How did a member of the canine family become entwined in folklore and myth?

When I was thinking about what creatures my main characters encounter in the novella Tales of the Boy in Winter, I admit it was about bringing tension and fear to the narrative, but for a long time I wanted to write about a wolf in a dark forest, on a long moonlit night.

Imagine being amongst the bare trees on a winter’s night, a little lost perhaps, wanting to be home in front of a fire or tucked up in a warm bed. It’s been a long day. You are on your own. Frozen twigs crackle under your feet as you walk. The air is still. You always forget your gloves on evenings like this. Now your fingers are turning numb.

Leafless trees surround the path, weaving webs of branches across the sky.

You remember an old fairy tale as you walk along, the cold air permeating your coat.

Little Red Riding Hood. A girl in a forest going to visit her grandmother. The clever wolf. The agreement of a race between him and her.

We hunted them, pushed them away from our farmsteads, and populated areas, into the truly wild places, where they live now.

But not here.

The moon surfaces from a grey cloud, casting silver light through the branches. What was that? Did something move out there, to the left, amongst the creeping dead strands of bramble?

Nothing. Your imagination. You continue, a little faster, thinking about the Harry Potter film, with the black wolves. Which one was it?

Tales of the Boy in Winter JR Holden

Wierged wulf

Out of interest, I looked up the words ‘accursed’ and ‘wolf’ in an old English dictionary. I don’t know if the Anglo-Saxons used the phrase, but I thought I would. It was what Hannah’s mother called them. She knew a lot about strange things.

Our relationship with wolves goes back to a time of the first known writing. The Babylonian epic ‘Gilgamesh’ refers to the goddess Ishtar transforming a shepherd – her lover – into a wolf, the very creature he guarded against.

The Dacians, an ancient people who came from the area now known as Central and Eastern Europe, seemed to have a special relationship with wolves. The stories say their youngsters were initiated by living for a year as a wolf. This would give them the skills to become adept warriors – an artisan much sought after in a time of shifting power and boundaries. In some rituals the warrior donned a wolf-skin and exhibited his canine agility. The man becomes the wolf.

In Greek mythology Lycaon king of Arcadia was a cruel man who killed his own son. For this, he was turned into a wolf by the god Zeus.

The cult of Zeus Lycaeus was still practised in the first century when a man from the Antaeus family told Pliny the Elder that he had been a lycanthrope for nine years. Pliny perhaps felt a need to set things straight. In Book 8 of ‘Natural History’, the world’s first encyclopaedia, he said although the Greeks believed in it, it was not true that ‘men can be turned into wolves and back into men.’

The word lycanthrope has come to mean someone who believes they have changed into a wolf, referring to a mental illness, rather than a shapeshifting event.

We have not been able to tame the wolf. He remains wild, in the mountains and forests far from human population. Even today we see him as a cunning creature, devising ways of confounding our best efforts, in order to secure a good meal. The longer he is around humans, the more confident he gets.

Fairy tales from the seventeenth century cast the wolf as the hungry people eater. Charles Perrault wrote Little Red Riding Hood in 1697. The wolf eats the grandmother, and after some banter, the little girl.

Courtesy of Prawny on Pixabay

Picture courtesy of Prawny from Pixabay

But then someone comes along and cuts the wolf open, releasing them. Fairy tales have happy endings, don’t they?

Happy endings were tagged onto the later versions. Unfortunately, no-one comes to rescue the little girl and her ancestor. They are eaten up. The End.

You hear the snapping of twigs, off to the left. Any ideas you had that the dark shadow behind the bramble bush may be a barghest (black dog) disappear with your confidence. Whatever is over there is corporeal. Time to be home.

There’s still a distance to go, and your legs carry you quickly. At first there is nothing but your panting breaths, as you trip and slide along the uneven forest floor. Later, when you are in your chair eating that juicy joint you are going to berate yourself for allowing your imagination to get the better of you.

Hannah’s mother is correct in telling us that we cannot outrun a wolf. During a chase he can reach 40 mph. He can leap up to 16 feet (5 metres).  Theodore Roosevelt said wolves were difficult to hunt because of their elusiveness, sharp senses, high endurance and ability to incapacitate dogs. Men use guns now, from the air. Much easier. No risk involved. The wolf has no idea what will happen. He runs from the vibration of the engines. But men have cut down the trees. There is no cover, nowhere to shelter. In confusion and fear, he dies, and the hunters land for their trophy photoshoots.

Your legs are aching with the effort. Heat radiates from your working muscles. But you are not aware of that. Your eyes, sharpened, see the path in front, the branches that lay across it, easily cleared with your lengthening bounds.

Behind you, it moves. You hear it, in between your crashing footsteps, like an echo. The wolf is coming. The wolf is hungry. Fear guides you through the trees, across wide winter streams.

Get home. Your family are waiting for you. What would they do if you didn’t return?

Wolves live in family units. They are social and display advanced expressive behaviour. The problem has always been their relationship with humans, which has swung from respect and worship in some hunter-gatherer peoples, to being despised and hunted to extinction in pastoral societies.

Courtesy of David Mark on Pixabay

During the witchcraft trials, people could be accused of lycanthropy. A pact with the devil would bring the gift of transformation to a wolf. A werewolf. A man (traditionally) who transforms into a wolf during a full moon, through self-will. He roams under the full moon, devouring people and corpses. A bite or a curse from a werewolf brings the curse to the victim. Here is the tragedy. An innocent is transformed and brings death or transformation to more innocents. How long before a whole village would be infected?

You are moving fast now; the trees are thinning. Your feet don’t seem to touch the ground. You see the faces of your loved ones, in your memory. Perhaps they are at the window, looking out, into the darkness that surrounds the house. But the thing that pursues you is gaining ground. You can hear it’s panting. Terror drives you on. You don’t want to die. You want to live. Not for the things that drove you the day before. A new car, better job, holiday in the sun. You want to see the people you love. To touch their faces and tell them how much they mean to you.

Now, with hot breath on the back of your neck, it seems too much to ask for.

If a wolf can be killed from the air with a bullet, how easy is it to kill a shapeshifter?

Not with lead. The bullet must be silver. The composition gives it deeper penetration at short range. Perhaps that is the reason. No deformation. A straighter shot than lead.

A silver bullet is also a metaphor. A simple solution to a complex problem.

Another is to pray to saint Hubert. But he is the patron saint of hunters. Also mathematicians. You have taught maths to your children. But that doesn’t stop you from being attacked, does it? It’s futile. Hubert’s been dead for years.

Your thoughts are jumbled now. It’s almost upon you. There’s no gun in the house. You threw out your grandfather’s air rifle years ago.

Then you see your home. Your heart soars. One last sprint, shouting ‘open the door!’

Wolves are habitual. They will find their old trails in the snow and use them, following the banks of rivers, through ravines, and even the roads and pathways of humans.

The door is opening, light spilling out into the garden. Your dog is barking at the window. It shows its teeth.

At last! Get in and bar the door. Banish the ghosts back to the wintery darkness.

But on the threshold, you pause for a moment, looking into the eyes of your loved one. There is a reflection. An image of you in their eyes.

You see the wierged wulf.

Courtesy of Yvonne Hopfl on Pixabay


Breverton’s Phantasmagoria, Terry Breverton.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, John and Caitlyn Matthews.

Wolves in Folklore,,_religion_and_mythology.

This article was adapted from its previous version published on on 30th November 2019.