The Wolf and Humanity: villainization and victimization

The wolf is an animal with unparalleled ability to strike fear, known for its wild nature and impressive hunting skills.  Wolves look frightening, they are physically large and powerful but this is not why they are feared.  The wolf is the foil to its cousin the dog.  The dog is ‘man’s best friend,’ known for loyalty and unconditional love.  The wolf is seen as wild, savage, unpredictable, and irrational. As predators, wolves are very impressive; they can kill animals ten times their size because they work together as a team to take down their prey.  The wolf embodies many fears but its role in the mythology has changed over time as its relationship with technology has changed.  As a symbol of nature, the different roles that the wolf has played in human psyche, especially as part of the American consciousness, the wolf’s relationship with humans and technology is the same as the relationships with nature.  The way we relate to the wolf is the way we relate to nature and even the way we relate to each other.  Each player in this trio has played the part of “bad guy” but the reality is there is no good or bad guy.  There are multiple debates about which is better, nature or technology but the real issue isn’t about better or worse, it’s about different.  David Abrams writes a lot about language but it is actually in his writing that I find an error in thought that has been the real cause for the battle between the species and even within the human race.

For the last eighteen years, I have lived in the mountains.  It has become a part of who I am.  It is a part of my psyche and my personal mythology.  I have had a bear enter my home on more than one occasion, had bats trapped in the house, and raccoons that have both taken food out of my hands and aggressively charged me.  I have never seen a wolf in the wilderness. The very spirit of the wolf is wild and unsafe and to see them in a safe, captive setting made me more sad for the wolf than afraid. No other animal has the ability to embody fear in the way that the wolf does.  Bears are larger and more powerful than wolves but wolves are far more frightening.  Bears usually try to avoid humans, they are only drawn to our food and garbage.  Wolves usually avoid humans too but they have also been known to hunt them, waiting for a good moment to attack.  They are known to take advantage of perceived weaknesses.  Bears are not swift and agile, they don’t hunt like wolves but most important, they don’t think like wolves.  Wolves and humans have competed for territory and resources since prehistoric times.  The fear of wolves is a part of the collective unconsciousness but it is especially a large part of the American psyche. 

Since I have never encountered a wolf in the wild, I can’t speak to the majesty or fear that I felt but I did have an experience with nature that gave me that same primal, deep fear.  It was a mixture of excitement at being so close to something wild and of respect and fear at my own vulnerability.  At the time, I worked nights and was taking care of my dad’s animals while he was out of town, he only lived a few minutes’ walk away from my house so I stopped there before heading home.  I locked my keys in my car so I decided to walk home and return in the morning with my spare key.  It wasn’t a dark night, it was a black night.  I had to walk slowly because I had to feel my way through the darkness. I was young and new to the mountain.  There were two ways home, the first was along the creek and the other went by the house of a creepy guy, a wolfish human.  I didn’t want to walk by his house in the middle of the night so I decided to take the creek path.  Halfway down the road I sensed that I was not alone.  Without sight, my other senses were on high alert and I smelled a presence.  It was a smell like old garbage and fish and it was close.  I knew the presence, it was the bear that had been breaking into homes and openly walking the streets on trash day.  I couldn’t see but I could smell that it was very close.  The fear at that moment was unlike any other fear I have known.  I was afraid I would bump into the bear or some other way attract its attention.  I stood, frozen, listening, smelling, and straining to try to see anything at all but the dark was too thick.  It may not be quite as intense as the fear one would have at facing a wild wolf but it was as close as I have come to experiencing this fear.

As a child, I loved reading fairy tales and as a parent, I love that my children love them too.  While thinking about fairy tales, I realized that all of my son’s favorite stories all have ‘the wolf’ also known as the big, bad wolf.   The wolf is a recurring character that embodies fear in its many forms, like the fear of nature.  In fairy tales, the wolf is deadly.  His desire is to consume the poor victims in the story and it is not unusual for him to succeed.  Whether looking at more realistic depictions of the wolf attempting to kill sheep or more fantastical stories where the wolf “huffs and puffs and blows” houses down, the wolf, like nature at the time, was something to be feared.  “The wild and destructive wolf stands for all asocial, unconscious, devouring powers against which one must learn to protect oneself, and which one can defeat through the strength of one’s ego” (Bettelheim 42).  These stories helped make the collective unconsciousness fear the wolf.  The wolf is a male destructive power that attacks while in the disguise of the female characters in the female domain.  While there are plenty of male destructive forces, the wolf is more related to the female devouring mother archetype.  The myth of the wolf is slowly becoming closer to the reality of wolves.  More people are educated about wolves so the mystique and consequent vilification of wolves has lessened but they still have the ability to create a deep sense of fear.

Fairy tales also have a lot of witches, this is the female counterpart of the wolf archetype. Both are used as a way to place fear onto an object.  “All sorts of tensions (political or psychological) were – until the rise of modernism – translated into fear by imagining an object of fear that explained the tension” (Paris 201). In the past, it was the myth of the wolf that was the object of fear, next it was a fear of humans, and now it is a fear of technology.  The reverse has been the same for the savior, or hero. “The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious” (Jung Collected Works 284). With the three players: technology, humanity, and nature – each has been both, hero and darkness.  In reality, “technology is neither good nor bad, neither harmful nor harmless” (Jung, Nature Writings 153).  Technology is merely a tool but just as humans tend to think of themselves as outside of nature, they also think of themselves as separate from the technology we create and use.

In the past technology was the hope for the future, making life easier and better until we reach perfection.  Technology was not the answer to all of humanity’s problems.  In fact, we learned that we were making the planet sick and had to figure out how to fix the problems we created, this is when we saw humans as “the problem.” Now our technology is so advanced, the new mythology isn’t to fear the humans that are creating the technology but the technology itself.  The new wolf is something so advanced technologically that it no longer needs humans and just as we did to the wolves, try to wipe out the inconvenient species. 

Both the witch and the wolf are related to the archetypal devouring mother, to Siva and Kali. He feeds on the weak so there will be enough resources for the strong.  He is wild, destructive, voracious, greedy, ruthless, unpredictable, and emotional.  In this context, he is also nature and when fairy tales were first told and recorded, nature and wolves were fears that were central to the human psyche.

Since the time when fairy tales were written, the world has changed dramatically as has humanity’s relationship to wolves.  In the past, humans feared nature for good reason.  The woods were filled with animals that were more confident and plentiful than animals in the woods now.  With advancement of technology, it became easier to “master” nature to not only put humans on equal ground, eventually humans became dangerous to nature and the roles completed their reversal.  After generations of attempted slaughter of the species, the wolves that were once the embodiment of fear became at risk for being lost forever.  People saw the decline and began to care but did they care “enough to save a species, to keep their archetypes alive in our minds – if there is not enough cultural continuity to extend such concerns into future generations” (Nablan 166) the species will die out.  People realized the stories, the mythology of the wolves would be lost if the wolves became extinct.  How can something instill the same kind of visceral fear if it didn’t exist because we ended its literal existence?  There are few animals that can inspire the kind of fear that a wolf can make a person feel, possibly a shark.   It isn’t the wolf itself that both inspires fear and causes generations to care enough to save a species, it is the myth of the wolf.  It is in our fairy tales that the wolf becomes powerful and important to the child, the future adult.  Through the stories, we see the wolf in ourselves and ourselves in the wolf and can’t let that part of ourselves die, we can’t lose our archetype.

After years of wolves representing fear in the mythology, the new mythology of wolves and technology was the need to save the wolf.  The wolf had gone from powerful, deep rooted cause for fear to victim of technology and human greed.   Humans became wild, destructive, voracious, greedy, ruthless, unpredictable, and emotional.  Consuming every available resource until it was gone forever. Humans were the new wolf. Bettelheim calls the wolf “the enemy, or stranger within, which tries to seduce and trap us” (42). The wolf within devours itself, the ego and the planet that gives them life.  The wolf ate little girls and pigs but humans devoured the spirit they had once called mother.  The mythology had changed and it continues to change.    

Through the efforts people dedicated to helping save the species and archetype, the wolf has been successfully reintroduced into the wild.  Their numbers continue to grow and the wolf’s role has once again changed.  With the successful implementation of programs to reintroduce the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park, the wolf has gone from that which should be feared to that which needed to be protected to that which restores balance and becomes the hero. The wolf has become known as a “keystone species” and now that their numbers are again growing, the ecosystem is gaining balance and returning to its natural state.  The villain became the hero and the hero, technology has become the villain.  In the current mythology, people embrace nature as something we need to return to and as a possible savior.  In the old mythology, the heroes were saved by technology.  In The Three Little Pigs it is hard work and increased technology that saves the last pig. In Little Red Riding Hood the girl and her grandmother are usually rescued by the use of tools, like scissors or use of a pulley or by a woodsman, a hunter or woodcutter that by very profession kills nature. These stories demonstrate the old mythology that wolves are evil and deserve to be feared and destroyed. 

One fairy tale that demonstrates this relationship of the wolf as villain and technology as savior is The Three Little Pigs.  “All good fairy tales have meaning on many levels; only the child can know which meaning are of significance to him at the moment” (Bettelheim 169).  This is true of The Three Little Pigs, most readings of this story emphasize the benefits of planning and working hard.  The message of the story is that a brick house is better than one built from sticks or straw.  “As he grows up, the child discovers new aspects of these well-known tales, and this gives him the conviction that he has indeed matured in understanding, since the same story now reveals so much more to him” (Bettelheim 169).  Just like a child, a student finding new ways to look at these stories sees maturity in thought because the revelations not only show a new level of meaning but the multitude of new meanings for all the stories.   

The story is of three pig brothers, they all set off in the world to build houses.  The first pig builds his house out of straw, the second uses wood, and the third brother uses bricks to build his home.  The progression of materials shows progress of technology.  The wolf goes to each pig’s home, threatening to blow the house down if the pig doesn’t let him in.  The pigs of course do not let him in and he blows the house down with his breath and devours the pig.  Since the appetite of the wolf is endless, after eating the first two pigs, he attempts to devour the third.  This is not an animal eating to survive, it is an evil hunger that must consume.  The wolf is unable to get into the brick house by blowing it down so he attempts to use the chimney.  The pig put a pot of boiling water on the fire and the wolf is cooked in a stew. 

In America, the government actively pursued the eradication of all wolves. The railroads and move to settle the west led to the decimation of many of the natural species including bison, elk, deer, and moose.  Without their natural food source, the wolves began killing livestock to survive.  For fear of the wolves harming the remaining bison, elk, deer, and livestock, a bounty was set for as much as $50 each wolf.  “Wolves were trapped, shot, dug from their dens, hunted with dogs, and poisoned. In Yellowstone National Park, park rangers killed the last two remaining pups in 1924” (Wagner). Just as the fairy tales created fear of the wolf, these new stories from the mythology of America create pity and sympathy.  Just as the wolf pursued the three pigs in their very homes, the American government tore the wolves from their homes for slaughter.  Also, like the wolf, the hunger was too great.  They went from protecting their livestock and livelihood to wiping out the species in all states except Alaska, the last wild frontier of America.  The fact that the last two wolves slaughtered in the war were pups is especially poignant in this argument.  They were just innocent victims, probably cowering in their home as the big bad hunter came knocking at their door, blowing their house down and devouring them whole.  This is why humanity could not let the wolves disappear, we are wolves.

Once humanity saw itself as “the wolf,” the effort was made to restore nature through technology.  After the wolves were wiped out, the elk population grew out of control.  The loss of the wolf had adverse effects on the ecosystem.  Up until 1965, there were still wolf bounty programs in place even though they had been effectively wiped out since the 1930’s.  In 1966, wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List and in 1995 and 1996, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.  After the wolves returned to the park, the elk population began to drop which led to an increase in vegetation growth, especially aspen groves.  The ripple of changes sprang from reintroducing wolves into the ecosystem from an increase in beaver and songbird populations to varied feeding habits for grizzly bears (Dobson and Wagner).

From wolf to human to technology, the “bad guy” role continues to be fluid.  When nature was the “bad guy” humans used technology to dominate it. With wolfish efficiency, humans and technology made nature the victim.  Since humanity couldn’t remain the dark force that must be conquered the role had to shift to the tool we used to wipe out nature, technology. The idea arose in the consciousness that if we could use technology to destroy nature, then could it not be used to destroy us?  People have become afraid of their own creation and the myths of computers taking over the world entered the psyche.  Jung wrote that technology isn’t itself dangerous but the danger lies in the possible discoveries that may be made.  “Undoubtedly a new discovery will never be used only for good, but will certainly be used for ill as well.  Man, therefore runs the risk of discovery something that will destroy him if evilly used” (Nature Writings, 153). The technology is neutral but the implementation can be benevolent or damaging.   

Nature, humanity, and technology will always have a complex relationship filled with tension.  There is no savior and no villain, there are just players.  “There are those who suggest that a generally exploitative relation to the rest of nature is part and parcel of being human, and hence that the human species has from the start been at war with other organisms and the earth” (Abrams 93).  Maybe it is because we read about slavery and whaling this term or that I became enchanted with the devouring mother but I see this relation everywhere within humanity.  It is also everywhere in nature.  This is because there really isn’t a separation.  Humans don’t live with or against nature, they are natural made beings.  The perception is that because humans use technology, they are in some way not a part of nature.  Perhaps it is self-loathing or a hatred for nature that creates this separation.  For some people, when they think of nature, they think of being outside with bugs and dirt.  Since people that think this way do not generally like bugs and dirt, they do not like nature.  Other people that feel separated from nature feel like they are less than nature.  These people tend to hate humanity and see it as harmful to nature.  Since they are human, this is a form of self-hatred.  The point that both of these beliefs misses is humans and nature are the same thing, there is no separation.  The other problem in this nature versus human and technology argument is the very language we use.  The language is binary, one thing is good and the other is bad, or just not as good.  We see differences as separation, by compare and contrast, we find ways to separate ourselves not just from nature but with each other. The following is the continuation of the previous quote from Abrams: “Others, however, have come to recognize that long—established indigenous cultures often display remarkable solidarity with the lands that they inhabit, as well as a basic respect or even reverence, for the other species that inhabit those lands” (Abram 93).  Here is the example of the false separation that is ingrained in the psyche of our language and the way we are taught to think.  Indigenous cultures did not decimate the environment because they did not have the technology available to do so.  To suggest that because a person comes from a culture that did not have technology would not, if given the training and opportunity use that technology to gain advancement.  I taught on a local Indian reservation for eight years.  One thing I learned about Native Americans is that they are not bloodthirsty and they are not noble.  They are people just like every other person.  Their culture does have different values systems but that does not make them better or worse when it comes to the environment.  I saw horrible environmental practices like trash burning along with preservation of native plants and reverence for nature.  People are complicated.

Using the idea of noble savage is a different kind of literate othering that has become accepted, just as the damaging bloodthirsty savage representation was readily accepted as truth in the American psyche.  As Grande explains the separation and vilification or victimization is usually done at the expense of the weak, the prey of the wolf. “Typically, it is only the powerful within a given society who can afford to proceed in the mode of “general efficiency” and those without who must know and understand the complexities of their environment in order to survive” (311). It is more complicated than just saying othering and exploitation are human nature. “To suggest that sheer human instinct drives our need to simplify the world discounts the deeply rooted structures of power within which such “needs” emerge” (Grande 311).  Otherness and separation are complicated and the need to be addressed in order for there to be a change.  Maybe it needs to be consumed by the wolf so it can be cut out new.

Abram while making a point that has validity and has been made by several others, it is language that creates separation or “otherness.”  This perceived separation has been the cause for much of the suffering humans have inflicted on non-human life and each other.  This is the notion of the noble savage.  The relationship of America and the Native American has followed the same pattern as the wolf.  At first, the Native American was represented as a ruthless killer.  They were called savages and wild men.  The use of slogans like “save the man, kill the Indian” propagated the idea that Indians were some sort of other, a nonhuman.  They created false separation and gave a justification for mistreatment to the wolves that wished to devour.  Like the wolves, bounties were paid for killing Native Americans and proof was usually their scalp. Also like wolves, once the population was so small as to no longer be a threat, the race was revered and given the “noble savage” archetype. Americans exploited Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, and Irish Americans. Humans exploit each other, Americans, like wolves, prey upon the weaker members in society, those that are different, to the point of exploitation. “It was the strangeness of Indians that made them visible, not their humanity” (Deloria 36).   Instead of embracing differences and learning from each other, humans compete, exploit, and harm one another – human and nonhuman alike.  The solution has to be a new mythology, one that does not other, especially when that othering is a justification for cruelty and exploitation.  People use their intellect in order to gain advantage, when this is done on a small scale, it is called survival but when this advantage is taken too far, like the wolf being overly greedy, the results are disastrous and deadly.  Western civilization was more damaging to everything and everyone because they had more modern technology.  The reason fishermen use large nets to catch so many fish that they are depleting the ocean of several species is because they can.  The wolf just wants more so they invent new technologies to make the work easier and more productive.  The problem arises when the wolf does not know when to stop, as in so many of the fairy tales, and dies because of gluttony. 

It seems that more people are aware of what is going on with the environment.  There were enough people to work towards saving the wolves.  Their reintroduction helped stabilize the ecosystem and created wholeness and balance.  Do we have enough people through the generations to save the larger wolf – nature?  Only time will tell but part of the solution will have to be the realization of the true roles each of these players play.  The new mythology has to be one of inclusion.  The otherness of nature or each other while embedded in the very words we speak, can be overcome.  It will not be done with force because the wolf is too strong for that, it must be done with cunning and technology.  Humanity and nature are not separate and technology is not a consciousness, at least not yet, it is a tool.  There is no good or evil, it is more complicated – we are more complicated.  We are nature and we are not nature. We are the wolf and not the wolf. Wolves are nature and not nature. 

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then …. I contradict myself;

I am large …. I contain multitudes” (Whitman 2777).

We are complicated.  We are large and complex and beautiful.  Our new mythology needs to reflect our contradictions and multitudes.  The wolf, nature, the id, the devouring mother, these are all each and every one of us just as they are not because we contradict ourselves.  Sometimes it takes a poet to express that which can’t readily be expressed with our binary language.  Perhaps the new mythology will be written by the poets of this or the next generation. 

Works Cited

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989. Print.

Deloria, Vine. We Talk, You Listen; New Tribes, New Turf. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Print.

Dobson, Andy P. “Yellowstone Wolves and the Forces That Structure Natural Systems.” Plos Biology 12.12 (2014): 1-4. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 July 2015.

Grande, Sandy Marie Anglás. “Beyond The Ecologically Noble Savage: Deconstructing The White Man’s Indian.” Environmental Ethics 21.(1999): 307-320. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 22 July 2015.

Jung, Carl J. Collected Works of C.G. Jung Complete Digital Edition, Volume 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, Princeton University Press: 1977. Digital.

Jung, Carl J. The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung. Berkley, North Atlantic Books: 2002. Print.

Nabhan, Gary. Cultures of Habitat: Our Nature, Culture, and Story. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998. Print.

Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology after Neuroscience. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Wagner, Stephen. “Keystone Species.” The Nature Education: Knowledge Project. Nature Education, 2010. Web. 22 July 2015.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. By Paul Lauter and Bruce-Novoa. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1990. 2727-778. Print.

Wilkes, Carolyn Sue. “The Wild Sacred: Revisioning the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.” Order No. 3043121 Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2001. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 18 July 2015.

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