Over the course of the interaction between Native American traditions and colonial mindsets in North America, the full moon that rises in the night sky tonight came to known as the “wolf moon”. Combining the settlers’ penchant for recording weather events and the changing of the seasons in a farmers’ almanac and the symbols employed by those most familiar with their natural environment, the wolf moon reflected meanings that were rooted in a way of life that is alien to a society that procures its sustenance at the corner grocery store and where scarcity is determined by an artificial money supply as opposed to the migratory habits of caribou.
The symbolism of the wolf together with the moon implies deep connections to nature and a level of communion with our environment most of us cannot fathom as we sit comfortably in our living rooms, scrolling down the social media news feed on the glossy cellular device where you probably came across this post.
This moon, in particular, is so named to convey the harshness of the middle of winter, when food becomes scarce and communal cohesion takes on the greatest importance. Banding together with your tribe was a matter of life and death at this time more than any other and special attention had to be paid to the resources accumulated during previous months, as well placing more emphasis on strategic hunting skills like stalking to make the most of drastically reduced opportunities.
In the Native American cultures of North America, the wolf attained a more sophisticated range of meanings and associations than in it did in Western or Eastern (Asian) cultures, which shifted to agrarian or pastoral societies much earlier in their development, resulting in a more distorted and fantastical view of the animal; often fixating on the negative aspects of the wild beast and forgetting its relationship to man as part of the same ecosystem.
Nevertheless, it is an undeniable fact that wolves are among the most – if not the most – significant animals to feature in the cosmology of almost all early human cultures. Indeed, this enigmatic creature maintains its dominant place among our own modern-day culture, albeit in somewhat concealed form, through our love affair with dogs, which have been proven through DNA testing to have evolved from a single species of wolf thousands of years ago.
With the “wolf moon”, both the wild and domesticated versions of wolf symbolism intertwine in a strange, roundabout kind of way. The descendants of the agrarian and pastoral culture that disembarked on Plymouth Rock hundreds of years ago, bringing with it a distorted image of the forest-dwelling predator, was reunited with a purer vision of the four-legged hunter many Natives of the land still identified with.
Fooled by Duality
Even the most bellicose, seemingly negative connotations surrounding wolves in mythology, such as the Norse end-times saga Ragnarök (Twilight of the Gods), retain vital elements of regeneration. The 13th century compilation of traditional sources containing the apocalyptic tale, is said to harken back to a very ancient belief in these regions that mankind was created from tree trunks.
In the medieval telling of Ragnarök, a great wolf named Fenrir and son of the shape-shifting Norse god Loki, is chained to the World Tree Yggdrasil, around which the whole of creation exists. The wolf is bound to the tree in order to prevent it from devouring the “world and the heavens“. Two other wolves, Skoll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, chase the sun and the moon, eventually consuming both and plunging the world into darkness, breaking Fenrir from its bindings and brining about the total destruction of humanity.
Speculation over the reason wolves were chosen to play destructive roles in the Ragnarök allegory have been attributed to “true experiences of wolf-behaviour”, according to Ethologist Valerius Geist, who wrote a 300-page dissertation with the intention of dispelling the “myth” that wolves pose no threat to humans. Geist purports to demonstrate why even modern works of fiction like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs are based on “sound evidence” of wolf predation.
The whole point of the Ragnarök myth is the ultimate rebirth of the world after the final destiny of the gods is completed. At the conclusion of the great conflagration, two humans awake in a “green and beautiful” world again, which they are to repopulate. Unfortunately, individuals like Geist (ironically, a professor of Environmental Science) have adopted an unbalanced approach to the behavior of wolves, availing themselves of the darkest characterizations of the animal in Western literature together with isolated incidents of violent encounters between humans and wolves, in order to justify an irrational fear of one of the most vital cogs in the ecosystem of North America.
The presence of wolves in creation myths is not arbitrary, but rather a consequence of their importance to the environment. This reality was attested to in the 20th century as the decimation of the wolf population in the United States as a result of a 1920’s government policy that allowed indiscriminate hunting of Yellowstone’s grey wolves, wreaking havoc on the delicate ecological balance of the region, which was known as the trophic cascade.
It wasn’t until the 1995 Endangered Species Act, that efforts were made to reintroduce the grey wolf into Yellowstone. The wolf’s absence had allowed an explosion of the elk population. Without a predator to keep the elk off the lower elevations where the rivers flowed, the large member of the deer family consumed the tree saplings, suppressing the growth of willow, aspen and cottonwood trees. This, in turn, caused the temperature to rise and the trout population in the rivers to both shrink and grow smaller. In addition, the wolfs’ disappearance made room for the coyote to roam free and decimate antelope, fox and rodent populations.
All of these biodiversity problems were resolved once the grey wolf was brought back into Yellowstone, restoring balance to an ecosystem that clearly depends on an animal some insist on painting as a vicious parasite that must be exterminated. Despite the clear evidence of the wolfs’ value to the environment, there has been a renewed push to drive wolf populations down once again by big agricultural interests and ranching operations.
In 2011, the Rocky Mountain wolf was removed from the endangered species list in an unprecedented act of Congress. Never before had any creature been removed from such a list by lawmakers, as this privilege had always been reserved for biologists. In 2020, the Trump administration followed suit by removing the grey wolf from the list and returned management back to the states and federal tribes.
Down Wolf Road
Among First Nation peoples, the Pawnee of the central plains had the closest relationship with the wolf. Their identification with the animal is preserved in their creation story, which ties the killing of a grey wolf to the introduction of death into the world. The Pawnee call themselves people of the wolf and the hand signal representing their tribe is the same one used to represent the wolf.
Many other tribes also had strong connections to the wolf and while some, like the Apache limited it to taking up the attributes of the wolf when readying for battle, many like the Pawnee considered the wolf spirit to be somehow tied to the creation of the world. The Arikara and Ojibwe people, for instance, believed that a wolfman spirit created the Great Plains for them and other animals; almost as if they had a firsthand understanding of the fundamental role played by the wolf in the survival of the ecosystem they are a part of.
Why wouldn’t they? After all, it is only the arrogance of the West that dismisses any knowledge or wisdom that is not acquired through Western culture’s methods. Living in harmony with nature is not an easy task. Coming to terms with difficulties and challenges we don’t necessarily understand are part and parcel of successfully navigating the great mystery. The wolf moon reminds us to not let the darkness consume our spirit and that there are things we cannot see. In spite of this, we must move forward together.
The famous meme of the two wolves attributed to the Cherokee, which has so often made the rounds on social media tells the tale of a man who harbors two wolves within himself, a good and a bad one. The moral is supposed to lead you to judgement, warning that the wolf you feed is the wolf that will get stronger. This, however, is actually a corrupted version of the original, which lacks any such Judeo-Christian morality. The Native version is decidedly more enlightened, recommending that both animals be fed in equal measure to avoid repressing either and risking that one or the other sneak up behind you one day to get its due.