Wolves and Water in Myth and Folklore

© Merlee Bos 2016, "The Melody"

© Merlee Bos 2016, “The Melody“.


Not all wolves of legend prowl the forest. You’ll also find them near springs, lakes and even the ocean, but not in the way you’d expect.

For instance, in one 12th-century myth, a wolf helped create the Japanese spa town of Misasa Onsen. Samurai Samanosuke was on his way to pray when he saw a white wolf in distress, but after drawing back his bow, he relented and let it escape. The wolf was really a messenger of the mighty spirit Myouken Daibosatsu, who, as a reward for sparing its life, revealed a sacred spring. This still exists today, and in the town stands a statue of the wolf and samurai. Unfortunately, in Europe, wolves and water are linked by destruction rather than compassion.

More allegory than myth, the Dutch term water-woolf describes how winddriven water destroys soft shorelines. In the 17th century there was a plan to mitigate it by turning Lake Haarlem into a network of dykes, and Jacob Bartelz Vernis’ project map, with a poem by Joost van den Vondel, included a drawing of the “land-lion” battling the “water-wolf”. However, in the Native American Menomini legend “Manabozho’s Wolf Brother”, water can be bad news for wolves too.

After finishing the tasks of the Great Spirit, Manabozho was gifted a lakeside home and a twin brother, Naq’pote, who could transform into a wolf while hunting. Manabozho warned him never to return home across the lake, but one day the wolf was tired and took a shortcut over the ice. As soon as Naq’pote was halfway across, the ice broke and evil spirits seized him from underneath. Although his brother’s spirit appeared before him, Manabozho knew he could never come home, and told the wolf to walk towards the sunset so they could be reunited in the After Life. Happily, in another Native American legend, wolves make the best of their new surroundings.

In the Haida story “Wolf and the Sea”, a man raised two wolf pups he found on the beach. When fully grown, they swam out to sea every day and killed a whale for their master to eat. Soon there was too much food going to waste, so the Great Above Person cast down a thick fog. The wolves could neither find their way back to shore nor any whales to hunt, so they remained in the ocean and became orcas. Indeed, killer whales are sometimes known as “wolves of the sea”, due to their pack-hunting and strong family bonds. There’s only a trickle of myths linking wolves with water, but they’re remarkably diverse and show water as their symbol, their undoing, or their gateway to a new destiny.

This article was originally published in Wolf Print #59, magazine of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust.


1.“De werken van Vondel. Deel 4. 1640-1645”. N.d. Digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/vond001dewe04_01/vond001dewe04_01_0043.php#3447 (in Dutch).

2. Häussler, Ralph. N.d. “Wolves and Shamanism”. Wolf & Mythology II. http://ralphhaussler.weebly.com/wolf-mythologie-creation-japan-americas-inuit-egypt.html

3.“Misasa Hot Spring”. N.d. Heian Period Japan. http://heianperiodjapan.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/daibosatsu-legends.html

4. “Misasa Onsen”.N.d. Inside Japan. https://www.insidejapantours.com/japanese-destinations/misasa-onsen/

5. “Wolf and the Sea: A Haida Legend”. N.d. First People – The Legends. http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/WolfandtheSea-Haida.html

6. “Manabozho’s Wolf Brother. A Menomini Legend”. N.d. First People – The Legends.http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/ManabozhosWolfBrother-Menomini.html


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