wolf was one of the most popular clan totems in pre-Christian Europe, as indicated
even now by the prevalence of names like Wolf, Wolfe, Wulf, Wulfstan, Wolfram,
and Wolfburg. Many tribes "turned themselves into wolves" periodically at religious
festivals, by wearing wolf masks and skins.
In classical antiquity
the wolf was thought of as a 'ghost animal' whose very gaze could strike people
speechless. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder report that the members of the Scythian
nation of the Neuroi were transformed into wolves once a year, then back into
humans. Behind the story could lie a memory of a wolf totem for the entire nation;
Genghis Khan also claimed to be descended from a blue-grey 'chosen wolf' which
itself was sired by the sky.
European wolf lore is pervaded by a fearsome awe, less apparent in North American
wolf traditions. But although fear of wolves is a natural human reaction, the
friendly wolf appears fairly frequently in myths and legends, indicating that
the animal awakens ambivalent responses.
of Greek gods and goddesses with wolves hint at older traditions beneath the
mythology of the anthropomorphic divinities. It was said that the priest of
Zeus could take the form of the wolf, as could Hecate. Leto, the mother of Apollo
and Artemis, appeared as a she-wolf and a wolf was emblazoned on the shield
of Artemis, the huntress. Apollo was said to have expelled wolves from Athens
and any citizen who killed one had to bury it by public subscription. Sophocles
called Apollo 'the wolf-slayer', yet a number of myths describe how his children
by mortal girls were fostered by wolves. This motif of children tended by a
she-wolf reappears in the story of Romulus and Remus.
Despite this myth
of the kindly wolf the Romans associated the animal with Mars, the god of war.
For the Romans, the appearance of a wolf before a battle could be an omen of
victory. The Spartans, on the other hand, feared defeat when wolves attacked
their flocks before the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.E.).
In the imagery
of Alchemy, the lupus metallorum (the 'wolf of metals') is said to devour
the Lion (Gold) in order to 'redeem' it. This appears to be the purification
process for contaminated gold, using antimony, the 'grey wolf' of the alchemist's
The wolf is a creator
figure in the mythology of the Shoshoni people of North America. In early times,
Wolf and Coyote were the most important people, but Coyote always tried to defy
Wolf. One day they discussed death. Wolf said that people could be brought back
to life when they died by shooting an arrow under them, but Coyote argued that
if that happened there would soon be no room on earth. So Wolf decided that
Coyote's son would be the first to die. The grieving Coyote soon came to Wolf
and asked for his son to be revived as Wolf had suggested. However, Wolf reminded
him of his remark that when people die, they should remain dead. It has been
that way ever since.