Thursday, January 28, 2016

Folklore Thursday: About that Winged Wolf

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

Ever since I mentioned it during my first A to Z challenge 4 years ago, "winged wolf" has been one of the top 5 search terms that bring the most hits to my blog. Since it appears to be wildly popular, I decided to write about the folktale in detail, not only to boost the search hits (WINGED WOLF WINGED WOLF WINGED WOLF... erhm), but also because it is one of my favorite Hungarian folktales, and I would love to share it.

The Winged Wolf
(This is the bare bones of the story, not a literal translation; if you are interested in more details, throw me a message)

A prince named Levente sets out to seek a bride. His two brothers have gone before him, but never returned; now it is his turn. On the road he meets an old beggar, and in exchange for a gift he learns that he is about to come to a fork in the road:
If he takes the path on the right, he'll die but his horse will live; 
if he takes the one on the left, he'll live but lose his horse; 
... and if he chooses the middle path, the Winged Wolf will tear him apart like it did his two brothers. 
The prince wants to go and fight the monster, but he is warned that the Winged Wolf breathes (blue) fire that melts ordinary weapons like wax. The old beggar tells Levente how he can find himself a magic horse, and sends the prince to his sister who tells him how to come by a magic fairy sword.
For the horse, he has to go to a mountain in the East, on top of which there is a castle made of ice, and a magic horse eating golden hay from a golden trough. It rears up at the stranger, but Levente tells him the magic words "I am the one you have been waiting for for a thousand years!" Riding the horse he makes his way to snow-covered mountains in the West, to a blue palace with twelve doors. The magic words "By the ten-ells long beard of the mighty fairy king, open the gates!" make the doors open. Behind each door there are monsters, but the words "I was sent here by Fate, I won't let anyone stand in my way!" tame them, and Levente walks through all the way to the inner chamber. In the middle of the chamber, there is a fairy sword in a diamond box - guarded by a thirty-headed dragon. Levente has a vial of fairy water (from the old woman), and sprinkles it on the dragon, making it fall asleep. The dragon only catches up with him some time later, at which point Levente  uses the fairy sword to kill it.
Making his way back to the fork in the road, Levente takes the middle path, and finds the lair of the Winged Wolf. After a long and hard battle, he finds a vulnerable spot under the left wing, and brings the wolf down. In exchange for his life, the Winged Wolf offers to be Levente's steed and helper, and takes him to a place where he can find the Water of Life, to bring back his brothers.
The Water of Life can be found in a palace that belongs to a princess. She was so beautiful that the fairies grew jealous of her, and made her fall into eternal sleep. The entire palace is wrapped in strings with bells attached - Levente has to get in and out without ringing any of them. The Winged Wolf also warns him not to fall in love... But as Levente is on his way out with the Water of Life, he happens to take a walk through the palace and finds the slumbering princess. He immediately falls in love, and when he climbs on the Winged Wolf's back, he is suddenly too heavy to fly. The wolf's leg catches on the stings, and an army appears out of nowhere. Levente slays all the soldiers, but a second army appears; he slays those too, and then the princess wakes up and sends soldiers to bring him back. They start for home happily together.
On the way, they stop at the Winged Wolf's lair, where Levente sprinkles the Water of Life on the bones of his brothers, and brings them back to life. But on their way to their parents, the two older brothers conspire and murder Levente, dragging the princess away. The Winged Wolf and the magic horse bring a vial of the Water of Life, sprinkle it on Levente, and he wakes up immediately. He makes it home just in time to see his brothers squabbling over who gets to marry the princess. The brothers are punished, and everyone else lives happily ever after.

In a significantly shorter version of the tale, there are no brothers. The Winged Wolf guards the palace of the sleeping princess, and is defeated and killed by the prince. I like the version above better, not just because it is a lot more detailed, but also because the wolf becomes a helper and that is kind of awesome.

So... what is a winged wolf exactly?
Persian Senmurv from Taq Bostan
Good question. It is not a creature we have lore about - it only appears in folktales, and a monster and a helper. But while I was poking around in the archives, I ran into some archaeological publications that described Conquest Era (9th-10th century, when Hungarians came into the Carpathian basin) decorative motifs, and compared them to Persian (Sassanid) examples. While the Hungarian text called the animals in question "winged wolves," the English description of the same artifacts consistently calls them Senmurv (Simurg) - a mythical bird from Persian traditions (also known in Hungarian descriptions as a "peacock dragon"). We even have a Conquest Era tarsoly (satchel) cover from Tiszabezdéd that depicts the same animal:
When you look at them closely, they do look kind of like dogs/wolves with wings.
Long story short: There is no way to prove that folktales collected in the 19th-20th centuries have anything to do with mythical animals that were popular 1000 years earlier. But it is still fun to think about.

This folktale belongs to ATU type 551 - The Water of Life (some folklorists say it is based on a literary source, but I couldn't find it). Versions of it were collected from a number of traditional storytellers, including:
Nagy István (1879-1965), Uraiújfalu, Hungary (and yes, that is difficult to pronounce even to Hungarians).
Szabó Julcsa (collected in 1903), Besenyőtelek, Hungary
Ámi Lajos (1886-1963), Roma storyteller, Szamosszeg, Hungary

(Winged Wolf artwork from Deviantart)


  1. I can see why it's so popular such a rich story.

    1. It really is. It takes about half an hour to tell (my version anyway)

  2. Thank you fir this story. Found a discarded coffe cup with winged wolves on it