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Thursday, December 8, 2016

My Shifting Spirituality and Fairytale Wolves

I've been thinking a lot about wolves lately. I'm in a place spiritually right now that is a bit contradictory - several events in Ireland were very empowering and intense for me and moved me into a deeper connection with the Other Crowd, but at the same time other things have become chaotic as a result. Not all of this chaos was predictable and the wolves are a good example of that. I have a long (like almost 30 years long) running relationship with birds as spiritually significant and I'm not saying that is gone necessarily but it has certainly changed. And I have never resonated with wolves before so that is an entirely new and somewhat strange feeling, yet I am being strongly drawn to them. So I began exploring what wolves symbolize to me and I started with fairytales, a subject I'd already been thinking about; the intersection of the two subjects became something of an epiphany which I'm going to try to convey here as best I can.

 Fairy tales were - if you'll forgive the expression - my bread and butter growing up; I read and re-read Grimm and watched every available Disney movie. Yeah, I was that kid. And as I got older and segued more into the older folklore and folk stories the children's fairy tales kept a place in my heart, although I was cynical enough to see the less appealing patterns in them. The princess with the tragic backstory who needed saving, or else the peasant girl with the same; in both cases the girl was almost always helpless and victimized and just waiting around for the right guy to save her and give her the perfect easy life. (Not a concept that especially appealed to me, by the way, as I always felt that the only one who was going to save me was myself). And of course there was usually the prince or sometimes a woodsman who was the hero*, rushing in at the eleventh hour to save the girl just in time. The antagonist was generally someone with inherent power in the girl's life, be that an evil queen, a step-mother, a witch, or an evil fairy - usually female by the way, because the girl's father generally died or stood by and did nothing to help her - and this antagonist was motivated more often than not by base jealousy. Not exactly the most engaging pattern once you start to see it and it did take some of the luster out of the tales for me, and that was before I got a hold of the original versions of the stories, where there mostly weren't any happy endings, just a lot of misery and retribution**.

In a few stories there is another character though - the wolf. We all know the fairytale wolf of course, the chilling howl in the night, the glowing eyes by the side of the path, the calculating predator that will try to talk you into your own destruction. The wolf, usually labeled the Big Bad Wolf, is a different kind of antagonist. The wolf isn't jealous or vengeful. The wolf isn't motivated by anger or by ambition or lust***. The wolf, you see, is simply hungry and is doing what wolves do to solve that problem and of course in the stories the wolf is anthropomorphized and so uses cleverness and guile to achieve their ends instead of simply attacking the protagonist. The wolf is the archetypal predator and in fairy tales that archetype deepens into that of the antagonist who is truly frightening precisely because they aren't motivated by human emotions, but by simple physical hunger. The wolf schemes to trick the young goats in the story of 'The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids' and Red Riding Hood in 'Little Red riding Hood' with a frightening deviousness that seems difficult to avoid. In fact in both stories the protagonists are only saved after they've been eaten, when a Hero comes along and cuts the sleeping wolf open to rescue them. Which, by the way, doesn't kill the wolf - rather the sleeping wolf is filled with stones and later wakes without realizing what's happened and usually goes to drink and falls into the river and drowns. But is the wolf really trying to kill anyone, or is the wolf teaching the other characters a lesson^? In all the stories the wolf succeeds in tricking the others and consuming them, yet in most they emerge safe - if shaken and wiser - at the end. The wolf may be a harsh teacher, but they are a ultimately a teacher in the stories: about the dangers of not listening to good advice, about the risk of letting in wolves, of the difference between safety and danger. There's some interesting layers of Fairy in there to me, of the supernatural wolf who can consume animals and people without killing them and who can't be killed even by a blade but must instead be killed by earth and water and trickery.

Little Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore (d. 1883) 
As I've been rethinking fairy tales, I've been re-thinking where I see myself in them. I am definitely no princess waiting helplessly for someone to come along and save me.  I'm no prince who needs a princess to save - really I just don't see myself in any way as one part of an equation that needs another person to be complete. And I'm not a woodsman or hunter with a sharp ax and a no other purpose but to pop up when a wolf needs cutting open. I've never liked fairytale witches with their mindless evil but I do like evil queens quite a lot as it happens; I admire the way they defied societal conventions to be women with real power in their worlds, but I dislike the random jealousy or paranoia-motivated homicide. But as I've been contemplating the wolf in stories I've found that I do connect to that concept. They are certainly forces of chaos and they seem to defy the whole idea of a clear-cut bad guy because they are just doing what wolves do and trying to get a meal (as opposed to overthrowing a kingdom or your standard step-child murder over jealousy) and excluding interpretive Victorian sexual innuendo they are non-sexual. And in most of the tales the wolf is also playing the role of teacher, giving harsh if memorable lessons to the others. I really resonate with that. They are the one character in the old fairy tales who isn't a victim with a tragic backstory who needs saving or a jerk with a sword who needs someone to save, or the villain driven by jealousy, or traditionally evil like the witches, etc., There's a purity in the danger the wolf represents and in the lessons they teach, as well as the beautiful contradiction of the way they reinforce the need for civilization and solid walls while they themselves live wild and untamed in the trackless woods.
I really admire that story line.

I began my wolf-quest with fairytale wolves and this re-assessment of their role, and from here (probably in future blogs) I will look at wolves in Irish folklore and wolves as they relate to witches, the Good People, and the Gods. These are all heavy, complex subjects and its a lot to unravel. Wolves relate to both the Morrigan and Odin, two deities I am strongly bound to, for one thing and I know there is a lot of material there to process. There is also a great deal of Irish so-called werewolf lore to get through. And on a purely personal level there is the spiritual, experiential side of things. For now, there's this poem I wrote as I meditated on the connection I feel with the fairytale wolf:

I am the Wolf ~ a poem
"You see I am the wolf -
no red clad, hooded maiden,
no ax wielding woodsman,
my role in this fairytale is
neither lost nor saving
but hunting and howling
running wild off the path
and sleeping sated in
your warm comfy bed.
That's the thing about wolves
we like our solitude but
we run in packs too
when it suits our mood.
And I am as much sharp
teeth and terrible claws
as I am soft, warm fur
and endless loyalty.
I am all of that and more,
enchantment and fierceness
Magic and menace.
You see I am the wolf
And in my story
the wolf always wins."
- M Daimler 2016

*There are some exceptions to these of course, like Hansel and Gretel were Gretel is the hero who saves her brother by shoving the witch into the oven. I'm speaking in general terms here.
**In most of the older versions for example 'consent' isn't really a thing, and the princess being conscious isn't even a requirement so in several versions of Sleeping Beauty she conceives twins while still under the curse. So much for that awoken by a kiss bit. In the older Cinderella after she marries the prince she forces her stepmother to dance to death, and in the original Little Mermaid Ariel fails to get the prince and becomes a wind spirit - and so on.
***I know a lot of later commentators do try to make everything in fairy tales into analogies for sex, including the wolves, but I suspect this is more a reflection on the culture of that time than the actual story. For a person who had no real wolves howling in the night to fear it might make sense to see the wolf as a symbol of lust or sex, but for the people first telling the tales who shivered at the sound of wolves in the darkness I think they meant the wolf to be a real wolf. To them the wolf was an animal who did lurk in the woods and who would eat little goats and pigs and even maybe naughty little girls who wander off the path into the trees.
^In the oldest version of Little Red Riding Hood the story ends with both Grandmother and Red being eaten and never rescued, but I'd still argue in that case the lesson is being taught to the reader, albeit with a far grimmer tone. I did say before that the original versions didn't have happy endings. 


  1. Look forward to more wolf posts! By the way, not sure if you count werewolves as wolves, but PSVL has done some extensive work on werewolves in Celtic lore if you're interested (

    1. yes PSVL's book on the subject is on my wishlist (but currently far out of my price range)
      I also really like C Lee Vermeers thoughts on the subject

  2. I've always cheered for the wolf (and Reynard the Fox). (Even though H&G starts out questionably with the parents abandoning their children in order to lure you you to their side, the selfish children still try to eat the gingerbread house. Ten lashes.) Poor wolf and all A-list predators ;.