Humankind has discovered a multitude of methods by which we can communicate, developed from the most basic of gestures and sounds, through the advent of pictorial representation in cave paintings, an ever complex plethora of languages, dialects and languages that don’t require sound at all, across all cultures in the world, each developing their own breadth of communication tools, signs, symbols, vocabulary. All this and so much more arising from this one basic instinct to understand each other and the world we live in. Today there is so much information that at times it can feel like its overloading your brain, yet I can’t deny that knowledge is a great power and a wonderful thing to posses.
Anubis, protector of the dead and embalming, Ancient Egyptian, The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Ani, c. 1300 BC
One of the most interesting outcomes of this spread of knowledge and communication is the recurrence of the same symbols and signs across the world, throughout history. Very often, deities of completely different cultures, far removed from each other, can bear similarities. The world’s mythologies are full of the same tale, told a thousand different ways. One such example appears in just about every mythology, from the Babylonian Ereshkigal, the Egyptian Anubis, Norse Hel, Roman Pluto to the Japanese Izanami-no-Mikoto; deities related to death. This is but one small recurring motif in the cultures of this planet; there are so many it’s impossible to account for them all.
A motif that rears its furry head in numerous cultures across time is that of the wolf. Given that wolves are native to many countries, the spread of this motif is unsurprising, but the symbolism attributed to it is certainly intriguing. Less often than you would expect, the motif is associated with traits of actual wolves in the wild, including their hunting prowess, ability to work as pack, their intelligence, communication skills and adaptability. The focus came to be on their role as the predator, an attribute that gradually became less and less associated with real wolves and more with human fantasies of the devil and sin incarnate.
THE WOLF IN MYTHOLOGY
Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1589, showing a hybrid wolf-man Lycaon fleeing the seated Zeus
Lycaon of Arcadia, Ancient Greek
Lycaon, a king of Arcadia, Greece, desired to test the omniscience of the god Zeus in a particularly gruesome manner: he had one of his sons, Nyctimus, slaughtered and dismembered for the purpose of being served to the god as dinner. Zeus, of course, saw through Lycaon’s elaborate scheme and punished the king, turning him into a wolf, as well as killing all of his remaining fifty sons with lightning bolts, Zeus’ weapon of choice. Other versions have Lycaon and all his sons instantly turned into wolves after devouring Nyctimus. Most versions share this disturbing focus on cannibalism, and the subsequent punishment from the gods. This is among the earliest known tales of a man being turned into a wolf, and is a likely origin for the werewolf. Indeed, the term Lycanthropy is possibly derived from Lycaon.
Bronze sculpture of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus, Roman
Among the most famous of tales involving wolves is that of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the City of Rome. The popular myth tells of the twin boys abandoned at birth, only to be rescued by a she-wolf. The iconic image of the she-wolf feeding the two boys can be found throughout Rome.
The brothers grew to be natural leaders and set out to found a new city, however they clashed over where the site should be: Romulus wants the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus prefers the Aventine Hill. A fight soon breaks out, with Romulus emerging as the victor, but at the cost of his brother Remus’ life.
The wolves taking baby Mowgli back to their cave in Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book (1967)
The theme of the feral child raised by wolves has become a popular one, as seen with Mowgli in The Jungle Book and San in Princess Mononoke. In the latter, San has rejected humanity in favour of the forest, choosing to fight with her wolf family and the boar gods against the humans of Iron Town.
Wepwawet, Ancient Egyptian
Often confused with the jackal-headed Anubis, Wepwawet is an Ancient Egyptian wolf deity, known as the “opener of the ways”. Along with his visual association with Anubis, this can lead you to think he is another god of death, opening the way to the Underworld for the souls of the dead. However, it seems he was more of a scout, clearing the way for the pharaoh’s armies as they proceeded to battle. In later Egyptian art, Wepwawet was depicted as a wolf or jackal (or a man with the head of either animal), but even when appearing as a jackal, his grey or white fur indicated his origins as a wolf.
Odin and Fenrir, Dorothy Hardy, 1909
Fenrir, also known as Fenris, is a monstrous wolf from Norse mythology. The eldest child of the trickster god Loki, he is associated with Ragnarok, when it is said he will devour Odin, the Allfather of the gods and ruler of Asgard.
The Binding of Fenrir
The Aesir, fearful of the prophecies foretold of Loki’s three children, devised ways to rid themselves of the monsters and prevent the deaths of their own at Ragnarok.
They threw the serpent Jomungand into the ocean, where he encircled Midgard, the realm of humankind. Hel they sent to the Underworld, an unwise move as it only helped set up the prophecy that she would prevent the god Baldr’s release from the Underworld, the catalyst for Ragnarok and the deaths of Thor and Odin by Jomungand and Fenrir respectively.
Tyr and Fenrir, John Bauer, 1911
Fenrir, while harmless as a pup, soon grew large and the Aesir became fearful of what would happen were he allowed to roam free. With this in mind they tried to bind him with all manner of chains, yet none were a match for the wolf’s strength. Although they claimed to only be testing his strength, Fenrir became suspicious of their actions and when they came to him with a new chain, Gleipnir, recently crafted by the dwarves of Svartalfheim, he was hesitant, only agreeing to be bound when the god Tyr placed his hand between the wolf’s jaws as a show of good faith. The trap was set and try as Fenrir might, the thin chain would not break. So, naturally, he chomped off Tyr’s hand in retaliation. Chained and helpless, Fenrir was taken to a lonely and desolate place beneath the Earth, tied to a boulder with a sword between his jaws, holding them open. Yet on the day of Ragnarok, he will finally break his chains, joining in the battle against the gods, and, as foretold, will seek out and devour Odin, only to be killed by by Odin’s son, Vidar.
(“The Binding of Fenrir”, Norse Mythology, norse-mythology.org)
(Lindemans, Micha, “Fenrir”, Encyclopedia Mythica, pantheon.org, 2002)
As previously discussed in my post on Insular art, ofttimes, Norse mythology shared some narrative similarities with Christianity, in this case, the idea of the chained beast. The poet Dante in his epic poem, the Inferno, wrote of how Lucifer was trapped in hell, half his huge monstrous body encased in the frozen lake Cocytus (Canto XXXIV). Interestingly, Fenrir is captured out of fear for what he will one day do, not for any crime he has committed, the Aesir claiming their actions are for the greater good. Fenrir’s tale is a sad one; trapped and alone for a crime he hasn’t committed, waiting for the day of Ragnarok.
This is just a small sample of the mythologies featuring wolves or beings with the appearance of wolves. For the Greeks, being transformed into the form of a wolf was a punishment for a horrendous crime, while in Norse mythology, it was the wolf being punished, but for a crime he had yet to commit.