Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Wolf

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

The wolf is said to be placed in the heavens as a reminder of the religious nature of Chiron the Centaur (Centaurus), who is depicted as spearing it in order to offer it as a sacrifice. [Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, Vivian E. Robson, 1923, p.50.]

The adjacent constellation, Centaurus, is traditionally depicted as carrying Lupus, the Wolf, to sacrifice on Ara, the Altar. The Lupercalia was a sacrificial celebration.

The word wolf, is cognate with Latin lupus, Greek lukos, and comes from the Indo-European root *wlkwo 'Wolf'. Derivatives: wolf (from Germanic wulf), lobo, lupine, lupus, robalo (inshore tropical snook fish), loup-garou, (these words from Latin lupus, wolf), lycanthrope, lycopodium, lyceum, (these words from Greek lukos, wolf), lytta, alyssum (from Greek lussa). [Pokorny wlkwos 1178. Watkins].

The words hearse, rehearse, are rooted in the Oscan word for wolf; hirpus, a large iron-toothed rake; a harrow, and the meaning alluded to the long, sharp, pointed, jagged teeth of wolves. Hearse derives from the Old French herce, from Latin hirpex, 'rake, harrow', describing the framework for candles hung over a coffin, and later came to refer to a vehicle for conveying a coffin in a funeral. The Roman 'hirpex' was actually what we would today call a 'harrow' a heavy frame with sharp iron teeth used to break up and even off plowed ground, and was called irpices, from Oscan hirpus, wolf. Rehearse meant to 'reharrow, go over again, repeat'. Latin lupata, and lupatus also referred to the sharp pointed wolf's teeth, and was applied to sundry things furnished with many sharp points and indentations, e.g., a handsaw, and a jagged bit for hard-mouthed horses [1].

The Swedish and Norwegian term for wolf is varg, Gothic vargs (warg in Old High German, verag in Anglo-Saxon) and stands for an outlaw. The verdict "thou art a warg" declared the culprit an outlaw. Those people were banished forever from human society and were forced to live in the wild [2], in other words become feral.

"Ululate means to howl like a wolf. After his transformation into a wolf by Zeus: "Lycaon flees into the silent countryside—silentia ruris (1.232); when he tries to speak, he howls, EXULulat (1.233). The verb is well chosen, since it carries within it EXUL, 'exile'; he runs howling into exile, where his transformation into a wolf is completed (Metamorphoses 1.236—39)". [Metaformations, Frederick Ahl, p.72.] 

GreywolfThe constellation Lupus was not recognized as a wolf until about the 16th century, and from then the animal was considered a wolf, Fera Lupus, 'wild wolf'. The Greeks and Ptolomy thought of these stars merely as a generic wild animal, the Therion 'wild animal' that the Centaur (Centaurus) was taking to Ara, the Altar, skewered on a pike as a sacrificial offering. Greek ther, means 'wild beast'. Latin Fera and Greek Therion comes from the Indo-European root *ghwer- 'Wild beast'. Derivatives: feral, fierce, ferocious, (these words from Latin ferus), treacle, theropod (these words from Greek ther, wild beast). [Pokorny ghwer- 493. Watkins]

A possible association of Latin ferrum, iron, with Latin ferus/fera, wild: Michalopoulos (Ancient Etymologies in Ovid's Metamorphoses) says "Ovid vertically aligns ferrum and ferarum". The Roman mythological poet Ovid described four ages of man: Golden, Silver, Brazen, and Iron (the present age). In the Iron Age men become evil, greedy and dishonest. Zeus/Jupiter tells the assembled gods on Mount Olympus that he must punish these men and proceeds to tell them how he dealt with an especially corrupt man, Lycaon, king of Arcadia, whom he turned into a wolf for the crime of offering Zeus a dish of human flesh in order to test his divinity. This gave rise to the story that a man was turned into a wolf at each annual sacrifice to Zeus Lycaeus, the Lupercal, but recovered his human form if he abstained from human flesh for nine years. The wolves seem to be holding to their side of the bargain; there has been no documented proof in the past 150 years, since records have been kept, that any wild healthy wolf has killed a human [2]. Lycanthropes are people that could assume the shape of wolves. They are regarded as 'werewolves' of folklore.

Lykaion, Wikipedia explains, is a mountain in Arcadia, sacred to Zeus Lycaeus (epithet Lykaios, 'wolf-Zeus', is assumed by Zeus only in connection with the Lykaia), who was said to have been born and brought up on it, and the home of Lycaon, who is said to have founded the ritual of Zeus practiced on its summit. The altar [the adjoining constellation is Ara, the Altar] of Zeus on the mountain consisted of a great mound of ashes with a retaining wall. The sanctuary of Zeus played host to athletic games held every four years, the Lykaia (a mysterious archaic festival) [3]. According to Plato (Republic 565d-e), a particular clan would gather on the mountain to make a sacrifice every nine years to Zeus Lykaios, and a single morsel of human entrails would be intermingled with the animal's. Whoever ate the human flesh was said to turn into a wolf, and could only regain human form if he did not eat again of human flesh until the next nine-year cycle had ended. Apollo, too had an archaic wolf-form, Apollo Lycaeus, worshipped in Athens at the Lykeion, or Lyceum (see below) [4].

“The 'wolf (lupus) or 'little dog' (canicula) is an iron grapple that takes such names because if anything falls in a well it snatches them and draws them out.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.405.]

The legendary lawgiver of Sparta, Lycurgus, had a wolf name meaning 'He who brings into being the works of a wolf': Among the reforms attributed to Lycurgus are the substitution of iron money for gold and silver coinage.

Middle High German isen, 'iron', German eisen 'iron', and Isengrim, the Wolf’s name in Renard the Fox, is Flemish—Isengrin, meaning the iron helm [5].

The Greeks thought of these stars, Lupus, as the Therion, the animal that the Centaur (Centaurus) was taking to Ara, the Altar, as a sacrificial offering. In Mediaeval Christian astronomy the figure Centaurus, Centaur, became 'Abraham with Isaac'. Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar as the then current religious law demanded that the first-born son be sacrificed to God. "Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram (Aries) caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son" [Gen. 22:10-13] [This might make the wolf Isaac, representing the Centaur's sacrifice and Abraham's sacrifice. The Biblical school said that Aries represented Abraham’s Ram caught in the thicket].

Despite their often negative image as mad, wicked, evil, bloodthirsty animals, wolves have variously been credited, in mythology, fiction and reality, with adopting, nursing, and raising human feral children, the most famous examples being Romulus and Remus and Mowgli of The Jungle Book [4]. The Lupercal was a cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the legend of Rome's foundation, Romulus and Remus were found there by the lactating female wolf, lupa, who suckled them until they were found by Faustulus. "The mediaeval Irish are reported to have taken wolves as 'gossips,' i.e., godfathers and godmothers, and also to have tamed and made use of them" [Gaelic names of beasts, Forbes, 1905, p.229.].

Fenrisulfr (Fenris or Fenrir) was an Old Norse wolf-god. According to the Edda, at one stage the gods decided to shackle Fenrisulfr, but the beast broke every chain they put upon him and broke loose. Eventually they had the dwarfs make them a magical ribbon called Gleipnir from such items as a woman's beard and a mountain's roots. Even though it was as thin as a silken ribbon, it is stronger than any iron chain. [This magical ribbon, Gleipnir, might be a loop, and I suggest related to lup- of lupus, French loup, wolf; a loop is described as "a length of line, thread, ribbon, or other thin material that is curved or doubled over making an opening".] "The Fenris-wolf advances with wide-open mouth; the upper jaw reaches to heaven and the lower jaw is on the earth." It is prophesied that at Ragnarok, the battle of the gods at the end of the world, the wolf will at last break free and join forces with the enemies of the gods and will then devour Odin himself.

Wolf words have associations with higher education. The Lyceum (from Greek lycos, 'wolf'), named for its sanctuary to Lycian Apollo, was a gymnasium in ancient Athens, most famous for its association with Aristotle, whose writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, theater, politics, and ethics. The debate concerning the existence of God is an issue in philosophy. It seems to be our wolf nature that investigates the existence or nature of God. In medieval church symbolism wolves represented heresy [4], and in Greek mythology Lycaon held an opinion at variance with the established religious beliefs. Ovid (Bk I:199-243) tells the story of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who was turned into a wolf for the crime of offering Zeus a dish of human flesh in order to test his divinity. Zeus tells the story to the assembled gods; "I gave them signs that a god had come, and the people began to worship me. At first Lycaon ridiculed their piety, then exclaimed 'I will prove by a straightforward test whether he is a god or a mortal. The truth will not be in doubt’" [5]. Lycaon boiled some parts of a human victim while roasting others, and placed them on the table as a meal before Zeus [6]. Lycaon was essentially performing a scientific experiment in order to establish whether the god Zeus was really a god. The story implies that he was making an analysis; "the method of proof in which a known truth is sought as a consequence of a series of deductions from that which is the thing to be proved" (AHD). Aristotle, who taught in the Lyceum, described his style of logic as 'Analytic'. I suggest that there is a resemblance between the Greek word lussa, “wolfish rage” and the Greek -lusis of analysis from the Indo-European root *leu- 'To loosen': The myth of Fenrisulfr who broke loose his chains and will break loose again at Ragnarok might add further confirmation. And in the wolf-lore of the Bestiaries it is said that "if the wolf senses that the man has seen it first, it loses its fierceness and its power to run" [The Aberdeen Bestiary Project], it becomes paralyzed para-lusis.

The vampire is sometimes regarded as an example of lycanthropy [7]. The vampire was linked to the werewolf in East European countries. In Serbia, the werewolf and vampire are known collectively as one creature; Vulkodlak. [8].

The verb to vamp means "to behave seductively and exploit" [10].

"Lupa (lit. "she-wolf), a prostitute, so called from her rapaciousness, because she seizes wretched people for herself and takes possession of them." [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.223.]

Victima Centauri, the Centaur's victim was a title for this constellation. Latin victima original meant "an animal dedicated to the gods and destined to be sacrificed" [1]. Cognates of the word victim; guile, beguile, from the Indo-European root *weik-2 "consecrated, holy. In words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic." The word guile means "to deceitfully trick" which is also the meaning of the idiom "a wolf in sheep's clothing." The word guile is a doublet of wile; wily. Latin victima is said to be related to German weihen, 'consecrate' [Ayto].

"The Wolf Credo: Respect the elders. Teach the young. Cooperate with the pack. Play when you can. Hunt when you must..." [Del Goetz]

Perhaps like no other animal wolves have a strict, elaborate, social hierarchy, with the alphas at the top and the omega at the bottom, that affects all activities in the pack. Every single wolf knows their own 'alphabetical order' in the pack. Walking in line on a mountain pathway the alpha will be the first wolf of the pack and the omega the last.

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Lupus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
alpha (α) 22SCO07 23SCO30 14h 41m 55.8s -47° 23' 18" 30 01 13 2.89 B2
beta (β) 23SCO39 25SCO02 14h 58m 31.9s -43° 8' 2" 25 02 23 2.81 B3
phi 1 (φ1) 26SCO07 27SCO30 15h 21m 48.4s -36° 15' 41" 17 10 17 3.59 K5
lambda (λ) 26SCO20 27SCO43 15h 8m 50.6s -45° 16' 47" 26 30 51 4.39 B3
delta (δ) 27SCO17 28SCO40 15h 21m 22.3s -40° 38' 51" 21 25 11 3.43 B3
epsilon (ε) 28SCO45 00SAG08 15h 22m 40.9s -44° 41' 22" 25 14 19 3.74 B3
zeta (ζ) 29SCO23 00SAG46 15h 12m 17.1s -52° 5' 57" 32 49 27 3.50 G5
gamma (γ) 00SAG07 01SAG30 15h 35m 8.5s -41° 10' 1" 21 14 15 2.95 B3
chi (χ) 01SAG28 02SAG51 15h 50m 57.5s -33° 37' 38" 13 10 24 4.11 B9
eta (η) 04SAG23 05SAG46 16h 0m 7.3s -38° 23' 49" 17 26 18 3.64 B3
theta (θ) 05SAG22 06SAG45 16h 6m 35.5s -36° 48' 8" 15 37 03 4.33 B3

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

. . . another form

That men of other days have called the beast.

— Poste's Aratos.

Lupus, the Wolf, is the Loup of the French, Lupo with the Italians, and Wolff in Germany, an idea for the figure said to be from the astrologers' erroneous translation of Al Fahd, the Arabian title for this constellation, their Leopard, or Panther; although Suidas, the Greek lexicographer of 970, is reported to have called it knekias, a word for the wolf found in the fables of Babrias of the century before our era. The Greeks and Romans did not specially designate these stars, and thought of them merely as a Wild Animal, the therion of Aratos, Hipparchos, and Ptolemy; the Bestia of Vitruvius; Fera of Germanicus; Quadrupes vasta of Cicero; Hostia, the Victim, of Hyginus;

Hostiola, cited by Bayer; Bestia Centauri, by Riccioli; and Victima Centauri.

The Wolf reappeared as Lupus in the Alfonsine Tables, and as Fera Lupus in the Latin Almagests, while Grotius said that Panthera was Capella's name for it.

Bayer also had Equus masculus and Leaena; and La Lande, Leo marinus, Deferens leonem, Canis ululans, Leopardus, Lupa, Martius, — the wolf being sacred to Mars, — and Lycisca, the Hybrid of the Wolf. Belua, the Monster, is found in early works.

The Arabians also called it Al Asadah, the Lioness, — found by Scaliger repeated on a Turkish planisphere and cited by Bayer as Asida, and Al Sabu’, the Wild Beast, Chilmead's Al Subahh. But the Desert astronomers seem to have mixed some of its smaller stars with a part of the Centaur as Al Shamarili, the Palm Branches, and Kadb al Karm, the Vine Branch.

Zibu, the Beast, of Euphratean cylinders, may be for this constellation; and Urbat, the Beast of Death, or the Star of the Dead Fathers, is a title for it attributed to the Akkadians.

Caesius said that in Persia it was Bridemif, but Hyde, commenting on {Page 279} this from Albumasar, asserted that the word should be Birdun, the Packhorse, and was really intended for the Centaur.

Aratos wrote of it, "another creature very firmly clutched," and "the Wildbeast which the Centaur's (Centaurus) right hand holds "as an offering to the gods upon the Altar (Ara), and so virtually a part of the Centaur; but Eratosthenes described it as a Wineskin from which the Centaur was about to pour a libation; while others imagined both the Beast and the Wineskin in the Centaur's grasp.

Mythologists thought it the animal into which Lycaon was changed; Caesius, that it was the Wolf to which Jacob likened Benjamin; but Julius Schiller (who attempted to replace all of the pagan constellations with Christian counterparts) saw in its stars Benjamin (the word ben-jamin or Binyamin translates "son of the south" or "son of the right hand") himself.

Although very ancient, Lupus is inconspicuous, lying partly in the Milky Way, south of Libra and Scorpius, east of the Centaur (Centaurus), with no star larger than 2.6 magnitude, while the few visible in the latitude of New York City — gamma, delta, lambda, and mu are even smaller than this.

The alpha star, 2.6, seems to be unnamed except in China, where it was Yang Mun or Men, the South Gate. On the Euphrates it probably was Kakkab Su-gub Gud-Elim, the Star Left Hand of the Horned Bull, said to have been a reference to the Centaur that was thus figured in that valley.

[ [Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]