The big, bad wolf

Europeans have long maintained an uneasy relationship with wolves. They loom large in our collective memory, and for thousands of years have both frightened and fascinated us.

They were often the villains in scary fire-side tales and generally considered a nuisance, especially to farmers eager to keep their livestock safe at night. Furthermore, in a time when rabies was widespread, a single bite from an infected animal could be fatal. It is no wonder then that children were taught from an early age to be wary of the “big bad wolf”. This poor public image did not bode well for wolves and they were hunted to extinction in most of Western Europe by the mid-nineteenth century. However, in the heavily forested parts of Eastern Europe they maintain a foothold up until the 1970s, when over-hunting brought them to the brink of extinction there as well.

A wild wolf in Germany.

A new beginning

The 1980s saw strict laws introduced in many European countries protecting wolves from hunting. This set the stage for their recovery and in the late 1990s they began crossing into Germany from the forests of Poland. Their newly protected status allowed them to reestablish themselves and in their 2001 the first litter of German-born pups was sighted. They have since spread westward into six more German states, with the population growing by 36 percent annually. There are now an estimated 73 wolf packs, 30 wolf pairs, and three lone wolves.

Several other environmental factors have helped them flourish. Firstly, an increase in wild ungulate numbers resulted in more prey for them to hunt. Wolves are a species that don’t require wilderness to survive and can happily live in close proximity to humans, the main thing they need is a reliable food source. Secondly, when they moved into German military training areas they found an ideal refuge from hunters and a safe place to raise their pups. According to wildlife ecologist Guillaume Chapron, these military training areas “acted as a stepping stone for the recolonisation” of Germany.

Wolves at German army base, in Muenster.
A wolf pup faces off with a tank on a training ground near Münster, Germany.

Living with new neighbours

The resurgence of wolves has not been without controversy however, and has reignited a debate between wolf-advocates and farmers. In 2017 wolf attacks on livestock increased 66% to 472 and the number of livestock casualties rose to 1667. German authorities have since begun urging farmers to implement protective measures, such as keeping their stock in protective pens at night and using guard dogs. In March 2019, Environment Minister Svenja Schulze raised the prospect of relaxing hunting laws, making it legal to shoot them in certain circumstance. “If wolves are repeatedly getting over fences or getting too close to humans, people need to be allowed to shoot them,” Schulze told the Bild am Sonntag.

German parliament debated the issue in April 2018, with four parties submitting various proposals, including resettlement, more funds to train guard dogs, and removing the protected status for wolf-dog hybrids. Indeed, the issue of interbreeding is not new and a potentially dangerous one according to some. As well as changing the genetic characteristics of the wolf species, hybrids are less shy of humans, leading to more potentially dangerous encounters. Last year, a wolf in Thuringia gave birth to six hybrid puppies. Following a heated debate, three of the pups were shot and killed. The other three continue to roam the area freely.

The aftermath of a wolf attack in Germany, where many sheep were killed.
More than 40 sheep were killed in a wolf attack in southwestern Germany in April 2018.

A bright future

It’s fair to say that wolves are back on the minds of the people of Europe, and like in times past they are generating mixed feeling. From both an environment and cultural standpoint, their return is warmly welcomed. They hold an important place in European culture and there is something deeply satisfying about the thought of these magnificent creatures roaming once again.

Yet we must be sympathetic to those concerned about the impact they may have on their livelihoods or personal safety. Hopefully adequate assistance will be provided to those who must adapt to life with their new neighbours. Otherwise, there wolf’s return will not be a cause for celebration, but for conflict. And nobody wants that.

A pack of wild wolves photographed roaming just 30 miles from the German city of Hamburg.
A pack of wild wolves photographed roaming just 30 miles from the German city of Hamburg.

Wolves in Norse Mythology

Fenris

Wolves play an important role in Norse Mythology, none more so than the giant beast Fenrir. The massive wolf has been as an evil spirit, while others have interpreted him as symboling of the powerful and erratic forces of nature. Fenrir was raised by the Aesir, who tried to control him just as we try to tame the wilderness. However, like a sea in a storm, he grew to become an enormous, dangerous beast. The gods chain him up, but during Ragnarok he breaks free and runs amok through the cosmos, causing mass destruction. He devours Odins before finally being killed by Vidarr.

The binding Of Fenris wolf, otherwise known as Fenrir, by the gods of Asgard.

Sköll and Hati

Sköll and Hati are the offspring of Fenrir. They chase the sun and moon through the sky, ensuring night and day are always on time. Some consider them to be similar to the “ying-yang” symbol, as by ensuring time is constant they create balance and harmony in the cosmos. It is only during the cataclysmic chaos of Ragnarok that they finally catch what they are chasing. By devouring the sun and moon, the bring an end to both time and light, throwing the world into chaos and darkness.

Geri and Freki

Odin’s faithful pet wolves Geri (“Greedy”) and Freki (“Ravenous”) were guardians of his high seat Hlidlsjalf. They were always close-by and would accompany Odin to feasts at Valhalla, where he would often feed them with the food from his own plate. This connection with Odin meant that sighting a wolf on the battlefield was a good omen for the Norse warriors. They knew that if they died in battle, the wolves would guide their spirits away to Valhalla and the afterlife. These two wolves are associated with Ulfhednar warriors

A classical depiction of Odin with his wolves Geri And Freki and his raven Huginn and Muninn.

Ulfhednar Warriors

There were three main animal cults in pre-Christian Northern Europe, the bear, the boar and the wolf. The Beserkers were associated with the bear, while the equally feared Ulfhednar were associated with the wolf. They wore wolf pelts over their heads and charged into battle in a frenzied state and without armour. They were associated with Odin’s pets Geri and Freki and were considered his special warriors. As attested in Heimskringla “Odin’s men went without their mail coats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields…they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had no effect upon them.” It is believed that the Ulfhednar were the antecedent of the werewolf, as in battle they were described as being half-wolf, half-man.

Viking Ulfhednar warriors in going into battle.

Comments

Sign-up for exclusive email offers

SSL Secure logo for modern Viking clothing store

We use encrypted SSL security to ensure that your credit card information is protected.

Payment icons for Odin's Tower - Modern Viking Clothing

© 2021 Odin’s Tower. All rights reserved.