Mythology and folklore of the wolf
Few animals on Earth evoke such strong emotions as the wolf, or have suffered so much as a result of misunderstanding. In spite of its fierce reputation, it is a shy, intelligent and elusive creature. Wolf folktales abound, shrouded in mists of fear, admiration, awe and loathing. In hunter-gatherer societies, the wolf was often afforded respect for its incredible senses and hunting prowess. But with the rise of agriculture conflicts with humans grew. Wolves presented a threat to livestock and were also perceived as competition for venison.
In Scotland, and indeed throughout Northern Europe and America, the wolf was hunted ruthlessly, and eradicated from many areas. In Scotland, as early as the 2nd Century BC, King Dorvadilla decreed that anyone who killed a wolf would be rewarded with an ox. In the 15th Century James the First of Scotland ordered the eradication of wolves in the kingdom. ‘Last wolf’ legends are found in many parts of Scotland. The very last was allegedly killed in 1743, near the River Findhorn by a stalker named MacQueen. However, the historic accuracy of this story is dubious to say the least.
The wolf’s Gaelic name is madadh-allaidh. It lives on in a number of Scottish place names, such as Mullinavaddie (‘Mill of the wolf’) in Perthshire, as well as Lochmaddy and Craigmaddy. There is a hill opposite Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate called Creag a Mhadaidh meaning ‘Crag of the Wolf’.
The images conveyed in wolf folktales vary: in many wolves are depicted as ruthless and fierce; in others they have an image of nobility and loyalty. In Norse Mythology, the wolf Fenrir was a symbol of chaos who eventually swallows Odin whole. However, the wolf was also associated with warriors, and Odin had two wolves as loyal companions.
We are all familiar with tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. It is interesting that much European folklore portrays the wolf as a threat to humans. While there have been recorded attacks on humans, these have been so rare, and the statistical risk of attack so negligible, that it serves as a clear example of the power of the imagination to exaggerate a perceived threat. It is a fact that domestic dogs, horses and work-related stress are all far more dangerous than wolves!
In contrast, there are a number of folktales with the theme of human children being raised by wolves. The Roman story of Romulus and Remus, and of course Mowgli in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, are classic examples. Such stories reflect the strong maternal instinct attributed to wolves, and wolves generally had a positive image in Roman culture.
In Scottish folklore there are tales of the Wolf and Fox. These tend to convey the Wolf as somewhat more gullible than the cunning Fox. In one tale Fox tricks Wolf out of a whole keg of butter, and in another Fox’s trickery results in Wolf losing his tail!
Wolves were known to dig up dead human bodies and for this reason corpses were often buried on islands, such as Handa off the north-west coast of Scotland. The church often associated them with the devil, giving even stronger incentive for their eradication.
Werewolf legends were particularly prevalent in parts of Eastern Europe until very recently. The Scottish equivalent is the legend of the Wulver on Shetland. The Wulver was said to have the body of a man and the head of a wolf. He was usually seen sitting on a rock, fishing, and would then leave a gift of fish on people’s windowsills; not your average werewolf!
The wolf has enriched our culture through its presence in countless stories, as well as non-fictional works of nature writing. Aldo Leopold, the 20th Century American ecologist, poetically called it ‘the painter of the mountains.’ This was in recognition of its role in keeping the ecosystem in balance by regulating deer numbers. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote an evocative account of an encounter with a wolf he shot:
‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.’
Sources & further reading
- Anon, 2007. Scottish Folk Tales. Lomond Books: New Lanark. (Accessed February 2021)
- Crumley, J. (2010) The Last Wolf. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
- Lopez, B. (1978) Of Wolves and Men. Touchstone: New York.
- 0’Connor, T. & Sykes, N. (2010) Extinctions and Invasions: A Social History of British Fauna. Windgather Press: Oxford
- Short, J. / Wolves and Humans Wolf’s Tale – The history of the wolf in Scotland (Accessed February 2021)