"The moon was created for the counting of days." - Hebrew midrash
By January, Winter is in its depths. We may be more than halfway to Summer, but the world gives little sign. The nights are shorter, but still long. The returning sun is still too far and too feeble to melt the snow.
For our ancestors, huddled in their homes and living off their stores, it was a frightening time. Food stocks were dwindling – and from one year to the next, there was never a guarantee that what you had would last til Spring. The dark world outside, with its howling wind and bitter cold, seemed haunted with horrors.
And around this time, the wolves came. With almost everything hidden and hibernating, or gone off to warmer climes, game was scarce, and by January the forests were getting just as sparse as the pantries. So the wolves – clever, adaptive – ventured into new places, hoping to find a meal. They moved through the fields, even through the villages.
By this late stage of Winter, the wolf was – literally – at the door.
Welcome to the Wolf Moon.
Read on . . .
"Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is." - German Proverb
And the wolf usually doesn’t need any help. Wolves are scary. Wolves are not just creatures of the Wild - they are the Wild. They skulk through myths and legends and fairy tales as symbols of everything menacing, ravenous, and savage. The Three Bears had a house, beds and all, but the Wolf just roamed the forest, waiting for Red to come by.
Vishna created hundreds of wolves to frighten the people of Vraja into migrating. Finnish myth portrays the wolf as so destructive that one of the Finnish words for wolf, hukka, essentially means “doom”. The Tsilhqot'in people of British Columbia believed they brought illness or death, while the Navajo feared the Mai-cob, witches in wolves’ clothing. Persians believed wolves to be the creation of the evil spirit Ahirman.
"Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon / Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe: / Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir's kin, / Who shall pursue the Sun." - Grimnismal, The Elder Edda
And they don't just bedevil us humans - wolves prowl the divine realms as well. The Norse gods dealt with their own wolf at the door. Fenrir, the great wolf, was foretold to kill Odin. The gods eventually bound him, but only at the cost of the god Tyr’s right hand. Fenrir’s children were foretold to devour the sun and moon at Ragnarok.
Likewise, Scandinavian legend says a wolf follows Mani (the boy that drives the moon-car) and his sister Sol (the sun), and will devour them both at the end of time. Some versions of Chinese myth said a wolf ate the sun during an eclipse, and the people banged drums and shot arrows to drive him away. The aforementioned Skoll and Hati caused eclipses in Viking mythology.
The Cree believed the Northern Lights seen in Winter were the visit of divine wolves. A wolf stole Storm’s whirlwind bag in Pawnee legend, accidentally releasing the first people. The Hopi included the wolf as one of the Kachinas. The Scottish goddess Cailleach, who brings destruction and Winter, rides a wolf.
"The timber wolves will be our friends / We'll stay up late and howl, / At the moon, till nighttime ends, / Before going on the prowl" - Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes
But our relationship with the wolf is more complex than just predator and prey. They are more than just physical and spiritual boogeymen. In Japan, the wolf was once worshiped, and offerings were once left at their dens in hopes they would protect the crops from boars and deer. The Tanaina people of Alaska see the wolf as a brother. Chippewa stories told of wolves supplying humans with food and hides. And many tribes, from the Cheyenne to the Crow to the Nunamiut connected themselves to wolves through various rituals for better success in hunting.
Wolves have been seen as a symbol of the Jungian shadow-self. A Cherokee story tells of two wolves fighting within a man - one good, one evil - as a symbol of our own dual natures. The Roman playwright Plautus used wolves as a symbol of man’s cruelty to man. And of course the “wolf-man” is an old (and oft-cinematized) symbol of the savagery we all still hold inside.
“Don’t be fooled, I was raised by the wolves / Now the moon hangs in full, so you know I won’t play by the rules.” - Falling in Reverse, “Raised by Wolves”
This connection to the wolves - and the Wild - is seen in how many cultures find kinship with them. Remus and Romulus, according to Rome’s founding legend - were raised by a she-wolf. My own chosen god, Faunus, is known also as Lupercus - a name meaning both “he who guards against the wolf” and “brother to the wolf”. The Pawnee were called the “Wolf People”.
Turkic legend says the she-wolf Ashina Tuwu was mother to the first of the Khans. Mongolian legend said Genghis Khan was the son of the blue wolf and a deer. Lakota legend tells of an injured woman taken in and cared for by a wolf pack, teaching her secrets of the wilderness. Chechen legend says the hero Turpalo-Noxchuo was raised by a wolf-mother. The Quileute people of Washington state (the real ones, not the Twilight version) believe themselves to be descended from wolves.
"We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves." - Gerald Hausman
All this makes sense. Wolves are the great archetype of the wilderness. More than perhaps any other animal, their presence tells us we are beyond the safe boundaries of civilization. And no animal's call says "wilderness" like the piercing howl of the wolf.
So they exist both as fearful totems of all that lay beyond our control, all the untamed menace of Nature red in tooth and claw . . . and as a reminder of what we really are. We feel a kinship with the wolves because we have a kinship with the wolves. Werewolves run free across movie screens because they resonate with that simple truth - we are animals, and predators. We are of the Wild.
We were not all raised by wolves . . . but we all grew up next door.
"Wolf is the Grand Teacher. Wolf is the sage, who after many winters upon the sacred path and seeking the ways of wisdom, returns to share new knowledge with the tribe. Wolf is both the radical and the traditional in the same breath. When the Wolf walks by you - you will remember." - Robert Ghost Wolf
So what does the Wolf Moon teach us? Well, perhaps that what we fear isn't what we think. To the lonely and lost - or to our huddled ancestors rationing through their Winter stores - a wolf's howl is fearful . . . but in truth, it's music. Wolves are not what we've always thought them to be, even when Winter drives them closer to our homes. Our fears and our worries are often more perception than fact.
But also, the Wolf Moon starts off the calendar year with a reminder - we are, in the end, beasts. We have learned some new tricks - and, too often, forgotten all the old ones, but we are ultimately creatures of this world, an intractable part of interconnected web of life. We do not, as Pagans and as people, strive to make a connection with Nature - it exists, and always has. We just strive to remember it . . . and, when you drop your fear, the howl of a wolf can remind you like nothing else.