By: Michael DePetris /
Wolves have always played an interesting role in the development of human civilization and culture. From the earliest human migrations, there have been tales and stories of wolves that showed the animal as the apex predator — the killer at the top of the food chain — a killer animal that would stalk down and prey on humans. They were seen as fearless. Later on, as humans began to develop farming and raising livestock, this image was reinforced by wolf killings on livestock. However, the image of the wolf has evolved as the years progressed. Different cultures viewed the wolf with different opinions.
The Europeans of the Medieval times saw wolves in a negative light. They wrote stories about wolf killers, and wolves were used as symbols of danger. On the other hand, Native Americans viewed the wolf with admiration and respect. Their stories did not recycle the Medieval ideas of death and danger. In fact, many Native American cultures looked upon the wolf as a symbol of courage, strength, an loyalty (Native American Wolf Mythology). Early American settlers feared the wolves, just as their European upgrading had conditioned them. However, the early settlers knew the wolves feared humans as well. It is during this period in history when we see the bridging between two schools of thought. No longer did the wolf portray the image of fearlessness as it had in its medieval past. However, they still bore the image of predation, danger, and death.
The folklore surrounding the wolf is represented in Medieval Times through the idea of a wolf-man hybrid: the werewolf. In werewolf imagery, the creature is often seen attacking innocent humans and preying upon the young, women, the elderly, and anything deemed “weak” during this time period. The werewolf has already attacked one victim, leaving them decapitated, and is attacking an infant. These pieces of work reinforce the symbolism of the wolf, that is, a symbol of death, fear, dread, and destruction.
Another woodcarving showing a man-turned-wolf attacking an innocent civilian. In this image, you’ll notice that the ears of the creature are shown to be pointy, the tongue is out, and the creature is carved in a sense that immediately draws attention to its similarity with the devil. This was also a common theme in Medieval Times. “The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men (Medieval Bestiary: Wolf). This further shows how the wolf was linked to that fear and death that was mentioned before. These pieces of art only engrained negative imagery that eventually led to centuries of misinformation surrounding the actual animal.
You’ll see the villagers chasing this wolf which has been trapped in a well. A werewolf, dressed like a man, is shown hanged on the left. Once again, the negative imagery is causing these animals to be looked at through an unfavorable lens.
Although on the later edge of this specific time period, this image helps show that Eurocentric vision of the wolf. A large wolf stands over a dead human that he has just killed. In the background, many more wolves are shown “fighting” against other humans, almost like a war. It looks like a battlefield. This is actually a historical event in which 100-200 people were mauled and attacked by wolves during a span of 3 years in the mountains of France. These kind of attacks are an outlier and extremely rare, yet the attacks only strengthened the fear that was associated with the animal.
Colonial America saw a shifting of the power dynamic when it came to wolves. Wolves still represented fear and death, but they were understood better scientifically. For example, colonialists knew that wolves were generally fearful of humans. This was a stark contrast to earlier European thought that wolves would hunt and attack humans. As you can see through these images, a group of trappers and hunters are showing off their kills. During this time period, wolves were nearly eradicated from the continental United States. Humans began to seek out these animals and kill them. They did this because they wanted to protect themselves and their livestock (livestock predation was a cause of many forms of legislation that called for the eradication of wolves).
Both these images show how prevalent wolf hunting was in early American history. It was seen as something that was necessary for safety of both communities and livestock within those communities. The negative imagery continued to surround the wolf and in turn justified these eradication programs. This negative imagery, as we will see, contrasts with other cultures within the Americas, namely, Native American culture.
Native Americans viewed wolves more positively than their colonial counterparts. Rather than being viewed as fearless killers, these animals symbolized intelligence, freedom, and strength (Harris). Tribes like the Ojibwe in Wisconsin viewed the wolf as one of their own. They saw wolves as brothers and believed their paths were intertwined. The tribes in the Pacific Northwest, like the Quileute believed that it’s first members were originally wolves that transformed into humans. There was much more respect given to the animal in these Native American cultures than compared to the Europeans or early American settlers. The paintings above show how wolves were viewed more positively. The paintings portray the image of strength, resolve, and determination. The wolf headdresses only strengthen these characteristics shown in the portraits. These tribes generally lived in harmony with wolves. It wasn’t until the European colonization of the America’s when the continent began to lose its wolf population due to the dear and misinformation that was prevalent in the early images of the wolf.
This map shows the current and previous range of the wolf. Nearly all of the eradication from these areas is due to human intervention and expansion.
Contemporary times has seen a shift in thinking regarding the imagery behind the wolf, and this can be attributed to a greater scientific understanding of the wolf. The photography we see now of these creatures leads to respect for them. We may have those negative images thrusted into our minds from a young age (such as through folklore and stories like The Little Red Riding Hood), but we are able to separate those thoughts from the animal itself. This is unique because it allows us to use wolves as a metaphor for danger and fear, yet not relegate those characteristics to the animal as a real living thing. We also have begun the process of reintroducing wolves into the continental United States, most notably, in Yellowstone National Park, and with the Mexican Wolf in the southwestern United States. Bounty programs that were legislated in early American history have been eliminated and replaced with programs that reimburse farmers for any livestock lost due to wolf attacks. This helps eliminate farmers’ worries for their product and allows them to disregard trapping and hunting wolves.
An example of this can be seen in AMC’s The Walking Dead. In the show, there is an antagonist group which calls themselves The Wolves. The Wolves are a band of former criminals, outcasts, and other undesirables that kill off anyone else they come upon. They strike quickly and in a group, just like real wolves. In the show, the group attacks our main characters in their town (called Alexandria). They attack with no provocation for the sole purpose of killing others. This is very similar to the original negative imagery that we associated with real wolves during early European history. However, what is interesting is that in this day and age, we understand this metaphor, yet we do not necessarily project these qualities onto the actual animal.
Authors such as Margo DeMello, specifically talk about animals in children’s literature, because the wolf has been used as the villain in many children’s stories, and this helps continue the more negative image of the wolf. He talks about how children can relate to animals because they are similar enough to humans to evoke certain responses, whether its empathy, confusion, etc. In children’s stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, the wolf is used as the bad guy. These stories teach us about the dangers of the world and use wolves to make that point. This in turn ingrains a negative image of the wolf in our heads from a young age, which helps lead to the misunderstanding about these amazing creatures.
Now, why this change? There are many different opinions and ideas as to the reasoning behind this shift in thinking. Looking at the previous time periods, it’s clear that the image of the wolf has changed, and it still evolving. The main reasoning behind this shift is education. As we become more scientifically advanced, our understanding of nature becomes more thorough. In the past, stories about wolves travelled through the spoken word, or literature. This made for inaccurate representations of the animal which helped contribute to the irrational fear that was ingrained in our heads about the animal. Today, we are one computer click away from knowing everything about the species. We can educate ourselves about their habits and realize that they are not the man-killing threat that we were led to believe. With this knowledge, there is a desire to protect the species from those who do not understand. By being responsible for the reintroduction of wolves, some would argue that we were placing human-level protections on an animal, thus elevating them into a human realm. More recent animal studies would say no, these are still animals and humans are using their own privilege to rectify the problem. Others would point to the wolves use of a pack to illustrate that they have a form of language, thus elevating them to more human status.
There are clearly many different interpretations regarding the modern day animal rights movement. One of which is to allow animals to be protected by law. Throughout history, especially in the United States, wolves were known as livestock killers and would often damage farms. This led to settlers trapping and hunting wolves to the point of near extinction in the country. Legislation was then passed to protect wolves, and in some places, reintroduce them, until they could repopulate back to acceptable levels. Now, some would argue that we were placing human-level protections on an animal, thus elevating them into a human realm. More recent animal studies would say no, these are still animals and humans are using their own privilege to rectify the problem. Others would point to the wolves use of a pack to illustrate that they have a form of language, thus elevating them to more human status. Governments that have been responsible for protecting animals such as wolves have tried several different techniques to bring their population up. Some of these techniques are unsuccessful, like modern day culling. At times, the government argued that legal wolf culling programs would reduce illegal hunting of these animals, when, in fact, the opposite is true. Legal wolf culling actually led to increased illegal hunting and decreased population numbers. A video below, adorably made with Play-mobil figures, helps illustrate this.
We can examine the differences and similarities between the real and the imaginary. Now, I think when it comes to wolves, the real and the imagination play off one another. Specifically, the imagination takes the real and amplifies it. For example, yes wolves are predators. Yes they hunt in packs and are determined hunters. That is the real world. The imagination takes this information and causes us to, in a way, give them more credit than what they deserve — the imagination makes us think of them as super predators. Artwork and literature from the past plays on this such as in Little Red Riding Hood or other tales where the wolf as a character is considered to be mischievous and dangerous. There definitely IS a connection between the real and the imaginary. But the imaginary takes the real world characteristics of the wold and stresses them even further. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s always been a sense of wonder and fear about wolves. The imagination views them as primal beings that bring death across the land. In reality, like most predators, wolves generally stay away from humans. So this is one instance in which the imagination and real world differ.
But where does the human fascination with wolves come from? Is it because of their power? Is it because of our history with wolves? Some animal theorists, myself included, that our fascination with wolves draws on their very animality. We see their strength, determination, and loyalty to the pack. We witness how the pack is in sync with itself and how each wolf has a specific role in the pack. This animality is what attracts us, because it is what we as humans crave. We crave the strength that these animals possess. We crave their ability to work together in a common goal. We crave the loyalty and the bonds between pack members. Some may even say we crave their instincts and the fear they impose upon us.
I have always had a fascination with wolves. I never knew what it was about them that I was attracted to. After a lot of reflection, I believe am attracted to their mystery, strength, and determination that they possess. To me, they symbolize freedom, nature, and a world free from industrialization and modern annoyances. I guess you could say that my idolization of the animal most closely aligns with the Native American views discussed earlier. The images I came across during my research truly opened my eyes regarding how the symbolism of the wolf has evolved throughout history. It is interesting to see how the media of each time period reflects the fears of that specific time period. As the years pass, I believe we will see the image of the wolf continue to evolve into a more positive symbol. Instead of fearful tales such as The Little Red Riding Hood and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, maybe we will see children’s stories that use wolves to show the value of family, bonding, and perseverance. The best way to bring awareness to these creatures is through education, and that starts at a very young age. We need a driving force to counter the negative imagery that is engrained in our heads from a young age (especially through these stories and fairy tales).
- DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society. Columbia University Press. 2012,
- Harris, Elena. “Wolf Spirit Animal.” Spirit Animals & Animal Totems. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2016
- “Medieval Bestiary: Wolf.” Medieval Bestiary. N.p., 15 Jan 2011. Web. 24 Mar 2016.