Do wolves really howl at the full moon? And what about this business of werewolves?
A question comes from a reader in Japan asking about the connection between werewolves and the moon. She’s been watching the Twilight series and is a bit confused as the full moon in east Asia is considered to be a favourable time. So, let’s look back at some of our western cultural history.
The werewolf legend originates in European folklore and mythology going back to the Middle Ages and as fans of Harry Potter or Twilight will know, at the full moon those afflicted with lycanthropy will shapeshift into wolves. But the moon hasn’t always been regarded as a bad guy.
Before the advent of Christianity to Europe, awareness of the mooncycle was part of the culture. In the times before electricity, the light of the moon was welcome. The association of planting and harvesting according to the phase of the moon was understood. The use of certain medicinal herbs was also determined by the phase of the moon.
To establish its power in the lands it converted, it suited Christianity not only to replace pagan temples with churches (many churches are built on the sites of temples), to transform traditional earth festivals into Christian ones (the midwinter festival became Christmas, the spring festival became Easter), to demonise the gods and goddesses of the earth religion and to remove the connection to the moon.
But not only was the moon disconnected from the cycle of life, it also became associated with the dark side of the unconscious, what Jungians would call the negative intuitive. For when the intuition is ignored or disregarded, it becomes tainted with all the repressed negativity of the unconscious. The full moon, which had hitherto been a time of power and connection with the forces of nature becomes associated with madness and with imagined creatures of the night such as werewolves, vampires and ghosts.
So, while Jews, Moslems, Chinese and others have calendars and celebrate festivals linked to the cycles of the moon, the only Christian festival that has retained its lunar connection is Easter which falls on the weekend after the first full moon following the spring equinox.
More about calendars in my article here.
So, what about wolves? Well, we have to go back to prehistoric times when humans were hunter-gatherers, often living a nomadic existence following the herds. At that time, man and wolf were both hunters and man’s relationship with the herds was the same as that of the wolves. Wolves with their acute sense of smell were best at tracking and harrying the prey, while humans with their opposable thumbs and weapons were better at the kill. They found that if they worked together, they were more efficient. Mutual respect developed species to species. In fact, the alliance of man and wolf was unbeatable, eventually managing to dominate and defeat their competitors, the Neanderthals.
Not only did man and wolf hunt together, there is evidence that they shared living space. Caves have been discovered in many locations including Germany, Switzerland, France and China with both human and wolf bones. In some cases, we can assume that wolves became domesticated and the relationship evolved to become the bond between man and dog while in other cases, wolves remained untamed.
Then when man became a herdsman and started owning the herds, the collaboration between man and wolf was broken. Man built fences and corrals, wolf came to be seen as a predator and an enemy. As such, wolves were driven out and demonised as man separated himself from the wilderness and from his own wildness.
So, for different reasons both wolf and moon came to be considered ‘dangerous’. The moon became a symbol of dark magic while the wolf, no longer a friend and collaborator with man became a threat and a symbol of fear, the big bad wolf that echoes through our fairy tales.
And what about the story that wolves howl at the moon? Well, however romantic and dramatic that may seem, in fact is not true. A few years ago, I visited Lobopark, a wildlife park for wolves near Málaga in the south of Spain where packs of wolves live in big enclosures where they have enough space to roam, play and hide when they want to.
The park organises a special event on the night of the full moon when visitors can go and hear the collective howling of the various packs that live in the park. But I was told that despite the dramatic image of wolves howling under a full moon, they will howl any evening whatever the phase of the moon.
16 April 2022 Full moon in Libra