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Home > Wolf Symbolism

Wolf Symbolism
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Wolf SymbolismThe 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.

Much 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.

The associations 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 laboratory.

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.

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