Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ancient Symbology Of The Wolf

Wolf design
15th Century AD Scottish hand-and-a-half sword from Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. 

Even though the wolf was often portrayed as a symbol of destruction and chaos - when personified by such entities as Fenrir (the giant winter wolf of Scandinavian Mythology), it was also a warrior's symbol. 

I’ve seen wolves etched into the blades of Highland swords in Blair Atholl and Edinburgh National Museum. Such motifs, meant to bring luck in battle, are lingering refrains of the ancient belief that objects created from metal were not inanimate objects. The Celts across ancient Europe saw metal as a magical element, to inscribe a  design onto a blade was to endow that object with a powerful essence. The inscribed wolf on a sword offers us a tantalising glimpse of a thought process that is a direct inheritance from more ancient times. 

To call upon the wolf; its ferocity, its fury - for tribes across the world was to ‘become’ the predator, and was achieved through various methods. Codexes from Mexico portray a Cuetlachtli warrior dressed in a wolf skin. Other warriors wear predator pelts and wolf warriors appear across the globe. Tales abound in which people turned into wolves by wearing their skins. Warriors may have taken part in a sort of animalising ritual, in which the movements of the wolf were mimicked. By performing such rites, as a ‘wolf-dace,’ the warrior would gain ’sympathy’ with the wolf.

Wolf Ceremony
6th c. Ad from Bjornhouda, Torslunda parish, Oland

Giving credence to this idea is the famous plate from a 6th century AD helmet. In this we see a dancing figure with a horned ceremonial helmet (most likely a priest of Odin or perhaps the god himself) and a warrior in the guise of a wolf. Odin also had two wolf companions, Geri and Freki.  It has been speculated by historian, Michael P. Speidel, of the evidence of a warrior wolf cult, associated with Odin. These 'Berserkers' wore the skins of wolves or bears when they charged into battle. 

 To identify with a predator like the wolf was to be a better warrior. There are examples of ‘wolf clad warriors’ on Trajan’s Column and the Germanic association with war and wolf was reflected in name prefixes like Ulf, Wulf (a famous example being Beowulf). The Germanic tribe the Alamanni were proud wolf-warriors, and the Langobards (Lombards) were known to have ‘hound-headed’ warriors in their bands (cynocephali). In ancient Italy the Brettii were the young, wolfish outcasts of the Lucani (wolfmen). Such themes abound in history, surviving well into the Medieval period (and perhaps this warlike association is hinted at in tales of lycanthropes).  

Viking design
5th Century AD gold bracteate depicting Tyr and Fenris

In Roman mythology Mars, God of war, took the wolf as his sacred animal (along with the bear). Back to the Vikings and Tyr, the warrior god, lost his hand to Fenrir while binding the wolf (incidentally the Romans sometimes identified the god Mars with Tyr). 

In North American Indian mythology many tribes treated Wolf with great respect. Wolf was a creator and loyal protector that offered fortune in the hunt, but for the Plains tribes he was a symbol of war and identified with the warrior. 

I think here we see natural observations taking symbolic form across various cultures. The wolf’s predatory nature is reflected in a duality of themes, from being a malign entity to guardian and helper.  Perhaps then the wolf is a symbol of unbridled nature, something to be accessed in times when humanity is uncalled for and brute strength is required, such as courage in battle. The wolf is to be respected. Yet it also reveals its nurturing nature in themes as Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were suckled as infants by the Capitoline She-wolf. 

Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus from the Capitoline, Rome

Myth is an ongoing process. It evolves, even as we guess the nature of the symbology of the past, drawing our conclusions, it mutates - myth can never wholly be what it once was. We superimpose our own preconceptions, our political and moral tastes upon these ideas. Thus much modern wolf imagery symbolises modern man's sense of departure and longing for the wild. The wolf embodies a sort of noble sense of the power of nature, its uncertainty and mystery. There is a striking sense of power and pride in much of the visual data (as a google image search will instantly reveal). It appeals to the sense of community (the pack) and yet appeals to those appreciating solitude (the lone wolf). 

Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Ancient Germanic Warriors - Michael P. Speidel

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