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Wolves Run Wild in Human Imagination

Wolves Run Wild in Human Imagination


In the real world, wolves are famous for eluding humans.

In the human imagination, though, Canis lupus looms large. Everywhere.
Over centuries.

Gluttons wolf down their food. Those who cry wolf are soon ignored.

damned are thrown to the wolves. The indebted have a wolf at their door.
Wolf whistles transform women into prey.

We have wolves in sheep’s clothing to suggest sinister deceit. We have
men who danced with wolves and women who run with them getting in touch
with their wilder selves. We have wolves who have suckled the sons of the
war god, Ares, and ordinary people who morphed into cannibalistic

Onto wolves, humans have heaped our deepest fears and wishes in myth,
folk tale and legend.

That puts wolves in good company with all other subjects of human
preoccupations expressed in story, song and art, according to David
Stanley, an English professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

“When we tell stories or tell jokes or sing songs,” says Stanley, “we
are looking for a way to understand the issues of the world — why people
hate and kill each other, why they betray their spouses and their

Author Barry Lopez of Oregon says what people see in wolves is mostly
about themselves, not wolves. Nearly 25 years after writing the
groundbreaking volume, Of Wolves and Men, he still sees projections of the
human heart — rather than science — driving the wolf debate.

“There is a lot to be learned from [wolves],” says Lopez. “But you
throw all that [understanding] out the window when you rely on your

Wolves rarely come out looking good in Western civilization. Though
sometimes cast as dupes, they more often play the villain, the embodiment
of brutality and rapacious greed.

Generations of children have learned about wolves from fairy tales and
fables. They have heard about the boy who cried wolf once too often and
lost his credibility. They recall the wolf that huffed and puffed at the
cottages of three little pigs, and the wolf that lured little Red Riding
Hood astray and gobbled up grandma.

The fascination with wolves has an adults-only section, too.

Bruno Bettelheim described Little Red Riding Hood as a tale of girl’s
sexual awakening, with the lip-smacking wolf fulfilling libidinous wishes.
And lust peppers the gruesome tales about men and women werewolves.

Even the Bible is tough on wolves. Christ, in the New Testament, warns
his disciples in Matthew: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of
wolves.” More than a century later, the church of medieval Europe warned
Christ’s flock against falling prey to the wolf, which symbolized Satan

An 18th century French legend has two wolves devouring 64 people in

And in pioneer Montana, the Ghost Wolf and four-toed Snowdrift were
blamed for killing more than 3,500 animals on separate livestock rampages
before each was hunted down.

History has only echoed the wolf’s despicable reputation. Adolf Hitler
called his Prussian military headquarters the Wolf’s Lair and his
submarines “wolf packs.”

The wolf is not evil in every tale. Sometimes it is dim-witted.

The ballet, Peter and the Wolf, is based on a Russian folk tale and
tune about a napping wolf captured by a boy and his friends (a bird and a
cat) after the wolf has eaten another friend, a duck. The wolf spits up
the live duck, explaining he was hungry. And the boy protects the wolf
from hunters, who are persuaded to help escort the repentant predator to a
zoo, where it will be safe but harmless.

And in an Aesop fable, a goat saves its own skin by playing flute to a
hungry wolf. Lulled by the tune, the wolf lets its quarry escape.

Another Aesop fable helps illustrate why wolves inspire — and
awe — people. It is the story of how a well-fed dog invites a starving
wolf to enjoy the comforts of domestication. The wolf notices a bare spot
on the dog’s neck where its collar has rubbed away the hair. The disgusted
wolf chooses freedom instead and walks away.

Centuries later, the wolf’s sharp intelligence and independent streak
maintain a strong pull on humans.

Wolf lore is its own industry.

There are silk scarves, coffee mugs and original art for wolf-lovers.
There are wolf-watching vacations. And, for youngsters, there is Polar
Mission Action Man, whose dogsled is pulled by Blizzard, a cyberwolf that

Oddly, it seems that the many ways people use the wolf to express
human concerns lead not to understanding but new myth.

“In the end,” Lopez says of the wolf, “they are still a mystery.” And
so, too, is our fascination with Canis lupus.