No wild animal of Europe has won a fame at all comparable with that of the wolf. In myth, legend and history it figures above other beasts with an insistence which at first sight seems mysterious. What the grizzly bear is to our own far West, the tiger to India, the lion to parts of Africa, all that and much more was the wolf to our ancestors over the sea. Not only is it the chief hero among all brutes in the folk-lore of all countries of Europe, but it continues to this day to be an object of superstition among the peasantry, and its very name is a metaphor of dread.
The largest and most widely distributed of American wolves is not surpassed in strength, courage or sagacity by any European variety, and our pioneers were not without harrowing adventures with them. But our wolves acquired no such celebrity as their European congeners. The bear was generally regarded with more respect and fear by our early settlers, and its name rather than that of the wolf, is the one to conjure with in tales of wild peril. There is no essential difference between the bears of eastern North America and those once widely distributed over Europe. Why then is the wolf the “Terrible Beast" of most old tales from Scandinavia to Italy and from Spain to Russia? Philology has recently solved so many riddles that nowadays it is the fashion to explain everything by philological and etymological science, and the learned in old tongues would have us believe that the voluminous folk-lore of European peoples is largely a diverse rendering of old Grecian myths, or myths of antecedent Aryan stocks. But when the “glory that was Greece” had passed away all fancy did not die, nor did imagination cease to be stirred by stern adventure, and there is little doubt that a cruel experience of our European ancestors, with packs of famished medieval beasts, has had most to do with tales of wonder that are told around modern peasant hearth fires.
The truth is the wolf was a veritable terror in the middle ages. Ignorance of husbandry, spoliation by robber barons, wicked, reckless and protracted wars of petty sovereignties brought frequent famine. The wolf thrived where other animals declined. Hunger-driven, hunting in packs, sweeping with the dash of cavalry charges, it often destroyed such domestic animals as the cruel times had spared, devouring frequently the feeble, famished folk in the field, and even in their frail hutches. Animals like the bear might die of hunger in a wasted country where the wolf flourished and filled the land with fear. Perhaps all this is some part of the reason for a state of things that many have marveled at. Bears are still to be found in many parts of our eastern States, while the wolf is no longer known east of the Mississippi: in Europe the wolf remains in about the same proportion, while the bear has all but disappeared.
The wolf then, next to man himself, was the most terrible of medieval scourges, and as he was a constant thought of the child mind of our antecedents, he stimulated their imagination and intoxicated their fancy. He became the chief figure in tales of superhuman adventure, and fed their limitless beliefs. Then arose the horrid tales of were-wolves or man-wolves. It is not necessary to suppose this superstition a development of the classic tale of Lykaon, or any ancient myth. Lycanthropous beliefs are common to every race. In Japan men turn into foxes. To a negro anything that moves may be a bewitched, malignant person. The American Indian rather prefers to become a bear, but his fertile fancy is capable of believing mountain or cloud the metamorphosis of warrior or squaw. Yet these peoples inherited no Aryan traditions, are not versed in Grecian mythology and probably do not spend much time reading Ovid.
It is natural to believe that the werewolf superstitions of our forebears were the result of actual environment, and no crime, fantastic, weird, horrid, revolting, but what was alleged of these men-beasts, and firmly believed. In the very earliest stories of which we have any trace, men in wolf form might even be of good repute, and work for beneficent ends, but as Christianity swept over the Teuton barbarians of the North, religious fanaticism soon arrayed all that savored of magic on the side of the evil one.
No man knew but what at any moment his neighbor, friend or even his wife, or parent or children, might be transformed and do atrocious deeds. Here is a sample were-wolf story — there are hundreds of them:
A gentleman of Auvergne goes hunting and is attacked by a huge and ferocious wolf. The beast is invulnerable; the man’s gun has no effect. In a terrible hand to paw conflict the man has the good luck to back off one of the brute's forefeet and escapes. On the way home he examines the trophy, and finds to his astonishment that it has turned to a woman’s hand and his wife’s wedding ring encircles a finger. At home he finds his lady nursing the wound. What should a good medieval Christian do? He denounces his wife as a were-wolf and she is burned alive at Riom in the edified sight of thousands of the pious.
There were intermittent fevers of werewolf frenzy; the belief in them was as wide and as deep and as common as the belief in ghosts. Accused persons were tried before bishops of the church and condemned to the wheel or the stake on the slightest suspicion. An alibi from the scene of the crime counted for nothing, since the malignant spirit on entering a wolf’s skin might leave behind its human body if listed. And to add to the public credence confessions on the part of the accused were not wanting. Baring-Gould has collected many of these stories, and weird reading they are. England, Germany and France were infested with werewolves and instances of belief in them may be found among the peasantry at this day. In the sixteenth century such credulity was common. Bishops of the Catholic Church in Germany solemnly declared: “Were-wolves far more destructive than true and natural wolves.” It is not to be wondered at that with such a belief in the very air insane delusion sometimes led the feeble-minded to the conviction that they, themselves, were indeed were-wolves.
But a general decline in the belief in were-wolves came in the seventeenth century, and was replaced by beliefs in the supernatural power and sagacity of certain notable wolves. The beast was no longer a man or a woman, transformed, but a wolf whose intelligence, cunning and strength exceeded that of any man. When in some locality a fierce wolf committed depredations he was immediately endowed by the peasant’s fancy with superhuman attributes. It was no use to hunt him, for he was invulnerable; the hunter only went to his own death. All the marvelous stories of other wolves became a part of the career of the particular dreaded brute. His very daring protected him. As for cunning, Mr. Thompson’s “Lobo" was a mere bungling child in comparison. There are hundreds of stories of such distinguished wolves. One in Germany in the early part of the seventeenth century used to spring down the wide slanting chimney, across the blazing hearth-fire in winter evenings, and sit at supper with the affrighted family, who dared not object. He always ate the youngest for his dessert. Some thought him the evil one himself, and indeed with all his ferocity he did have one gentlemanly instinct; he never intruded twice upon the hospitality of the same but. The simple folk seem to have submitted tamer to the eating of their babes. But once this monster thought to vary his repast with a much-prized pig. That was too much. The peasant host found courage to kill the beast with a pitchfork, and as he expired he miraculously shrunk to the size of an ordinary wolf.
One comparatively recent example of this kind of wolf—hero is found in the Beast of Gévaudan. This ferocious animal terrorized two French departments for nearly a whole year in the early part of the last century. “He was placarded, like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold, a common wolf, and even small for that.”
All sportsmen can testify that the spirit of exaggeration is not quite dead yet, though American wolves have not been treated as courteously in this respect as the European. There were and are, however, real facts upon which some of the fame of wolves may rest. If those of long ago had miraculous attributes, so had every contemporary priest and saint; if the same wonderful achievement is told of different wolves, that too, is quite as frequently the case with human celebrities; and, finally, if great fame is built on small achievements, do not we all know what humbugs nine-tenths of our popular heroes are? Wolves were once veritable scourges in Europe. They were abundant everywhere. Along lines of travel in England, huts of refuge were maintained. The beasts were finally extirpated there in the early part of the 16th century. In Scotland they survived until the 18th century. But in parts of continental Europe they are still found. In the year 1885, France paid a bounty on nearly one thousand slain wolves.
Of the fierceness of a pack of hungry wolves, one story from hundreds of a class told without exaggeration, may be given: In the winter of 1860 a party of English gentlemen who were wolf hunting in Norway drove from their inn to a locality infested by wolves, in a sledge made with thick high, plank sides. They were soon at their dangerous sport, but the wolves proved numerous and bold beyond expectation or any previous experience. The horses, becoming unmanageable, broke loose from the sledge and were pulled down and devoured by the wolves in the sight of the party. The beasts also ate those of their own kind which the hunters shot, and this seemed to make them more bloodthirsty. They kept increasing in numbers, and grew bolder as night fell. Finally it became necessary to overturn the sledge and crawl under it to avoid the springs of the boldest of the beasts. With hunting knives, holes were cut, through which the hunters shot, but they became so benumbed with cold that their fire had little effect. When it grew dark the wolves swarmed upon their extemporized fortress, and so fierce and desperate were they that in places they gnawed holes through the wood. It was a night of agony for the hunting party; but at daylight, the beasts became less bold, and the gentlemen were rescued by native hunters. The thick planking of the sledge alone saved them on a field where the remains of nearly a hundred wolves were counted.
There are numerous records of well authenticated instances of the display on the part of the wolf of great cunning, sagacity and strategy. They have “played possum” or feigned death under various tortures, and so effected escape. They have sometimes even drawn up set fish lines and taken the fish. And they have repeatedly sprung traps from the under side, and “have frequently been known to take the bait from a gun, without injury to themselves, by first cutting the line of communication between the two." They are also many examples of the domestication of wolves when captured young; and when tamed they have shown fondness for their masters. When domesticated they will mate with dogs toward whom in their wild state they seem to have a natural antipathy. But captured, partly tamed wolves have relapses into savagery and are not considered desirable pets. Whether the dog is a descendant from a common parentage with the wolf has long been a mooted question. Some authorities think dogs more nearly allied to the jackals, or to so-called wild dogs of certain lands. But all, together with foxes, belong to an extensive, widely scattered and interesting genus. It is one of nature’s many contradictions that an animal whose name is a synonym of ferocity and fear should differ scarcely at all anatomically or physiologically from the one which is man’s most faithful and trusted friend.