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Of humans, sheep and wolves

Aggiornamento: 23 mag 2023

An imaginary excursion into 10,000 years of history and myth

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Not so long ago I was contemplating the sunset in Camposecco. In contravention of the correct rules of the Parks, I had brought the dog with me. I would have stayed away from home for a few days and no one could have taken care of Zigotò. In my defense I told myself that he’s not a city dog, he lives with me in the countryside and its paws trample every day the same territory of foxes, badgers, wolves, wild boars and other mammals. And that in any case I had decided to keep myself on the shepherds track from where I could easily take the pictures ti needed. Framing the wild cattle in the orange light cut by the shapes of the surrounding slopes, I saw behind some rocks a young lone wolf of very dark, almost black fur, stalking calves. When the herd noticed him they began to threaten him with their horns. the wolf trotted away unhurriedly. My dog, a wild off-white miniature poodle, thought well (badly) to follow his wild “brother”. In a few moments the two disappeared in the beech forest. It was too dark to see what happened to them. I expected to hear the acute "kaï!” of a little dog who thinks he's a shepherd but looks more like a lamb. After a few minutes of total silence Zigotò came back, trotting around as only wolves can do. Never again in the Parks with a dog, I thought, but this adventure stayed in my head to this day.

It all seemed to begin...

… 10,000 years ago, when sheep were domesticated not far from the shores of the Mediterranean.

The Neolithic revolution was blooming. Early rudimentary forms of agriculture had developed in previous centuries and with breeding of tamed wild animals it allowed the Anatolian peoples (in today's Turkey) to emancipate themselves from hunting and gathering for living.

Something in the climate had changed. Glaciers had been retreating for centuries. The old subsistence economy based on hunting huge herds of large mammals was no longer possible: Many animals, which had adapted for millennia

to cold and open spaces, were forced to change their habits, to migrate further north towards the Arctic Circle, or to become extinct.

Where tundra was, now forests grew. The large spaces that favored nomadism gradually tightened in between immense forests.

An era was waning, but new resources appeared for those who had the intelligence to adapt: ​​the abundance of water that gushed from the ground in a liquid state, creating rivers and lakes, wood in quantities and varieties never seen before. New forests appeared which could sustain an amazing density of resources. The earth was now thawed, soft, moist and manageable.

Human population rapidly grew and with it demographic pressure. In an increasingly man-made environment it was necessary to create new lifestyles of greater social complexity. The segmentation into age and gender groups and the specialization of some groups of individuals made possible to release, within the same clan, the energies required for the flourishing of the first forms of agriculture and farming.

10,000 years ago from the Anatolian plateau, "revolutionary" Neolithic groups began to expand into Eurasia until reaching Sicily.

From Anatolia to Italy ...

... peoples of the Near East arrived in Italy 6,000 years ago, initially attracted by the obsidian of Lipari. The new subsistence techniques and new technologies developed in the Near East proved to be unbeatable for the hunters and gatherers of Neolithic Italy.

Pastoralism was, among the survival techniques that had just landed, the one that most easily imposed itself on the Italian peninsula, perhaps thanks to a natural environment not too dissimilar to western Anatolia.

For 4,500 years, sheep and goat farming was practiced everywhere, from the coastal areas to the mountains. During these millennia the Apennine culture flourish.

Later on, during the Bronze Age, Indo-European peoples from the Austro-Bavarian territory settled in Italy in a process of gradual integration with the Apennine peoples. A probably non-traumatic process that flourished in ...

… Villanovan culture.

This period of dominant pastoral activity (although agriculture was also well developed in places with favorable conditions), was a phase rich in material and cultural exchanges between Italian populations and the Phoenician and Mycenaean civilizations.

The creation and defense coastal colonies by the Greeks and the Phoenicians required very advanced marine technology and well-sheltered and defensible landings. While the Phoenicians were essentially concentrated on mercantile activity, the Mycenaeans continued not to disdain "piratical" activities and the conquest of strategic posts for the control of the routes. At the height of the Mycenaean expansion process the Mediterranean was a playing field between the two “superpowers”, the former still centred in Greece while their rivals moving their pivotal center to the West in Carthage (North africa, in nowadays Tunisia).

The collapse of the Mycenaean civilization occurred when bronze began to be challenged by iron, and is preceded by the siege of Troy. This siege was immediately considered a bad idea by ...

... Ulysses “The Shrewd” ...

... reluctant to this historical choice imposed by Agamemnon, the primus inter pares, the king of the Mycenaean kings. Agamennon was convinced that Greeks could only grow by controlling the main trade route of Iron and other metals coming from the Caucasus. That way they could get independence from the Phoenician merchants and Troyan duties. To control the route the Greeks needed to control the Dardanelle strait, which meant a war against Troy.

Ulysses, who possibly was in contact with the Mycenaean merchants, felt this was a foolish idea in terms of human resources and time. Ulysses, king of Ithaca, king of the Western outpost of Mycenaean Greece, was much more interested in trade with the Italic peninsula and in controlling the routes of the western Mediterranean, He tried in vain to join the Achaean (Mycenaean) League, but he could challenge the mighty army of the Achaean league.

History proved that Odysseus was right: the Achaean victory against Troy was a Pyrrhic victory. Ten years of war brought Greek kingdoms to the verge of financial collapse.

A few decades later, at the end of the second millennium, the entire Mycenaean civilization imploded.

By year 1,000 B.C. the Bronze Age and the “Cult of the Hero” had vanished. Greece plunged into three centuries of barbarism. While the Phoenician were prospering all over the Mediterranean, the Mycenaean colonies in the Tyrrhenian shores lost contact with the motherland and became a refuge for Greeks fleeing the post-Mycenaean chaos. These difficult sea journeys became archetypes upon which new foundation myths were based, such as that of Aeneas, who escaped from Troy, landed in Latium, becoming the mythological ancestor of the Romans.

Along the Italian coasts new models began to impose themselves, heavily influencing the Roman and the Etruscan Civilizations.

The she-wolf of Rome ...

… Marked a new archetype of social cohesion and differentiation expressed in the myth of Romulus and Remus. She nourished both the nomad and the sedentary, the two founders of complementary and divergent lifestyles, separated by a sacred and inviolable groove.

Let's try to imagine Rome’s ground zero on day one:

Romulus looked around. Here, on the hill overlooking the Tiber, he would have built a city like Mycenae, like Troy, like those described by Aeneas and the Achaeans, who fled to Latium from a Greece collapsed into barbarism.

The square groove was complete, the Palatine Hill belonged to him, only to him. Romulus closed his eyes, looked back to his past, when he and his brother Remus were at the mercy of the Gods of Nature. All had changed, from now on here he will feel safe.

And yet something was missing, the sacred square was cold and soulless. Rome still needed an element which was essential for the internal balance of the newly created microcosm: something dynamic, free and wild.

To realize his dream of security and dominion over Nature, Romulus had to change his brother’s mind. Romulus needed to destroy old superstitions, the main obstacles to civilisation, even at the cost of threatening his brother with death.

Remus was a shepherd and he was convinced that the earth could not be divided, cut like a lamb, he thought that to enclose the land would make it sterile, that Romulus dream was laughable and that implementing his plan would be a sacrilege.

Remus stepped over the groove to show his disrespect to the idea of “land property”. Romulus killed him with his dagger.

Remus death created a void in Romulus soul and in Rome’s foundation. Romulus soon realized that his dream of an Eternal City lacked the vital energy of the wilderness, of the shepherd, lacked the dynamic energy of the wolf and the dog, lacked the indomitable energy with which Remo dared to cross the furrow, violating it at the cost of losing his life.

Romulus was seized by a tremor of pietas. The brother needed the brother. The citizen needed the pastor. Remo must stay here with me, he thought, in the furrow I plowed on the Palatine Hill. He decided to bury him with all honors under the cornerstone of Rome. To keep him company, in the tuff cave at the foot of the steep slopes of the Palatine he would keep their own mother, a she-wolf that every citizen will have to honor with lupercalia rites. TShe will be the tutelary deity of the cityand he will be the tutelary deity of its walls. Thus, Romulus tapped from Mother Nature the energy which made Rome sacred and eternal.

Nature desecrated

Centuries after the founding of Rome, in the wake of a desecrating furrow, the land was fragmented into small family-run "properties". Land was no longer sacred as a wild and boundless Great Mother on which to graze herds. Land could be sacred only as a closed, precise, squared, monumental geographical element.

No longer sacralised by the thunder and the stars, the earth was instead sacralised by the king-priest and cared by, the City virgins, the Vestals.

This "proto-privatization" of the land pushed pastoralism out of the walls and valleys. Agriculture and court cattle established themselves in the plains, expanding during the Republic, then though the “centuriation”, finally developing into large estates marking the decadence of an empire.

The land lost its sacred value to acquire that of a commodity. As any good it could be bought and sold, expropriated and reassigned. The consequence was that sheep farming, with its need for free movement of flocks, became a predominantly "mountain" activity, where land had little financial value.

It is as a “mountain job” that the shepherd's profession has continued to this day. In the Apennines, people like Mariano continue to practice seasonal mountaineering with the help of the famous Abruzzese dogs, essential not only to keep the flock united, but also to keep the wolf away.

In reality it all began ...

… 14,500 years ago, long before shepherding! Some wolf packs probably began to profit from massacres carried out by humans against large mammals. Those predators started to loot the carcasses left by the humans until they end up collaborating in these difficult and dangerous but energetically convenient hunts. Thus it was that dog and wolf differed from their common ancestor, one joining forces with men, the other choosing freedom and conflict.

For millennia, the two canid brothers, just like Remus and Romulus, continued to follow two different survival strategies: wolves free and reckless, dogs sedentary and collaborative with humans.

Herding gave dogs a new role: no longer to surround the prey that men would have killed, but to surround flocks to protect them from the usual adversary, the wolf. On the other hand, wolves, animals as intelligent as dogs, soon realized that sheep, however cared for, were as possible prey as deer or wild boar and that after all these sheep-farming represented a resource more than a problem.

An epic world

This dynamic balance between dog and wolf represents one of the most beautiful and epic relationships between man and nature, between civilization and the wilderness.

Out there, hidden in impenetrable beech forests, there still exists today a free being capable of challenging civilization, and it is precisely this challenger, this bogeyman, this werewolf, that justifies our leashes, our fences, our constraints. We voluntarily assume our frustrations in order to keep the "Wolf" away.

Without the fear of an imaginary wolf we could suddenly give up stone walls, we could free ourselves from many of the rules that channel our choices, we could embrace our brother, our inner savage, we could free ourselves from prejudice towards the different, the wild, the archaic, the biological.

Civilization has made the wolf a bloodthirsty criminal, a monster that must be kept at a distance: it is fear that best justifies walls and fences desecrating the Earth thus making her marketable.

Yet the wolf is also our brother Remus, sacrificed and immortalized in the very foundations of civilization. He’s our wild self.

For this reason, despite everything, the wolf is admired for its courage and independence, for its cunning and discretion, for its affection for the offspring and for its sociability towards the group.

Symbols, poems, myths and works of art ...

… have transformed the wolf into a very powerful archetype resting deep in our subconsciousness, but always alert. The Wolf not the dog, the adversary not the servant has inspired artists and leaders. Despite the deep affection that binds humans and their dogs in everyday life, only the wolf is capable of bringing humans back to the extraordinary world of indomitable nature. Indeed, calling someone a "dog" is an insult.

Man probably needs both: dog’s affectionate simplicity and wolf’s mysterious freedom.

After centuries of conflict, however, the wolf has begun to succumb. Poisons, guns, traps made him disappear from every corner of Europe.

Any corner? Not exactly. Right here in the central Apennines, in the mountains of San Francesco, at the gates of a Rome born from a she-wolf ...

... something extraordinary happened:

Pushed to the brink of extinction, the wolf was saved by his opponent.

Man looked back on his past and, like his mythical ancestor Romulus, saw that something was missing, something free and wild, decisive in the internal balance of a now man-made environment. Where the wolf disappeared, something is missing a being: a myth that inspired saints, poets and explorers.

The wolf was never just an infant-eating monster. It inspired cave paintings, dances, songs. Gods and heroes were named after him, among peoples from any corner of the world. The wolf is one of the most powerful symbols of our primary energy, an archetypal element universally present in many different cultures.

Losing the wolf would be losing a fundamental piece of our own soul. Destroying forever the wildest being around us would be undermining our own civilization foundations. By killing the last true natural opponent, man would have to deal with his own irrepressible and destructive attitude.

By mirroring themselves in the wolf, humans see a profound archetype about to die out. Maybe for this reason for the first time in millennia the human being feels he himself has become his own worst enemy. This had been preached centuries ago by St. Francis in the Apennines and by Milarepa in the Himalayas.

As the Ojibwe Indians believe, whatever happens to wolves also happens to humans: man's unfathomable fate is linked to the fate of the mysterious beast.

By saving the wolf, humanity saves itself: protecting the king of the wilderness is a chance civilisation will no more be global scourge, making the human species one that thrives in balance with the others.


Note on hybridization

The dog repelled the wolf outside the walls of Rome, but what sense would those walls have without the wolf? Today the world is getting smaller and smaller. Human kind locks up at home only in the event of pandemics. Air conditioning, chlorinated water, precooked food, concreted land are becoming more and more annoying limitations to our weekend escapes. Who doesn't dream of drinking from a mountain spring? Of breathing deeply the rich air of a forest? Of feeding on freshly milked ricotta? TOf walking barefoot on a flowery meadow?

Our leviathanic modern civilization has conquered the material world but not its soul, nor the soul of man, irreducibly savage. Forced within the armed confines of the Parks, the wolves survived because man knows he needs them and now they are catching up.

Today, when wolf and dog come into contact, sometimes instead of colliding they love each other. Their hybrid offspring sees man with a new look. A look devoid of the unconscious terrors of traps, gunshots and poisoned baits. Thus the wolf gene approaches the city and begins to explore it. Remus crosses the groove traced by Romulus and is not stabbed. Not yet.

Perhaps, now that Google Earth reveals that there is no longer any unknown place on Earth, the world fragmented into borders and concrete walls is losing meaning. Perhaps the furrow traced by Romulus today is obsolete, beautiful archeology. Perhaps it is right to keep pure wolf genes, but as a museum object for posterity. The embrace between Romulus and Remus cannot be denied because it is natural, more natural than a wolf in a zoo and a dog on a chain. The hybrid between a dog and a wolf seems to be the rebirth of the archetypal she-wolf that 14,500 had two puppies who chose divergent paths, that of canis canis and that of canis lupus. Perhaps the mother of a “post-civic world” has returned to us, a world that respects the original sacredness of the earth and the absolute interdependence of living species. A world more finely and naturally regulated, overturning the obsolete rule of private property.

The ecosphere has always been and always will be able to rebalance itself despite human beings, and perhaps, as in the case of the dog-wolf, also by creating hybrids capable of abating old useless walls.

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