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What Are the Roles of Wolves in Mythology?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2016
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Wolves in mythology are often portrayed as cunning, malicious harbingers of destruction and death. In some legends and cultures, especially in Native American folklore, the wolf is portrayed in a more positive light. The mythology of Europe and eastern Asia generally portrays wolves as untrustworthy, dangerous creatures, and some legends even paint these animals as demons or creations of Satan himself. By contrast, many Native American tribes, such as the Lakota Sioux and Inuit peoples, revere the wolf as a sympathetic entity, and even as the creator of human beings. Even in some Indo-European cultures, wolves in mythology are given nurturing roles, or are viewed as symbolic of heroism and leadership.

Native American tribes are generally more likely to assign positive attributes and roles to wolves in folklore. Inuit peoples are believed to have revered a solitary wolf called Amarok, who served the Inuit tribes by culling frail and diseased caribou from the herd, thereby leaving behind healthy, strong herds for the human hunters. A Lakota folk tale describes a wounded human woman who is taken in and cared for by wolves. The wolves are said to teach this woman valuable skills, which she uses to help her tribe when she finally returns to them.

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Other Native American tribes assign important creation roles to wolves in mythology. One legend describes the archetypal Wolf carrying an increasingly heavy burden. It is from this wolf's burden that humanity eventually springs.

The folklore of Europe and eastern Asia generally describes wolves as more sinister mythological figures. Eastern European and Scandinavian peoples have traditionally painted wolves in mythology as bloodthirsty and demonic. The modern English word "wolf" is said to derive from the ancient Gothic term for "murderer," which is "varg." According to ancient Germanic practice, murderers were often driven from the community and forced to live alone in the wilderness, bereft of all contact with or assistance from their communities. Some scholars believe that this practice may offer a clue to the origins of werewolves in folklore, since these banished murderers were said to have entirely lost their humanity.

Other European and Asian legends portray wolves in mythology as nurturing or heroic figures. The ancient Celts may have believed that the wolf safeguarded the fecundity of the land, while ancient Scots may have portrayed the wolf as a goddess who looks after wildlife. Ancient Roman legend typically holds that Romulus and Remus, the rounders of the Roman Empire, were nurtured as infants by a female wolf. The Mongols are believed to have possessed a similar legend, in which a celestial wolf first raises, and then mates with, a human man, eventually giving birth to ten half-breed sons who go on to become great kings. In all of these societies, wolves in mythology were believed to represent leadership and heroism.

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