Pigs. The kids might think it strange that "The Big Bad Wolf" gets around so well, appearing in one old fairy tale after another. But it does seem hard work to have to keep showing us as an enemy in order to make a point. And that is the whole point of this article: wolves have for many centuries been utilized as symbols, for positive, though usually overwhelmingly negative purposes. Wolves occupy prime positions in the cultural mythologies of every human group which has lived near them, appearing as shape-shifters, tricksters, teachers, lesser deities, and also as monsters, devourers, seducers, and murderers.

And as the vehicle commercial would seem to indicate, the trend is not likely to disappear any time soon.