Posting from Tintagel

Could the lore help Eurasian wolf to survive

October 03, 2017 | 8 Minute Read

Wataha, wadera, basior[1] - the Polish nomenclature itself sends shivers down the spine. It connotes hierarchy, fight for leadership, a pair alpha and domination - the whole outdated in modern times theory based on incorrect conclusions drawn during scientific observations of a randomly selected wolf pack living in artificially created environment.

The wolf was not always and everywhere scary, besides fear it fascinated. Native Americans crossing Bering Strait a long time ago appreciated the hunting skills of the wolf as a predator, observed it during hunts and wisely tried to imitate it. Looking more widely, they wisely appreciated the fact that wolves in a pack eat only as much as they need leaving the rest behind for other animals such as smaller predators (fox), scavengers (coyote, raven) and even omnivore bears competing with wolves for the top of the food chain, where both species don’t have natural enemies in their natural - free from human influence - ecosystem. In consequence, hunting wolves not only continuously control the prey population but also care about the condition of ungulates in their habitat. That’s why the wolf was treated by American Indians with due respect by making him the hero of many native legends. Names containing the wolf prefix/suffix were reserved for chiefs and worthy warriors. The myth of a “big bad beast” surfaced among the Indians together with the European settlers looking for new territories to inhabit.
People of Europe at the beginning of time could not decide how to treat the wolf. For ancient Greeks it was a symbol of the future (the personage of Chronos, personification of time) while for the Romans it accompanied Mars (the god of war). According to the ancient legends, a female wolf fed Romulus and Remus, the mythical twin founders of Rome (currently the capitol of Italy). Whereas, the Celts remained torn between carrying wolf fangs as strength giving amulets and stigmatizing exiles with the name of “wolf”, casting them out of the society. In Nordic mythology the wolf was clearly perceived as a demonic evil being - Fenrir in the doomsday of the dusk of gods (Ragnarok) is supposed to unleash himself from bounds and eat the god Odyn. Finally, the main beliefs of ancient Slavs revolved around forest and animal deities imagined as wild animals which the main leader took the form - among others - of a wolf. Slavs were afraid of dangers lurking in the forest hence everyone tried to stay away from it and protect oneself with amulets, due to their fear the wolves were considered the most dangerous. At the same time, they were fascinated by their strength and mystery even if they were afraid to pronounce the name of a predatory animal and for that reason the Polish proverb “don’t call the wolf out of the forest”[2] was born.
In the Medieval Period wolves were clearly related to heretics and the purpose of human was to fight them in every possible way. For Christian religion their image remained obviously negative, same metaphorically as directly. In the wake of pagan symbolism - from which Christian symbolism originates - the Bible associates demonic traits to that predator permanently binding it with the devil and witches. Such negative, solidified by ages symbolism was passed on from generation to generation - happening to this day - by oral tradition or written form. Under that influence and by lack of sufficient knowledge from biology and ecology, those animals were exterminated since a long time ago as pests or under the excuse of being a threat to human life. This job was carried out by hunters (legally), poachers (illegally) or other professionals fitting their times. The average human, out of prosaic fear, still avoided meeting a wolf almost instinctively.
Everything what happened further in history of Europe, influenced humans who made that history happen. Expanse of the European territory by more and more people, impacted large herbivores which populations provided natural wolf prey and potential food for humans as well (those times people still hunted animals and farmed plants at the same time). It became the reason why hungry wolves started to hunt more and more numerous livestock. In consequence, people felt obligated to hunt wolves, breaking apart wolf packs, not knowing that without the pack the rest of the wolves in a group are not organized enough to carry out an attack on large prey in the wildlife.
Each form of transmission - verbal and written - arisen on the cards of history of mankind were colorized from generation to generation, spiced with emotions or re-interpreted in random way by their transmitter (or creator) each time it was passed on. Moreover, they’re taking the wolf out of its environmental context, initially as a result of lack of education or anthropomorphism using a prism of a distorting mirror. Not until modern times, when richer knowledge about the wolf ecology, ethology and behavior, allows us to interpret folk legends with an appropriate distance. Books are written about wolves, as scientific ones as more complex fiction based on basic information. The number of admirers rises, including environmental activists and ecologists. United they not only support protection of the species but also spread cognisance about that predator. It couldn’t however be protected without considering the whole cultural heritage and its presence in lore which led to what’s happening now.
Image of the wolf, even if negative, was clearly underlined marking its place in history. It showed up in lore, fairy tales, songs, paintings and even in children’s play. Invariably, it was waking extreme emotions - fear or admiration, often both of them simultaneously, not allowing itself to be forgotten. It was the source of interest (or inspiration) regardless of the base and education (or its lack). Everyone listened, and then passed the information on. Nowadays, not only everyone is assumed to be able to read and write but the information itself is commonly available (i.e. thanks to the world wide web). Science caused that a long time ago the wolf stopped being only a dark, mysterious and dangerous being. Various media - articles, publishers, TV programs, radio auditions, Internet publications or typical social media posts/comments - help spreading the view of that misunderstood animal’s limited population as endangered species requiring protection. Scientists noticed and then raised awareness that this almost extinct (global view) throughout the years of irrational fear predator has an enormous meaning for maintaining balance in ecosystems where it exists - performing natural selection on the weakest links of the food chain, thanks to which it keeps balance of the habitat where it hunts.
Paradoxically, so much time had to pass on in order to that XX century, almost at the brink of wolf’s extinction in Europe (due to mindless extermination by the hand of mankind), people noticed its correct individuality, independence, mysteriousness. Meeting the unique - because of the decades of hunts - predator appears a supernatural, essential, extraordinary, one of a kind. It became the flash-point for that species protection. Sanctuaries were created, where a visitor can associate with those animals in admittedly makeshift, barely imitating their natural ecosystem surroundings, yet with a sense of safety, under the watch of a professional wolf-keepers.

Even though the image of the wolf still contains a dose of fear - or at least wakes the archaic respect - out of a survey provided by WWF in Poland (2007) the same amount of respondents who felt fear of that animal also wanted its killing to cease. Quoting one of the many related articles What should you do if you meet the wolf? Admire. Those are always very short meetings, not lasting more than a couple dozen of seconds.[3]


[1] Eng. “wolf pack”, “alpha female”, “alpha male” in Polish hunters’ slang, historical terminology, still in use.
[2] Polish equivalent for English “let sleeping dogs lie”
[3] quote borrowed (and translated) from ekologia.pl
sources/references:
“Wilki” (eng. Wolves), Adam Wajrak, Polish edition 2015
“Wilki i ludzie” (eng. Wolves and People), compendium, Polish edition 2014
used photos/images:
(1) “In Spirit… I Am Free”, art by Jody Bergsma, Bergsma Gallery Press
(2) Cernunnos - Celtic horned god surrounded by forest animals, gundestrup cauldron, National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen
(3) wolf after sheep, “Bestiario Medieval” illustration, Metropolitan Museum Art, New york
(4) Francis of Assisi - patron of animals, wall scalpture, Haarlemmerstraat church, Leiden
(5) “Little Red Riding Hood”, fairy tale, illustration by Carl Larsson (1881)
(6) “Ivan Tsarevich and Grey Wolf”, Russian fairy tale, art by Victor Vasnetsov (1889), Tretjakov Museum, Moscow
(7) Wildwood Escot in Devon, Scotland UK, one of six Sweden grey wolves taking part in longterm Rewild Britain project