Friday, 22 April 2011

Ergroah's Web

Another of Lilias Erskine's "Breton Stories", the Folk-Tales and Legends of Brittany which she translated in 1932. The gray wolf (canis lupos) of the story used to be common in France, but died out around 1937. Now, however, it is returning:

For millennia the wolf has been the object of our fear and loathing, wolves everywhere have suffered timeless persecution and sadly by 1927 the last of the wolves in France were eradicated. In modern times with a greater understanding of the environment and indeed the wolf, it has been allowed to return. During the last 20 or so years they have been slowly increasing in numbers in the mountainous regions of the Alps notably the Mercantour national park where they have crossed the border from Italy. This has caused an ongoing battle between environmentalists and French sheep farmers who blame the wolf for loss of livestock. The estimated size of the wolf population in Mercantour is around twenty or so with the main pack comprising of eight wolves. (1)

Once, however, the wolf was so common that in the 9th century, special officials called "Luparii" to control wolf populations. But after the Revolution, anyone could kill a wolf for monetary rewards, and with the advent of flintlock weaponry, the kill rate expanded significantly:

From 1818-1829, 14,000 wolves were killed each year. This high kill rate coincided with the increased distribution of flintlocks. At the dawn of the 19th century, there were up to 5000 wolves in France, a number which was reduced to half that amount by 1850. By 1890, the wolf population had been reduced to 1000 animals, and further fell to 500 in 1900 due to increased usage of strychnine. Wolves temporarily increased during the First World War, though by the time it ended, the population was estimated to be between 150-200 animals. The last confirmed French wolf kill occurred in 1937. (2)

The habits of wolves and their hunting in packs come into the Breton tale, where a wolf steals the stew; later in the story, a pack hunts together. Both these features of the narrative true to the actual behaviour of wolves:

Wolves eat ungulates, or large hoofed mammals, like elk, deer, moose and caribou. Wolves are also known to eat beaver, rabbits and other small prey. Wolves are also scavengers and often eat animals that have died due to other causes like starvation and disease

Wolves live, travel and hunt in packs of 4-7 animals on average. Packs include the mother and father wolves, called the alphas, their pups and several other subordinate or young animals. The alpha female and male are the pack leaders that track and hunt prey, choose den sites and establish the pack's territory.(3)

A wolf hunting or attacking a young girl, as we have in the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood", is seen as a predatory and dangerous animal. This is not the usual behaviour of wolves, as seen today. But we do not live as close to wolves as the rural peoples of the past, and there is clear evidence of predation taking place against human beings. The historian J.M. Smith notes how the evidence is overwhelming, and there is documentary evidence for up to nine or ten thousand deaths by wolf attack in France between 1500 and the early nineteenth century:

 "The practice in France was to send women and adolescent children into the fields with the flocks and the herds," he says. "So there were many frail and isolated people, usually armed with nothing more than a staff, available for hungry wolves."(4)

In fact, there are a considerable number of reports of wolves attacking human beings, as for instance, this one from 1888 in North America:

The news has just reached here that a father and son, living several miles northeast of this city, were destroyed by wolves yesterday. The two unfortunate men started to a haystack some ten rods from the house to shovel a path around the stack when they were surrounded by wolves and literally eaten alive. The horror-stricken mother was standing at the window with a babe in her arms, a spectator to the terrible death of her husband and son, but was unable to aid them. After they had devoured every flesh from the bones of the men, the denizens of the forest attacked the house, but retired to the hills in a short time. Investigation found nothing but the bones of the husband and son. The family name was Olson. Wolves are more numerous and dangerous now than ever before known in North Dakota.(5)

The winters of 1886-1888 in Dakota were very harsh, and it is likely that this was a contributory factor towards the behaviour of the wolves, as the diminution of their natural sources of food may have led them to attack and eat the men. Other occasions have been reported, but while well-documented, they are occasional, not a rule. One of the latest attempts by a wolf to attack a child was recorded - "Attempted Predation of a Child by a Gray Wolf, Canis lupus, near Icy Bay, Alaska" as recently as April 2000:

On 26 April 2000 a six-year-old boy was attacked and repeatedly bitten by a Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) in a logging camp near Icy Bay, Alaska. The animal's behavior during the attack clearly contained elements of predation. The wolf was killed shortly after the attack and found to be in normal physical condition; tests for rabies and canine distemper were negative. Low densities of ungulate prey and increased energetic demands associated with denning may have influenced the wolf's behavior, but we believe the wolf's habituation to people was a more significant factor contributing to the attack. Food-conditioning may have facilitated the habituation process, but there was no evidence the attack resulted from a food-conditioned approach response.(6)

They noted that:

The wolf's attempt to carry and drag the boy away from rescuers cannot be explained as an agonistic act and despite the possible agonism reflected in the wolf's initial approach, the final result clearly contained elements of predation.(6)

What seems most clear is that the Icy Bay wolf became habituated to the presence of people. Habituation was a factor common to predatory attacks by Coyotes on children in North America (Carbyn 1989) and presumably to wolf predation on children in India where wolves continually live among high densities of people and natural foods are often scarce(6)

Habituation can be a powerful engine for changing behaviour. Locally, from scavenging off rubbish and learning to tear open plastic bin bangs for food, seagulls have become much more used to people than even 30 years ago, and beach cafe's have fine wire's strung over outside tables to deter the birds, who will quite easily take food even out of someone's hand.

So we can see how the period in which folk tales arose about wolf predation came when most people lived outside cities, on the land, in small rural communities, where wolves could become habituated to the presence of people. Modern intensive farming, and the mass migration of people to cities, even in France, would have changed that pattern.

Modern environmentalists do insist that wolves are not the dangerous beasts of folklore, but an experiment with taming wolves and foxes from cubs, breeding successive generations for docility and tameness was a failure with wolves, but a success with foxes, despite the DNA of wolf and dog being extremely close. Wolves certainly are not generally dangerous, however, unless you live close enough in proximity for them to be habituated to your presence.

A dog is essentially a wolf, but if you try to bring up a wolf in your house, you'll run into serious problems, as experiments show. When they're tiny wolflets they're dead cute, but then suddenly they're, well, totally wolves, causing havoc in the living room, blowing the house down from the inside (8)

And now to the Breton tale of Ergroah and the Wolf:

Ergroah's Web

An old woman called Ergroah lived once upon a time in a tiny house in the middle of a forest. Every day at noon she made a fragrant stew of meat, herbs and vegetables, and if she knew that any of her neighbours were ill, she would put some in a bowl and carry it to them, after she had had some herself.

One day, on returning from one of these visits, she found that all the remains of the stew had gone.

" Aha ! That is the wicked old grey wolf," said she. " I will teach him to steal my good food."

So she went into the forest and gathered stinging-nettles and wove them into a large web. Then she made a new stew, and hid herself behind her cupboard. Presently the grey wolf crept up to the house and, seeing no one about, he came in and devoured the savoury stew with great relish. Just as he was finishing the last morsel Ergroah jumped out and threw the web of nettles all over him. The wolf cried out in great pain, for he was stung all over. He tried every way to free himself, but the web wound itself faster and faster round him. At last, after a great struggle, he managed to break loose and fled for his life, far out into the forest.

Old Ergroah laughed gleefully. " Now I am at least free of that old thief," said she. But she spoke too hastily, for the wolf was so stung and bruised that he determined to have his revenge and he lay in wait for her in the forest.

A few days later Ergroah was walking down a shady pathway, when she met the grey wolf. Instantly he sat up on his haunches and howled and howled ! On hearing his call, all his comrades assembled with great speed and ran to his aid. The poor old woman, pursued by nearly fifty wolves, ran through the forest as fast as she could. But she was not very young and not very fleet of foot, and she soon grew tired and knew that she could run no farther.

A tall fir tree grew close to where she had stopped, panting and gasping and very much afraid. This she climbed, with as much haste as possible, and sat down on the top branch. The wolves gathered round the foot of the tree and debated amongst themselves as to what they should do.

The grey wolf said he wished to be the first to attack Ergroah, so they settled to stand upon each other's shoulders till they reached the top of  the tree, and the grey wolf should have the last place. Accordingly they climbed one upon the other till it was the grey wolf's turn to climb.

Just then Ergroah, who had been looking round her, saw that a large holly bush grew quite close to the fir tree in which she sat. Leaning forward from her branch, she managed to reach a holly bough and hastily plucked some prickly leaves from it.

As the grey wolf reached the top of the fir tree Ergroah hit his face with the holly leaves. His eyes were so pricked that he could not see she had only three holly leaves ; he imagined that she had the whole of her nettle web up in the tree with her ! Remembering the terrible stings he had had before, he jumped off the tree in great fear and so startled the other wolves that they all fell down in a heap, hurting themselves very severely. The grey wolf fled away into the forest and the others, so enraged at his desertion, ran after him and devoured him and hung his skin upon a holly tree !

Since that day Ergroah has lived in peace and plenty. In fact her days have passed so evenly and uneventfully that she has forgotten how old she is and how many years ago it is that the grey wolf came to steal her stew!

(7) BBC Horizon: The Secret Life of the Dog


Nick Palmer said...

So old Ergroah ran through the forest, had a little pant then climbed a nearby tree before the pack of 50 wolves finally caught up with her.

These wolves then got on each other shoulders to reach the top of the tree where old Ergroah was sitting pretty(ish).

Sounds like Ergroah had got ergotism!

TonyTheProf said...

These are "folk tales" - did you want realism? Different genre!