The lone wolf in Inner Asia.


I am both pleased and honored to be with you tonight. My first conference presentation was before this society as a graduate student, and I have long appreciated the place at the table that has been given to Inner Asia in its organization. It is, I think, fitting that an Inner Asianist is presenting tonight's presidential address so soon after the death of Denis Sinor--a formidable teacher and scholar who long played a leading role in the society and was crucial to the development of its Inner Asian wing. He was not only my teacher, but also the person who first brought to my attention the rich imagery of wolves to be found in Inner Asia and its peripheral cultures: Europe, the Middle East, China.

When I first began to think about this address, I was tempted to use the lone wolf as a metaphor for the scholar of Inner Asia: intrepid, cunning, perhaps even dangerous--and generally quite lonely on the vast plains of the scholarly world. But in the end I chose a more literal approach to the topic. In this address I will consider wolves that, if not precisely "real," still appear in the animal's familiar guise rather than that of an all-too-frequently solitary scholar.

If, in Levi-Strauss' s well-known dictum, animals are good to think with, it is also true that some animals are--with apologies to George Orwell--more "good to think with" than others. Certain animals resonate more strongly with humans than do others. Animals are both like and unlike humans, with varying degrees of similarity and difference. I believe that it is the similarities, highlighted by difference (or "otherness"), that make certain animals highly resonant within human cultures, often across a wide diversity of cultural and geographical terrain.

One can identify many such animals without much mental effort. Horses and lions and eagles tend to resonate more richly than earthworms or oysters or dragonflies, suggesting that size and visibility matter in this equation, as do biological and behavioral similarities with humans that provide the very resonance being considered here. Familiarity is not always a crucial factor, as the example of the lion provides ample evidence; it has become a symbol of royal power in areas far beyond its natural habitat and in cultural loci as far-flung as China and Britain. Yet in many cases, familiarity contributes to the cultural resonance that many animals have for their human observers.

Of such animals, one of the most familiar for humans throughout much of North America and Eurasia, and one of the most culturally fruitful, is the wolf, canis lupus. In its heyday--that is, until humans set out to eradicate it the wolf was the most widespread mammal in the world except for humans themselves. (1) Humans had ample opportunities for familiarity with wolves, in whose behavior humans could see many features that reminded them of their own societies. The wolf pack resembles in many ways a human community, with well-established roles reflecting age and gender. Particularly noteworthy are the raising of the young, group play, and the activity of collaborative hunting. For human communities, wolves reflected their own identity as a cooperative group working to obtain food for the community and to nurture and protect their young in order to perpetuate that community.

Despite the wolf's close connection to human society, much of the imagery associated with it has been negative. Although it has been admired in some cultures for its strength and skill, many human societies have viewed the wolf with fear, revulsion, or a combination of the two. Its hunting techniques translated into cruelty, its abilities in stealth seen as symbolic of treachery, its feeding habits viewed as evidence of gluttony, the wolf was regarded as an enemy by many human communities that it encountered--particularly those who saw the wolf as a potential danger to themselves and their domesticated livestock. The image of the wolf thus is often an ambivalent one: a brave, energetic, and skillful hunter, but also a cunning thief and killer whose thirst for blood seems to know no bounds. it is this very ambivalence that gives the image of the wolf its astonishing cultural versatility and so can help account for its prevalence in many distinct and geographically widespread cultures.

Among nomadic peoples of inner Asia, the positive attributes of the wolf could dominate as people "thought with" wolves and other creatures. In particular, wolves were regarded as fitting symbols for Inner Asian warriors. This can be seen in the eighth-century Old Turkic inscriptions of the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia; the monuments to Kul Tegin and his brother Bilga Qaghan, composed in 732 and 735 C.E. respectively, both describe the revival of the Turks' power in the late seventh century with these words: "Because Heaven gave them strength, the soldiers of my father, the qaghan, were like wolves and his enemies were like sheep." (2) We will return to this connection between warriors and wolves.

More striking than this military symbolism--a connection with parallels in many other cultures--is the relative abundance of Inner Asian tales in which a single wolf serves as an ancestor, protector, or guide for a particular human community. The lone wolf, of course, has its own peculiar imagery which can again be ambivalent in many respects. Is the lone wolf aloof and independent, or an outcast from the community; a strong and noble individualist, or a detested pariah--or perhaps all these things? In the case of Inner Asia, the lone wolf often takes on a numinous role that is not typically assigned to wolves in packs; the single wolf transcends the normal biological limitations of wolves and is gifted with divine insight as well as the ability to nurse--or even produce--human beings. The lone wolf thus becomes an ally ... and sometimes even a member of the family.

Perhaps the best example of this comes again from the early Turks (the Tujue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; of Chinese sources), who dominated Inner Asia from about 552 to about 630 C.E. and again from about 682 to about 744 C.E. Their empire, which at its height stretched from the frontiers of Korea in the east, passing north of China and Iran to confront the Byzantine world of the Black Sea in the west, was centered on the Mongolian Plateau, and it is there that the great Turk rulers established their dwellings, received emissaries from afar, and designed elaborate stone monuments to celebrate their achievements.

According to Chinese sources, the Turks told the following story of their development as a people. At an unspecified time in the past, the Turks had been attacked by an enemy who defeated and then exterminated them, save for a ten-year-old boy. The tale indicates that the enemy soldiers could not bring themselves to kill this lad and so, in an excess of "compassion," cut off his feet (and, in some versions, his hands as well) and threw him into a marsh. There he was discovered by a she-wolf who fed him with meat. As he grew to adulthood the boy had sexual congress with the wolf and impregnated her. At this time the old enemy heard of the boy's survival and sent troops to kill him. In this they succeeded, but the pregnant she-wolf escaped and was transported to the region north of Qoco in the Tarim Basin. There she found a mountain cave in which was a world-within-a-world--a vast and rich plain where she settled and gave birth to ten human sons. These grew and took wives from outside. When their descendants--the revitalized Turks--had grown in number, they left the cave and submitted to the dominant power in Eastern Inner Asia at that time, the Rou-ran [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], whom they served as blacksmiths. According to some versions, they employed a standard with a metal wolf's head on it as a reminder of their origins. (3) The Turks later rebelled against the Rou-ran and supplanted them in the middle of the sixth century C.E. (4)

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Turk tale is, for us, its similarity to that of the famous story of the founding of Rome, in which the infant twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned and left to die in the wilderness, only to be saved by a she-wolf who suckled them, thereby allowing them to grow to adulthood and establish the city that would dominate the Mediterranean world for centuries. There are, of course, many differences of detail, but the similarities are striking. The tale--or a version of it--may well be pre-Roman. The image of a child suckled by a wolf (or possibly a lioness) has been found on objects in Italy predating the founding of Rome, suggesting a more ancient origin of this motif--which may then have been borrowed by the Romans for their own purposes. (5) As Roman power grew, the image of the wolf and the twins was to be found throughout the empire.

More curious--and compelling for my purpose here is the fact that there are other similar tales to be found. The Roman (or pre-Roman) is apparently the oldest, with evidence for it dating back at least to the early third century B.C.E. and possibly earlier. A few centuries later, in the Shiji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of of the Chinese historian Sima Qian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is an account of the Wusun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] people inhabiting the region around Lake Balkash in modern Kazakhstan. This story, told by a Chinese envoy who had returned to the Han capital in about 126 B.C.E. after many years in Inner Asia, tells of an attack on the Wusun in which the enemy killed the Wusun king but abandoned his infant son in the wilderness to die. The boy was saved from death by a she-wolf, who suckled him, and a raven (or ravens), who placed food in his mouth. The child was later taken in by the enemy ruler, who recognized supernatural power at work in the boy's survival. This same child grew up to become the ruler of the Wusun. (6) In considering the role of the raven...

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