One of the most enduring archetypes that appears in folklore and legends (including urban legends) is the enduring story of children being raised by wolves.
The problem with these stories is that when they are examined with a skeptical eye, these stories fall apart. The famous story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral children” from West Bengal, was most likely a hoax. The Reverned Joseph Amrito Lal Singh claimed that he rescued these girls from a wolf den in 1920. The girls had severe learning disabilities, which Singh claimed came from them being raised by a pack of Indian wolves (which, incidentally, are known for occasionally taking children). There is some debate about what sort of disorders the girls had, but it is very unlikely that they were actually raised by wolves. During this time period, it was not unusual for very poor people in India to abandon severely disabled children, and if they survived at all, it was often claimed that these children had been raised by wolves. (Kipling borrowed from this local lore for his Mowgli stories. He didn’t just come up with the idea of a boy being raised by wolves on his own.)
Then there’s the story of Misha Defonseca, a Belgian woman who claimed that wolves took care of her in the forest while she tried to escape from the Nazis during World War II. She claimed to have walked all over war-torn Europe between the ages of 7 and 11, and she claimed that wolves protected her. Almost none of that story is story is true, but lots of people believed it, including the head of the North American Wolf Foundation.
Now, if all these stories of children being raised by wolves have proved to be bogus when closely examined, how on earth could the most famous story about wolf-children be true?
Of course, I’m talking about the story of Romulus and Remus.
Now, the historicity of this story is definitely in question. This is the foundation myth for the Roman Empire and its capital city, and it has been embellished and twisted over the years.
The most general story is that the war god Mars, Hercules, or some other character impregnates the daughter of a Latin king named Numitor. Numitor and his people are derived from the Trojans and have brought with them a large sum of gold. Numitor is a good king of the city called Alba Longa, but he entrusts the treasury and all his gold to his brother named Amulius, who then uses that wealth to overthrow Numitor. However, whenRhea Silvia, Rhea Silvia, becomes pregnant, he knows that his claim to the throne is in trouble.
When twins are born, Amulius has a servant take them to the River Tiber, but the river god Tiberinus has a tree root catch the basket containing the two boys. A she-wolf then comes and nurses them. A shepherd then discovers the boys, and then he raises them as if they were his own children.
The story is a legend.
However, the popular view of the boys being raised by a she-wolf may not have been the original intent of the story.
“She-wolf” in Latin is “lupa,” and lupa was also a common Roman word for a prostitute.
The legend was said to have originated with shepherds, and it eventually became incorporated in the Roman fertility and purification festival called Lupercalia, which was held from February 13 to February 15 every year.
The festival was designed to commemorate the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus.
But in February wolves would not be suckling pups.
They would be doing something else.
If the legends of Romulus and Remus originated with shepherds and the Lupercalia festival, then we can see that this entire story would have had meaning beyond the foundation myth.
For example, it is likely that February would have been a bad time of the year to have been a shepherd in ancient Italy.
The land was full of wolves, which could be held back with the use of guard dogs.
However, in February, the wolf bitches come into season, and this would mean that male dogs would be more willing to leave their posts.
It also means that dog and wolf interactions could become tense at times, but it also means that their male dogs would be less likely to act aggressively when the wolves came by. The wolves would be emboldened, and their dogs would be lovesick.
And that would mean that stock would be very likely to come up missing during that time.
Female wolves that have not yet found a partner are well-known to solicit male wolves from other packs, as well as male wolves that don’t belong to any particular pack. In Italy, these unattached females are known to solicit male dogs.
Some of these male dogs would probably be killed in their attempts to mate with the unattached females of an established pack, and they would likely lose some livestock from the more emboldened wolves approaching flocks guarded by livestock less attentive, somewhat randy dogs.
One can easily see why lupa got mixed up with the term for prostitute. These unattached female wolves would essentially be harlots that could toll off any of the best guard dogs. Perhaps these dogs would return, but they might have lost some of their animosity towards the wolves during their attempts to respond to the “call of the wild.”
So it would make some symbolic sense that two goats and a dog were sacrificed at the Lupercalia. The choice for this sacrifice might be something like what a shepherd might lose during the wolf mating season. The Roman god Faunus (also known as Lupercus, “he who wards off the wolves”) was the object of the sacrifice, and once paid, it was hoped that he’d keep the wolves under control.
If you’re a poor shepherd whose male guard dogs have suddenly lost their senses in a country teaming with wolves, you’re going to try to come up with some way to explain and possibly prevent or mitigate losses.
Now, the Romans in later generations believed that the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus was an actual wolf. They regularly portrayed the twins nursing from a female wolf.
It would not make sense to connect their foundation myth to the story of a prostitute, even though we all know that the Romans were not a particularly sexually repressed people. We do know that the Romans had a very patriarchal society, and they would rather have their nation associated with a rapacious harlot of a wolf than a prostitute.
However, of those ancient depictions of Romulus and Remus, one of the most famous is actually a forgery.
The sculpture of the so-called “Capitoline Wolf” is said to have originated in the 5th Century BCE, the time of the ancient Etruscans.
The wolf part of the sculpture anyway. The twins, which look very much out of proportion and significantly older than the babies in the legend, were supposedly added in the 15th century by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
This wolf sculpture supposedly was displayed on Capitoline Hill. It was supposedly struck by lightning in 65 BCE, and I seriously doubt that sculpture of that size wouldn’t have had severe distortions from the strike.
This sculpture is a Medieval forgery.
Stories of children raised by wolves will forever fascinate us.
But even the ones that aren’t based upon the foundational myths of a civilization have almost always proven to be quite different once they were examined skeptically.
The story of Romulus and Remus was a corruption of a tradition of early Latin pastoralists.
This tradition is based upon the mayhem these people experienced during wolf mating season and their attempts to mitigate or prevent damages.
The tradition and the story became incorporated into the Roman civilization, which was derived from these early Latin pastoralists.
And the continued permutation of the tradition didn’t end when Rome became Christian.
The dates for the Lupercalia are quite instructive. February 14th falls right in the middle of that festival.
And this is the day we call Valentine’s Day.
It has become a holiday of about love, not fertility or keeping the wolves from killing your sheep and dogs.
But the truth is it started with puppy love.
Just in this case, it was between male livestock guardian dogs and female wolves.
I’ve always thought this was a strange story.
I know we have lots of foundational myths in this country, like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down a cherry tree. He supposedly never told a lie, and when his dad asked him who chopped down his beloved tree, he instantly
I bet he actually did tell a fib or two.
But no one ever accused him of ever having wolf titties in his mouth!