Who’s afraid of Voracious Woolf?

Who’s afraid of Jóða Fenris ‘the offspring of Fenrir’? Afraid of hund hrynsævar hræva ‘the hound of the roaring sea corpses’? Who, today, is afraid of the wolf? The dark creature that has lived for so long in the shadowy forests of the east, is on the rise again in Europe. Almost two centuries have passed, but the wolf is back at the southern shores of the North Sea. Back in former Frisia. Igniting old fears that had been extinguished. It is slaughtering sheep. Even more alarming, middle-aged-men-in-lycra (mamils) report being chased by wolves while biking through the woods. A great deal of controversy exists on what to do. Calls to dig wolfpits again, or simply to shoot off the animal. Against calls to dance with it instead, because the wolf will ultimately conduct nature. As it did with Yellowstone. But where do these strong emotions come from?

The wolf is part of European culture for thousands of years. According to legend, the eternal city of Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, seven centuries before the date of Christ. As little children they were saved and suckled by a wolf. Romulus killed his brother Remus, and became founder of the magnificent city. Not only in Roman but also in the Germanic cultures of the wider North Sea area, the wolf fulfilled an important role. An animal considered vermin. That deeply feared people already in the Early Middle Ages. A danger to livestock and to people. And when eaten alive and torn apart by wolves, you were doomed forever. All the more since a dismembered body, namely, could not be resurrected on Judgment Day (Leneghan 2022).

Some readers might still have been raised with fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Goat’s Kids and the Wolf, or Peter and the Wolf. Fairy tales with Midas Zeke, the Big Bad Wolf created by Walt Disney. Or readers who watched as little kid De Fabeltjeskrant ‘the fables newspaper’ with Bor the Wolf. And, of course, we still find a bit scary to walk in the woods at night when there is a full moon. Afraid to encounter a genuine werewolf. More recent, we have mutant Wolverine, albeit he seems quite friendly to people.

Maybe even older than many fairy tale is the wolf named Ysengrim, also written as Ysengrin or Isengrijn. Ysengrimus is a satire composed in the mid twelfth century. An animal epic that revolves around the, often bloody, conflict between Reynard the Fox and Ysengrim the Wolf, and in which social injustices are denounced. Ysengrim represents the greedy clergy. The fable does not end well for Ysengrim. He is ripped into pieces by 66 pigs. Already then, too many pigs were being kept.

“Grandmother… your voice sounds so odd. Is something the matter? Wolf: I just have a bit of a cold. Little Red Riding Hood: Oh, what big ears you have, grandmother! Wolf: All the better to hear you with. Little Red Riding Hood: And what big eyes you have! Wolf: All the better to see you with. Little Red Riding Hood: Oh, grandmother, and what big teeth you have…”

wolf names

One of the oldest attestations concerning the importance of wolves in Germanic cultures are two tremisses, golden coins, dated around 650. They are coins with the personal name Ani(w)ulufu on it, written backwards in runes: ᚫᚾIᚦᚢᛚᚢᚠᚢ (Looijenga 1997). The coins are so-called cabinet finds, i.e. an euphemism for lying about in an archive or museum, and found in the eighteenth century already. Provenance of both unknown. One coin, the Folkestone coin, has been lost in the British Museum. Maybe a sign the museum should reward its employees more generously. A detailed drawing of the coin survived, though. The other coin, the Glasgow coin, is properly kept in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Furthermore, the general opinion seems to be that the spelling of the name Aniwulufu is of Frisian origin (Looijenga 2003, Beers 2012, Kaiser 2021).

The second part of the name (w)ulufu means undoubtedly wolf. Related to the Old English words wylif, wulafa or wolafa, and to Old Germanic wulfa. What the first element ani means, is not clear. The text may have some connection with the legendary Wylfings of East Anglia as mentioned, among other, in the epic poem Beowulf, since their ancestor was called Aun (Looijenga 1997). The first name Aun is also know from Aunn inn gamli ‘Aun the Old’, the king of the house of the Scylfings in modern Sweden. The Scylfings too are mentioned in the Beowulf.

Following the Aniwulufu tremisses, we cannot escape to bring on stage the Beowulf. A tenth-century epic poem containing stories that are even centuries older, passed on in oral tradition. The significance of the wolf in Germanic cultures becomes clear in the Beowulf. The element wolf can be found in many names, notably in that of warrior Beowulf himself. It is unclear what the element beo means. One possibility is that beo means ‘bee’. Hence ‘bee-wolf’ which could be a kenning for bear (Leneghan 2022). Furthermore, there is the clan of the Wulfings that is mentioned in the Beowulf. Also written as Wylfings or Ylfings and translates as ‘wolf-clan’. Not merely in the Beowulf but in the late-tenth-century poem Widsith in the Exeter Book too, this powerful wolf-clan is mentioned. Other names bearing the name wolf in the Beowulf are Wulf, Wulfgar, Hroþulf, and Gárulf. On warrior Gárulf we will come back later in this post.

The name-element wolf can also be found in the Bavarian dynasty of the Agilolfings, the Franconian Arnulfings, and the Wuffingas in southern Sweden. Of the latter the personal names Haduwolf, Haeruwulf and Hariwulf have been preserved on runestones (Looijenga 1997).

wolf hunt

Besides the name-element wolf in personal and tribe names, also the battles of warrior Beowulf with the monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother have similarities with wolves. Especially when taking into account the wolf stereotypes in several poems of the aforementioned tenth-century Exeter Book too. The hunt for monster Grendel itself shows parallels with the hunt for wolves. Grendel is a wolflike creature. Grim and greedy. Stalking the royal halls of king Finn during the night, with terrible light gleaming from its eyes.

Furthermore, Beowulf’s hunt for Grendel takes place in a watery environment. A marshy area. In the early-medieval Anglo-Saxon world the habitat and lairs of wolves were associated with moors, lakes and swamps. Monster Grendel is described as a mǣre mearc-stapa, sē þe mōras hēold, fen ond fǣsten ‘famous border-stepper, the one who ruled the moors, fen and stronghold’ and sinnihte hēold, mistige mōras ‘sinfully he ruled the misty moors.’ Finally, the mother of Grendel is described as brimwylf which is a man-eating ‘she-wolf’ (Luttrell 2011, Leneghan 2022). Wolfmother, by the way, great rock band as well.

wolf toponyms

The wolf-element can not only be found in Germanic personal and tribe names, but also in place names. A study concerning place names in the Netherlands (Helsen 1961) shows they are richly represented. Interesting is that quite many wolf toponyms can be associated with places located near or on border locations, or leading to a border location. Often, the second element of the wolf place names are objects frequently used as border marking, like: -beek ‘creek’, –boom ‘tree’, –galg ‘gallow’, –gracht ‘moat’, –eik ‘oak’, –dijk ‘dike’, –put ‘pit’, –kuil ‘hole’, –winkel ‘corner’ etcetera. Areas between villages or municipalities which were considered wilderness. Landscapes with bush, heather, swamps etc.

In old Germanic languages there was a synonym for the word wolf, namely: warc, warg, wearg, varg(r) which was used in medieval justice for criminal offenders who were declared to be an outlaw. It was also called straf van de wolf ‘punishment of the wolf’. Once an outlaw, all his or her property was laid to waste, and nobody was allowed to help, shelter or feed the outlaw. Killing an outlaw was was even legal. Therefore, these persons lived like beasts in the woods, in the very margins of society. Indeed, like wolf men or, indeed, werewolves. A warc in Middle High German language was also synonym for creeps and eerie creatures.

In high-medieval England if someone wore a wulfes heafod ‘wolf’s head’ he or she was an outlaw. Then there was also the practice when a criminal was hanged on the gallow, a wolf was hung besides the person. To stress the dishonoring character of the sentence. Place names with the element wolf can, therefore, also denote a location where a criminal was put to death. Like the border locations mentioned earlier, sinister and magical places. Places of taboo. Go to the places Wolfsbarge, Wolfsbosch, De Wolfsdonken, Wolfshoek,, Wolfskuil, Wolfslaar, Wolfsput, Wolfswinkel and see for yourself.

The saga Wolff von der Wolfsberg – North of the village of Mulsum in Land Wursten, the powerful masters Wolff of the Wolfsberg once lived. Wolfsberg (‘wolf’s mountain’) was a so-called Wurt; an artificial dwelling mound on which their house stood save from sea floods. The masters Wolff disposed of the destinies of the people in the region. To mark their jurisdiction, gallows and wheel stood in front of their house. On Sundays, the pastor and church-goers would not dare to start mass if master Wolff had not arrived yet and was not seated on his personal bench.

One Sunday, master Wolff was exceptionally late. After the pastor and the congregation had waited for many hours, the pastor finally began sermon. Barely he had spoken the first words, when master Wolff entered the church. He was late because he had been hunting in the woods far away. That the pastor had not waited for him made him furious. Without a moment’s hesitation, master Wolff killed the pastor with a deer catcher. From then on, as a punishment of God, the lineage of the house of Wolff von der Wolfsberg died out.

From: Hake Betken seine Duven (1988)

If we now recall the hunt for monster Grendel in the epic poem Beowulf, wasn’t Grendel a wild convicted outlaw living, or better, surviving in the swamps of a border location? A person who received the ‘punishment of the wolf’? A wearg?

What about the wolf in the history of Frisia?

To answer this question, we look -again- at the epic poem Beowulf, ánd at the Finnsburh Fragment. Two ancient documents recounting events of the Early Middle Ages. They tell of a legendary battle at the citadel of king Finn of Frisia between the Danes and the Frisians, with Jutish warriors on both sides. The battle cost Finn and his son their lives. One of the warriors is named Gárulf. He fights alongside the Frisians and is either a Frisian or, more probably, a Jute. Gárulf is quite hot-tempered. Despite given advice by warrior Guthlaf to hold back, he nevertheless charges in the first ranks at the enemy, the Danes. Gárulf is one of the first to die. Many more warriors fall with him.

The name Gárulf is composed of gear meaning ‘spear’ and of (w)ulf meaning ‘wolf’. Hence ‘spear-wolf’. Those readers who watched the Lord of the Ring sequels, Gárulf is one of the warriors of the Rohan. Indeed, originally a warrior of the Frisian king Finn.

Whether Gárulf is a Frisian or a Jute, and whether warrior Guthlaf is his father, is still hotly debated among scholars to this date. One theory is that preceding the battle at Finnsburh the Jutes were divided after a civil war. The Jutish party that had lost the war, the Eotena bearn, were exiled and allied themselves with the Frisians. Eotena bearn means Jutish children, compare the Old English bearn with the modern Frisian word bêrn meaning ‘children’. Guthlaf and Gárulf belonged to the Eotena bearn side. In this context indicating Jutish descendance, albeit no longer. Furthermore, both men probably were of royal stock. When king Hnaef of the Danes stayed at the court of king Finn, there were also Jutish warriors in his retinue. These warriors, however, belonged to the victorious party of the Jutish civil war. When prince Gárulf notices this, it outrages him. Gárulf had to take revenge. Besides explaining how the battle at Finn’s court started, namely the lingering feud among Jutes, it also explains Gárulf’s reckless fighting behaviour and his father’s warning at naught (Neidorf 2019).

A bit earlier than the old age of Beowulf and the Finnsburh Fragment, we learn of yet another ‘spear-wolf’ in Frisia. This Gerulf is a Frisian ‘national’ for sure. He is mentioned in the year 839 and commonly known as Gerulf the Elder or as Gerulf I. These titles distinguishes him from his, probable, grandson Gerulf II. From contemporary texts we known that in the year 839 Gerulf the Elder received back from the Frankish king Louis the Pious his properties and estates, so-called beneficia, in Frisia. These had been taken from Gerulf the Elder after he had been insubordinate to defend island Walcheren at the mouth of the river Scheldt against the Vikings two years before (Van der Tuuk 2013). Walcheren was part of Frisia those days. The beneficia of Gerulf the Elder lay in pago Westracha ‘district Westergo’ near the modern village of Berlikum in province Friesland. For more on this battle and the Walcheren island, check our post Island Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea.

We briefly mentioned him already, the third ‘spear-wolf’ we come across is Gerulf II. He is known from contemporary texts too, and also a Frisian ‘national’ for certain. In the year 885, Gerulf II is connected to the events that led to the assassination of Danish warlord Godfrid the Sea-King. Under the authority of the Franks, Viking Godfrid ruled over West Frisia. Hence his other title, Godfrid duke of Frisia. This part of Frisia consisted of the Central Netherlands, including emporium Dorestat, and the coastal regions Holland and Zeeland. All part of the Frankish kingdom. During the whole affair, Gerulf II, and his brother(?) Gardulf, negotiated as comitus Fresonum ‘counts of Frisia’ on behalf of Godfrid with the Frankish side. After Godfrid had been murdered, his remaining Viking army was defeated by Saxon and Frisian armies.

The exact role Gerulf II played in the assassination of Godfrid the Sea-King remains opaque. Formally he was a subject of Godfrid. However, only four years after the violent death of Godfrid, in 889, count Gerulf II receives from emperor Arnulf of Corinthia beneficia in Frisia, especially pago Kinnin ‘district Kennemerland’ in province Noord Holland. Gerulf II was also count of pago Sudergo, i.e. the south of province Friesland (Halbertsma 2000). Gerulf II lay the foundation for the growing power of the county of West Frisia and consequently of the county of Holland. Gerulf the godfather of Holland.

Read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings. to learn more about the beginnings of Holland. To stimulate speculations; Gerulf II had a grandson carrying the name Radbod (Van der Tuuk 2013). Could the Gerulfings therefore be descendents of king Radbod?

Should we be afraid of the offspring of Fenrir?

Wolves have been hunted passionately as long as we can remember. The mid-seventh-century Lex Visigothorum ‘law of the Visigoths’ and the late eighth-century Lex Saxonum ‘law of the Saxons’ already had rules concerning the trapping of wolves with pits (Schrijnemakers 1986). Wolfpits or wolfskuilen, often with a wooden trapdoor, were common until the early modern period. Furthermore, if a wolf was spotted, manhunts were organized. High bounties were placed on killed wolves as well. In the seventeenth century wolves were killed in noticeable numbers in the Netherlands still, whilst in the following eighteenth century only one kill was reported.    

“George: Be careful, Martha… I’ll rip you to pieces. Martha: You aren’t man enough… you haven’t the guts.”

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962)

Once the wolf was virtually extinct, Europe started a protection and conservation programme in 1979. The species received, and receives, the highest level of protection. It worked. Slowly but steadily the numbers increased. In 2013, the university of Wageningen did not rule out that the wolf would return to the Netherlands. That year, 45 percent of the Dutch population would welcome the wolf. A third did not (Groen 2013). So, ten years ago we already knew that the big ears, big eyes and big teeth were advancing. Today, there are about 20,000 wolves in Europe. Also again in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

In Germany, over the last few years circa 1,000 attacks of wolves on livestock have been registered, with an average kill of 3.5 animals. Mostly defenseless, fluffy sheep. About 85 percent of all kills. Concerning casualties among humans, the statistics are more comforting. Over the period 2002-2020 in total 14 people have been attacked by wolves in North America and in Europe combined. In two cases, both in North America, the incidents were lethal. By far most cases are a consequence of rabies, namely 78 percent (Dinkelmeyer 2021). The total population of people of North America and Europe is circa 1.3 milliard. So, a chance of 0.00001 percent. Would je concentrate on Europe and leave out North America, it is a chance of 0.00000 percent. Middle-aged-men-in-lycra (mamils) spending much time in the woods biking, increase their so-called ‘time at risk’ significantly. Besides, the smell of sweaty lycra must be irresistible for wolves.

Making up the balance

The wolf has entrenched itself deep in the psyche of European cultures. An animal to fear. An animal even associated with the Devil. After centuries on end, we managed to practically exterminate the wolf. A forgone danger. That is also how we appreciate the old fairy tales, if we even read them at all these days. Something scarry of the past, because we had ‘liberated’ our society and landscape from almost every natural danger and nuisance. Tick bites being our greatest concern today, when touching something remotely botanical outside. But now the lurking lupus has returned. No denying wolves do kill livestock and, when sick, very occasionally attack humans.

The positive side of having wolves, however, is a mental one. That we may learn to be a bit humbler. That the space around us is richer than Teletubbies-land. It is both beautiful and a bit raw, and therefore to be respected. Losing some of the innocence of Little Red Riding Hood. Moreover, hopefully it stimulates our imagination again. That we might wonder: was there some truth in those old fairy tales, sagas and legends perhaps? Filling the gap between Pokémon world and Reality.

“Martha: Truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference. George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.”

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962)

Note 1 – There are also early-medieval re-enactment groups that carry the name of the wolf in them. One is Eniwulufu and based in province Friesland and re-enacting early-medieval Frisians. According to their members, eniwulufu means ‘lone-wolf’. The other re-enactment group is the Wulfheodenas meaning ‘wolf-coats’, compare also with modern Dutch wolfhuiden. The Wulfheodenas are based in England and re-enacting early-medieval Anglo-Saxons. The Sæ Wylfings ‘sea-wolves’ was a reenactment event in England.

Note 2 – Another familiar term is the waterwolf. An expression used for a rough sea threatening or flooding the land. A (in Mid Frisian language) seewolf ‘sea wolf’, on the other hand, is an ugly but fearful looking fish. In English language called wolffish. Sea spurge is called zeewolfsmelk ‘see-wolf-milk’ in Dutch language, and is a plant growing in the dunes.

Note 3 – The domesticated version of the wolf, the dog, played an important role in the religious and ritual practices of early Frisians. Parallels with how the wolf was, and is, being associated with the Devil, the hound probably was an intermediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead too. Read our post How to bury your mother-in-law.

Note 4 – If cultural and music festivals are your thing, you can combine hiking the Frisia Coast Trail with going to Festival Hongerige Wolf ‘hungry wolf’. This festival takes place in the summer at the buurtschap ‘hamlet’ of Hongerige Wolf in province Groningen in the Netherlands. Close to the shores of the Wadden Sea. Experiencing the additional excitement in your tent at night with real wolves lurking around in the area. Buurtschap Hongerige Wolf received its name from an inn that supposedly used to be here. Where hungry labourers would fill their empty stomachs (Nazaten de Vries website).

credit Festival Hongerige Wolf 2022

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Albee, E. (play), Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
  • Anonymous, Ysengrimus (ca. 1148)
  • Beers, J., Runes in Frisia. On the Frisian origin of runic finds (2012)
  • Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)
  • Boeve, M., IJssennagger, N., Jongen, L., Meeder, S., Meuwese, M., Porck, T. & Vermijn, Y. (eds), Dertig dieren in de Middeleeuwen (2017)
  • Bystrický, P., The image of the werewolf in medieval literature (2015)
  • DBBW, Bundesweite Schadensstatistik (2022)
  • Dinkelmeyer, A., Angriffe von Wölfen auf Menschen: Eine Aktualisierung für 2002 bis 2020 (2021)
  • Dujardin, A., De wolf is bezig aan een opmars in Europa, maar als hij Zwitserland aandoet heeft hij pech (2018)
  • Farquhar, B., Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone (2021)
  • Groen, M., Populatie wolven groeit in Europa (2013)
  • Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)
  • Helsen, J., De woorden wolf en hond in plaatsnamen (1961)
  • Hesse, H., Der Steppenwolf (1927)
  • Iba, E.M., Hake Betken siene Duven. Das große Sagenbuch aus dem Land an Elb- und Wesermündung (1988)
  • IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
  • Kaiser, L., Runes Across the North Sea from the Migration Period and Beyond (2021)
  • Lawrence, W.W., Beowulf and the Tragedy of Finnsburg (1915)
  • Leneghan, F., Beowulf and the Hunt (2022)
  • Looijenga, J.H., Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700; texts & contexts (1997)
  • Looijenga, J.H., Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (2003)
  • Luttrell, E.G., Persistent mythologies: A cognitive approach to Beowulf and the pagan question (2011)
  • Maïrorana, B., Garulfo. Het monster met de kristallen ogen (2011)
  • Meijer, E., De wolf ís niet boos (2022)
  • Nazaten de Vries, Geschiedenis en Genealogie van het Groningerland (website)
  • Neidorf, L., Garulf and Guthlaf in the Finnsburg Fragment (2019)
  • Omroep Gelderland, Opgejaagd, afgemaakt en opgehangen: de wolf was vroeger niet welkom in Gelderland (2022)
  • Perrault, C., Le petit Chaperon rouge (1697)
  • Popkema, A.T., Mearkes fan Grimm (2012)
  • Schrijnemakers, M.J.H.A., De verklaring van Wolf-toponiemen aan de hand van plaats-, straat- en veldnamen uit Nederlands-Limburg (1986)
  • Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroegste geschiedenis van het Nederlandse kustgebied (2013)

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