Our foremost competitor and mythical ancestor to our best friend
There are few animals to which we have such an ambivalent bond as the wolf. As much as strength, courage and cunning are associated with wolves, it can also be associated with fear, cruelty and destruction of property by many. Above all, those who work with livestock in environments where there are a lot of wolves tend to have a special approach to the wolf. The wolf is probably the animal that is most debated in public Sweden; where some think it is just as good to shoot every single one, while others see the wolf as particularly worthy of protection in our Swedish fauna.
History & Mythology
That the wolf played a big role for us here in the Nordics is very clear when you read everything from children’s books like Red Riding Hood and Emil i Lönneberga to the Edda and everything in between. The wolf’s cunning and hunting abilities were also recognized by the Vikings, who, according to some theories, named a kind of men’s league or fighting unit after the wolf, namely the Varjager. They are believed to have been men who swore an oath to the association, a king or other entity.
Wikipedia defines Varjag as the following:
Varjag is an East Slavic term for Norsemen, who during the Viking Age moved to and settled in the Kingdom of Kiev. […] The Nordic root word seems to have originally meant “sworn”. Regarding the actual meaning of the word, however, opinions have been divided. On the one hand, it has been thought to refer to an honest obligation to provide help and protection, on the other a sworn agreement, through which protection is granted. Perhaps the word reflects both of these meanings. In other words, the term væring of væringr (variant of væringi) would have been used for persons bound by oath to assist each other, roughly guild brothers.
– Wikipedia, (Swedish)
Perhaps it could have been some sort of early loosely assembled chivalric activity where the men banded together and swore an oath to each other to protect themselves/home/others in need?
The wolf has also appeared in several different mythologies and storytelling, including in Greek mythology where Zeus in wolf form is said to have been worshiped in Arcadia. A she-wolf also had a very central role in ancient Rome, where its founders Remus and Romulus are said to have survived thanks to a she-wolf. In our own Norse mythology, we have, among other things, the two wolves at Odin’s side, Gere and Freke, and who could have missed Loki’s son Fenrisulven, eater of Tyr’s hand and bound by a magic rope only to be able to free himself at Ragnarök?
That Odin chose wolves and ravens as his closest and most trusted allies is interesting because these two species seem to get along very well in nature! The wolf, like the raven, is very family-oriented and often lives together with a few selected individuals throughout its life. The raven often pairs and the wolf lives in a tightly knit pack. These two vastly different animals have been seen cooperating in hunting, where the raven acts as a lookout and leads the wolf to a suitable prey that the wolf brings down and they then share it brotherly!
Both wolves and ravens are very smart animals and have a good ability to communicate with each other and with others through various adapted sounds. Ravens are also one of the very few animals that can learn to talk like humans!
The lone wolf?
The fact that the word lone wolf has come to be synonymous with solitude may have escaped few Swedes! How and why the word came about originally, we don’t have a good answer to, as far as I know. What is clear, however, is that it does not reflect wolves in general, which normally live in packs throughout their lives.
A possible reason why the expression came to be could be precisely for that reason; that the wolf, just like us humans, does not live alone. It then becomes significantly more startling when you actually come across a wolf or human who actually lives completely alone, without the support of the group or pack. In many cases, it is not what is common that creates an expression or a good story, but it is often what is odd or unusual that captures the interest!
The wolf in the world is considered to be a very viable species, while in some places, including in Sweden and Finland, it is seen as highly threatened and in Norway acutely threatened.
A normal-sized full-grown wolf normally weighs around 30-50 kilos and is the largest wild canine animal. As most people probably know, the wolf is also the ancestor of the dog.
Today’s Swedish wolves are not huge beasts, although they have a rather respectable body size if you were to come across them yourself out in the wilderness. However, they are nothing compared to their ancestors who lived here in our latitudes in the old world!
A wolf head from a fully grown wolf recently found in the permafrost of eastern Siberia is about 50% larger than that of the modern gray wolf. If the body follows the same pattern, that’s a pretty respectable size!
The largest living wolves today are found in the huge forest areas of Alaska, Canada and Russia/Eastern Europe. A normal-sized wolf in these areas weighs about twice as much as a normal-sized Scandinavian wolf at around 80 kilos and has a shoulder height of barely a meter!
The Wolf & the Dog
That the wolf and the dog have a very close relationship and that the latter originated from the former is long established knowledge. But, just like today’s dogs, there are several different wolf breeds and areas that were dominated by a certain ancestor and through natural selection gave rise to different lineages.
A new study from this year in Nature examined the genomes of various finds from the last 100,000 years from Europe, Siberia and North America and found that the ancestors of our living domestic dogs probably came from eastern Eurasia, rather than the western parts. However, they have not yet succeeded in finding a perfect match, so we have to be careful when greeting our four-legged friends that we have found great-grandmother!
Dogs in today’s Africa and the Near and Middle East come to a greater extent from what we would today describe as southwestern Eurasia.
The wolf today
As previously mentioned, the wolf is one of the most debated animals in our Swedish fauna. This is largely because the wolf was largely completely extinct in Sweden until just 40 years ago when two new groups moved in. After these, more wolves have appeared and more wolves have also been born from them. At the time of writing, there are approximately 540 wolves in Sweden in approximately 83 different groups. The different groupings can consist of everything from a couple to larger families!
The conflict that has arisen around the wolf is largely due to the fact that wolf hunting is extremely protected. One side argues for loosening the law somewhat as it is adapted to the wolf population of old, while the other side points out that nature should be allowed to take its course and that man does not always have to try to control the nature around us in detail.
The Wolf’s Life
Despite many depictions in books and elsewhere of lone wolves eating grandmothers and abducting children, wolves normally live in packs where they take care of each other and help raise the young and get food. The hunt itself is very fascinating to watch, wolves hunt together and develop techniques and tactics to isolate and trap their prey in the easiest way, be it a hare or a larger elk!
The wolf pack is best controlled by a stable pair consisting of the Alpha male and the Alpha female. Optimally, they have been together for a longer time at the top of the hierarchy in the herd. Within the group, very strong bonds are created, something that the dogs probably brought with them from their time as wolves. One of the strongest bonds can be created between dog and owner/mother. The longer time passes with a stable leadership and the longer the herd’s constellation is intact, the more stable, efficient and cohesive the herd becomes!