Wolves play a central role in much of the world’s folklore and in religious mythology. Yet they have been perpetually vilified, demonized, and their survival as species is at risk. Wolves evoke both awe and fear. It’s that combination that makes them so potent and mysterious. Author Robin Herne—who has described himself on the internet as a storyteller, poet, artist, dog-owner and Druid--dedicates this short book to the UK Wolf Trust and to his own dogs. (Aren’t all dogs remotely related to wolves?) 

Herne writes that The Magic of Wolves is part of a Pagan Portals series about the magical lore of various non-human animals. “Practically all societies at some point in history have sought mystical interaction with the animals on which they depended or which they greatly admired,” he writes. This short book isn’t by any means an exhaustive treatment of wolf lore, Herne acknowledges. But it’s a fun read with lots of juicy tidbits for those of us who admire and/or relate to wolves and wolvishness. 

First, Herne gives us some of the zoology of wolves: their physicality, their life spans, their social relations, their diverse species, before delving into the centrality of wolves in world mythologies.

Then, story-wise, he begins with ancient Rome, founded by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, offspring of Rhea Silvia and the warrior god Mars. The twins’ uncle Amulius ambitiously sought to be king instead of their father Numitor or his progeny, so Amulius managed to send the infant boys in a basket to a river where they would drown or die of exposure. But, no, Romulus and Remus were rescued by one of the “holy creatures” of Mars, the female wolf Lupa. She took the boys as her own babies and along with her mate and her pack, she raised them with “lupine mannerisms” until they were eventually returned to human society and, later, discovered as descendants of royalty. 

Much later in Italian history, St. Francis of Assisi became the patron saint of animals. When a community found itself preyed upon by a large wolf, Francis stepped in and instead of killing the wolf, he tracked it down in the wilderness, converted the animal to Brother Wolf and then brokered a deal with the townspeople such that they would feed their new Brother and in exchange, he’d stop going after them and their livestock.

One thinks of wolves as having to do with group loyalty and protection. Herne’s insight is that “part of the psychology of wolves is the potent urge to define and defend their turf, which is something to think about when people engage with lupine spirits in ritual, meditation and so forth.” I hadn’t thought about this so explicitly before: that wolves, archetypally, have to do with maintaining personal boundaries. 

Herne goes on to detail some of the roles wolves have played in mythology and social evolution.

In Arcadia, Greece, a King Lycaon seemed to be testing the powers of Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, by holding a feast, along with 49 of his 50 sons. The menu included human flesh, and though Zeus was almighty, he didn’t know of this outrage until, disguised as a wandering mortal, he came upon the king’s feast. Then Zeus became furious. He restored whoever the human victim was to life and turned the king and his sons into wolves.  Here author Herne’s observation is that the myth “can be understood as detailing a cultural shift between a period when the early Arcadians engaged in human sacrifice and a time when they gave it up.” Here becoming a wolf was a punishment.     

Further on, Herne details how a number of European cultures consider themselves to be descended from wolves or have stories, such as with Rome or also Vilnius, Lithuania, in which wolves helped in the founding of a great city.

The most famous wolf in Norse mythology is Fenrir, who kills Odin the apocalyptic battle of Raganarok. I am not at all versed in Norse paganism, so I cannot do justice to Horne’s treatment of the Norse polytheist tradition. Suffice it to say that Herne gives a cogent summary of Fenrir’s role and comments that “some readers might see Fenrir as more symbolic than actual, representative of the entropy that exists within all things.” 
 Herne covers wolves’ connections to the diverse forms of Celtic paganism, as well as in the Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda, in Indian Sikhism, in Chinese and Japanese folklore and, in ancient Egyptian mythologies. His chapter titled “Huff and Puff” treats the relatively recent, western “fairy stories” such as those about Red Riding Hood and also the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs. Wolves figure often in tales of famine as in the proverbial “wolf at the door.”

Every chapter of The Magic of Wolves is worthy of its own multi-volume treatment. Read Herne’s book to whet your appetite. 

He ends by noting that “for those readers who are strongly drawn towards the Wolf Spirit…it is worth reflecting that bonding to spirit also leads to responsibilities in the material world… especially so where an animal is at significant risk.” By this he means simply: do what you can to help preserve the life chances of incarnate wolves. “A gift begets a gift,” Herne concludes. 

~review by: Sara R. Diamond
Author: Robin Herne
Moon Books, 2024
101 pp., $10.95