Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? A Fearsome Beast in Legends and Tales Around the World

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? A Fearsome Beast in Legends and Tales Around the World

(Read the article on one page)

There are many stock characters that are present in folk stories, fairy tales, and legends from all over the world. However, few are as constant as the figure of the Big Bad Wolf, a giant predator which would devour his victims in a single bite. Appearing in many cautionary tales – stories that are created to warn people from real danger – the figure of the wolf became the most famous archetype of menacing predatory antagonist.

Passing Down Wolf Tales

Lessons have long been passed through oral tradition and one way to secure people’s interest is through stories. The fear of wolf attacks was a very real problem during Medieval times in Europe and many other regions, especially in smaller settlements surrounded by wilderness. For a very long time, the wolf was a symbol of power, danger, and ferocity.

One of the first known folklorists was a slave and storyteller named Aesop, believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BC. Being mentioned by Herodotus and Plato, Aesop’s fables were quite famous. They came from various origins and many were attributed to him without actual proof of authorship. Nonetheless, out of the many stories about wolves, there are four that eventually became associated with the figure of the Big Bad Wolf.

Big Bad Wolf.

Big Bad Wolf. ( Mario Klingemann /CC BY NC 2.0 )

The Boy Who Cried Wolf ” is one of them, telling of a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks the nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. Eventually they get tired of the boy’s lies and when the wolf shows up for real, no one believes the boy and the sheep are eaten up. In some versions, it was the boy who was eaten instead. This story is often brought up in discussions on  children’s development and the mechanics of lying  as a warning on the dangers of raising false alarms and constant lying; many adaptations can be seen in different media.

Also attributed to Aesop, albeit as a variant of one of the Greek folklorist’s tales written by La Fontaine between 1668 and 1694, is the story of The Wolf and the Lamb. Originally ‘the cat and the cock’, a lamb questions a wolf why he wishes to take his life. The lupine makes many accusations, all which the young lamb rebuke and prove to be impossible, until the predator loses his patience and finally has the lamb for supper - just because he could. Wolves and lambs were often associated, which makes sense given how often wolves would attack livestock – especially ones that are easier to take down - such as lambs.

‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. ( Public Domain )

Wolves and Kids

The story of the  Wolf and the Kids came along in the 1st century. In this story, a mother goat left her kids alone, warning them to not open the door to strangers as the wolf was about and could eat them. Eventually the wolf manages to fool the kids and the youngest is the only one to survive. It rushes to find its mother and when she gets back she finds the wolf fast asleep after devouring the other younglings, completely unable to move. So, the mother goat cuts open the wolf’s belly to find her children survived the ordeal. She rescues them then fills the beast’s stomach with stones and throws him into the river. Later on, the Brothers Grimm would write the most widespread version of the story in 1812, first with five kids and later a revised version with seven kids.

Illustration by Karl Fahringer of the wolf attacking the kids once he is let into their home. ( Public Domain )

Misattributed to Aesop, there’s also the famous story of “ The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing ” in which a wolf finds a sheepskin and accompanies the flock to the pasture, managing to fool the shepherd. In the original version by the 12th-century Greek rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakis, the wolf is shut up in the fold with the rest of the sheep and ends up slaughtered along with them. In comparison, modern versions of the tale end with the wolf having its supper,  eating the sheep .

Messages in Little Red Riding Hood

By the 10th century, the story of the Wolf and the Kids had a new variant in French and Italian regions, which would be the prototype for the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. In the early versions, the wolf was sometimes a  werewolf, making it relevant to the werewolf trials at the time and aggregating the sexual and cannibalistic undertones that would remain in many versions of the tale.


Hi, I love reading about wolves I find them to be fascinating creatures I agree with you that most myths, legends and fairytales cast the wolf as a predator an archetype representing the wild and unknown which exists beyond the safety of the campfire many tribal cultures respected the creature recent discoveries in Siberian of graves containing wolf and dog bones, in some cases hybrids dating back to when humans first domesticated them show a respect and an awareness of how useful they could be as hunters and guard dogs. In many Celtic myths and legends the wolf or werewolf was a creature which protected the tribe. Merlin was said to have a wolf companion who protected him. I think these myths speak of man's awareness of the necessity of the wolf and the necessity for man to respect the natural world and nature. We see from the introduction of the wolf back in yellowstone and how they have rebalanced the ego system there that humans understood, even in their subconscious, the necessity of the balance in nature and the wolfs role in it.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Pylos Combat Agate, an ancient object found in Pylos, Greece and created around 1450 BC.
The discovery of the Pylos Combat Agate in a Mycenaean shaft-grave tomb dating to 1500 BC may be one of the most significant archaeological and artistic finds in decades, perhaps in centuries. The level of artistic sophistication and detail are stunning -- the more so because the piece itself is so small and the level of detail is so incredibly high.

Myths & Legends

Human Origins

Sumerian creation myth
Sumer , or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and...

Ancient Technology

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Ancient Places

The public entrance to the Unicorn Cave.
Einhornhöhle, which may be translated as ‘Unicorn Cave’ in English, is a cave located in the Harz, a low mountain range in a highland area Northern Germany. It has been pointed out that the Unicorn Cave is the largest cave in the western Harz that is open to the public.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article