Our Projective Dance with the Wolf

by Steven Galipeau 

2012 Annual IFPE Interdisciplinary Conference

Sustainable Psychoanalysis
Embracing Our Future, Preserving Our Past 

The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.  What is man without the beasts?  If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit.  For whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.

– Chief Seattle, 1855 ( Busch, 2007, p.3.)


Our relationships to creatures of the wild–and my particular focus will be the wolf– is one of the places in the care of the human psyche where we can truly “embrace our future,” by “preserving our past.”   Will we realize how much the human psyche, its fears, fantasies, and legends shape the way we relate to the wolf and other creatures of the wild? Can we find a psychological awareness that will help restore balance to nature, both inner and outer?

While through progress and development we have sought to raise ourselves above a primitive existence, what we call civilization has brought many animals to near extinction. The wolf is a critical part of this reality, both in external wilderness areas and our inner psychic landscape.  The beaver, the sea otter, and the buffalo are but a few of the other animals on this continent that used to number in the millions, but were hunted down and now only exist at best in the thousands and in many areas barely hang on in smaller numbers.  These animals were hunted mostly for their fur, but the wolf was hunted habitually for the fear it generated and the threat, real and imagined, it posed to livestock that were brought to the vast expanses of land that lay across our continent.

The situation with the outer wolf stems from our relationship to the inner wolf, what author and scholar S. K. Robisch (2009) calls the “ghost wolf.”  The ghost wolf is to be contrasted with its counterpart, the corporeal wolf, which of course is experienced through the imagined lens of the ghost wolf.  Our wolf psychology is comparable to other situations in which the “dark other” is projected out, often with horrific consequences.

In our culture, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for dogs of all sizes, colors, temperaments, inclinations, and shapes. Biologists agree that dogs are genetic descendants of the wolf, specifically the gray wolf. The only scientific disputes are when, where, and how gray wolves first evolved into the animal that is the ancestor of all dog breeds (Lobell and Powell, 2010, 26) The ubiquity of the dog is confirmed by the fact that there are approximately 77 million dogs in the United States alone.

Millions of wolves used to roam our lands, but now we count their numbers in the hundreds in the continental Unites States.  Our culture, borrowing from European attitudes about the wolf, has until fairly recently in its history done everything possible to eradicate the wolf, and with a unique vengeance.  More than any other mammal, it has suffered some of humankind’s most violent and cruel extermination methods. The wolf’s predatory nature, the mystery of its seclusion, and haunting voice, have caused it to be one of the least understood and most maligned animals in the world.

A New Ghost Wolf Image

Since the middle of the last century the myth of the wolf is this country has shifted in extraordinary ways.  In particular a new version was brought forth by Canadian biologist and environmentalist Farley Mowat in his book Never Cry Wolf (1963), which was made into a film by Carroll Ballard twenty years later.  Mowat helped create a new public perception of wolves and the way we had been treating them.  He opened the door for the possible confrontation with a part of our collective shadow.  Mowat had been sent out to prove that wolves were responsible for the decline of caribou populations in northern Canada.  He saw his assignment as one to justify the rationale for killing wolves.  When he had to face his own fantasies and fears concerning this unknown predator,  he realized that human hunters were largely responsible for the decline of caribou–as they had been for the virtual disappearance of the buffalo–rather than the wolf.  Mowat came to understand, as native peoples already knew, that the wolf kills what it needs to survive, it does not kill for sport.  Wolves often killed the weaker, sick and vulnerable animals, and not the healthier ones as these would be too formidable a challenge to kill.  In effect wolves contributed to a stronger and healthier herd.  Mowat had served in the Canadian armed forces in World War II before venturing into wolf country.  Witnessing the horrors of war was one reason he could delineate who the most horrible of aggressive animals was: man.

Barry Lopez, another environmental writer, wrote a comprehensive study of the wolf/human drama, Of Wolves and Men (1978).  His book reviews biological studies up until that time, the attitude and relationship of Native peoples to wolves, the process of extermination of wolves in this country, and European legends about wolves.  By the time their slaughter was generally put to a halt, wolves were totally eliminated from the continental United States except for Northern Minnesota and Alaska.

Lopez points out how little we knew of wolves at that time and that native people who lived with them may actually know better than the biologists who studied them.  He also realized that our views of wolves were still skewed by fantasies we inherited from our European ancestors.  In light of this he did an interesting exercise with school children.  He would visit classrooms and bring a wolf with him.  But before the class met the wolf he asked them to draw a picture of a wolf.  The most characteristic feature of this fantasy wolf was enormous fangs.  After the wolf had visited the classroom and the children had spent time with it, they were asked to draw another picture of a wolf.  These wolf drawings did not have fangs; these wolves had big feet!  Large feet are one of the wolf’s distinctive biological features, as they are part of their adaption to a harsh and challenging environment.  Large feet serve the wolf well in deep snow and can give it an opportunity to find prey in winter.

Lopez notes, much as Mowat had, that the wolf is not a vicious killer as is often imagined.  In fact most wolf hunts do not end with a kill.  There is often a curious “dance” of the wolf with its prey, which can be somewhat playful at times.  The wolf is, in a sense, testing the metal of its prey, and while sometimes it is a dance that leads to death, a death dance if you will, most often it is not.  Yet our dance with the wolf has historically been one that insists on the wolf’s death.

Lopez describes his assessment of the deep social paranoia behind wolf killing this way:

Historically the most visible motive and the one that best explains the excess of killing, is a type of fear: theriophobia.  Fear of the beast. Fear of the beast as an irrational, violent, insatiable creature. Fear of the projected beast in oneself.  The fear is composed of two parts: self-hatred; and anxiety over the human loss of inhibitions that are common to other animals who do not rape, murder, and pillage.  At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature.  In its headiest manifestation theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated.  That is what happened to the wolf in America. (p. 140)

Later Lopez writes about  the scope, irresponsibility and cruelty of wolf killing.

I do not think it comes from some base, atavistic urge, though that may be a part of it.  I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it. (p. 140)

For me Lopez’s research and investigation into the life and meaning of the wolf was very “psychological” and very gripping.  When he wrote it was in hope of finding a balance between the malevolent views that had crossed the ocean and those of native people who would never have considered their extermination, but simply living along side of the wolf nation. But the past could not be healed.  What was done to the wolf in the lower forty-eight was done.  Since then, however, an interesting development has occurred: the reintroduction of wolves to former environments, in particular Yellowstone National Park.

Getting to Know the Corporeal Wolf

Awareness of the corporeal wolf has grown to counter the dark sinister ghost wolf myth that has existed in the collective imagination.  Wildlife biologists have been catching up to the intuitive knowledge of Native peoples.  Wolves belong in the ecosystems that they had inhabited.  Their presence brings balance into such wilderness areas.  Certain key plants weren’t over grazed by elk, for example.  These ungulates were no longer on the move and having become more sedentary since wolves were eliminated, overgrazed many areas that threatened a variety of plant life.  Restoring the wolf changed the environment of elk and other prey animals, which restored vegetation so that whole riparian ecosystems benefited.  And unlike wolves, hunters when allowed to pursue these prey animals, killed the best of the herd, the healthiest animals, not those who were sick, injured, or old.  Through the work of these biologists we learned how ironic it had become that our national parks, which were suppose to preserve our wilderness inheritance, lacked key residents who help the ecosystem thrive. (For a more complete summary see Smith and Ferguson, 2005, Chapter  7, ‘The Wolf Effect.’)

Many people were involved in these efforts of wolf restoration, one of my favorites is Renée Askins, author of Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, A Woman, and the Wild (2002).  Askins’ book documents her life involvement with animals, particularly the wolf.  She founded the nonprofit organization “The Wolf Fund” devoted to restoring wolves to Yellowstone. Most striking psychologically in her work for wolf recovery was her efforts to take seriously the feelings and emotions on both sides of the issue.  Like a good analyst she took on some very intense affect in order to facilitate the transformation of an ecosystem.  About those with other views she wrote,

We need to come to understand their arguments and their fears, and be able to articulate these fears and threats as well as or better than they can.  Help them hear their own voices.  It is a very powerful thing for people who view you as an outsider to hear you name their concerns. (p. 176)

And she offers these reflections on our history of wolf genocide:

What is it in ourselves that we had to kill in the wolf?  The answer is, of course, wildness.  And even though we killed the wolf, every last one of them in the West, we never extinguished the wild—we only became more deeply alienated from it.  In the panic of our alienation we attempted to control what we feared; when we couldn’t control it we tried to extinguish it.  But the wild is not controllable, or even extinguishable, so inextricably is it bound to the force of life itself.  It flickers on—without us, within us, and between us—its nature buried in the mystery of our origins. (p. 31)

So my question is: If the wolf is gone, destroyed by our own projected fears, can we be very far behind?

The Wolf in Dreams

As people interested in analysis we are all probably somewhat familiar with the imaginative wolf or ghost golf since the wolf is a figure that appears in dreams.  I’d like to consider several examples of wolf dreams.  In a case presented by Jung in Brussels in 1911 and New York in 1912, found in his article “The Theory of Psychoanalysis,” Jung reports a wolf dream of a young girl when she was five years old.

I was in a wood with my little brother, looking for strawberries.  Then a wolf came and jumped at me.  I fled up a staircase, the wolf after me.  I fell down and the wolf bit me in the leg.  I awoke in deadly fear. (Jung, 1985, para 475)

When asked what the wolf made her think of, she replied, “I think of my father when he is angry.”  We see clearly here in this dream from over a century ago the psychological dilemma we  face today.  The wolf has come to represent the primitive affects of a human being.  Jung notes in this article a possible connection to the fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’  The tale of  ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ which most of us heard growing up, falls into the same category.  In these stories the wolf is a symbol of destructive elements of the human psyche previously carried by other animals or mythic beings.  Yet, as we have seen, the corporeal wolf has been victimized by the destructive element of the human psyche projected onto it.

Another wolf dream was published within a few years of the one reported by Jung and comes from a famous case of Freud’s, one, because of the intensity of the patient’s wolf phobia, Freud came to call the “Wolf Man.”   Curiously, after all these years it continues to resonate with us, as we still use Freud’s moniker to describe this case.  The patient reports that about age 4:

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees.  I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.)  Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window.  There were six or seven of them.  The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something.  In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.  (Freud, 2001, p.29)

Freud links the dream to fairytales that the boy would have known that created his perception of the wolf, in particular the Grimm’s fairytales of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Seven Little Goats.’  He also considers the connection to the appearance of the wolf in the fairy tales and the boy’s fear of them to the “infantile fear of the father.”  (Freud, pp. 29-32; Gardiner,1991, pp.173-177) Clearly the wolf has been a figure in the human psyche since the beginning of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology.

A more recent wolf dream is found in an article about dreams reported by soldiers in a modern combat zone written by three psychiatrists working with veterans.  (Wyatt, Goodwyn, & Ignatowski, 2011) The primary author, Rob Wyatt, served with troops in Iraq.  A soldier dreamt:

I’m standing behind my house and I know my wife and kid are behind me but I can’t see them and they aren’t responding to my yells.  There are wolves coming at us and I’m trying to stop them but for every one I grab two run past me.  I know my family is dying and there’s nothing I can do about it.  I was freaking out when I woke up and was desperate to call to check on them. (p. 224)

Wyatt notes that other dangerous animals such as snakes, alligators, and bears were also reported.  He indicates that “these kinds of dreams were more common in soldiers that were in combat zones but not actually in combat per se.” (p. 224)  They were in high tension environments in an “ambient surrounding of fear and danger.” (p. 224)

In this case the authors surmise that they [the animals] are partly images of the aggression, rage, or ‘fight’ part of the ‘flight /fight’ reaction that the threatening surroundings evoked in these men.  Being unfamiliar with such emotions (at least at such a high level of intensity and duration) perhaps provides insight into their adversarial stance toward the ego. . . . Quite noticeably they are also very much separate from the ego, which points to the ego’s unfamiliarity with them and lack of integration as such. . . . the dream appears to be arguing that these dangerous feelings must be ‘blocked’ or somehow stopped so as not to be unleashed upon loved ones.  (p. 224)

We can see a connection between this recent dream and the psychological issues it raises as well as those of the dream of the young girl Jung reports.  In the first case the dream depicts affects that were experienced by the girl from her father; in the second, the affects emerged in the soldier who found himself in a dangerous physical and emotional situation.

Wyatt and his colleagues also included a dream of a soldier who had seen actual combat.  In that dream the man finds his wife at home dressed in Iraqi garb and slits her throat.  He fears when he gets home that he will not be able to turn off his killing instinct.  This dream makes clear that he has become the threat.  The human aggressive energy is what may become out of control.

Another dream from our literature depicts the ghost wolf in a different light.  It appears in a book by analyst Neil Russack titled Animal Guides: In Life, Myth and Dreams (2002).  Russack reports a man’s dream in which a wolf appears.

It’s winter in the far north—Canada or Alaska.  Snow Geese have settled on a frozen lake.  Coyote spies the geese and stealthily stalks them.  However, the ice is thin and coyote has to be careful not to get out further than the ice can support him.  As he approaches, the geese fly free.  Then as sometimes happens, coyote gets stuck in the ice and freezes there.  Wolves, sensing food, find the coyote and eat him, leaving a leg frozen in the ice. (p.77)

Russack concentrated most of his comments on the geese and the coyote.  He felt the man who had the dream possessed a trickster nature that would potentially take him to a place where he would be “on thin ice.”  “What the man was unable to do, nature accomplishes by conspiring to get rid of the coyote.” (p. 78) Concerning the wolf,  Russack concludes:

Frozen in ice, coyote is finished off by the wolves who represent harsh reality, the return of the natural order.  In this sense the wolves are linked to the goose.  They belong more to the stable elements of life than coyote does.  The wolves might catch the geese, but they would not venture out on thin ice to do so. When the dream-geese return to the sky, the wolves reassert their power over the land; life returns to order.  A healthy instinct puts things back in balance. (p. 78)

Russack sees the wolf in this dream as the wolf who brings balance to nature, an image of the wolf close to the wolf in the wild.  A curious amplification in this regards can be added to this dream.  The wolf is not a friend of the coyote.  With the removal of wolves in the lower forty-eight states, coyotes have proliferated.  They have increased in numbers and resist extermination efforts.  Smaller than wolves they subsist on less, including pet food that is left out, human garbage and small animals. With less wolves, we have more coyotes.  Where wolves have been reintroduced, there are less coyotes.

Concluding Synchronicities

As I began gathering this material a striking occurrence happened related to my theme.  At the end of 2011 California had a new wild visitor from Oregon.  A brother of OR9, OR7, left the same pack in Eastern Oregon and headed south and crossed into California.  Such a wolf is considered a disperser, one who leaves its pack to find a mate and start a new pack.  OR7 is the first wolf in California in many decades, almost ninety years.  His arrival stirs all the feelings for wolves on both sides, delight and welcome, fear and hate. This wolf has been named Journey, a fitting name since the question we are left with is: how will our journey with the wolf go?

To conclude, I have one more quote.

This one is from Renée Askins.

For centuries our search for wholeness has led us back to the animals, to our origins, to our history.  Something mysterious happens when we look into the eyes of an animal. Whether it be a panther or a poodle—we see something familiar looking back.  Ourselves? Yes, but we also see an “other.”  We see something that is in us and yet without us, something we recognize and yet is unfamiliar, something we fear but for which we long.  We see the wild.  (p. 35)

Thus we may indeed embrace our future, by preserving out past, and preserving the wolf!

This paper was presented as part of a panel called “A Glimpse of the Wild” at the 2012 IFPE Conference in Portland, Oregon.  An extended version of this paper is being published by the Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, 2013, Vol. 7, No. 1. under the title “Dancing with Wolves.”


Askins, Renée. (2002) Shadow Mountain: A Memoir of Wolves, a Woman, and the Wild. New York: Doubleday.

Busch, Robert. (2007) The Wolf Almanac. Gilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Freud, Sigmund.  (2001) The Standard Edition of the complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII. London: Vintage.

Galipeau, Steven. (2004) Book Review: Renée Askins’ Shadow Mountain and Neil Russack’s Animal Guides.  Psychological Perspectives, Vol. 47, Issue 2.

Garner, Muriel, Ed.  (1991) The Wolf Man by the Wolf Man.  New York: Hill and Wang.

Jung, C. G.  (1985) Freud and Psychoanalysis. CW Vol. 4.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lobell, Jarret A. and Eric A. Powell. (2010) “More than Man’s Best Friend.”  Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 5.

Lopez, Barry Holstun. (1978) Of Wolves and Men. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Mowat, Farley. (1963) Never Cry Wolf. New York: Dell Publishing.

Robisch, S. K. (2009) Wolves and the Wolf Myth in American Literature. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

Russack, Neil. (2002) Animal Guides: In Life, Myth and Dreams. Toronto: Inner city Books.

Smith, Douglas and Gary Ferguson.  (2005) Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone.  Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Wyatt, Rob, Erik Goodwyn, Michael Ignatowski.  (2011)  A Jungian approach to dreams by soldiers in modern combat zone.  The Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol. 56, No. 2.

Steven Galipeau, M.A., M.Div., is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Calabasas, California, and President and Executive Director of Coldwater Counseling Center in Studio City, a depth psychology oriented sliding-scale nonprofit. A member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, Steve teaches in the analyst training program and presents frequently in public programs. He is the author of Transforming Body and Soul: Therapeutic Wisdom in the Gospel Healing Stories, The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol, and several journal articles and reviews. Steve makes numerous trips each year to the Giant Sequoia forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One Response to Our Projective Dance with the Wolf

  1. I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. This type of clever work
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