A Wolf’s Tail

ImageWhen our new exhibition, ‘From the War of Nature’ came to the museum I looked around and to my surprise I noticed that they had a Timber wolf.

I have always loved this  majestic animal, so powerful and beautiful to look at. My favourite species of wolf. It is also, the biggest. Canadian Northwestern wolves are one of the largest subspecies of wolves, with adult males weighing between 100 and 135 pounds (45–61 kg). So to be able to see a specimen like this up close, to see just how huge these creatures really are, was such a thrill.

The wolf is seen all over the world, in many different forms and across different cultures throughout history. In some societies, they are seen as spiritual beings or as guardians, however in some instances they are shown in a less favourable light. Some people viewed them as creatures that were harbingers of evil and death, a bad omen.  In today’s society, the wolf features prominently in popular culture, with portrayals in many works of fiction from books to television and movies. Many of the werewolf stories that we hear about today will have originated in folklore from different cultures. They all seem to tell a tale or legend about wolves from every corner of the world. Below are just a couple of them.

One story that people may have heard of, is the legend of how Rome was founded. It is said that a wolf was responsible for the childhood survival of the future founders, the twins, Romulus and Remus.  Their uncle Amulius ordered the twins to be killed.  However, the man ordered to kill them could not bring himself to do it. He placed the children on the banks of the Tiber River, but at the time the river was flooding. Luckily for the twins, it carried them gently further down the river, under the protection of the river deity Tiberinus. They were then adopted by a she-wolf known as Lupa, sacred to the god Mars. The wolf is the national animal of the modern Italian republic.

In ancient Egyptian mythology we have a tale about a wolf, Wepwawet, a war deity. His name means, ‘opener of the ways’ and he is often shown as a wolf standing at the bow of a solar-boat. In some interpretations, Wepwawet was seen as some sort of scout, going out to clear routes for the army to advance forward. One inscription from Sinai states Wepwawet “opens the way” to King Sekhemkhet’s victory (little else is known about this Kings’ reign). In later Egyptian art, Wepwawet was depicted as either a wolf, a jackal or a man with the head of a wolf or jackal. Even when considered a jackal, Wepwawet was usually shown with grey or white fur, reflecting his lupine origins.

Amongst the Native American tribes of North America and Canada, the wolf is a very powerful and much revered symbol. and they have many legends pertaining to the wolf. The Navajo tribe is known for its belief in shape-shifters. They call such people ‘skin walkers’ or ‘yee naldlooshi’ in the Navajo tongue, which means “with it, he goes on all fours”.

The Struggle for Existence (1879) by George Bouverie Goddard

The bear has always been the sacred animal of the Finns, in comparison, wolves have been killed mercilessly. In Finnish folklore the wolf is a feared and hated animal, hunted to near extinction. This is due to the wolf having been represented as a ruthless and malicious predator, killing more than it eats.

These types of stories have contributed to the depiction of wolves in fiction, and also inspired authors across a range of genres. From the old ‘big bad wolf’ stories to their portrayal as mean, nasty creatures in the horror genre or more recent romanticised films such as the ‘Twilight’ series.

There are many societies around the world that have a ‘tail’ to tell about wolves. However, the wolf is both admired and loathed. Is this perhaps how they are portrayed in such stories?  To me, they are just like any other species on earth, trying to stay alive and look after their families.

Post by Maxine Byrne


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