The Folklore of Dire Wolf

“A curse has hung over the Baskerville family for generations, ever since the lecherous Sir Hugo Baskerville met a terrible end while pursuing a young maiden across the Devonshire moors. Sir Hugo had his throat torn out by a fearsome black beast, a creature ‘larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon.’ The latest victim is Sir Charles Baskerville, whose contorted expression indicates the sheer terror that brought on a fatal heart attack. Nearby footprints suggest that the hell-hound of legend is abroad once more.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Hound of the Baskervilles

So begins the third book of the Sherlock Holmes novels; and so begins the story of Dire Wolf.

One night in 1969, Robert Hunter and Carolyn Garcia watched the 1959 film “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”  This inspired Hunter to write Dire Wolf.  The song begins as a tale told in the third person by a narrator describing the setting. Then, the storytelling changes to the first person and the protagonist tells a story of the Dire Wolf, pleading for mercy, and a card game for the ultimate prize. The song ends by returning to the third person perspective with the narrator depicting the dead which have been collected by the Dire Wolf singing around a fire.

The story's concept has its roots in folklore as countless tales abound of a person pleading for mercy from Death or the Devil.  So, what is the Dire Wolf? A monster, Death himself, the Devil?  Perhaps folklore can unlock some of the mystery.

Our (the human race) beliefs, superstitions, customs, performances, rituals, and habits have been shaped in no small part by folklore.  These are the stories that were once passed down through oral tradition and then memorialized in writing. They shape a culture's understanding of the world as well as the concepts to which there are no true understanding. Folklore solidifies cultural ties and defines communities.

Folklore "motifs" are the common themes that reappear throughout different world cultures.  These motifs have been catalogued by scholars and each motif has been given an alpha-numerical assignment.  Catalogued at E341 is the folklore motif for “grateful dead.”

We’ve all heard how The Grateful Dead chose their name.  Disheartened at seeing a record in a local record store by The Warlocks, the band needed a new identity.  While brainstorming at Phil Lesh’s house in Palo Alto, Jerry picked up a folklore dictionary and randomly opened to page 463. 

The book was volume one of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.  

It was first published in 1949 and is one of two books in a series. In the top right corner of page 463 in capital letters are the words “Grateful Dead.” Jerry shared it with the gang and the rest is history.  Funk and Wagnall's explains the following: 

As we see, “grateful dead” is a motif in folklore that reappears in many cultures. 

So too is gambling for one’s soul which is catalogued at E756.2. This folklore motif appears in connection with the Devil laying claim to someone and accepting a challenge from the condemned to play cards, chess, dice, or answer riddles. The winner takes all. These tales also appear in the form of Death (whether the Angel of Death or Death personified) coming to claim a life. The condemned pleads Death for mercy and challenges Death to a game; again cards, chess, or dice. How these stories resolve tells us a bit about the identity of the Dire Wolf.

Let’s take Death first.  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is a 1957 movie about a knight's return from the Crusades. He is met along the way by Death.  It is considered one of the greatest movies of all time (although, I find it pretty weird; but a cool depiction of thirteenth century life).  The knight pleads Death for mercy and challenges Death to a game of chess. Death accepts. 

There is a chilling scene where after moving a piece Death looks up from the chess board at the knight and with an expressionless face and macabre tone says: “No one escapes me.”  

Indeed, the knight does not succeed and he and his companions are ultimately led off on “Death's Dance” or ”Danse Macabre"; which is an artistic theme in paintings depicting Death and his victims passing on to the next world.

The folklore motif involving Death personified, like seen in The Seventh Seal, teaches us that we cannot defeat Death; only delay his claim. 

As for the Devil laying claim to a soul, there is always a chance to outwit. This is seen in an etching that once hung in the Louvre called “Checkmate”.  Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch made this this piece in 1831.  It depicts a man playing chess with the Devil and being lured into checkmate.  We see the man pondering in despair and an angel overlooking with pity.  The Devil’s patience is wearing thin, and his hell hound eagerly awaits the victim's capitulation.

There was an interesting story about this painting published in the Columbia Chess Chronicle in 1888.  

A chess master, Paul Morphy, studied the painting, while a guest at a dinner party.  At that time, the painting hung in a private residence. After hours of intense scrutiny, Mr. Morphy declared the painting was misnamed because he saw that the man had one move that could place him at the advantage.  Mr. Morphy mapped out the board as depicted on the painting, and proved his theory.

This story has been corroborated by first hand accounts from people present at the dinner party when this revelation transpired. 

When it comes to the folklore motif concerning dealings with the Devil, hope is possible.  If one can surpass the Devil's cunning, they can prevail when all seems lost.  Hope, however, has no place in the folklore dealing with Death. As Death’s famous line in The Seventh Seal reminds us, “No one escapes me.” 

So where does Dire Wolf fit in with the motif? I venture to say it is more along the lines of the stories where the unfortunate plead with Death rather than then Devil.  Here, our poor hero invites the Dire Wolf inside and the two engage in a game of cards.  There is but one chance for the hero, cut the deck at a higher card than the Dire Wolf or be murdered.  However, the Dire Wolf, or better “Death,” had stacked the deck against our poor hero.  All of the cards were the same and therefore, the poor hero of the song never had any hope to win. 

The final verse of Dire Wolf, told by the narrator of that little story, depicts the Dire Wolf “collecting his dues” and the souls of the poor deceased singing around a fire. This is a some what similar the "Dance of Death" scene in The Seventh Seal. The movie ends with departed dancing behind Death as they are led beyond.

But, what is not fun about the song Dire Wolf?  It seems like a happy song and the chorus just rolls off the tongue.  The Dead originally played it in the key of E but over the years changed it to G. The two versions are somewhat different in rhythm and cadence. ZenDog normally plays it in G, however, we recently did it it in E during an acoustic set.   

But, should we receive Dire Wolf as a silly song?  I guess any story about Dire Wolf wouldn't be complete without talking about Deer Creek, July 2, 1995.  Before the show, Jerry received a death threat and he sang Dire Wolf to spite the would be attacker click here to listen.  At that time, it seemed a funny snub at an empty threat.  However, July 2, 1995 was the last time Jerry ever sang Dire Wolf.  No one knew or could even imagine that in only five weeks it would be Jerry's time to leave this world.  No, despite its fun melody, Dire Wolf is a serious song.  It's foundation in folklore should remind us that in the end, no one escapes.

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