(adopted from a piece found long ago on a listserv)


The Anglo-Saxons, like many old European peoples, seemed to have a double perception of wolves. On the one hand, wolves were feared and hated. Wolves had been driven from farmlands for centuries. In "Deor's Lament" the evil king Eormanric has wylfenne geðohtas ("wolfish" — perhaps "she-wolfish" — "thoughts"). The enemy Danes in "The Battle of Maldon" are waelwulfas ("slaughter-wolfs"). And Wulfstan names the devil a werewulf.

On the other hand, as the name Wulfstan shows, Wulf is one of the commonest compounds in Anglo-Saxon names, appearing also in Beowulf (literally "bee-wolf," a kenning for "bear"), Cynewulf, Ealdwulf and Ethelwulf.

Surnames like Lowell, Lovel, and Lovett are versions of diminutives of "wolf" in Old French or Anglo-Norman, either from nicknames "wolf cub," or meaning "son of Wolf." They came to England with the Normans. Richard Luvel (Ricardus lupellus in a c. 1118 charter from Sussex) was descended from William, earl of Yvery, who was called Lupellus to distinguish him from his father, Robert, who had acquired the nickname Lupus because of his violent temper. The Italian equivalent, Lupino, was the name of a theatrical family who settled in England by 1642.

Wulf by itself, however, was late and uncommon as a personal name in Old English. M. Redin, "Studies on Uncompounded Personal Names in Old English" [Uppsala, 1919] doubts if any of the examples are really native and not from viking. The modern frequency of the surname in the U.S. is due to immigrants from Germany.

A like ambivalence seems to have characterized the attitude toward elves, who were regarded by the ancient Germanic peoples as a race of powerful supernatural beings. On the one hand, there are metrical charms against curses and injuries thought to be caused by the malevolent work of elves. On the other hand, Ælf ranks with wulf among the most popular component in Anglo-Saxon names, many of which survive as modern given names and surnames: Ælfræd "Elf-counsel" (Alfred), Ælfwine "Elf-friend" (Alvin), Ælfric "Elf-ruler" (Eldridge), also women's names such as Ælfflæd "Elf-beauty."

It's possible that these and other given names had become traditional and were bestowed without a thought to their etymologies. Modern English-speaking people have and give names simply because they like the sound of them or because they are the names of relatives or close friends. But the play on the name of king Æðelræd II, in his epithet of Unræd, seems to argue against this, at least in the case of the Anglo-Saxons. His subjects must have known his name means "good-counsel" before they could convert it to "no-counsel."

The wolf, it seems, earned esteem for ferocity and courage. From ancient times people cross-bred their dogs with wolves. The Louvre in Paris is said to be so named because its builder, Philip Augustus, intended it as a wolf kennel.

Germanic folklore in general seemed to associate the bear with the solitary champion but the wolf with young warriors. In Hrafnsmal (composed c. 900 C.E.), the warriors of Harald Fairhair of Vestfold in Norway are called "wolf-coats" because of their fierce fighting quality. But wolf as an outlaw who preys on society is also a force, in the person of the young warrior hiding in the forest, waiting for vengeance. The hero Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli, preparing to avenge their kinsmen on King Siggeir, hid in the forest, put on wolfskins, and spoke with the voices of wolves [Volsunga saga].

Old English werewulf has two spellings: Werwulf, the name of a priest known to Alfred and mentioned in Asser's "Life of Alfred," and werewulf, with its proleptic -e-, in Wulfstan's "Homily" 16b. In the ninth century it's a proper name; in the eleventh it's a synonym for the Devil, the wodfreca werewulf against whom all shepherds should guard their flock.

Those are the only two appearances in Old English, but there are many variants in other Germanic languages — Wargwolf, waragulph, etc. — many of them, like Alfred's Werwulf, used as proper and place names. The later Scandinavian versions have verulfr, "man/wolf." Marie de France spells the word three different ways in her "Bisclavret": garwal, garwaf, garwalf.

French loup-garou is a redundancy: "wolf-man-wolf." The garou (Old French garoul) is cognate with the garulph, gerulphos in Norman versions of the word, which breaks down to gar/war/wer "man" and ulph/wlf "wolf." It seems to have been an attempt to wrestle Old High German *werawolf or its Frankish equivalent into the Gallic/Romanic sound system of the French tongue. But the French now use garou to mean any kind of were-transformation: chien-garou (changing into a dog) chat-garou, etc.

There are two ideas here:

1.) A man who behaves in a wolf-like predatory and destructive manner, cf. waelwulfas. "Werwulf" as a name for a man also may have had the same kind of prestige that "Wolfgang" still enjoys, back before identification with wolves and wolfpacks became associated with the criminal and the demonic.

2.) A man who can change into a wolf and back. This condition is also called lycanthropy. Lykos is Greek for "wolf," anthropos for "man." Old diagnoses of lycanthropy can often be attributed to the inherited defect called porphyria. Greek lycanthropos is much earlier than the Germanic words, and from the beginning seems to have been limited to madness. Later medieval and early modern writers described lycanthropy using the terms dementia canina, melancholia lupina or canina. This described a human being who thought he was a wolf, ate raw flesh, dug up graves, howled at the moon, ran around on all fours. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the term lycanthropy replaced these, and a distinction was made (sometimes indistinctly) between the madman and the sorcerer.

There's been a lot of controversy over the Old English word wearg. Mary Gerstein's article, which tries to reinstate the meaning of Germanic warg as "werwolf," has been largely rejected. Wearg and German warg go back to a similar root that may have meant "strangler"; some etymologists (T.A. Karston and others) see this as a "taboo word" for "wolf," but this hasn't been universally accepted. Michael Jacoby and Joseph Weitenberg remark that it is only late, and mostly in Norse, that vargr (cognate with warg) acquires the meaning "wolf" along with "criminal." In Old English, wearg means almost exclusively "criminal" or "accursed being."

The Lex Salica, the Lex Ripuaria (both in Latin and using the word wargus) and the Scandinavian Gra'ga's (in Icelandic and using the word varg) all have legal language wherein they declare a criminal a warg — related to our Old English wearg. In the Lex Salica and Ripuaria, as in some ancient Greek laws, this term refers to outcasts: "Let him be warg," or, "let him be as a wolf for X amount of time who has done X." — said of men whose behavior is so terrible that exile is the severest punishment. This isn't to say that the warg wasn't seen as having a wolfish quality, or that warg/wearg/vargr wasn't a synonym for a wolf in ancient times. It's just that we don't have proof.

This phrasing also turns up in some Hittite texts. Punishment by exile and "wargness" is usually reserved for heinous crimes like digging up graves or oath-breaking. But Jaan Puhvel shows that the Hittite word for "wolf" is not the one that relates to warg. It's the word hurkel in the Hittite laws that has etymological relationship with warg. This word means a sex-offender.

The Hittite says this:

If anyone abducts a woman and if those who go after/behind, three persons or two persons, are killed, there will be no compensation. You have become a wolf. UR-BAR-RA.

This word is not the hurkel word. So Weitenberg is fairly skeptical that there is any proof that warg/hurkel definitely meant "wolf" rather than just "heinous person."

Nonetheless, the wolf has long been associated with certain anti-social human behaviors: lack of decency, overwhelming sexual and other appetite, digging up graves (no sense of propriety), turning on brother wolf (no ability to honor an oath). So it's no wonder that the werewolf and the heinous criminal are bound in association. Perhaps there was a common thread in Indo-European tribal law associating criminals with wolves and other things "out there in the night."

The "wolf-man" is a pretty universal concept, appearing in cultures all over the world that encounter wolves (Navajo, Sioux, etc.). The Scandinavian warriors had an established mythology about wolf-warriors in the ulfhethennir and the berserkir, Loki and Fenris.

A Roman view of the wolf may be reflected in the Latin lupa, literally "she-wolf," which was a term for "prostitute," and has yielded words for "whore" in some Romance languages (cf. Spanish loba, Italian lupa, French louve).

Some ancient Greek associations between gods and wolves might have sprung from confusion of lykos "wolf" and words derived from the disused Greek word lyke "light."

"Zeus Lykaios" was associated with wolves. The myth told of a man named Demetrius who was turned to a wolf by the god, but, if he could refrain from eating human flesh, could regain his human form. If he ate the flesh he was cursed to remain a wolf. It is possible (but some scholars disagree) that the word Lykaios comes from the masculine form of the "wolf" noun.

According to A.B. Cooke's "Zeus A Study In Ancient Religion," Zeus Lykaios was Zeus wolf-god and also Zeus the light-god. But there was a definite cult of Zeus Lykaios at a temple on Mt. Lykaion in Arkadia. According to Cooke, he-wolves were kept at Zeus Lykaios's sanctuary there as sacred animals. [Volume I, Chapter 3 pages 63-99.] They offered human sacrifices to him. Pliny and Augustine both mention the temple. Many of his images were dressed in wolf skins. Zeus Lykaios also had a cult at Kyrene, and coins with this image were found at Sparta. Lykaon the son of Pelasgos, built a town of Lykasoura on the slopes of Mt. Lykaion and he was said to have given Zeus the name Zeus Lykaios. He also held a festival called Lykaia.


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