Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Furr

Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis)

Despite their endangered status, wolves still roam freely in the world of myths and fables. She-wolf Lupa became the patriotic mother of Rome when she wet-nursed Romulus and Remus. The wolves of European fairy tales, on the other hand, were destroyers, the natural enemy of pigs, sheep, children, and near-sighted grandmothers.

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Late 20th-century portrayals of wolves show a softer side:  Kevin Costner’s companion Two Socks is the playful title figure of Dances With Wolves (1990). The wolf pack of Never Cry Wolf (1983) act as teachers to Farley Mowat (played by Charles Martin Smith). Indeed, the image of the wolf seems to improve as the number of real wolves diminish.

In this, the wolf of the western imagination seems to be following a path taken by others, namely American Indians, who were often portrayed as blood-thirsty and menacing in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but eventual  found redemption in the eyes of white Americans as “children of nature” in the late 1800s. It was at this time that real Indians were no longer perceived as a threat to Euro-American expansion.

Yet while Indian and Wolf have both become symbols of nature, I wonder: do these symbols function in similar ways? What about other symbols of nature such as wildman that I wrote about in an earlier post? This was my question as I listed to the song “Furr” by Blizten Trapper:

When I was only 17
I could hear the angels whispering
So I drove into the woods
and wandered aimlessly about
Until I heard my mother shouting through the fog
It turned out to be the howling of a dog

Or a wolf to be exact
the sound sent shivers down my back
But I was drawn into the pack and before long
They allowed me to join in and sing their song

So from the cliffs and highest hill
We would gladly get our fill
Howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn
And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong

For my flesh had turned to fur
And my thoughts, they surely were
Turned to instinct and obedience to God.

You can wear your fur
like a river on fire
But you better be sure
if you’re makin’ God a liar
I’m a rattlesnake, Babe,
I’m like fuel on fire
So if you’re gonna’ get made,
Don’t be afraid of what you’ve learned

On the day that I turned 23,
I was curled up underneath a dogwood tree
When suddenly a girl with skin the color of a pearl
She wandered aimlessly, but she didn’t seem to see
She was listening for the angels just like me
So I stood and looked about
I brushed the leaves off of my snout
And then I heard my mother shouting through the trees
You should have seen that girl go shaky at the knees

So I took her by the arm
We settled down upon a farm
And raised our children up as gently as you please.
And now my fur has turned to skin
And I’ve been quickly ushered in
To a world that I confess I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
And through the howling winds that blow,
Across the ancient distant flow,
It fill our bodies up like water till we know.

Stories of wolf-human transformation have a rich history, dating back thousands of years, to the Greek myth of Lycaon who became a wolf after eating human flesh, and extending to Asian and American cultures, such as the Navajo legends of the Mai-cob. (For an excellent treatment of wolves in Asia, see Brett Walker’s book, The Lost Wolves of Japan)

Woodcut of a German Werewolf (1722)

But these transformations also seem to be getting softer over time. Medieval werewolves are devilish creatures, agents of terror. But 20th century werewolves are considerably less brutish, sometimes even urbane, from An American Werewolf in London to the hunky werewolves of Underworld. Blitzen Trapper’s man-wolf certainly doesn’t do the devil’s bidding. Rather he seems to be on an existential Outward Bound course. And in due time, he makes the transformation back into man rather easily, if with a bit of nostalgia for his doggy life.

I like “Furr ” a song that Bob Dylan would have written perhaps if he were taken by the spirit of Jack London. But it also makes me wonder why wolves and werewolves have become progressively de-clawed as cultural symbols, a process that extends to their symbolic cousins, vampires.

Do we feel so far removed from nature that all things feral seem alluring at a distance? Or is our desire for transformative experience so strong that we’ve made animal and demon possessions user-friendly?  In this new age of shape-shifting, one does not have to lose one’s soul to visit the dark side.  It might even be worth the trip. Look how far we’ve come.

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11 Comments»

  ArchAsa wrote @

The werewolf is certainly an interesting symbolic creature who is languishing in second place behind the vampire these days (the ’80s were perhaps different…) From what I can tell about reviews and blogg posts about the Twilight phenomenon its fascinating that the vampire Edward in those books is a pure, pale skinned aristocratic being, dangerous but controlled mostly, intent on a puritanical relationship. And that in book two his counterpart is the native darker skinned Jacob who is ‘more natural and wild’ as it were and a werewolf…

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa: I didn’t know this. Interesting. Reminds me of the early representations of neanderthals as dark and hairy vs. homo sapien as smooth and light-skinned even though there was little evidence for either.

  Colin Purrington wrote @

Neanderthals evolved in Europe, and data suggests they were light-skinned. Homo sapiens was initially black (it evolved in Africa) and then lost (and then regained, in places) pigmentation as it migrated into climates with lower levels of radiation.

But back to the topic — wolves. As colonization of North America progressed, introgression of dogs and wolves probably progressed, too, so the wolves of the late 1800s were probably less fierce for a reason. That’s just a hypothesis, though. You could test it by examining wolf pelts over that past 500 years…look for evidence of alleles that are only known from European dogs.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Colin- thanks for the info. I’m curious: What evidence is put forward to theorize skin color for Neanderthals? Interesting point on wolves! But would alleles be enough to determine aggressiveness/ferocity? After all, we’ve bred some dogs for these traits as well. What do you think?

  Colin Purrington wrote @

Researchers using DNA from bones have pretty much completed the Neanderthal genome, and all the important skin-color alleles point to rather pale Neanderthals. That was the prediction all along, of course, since they evolved in Europe for such a long time (I think I have that right). All the other hominins were black, most likely, since they evolved in Africa. It’s amusing to see how museums color their hominins. Most museums michaeljacksonize their African hominins.

As for the wolves, what I meant was that dogs interbreed with wolves and the offspring might be more docile, even if they look like wolves more than they look like dogs. I think the domesticated dog came with humans over Bering Land Bridge, and the interbreeding with Canis lupus in Americas commenced at that point. And then Europeans brought more dogs, which also probably caused more interbreeding. I think the density of humans in North America will begin the domestication process on native wolves even if humans are not actively trying to domesticate. That’s my 2 cents, at least. As I mentioned in my first post, I bet a decent molecular biologist could find some interesting alleles to look at if he/she had access to fur from the period.

By the way, I just love your blog name. Brilliant.

  Eric wrote @

Ok, I’m going to add the late, who-the-heck-is-this-guy comment, so I apologize in advance. I’m just really into this topic. I think that we associate with wolves because they 1. look familiar (dogs) and 2. live in a society that’s not completely unfamiliar to us. Wolves are social and so are we.

I think the move from threatening werewolves to “de-clawed” werewolves in pop culture mirrors our cultural relationship to wolves and conservation. Younger generations are growing up celebrating the return of wolves to Yellowstone and the like. We root for the wolves now, not against them as we did in the past. The underdog status of wolves (couldn’t resist, sorry) makes it harder to rework the wolf we cheer for into the villain we fear in popular culture.

As for that Blitzen Trapper song, I hiked 17 miles through the mountains last week and listened to it probably a hundred times. Definitely the stand-out track on that album.

  S.M. Belekurov wrote @

Werewolf ACTIVITY IS ALWAYS INTERESTING AND DOES SEEM TO HAVE A SOCIAL connection. We see reports of werewolves increase in War time and during enviromental uphevals (as we are having now). The werewolf represents that being that intersects human and animal so as we become more “civilized” beings our perception of them would change. Recently i read an interesting article by a Ivy league Anthropologist saying that Darwin had killed the Werewolf by introducing the evolutionary concept to mainstream circles. He noted that in the last 150 years Werewolf reports have diminished greatly (except in VERY ruralized areas) and been replaced with Ape-Man sightings (such as Sasquatch and Orang-Pendek). Our belief is that the sighting reflects something that REALLY exists in our reality but the stage dressing (bigfoot instead of werewolf) is the difference. In other words how we percieve the event. Of course then you have trhe recurring occult connection but that’s foir another day. I really enoyed this article.

S.M. Belekurov
2012:The Paranormal Cookbook (Convergence of Reality and the Supernatural)

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@ S. M. Belekurov: Are you saying that society always demands, perhaps unconsciously, some kind of human-monster for its stories and myths? This is interesting – especially the movement from werewolf to ape-man. There is a book out by Joshua Buhs called Bigfoot: LIfe and TImes of a Legend. Buhs is also interested in this idea of the cultural niche for certain kinds of monster. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=367577

  Alastair Humphreys wrote @

No need to reply. Thought you’d like to know I’ve listed you as one of my favourite blogs http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/2010/10/favourite-blogs – keep up the awesome work!
Al

  kennyrayamajhi wrote @

Reblogged this on whatever.

  Lodi wrote @

Eric, thanks for your cmmoent on Furr. I think you’re right, wolves have gone from predators to underdogs and in the process we root for them. I also think you are right that they are easy to anthropomophize (sp?) because they are social, agressive, and nurturing – just like us. It is a good song – I found a video of Blizen Trapper playing Furr one of the late night shows – can’t remember which. Its probably easy enough to find on YouTube. Are you carrying any of these themes forward in your dissertation?


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