One of the most majestic of the animal kingdom is the wolf. Dating back thousands of years are stories of wolf gods and goddesses. Shamans of nearly every culture have revered the wolf for its swiftness, instinctual abilities and wild freedom. Wolf medicine is strong medicine. Unfortunately, in past years wolves were killed off because of superstition, so there aren’t nearly as many wolves as there once was. But still, they live on. And so do the myths of gods and wolves.
Gods and goddesses of the ancient world often held a special connection with wolves. Some say this is because the beliefs of our ancestors were animistic – they believed everything in nature had consciousness including animals. Wildlife was thought of as sacred in ancient times, and there are scholars who believe ancient land guardian spirits were worshiped by ancient tribes and would eventually rise to become great gods and goddesses. To find an image of a god or goddess in the likeness of an animal was commonplace. Some of the more obvious animal-god connections can be seen on the ancient temple walls in Egypt. For example, the ibis-headed god Thoth. Or the hawk-headed god Horus. Wolf gods and goddesses were depicted with the heads of wolves, transformed into wolves, or were strongly associated with wolves.
Artemis is the Greek Goddess of the hunt, the forest, archery, chastity, and the moon. She was also a protector of women and children and was known to heal women’s injuries and disease. When depicted, Artemis was nearly always shown with animals of some kind – most often with dogs or deer. This is because her domain was the forest, and therefore all wildlife within the forest was under her guidance. This would have included wolves.
If you are to research Artemis, you will find mostly references to her link with hunting dogs. The greek god Pan gave Artemis a pack of hunting dogs of which Artemis takes seven when she goes hunting. Her connection with the moon serves to tell us that any animal with a draw towards the moon would be favored in Artemis’ eyes. Therefore, wolves, the primal original canines who so love to howl at the moon are also Artemis’ animals.
Diana, the Roman Goddess of the Moon, was thought to be Artemis’ Roman equivalent. They had many of the same qualities and attributes including domain over the forest and wildlife therein. Diana was the Roman Goddess of the Moon, just as Artemis was the Greek Goddess of the Moon. She ruled over the woodland creatures, which would include wolves. She was also a protector of women and children. In recent times, wolves have come to be associated with the “primal” or “wild” woman, essentially taking us back to our primitive instincts and intuition. Diana’s inseparable link with women and the fact that she was a wild forest goddess makes her connection with wolves palpable.
It’s no wonder Artemis is thought to have wolves in her compendium of animal guardians and helpers, as Artemis’ mother in Greek mythology was Leto. Leto was born on the island of Kos and her parents were Titans. Leto had relations with Zeus and gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. She was a goddess of womanhood and motherhood, and thus the birth of Apollo and Artemis are significant to the Leto myth. The legend says that Leto labored for days to deliver the twins Artemis and Apollo – this is related to wolves’ difficult delivery of their young. The journey that Leto took from the Hyperboreoi to Delos took twelve days, which is the time it took for wolves to deliver their young in Greek mythology. This made her one of the Greek wolf goddesses. She might have been the original Greek wolf goddess!
Leto was also believed to have had the ability to shift into the form of a wolf. Sometimes she was said to have been a she-wolf and so is linked to Lycia a.k.a. wolf-country. Leto honored and adored wolves because they were thought to have provided her assistance in her times of need.
The Morrighan is an ancient Irish (Celtic) goddess of life and death, wisdom, magic, shapeshifting, and war and also one of the Celtic wolf goddesses. She might have originally been three separate goddesses that eventually were merged into a triple-goddess. The Morrighan in her three aspects include Badh, Macha, and Nemain. The Morrighan is almost always seen as a fierce, aggressive goddess with a yearning for blood on the battlefield. She takes no prisoners, and shows little mercy to those who are her enemies. For those she loves – she will do whatever it takes to help them, including shapeshifting into various forms. One of those forms is in the shape of a large grey-red wolf, making her an ancient wolf goddess.
In the Irish epic tale The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Morrigan takes on many forms in the presence of Cu Chulainn. She is an eel and a wolf, among other things. Because the Morrigan is seen as a wild, liberated and independent goddess, it only makes sense that the wolf is one of her sacred familiars.
A favorite of the wolf goddesses in ancient Scandinavia was Skadi. Skadi is a Norse Goddess of the Winter and a Giantess. Her plight for revenge against the gods for her father’s death was met with a trick – Odin tricked her into marrying Njord, a god of the sea, instead of Odin’s son, Baldur, of whom Skadi was determined to marry. The two lived together for a short time but the marriage was doomed, as Skadi’s heart was in the mountains and Njord’s was in the sea. Eventually Skadi fell in love with Ulle and they lived in the snowy mountains together.
Skadi often has wolves at her sides, as the Poetic Edda shows. Njord, after returning to the sea from his stay in the mountains with Skadi, mentions how the howling of the wolves kept him awake at night. But Skadi doesn’t mind the howls, she welcomes them. She is one of the wolf pack, and she will forever guard the mountains as her sacred home.
Lycaon, also known as Arcadia, was a mythological king of Arcadia. There were many Greek myths surrounding Lycaon’s life, but the most popular tells of Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf after Lycaon tried to trick Zeus. Here again we see the “trickster” archetype alive in the myth of Lycaon who is then turned into the trickster-creature – the wolf. The term lycanthropy is directly related to the name Lycaon, and is a disorder in which a person believes he or she is actually a wolf.
In ancient Rome, there was a wild fertility festival that happened every year on February 15th called Lupercalia. This festival involved a number of bawdy and lascivious acts, including men running around naked chasing women, beating women with sticks to ensure fertility throughout the year, and animal sacrifices of goats and a dog. The priesthood known as the Luperci (brothers of the wolf) were to perform these rites. This festival was put on every year until approximately the fifth century AD, when all pagan holidays and celebrations were outlawed by the Church. What does this have to do with a god and his association to wolves?
If we identify the term Lupercalia, we find that luper translates roughly to wolf. The ancient Romans and Greeks held wolves in high honor and regard, and so the war and agriculture god would come to be associated with the wolves. Romulus and Remus, twin brothers associated with the founding of Rome, were said to have been orphaned by Mars and their orphan mother then suckled by a large she-wolf in a cave known as Lupercal. Fun Harry Potter fact: there is a professor known as Remus Lupin who makes a debut appearance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Where do you think JK Rowling thought up his name?
Often we see Odin, the all-father of Norse mythology, shown with two ravens; however, when Odin is not accompanied by his large corvid friends he is flanked by two great wolves named Geri and Freki. The mention of Odin’s wolves comes from the Prose and Poetic Edda. Their characters in the Poetic and Prose Edda demonstrate a warrior quality, in particular a greed for blood and corpses. The names Geri and Freki are translated to be “greedy” and “the ravenous one”. They are destruction that makes way for creation.
Odin has been associated with the greek god Apollo, who also has an evident connection with wolves and ravens. The Ulfednar in Norse Mythology are wolf-warriors and are referred to as Odin’s fighters. They always wore the pelts of wolves when going into battle.
Apollo, the Greek wolf god of the Sun, healing, archery, poetry and more. Old sources say Apollo was “wolf-born”, which refers to his mother Leto (see above). Some say Apollo was once an anthropomorphic wolf-god who later took on more human characteristics. Basically, Apollo and his twin sister Artemis were raised by a she-wolf and around wolves.
Loki, Norse God of Trickery and Transformation, is yet another wolf god. Or, at least, a god who has close connections with these magnificent creatures. Loki is the father of many gods and creatures, including Fenrir, the wolf who will destroy Odin at the end of the world. Being a god of mischief and transformation, I’d venture to say Loki would have no problem shapeshifting into wolf form when the need arose.
Nehalennia is a lesser-known Celtic, possibly Germanic, wolf goddess from the first and second century. Most evidence of her comes from The Netherlands, Sweden and islands off the coast of Europe. She is almost always depicted with a wolf-hound at her feet, symbols of the sea, and carries a basket of fruit or bread. She is associated with the harvest, wolves, fertility, the ocean, trading, shipping and horticulture.
I work with Skadi during the winter months.
"Skadi often has wolves at her sides, as the Poetic Edda shows. Njord, after returning to the sea from his stay in the mountains with Skadi, mentions how the howling of the wolves kept him awake at night. But Skadi doesn’t mind the howls, she welcomes them. She is one of the wolf pack, and she will forever guard the mountains as her sacred home."