The wolf is a beautiful, intelligent creature, and the source of much fear and anxiety ever since humans took up farming. That is a long history of contention! The impulse to fear them is quite natural--they stand taller than just about any dog and those eyes carry a light in them that demands respect. Rabies, a disease that could drive the animals to viciously attack and leave behind a terrifying fatal sickness, added a fervor to the fear. No wonder the wolf began as a villain. But did it? The conversation that took place on our podcast, Shadows on the Sound, inspired me to do a little more research.
Going back further than fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, etc.), there are several instances of gods shifting into animal form. Many early religions regarded the wolf as the mightiest of all animals. From Gaul to Breton to Romania to Greece, cultures gave their gods the ability to take the form of the wolf or used wolves as the symbol for their god. Even Apollo had an affiliation with wolves. Germanic paganism gave a slightly less flattering portrayal of wolves (Fenrir slayed Odin), but they held their ferocity in esteem and wore their pelts to denote their totem animal in battle
Wolves became demonized when commercial farming became a primary source of income throughout the world. Efforts to exterminate the wolf as vermin grew into an organized effort in the Middle Ages in Europe. The wolf population went from half a million living peacefully with the Native American population to 300 grey wolves by 1960 (red wolves were extinct except for the small population living in captivity-go here for more info). A similar job was done in Europe, they were driven to extinction in Japan, maned wolves (not technically wolves, but still persecuted) are endangered in South America, and Tibetan wolves are still hunted. Attacks by rabid animals fueled the hysteria and attitudes have only shifted in the last forty years towards rehabilitation and protection.
Japan had the kitsune (a fox, not wolf), the French had the Loup-Garou (which travelled over to Louisiana and emerged as the Rougarou), and the Navajo yee naaldlooshi. Nearly every culture has lore that involves transformation from man to beast. More modern depictions have traditionally fallen into the Thriller genre. The most common construct involves a man being bitten by another werewolf only to turn into a wolf himself on the full moon. The myth often differs from vampirism in that the infected person is left alive and human for the better part of each month. The werewolf is a rare creature. It gets to retain its humanity for the majority of the time, which also means he/she has to live with whatever havoc they wreak on a full moon for the rest of their very long lives. Vaguely romantic, but still entirely terrifying.
Over the last several years, werewolves have been cropping up in romance. It's an interesting transformation, and one I feel is linked to the increased awareness about the damage we have inflicted against a creature that largely leaves people alone (livestock is another matter). The incorporation makes sense on more basic levels. Men and women with more animalistic tendencies are viewed as more hot-blooded in the bedroom. In a culture that seeks alpha male behavior, the werewolf is the jackpot. Danger and sex and are often intertwined, and even more so when a werewolf is involved. The lack of inhibitions don't hurt either.
Maybe we're going back to our original regard for an animal that embodied strength, cunning, and loyalty.
What do you think of the surge in were-animals in romance? While they still have a place in thrillers, can you also picture them as heroes?