Move among the wolf hunters, and you will find bumper stickers emblazoned with a wolf’s image and the suggestion to “Smoke a Pack a Day.” Protest signs that call wolves “Illegal Immigrants” or “terrorists on the order of Osama bin Laden.” Photographs of men posing, proud, holding up bloodied wolves whose lifeless heads loll against their shoulders. Of hunters in white KKK-style masks draping a dead wolf in a huge American flag. Of dead wolves flanking a Trump campaign sign.
Wolf hunters rationalize the bloodlust as pragmatic, saying they are protecting their livestock or avenging their slaughter. The facts seldom bear this out. Instead, the electric thrill of the hunt comes from the archetype of the wolf as sworn enemy, sinister and sometimes supernatural.
Lore of the werewolf—a human who turns wolf in the dark of night, his animal savagery unleashed—can be tracked all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia; Gilgamesh refuses the overtures of the goddess Ishtar because he knows she turned her previous lover into a wolf. In Greek mythology, Lycaon serves Zeus a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy, and the enraged god turns Lycaon and his sons into wolves. Up north, in The Saga of the Volsungs, a father and son find wolf pelts that can turn humans into wolves, slip them on, and go on a killing rampage that ends only when the father attacks his own son.
For some mysterious reason, we learned early on to connect wolves with savagery and death. Yes, wolves have always preyed on livestock—but they rarely take more than they need to live, they prey on the sick or old first, they kill only to eat, and they waste nothing. They are far more responsible hunters than we are. And the symbolism we have invented is far darker than they deserve.
Charon, the ferryman who took all comers across the River Styx to the Underworld, wore sharply pointed wolf ears. Since at least 1543, the wolf at the door or gate has referenced the hunger and poverty lurking outside our cozy homes. We often describe a serial killer as “a lone wolf”—yet wolves are deeply social, and a lone wolf is far, far rarer than a serial killer.
Tradition also links wolves with deception. Surely Jesus had no idea what harm he was bringing upon the wolves when he gave his Sermon on the Mount, warning his followers to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Church Fathers used the analogy repeatedly in their Latin writings, and a proverb soon took shape: Pelle sub agnina latitat mens saepe lupina. Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind. Fables and folktales picked up the motif, and soon zoologists were using “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as a descriptor for any predator who deceived their prey by taking on the appearance of their prey.
Wolves, it is implied, will seduce and deceive; they spell danger and destruction. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes told children that if they set out to build a peaceful world, a wolf would huff and puff until he destroyed it. The wolf would also kill your grandmother, then don her garb to kill you.
Why let the truth interfere with a juicy story? We persist in thinking that wolves howl at the moon and go crazy at the smell of blood. “Very seldom do we get a call for wolves either for print or film,
which doesn’t require a hair-raising, teeth-baring, ‘snarling’ shot,” note the animal trainers at the Instinct agency. Lurid paperback covers imagine wolves roaming a destroyed planet after the apocalypse or show only a pair of glowing yellow eyes, sometimes above a bloody muzzle.
Did the Big Bad Wolf want something different from Little Red Riding Hood? There are sexual overtones to that story, and we still refer to a lusty, predatory male as a wolf. Which, again, is ridiculous: a courting male wolf whines quietly, mouths his intended’s muzzle, touches noses, presses close but remains deferential. He may bow to her, tossing and tilting his head, and when he scents her readiness, he will approach—and if she does not feel ready, he will desist.
The grizzly bear, the cougar, “all of these great beasts are predators,” notes Robert H. Busch, “but only the wolf has been buried under a cloak of falsehoods, lies, and misconceptions.” Its reputation is worst among Europeans, Old World and New. The Malleus Maleficarum, a frighteningly influential Catholic treatise on witchcraft published in 1486, declares wolves to be the agents of Satan. Yet the Shoshone believe that a wolf can heal someone who is suffering from soul loss, and in an Omaha legend, a wolf guides a wounded warrior safely home. “If we could regard the wolf as native Americans did,” wrote Peter Steinhart in The Company of Wolves, we could “recognize higher powers that stitch us to the cosmos.”
Our fear has cheated us of that knowledge.
In Alaska, the Inupiat only killed wolves if they attacked reindeer herds. When the Inupiat heard of thousands of wolves killed by strychnine poisoning, they were bewildered. “Why did they want to kill off all the wolves?” a teenage boy asked.
The better question: why were wolves thought to be far more dangerous than they were? Travelers once peered through the loup-hole in their carriage, watching for wolves that might attack. The word softened into loophole, but the fear lingered. Today, it shows up as metaphor: Left to the Wolves: Irish victims of Stalinist terror. Hitler’s Grey Wolves. The Wolves of Islam: Russia and the faces of Chechen terror.
Do we despise the wolf for its independence, its refusal to subject itself to our will? No wolf would beg as a dog does, eyes round as a child’s, pleading. Wolves stand apart, run with their own pack, refuse to become familiar or be led. They put their own families first, protecting and caring for their cubs, watching them play with unmistakable delight. A mess of contradictions, the world’s myths do acknowledge this strong capacity for nurture. Who better to raise Remus and Romulus, the twins who founded Rome?
Only two fatal wolf attacks on humans have ever been authenticated in North America, yet as Robert Redford once pointed out, wolves terrify us more than killer sharks do. We hear their eerie howls and see their tracks and the carcasses of their prey, carefully picked dry so as to waste nothing. But seldom do we look straight into those lit amber eyes that pop culture uses to spook us.
A wolf’s gaze “takes your stare and turns it back on you,” Barry Lopez wrote in Of Wolves and Men.
Is that what we fear?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.