The Ability to Transform: On Wolves Becoming People, and People Becoming Wolves
Sonja Swift Considers Lupine Representation and Demonization Across Cultures
At the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, there is a small ivory carving of an upright female form with a wolf head fashioned by the hands of a Tuniit craftsman, ancestor of the Inuit from the central Arctic. Feet apart. Arms dropped at the hips. Slender waist. Wide hips. Pointed jaw. Big ears.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Mestiza Latina author of the classic Women Who Run with the Wolves, tells the story of La Loba, the old Wolf Woman. She who is ancient and knowing, a wanderer practiced at remaining unnoticed. With a home hidden in the outskirts, La Loba is a bone collector, gathering “especially that which is in danger of being lost to the world.” She wanders up arroyos and into the mountains in search of bones. Wolf bones in particular. And what she finds, she carries home to her hearth, to assemble fireside, carefully placing one bone with another. After she has restored a skeleton whole and intact, she sings. This is how the wolf returns to being, and this is when the wolf runs. And always somehow in the motion of the wolf racing free, whether by sheer speed regained or simply the quality of light on fur, the wolf transforms into a woman, laughing, as she runs toward the horizon.To write about a creature at once mythic and also gravely disappeared is like writing about a shadow.
Transformation is at the heart of many a story about wolves. Whether people becoming wolves or wolves becoming people, or whales, or perhaps most ancient in memory, simply the friendship, kinship, of people and the wolf.
Orcas, or killer whales, the largest member of the dolphin family, are also known as “sea wolves.” The meaning isn’t arbitrary. Their behavior is very similar. Both the orca and wolf are hunters, devoted to their families, and also have close affinity with humans. Orcas have also been similarly projected upon, associated with supposed wolf-like malevolence, made out to be ferocious and liable to attack human beings at any opportunity, which neither wolf nor whale are actually known to do.
Maquinna (Lewis George), hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation, recounts his people’s understanding of the wolf/whale: “Wolves are really a sacred being for us. In our belief the wolf transforms into a killer whale. We feel that the wolf and the killer whale are one in the same creature.” When asked what’s so special about wolves? And, moreover, why do humans have a different relationship with them than other carnivores? His response was, “None of the other animals that I know of have the ability to transform. That ability is very special and unique, and it’s healing.”
In the Irish animaion Wolfwalkers another version of transformation occurs. The story is about a father and daughter, the father hired from neighboring England to serve authoritarian Irish Lord Protector as his wolf killer. The daughter, trailing her father into the woods to escape the confines of a village centered on religious hierarchy and the felling of old-growth forest, encounters wolf girl. At first the two are rivals, but soon become friends, and when the English child wakes up in her loft a day later, she realizes she has become a wolf child also. The wolf girl had healed her with wolf magic, giving her the ability to transform. With the skill of the wolf, she could be free, run like the wind, and follow scent farther than sight, yet now she was an outlaw. Her father, the hired man, doesn’t recognize her. She must learn to use her transformation carefully.
Wolf girl’s mother, also a wolf-human hybrid, is trapped by the lord during her transformation as a wolf. She is a possession he uses to intimidate the village folk, fully aware of her power. She is his conquest he wants to force into submission and in this way assume power that is not his own. The two daughters work together to free her. Afterwards, the wolf killer for hire joins his daughter and her friends, becoming a wolf himself.
In Princess Mononoke, the famous Japanese animation by Hayao Miyazaki, two of the main characters are a forest princess and a giant white wolf. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, the story centers around animate gods in response to the forces of reckless human consumption—whether industry or war, fiercely intertwined. The term mononoke, or もののけ, is a Japanese word for shape-shifting beings that can possess people and cause suffering, disease, or death. San, the wolf rider, has renounced human society. Her nemesis is Eboshi, who is devoted to the people of Irontown, named as it is for the ore the community unearths at the expense of natural law. The Forest Spirit, a deer-like creature with antlers as prominent as the fan of peacock plumage, offers healing and renewal even through death.What became obvious is that wolves have been persecuted in identical ways to certain people such as to rob them of their wisdom, bearing, and strength.
My friend Lorraine Nez shared this true story with me about a relative of hers: In the late 1800s, a Sicangu Lakota tipi camp was attacked by militant settlers and burned to the ground. Only a baby survived. When the murderers were gone, wolves arrived. They found the infant and took her with them. A few years later, another Lakota family group was traveling through the area and encountered a cave—the wolves’ den—where this child was found crawling around. The wolves allowed her people to reclaim her. Once grown, she was known to camp at the edge of the village where the wolves could visit her, but also because her strong sense of smell was overwhelmed by village life. She had received the skills of scent and sight from the wolves, and so became a healer who knew when and where her help and medicine were needed. She could smell sickness and, with this knowledge, bring medicine for healing. She also had the eyes of a wolf, capable of seeing at night. There were times she would travel by night to skirt enemy territory, accompanied by the wolves who protected her and helped keep her fed. To this day, she is remembered as the woman who lived with wolves.
Wolves are the most persecuted animals in the world, with the most distorted reputation. To write about a creature at once mythic and also gravely disappeared is like writing about a shadow, a dream, a fleeting vision of what was, what could be yet. How does one do justice to this creature, in writing? Who she is, who she has long been known as and who she is projected to be, inaccurately. These are questions I reckoned with in writing a book about wolves and women and wisdom traditions—which led to writing about metaphorical thinking, how people are mirrored in the metaphor of wolf. A metaphor that embodies worldviews colliding, and the collision, the fallout, we live with still.
What became obvious is that wolves have been persecuted in identical ways to certain people such as to rob them of their wisdom, bearing, and strength—one could say wolf-like knowing—for the controllers unrequited gain. And, that perspectives which consider Wolf a relative, hence someone with whom we have a relationship, and for which there are protocols for our part of that relationship, have far greater longevity and practical know-how in sustaining life on Earth. The transformation stories I encountered speak to this, in a deep way. They also echo the meaning imbued in the Ojibwe word for wolf, Ma’iingan, translated to mean: “the one sent here by that all-loving spirit to show us the way.”
From Echo Loba, Loba Echo: Of Wisdom, Wolves and Women by Sonja Swift. Copyright © 2023. Available from Rocky Mountain Books.