Wolves as Spirit Guides: Reality or Romanticism?

Here is another paper which I wrote for my Masters in Anthrozoology and thought you guys might find interesting. Tell me what your thoughts are on this topic in the comments!

 

How does a woman’s experience finding psychological well-being from a wolf (Canis lupus) spirit guide contrast to that of a woman following a similarly romanticised quest with a wolf and dog hybrid? The aim of this paper is to discuss two pieces of literature, namely Terrill’s (2011) book, Part Wild: Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs, and an account from Lindquist’s (2000) article: “The wolf, the Saami and the urban shaman: Predator symbolism in Sweden”. In both cases, women in abusive relationships with their human partners turn to wolves and wolf-like dogs to find spiritual guidance and psychological well-being. Each woman takes a different approach to attain this, leading to two distinct outcomes which lay the foundation for this discussion. The benefits and disadvantages of both journeys for human and wolf, how cultures around the world relate to wolves spiritually and how many modern “Western” societies relate to wolves and relationships with companion nonhuman animals (henceforth “animals”) will be addressed.

 

In the first piece of literature, Lindquist (2000) highlights a neo-shamanic journey which led to positive behavioural changes in a woman’s life. The neo-shaman was a Swedish academic in her thirties who connected with a wolf spirit guide in order to confront conflicts without fear or timidity. This woman was searching for spiritual support in order to leave an abusive relationship. She perceived herself, Lindquist (2000) suggests, as being weak and this “non-ordinary wolf” (p. 175) played the role of a needed protector who: “… was fierce and bared its teeth at the overbearing partner from behind the woman’s shoulder” (pp. 174-175). During these encounters, her partner behave differently towards her – likely due to her new confident demeanour. The neo-shaman told Lindquist that, although her wolf spirit guide did not appear often, her spiritual journeys had a lasting positive effect on her life and how she dealt with confrontation.

 

How shamanism and neo-shamanism are defined varies greatly (Reinhard, 1976). Eliade (1964) defines shamanic journeys as being trances where the soul leaves the body. These journeys can be: “… a state of trance or ecstasy, usually induced by monotonous chanting, drumming and dancing, and commonly assisted by the consumption of psycho-active drugs” (Serpell, 2006, p. 20). Neo-shamanism spread across the “West” between the 1970’s and 1980’s (Lindquist, 2002). It consists of practices which alter someone’s state of consciousness, comparable to shamanism, and generally derives from cultures of “traditional” peoples (Lindquist, 2000). However, some view neo-shamanism as a romanticized ideal, because although certain aspects are similar, neo-shamanism often differs significantly from traditional shamanic practices (Townsend, 2004; see also Walsh, 2007; Townsend, 2000). This essay focuses on neo-shamanism in Sweden.

 

The neo-shaman in Lindquist’s article searched for wolf spirit guide and in doing so:

“… meets with her spirit helpers to ask for help, power, or knowledge for herself and/or others. Mission accomplished, the shaman journeys back to ordinary reality where she uses or dispenses the newly gained knowledge and/or power” (Horowitz, 1991, p. 2; see also Jakobsen, 1999).

This practice stems partly from totemism, a term coined by McLennan (1869; see also Anderson, 2017). Animism, which can be observed, for example, amongst the Yukaghir of Siberia (Willerslev, 2007), also plays a role in shamanism. In animist belief systems, to summarise, all objects and beings possess a soul, spirit or “essence” (Serpell, 2006; Harari, 2015). Although perhaps not always present, these animate the physical body, but can move independently while the individual is dreaming or unconscious (Serpell, 2006; Ogden, 2013).

 

Neo-shamans can then hopefully apply the knowledge given to them without the continuous presence of their spirit guide. These often take the form of animals (Ojamaa, 1997; see also Hultkranz, 1978) and, “… when people meet animals on their journeys and communicate with them, finding answers to the burning questions of their lives or receiving useful advice, these animal figures may thereafter become key figures for them – ’significant others’…” (Lindquist, 2000, p. 174; see also Mead, 1972). Wolves are common spirit guides (Ojamaa, 1997; Lindquist, 2000), because they are believed to have “extraordinary spiritual power” (Serpell, 2006; Benedict, 1929; Landes, 1968).

 

Nevertheless, was it solely the wolf spirit guide who helped this neo-shaman? She had the ability to face her abusive partner alone and the wolf acted as a supportive guide. Perhaps more importantly, the neo-shamanic ritual itself can consist of many shamanic practices, such as:  “… Chanting and singing; periods of extensive exercise through dancing, drumming, and dramatic enactments; prolonged fasting, water deprivation and the use of emetics; exposure to temperature extremes…; the use of psychoactive plant medicines, particularly hallucinogens; various austerities, including cutting the body; and periods of prolonged social isolation and sensory deprivation (Winkelman, 2002, p. 1876; see also Winkelman, 1992; Lindquist, 2000). These practices, along with her neo-shamanic community as a whole offering moral support and others in her presence while she encountered her wolf spirit guide, could greatly affect the neo-shaman’s mental and emotional state (Lindquist, 2000). These, “ASCs [altered states of consciousness] heal by producing psychological integration, eliciting opioid and serotonergic functioning, providing access to repressed emotional dynamics, and promoting social bonding” (Winkelman, 2002, p. 1878). Therefore it could be a romanticisation to state that the wolf spirit guide alone helped this neo-shaman face her fears and leave her abusive relationship.

 

Yet many cultures around the world believe in the spiritual and psychological well-being which can be obtained by spending time with wolves and wolf spirit guides. Wolves as guides, physically or spiritually, is not a purely “western” or neo-shamanic concept. The Inuit peoples of arctic regions such as Canada, for example, believe that wolves are the most important communicators with Tunraq, the spirit of the universe (Ray, 1967). Viewing wolves in this way, as messengers between humans and spirit worlds, is common amongst shamans and the Inuit peoples (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Many Native American cultures, such as the Nunamiut peoples of Alaska, thought of wolves as being guides for humans seeking a spiritual world (Lopez, 2016). The Diné, the autonym for the Navajo peoples (Cornell, 2015; Petersen, 2017) of the Southwestern United States, believed that: “… dogs can absorb that kind of [negative] energy without any harm to themselves and they protect the family in that way” (Petersen, 2017, p. 74). Wolves’ history of being viewed as absorbers of negative energy, as well as spirit guides could explain why they and domesticated dogs are sought out for these “characteristics” even, or perhaps more so, in modern times.

 

This becomes apparent in the second piece of literature which this paper will explore where a woman named Terrill (2011) also turned to wolves, specifically wolf-dogs, which are hybrids between Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris (Vilà, et al., 2003). She was searching for psychological well-being and a connection with a “wild spirit” after an abusive relationship with her human partner. Her previous dogs, who were not wolf-dogs, were killed by her ex-partner after she left, which is not uncommon in abusive relationships (Adams and Donovan, 1995; Adams, 1994). This ex-partner continued threatening her while she was buying her wolf-dog puppy, named Inyo, from a breeder. Nevertheless, she faced difficulties with her emotional instability and started a new relationship with, “… another damaged soul, a severely depressed unemployed man who is more than $100,000 in debt, a fact he neglects to reveal” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 239; see also Terrill, 2011). Not only does her life with Inyo not lead to positive changes, it clearly worsened her state:

“I developed nervous habits. Scanning ads online, I would tug strands of my hair until they fell out and scratch my scalp until it bled. My front teeth were loose from months of grinding” (Terrill, 2011, p. 151).

Additionally, she was institutionalized for threatening to kill herself and her “spiritual connection” with Inyo ends with the euthanization of Inyo at three years of age, because Terrill realised she could not live with a wolf-dog.

 

The irony in this tragic ending to Terrill’s story is clear: the aspects of wolf-dogs which attracted her to them, namely that they are “wild”, independent, strong and somewhat uncontrollable, were the traits which led to the dog’s euthanization. This split view and understanding of wolves is a theme which runs through ownership of and spiritual practices involving wolves. Lindquist (2000) formulates it well when she observes a: “… stark contrast between these two views of the wolf – as bloodthirsty threat to Man and as spiritual guide of Man” (p. 171). Both women sought out the potentially aggressive image wolves have earned in both Sweden (Lindquist, 2000) and America (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018), where they live, to give them confidence. Yet their understanding of wolves was heavily romanticised, as both had: “… never seen [a wolf] other than on television, in the cinema and at the zoo.” (Lindquist, 2000, p. 175). Terrill admits: “As a kid I’d read Jack London’s White Fang, a novel about a wolfdog, but I’d never seen a real wolfdog before” (2011, p. 3).

 

If the fact that Terrill was being threatened by her ex-partner when she bought Inyo is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that her reasons for acquiring a wolf-dog may not have been purely spiritual. She seems to have bought a wolf-dog at least partially for protection. The neo-shaman wished to strengthen her own behaviour in order to face her abusive partner on her own. Terrill, on the other hand, wished to bond and form a somewhat spiritual connection with a wolf-dog, as well as have physical protection. If her ex-partner, Eddie, were ever to find her, she said she wanted her wolf-dog to: “… walk a circle of protection around me, and if Eddie tried to touch me … there’d be no refuge from my wolfdog.” (Terrill, 2011, p. 6). Which energies, spirits or guidance an individual gains from a wolf can manifest uniquely (Andrews, 1994). What both women wished to receive and how they went about acquiring it varied at times quite significantly. Nevertheless, their stories are comparable: both perceived something lacking within themselves during and after abusive relationships which they felt they could gain back from time spent with wolves – spiritually or physically.

 

Although a wolf was not physically harmed or killed, as was the case with Inyo, the possible misrepresentation of wolves in the neo-shaman’s journey had the potential to harm wolves as a whole. Specifically in Sweden, where her shamanic experience took place, wolves tend to be viewed as being unnecessarily aggressive (Lindquist, 2000), despite biologists informing the public otherwise (Dahlström, 2009). Wolves are generally misrepresented in press (Andrews, 1994) and many do not wish to see them reintroduced (Lindquist, 2000): “According to press reports, villagers were particularly upset about the cruel way the wolves killed their prey: not in one blow like other predators do, but torturing the victims in a slow and painful death” (Lindquist, 2000, p. 182). In Sweden, the word “varg” not only means “wolf”, but also “wicked person” and even the word “lupus” can be used as a negative name for witch (Bath, 1997, p. 32). Therefore, stories neo-shamans might tell of their encounters with wolf spirit guides may feed the public’s negative opinion – affecting the survival of wolves in the wild or otherwise.

 

Misrepresenting animals is a fairly common technique used to justify their killing and exploitation: “… Deliberately or unconsciously distorting the facts about them so that their suffering and death seems necessary or deserved” (Serpell, 1986, p. 159). The Koyukon peoples of northern Alaska and Altaian peoples of southern Siberia also tend to view wolves as dangerous (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Although they ultimately respect wolf spirits, this is partially due to their belief that they are vengeful (Nelson, 1983) and have a “raging spirit” (Golden, 1997, pp. 91-92). Beliefs such as these allow shamanism to: “… function as an enforcer of social conformity” (Porterfield, 1987, p. 725). In other words, it further solidifies the belief that wolves are to be feared. While the neo-shaman did not harm a wolf nor herself and she benefited greatly from these encounters, her possible misrepresentation could damage the image wolves are grappling to overcome.

 

Nevertheless, wolf spirits are not misrepresented in this manner across all cultures: they are of cultural, as well as spiritual, significance to many Native American peoples of North America (Schlesier, 1987; Marshall, 1995; Barsh, 1997). The Navajo peoples of the North American Southwest respect wolves because they played a key role in their creation stories (Pavlik, 2014) and they have a respectful relationship with wolves (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Some, especially the Shoshone peoples of central Nevada to central Wyoming, viewed wolves as role models and hunting teachers (Hampton, 1997). “Thus, in the tradition of the Nuhmuh/Newe (Shoshone and Comanche peoples [of Oklahoma]), Wolf was considered the creator figure who created a perfect world” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 173; see also Smith and Hayes, 1993; Harney, 1995; Papanikolas, 1995). It would be fascinating to observe Terrill’s and the Swedish neo-shaman’s experiences with wolf-dogs and wolf spirit guides had these been influenced more by such beliefs.

 

Although misrepresentation can be harmful to some extent, neo-shamanism may also be used to achieve a positive shift in the public’s perception of wolves. Mathilda, for example, is a long-standing member of the neo-shamanic community in Stockholm and has: “… authored, initiated and led many ceremonies devoted to the conservation of the wolf population in Sweden, the protection of wolves against wolf diseases, and opposition to illegal wolf-hunts” (Lindquist, 2000, p. 175). While this is surely commendable and necessary work, whether within the neo-shamanic community or elsewhere, Lindquist still stated that: “… the paradigmatic quality of the wolf, its fierceness, seemed to play an important role in Mathilda’s identity” (2000, p. 175). Neither of the neo-shamans mentioned have harmed or killed wolves that we are made aware of and experience positive encounters with wolf spirit guides. It would therefore be unreasonable to state that either should not seek out spiritual relationships with wolves and this is not the consensus which this paper aims to reach. However, it would be refreshing if other character traits which wolves possess were portrayed more often – strong familial bonds being one of many such positive characteristics (Andrews, 1994).  

 

Wolves may not be made popular based solely on their familial bonds and ability to form strong connections, yet these are, for the most part, the traits which are valued in domesticated dogs. In addition, living with companion animals such as dogs is believed by many to lead to better human health (Allen, 1997), higher self-esteem and ambition (El-Alayli, et al., 2006), improved psychological well-being (O’Haire, 2010; see also O’Haire, 2013), reduced loneliness and isolation (e.g., Friedmann and Son, 2009; Wells, 2009), as well as longevity (Herzog, 2011). These positive side-effects of living with a dog, in this case, is a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “pet effect” (Allen, 2003). In recent times, however, academics have taken a closer look at these claims (Herzog, 2011).

 

Many studies seem to confirm the aforementioned statements, while others unearth opposing discoveries and tend to be filed away instead of published – often referred to as the “file-drawer” effect (Rosenthal, 1979; see also Rosenthal, 1980; Rosenthal, 1984). Some research even states that humans living with dogs are likely to suffer from psychological problems such as depression (Miltiades and Shearer, 2011), as well as poorer physical health (Parslow, et al., 2005; Koivusilta and Ojanlatva, 2006) including infection, allergy and injury (Kuniholm, et al., 2009; see also Gillum and Obisesan, 2010) when compared to humans living without dogs. What some studies fail to highlight, is the fact that the companion animals and the humans are individuals. Although the humans in certain studies may benefit from an animal’s presence, this does not mean that others, human or dog, will react identically. This is relevant both to shamanism, where only some humans encounter spirit guides (Serpell, 2006; Landes, 1968), as well as Terrill’s experience living with a wolf-dog which worsened the well-being of herself and Inyo.

 

It is clear in Terrill’s story that living with a companion animal is not always beneficial. This likely stemmed from an unrealistic expectation of living with a wolf-dog. As Pierotti and Fogg (2018) observed:

“Inyo was supposed to save her and be her protector, her wild spirit; she forgot, however, that Inyo was actually a young animal who needed guidance, not romanticizing. Once Inyo showed her own spirit, this led to conflicts, which seem endless according to the account provided in the book” (p. 242).

Pierotti and Fogg (2018) argue that, with the correct knowledge of wolf-dogs and their training, the story of Inyo and Terrill would have ended positively. This may be true in similar cases, but their logic does not fully apply here.

 

Terrill seemed to be highly emotionally unstable before acquiring Inyo – oscillating from one abusive relationship to the next. While Pierotti and Fogg (2018) and Haraway (2003) believe that training plays a crucial role in human-dog relationships, Terrill was not emotionally stable enough to apply this to her relationship with Inyo. She was advised by numerous professionals on how to improve her situation with Inyo, yet Terrill did not have the mental or emotional maturity to apply any tools which were handed to her, although she attempted to. It is therefore questionable to state that what was lacking was purely experience and training. Even if Terrill had trained Inyo perfectly and offered her everything required, in theory, for a wolf-dog to live an exemplary life, her extreme emotional reliance on and burdening of Inyo was an abuse which outweighed any “luxury” potentially offered.

 

Inyo lived physically and emotionally close to her human – breeding a complex level of intimacy. Tuan (1984; see also Malamud, 2013, p. 40), suggests that intimacy, whether physical or emotional, both present between Terrill and Inyo, can express equality but can, perhaps to a larger extent, lead to inequality: “Equality presupposes a certain distance – the distance of respect as between two sovereign individuals” (p. 163). Instead of giving Inyo the freedom to express her needs while also offering her guidance, Terrill’s emotional and existential turmoil was almost continuously transferred over to Inyo, which negatively affected Inyo’s well-being. Filling a lack of emotional support or comfort from humans with the presence of a canine is not a new phenomenon:

“Commonly in the US, dogs are attributed with the capacity for ‘unconditional love.’ According to this belief, people, burdened with misrecognition, contradiction, and complexity in their relations with other humans, find solace in unconditional love from their dogs. … In my opinion, [this is]… abusive – to dogs and to humans” (Haraway, 2003, p. 33).

This, on part of the human, has been referred to as the “pet trap”, where humans get extremely emotionally involved with their dog, for example, and no longer find it necessary to change their social circumstances or seek psychiatric help (Simon, 1984; see also Serpell, 1986, p. 30).

 

Aside from suffering an abusive emotional relationship, just as the neo-shaman did, the misrepresentation of Inyo and wolf-dogs as a whole played a crucial role in their relationship. The breeder told Terrill from the beginning that wolf-dogs were dangerous while she was visiting the puppies by stating:

“… For God’s sakes, don’t stare him in the eyes. He might bite your face off” (Terrill, 2011, p. 13).

Viewing wolf-dogs as dangerous animals was partly what drew Terrill to them for physical protection as well as some form of spiritual guidance. It was also her main reason to euthanize Inyo and why she was unable to live happily with her. Duman, a wolf-behavior specialist (e.g. Duman, 2001), supported her decision by convincing Terrill that the difficulties she faced with Inyo were to be blamed on the “dangerous” animal she was living with.

 

Ironically, Inyo seems to have had more serious reasons to regularly fear Terrill than vice versa. Terrill put Inyo, the animal labeled as dangerous, in quite vulnerable situations, in addition to euthanizing her. One day:

“She is so stressed that she forgets to set the brake on her car in a gas station, with Inyo in the back seat. The car rolls into a field 200 yards away, thus providing Inyo with another reason for insecurity” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 240).

Presenting the wolf-dog as the sole source of danger in their relationship seems questionable.

 

Romanticising wolves and wildness is common in neo-shamanism, where domesticated dogs are only spirit guides if they, “… are rather wild and look wolfish” (Lindquist, 2000, p. 173). Pierotti, an expert on wolves and wolf-dogs (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018; Pierotti, 2011; Pierotti and Wildcat, 2000), believes that Inyo is not a wolf-dog. She lacks the markings around the eyes which high-percentage wolf-dogs have, does not have light irises, has an unusually long tail for a wolf-dog, has a pink-colored nose and does not have the head shape which is typical amongst wolves (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). In addition:

“… There is no account of Inyo snarling at, nipping, or showing aggression toward any human. Nor does Inyo seem to be shy, or retreat when encountering unfamiliar humans. This indicates quite strongly that she is not nearly as ‘wild’ as Terrill would have us believe” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 241).

Pierotti comes to the conclusion that Inyo most likely resembles a malamute-shepherd cross. Being dishonest about the lineage of their wolf-dogs has become common practice amongst some breeders (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). It might be that Inyo’s “rather wild” and “wolfish” traits were convincing enough for Terrill to seek her out as a potential “wolfish” spirit guide.

 

Just as using wolves as spirit guides is not always negative, so is the case with owning them. Grimaud (2003) is a counterexample to Terrill’s story. When Grimaud first encountered a wolf, she described it as follows:

“I stretched out my fingers, and all by herself, she slid her head and then her shoulders under my palm. I felt a shooting spark, a shock, which ran through my entire body. The single point of contact radiated throughout my arm and chest, and filled me with gentleness … a most compelling gentleness, which awakened in me a mysterious singing, the call of an unknown, primeval force. At the same moment, the wolf seemed to soften, and she lay down on her side. She offered me her belly” (2003, p. 205).

In this example, Grimaud puts emphasis on the “gentleness” she felt, as well as a softening of the wolf, rather than the strength, potential aggression or size of the animal: “The creature looked at me, and a shiver ran through me—neither fear nor anxiety, just a shiver” (Grimaud 2003, p. 203).

 

Her experience illustrates another side to wolves other than “wildness” and she decided to commit her life to saving them. After properly educating herself, acquiring land and adequate fencing, as well as a supportive community of volunteers, she established the self-funded “Wolf Conservation Center”. It is now well-established and houses gray, red and Mexican wolves (Grimaud, 2003):

“Hélène Grimaud has shown that you can have a romantic view of wolves and still be a successful and active companion to the animals, making sure that they have contented, fulfilling lives; you just have to have a solid plan and take the animals’ lives as seriously as your own” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 278).

Terrill’s experience with Inyo should not generalize all wolf-dog and human relationships as negative. For Grimaud, for example, it generates joy, gentleness and other positive emotions. Surely she experiences negative situations as well, but it seems that the wolves improved her life as a whole and guided her to make better decisions – spiritually and otherwise.

 

Viewing wolves as spirit guides seems to be a more romantic concept than a realistic one. However, there are situations where both human and wolf could benefit from one another. For every story which ends badly, there may be a positive one to counter it. Therefore, presenting wolves as being primarily aggressive, physically large and intimidating while omitting the presence of other characteristics does damage to the public image of wolves as well as potential cohabitation. Using and viewing wolves as spirit guides or sources for psychological well-being can be a mixture of both reality and romanticism, although it tends to be more of the latter. Ideally, wolves and humans could share spiritual journeys with humans having a more realistic and respectful understanding of wolves. As wolf expert Mark Derr speculates: “Until all preconceived notions are laid aside … we will not gain a clear understanding of the nature of the animal [wolf] who fills so many different, frequently contradictory roles in quite different human societies” (2011, pp. 85–86).

 

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