The call of the myth

Human history shows that the animal called wolf was schizophrenically misinterpreted throughout it. To the Neolithic hunter societies it embodied the hero, the warrior to admire and emulate. To agricultural-pastoral cultures it represented the predatory pest to eradicate. To modern-day men it is an endangered iconic species to protect. Without sharing the same feelings toward the animal, men built on wolves myths that still endure.

Since all is well, keep it so: wake not a sleeping wolf” (Henry IV, I.2.174 , Shakespeare)

Preconceived myth
People in the agricultural societies hold a preconceived opinion of the wolf, summarized in the belief that the best wolf is the dead one. The inhumane opinion persists in our culture because the wolf has long been featured as the bad guy in folklore, myths and traditional tales such as ‘The Little Red Riding Hood‘ , ‘The Three Little Pigs’, “The Seven Little Goats” and ‘Peter and the Wolf’.

In the original Charles Perrault’s version the wolf eats Red Riding Hood and that’s that. But James Thurber in a 1930′ version, had Red Riding Hood shooting the wolf with a pistol she had hidden in her basket. The moral is: it’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be!

In “The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales” Sigmund Freud tells the childhood dreams of a patient he calls the Wolf-man. Freud felt that the young man was frightened by the wolves in Red Riding Hood and other children’s stories of his youth. In the dream the boy is lying in bed at night. He is looking out of the window to a row of walnut trees. It is wintertime and the trees are without leaves, well defined against the snow. Suddenly the window opens and there, sitting on a tree are six or seven wolves, white with bushy tails, their heads leaning forward as thought they are listening for something. The boy suddenly awakes screaming loudly. While Freud’s analysis doesn’t handle with the wolves themselves, the boy dream surely reports a vision of wolves proposed by many fairy tales.

The sea-wolf myth

Wolf Larsen is the main character in a Jack London’s 1904 novel ‘The Sea-Wolf’ that was written immediately after the great success of ‘The Call of the Wild’, a story set on the background of the Klondike Gold Rush, among sled-dogs and outlaws. But Wolf is not the the real name of Larsen and the real name is never revealed in the novel. Larsen is called Wolf because of his rough uncivilised nature and its viciousness. The world ‘Wolf’ recur in the text for 422 times.

In English, the term wolf is often used to indicate negative aspects of the human soul. For instance, a man-wolf is an individual that is used to prey on innocent females. In all these references the wolf is viewed as an animal that impart the lesson of opportunism. As a creature possessing evil tendencies, the wolf is considered a truly dangerous beast, second perhaps only to carnivorous felines.

In most of the classic references to the wolf, the animal is defined as an outright villain reverberated in modern day cartoons and comics with the same attitude in order to please the mental orientations of the public.

Ill feelings toward the wolf are leading to the generally accepted notion that it is dangerous to humans, an opinion fostered by millennia of negative tales and wrong mythology. Unfortunately this is the only way the majority of humanity learns about the wolf.

No Myth Wolf

Wolves became dogs when they first grabbed the opportunity of scavenging human leftovers. In that instant they started to adapt to live elbow to elbow with humanity. The benefit to the wolf was the chance of grasping a meal every day. The benefit to the human was the integration of a warning and guarding help, since wolves can ear or smell danger much better than us, attacking other creatures invading the camp.

Wolves work in team. They can challenge even a bear provided that their number is strong enough to give them a chance of victory. Wolves can rapidly estimate the power of their joined forces and take consequent action. Dogs are more individualistic because they have been taught for millennia to see themselves as low-ranking members of the human society.

Wolves are social animals that live in packs structured according to a dominance hierarchy with stronger individuals at the apex taking the role of leaders, followers in the middle and weaker animals at the base of the caste pyramid. Any role within a pack is provisional and subject to revision with the passing time. If a alfa wolf is injured during a hunt it is immediately reclassified in a lower rank. On the other hand, a low-ranking subject can improve his position in the pack by submitting a higher-ranking wolves that are momentarily weaker.

Wolves have been present in the Asian and European lands and subconscious for millennia, sometimes reduced to a small bunch but not completely eradicated, as it happened for instance in the United States of America during the twentieth century. After reintroduction from Canada, there are today about 5,000 grey protected wolves in the Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes region. In National Parks and elsewhere wolves keep the ecosystem in balance preying on the overwhelming number of deer that are foraging on trees and shrubs thus causing deforestation. So, wolves are helping the environment. At last humanity realized that they are not the animals of destruction so often evoked in fables and mythology.

A Tale of Two Tails

Blood-thirsty wolves fill the 17th -18th centuries chronicles. The newly invented newspapers called Gazettes helped to spread extraordinary news across Europe at a speed that was surprisingly fastest than ever. It was during this communication frenzy, stories of wolf predation on humans reached their peak. The Beast of the Benais Forest killed 72 people in the Tour region of France, between 1693 and 169. Another wolf in the Velay mountains became famous for devouring 21 villagers between 1715 and 1718.

But the most popular was the story of the murderous exploits of a wolf (or may be two wolves) known as the Beast of Gévaudan, that between 1764 and 1767 took the life of at least sixty-four people in the Cévennes Mountains of south-central France.

In June 1764, a woman was tending her cows near Langogne, in the Cévennes, when she was attacked by an animal that was looking like a big wolf but it was not, according to her description.

The woman skinned only because the cows repelled the beast all at once while two dogs remained petrified by the fear. Few days later, not far from there, a 14-year old shepherdess was found slitted throat near her calmly grazing sheep. Her death is attributed to a wolf but nobody suggests a link between this episode and the previous attack. It is however strange that the beast did not touch the sheep.

Weird Wolf

In the mid-18th century wolves were common in the Gévaudan area, a region of woods, hills and mountains in the northern Lozère department.

Between summer and October the Beast of Gévaudan killed 12 and wounded 13 people.

Witnesses described the beast as similar but bigger than a wolf, with a red long hair-coat marked with stripes on his back, a black broad muzzle and a large tail. The beast crawl in the obscurity and stalk his victims with swift agility. It can stand on his hind legs as a bear. Its mouth is always open. It has a disgusting odour and seems attracted by the blood.

After slitting the throat and decapitating his victims it very often lick the blood in the ground. These are features reported more often by witnesses.

While attacks reiterate, descriptions become disconcerting: sometimes the beast is seen as a tiger, a hyena, a werewolf. Occasionally, it is hoofed like a horse, it has a mane like a lion, lynx eyes, human voice. Some people think that the beast is a man-wolf, a monster created by the coupling of a woman with a male wolf.

Horror Tale

Most cases associated with the Beast of Gévaudan are well documented episodes of aggression on unsupervised children tending livestock, picking fire-woods in a low-income agricultural background, but the whole affair is overburdened by legend and exaggeration. There is a tale of a child decapitated in a second, with paralysed witnesses staring at her head rolling on the ground. There is boy’s shoes left standing in the middle of the road when the Beast took him.

The fame of the wolf attracted the interest of the King who sent the Army. Despite intensive hunting sessions carried on by the 57 dragoons of captain major Duhamel, the beast of Gévaudan is lost and continue his destructions. At the end of year 1764 the victims summed up to thirty.

The Bishop of Mende wrote a long pastoral letter that all priests in the region with the request of reading it from the pulpit during the Sunday sermon. The primate describes the terrible scourge embodied by the beast as the sign of the anger of God. Devoted people should prey, fast, confess, lead a virtuous life, abandon bad habits, have horror of the sins, particularly those of the chair, educate children in the catholic faith, abandon the protestant heresy, silence the philosophers and their blasphemy. The Bishop order processions, public sessions of prey, penitences, but in vain. Four days later, on the 1st of January 1765, the beast slit the throat of a sixteen years old boy little just few steps away from his home.

Spreading terror

The beast’s attacks intensified during 1765. The beast, that now seems unstoppable, perpetuate his atrocities not only in the Gévaudan, but also in neighbouring Auvergne, Vivarais, Rouergue. Increasingly consistent bounties are offered for the capture or kill of the beast. In February, two noblemen from Normandy, father and son Denneval arrived in the Gévaudan, preceded by the fame of best wolf hunters in the reign. Formerly , other famous hunters took up the challenge to eliminate the beast, but without luck. The Dennevals killed many wolves but not the beast.

In March 1765 the beast caused more deaths than ever before. Panic spread in the country and the discontent was general. On the 21 of April, around 10,000 men participated to one of greater hunts in history. But in vain. At the end of the month of May the King was informed that in 1 year there have been 122 attacks, 66 deaths and 40 seriously injured. Louis XV sent to the region the 65-year old Marquis François Antoine de Beauterne, a self-confident gentleman chief lieutenant of the Royal Hunts.

He consulted with the Dennevals and then with calm and method started his hunt that lasted for the whole summer. The beast didn’t care about him or the Dennevals and continue his assaults, particularly against women and children.

On the 11 of August 1765, while attacking 2 young girls, the beast was wounded by one of them who was carrying a bayonet for self-defence. Blood spilled on the ground was then carefully examined, but for many witnesses it was not the blood of a wolf. Desperate Beauterne asked reinforcements from Versailles. The King was angry. The enemies of France laughed. In October the attacks started again. On the 21 of September Beauterne killed a huge wolf and he felt that the beast was definitely done. The King asked him to go back to Versailles. But the truce was short-living. The 2nd of December the beast attacked again and two young shepherds were severely injured on the northern slopes of the Margeride’s mountain range. The number of dead and wounded continued to rise throughout the winter, spring and summer of 1766.

Bloody Epilogue

The beast attacked during daylight, showed up in the open field and nobody seemed able to eliminate her either with pistols, guns, bayonets or knifes. In March 1767 somebody was killed every three days. During the hunt organised by the young Marquis d’Apcher on the 19th of June 1767, a formerly convicted peasant named Jean Chastel rumoured to be the son of a witch, killed an enormous wolf wit a single bullet in the forest of Tenazeyre. Legend wants that he had his gun blessed in Church before the hunt. The wolf was huge, weighting 54 kilograms and in his stomach some children’s bones were found.

The news that the Beast had been definitely killed spread rapidly. But Jean Chastel was not feasted as deserved by the villagers when he toured the region carrying the carcass of the wolf on the back of his horse. When he reached Versailles the King was disgusted by the terrible smell of the corpse and ordered the immediate burial. Famous zoologist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who wanted to examine the wolf, was denied access to it.

Chastel leaved the Court disconsolate without compensation but the new Bishop of Mende gave him a 26 lira as compensation. Therefore, Jean Chastel, the rough diamond with a bad reputation and an history of small crimes, became a good Christian and died old and famous in 1789.

The legend of Gévaudan’s Beast was perpetuated by a long list of books articles and poems. Many hypothesis were suggested to explain how 250 attacks, 130 deaths and 70 wounded people could have been possibly performed by a single demon-possessed beast in a time frame of 3 years.

Myth going Viral

Somebody blamed sorcery and werewolf, others, more wisely, mentioned the possibility of two or more rabid wolves simultaneously roaming the department of Gévaudan. Rabies was the greater danger wolves posed to humans in the XVIII century. A mad wolf infected with the rabies virus could travel tens of kilometers in a day biting and killing cattle, dogs and people with astonishing ferocity.

The virus spreads from the bite site into the surrounding muscle tissues where it reproduces and travel along the nerves to the central nervous system and the brain. This phase may take days, weeks, months or even years. When the virus reach the brain, the mad phase erupts causing in people delirium, hallucinations, confusion, tremors, convulsions, psychotic fear, hydrophobia and foaming at the mouth. In wolves and other carnivores the mad phase sometimes includes unstoppable chewing, an urge to eat anything edible, to bite any moving creature.

Here come the wild attacks. At this stage, to the extraordinary physical power of a wolf is added the virus-driven total disregard for safety that push an animal to embark in terrifying attacks destructive of others and of self. Every moving thing it sees as a prey, an obstacle, an enemy. Probably an outbreak of rabies among wolves was at the origin of the Beast of Gévaudan’s myth.

What’s in a name

Rabies has always been with us and for as long as there have been writing we have written about the link between wolf and rabies. Take the Greek name for rabies, lyssa, for instance, that was used to indicate an animal state beyond the normal anger, an insane madness, a wolfish rage, and you will agree that it is quite similar to the world lykos (wolf).

According to a Greek legend, Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus and King of Arcadia, instituted the worship of Zeus in ancient Greece. Zeus was happy and relaxed on laurels. But some years later Zeus came to know that Lycaon’s many sons were also relaxed in their religious duties and arrogant toward their father.

Zeus decided to visit them disguised as a day labourer. He was welcomed by Lycaon in the best possible way but the sons convinced the father to serve the stranger human flesh to see if he might be a God in disguise. They killed Nyktimos, one of the sons, and his flesh and bowels were mixed with the meat of sheep and goats. Presented with the unusual serving Zeus threw the bowl on the ground and transformed Lycaon and all his sons into wolves with a ‘rabid’ countenance and jaws ‘full of foam’.

Hungry for Lycaon’s action, Zeus unleashed a flood to drown them all. Deucalion’s flood, named after the man who built an ark to escape with few others, killed Lycaon and his sons. Some survivors later came back to Arcadia and in remembrance of the Lycaon’s tragedy they annually offered human ritual victims to satisfy the gods. These survivors were former residents of the country around Mount Parnassus and ironically, they were waken up in the night of the flood by howling wolves who guided them to higher grounds.

According to the geographer Pausanius, the Arcadian shepherds use to serve once a year a dinner with human flesh. The man who found human body parts in his bowl ate it, howled like a wolf and swam naked across a stream of water to live for nine years in a desolate land behind the river like a werewolf. If in that time he ate no human flesh he regained his human form.

The Middle Rage

Between the fifteen and the eighteen centuries, Europe endured the werewolf legend whose part-animals, part humans characters bite their victims passing along their own degraded condition. The rabid bite is the visible way of an animal inducing an human metamorphosis into another creature.

Even after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine, in France was not the mortality of the disease that scared people but rather the false conscience that infection ‘transformed people in maddened animals’.

The origin of a wolf-hero myth

Around 2,000 years BC a nomadic people roaming the Eurasian steppes began to settle down in small villages on the north shores of the Black Sea. They were the first people in the region now encompassing the southern Ukraine and Russia to built permanent households.

Known as the Timber Grave Culture the civilization of the steppes left behind more than 1,000 locations filled with artefacts and remains that are now shedding some light on their lifestyle and believes.

In a site called Krasnosamarskoe, archaeologists found the enigmatic rests of tens of butchered wolves and dogs, much more than in any other site of the Timber Grave Culture. What happened there? Was this people performing animal sacrifices? In the name of who and for what purpose?

At the end of the digging season, archaeologists identified 51 carcasses of dogs and seven of wolves that constituted more than 30% of all bones rescued at Krasnosamarskoe. But in other sites from the same culture, bones of wolves are very rare and those of dogs do not make up for more than 3% of all bones retrieved.

Mysterious Bones

Mysteriously, canine bones were removed from the body in a way that does not resemble any normal butchery operation. Snouts were systematically broken down in three pieces and the rest of the skull was weirdly fragmented in geometrically shaped pieces that led to the speculation of a ritual significance, because nobody would have made these cuts to the only purpose of taking the flesh out of the bones. Some animals were quite old, even 12 years old, at the time of their sudden demise, meaning that they were not killed to supply food to the community.

Do wolves and dogs were subject to ritual sacrifices? The scientific quest turned into obsession for archaeologists Anthony and Dora Brown digging at Krasnosamarskoe with big expectation since the 1990’s.

The answer of the puzzle serendipitously came combing together linguistic, mythological and archaeological evidences. There is a long-standing tradition in the Celtic, German and Indo-Iranian cultures regarding the so-called roving youthful war band.

Wolf Warriors

Young men rejected from their original communities because of rustling or other unwanted acts, met on the edge of society forming bands of want-to-be warriors that often thought of themselves as wolf packs. Youthful bands were independent ‘states’ going on seasonal raids against neighbouring communities for centuries, ending up as a widespread institution within the Proto-Indo-European myth of warrior bands named koryos.

The institution of roving bands of youthful raiders played an important role in later Indo-European societies, such as the Timber Grave people, because it was a way of controlling potentially dangerous young minds but also a way of expanding wealth and territories for future generations.

In the Sanskrit Indian text Rigveda written sometimes before 1,000 BC, there is a reference to young men becoming warriors after sacrificing a dog at a winter ceremony and wearing its skin for 4 years. After that they can return to their society.

The tradition is so deeply rooted in the Germanic mythology that even the hero Siegfried need to wear a dog skin training his nephew to become a warrior. In a bronze Viking plate of the 6th century is depicted the god Odin dancing with a warrior that is wearing a wolf mask.

Historical sources indicate that Korios held initiation ceremonies during mid-winter time, involving animal sacrifice, to become warriors. Analysing the incremental growth on the teeth of wolves and dogs found at Krasnosamarskoe it was evident that 95% of them were killed in the wintertime, providing a definitive piece of evidence for the existence of such rituals.

Greek Tragedies

Interestingly, many centuries later, Herodotus wrote that the Neurians who lived in present-day western Russia changed into wolves for a few days once a year. The Neurians perhaps belonged to the Timber Grave Culture. Neurians were hunters who had a totemic relationship with wolves and wore wolf skins in annual ceremonies.

According to Aristotle, Apollo’s mother, Leto, came disguised as a wolf and accompanied by a pack of wolves from the Land of the Hyperboreans to Delos, only to escape detection by the jealous Hera, wife of Zeus, who was Apollo’s father. Apollo, then was associated with wolves. In the Iliad, for instance, is termed as wolf—born Apollo.

Before the Hellenistic invasion of Greece, both hunting and agricultural societies had ties with the wolves, either totemic or propitiatory. When Apollo grew famous as protector of sheep among pastoral people and hero-warrior among hunters, his contradictory schizophrenic image finally took complete shape.

Indian Icon

Within the Cheyenne hunter society traits of the wolf such as hunting skills, courage and endurance, were admired and placed the animal on the altar of respected animals.

Last of all myths

Myth #009: animals are difficult to discriminate and tell apart. Fake. Using a computer that analyse the ‘vocal signature’ of each individual, scientists from Nottingham Trent University were able to identify each and every wolf in a pack from their howls.

This fact alone is teaching us one lesson, that wolves are not all the same.

They are different, unique, not homogenised. We are all different, too, despite Facebook and Twitter are whispering that we should aspire to nothing but the crude homogeneity of likes or dislikes.

The more informationally transparent we get, the more insubstantial we become as persons. Spending nights drifting on social networks and sleepwalking through real-life interactions with one eye always on the phone, turns our life into a public, though totally meaningless, depersonalized performance. There is a natural consolation in knowing that at least wolves are all different…

Further reading:

1). Gordon Grice (2011) The book of deadly animals. Viking, England.

2). Michel Pastoreau (2002) Les animaux celélèbres. Christine Bonneton éditeur, France.

3). Barry Lopez (2004) Of wolves and men. Scribner eds., New York.

4). Bill Wasik & Monnica Murphy (2012) Rabid – A culturalhHistory of the world’s most diabolical virus. Viking Penguin, USA.

Text by Walter Tarello (DVM, MRCVS, MA Cardiology)

Pet Connection Veterinary Hospital, Al Barsha 1, Dubai, UAE

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