The last English wild wolves were believed to have been hunted into extinction around four centuries ago. In those times wolves posed a great threat to other animals and sometimes to people, but were often misunderstood.
However their reputation as the ultimate predator became part of folk history. In spite of their fearsome reputation they were also respected and this helped to create a mythic literary tradition which we still draw upon today.
The first English saint, St Edmund was believed to have been visited by a wolf after his murder. While battling Northern interlopers in his Anglian kingdom he was killed through decapitation. In the legend the wolf guarded his head until the rest of his body was found. This helped to seal the wolf`s reputation in our culture as a fiercely loyal and courageous animal.
In other cultures around the world legends surrounding hybrid animals are invoked in times of political crisis, civil unrest and when citizens feel that their identity and sense of morale is under threat. The wildest and most ferocious creatures are imagined as a means of gaining control over their own feelings of powerlessness. Russian folklore focuses upon the strangest and most frightening beasts.
(Drawing by a Russian child of Shurale, a mythic beast from Tatarstan, a province 500 miles from Moscow).
The Shurale was a wildman figure that was part monster and part ape, and blamed for numerous crimes including horse theft. His barbarian nature was feared but also strangely revered in a society that was wracked by division.
Shurale took many forms and inspired other creatures throughout Russian history. In the aftermath of the Russian revolution, frightening stories about demons and cannibals imbued the national consciousness.
In James Meek`s epic novel of this revolutionary period, “The People’s Act of Love”, a wise character observes,
“He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction, leaving those good people who remain to build a better world on the ruins. He is the storm the people summoned, against which not all good people find shelter in time.”
In our modern world we are far too cynical, and perhaps too comfortable to dwell upon myths and legends. Modern people forget that our ancestors were often hungry and afraid. Ancient people relied upon superstition to explain a precarious existence. They lacked scientific knowledge and coherent political strategy, but they had something which we yearn for now, a belief in spirituality and awe for powers that are much greater and stronger than our fragile human egos.