Of wolves and men - A Wolf Story
As far back in time, the wolf has always fascinated men. We find it in the oral traditions of Indian or Siberian shamans, ancient Hebrew texts, Scandinavian or Asian legends, Greek or Roman mythologies, the New Testament etc... Yet its image changes, modifies and transforms itself according to the peoples and their beliefs, the times, the hazards of the history of religions and their dogmas. It is sometimes shown as strong or weak, positive or negative, sovereign or demonic. These dualities are, over the centuries, a constant in mythical or legendary stories.
A wolf story
Almost two million years ago, the ancestor of the wolf was already howling in the spaces of a world preceding the immense North American continent, covered with endless forests, steppes, gigantic glaciers, moors, deserts, wild mountains and uninhabited valleys where an antediluvian biological law reigns: that of the food chain. The family of canids will develop, diversify and conquer the planet.
One day, man will seize the wolf and its image, engraving it roughly on the walls of a cave or on bones. Men and wolves came into contact, touched and gauged each other. Homo-sapiens will little by little weave very close ties with this intelligent animal and train it, making it, between twenty and fifteen thousand years before our era, a precious ally in the hunt. Captured at a very young age, the cubs were tamed and probably became the ancestors of all the species of dogs that exist today.
Among the Amerindians, it is a symbol of strength and invincibility. For the Cheyenne, identification with his hunting skills refers to his ability to hunt. Inuit revere its strength and power and, like the Indians, recognize and admire its true role in nature. For many North American civilizations, he is a symbol of supreme strength and power: "the great organizer and guide", the intermediary being between two worlds, the real and the imaginary, the high and the low, matter and spirit. He is never shown as a competitor among these hunting peoples.
A mythological animal
In Upper Egypt, in the great city of Asyut, the wolf Oupouaout (the guide of the paths) is a deity. Wolves are embalmed in Lycopolis and their mummies rub shoulders with those of men.
In Celtic, Scandinavian, Mongolian, Turkish or Roman legends, it is often represented as a benevolent animal, protector of peoples.
Deposited on the banks of the Tiber to be drowned there by order of King Amulius, two twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the vestal Rhea Silvia and the God Mars, were collected and suckled by a she-wolf. When they grew up they decided to found a city on the place where they were abandoned. Romulus was the only survivor and gave his name to the city of Rome. A statue was erected in memory of this event, representing two children suckled by a she-wolf: the famous Capitoline Wolf.
Several cases of children being raised by wolves occurred, particularly in India. The most famous is in Midnapore in 1920 where two little girls were discovered in the den of a wolf. One of them died soon after, the other survived a few years later without having been able to acquire human language. Also in India, a child of about eight years old was discovered in 1976 playing with cubs. Shaggy, dirty, and of course wild (but healthy), he was entrusted to the Missionaries of Charity of Northern New Delhi until his death in 1985.
In these tragic stories of child abandonment, the most surprising thing is the ability of the wolves to raise cubs of another species, which proves their powerful maternal instinct.
The bad reputations wolves suffer from
In the West, it was in the Middle Ages that the image of the wolf changed. Wars, famines and epidemics followed one another during these troubled centuries. Wolves, like foxes, vultures, jackals and eagles, fed on the corpses left on the battlefields and, during very harsh winters, moved closer to towns and villages, causing fear and anger among the population.
The image of the wolf is transformed: it has become a terrifying animal, devouring human beings, which the Church hastened to denounce as the symbol of sin (just like the woman). It is quickly associated with evil, witchcraft and werewolves. Served by such a bad reputation, having become dangerous and demonic, the wolf is tracked and hunted mercilessly over the centuries, imprinting in the collective memory a phobic fear fed by popular beliefs and fairy tales, of which the famous Little Red Riding Hood is the most flagrant example.
To impress the rascals, parents will use the threat of the "big bad wolf" who will come and devour them if they are not wise. This negative image will persist for a very long time.
Werewolves, Lycanthropy and the Gévaudan Beast
The myth of the werewolf is very ancient and common to all peoples. Already in the 5th century B.C., Herodotus tells the story of the Greeks who settled by the Black Sea and saw the inhabitants of these lands as magicians capable of transforming themselves into wolves. It was in the 15th century that this legend became a religious superstition (there are reports of ointments and magic potions, pacts with the devil).
The stories of werewolves all refer to the same belief: whoever doesn't do "his Easter" for seven years in a row sees himself transformed into a ferocious bloodthirsty wolf, with flaming red eyes that it is better not to cross on his way, especially on full moon nights.
A scientific name is given to the hallucinatory phenomenon during which a man is persuaded to be a wolf: lycanthropy. One of the most famous is in Franche-Comté in 1574, where Mr. Gilles Garnier was accused of having killed and devoured several people and children, after turning into a wolf. He confessed to having coated himself with magic ointment before attacking his victims. There have been many cases of this kind. As witches, werewolves were condemned to be burned at the stake.
Between 1764 and 1767 in the current Lozere, a hairy and scraggly monster was rampant in the region and was said to be guilty of repeated attacks against herds and shepherds, women and children. Sowing terror in the region, the affair of the beast of Gévaudan (described in turn as an enormous ferocious wolf, an exotic animal, even a werewolf) went well beyond the stage of a news item. The press of the time (the Gazette de France, the Courrier d'Avignon, then the international gazettes) seized the opportunity to make a huge scandal of it, publishing hundreds of articles.
Alerted, Louis XV organized monumental battles led by his best Cub Scouts. At the end of these actions, several big wolves were killed (one of them by Jean Chastel, was officially declared to be the beast of Gévaudan). This strange story, which in three years claimed many victims, was never completely elucidated.
Rage and cohabitation with shepherds
A real scourge that appeared in the 19th century, rabies, which also affects dogs, foxes and other wild beasts, leads to great exterminations of wolves. A law passed in 1892 established a bounty for each animal killed. One thousand three hundred wolves disappeared from French territory in 1930.
Returning in 1992 from the wild wolf populations of Italy, the wolf naturally resettled in France, particularly in the Mercantour National Park, triggering numerous controversies between their defenders, friends of nature, and the shepherds worried about their herds. It appears in smaller proportions and in a non-permanent way in the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Vosges, the Jura, the Haut-Rhin la Drôme and the Massif Central.
As soon as the wolf naturally returned to France, major measures to protect the herds were put in place in the Alpes-Maritimes: reimbursement of animals killed, stress premiums, guard dogs, shepherds' helpers, fences for herd gatherings, film and video exhibitions published for information and prevention. Numerous associations are created in consultation with shepherds and breeders.
Rehabilitating the wolf, a protected species
The status and image of the wolf are still very fragile in the mentalities. It will take time for these predators to stop being victims of persecution, and to be accepted by men like the so-called "primitive" societies that respected the wolf and made it a living myth.
At the beginning of the third millennium, many wish to contribute to restoring the wolf's nobility, making it the symbol of a harmonious nature where everyone can find their place.
Wouldn't it be best to let the wolf (this beautiful animal which, deep down, resembles us in so many ways!) live in peace close to humans in harmony, like any other species, and make it a simple link in our common heritage, the earth?