(NB: The text of this post was first published in my 'Stories as Medicine' blog which I have discontinued)

The story of the Two wolves, attributed to Cherokees is a popular story about the universal struggle within each of us, between good and evil. It has been, shared several hundred times on Facebook and on psychology sites on the internet. However, there are several versions of it and each gives an interesting insight into how stories can change and co-opted to serve different purposes and take on a life of their own, quite independent of the “medicine” they initially contained.

Here are two versions off a Cherokee website:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”


Here is the same story, but it is called "Grandfather Tells" which is also known as "The Wolves Within"

An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, "Let me tell you a story.
I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.
But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times." He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, "The one I feed."


Controversy over the origins of the story

According to one source, Pavor Nocturnus (a tumblr blogger), 

The Two Wolves story is NOT a Cherokee story, but was first begun in 1978, by Billy Graham when quoting an Eskimo story in his book The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life  and has subsequently been appropriated in several films and stories. 

Pavor Nocturnus makes touches on two additional points: the first of Cultural appropriation and the second on the racial stereotypes propagated in some of the visuals accompanying this story. Interestingly, though the appearances of the wolves is not specified, many of the visuals accompanying this story show a black wolf and a white wolf.

Black is taken to represent the ‘evil’ wolf and ‘white’ the good one.

Here are interpretations of what these colours are taken to mean and though this excerpt is taken from, it is fairly representative of the discussions regarding this story on the internet:

“According to dream interpretation. 

To see a white wolf would represent victory and valor, you have the ability to see the light even in the darkest of situations. Because white is opposite black in the color wheel, we can presume that black is the complete opposite, so to see a black wolf would represent mystery, a hidden danger and anger, a clouded omen shrouded in mystery and negativity, it can signify addiction, hostility and represents aspects of your life that might damage your own reputation, or harm yourself or even others."


The dualistic versus the non-dualistic version:

The following has been quoted in verbatim from a post on Facebook by Storyweaver, a pseudonym for Andrei Armeanu, a transformational coach. The reason why it was not altered was because to do so would be to detract from its effectiveness.


An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy."It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance,
 self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." 
He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too.

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: 
"Which wolf will win?"

In the white world, the story ends like this: The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

In the Cherokee world, however, the story ends this way: 

The old Cherokee simply replied, "If you feed them right, they both win." 
and the story goes on:
"You see, if I only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the white wolf is happy and we all win. For the black wolf has many qualities - tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-willed and great strategic thinking - that I have need of at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.

You see, son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will become uncontrollable. To feed and care for both means they will serve you well and do nothing that is not a part of something greater, something good, something of life. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention. And when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing that will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. Peace, my son, is the Cherokee mission in life. A man who has peace inside has everything. A man who is pulled apart by the war inside him has nothing.

How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both."


The “creative” version:

As stories get older they evolve, layers and nuances get added and they are adapted to meet the needs of the storyteller and his/her audience. Sometimes the listener can commandeer the story to explore his/her reaction to it and learn more about him/herself. A case in point is the following creative elaboration by Christofers Flow.

The Two Wolves Fighting Within

A Cherokee Elder was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me... it is a terrible fight between two wolves.

One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride and superiority.
The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."

They thought about it for a minute and then The One With No Name asked his Grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old man simply replied, "The one you feed."
The One You Feed
"The One I feed?" Slippery Beaver tilted his head and wiggled his nose. "I want to feed the good one. And I don't want to feed the bad one."
The Grandfather looked at his little brood. "When Singing Bird makes fun of you, and her Brother Black Crow laughs, which Wolf do you feed?"
The One With No Name thought for a quick moment and swung his hand in the air. "I feed my mean mean wolf because I chase Black Crow around the forest until I push him into the stream."
Black Crow perked up. "He likes my sister a lot. That is why I make fun of him!"
The little group laughed and pointed their fingers. Grandfather calmed them down. "Singing Bird is pretty just like her mother, my daughter, Laughing Deer. So why would we feed our angry fearful Wolf, if all we do is want someone to like us?"
Fear Feeds The Angry Wolf
Black Crow almost whispered. "Maybe because he is afraid that she does not smile on him." He poked a stick at a line of ants. The Grandfather grabbed a sprig of Sage, rolled it, crushed it and blew it into the wind. "That Sage, it smells good, yes?"
The children quietly agreed. "It gives itself up for our enjoyment. It gives its life for our happiness." Singing Bird jumped in. "I like everybody. I smile on everybody. I do not feed my angry hateful wolf, ever."
"Except when your mother got sick. Then you were afraid. And you did not smile at anyone for a long time." Little Buffalo posed quietly, looking away from her as if he told a secret.
I thought I was feeding my good and sweet wolf, but all I could do was cry at night." Singing Bird looked down at a caterpillar. Grandfather chuckled. "Sometimes we just don't know which Wolf we are feeding. But we are feeding the wrong wolf many times."
Feeding the Wrong Wolf
"Life is hard to figure out. But not so hard to live. Life is actually good to us most of the time. But we humans, we want the answers. It is wanting the answers all the time that makes the wolves fight with each other. We want everyone to see that we are fearless. And that makes us fearful."
Black Crow laughed. "Like my father. He drinks at night and then he starts talking to the Moon about the fight he had with my Mother, the time he fell off his horse last Spring, and how he got embarrassed by Grandpa. When he wakes up, it is like he has been feeding his angry wolf all night long."
"How do I know which Wolf is which?" Singing Bird truly wanted to know. Her eyes were round with wonder.
It Is The Angry Wolf Which Pretends To Be The Good Wolf
Grandfather leaned forward and spoke softly. "Think about this little ones. The angry wolf acts like the good wolf. But the good wolf does not act like the angry wolf."
They nodded in growing understanding. "The mean wolf is afraid the most. So, he is afraid he will die. So, he pretends he is the happy fearless wolf." The One With No Name looked up at his Grandpa. "Very good, my child." Grandpa patted him on the head.
"If that is true and we feed the bad wolf a lot, then it gets bigger." Black Crow observed.
The One With No Name stood up. "I wanted to tell you that there have been times when I have fed my bad wolf a whole bunch. Bunches and bunches. Like the trees shedding leaves in the Fall."
"The less you feed that beast. The happier you will be." Grandfather rubbed his grand children's heads. They smiled at him with a few giggles. The grandfather started making a little fire. The night was approaching, and he thought they needed to warm up before they went over the hill to their village.
The Wolves Inside Us Always Need To Be Fed
A wolf howled far far away. Black Crow looked up to the darkening sky. "Wolves are always hungry. The wolves that are inside us always need to be fed."
"It is good to think about which one you are feeding." The One With No Name hugged Black Crow and said: "I am sorry for all those times I pushed you in the stream".
Black Crow laughed. "Singing Bird is really pretty isn't she?"
The One With No Name smiled. Singing Bird blushed. They all laughed.
The little fire glowed and illuminated the tiny canyon. Grandpa's story of the two Wolves provided reason to chat and talk about tomorrow.

How to use the “medicine” in the story:

Many psychologists have offered suggestions on how to “mine” the medicine in the two wolves story to achieve outcomes such as fighting depression or dealing with relationship breakdowns. One of the most helpful and widely applicable ways to use this story has been offered by Brian Scott a Singapore based clinical psychologist in his blog psychologymatters.asis

He explains that knowing which wolf to feed is the first step towards recognising that you have control over yourself. Once you find ways to manage your mind, you can live a life which you judge to be best for you.

There are four important concepts implicit in the story:
1.The mind is not the unitary entity it seems to us but consists of different parts. For example in the story there are the two wolves and the “you” that chooses between them.
2. These parts of the mind/brain can interact and be in conflict with each other i.e. the two wolves fight for dominance over our mind and behavior.
3.The “you” has the ability to decide which wolf it will feed.
4. Having made a choice, “you” can decide specifically how to “feed” or nurture the selected wolf.

These four ideas give rise to a number of questions which when answered could help improve control over one’s mind, feelings and actions 

  • Are you aware of two different opposing “wolves” operating within your mind, one of which leads to pain and a diminished sense o of life and the other to a joyous, meaningful, and fulfilling life?
  • Do you recognize that within your mind is a separate entity which is the core you? Other names for this core self are “ego” or just simply the “self”.
  • Have you ever experienced times when you noticed a conflict or fight between parts of yourself so that you did not know which way to turn?
  • Were you ever disappointed by the choice of behavior made by “you” because you knew that there was a more positive option but you just didn’t choose it?
  • In general how effective is your ego in choosing the thoughts feelings and actions which are best for you?
  • What ways or techniques or exercises do you use to strengthen your ego or self so as to increase its potency to choose and hence control your life?
  • In what specific ways do you feed the negative wolf?
  • What specific ways do you use to feed the positive wolf?
  • Having become aware of how you feed the wolves within, can you think of ways to better nurture your chosen wolf?
Further information can be found on his blog, but he does offer suggestions on how to feed the “good wolf”. These include relaxation strategies such as yoga, exercise or stress management and reading cognitive behavioural self-help books

And finally a few concluding insights..

Stories are told for reasons. They are mirrors we can hold up to reflect on aspects of the culture around us. The “Two wolves” story is a classic one in which the older generation passes on their understandings about life to those who come after. It is a tale with a simple moral –that we all have the choice on whether or not to feed negative or positive emotions. The choice we makes has an impact on our lives.


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