"Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" - Wolves, their myth and their return to Europe - an "Earth Day" feature

22 April is Earth Day, an annual event held since 1970 and now celebrated across the globe to demonstrate appreciation and support for the natural environment and environmental protection. Accordingly, the Wunderkammer opens its doors for a field excursion, this time to have a look at wolves and their gradual return to Europe where they had almost died out over the last 150 years. And naturally, it begins with “Once upon a time…”

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel. …Think about it. There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.“ (Margaret Atwood)

Dakota, a she-wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, howling archetypically on top of a snowy hill ***

It’s not that cave wolves had sabre teeth. Nor did they dwell exclusively in caves or were overly large. They weren’t the apex predators of the Ice Age either. There were cave hyenas back then in Europe, leopards, cave lions, the last scimitar-toothed cats even, and, of course, the ubiquitous cave bears. And somehow, the megafaunal wolves failed to make a major impression on our cave painting ancestors. Depictions of wolves are extremely rare in the art of the Upper Paleolithic, in paintings as well as sculptures. But they were there, hunted the same big game as our ancestors on the mammoth steppe and they did leave us with a lasting legacy. It were those ancient wolves that were, in all probability, first domesticated between 30 and 40,000 years ago and became the ancestors of man’s best friend. About the same time, another divergent subspecies developed that would indeed leave a major footprint in the psyche of humanity populating the world’s northern hemisphere and become the deadly enemy of its very close domesticated canine relatives: grey wolves. And when the Ice Age mega fauna, predators and prey, disappeared along with the mammoth steppe, grey wolves became top dog of the food chain in many regions from Spain to the Ural and the narrative of their long competition with mankind began that ended with the extinction of wolves in most European regions by the end of the 19th century. Or almost. Over the last 30 years, wolves returned to their old haunts, their numbers increasing slowly and their existence is discussed as controversial as it was during the end of the Middle Ages. 

One of the very few known depictions of wolf-like canid from the Upper Paleolithic, probably a megafaunal wolf, found in the Font-de-Gaume cave in the Dordogne Valley, France (around 25,000 BCE)

was not always the proverbial “Big Bad Wolf”. The shamanistic belief systems of the nomadic and half-nomadic steppe peoples always held them in high regard, even in historical times and to this day. Huns, Mongols and several Turkic groups traced their genealogy back to wolves. And even if our Neolithic ancestors did not do much in regards to leaving an artistic heritage of their grey food competitors, the descendants of those tribes migrating into India, the Middle East and Europe from the steppe would, even after their mythology changed from its shamanistic roots into the better known polytheistic mindscape of the Celts, Germanics and Slavs. Tierkrieger, warriors who were able to change into animal forms, wolves, more often than not, certainly have their origins in shamanistic traditions and survived in modern mythology as werewolves, although under quite different auspices. The revered shapechangers of old had become inhuman monsters, along with their wolf brethren.* Sedentary cultures of the Middle and Near East and the Mediterranean could find nothing heroic in the predators who broke into their flocks. Wolves had become a threat, were demonised and while Romans still carried standards into battle showing the she-wolf nourishing their founding fathers, Christianity in the west changed the reputation of wolves fundamentally. Even late Germanic pagan belief adopted the wolf in the guise of Fenrir as a demon who would fight the Æsir in Götterdämmerung at the end of days. The canines had become the uncanny emissaries of darkness, companion of witches and sorcerers and chief enemy of civilisation and everything that was good, backed up by appropriate scriptural passages, once written in the context of a pastoral culture and the imagery of sedate herders fearing for their livestock. Fairy tales like “The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats“ and "Little Red Riding Hood" did the rest to cement the image of the “Big Bad Wolf”. Right from the cradle.

John Bauer: "Tyr and Fenris" (1911)

of more and more space in favour of cultivating land for Europe’s growing population did bring the wolves into direct conflict with humans, of course. The primeval forests disappeared and the big game with them, aurochs, European bison and elk, along with red deer and wild boars either died out or were massively reduced in numbers and while wolves, their prime predators, quickly learned to keep away from settlements and herds, they often had no other choice than preying upon them. Especially during the long winters of Europe’s Little Ice Ages that happened since the end of the Middle Ages. While actual, well-documented attacks on humans are rare, they did happen. Rabies is one reason and wolves rather attacking the sheep dogs that accompanied lone people outside of the village green another, they still are in present-day fatal human-wolf encounters, but there were times when wolves actually preyed on humans. Or what was left of them. The 14th century’s Black Death along with other pandemics as well as devastating wars, the Hundred Years’ War in France and the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe, costing the lives of tens of millions of people and leaving whole regions depopulated, with the death and dying rotting in abandoned villages, were a feast for predators and scavengers. Such as wolves. And there are creditable reports of large marauding wolf packs from these days that did not fail to leave a lasting impression on the minds of Europeans, contemporaries as well as their descendants. And, of course, there were tales of packs that had learned that humans could be easy prey and lone wolves that terrorised whole districts, the arguably best known case being that of the “Napoleon of Wolves”, the infamous “Beast of Gévaudan”, allegedly responsible for the death of more than 100 people in the Haute-Loire during the second half of the 18th century.** Even if such events were rare and often exaggerated, wolves were usually fought fought with firearms, organised hunts, traps and poison until the last of them was exterminated. The last grey wolf on the British Isles was killed in 1684 in Scotland and 1786 in Ireland respectively. On the continent, west of the river Elbe and in Scandinavia, wolves were wiped out by 1880 with only small populations surviving in the remote mountain areas of Spain and Italy.

A Grey Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park (image from MrT HK on Flickr, November 2014 ****)

"The mischief [the wolf] causes by his hunting might be borne, though it is considerable, if he were not impelled by his wild hunting zeal and indomitable thirst for blood to slay more than he needs for his sustenance. This renders him a curse to the flock-owner and sportsman, and makes him everybody's cordially hated enemy”, Alfred Brehm of “Brehm's Life of Animals“-fame wrote as late as 1895, but the alleged blood-thirst of wolves and killing more than they need for their immediate sustenance is a myth. However, these ages-old prejudices prevail to this day. While regions in Italy, the Balkans and Romania, where wolves had survived, usually have a quite relaxed handling of the large predators living in their vicinity, most northerners are driven close to hysterics if wolves are reported to have returned to the premises, especially said sportsmen, flock-owners and especially worried neighbours, fearing for the lives of their children and pets. The wolves have come back to western and northern Europe never the less. While Italian and Spanish local wolf populations were placed under strict protection and have been stabilised over the last decades, they migrated back to Scandinavia, the Alps, western Poland and northeastern Germany since the 1990s, now numbering between 12,000 to 18,000 individuals, not counting Russia and Ukraine. And even if the numbers of game species increase considerably, up to a point that they become a positive and quite dangerous nuisance like wild boars in Germany, the old prejudices against wolves are still working. They do prey on livestock, but usually, farmers get compensated everywhere by local authorities. Rabies and other infectious diseases are a threat, commonly carried and spread by wild dogs, responsible for most of the killings of game, livestock and attacks on humans anyway, to wolves. But a growing number of Europeans tolerates and even supports the return of the wolves to their home turf, though, admittedly, their numbers are usually higher in regions where wolf packs do not have their immediate hunting grounds. However, there is more than a gleam of hope that sooner or later, European forests as an ecosystem gradually return to a more primeval state than the mix of park and timber yard they had degraded to over previous decades and a peaceful co-existence of a natural cycle with predators and prey and humanity in the neighbourhood is indeed possible. Despite the myths of the past.

* More about the werewolf myth can be found on this blog:

"The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty" - Peter Stübbe, the Werewolf of Bedburg and the Legend of the Lycanthrope

** And more about the “Beast of Gévaudan”  here

"The Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves." - The Beast of Gévaudan

And more about wolves on:


*** The image was taken by Retron, released into public domain by its author and was found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Howlsnow.jpg

**** The image was found on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grey_wolves_in_Bavarian_Forest_National_Park_(cropped).jpg originally posted to Flickr, was reviewed on 15 December 2014 by the administrator or reviewer Leoboudv, who confirmed that it was available on Flickr under the stated license on that date.