Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Wolf lore


It is curious how few subjects can be chosen which will not afford a fund of amusing legends and strange learning to those who take the trouble to search in old books. Let us take, for example, such an unpromising creature as the wolf, and trace out a few of his associations; premising that tales and incidents connected with wolves are so abundant, we shall only extract a few as samples. Everyone is familiar with the wolf from zoological gardens and menageries, and knows that he is much like a large shepherd-dog; from which he is, however, scientifically marked off by the fact of his tail being straight, whereas it is curved in the canine families. They are almost universally distributed through the temperate regions (where they have not been exterminated), shading off into jackals, hyenas, &c., towards the tropics, and giving way to their warmer-clad brethren, the foxes, in the Arctic regions. As their bones have been found in the great fossil cave of Aurignac in France, they can assert a high antiquity; for the relics of seventeen human skeletons were also found there, which are the oldest specimens of humanity known to geologists. With their regal memories of rearing the founders of Rome, it is humiliating to be obliged to confess that, like Eastern ghouls, they condescend to tear up and devour the dead, when hard pressed by hunger. There are even stories extant of their eating earth when in such straits, but their friends explain away this unpleasant fact by cleverly turning it into a virtue. They wisely lay up food in times of abundance, it is said, and then dig it up when starving; and hence the calumny has sprung.

In English poetry wolves serve as examples of cunning and ferocity. One modern poet makes Iphigenia, just before her sacrifice by the Grecian chiefs, say:

The stern, blaDimly I could descry
The stern, black-bearded kings, with wolfish eyes,
The steWaiting to see me die.

They are more important in the domain of fable. We all remember how wisely one discourses of the joys of perfect liberty to the pampered house-dog, whose neck is yet somewhat grazed by the chain; and how another picked a quarrel with the lamb, and reproached the crane for asking payment for its surgical assistance when it had had the good fortune to escape from his very jaws. Their character is here looked at in its shrewd worldly-wise aspect: something like Ulysses himself, they have seen much and learnt much, and are always equal to the occasion. They do not fare quite so well perhaps in popular estimation, if we judge from proverbs. “Talk of a wolf and you will see him,” was the Roman proverb we translate “Talk of the devil, &c,” or, as the present more delicate century paraphrases it, “Speak of the angels, and you may hear the rustling of their wings.” The same people expressively spoke of “having a wolf by the ears,” to signify that they were in great straits and could neither advance nor retire. Similarly, to “be between the dog and the wolf,” was to be between two fires, to interfere between husband and wife; and “to take a lamb from the wolf,” was to snatch meat from a dog’s mouth. Dean Trench justly stigmatises “One must howl with the wolves,” as being the most dastardly of all proverbs. You must join in running down, that is, every object of popular detestation, lest you should be supposed guilty of sympathising with it. The Greeks with their lively fancy took a humorous view of the animal, speaking of “a wolf’s wings,” as we do of pigeon’s milk or pig’s wool.

As for wolves in England, everyone knows from his school-books in whose reign they were exterminated by making taxes payable in their heads. Quite recently, however, a few have been killed at different places in England, the theory for their discovery being that when fox-cubs are imported (as often happens) from France, one or two wolf-cubs have come accidentally amongst them. As late as Queen Elizabeth’s reign they are said to have been seen in Dean Forest and Dartmoor, and in 1281 a commission was appointed to destroy wolves in the midland counties. We may gather the rigour with which wolves used to be hunted down in earlier times from a collection of Edward the Confessor’s Laws, ratified by the Conqueror. If anyone violently infringe the Church’s protection, it is there laid down, on contempt of its sentence, he is to be outlawed by the king, and then, “from the day of the outlawry his head is a wolf’s head.” In Ireland wolves used to swarm, and the Irish wolf-dog is a breed as distinct and as celebrated as the Scottish deer-hound. In this latter country the last two wolves were killed between 1690 and 1700. An amusing writer, who travelled through Sutherlandshire about 1650, says of it, after enumerating divers animals, “specially here never lack wolves more than are expedient.” Even now, in a severe winter, wolves leave the forests and press up to the very outskirts of a place no further from us than Rouen, attacking the sheep and alarming the inhabitants.

But it is in superstition and magical ceremonies that the wolf’s fame stands highest. All the ancient nations associated it with the world of darkness. It is represented on the painted walls of the Egyptian catacombs and temples, and is probably connected there with some esoteric doctrine of the transmigration of souls. In all the descriptions of Roman magical practices which have come down to us, the commonest feats ascribed to Mœris or Canidia (those wizards of world-wide renown), are to draw the moon down from the sky, and to become wolves at pleasure and hide themselves in the woods. If the unfortunate wryneck was the bird sacred to the softer impulses of love, and when bound to a wheel and slowly turned round was believed to bring a recreant lover to his languishing admirer’s feet, the wolf was universally consecrated to darker deeds of blood and vengeance. Nothing escaped Shakespeare, and the “tooth of wolf” is of course an ingredient in the hell-broth brewed by the witches in Macbeth. That most credulous of old naturalists, Pliny, has some wonderful stories of the potent effects of this animal’s influence. Horses are rendered torpid if they do but tread on its tracks. With some glimmering, we suppose, of the mediæval doctrine of signatures, he goes on to tell us its liver is shaped like a horse’s hoof. If any one wished for an infallible receipt to keep wolves off his premises, he had only to cut off a wolf’s feet, sprinkle the blood round his grounds, and take care to bury the animal itself at the place where the operation commenced. This has a wonderful smack of Mrs. Glasse’s celebrated roast-hare, which it is first necessary to catch. Just as peasants nail up horseshoes at the present day to keep away witches, so the snout of a wolf used at Rome to be considered a sure charm against witchcraft, and was frequently fastened over house-doors. Superstitions, like children’s games, often linger in the world longer than arts and kingdoms and schemes of government.

From very old times there has been a current belief that some men by the aid of magic and demons could become wolves, and return at will to their real nature. The author we have just quoted (than whom Herodotus himself was not fonder of marvels) tells us of an Arcadian who lived nine years with wolves and then returned to mankind, just as “Bonny Kilmeny” spent her time with the fairies and came back,—

When seven long years had come and fled;
When grief was calm, and hope was dead.

And another Arcadian priest, while offering human sacrifices, chanced to taste “the boy he was offering up,” and forthwith became a wolf for ten years; a story which must be true, for did not this very man after his restoration win a victory at the Olympic games? These “wolf-men,” as they were called, curiously enough reappear under the name of were-wolves in Gothic superstition: that gloomy people told of strange men meeting you and forthwith bounding off like wolves. In this state they used to prey on sheep and men with unusual ferocity, and were objects of great dread to all. Our word “turncoats” springs from this belief. It was also said that if a wolf once looked behind it while feeding, a sudden forgetfulness came upon it and it departed. This story can easily be traced to the indiscriminate rapacity of the animal, which forbade its ever leaving off while anything remained to eat. Let us conclude these legends with one of special interest to the ladies. For the peace and quietness’ sake of the poor wolves in the Zoological Gardens, we have half a mind to forbear; but remembering the fate of Orpheus, and having once aroused a woman’s curiosity, perhaps the safer plan will be to go on. Well, then, there is a love-charm of peculiar virtue resident in one hair of a wolf’s tail. It is even more potent than the fabled hippomanes, more quick than the drug the “caitiff wretch” of an apothecary sold Romeo in his need. Alas, that we should throw any obstacles in a lady’s way! but—it must be plucked from the tail of the animal while it is alive!

Wolves have left their traces on our flowery banks. The lycopodiums or puff-balls are so called from their resemblance to the dark circular cushion-like foot of a wolf. Its upper surface, again, was seen by the fanciful botanists of old in the cut leaves of the gipsy-wort or lycopus, which means wolf’s-foot. The gaping mouth of the wolf has also its supposed analogue in the bugloss or lycopsis (wolf’s-face).

How far the huge bits used by our horse-breakers answer to the “wolfish teeth-bits” with which the Roman horses were ridden, we must leave to those of our “horsey” friends who are also classical scholars.

Not unnecessarily to remind readers of the boy in the fable who cried “wolf, wolf!” untruly, we will now really conclude this paper with one more instance of wolf lore. It speaks with peculiar propriety to travellers in lands where wolves may reasonably be expected to appear. Be sure, then, that you keep a sharp look-out for the animal, and contrive if you possibly can to see him before he sets eyes on you; otherwise you will infallibly be struck dumb.

Lupi Mœrin videre priores.