Heathenry has always had a fascination with wolves. From ancient sagas to modern Facebook groups, the image of the wolf is ubiquitous. Among most modern Heathen groups the wolf is often seen as a symbol of strength, willpower, and fierce loyalty. However, while the wolf as a symbol might be a constant in our traditions, its meaning is not. Far from being a positive totem of our community, the wolf was the quintessential ‘monster to the ancient Germanic cultures. So in a community that’s rather focused on preserving the old Lore, how and why did this shift manage to occur?
The Lore is practically overflowing with lupine antagonists. Fenrir bit off the hand of Tyr and is foretold to be the death of the Allfather. Sköll and Hati (Treachery and Hate) chase the sun and the moon across the sky, and will catch them at the end of days. Garmr is the wolf of Hel, who is said to be to wolves what Odin is to the gods and Yggdrasil is to trees. His howl is said to signal the coming of the Ragnarök (which, coincidentally, is referred to as the Age of Wind and Wolves).
Wolves were a common symbol of ill tidings or intent. In the poem Hyndluljoth, the giantess Hyndla rides a wolf for a mount, signaling the reader that the giantess is not as friendly as Freyja expects her to be at first. The giant Hyrrokkin, who acts as a kind of pallbearer at Baldr’s funeral, rode a wolf as well. Not only was this a symbol of the grim event itself, but despite belonging to a friendly giant, the wolf attacks the guards that the gods set to keep it contained during the funeral. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is called a “wolf of the deeps”, and even some of the old Icelandic law codes refer to criminals (mostly thieves and murderers) as vargar -wolves. Wherever we see the wolf, we see strife and conflict. The wolf is almost synonymous with battle, to the point where they were even tied to the Valkyrie of battle herself, Gunnr. The kenning “Gunnr’s Horse” referred to the wolf as the bringer of war itself.
Even in those examples found in the Lore where the wolf is seen as being on ‘our side’, they are always addressed with a certain amount of fear. The Úlfhéðnar, for example, were a class of berserkers that were closely associated with Odin. While respected as mighty warriors, these men were also uncontrollable both on and off the battlefield. In conflict they were said to rage and bite at their shields, having no place in the tactical formations of other warriors. At home, they were often said by the common folk to be violent, with little regard for life or property. Even Odin’s lupine companion’s names, Geri and Freki, roughly translate to Gluttony and Greed. They may be tamed by the chief of the Aesir, but they are still dangerous beasts that belong on a battlefield. The power of the wolf could be harnessed, but it was a dangerous tool that could just as easily turn on you.
That’s why, with all of this precedent set down in the Lore, it’s so surprising to see how modern Heathens have turned the wolf into such a seemingly positive totem. Josh over at Heathen Talk commented on this phenomenon a while back, pointing out how common it is to see memes and tee-shirts like this one, equating Heathens to wolves. Far from being monstrous, they’re made out to be an exemplar of our community! Fiercely loyal to their own, untamed, unburdened, the wolf has transformed from being the threatening outsider in the night to the paragon of a tribal mentality. Now at first this may seem like a simple mistake made in ignorance, but from an anthropological perspective, there’s an interesting narrative hidden in the social status of the wolf.
In the Lore, the wolf is the outsider who preys upon society. They steal away hard won resources, breaking down the bond of civilization that we fought so hard to build. In essence, they are raiders. So why the glorification of such a dangerous and destructive force? When the old ways were the dominant belief system in its area, it shaped the culture and society. Heathenry, though it wasn’t called that at the time, was the force behind the walls that the outsiders were attacking. When Christianity finally took over as the dominant belief structure in Northern Europe, we suddenly BECAME the outsiders. Suddenly we were the ones in the dark of the woods while Christians constructed society in their own image. Somebody else was building the walls now.
The rise of the ‘Heathen Wolf’ stems from the same social tides that shaped the common image of the Norse as a ‘warrior culture’, despite the fact that most of the ancestors were farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. It’s the same reason who so many Heathens forget the merchants, the artists, the poets, and the explorers that shaped our culture in favor of the Vikings. Surrounded on all sides by a mainstream culture that tends to range from ambivalent to sometimes even antagonistic towards minority religions like ours, it’s easy to feel culturally ‘cornered’ and want to fall back on the image of warriors more than poets and scientists. Thus, we see Vikings elevated from pirates to symbols of resistance. So too with the wolf. In a bid for survival in perceived times of hardship, we become the beast.
Closing thoughts: This piece was written as a simple examination of the role wolves play in both ancient a modern iterations of our tradition, without any comment as to whether such a thing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If you want to know more about my thoughts on the limitations of this “Warrior Ethos”, you should read my piece called Faces of Odin.