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CultureGlobal issues

Famous wolves in popular culture

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
April 3, 2023

Bloodthirsty and evil or benevolent and loyal? The polarizing creatures have been a central part of our folk tales, culture and history since ancient times.

A still from "The Jungle Book" (2015) showing Mowgli hugging a wolf
Mowgli and his wolf mother, Raksha, share an intimate momentImage: Disney Enterprises/dpa/picture alliance

An estimated 1,200 wolves are roaming in Germany's forests today, and every now and then, some of them make headlines. While many wolf-related reports laud the success of conservation efforts, other stories focus on attacks affecting livestock or hikers.

The reemergence of the wolf as a dominant creature in Germany's forests has evoked both humans' primal sense of fear and respect for the animal. Our cultural fascination with wolves goes back centuries, manifesting itself in a range of stories, myths and cultural figures over the years.

Lupa, the benevolent she-wolf

Almost everyone is familiar with the myth of the founders of Rome, Remus and Romulus, who suckled on Lupa, the she-wolf. The twins were sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa (an ancient Latin city close to present-day Rome), who had been deposed by his brother Amulius.

King Amulius was afraid Rhea's twins — who had been conceived with Mars, the god of war — would pose a threat to his throne, so he ordered them to be drowned in the Tiber River. In the myth, the boys survived and were found by Lupa and a woodpecker, who tended to them until a herdsman found them.

A bronze figure showing two boys suckling on a she-wolf's udder
The Capitoline Wolf is an ancient sculpture depicting the she-wolf suckling the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romus and RemulusImage: Bildarchiv Steffens/akg/picture alliance


Not to be confused with Fenrir Greyback from Harry Potter (more on that later), the giant wolf Fenrir in Norse mythology symbolizes "Ragnarok," or the destruction of the gods and giants. Fenrir was the son of the mischievous god Loki and a giantess, Angrboda.

Fenrir had an enormous appetite and the gods, fearing his strength and size, captured and tied him to a tree. Fenrir managed to escape eventually, killing the Norse god of war and death, Odin.

An illustration showing a ferocious wolf being attacked by two armed men
An illustration of Fenrir from the medieval Icelandic manuscript Codex RegiusImage: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

Aesop's wolf

No one is really certain whether Aesop, the fabulist of ancient Greece, actually existed. Regardless, his fables — stories with animal protagonists that highlight human follies — are read to this day.

In a number of tales, the wolf often appears as an evil, scheming animal, disguised for instance as a sheep or luring young boys as prey. Those tales were the inspiration for the popular sayings "wolf in sheep's clothing" and "crying wolf."

Japan's wolf gods

In Japan, wolves are considered important by the Ainu, Indigenous people who live on Hokkaido Island. They revere the animals as the god Horkew Kamuy, which means "howling god" in Japanese.

The Ainu were known to raise wolf cubs as hunting companions and even let their dogs mate with wolves.

Wolves factor prominently in Ainu storytelling: one story involves a wolf saving an elderly Ainu woman from an evil wild bear, and others describe wolves as descending from the heavens to inhabit sacred mountains and forests.

Unfortunately, the modernization of Japan in the early 20th century, known as the Meiji Restoration, wiped out many of these traditions and also caused the extinction of wolves in the region. Efforts to reintroduce the animals are in progress.

A drawing of a girl wearing a red hat looking at a wolf.
The wolf suprises Red Reding Hood on her way to her grandmother'sImage: Imago/United Archives

The wolf from Red Riding Hood

"Grandmother, what big teeth you've got," said Little Red Riding Hood. "All the better to eat you with," said the wolf and pounced upon her. These are familiar lines from the story of the young woman who sets off through a forest to meet her grandmother.

The two best-known versions of the fairy tale, which has its roots in 17th-century European folklore, are Charles Perrault's "Le Petit Chaperon rouge" from 1697 and the Grimm brothers' 1812 volume of stories that includes "Rotkäppchen."

The werewolf

The figure of the werewolf has inspired writers since ancient times. Some scholars believe the idea of the shapeshifting predator originated in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh refuses to stay with a lover after she turns her previous partner into a wolf.

A film still showing a wolf's jaw coming out of a man's mouth
A still from 'The Company of Wolves' (1984), directed by Neil JordanImage: United Archives/picture alliance

Werewolves also appear in Greek mythology, in the legend of Lycaon, the son of Pelasgos. In the myth, Lycaon angered the god Zeus by offering him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves. It's probably why the scientific name of the werewolf is "lycanthrope."

Werewolves also feature in the Nordic "Saga of the Volsungs," in which a boy and his father discover wolfskins that can turn them into ravaging beasts.

Human fascination with werewolves continues to this day. Think Jack Nicholson in "Wolf" (1994) or more recently, "Werewolves Within" (2021), not to mention the all-time werewolf hit, "An American Werewolf in London" (1981).

Harry Potter fans will, of course, remember the werewolf Fenrir Greyback, who bit Remus Lupin, Harry's teacher and his father's friend, when he was a small boy and turned him into a werewolf. While Greyback actively searches for his victims, Lupin is the "good" werewolf that hides during full moon and uses his powers only for noble purposes.

Akela from 'The Jungle Book'

Rudyard Kipling let his imagination soar in this story about an Indian boy raised by wolves in a forest. Reminiscent of the story of Remus and Romulus, Kipling narrated the tale of a baby that is abandoned in the woods and found by the wolf Akela and his wife, who look after the "man-cub." 

Once the man-cub Mowgli grows up, he must leave the forest or subject the wolf pack to the tiger Sher Khan's cruelty. Sher Khan is desperate to catch and kill Mowgli, and Akela becomes a casualty of their struggle.

The dire wolf

The "Game of Thrones" series is probably the giant prehistoric animal's biggest claim to fame these days. In George R.R. Martin's story, dire wolves form the sigil — the symbol — of House Stark, the ruling family of the North.

Today, scientists have reason to believe that dire wolves were not, as previously thought, ascendants of wolves, but giant relatives of dogs. These giant canids were active in the Pleistocene era, 2.5 million years ago.

An illustration shows giant wolves feasting on a dead bison
A pack of dire wolves (Canis dirus) feasting on their killImage: Mauricio Antón/Nature/dpa/picture alliance

Wendy Wolf in Peppa Pig

Remember the wolf in "The Three Little Pigs" who wanted to huff and puff and blow the little pigs' houses down? Wendy Wolf, who features in the children's animated series "Peppa Pig," is a more child-friendly version of this character.

Wendy's father loves to huff and puff and make scary wolf-and-pig jokes, but he only uses his lung power to push Wendy's swing. His mother, Wendy's grandma, also loves teaching Peppa and her friends how to howl like wolves and "wolf down" cake at birthday parties.

This non-exhaustive list could also have included the Amarok, a mythical wolf in Inuit culture that stalks and kills people who hunt at night, or Wepwawet, a wolf-headed god worshiped by Ancient Egyptians. And even though Odin's enemy Fenrir was a giant wolf, the Nordic god also had two wolf companions, Geri and Freki.

Edited by: Brenda Haas

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.