Of Wolves and Men: The Berserker and the Vrātya

A chapter from my book Primordial Traditions.

primordial traditions, gwendolyn taunonLupine symbolism is said to be one of the defining points of the Indo-European Traditions, and it is hard to cite an Indo-European civilization in which the wolf did not occupy a role of prominence. From the birth of Romulus and Remus and the foundation of Rome through to modern times, the wolf has always occupied an eminent position of privilege in the mind of the Indo-European. This is still evident today – even Hollywood cannot bypass the lonely figure of the wolf at night, for the werewolf has survived on in popular myth to this day. A number of important deities, ranging from Óðin to the Greek Apollo, can be found with a wolf by their side. That the wolf, and occasionally its canine cousin the dog, were important ritual animals cannot be doubted. At times though the important role of these animals crossed over from the natural world of the wilderness into the civilized world of man, where the boundaries between human and animal became blurred. One such occupant of this transitional space is the werewolf, another figure is that of the Nordic or Teutonic Berserker. Even older still, there is the tale of the Vrātya, dating back to the most archaic elements of Vedic society, almost completely buried by the past. The Berserker and the Vrātya together constitute what is perhaps one of the oldest Traditions, for both share a number of significant features in common, which can be found dispersed amongst other Indo-European peoples also; martial brotherhoods existed among the (Indo-European) Greeks, Scythians, Persians, Dacians, Celts, and Germans in which initiates magically assumed lupine features. [i] Known partly for their fury in combat, partly for the use of magical means to subdue the enemy, these myths persist today in the popular myth of the werewolf. Whilst the literal rendition of the berserker is ‘warriors in shirts (sekr) of bear’, the berserkers were thought to be also able to shift their form into that of a wolf. [ii] For the purpose of this writing we will concentrate only on the symbolism of the wolf.

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