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Living with the Wolf
by Wolfsdream

"For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack." Rudyard Kipling.

‘Wolf’- for many the very word brings to mind tales and images of a cruel savage animal that has no redeeming characteristics. In our modern language we find sayings that portray the wolf as something to be despised and feared….’ Wolf in sheep’s clothing’ or ‘throw to the wolves’ are examples of this. All through Europe we find sayings that show how people hated and feared the wolf. There are many legends from pre-Christian Europe that show the wolf in a positive light however, such as the legend of Romulus and Remus being cared for by a she-wolf. For many of these pre-Christian people the wolf was seen as an animal to be respected. Indeed it was most often seen as representing a link with change, of being important in the transition from one state to the next, from life to death. Something we will see again in North American Indian myth and thinking.

The word wolf is thought to originate from the Indo-European word ‘wlqwos’ (and I’ve no idea how to pronounce that!) and it’s variant word ‘lubwos’ ( pro-lukos ), ‘Lubwos’ in turn gave us the Latin word ‘lupus’, the word that is still used today as the scientific name for the wolf- Canis Lupus. The English word ‘wolf’ is believed to come from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wulf’. In fact a quick look at some names from the Anglo-Saxon era show that many names included the word Wulf….Wulfstan, Wulfred, Wulfric, Aethelwulf etc. From Norse mythology we have Beowulf as well. This is surely an indication of the importance and reverence of the wolf in early European history.

So how did the poor wolf get its bad reputation? Not for the first time it seems as if much of the blame can be laid at the door of the Christian religion and its view of the wolf as an evil minion of the devil. In the bible the wolf gets a few mentions and none of them are good! Isaiah 11:16 ‘the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.' The inference here, being that of evil and good coming together under the rule of the Christian god. In another part of the bible Jesus is described as a ‘shepherd protecting his sheep from the wolf’, yet again the poor old wolf is portrayed as the symbol of evil and a threat to all ‘right thinking’ i.e. Christian, people. In the gospel according to St Matthew one passage tells of Jesus warning of ‘false prophets which come in the clothing of sheep but inwardly are ravening wolves’, again we are given a negative view of the wolf as being sly and sneaky, ready to devour the body and soul of the unwary.
The bible contains more such examples, but I’m sure you get the point.

It can be seen from such examples that once the people of Europe came under the thumb of the church, succeeding generations became effectively brainwashed into seeing the wolf as bad, evil, something to be killed whenever possible It must be remembered that at this time in Europe the Christian church, and thus the state, had total control of peoples day to day lives. Few people could read or had any kind of education, the church provided people with the knowledge it thought they needed to go through there lives. To go against the church was to invite being cast out of the community around you and to be damned by the church. Something the average person would have seen as a fate worse than death.

As populations began to grow in the early middle Ages and farming became more widespread, the natural prey animals of the wolf started to become less in number and were pushed into the more remote areas of country. The wolf would naturally have turned to more readily available prey such as sheep and goats, even young cattle if they could find a lost or less than healthy animal. Of course this brought immediate conflict with man. The fact that wolves were very possibly seen ­ along with dogs and ravens- feeding on the dead of both animals and humans after the end of the many battles fought during these times would not have helped their reputation. Indeed there are written accounts, possibly from the 10th century, of wolves being seen feeding on the bodies of dead travellers in Europe. It is not stated that the wolves killed these people however.
It must also be remembered that at this time, despite the slow but steady increase in population, there were still very large area’s of forest in existence. These often stretched almost unbroken from one village to the next. People had a genuine fear of being attacked when in these dark forests both by outlaws and wild animals. We should remember that for most people travel was on foot, only the wealthy would have been on horse back, and no doubt there were some instances of people seeing and hearing wolves close by when travelling from place to place. Though whether the tales of wolf attack on humans were by pure wolves or by wolf-dog hybrids is open to question. It is known that wild dogs and wolves do interbreed. It is also now thought these tales may well relate to animals which had rabies and not to healthy wolves. Whether wolf attack was a fact or mere common folk tales is a matter for debate.
There is one report however from Paris in the winter of 1420- a very hard winter- that tells of the bodies of the dead being thrown into rubbish pits and speaks of hungry wolves swimming the Seine to scavenge on the bodies. An interesting point to mention here is that many of the common tales that have come down to us date from the period around 1400 onwards. This coincides with a time now known as ‘The Little Ice Age’ from around 1400 to 1850. A period when ­due to low sun spot activity-Europe suffered from some extremely cold periods, so cold that at times the river Thames regularly froze solid and some years were so cold they became known as ‘a year with no summer’. This extended cold period put humans and wild animals under very great pressure just to survive, let alone prosper. Circumstances like these forced predators like wolves to seek alternate food sources such as domestic animals. If we then take into account the poor disposal of waste and, as in the Paris example above, the disposal of the dead, then we can see that almost without the Church bias the scene was set in Europe for people to turn against the wolf.

These two factors combined to seal the fate of the wolf in Europe. In a frenzy the likes of which can still be seen in the modern media at times, the wolf became an object of fear and hate. With full church and thus state approval wolves in Europe began to be systematically hunted and killed. The wolf had become a symbol of all that was evil. Luring the ‘faithful sheep’ away from the path of the Christian god and devouring them at the first opportunity. As early as the 10th century King John of England putting a bounty of 5 shillings on the head of every wolf and in France during the late 1500’s many hundreds of wolves were hunted and killed.

So what in truth is the wolf like, isit a cruel animal that will kill for the fun of it?
Thankfully we now know far more about the real life of the wolf than ever before. Much of what we now accept as fact was known to the Native American Indians long before Europeans ever set foot in the New World.

Rarely is the wolf a lone animal. It is instead a very social animal, living in packs with a strong and clear order. Lead by a male and female pair-the alpha male and female- these are the main breeding pair of the pack, though all pack members help in the rearing of the cubs.
Far from being an aggressive animal wolves are known to be very friendly to fellow pack members. Even wolves that have been reared by humans respond in a friendly way to those people they recognise. One of the most important traits for the wolf to develop is a strong emotional attachment to its fellow pack members. This emotional attachment begins when the pup is just a few weeks old. The loss of a pack member hits the remaining wolves hard. It’s recently been observed that surviving pack members show sadness and will mourn for several weeks after the loss of one of their pack. Indeed wolf pups show stress and upset if they are removed from the fellow wolves, people or dogs that they’ve been brought up with.
Of course wolves can be and are aggressive when the need arises, such as defending their territory or their young or when meeting a strange wolf. Even within the pack each wolf maintains its own distinct character, and this individual character is as varied in wolves as it is in humans. Timid, fun loving, shy, reserved, playful, inventive, sober, gentle, full of affection….all these terms have been used to describe individual animals, both in the wild and in captivity. Just as in humans, these differing personalities appear in response to the environment the animal is born in to and traits inherited from its parents. Wolves are also very intelligent animals. It has been said that if you imagine the most unusually intelligent, emotional and sensitive dog you’ve ever known, that is how all wolves are. Although intelligence is a hard thing to quantify it has been shown that wolves consistently show a high level of intelligence. They are able to learn, and remember and are able to make associations. An example of this comes from modern times in northern Minnesota where wolves were hunted from aircraft. The wolves learned to avoid open areas of country when they heard aircraft about. When the aircraft had gone the wolves would come out into open ground. In another example a tame wolf was separated from the human who brought it up. When human and wolf were reunited after three years separation the wolf clearly recognised its human friend.
In another case Dr Harry Frank of Michigan State University who kept both wolves and dogs for his studies on animal behaviour, found that his wolves learned very quickly how to open doors by turning the door knob. They learned this just by watching him using the door, they were not taught it. In contrast his dogs never picked up this skill.

For all their intelligence and friendliness the wolf should not be seen as some kind of overgrown dog. North American timber wolves are large animals, weighing anything from just 50 lbs to 150 lbs, in some cases more. A female wolf can be anything up to 6ft long-including tail, males to 6.5 ft long. The average wolf will stand anywhere from 26 to 32 in at the shoulder, some males being a full 3ft high at the shoulder. Regardless of the wolf’s eventual size most of their growth is achieved in the first 12 or so months, any further growth being more a case of filling out. Wolf pups grow rapidly; this fast growth is a survival characteristic. By the first winter the wolf pup must be able to travel with the rest of the pack in search of food.
Wolves travel great distances at times, easily covering 20 to 35 miles a day in search of food. They are strong swimmers and are very agile, being quite able to jump distances of 13 feet.
The wolf’s senses are also very acute. Its sense of smell is well developed. There are cases of wolves picking up the scent of a moose at over a mile. However when the wind is not in their favour wolves can be caught out by their specialized eye sight. A wolf can very easily see movement…especially when seen in its peripheral vision. Stationary objects can however easily go unseen, even when at close range. Its night vision is also very good. Along with its excellent sense of smell the wolf has exceptional hearing. Field study has shown they can hear other wolf howls at a range of 3 miles. Under some conditions wolves can hear at even greater range, as far as 6-8 miles on occasion.

The wolf is able to strike a balance between peace and aggression, by avoiding aggression whenever possible but standing in defence of its pack mates and its hunting range when the need arises, and also a balance between the individual and the pack, by retaining a strong individual identity but by cooperating with its pack members. It is this balance, among other things, that was seen long ago by many of the Native American Indians. It is to these people that we must turn to find a more positive and balanced view of the wolf.

The American Indians lived in a world in which all the plants, rocks, rivers, lakes and birds and animals had their own unique spirit. They recognised their relationship with the natural world around them and they saw the birds and animals as their brothers and sisters. Like many native peoples, they had achieved a balance with the world they lived in.
For many of the Native American Indian tribes the wolf holds very special significance. To the Indians the wolf was respected as a great hunter, working together to obtain food for the pack, taking only what was needed. They saw that the wolf was in harmony with its world. It had strength, cunning, intelligence and honour, both to the pack and to its mate….a wolf pairs for life. All traits the Indians held to be worthy of respect. Wolf was indeed brother and sister to these people.

Some Indian peoples say the wolf had powers given it by the Great Spirit. The Sioux name for the wolf was ‘Skunk Manitu Tonka’- meaning ‘Animal that looks like a dog but has powerful spirit’.
The Navajo word for wolf is ‘Mai-coh’….the word that is also used to mean Witch..! They believed that a person who donned a wolf pelt could transform themselves into a wolf. The Navajo also have healing ceremonies which call on Powers to restore peace and harmony to the sick. The wolf is one of these Powers.
Hopi Indians also had wolf dancers to represent one of the Powers of the universe.
The Shoshoni learned from the wolf how to hunt the deer in the open prairies of Wyoming. They would crawl through the long grass and then when close enough, wave a strip of light coloured leather on a stick to encourage the curious deer to come closer and investigate. The wolf used to swish its tail in the air to achieve the same thing. The deer would come close enough to allow both wolf and Indian a good chance to kill it.
Cheyenne medicine men would rub the arrows of hunters and warriors against a wolf pelt to make the arrow fly true.
Cherokee would not kill a wolf believing, that the rest of the pack would exact revenge. They would also imitate the walk of the wolf to help ward off frostbite in their feet in winter.
Crow Indians dressed in wolf skins to bring success in hunting. Women of the Hidatsa tribe would rub their bellies with a wolf skin to help with a difficult child birth.
Mandan Indians attached wolf tails to their moccasins to show their success in battle.
Cree Indians believed that when the northern lights shone they were being visited by divine wolves.
Chippewa myth tells of wolves supplying them with food and hides. The Delaware thought that to hear a wolf howl was foretelling of a change in the weather.
Pawnee, Hidatsa and Oto Indians used to make a sacred bundle in which to keep magical items.
It is probably true to say that almost all Native American Indian tribes held the wolf as an animal to be respected and in many cases to be revered as something sacred. Even the tribes as far north as Canada and Alaska and as far south as Mexico held the same opinions.

But without doubt the Indian tribe most associated with the wolf are the Pawnee.
The Skidi Pawnee Indians lived in the area of Kansas and Nebraska. Skidi (pro Skid-dee) means wolf in Pawnee. Even among the neighbouring tribes they were known as the ‘Wolf People’ and the sign for the Pawnee and the wolf was the same, such was their close connection with wolves. This sign was a V made by the middle and index finger held by the right ear, then brought forward to the front of the head.

* * *

The following is the creation legend of the Pawnee:

A great council was held to which all the animals were invited. For a reason no one remembers the brightest star in the sky, the Wolf Star, was not invited. He watched from a distance, silent and angry, while everyone else decided how to make the earth. In the time after the great council, the Wolf Star directed his resentment over this bad treatment at The Storm That Comes Out of the West, who had been charged by the others with going around the earth seeing to it that things went well.

The Storm That Comes Out of the West carried a whirlwind bag with him as he travelled, inside of which were the first people. When he stopped to rest in the evening he would let the people out and they would set up camp and hunt Buffalo.

The Wolf Star sent a grey wolf down to follow The Storm That Comes Out of the West around. Storm fell asleep and the grey wolf stole his whirlwind bag, thinking there might be something good to eat inside. He ran far away with it. When the wolf stopped and opened the bag all the people ran out. They set up camp, but suddenly, looking around, they saw there were no Buffalo to hunt. When they realised it was a wolf and who had let them out of the bag they were angry. They ran the wolf down and killed him.

When The Storm That Comes Out of the West found the first people and saw what they had done he was very sad. He told them that by killing the wolf, they had brought death into the world. That had not been the way, but now it would be the way.

The Storm That Comes Out of the West told the people to skin the wolf and make a sacred bundle with the pelt, enclosing in it the things that would always bring back the memory of what had happened. Thereafter he told them they would be known as the Wolf people, the Skidi Pawnee.

The Wolf Star watched all this. The Pawnee call this star, Fools the Wolf, because it rises just before the morning and tricks the wolves into howling before first light. In this way the Wolf Star continues to remind people that when it came time to build the earth, he was forgotten.

* * *

The Wolf star is more commonly known as Sirius and its coming and going during the year was seen by the Pawnee as the coming and going of the wolf spirit in its journey down the Milky Way or Wolf Road as they called it. The Blackfoot Indians also called the Milky Way the Wolf Trail. Interestingly some tribes have a legend that tells of their ancestors in the far distant past as having come from Sirius.

To the Pawnee to be able to move and behave like the wolf was the greatest achievement. They were known to be able to travel great distances with little or no food, at times they would scavenge on the carcases of dead animals they found. They would journey in single file-like the wolf- but their path would not be straight, again like the wolf. Their eye sight was said to be so good they could see ‘two looks away’ and their hearing so acute they could hear a cloud pass. On coming into enemy territory they would try to move as the wolf would, slowly, taking in the slightest change in the world around them. If the dogs of an enemy tribe should be disturbed by them and start to bark the Pawnee would howl like a wolf. So convincing was their howl that the dogs would become silent.

The wolf was seen as a strong totem or medicine animal, both to the individual and the tribe, or to a clan within the tribe.
The word medicine has a different meaning to the Indian than it has to us. It means anything which brings one closer to nature and the spirit within all things. This can mean healing-physical and spiritual- of the mind, body or spirit through the awareness of the natural way of things in the world around you. Not just awareness though, the individual must go further and come to intuitively understand that natural world by studying it on many levels and by living in it on an equal footing. You must become a part of it. Native American wolf medicine is a way of life.

To the Indians as well as to us the wolf is a magical animal; and wolf spirit can teach many things if you can just learn to ‘hear’ what you’re being told. Wolf may come to you in many ways. In chance, but continuous encounters of wolf images, by being drawn to seek to know the wolf better, and of course wolf may come to you in meditation and dreams, or a mix of these.
The Indians believed it was the wolf that taught men to live in harmony with nature and how to live in peace with each other. Wolf is a teacher and pathfinder among other things and those who have strong wolf spirit will go on to teach and guide others.
Wolf is also good at taking advantage of opportunity and at facing change in life, whether that change is in day to day life or in facing the change brought by the end of this life.
Wolf teaches us to trust our instincts and to listen to our inner voice, to believe in our own strength and individuality. Because wolf is a teacher he tends to come to us when we need guidance in our lives, so learn to be aware of him and of what he is telling you. Seeing a lone animal can mean you are being told to give time to being alone in your life…to be yourself more, conversely, seeing a wolf pack can mean you are being told to give time to your family…to the pack, so to speak!. Remember though that the wolf is a shy animal, it may take time for him to come to you and when he does he may at first appear hesitant. Be patient, give wolf time and space. Let him see you are genuine in your desire to be guided by him.
Wolf will look deep into your heart and will share great knowledge and wisdom with you if he trusts you. But beware, for wolf will demand full trust, participation and absolute sincerity from you.
Take the time to look for the wolf in your dreams and meditations; do not be afraid to run with him and to hunt with the pack if invited to. This is a sign that you are accepted by him.
Wolf is not an animal that makes much fuss outside its own pack and nor do those people who have a strong wolf spirit in their lives. They tend to be quiet, calm people who have good instincts and intelligence. Like the animal that guides their lives they may stay in the background just watching, though they are often aware of hidden motives and meanings before others are. These people have strong emotions and like the wolf will avoid confrontation whenever possible; but when they do defend that which they care for they will stand their ground and fight with all the strength and determination of the wild wolf. And like the wolf these people can say much with just a look.

If the Wolf does come into your life then honour him. We, as humans have done great harm to them, yet they have done no harm to us. Learn about the wolf and add your voice to giving them all the help and protection you can. And be true to your pack and the natural world around you. For the wolf will always be there in the forest of your dreams, waiting patiently for you.

Living with the Wolf © Copyright Wolfsdream / EVH 2005


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