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Grey wolf.   Source: Jon Anders Wiken /Adobe Stock

Lupus In Fabula: The Wolf In The Story


Lupus in fabula or perhaps more accurately in historia, given that historically the figure of the wolf is not marginal at all. The undisputed symbol of the forest, the wolf has always been strongly present in the collective imagination of all ancient civilizations. Its symbolism has a dichotomous aspect because it has forever been admired for its pride, the orderly social hierarchy and discipline of command. But it has also been viewed with suspicion and fear and often associated with demoniacal aspects, because of the nighttime thefts and the destruction of herds, heritage and perhaps the wealth of the ancient man.

Wolves were said to have the sharpest sight of all animals, able to see even during the moonless nights, that’s why the time of night when only wolves can see was called λύκοφως, lykofos, “the wolf’s light”.

Etymologically it’s difficult to determine the exact form of the original Indo-European word to name this animal, even if it’s usually represented as * wlkwos, where the Greek "λύκος" ( lykos) and the Latin " lupus" words derive from.

The etymologically remains in the Italian "lupo", German "wolf", English "wolf", Russian "волк" ( volk) and so on. The idea of evil seems to have remained in the modern Irish language, where olc means "bad", while the word for wolf as an animal is completely different: " mac tíre".

From Etymology to Mythology

In Greek mythology, what did two Olympic deities have to do with the wolf? Zeus and Apollo, had the epithets Λύκαιος ( Lykaios), Λύκειος ( Lyceus), Λυκηγενής ( Lycegenes) and Λυκοκτόνος ( Lycoctonus), which are all ambiguously and morphologically connected both to the words wolf (λύκος, lykos) and light (λύκνος, lyknos, from Proto-Greek λύκη).

Lykaios refers to Λύκαια ( Lykaia), the main festival celebrated in Arcadia on Mount Lykaion, home of king Pelasgos and his son Lycaon who was universally considered an impious man.

Because of his impiety, Lycaon was punished by Zeus. He was transformed into a wolf and condemned to feed on human flesh. From this myth derived the rituals that included human sacrifices and the consumption of the victim’s bowels. The people that performed the ritual of eating were believed to be transformed into wolves themselves for some years.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf; engraving by Hendrik Goltzius. (Public Domain)

This belief was met by a big skepticism, which was already among the ancient Romans. Primarily by Pliny who did not hesitate to criticize the belief and at the same time expressed a thinly veiled negative judgement on the Greeks in general.

Lycaon’s myth seems to be at the origin of the legends about “lycanthropes” (werewolves), men who turn into wolves on full moon nights. In classical literature, the first source to describe this is Petronius, the Roman novelist.

In Greek mythology, Lycaon’s myth is joined by another malevolent wolf: Mormolyke, (Μορμώνλύκη) or simply Μορμών, evoked as a spirit to scare children. This is probably why Pliny remembers the belief that a wolf's tooth kept as an amulet is able to ward off the nightmares of children.

Wolves in the Underworld

Connections between the wolf and the underworld are evident in the mythology of many other ancient cultures. For example in ancient Egypt, the hellish deity Wepwawet often identified as and eventually absorbed by Anubis, was portrayed as a standing wolf in an aggressive position, while Anubis was represented as a canid, on alert but crouched. The theory whether Anubis should be identified tout court as a wolf, a jackal or a dog, which are all look-alike species, is very much debated.

Statuette of the god Anubis, wood. Late Period, 722-332 BC, (Author Supplied /Nicola Dell’Aquila and Federico Taverni/Museo Egizio Torino)

Additionally, wolf characteristics of the Etruscan god of death, Aita, are emphasized by his wolf skin, a muzzle worn as a mantle, and a hood. By no coincidence in the Libri Rituales Tusci, the wolf was classified among the infelicia animalia (inauspicious animals).

Wolves also transpire through the Hirpi Sorani (from Sabin hirpus = wolf), priests of the Italic god Soranus. This was also identified with Dis, the Roman god of the underworld (or with Apollo) and the Roman Luperci, priests of the god Faun (the Greek Pan), in his acceptation of Lupercus as cattle defender.

Faun’s home was the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome where, according to the legend, Romulus and Remus had been found by the she-wolf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the cave as large, stony, and with a source of water. The exact place seems to have been under the ruins of Augustus’ house, as revealed by an excavation conducted in 2007, which showed a big room with mosaic decorated walls and the Augustea eagle in the middle. A notice from Livius referring to 296 BC states that a statue of a she-wolf had been erected there, perhaps even the universally known bronze Lupa Capitolina. However, there are still some serious doubts about this theory.

According to Arnobius, the feminized Luperca was instead a divine figure invoked by shepherds against wolves and, first of all, the goddess who tamed the she-wolf destined to nurse the divine twins.

Lupa Capitolina: she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 13th-century AD (the twins are a 15th-century addition). Capitoline Museums / Public Domain)

An Apparently Inexplicable Dichotomy

The ancestral fear of wolves probably lies in the fact that unlike other equally hostile and wild animals, they’re the only ones to make periodic incursions into the ordered landscapes created by man. This almost reminds man that despite all his efforts to tame nature, he will never be able to do it completely.

Seeing wolves preying on cattle was therefore normal but what happened on the eve of the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC) was more unsettling. In particular, a number of wolves pounced on herds following the Spartan army but only slaughtered the goats and not the sheep. This selective nature of the massacre gave the event a bad omen. The wolves didn’t kill the sheep, their usual victims but instead focused exclusively on the goats intended for Artemis. This was sign that the Spartans would be massacred. According to Diodorus Siculus, thousands of Peloponnesians were in fact killed, among them 400 Spartiates, while the Boeotians only lost 300 men.

The Roman military camps too couldn’t escape this bad omen announced by wolves. In 218 BC, just before the Battle of Ticino (2 nd Punic War), a wolf entered the Roman castrum and the subsequent sacrifices offered by the consul, Cornelius Scipio, did not help to change the fortune of the battle.

According to Julius Obsequens, wolves entered the city ( lupus urbem intravit) more than 20 times from 494 BC up to the imperial era. This was even reported in the prodigia list, which included the strange and frightening events that occurred. Such as: bloodstains, monstrous births, talking statues, earthquakes and thunders, all signaling that the pax deorum (peace of gods) had been offended.

Rome, denarius of Sex. Pompeius Fostlus, 2nd century BC. On the right the helmeted head of Roma; on the reverse the she-wolf suckling twins; behind, the ficus Ruminalis and on the left Faustulus, the shepherd who found the infants, from which the monetary magistrate claimed the lineage (Public Domain)

The line of thought that saw the wolf and other animals (owls, swarms of bees or wasps, in some cases snakes etc.) as infelices omina (bad omens) , likely originated from the influence of the Etruscan discipline. However, soon Romans were able to create their own autonomous interpretation, where the wolves started to appear more benign. This is supported by the fact that the Romans finally inserted them into the category of good wishes ( ex quadrupedibus), together with foxes, horses and dogs.

Considering this, there is a singular reversal of roles where the terrible, wild, infernal animal threatening men and herds became the nurse of the divine twins. This illustrates the contradictory dichotomy in the wolf’s symbolism in all its evidence.

On one side, wolves represented the dimension of the wild primordial condition of uncultivated nature that Rome decided to dispose of. This fact is also symbolized by some external and substantial changes derived from the military reform of Marius in 103 BC. For example, the institutionalization of the legions symbols (the eagle, a uspicium maximum and symbol of Iuppiter that replaced any other terrestrial symbolism such as wolves, boars, horses and minotaurs) and the abolition of the velites, the lightly armed soldiers.

According to Polybius, they were the only ones allowed to wear a wolf's skin on their helmets (aquilifers and signifers wore bear or lion skins) and their effectiveness was more psychological than effective. They were placed at the front, partly for tactical reasons, and could remember the actions of the first-italic, unorganized and chaotic warriors.

A wolf from Abruzzo Natural Park, Italy's second declared park, that had an important role in the preservation of species such as the Italian wolf, Abruzzo chamois and Marsican brown bear Source: Author Supplied / Massimo Piacentino

On the other side, but always seen in a pre-civic context (in the wood, near the ficus ruminalis), there is the apparently an inexplicable presence of a wolf no less than in the foundation myth where a she-wolf ( lupa) assisted the twins (Romulus and Remus) that founded the biggest city of the ancient world.

Lupa in Latin means “she-wolf” but also “prostitute”, perhaps because of the verse emitted by those women for attracting men. At first this lack of clarity seems to profane the sacredness of the myth, but it doesn’t, because even the coincidence between the lupa-prostitute and the lupa-animal does invade the sphere of the sacred.

In fact, long before the foundation of Rome in the Mediterranean area, “temple prostitution” (ἱεροδουλ(ε)ία, hierodulia) was commonly practiced by young women and occasionally men, assigned to the temples for different services.

The ierodulia was originally associated with the cult of the "Great Mother", the ancestral female deity whose iconological and symbolic attributes derived from the natural world and were connected to her original chthonian character. In this, also Lupa and her priestesses, Lupae, were consistently approachable. With the decadence of these cults, the name was transferred to common prostitutes and the ancient rituals were gradually replaced with others, including the Lupercalia.

A Common Mythological Substrate

In mythology there are other foundation stories involving wolves, more or less directly. For example, the one who rescued Gelo, the predestined future ruler of Syracuse; or of Miletus, the founder of the homonym city, whose mother Acacallis was helped by the wolves sent by Apollo.

In the foundation myth of Thebes, the wolf is evoked by the name of Lyco, usurper of the kingdom; and in that of Argo, where Proetus who was overcome by his brother, Acrisius, in the struggle for the throne of Argo, flees to Lycia, the "land of wolves".

All this is a clear sign of an ancestral common mythological substrate, which both Greeks and Romans identified with.

Italian Wolf in Abruzzo National Park, Italy. (alex / Adobe Stock)

Italian Wolf in Abruzzo National Park, Italy. (alex / Adobe Stock)

Beyond Greece and Rome

The same mythical substratum is recognizable in a much wider geographical and cultural area, where the name of the wolf was often used as an anthroponym and a toponym. For example as an anthroponym: Ulcudus and Ulcirus among Illyrians, Olcan among Irish, Lovernio among Celts of the Gauls and Ulpius and Lupius among Romans. Among the toponyms, we have Lycopolis (Λυκόπολις, Asyut in Upper Egypt), whose main deities were Wepwawet and Anubis and where it was said that an invading Ethiopian army was driven back by hordes of wolves.

This fact recalls another mythical story of Lykoreia (Λυκώρεια), a town near Delphi, which was named to remember the wolves sent by Apollo to escort its inhabitants to the top of the mountain during the deluge of Deucalion.

In short, wolves occasionally provided help but also became a means of liberation, redemption and sometimes, an instrument of divine punishment. For example, Peleus who was guilty of fratricide risked being mauled by the wolf sent by his mother, however it was turned into a marble statue in the act of biting a heifer. This was an eternal warning of the crime committed.

The transformation of a murderer into a statue is very common in the ancient world. In particular for the wolf, there was the belief that they who had been seen by a wolf before having seen it first, was destined to remain with no voice. This is at the origin of the proverbial expression " lupus in fabula", another way of saying "speak of the devil", which today usually means that someone or something that a person is talking about appears or happens by coincidence, leaving everyone speechless with surprise.

Auspicious or baleful, the reverent fear towards wolves was at the origin of many popular superstitions. Ignoring its widespread negative fame, Pliny himself had different beliefs about the magic-therapeutic properties of the animal. Apart from the already mentioned amulet, a wolf cutting the road to the right of those walking and having its mouth full was a good omen. However, bad luck could arise to those wearing tunics made of wool from sheep killed by wolves. Wolf astragals were used in circuses for damaging the chariots of the opposing factions . Furthermore, a tuft of tail hair snatched from a living wolf was used as a love talisman. Dried wolves’ heads were nailed on doors and the skin of wolves’ necks were carried as sleeves, which were both used to protect against bad luck.

Ancient Tales and Modern Metropolitan Legends

Even tales are full of wolves. Apart from the legend of Pitocare, a musician able to reject wolves by just playing his flute, different tales of Aesop and Phaedrus have the wolf as their protagonist and only in one of them the animal shows its legendary pride, preferring freedom to food.

Otherwise, probably to exorcise the fear, most tales describe wolves as eternally hungry and lurking, but not always lucky and sometimes even teased by their possible victims. Even donkeys have been shown to be more cunning.

In this regard it is worth remembering the wolf called " cervirus" by Pliny , so careless that "[...] while eating and no matter how hungry, if he looks behind him, he forgets what he is eating and goes away to look for other food [...]". Such wolves were imported from Gaul for the games of Pompey the Great.

Over the centuries, with the exception of St. Francis who tamed the animal and reconciled it with humans, from the Middle Ages onwards wolves mostly remained a sinister figure, companion of witches, demons and heretics and a terrifying spirit for children, as still attested by many tales of popular tradition.

Even today, there is not a lack of legends, but, contrary to the ancient ones which helped to exorcise what was beyond human control (like fear, darkness, omens, illness or death) the current ones reflect the superficiality and the ignorance with which modern people often approach nature.

In a similar vein, the urban legend of vipers launched by helicopters to restock is an improbable story, endorsed as credible even by hunters or pseudo-connoisseurs of nature, that wolves are returning to mountains thanks to helicopter launches carried out by parks or other official institutions.

Fortunately, and just when their survival was threatened, wolves are independently regaining their dignity and begin to be perceived as an irreplaceable piece of nature again, in their ancient role as a link between wildness and nature tamed by man.

Top image: Grey wolf.   Source: Jon Anders Wiken /Adobe Stock

By Maura Andreoni



Maura Andreoni's picture

Thanks for the information, I will definitely keep this in mind!

Maura Andreoni

Damian3's picture

Hi I was just reading that you say that the wolf in the Irish language is mac tire while this may be true and I hope that I don’t come across as a bit arrogant but another name for wolf in Irish is faolain this is also my family name in Irish, just dropping that in.


Maura Andreoni's picture


Maura Andreoni (Genova, Italy 1962), translator and interpreter in Russian, German, French and English. She received a second First Master’s degree in Ancient History at the University of Bologna, in 2009. Her historical researches mainly focus on the relationship between... Read More

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