The pruning-hook is a wolf

Speaking of pruning-hooks, George Wicker Elderkin puts forth a theory in chapter XXIX (pgs 167-169) of his masterful Kantharos: Studies in Dionysiac and Kindred Cults which I’m not sure I buy, though it certainly has interesting implications:

The primitive λυκος was a sickle or hook-fetish. In the theriomorphic stage of the cult the sickle-fetish was superseded by the wolf which because of its slashing habits with its sabre or sickle-tooth was eminently qualified to act as the animal embodiment of the god. The transformation of the god into a wolf would explain the rite in which the devotee was transformed into a wolf. It was a primitive imitation of deity.


They may have carried the ‘sickle’ cult west. This sickle-cult seems to have been also a wolf-cult and to force the conclusion that the theriomorphic phase of the sickle-cult was the wolf-cult. In this connection should be noted the cult of Soranus Pater on Mt. Soracte. This cult was in the care of a family named Hirpini who called themselves the Hirpi Sorani (Roscher, Lexikon s. v. Soranus), ‘the wolves of Soranus.’ Servius says that Soranus was a name for Dis Pater. In other words Soranus combines the chthonic aspect with the mountain abode of Kronos. This coincidence raises the question whether the Hirpi Sorani were not in origin “Sickles of Saturn” for hirpus looks very much like a masculine to ἄρπη ‘sickle.’ A hint of the original significance of lupus as ‘hook, pruning-hook’ lies perhaps in its appearance as a surname of the gens Rutilia. The Rutili were the ancient people of Latium whose king Turnus was killed by Aeneas. Latium was anciently called Saturnia terra and was therefore the land of the sickle-god Saturn. Hence the name Lupus would be especially appropriate to an ancient family of Saturnia terra if Lupus retained its primary meaning of ‘hook or sickle.’

The study of the word λυκος carries with it a study of the name Λυκοῦργος. The Thracian Lykourgos appears in epic as a rival of Dionysos whom he drove into the sea. Their struggle is to be explained probably as that of two rival fertility-heroes. The madness of Lykourgos and his confinement in chains are Saturnian features of a hero or god blinded by Zeus. Lykourgos appears in vase-painting with the double-axe in indication perhaps of his rivalry with Zeus (Roscher, Lexikon s. v. Lykourgos, p. 2195).


That Lykourgos originally meant ‘sickle-maker’ is confirmed by the name of a son, Ankaios, already discussed, a name which is derived from a word meaning ‘hook.’ Thus the primitive Arcadian king Lykourgos ‘Sickle-maker’ had a son ‘Hook’ or ‘Pruning-hook’! If Wilamowitz (Hom. Untersuch. p. 267) is right in associating the Spartan Lykourgos with the Arcadian Zeus Lykaios, then Lykourgos was Θεσμοφόρος for the same reason that Demeter was. Both were vegetation-deities. Θεσμοφόρος was also an Orphic appellative of Dionysos. That Lykos, like other fertility-gods, acquired solar characteristics is clear from the fact that Boeotian tradition knew of two brothers Lykos and Nykteus (Apollod. III, 10, 1). Lykos and Mithras both sickle-gods became solar like Kirke.

One of which being that it would help explain how the pruning-hook over time transformed into the Wolfsangel or wolftrap. 


2 thoughts on “The pruning-hook is a wolf

  1. So, you’ve actually answered a question by your quotes here that I’ve long had.

    In Middle Welsh, the word cynben, which is a compound literally meaning “dog-head,” is found twice: as the name of a character that fought Arthur at a mountain (which I have theories on based on some experiences that took nearly a decade for me to parse!), and also in one of the lines of the poem “Cad Goddeu” (The Battle of the Trees), which has been so poorly abused by Robert Graves’ interpretations of it. In any case, in all of the translations of the poem I’ve seen before I wrote about the line, where the translators got the ideas they put was beyond me, and beyond all those with whom I spoke about these things (who all know more about Welsh than I do!). The line is “Bum ser gan gynben,” which fairly transparently means “I was stars with dog-heads,” which brings in the Sirius connection and a variety of other things, and thus is of interest to me. HOWEVER, one of the earlier translations had the line as something like “I was a bill-hook…” And while that might not be “right,” it now may explain why someone could have thought so…!?!

    I’d like more bibliographic info on this book you mention, as there may be more to that (though I don’t buy all of the easy equative syncretisms suggested by the author in the quotes above).


    1. Ha, that’s awesome!

      I’d never seen anything on the book before today (which is saying something as I’m pretty well versed when it comes to the literature on Dionysos) and unless I can find it likely won’t be able to read more than the excerpt posted here, as it’s currently going for $190.00 on Amazon. There are some books I’d happily pay that price for; not knowing anything about this one or its author I’m gonna pass.


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