In this entry from the #WhitworthBestiary, Matthew takes an in-depth look at some of our oldest fears and how they have led humans to make a villain of the wolf; morphing it into an anthropomorphic symbol of danger in the stories we tell.
To be in a forest is to be disconnected from civilisation; to return, however briefly, to a primordial past. It is to move through nature, and expose yourself to it. It is a space sundered from that which you are familiar with, where your own expectations and ideals are like the pulp of rotten leaves beneath your feet. Imagination can conjure all-too-real monsters in those dark spaces.
Like a forest, the story that we now know as Little Red Riding Hood has roots stretching back into the timeless. It owes its enduring contemporaneity not only to the intrinsic ‘otherness’ afforded to the dwindling number of wild places, but also the familiarity of the antagonist. The forest may be bark and leaves, or flesh and blood; the wolf a natural predator, or a beast within every person.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses retells a narrative that was ancient even by the first century CE. Lycaon was King of the Greek city-state of Arcadia. Zeus, receiving reports of evil-doings among humanity, decides to walk the earth in human guise to see if this is true. Upon visiting the court of King Lycaon, the god is greeted reverently by the locals. The king, jealous and unconvinced of Zeus’ omnipotence, decides to test the god by disguising human flesh and offering it to him at a feast. Outraged, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf, making sure that his lust for killing would never be sated. The name Lycaon itself derives from the Greek word for ‘wolf,’ and the narrative may originally have been aetiological, intended to explain a ritual in Arcadia in honour of Zeus that supposedly involved human sacrifice and lycanthropy – the physical transformation into a wolf.
Predating even this is the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2000 BCE). The oldest surviving work of literature features the protagonist, Gilgamesh, spurning the advances of the Goddess, Ishtar, by listing the fate of others whom had loved her. This includes an unnamed shepherd who was transformed into a wolf by the goddess, fated to be chased away by his own dogs (Epic of Gilgamesh, VI, 61). Like the story of Lycaon, this narrative features men who have been not only transformed into wolves, but banished from civilisation and into the wilderness, their humanity peeled back to reveal the animal within.
It’s not until Belgium in the 11th century CE that we find a written narrative that can be said to be the source of the familiar Brothers Grimm fairytale. Egbert of Lieges compiled a book of poems entitled Fecunda Ratis (the richly laden ship) between c.1022 – 1024 CE, which is likely to have been based upon oral stories that had circulating amongst the peasantry for perhaps hundreds of years. The short poem tells of a young girl dressed in a red tunic who wanders off into the woods alone, and is soon set upon by a wolf. She is dragged back to the wolf’s lair, and offered to a litter of pups. However, the hungry pups are physically unable to devour her, their aggressiveness miraculously transformed into affection. God has interceded, and the girl is saved. The wolf in this narrative is a conventional predator that is common in Christian symbolism; one that preys upon the faithful. The protagonist a baptised Christian, and thus is afforded divine protection. The story was written for young students, all of whom would have been boys, and can be interpreted as serving a dual purpose: warning the young students of the perils of wild places, and yet exalting the omnipotence of God.
The wolf has long been treated with mistrust, fear, and scorn, especially in rural communities, so it is no surprise that the wolf itself was often amalgamated with the more sinister traits in people. During the Medieval and Early Modern period, wolves were hunted to near extinction in parts of Europe, and were wiped out completely from the British Isles. Despite attacks on humans being rare, when it did occur it often drew much commentary. This is a contrast to the narrative of Little Red Riding Hood: rather than a person stepping into the wilderness – the realm of the wolf – here wolves have entered the human domain, and the outcomes were often catastrophic. On several occasions during the 15th century, wolves entered the city of Paris during harsh winters in desperate search of food. The Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, a diary written by a French clergyman during the first half of the 15th century, reports of one infamous pack that entered the city and was said to number 80 wolves, led by a red-tinted wolf named Courtaud, or ‘bobtail,’ since it was missing the tip of its tail. Eventually, the wolf pack was lured to the îlle de la cité, where they were butchered by townspeople in front of Notre Dame. Whilst this is one of the most dramatic encounters between wolves and people, other documented instances of conflict include 1765 in Soissons, France, where a lone wolf is said to have attached 18 people over the course of 2 days, killing 4 of them. Conflict seems to follow wherever wolves and people meet – two distinct and opposing ways of life unable to co-exist.
These wolves were often personified. They were given names, characteristics that set them apart from the average wolf; artworks were created of them, huge rewards set aside for their extermination. They became the villains in their own mythos: one wolf, known as the Beast of Gevaudan, was reportedly slain several times before the attacks finally stopped. Like in the story of Red Riding Hood, these wolves are given almost human characteristics. The anthropomorphising of wolves is a recurring theme, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Beast of Gevaudan. The blurring of lines between human and wolf is seen when Red Riding Hood mistakes the wolf for her grandmother; ‘What big hands you have’, she says, rather than ‘what big paws you have.’
In 1697, Charles Perrault wrote Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ This is the precursor to the version told by the Brothers Grimm, and features many of the same tropes: a young girl dressed in red visiting her grandmother’s cottage encounters a wolf in the forest along the way. Unaware that it was ‘dangerous to stay and talk to a wolf,’ she divulges where she is going, and the wolf challenges her to a race to her grandmother’s cottage. Arriving first, the wolf eats the grandmother, mimics her voice when Red Riding Hood finally arrives, and then eats her too. In this version, however, there is no huntsman to save the girl, and the wolf is victorious. Perrault’s aim was to tell a morality tale. Indeed, his tale ends with a didactic note: children, and in particular young girls, shouldn’t talk to strangers as there are potential wolves in every person.
This concept of an anthropomorphic wolf ‘metamorphizing’ into Red Riding Hood’s grandmother mimics the older myths where there is some sort of transformation from human to animal. It was a concept that existed in numerous cultures over millennia, yet found new impetus in the werewolf trials of the early modern period. Though not as common as witch trials, werewolf trials developed in Switzerland and spread around Europe and North America. One of the most infamous was that of Peter Stumpp, who in the 1580s was accused of murder in Germany. Following torture, he confessed to having been gifted a girdle from the Devil, which allowed him to metamorphose into a wolf whenever he wore it. During the course of his alleged killing spree, he is said murdered and eaten 14 children, including his own son, as well as two pregnant women. In 1589, Stumpp and his daughter and mistress were brutally executed. This is the ultimate clash between civilisation and the wilderness; the two cannot coexist; one must be destroyed. The beast is slain according to man-made laws, and the community moves on detached from its natural surroundings.
This demonising of wolves as some evil force has rippled down to the present day. With their natural environment reduced, wolves have been pushed to the extremities. Civilisation does not accept them, and their own natural habitat is constantly shrinking in advance of human progression. Despite this, some conservationists who aspire to rewild parts of Britain believe the reintroduction of wolves is an integral part of it, as they help keep down herd animals such as deer, which in turn leads towards a more diverse ecosystem. Opposition to this is strong, and the wolf is still seen by many as symbolising something different, dangerous. Familiar in stories as a monster to be avoided: a ghost of the wilderness.