The hour of the wolf

Welcome Library, London, CC by NC

On monday morning, I woke around 3:00am with a sense of dread far out of proportion to the rather mundane dream I’d been having.  A thunderstorm rolling by increased the sense of menace at this darkest hour of the night.

The hour of the wolf is the phrase I’ve always used for such moments.  “It’s always darkest right before dawn,” we tell ourselves by daylight.  “It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black,” says a demotivational poster you can find on  That is the hour of the wolf (though is a funny website).

When I was an undergrad, we used to say, “Wherever two or more are gathered, they’ll start a film society.”  College film societies of the time loved Ingmar Bergman, and I did too, so I knew his 1968, The Hour of the Wolf, but it wasn’t one of my favorites from his surrealistic period.  The best definition I know came from dialog in the “Hour of the Wolf” episode of Babylon 5, in 1996:

“Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? … It’s the time between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.”  – Michael J. Straczynski, writer, Babylonian Productions.

Since I couldn’t sleep, I tried to remember what I knew of the phrase.  A long time ago, I read that it was coined in medieval Paris.  The gates of the city were shut at night, but during the winter, wolves sometimes slipped through at dusk.  At the darkest hour of the night, they would glide through the streets like shadows to prey on the poor unfortunates who were sleeping alone on the streets.  “Hour of the wolf” was the phrase coined by those who encountered the grisly remains in the morning.

Hint:  thinking of wolves chewing corpses doesn’t help you get back to sleep.

I knew by then what was keeping me up.  Some of it had to do with the Colorado shootings.  It’s hard to sleep easy after such an event, but that was not the heart of it.  On sunday, I’d listened to Chris Hedges, a guest on Moyers & Company, in a segment called, “Capitalism’s ‘Sacrifice Zones.'”

Hedges is a journalist who worked for the New York Times until he was “pushed out” for outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.  The interview is important and very depressing, like much honest reporting these days (when you can find it).’s-‘sacrifice-zones’/

It’s hard to know what to do with this kind of unpleasant truth.  One good thing that came out of this post is that I learned the source of the phrase, “live with the questions.”  Therapists, especially Jungians, like to quote it, but it was Rainer Maria Rilke who first penned it.  In 1903, in Letters to a Young Poet, he said:

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

7 thoughts on “The hour of the wolf

    • I think there’s a whole lot in the concept of creating it in our minds, though I think everyone will have their own understanding of what that means. I recently came across a very coherent account of something along those lines that may form the basis of a future post.


  1. Thanks for the Rilke quote. Hadn’t thought of it for a long while, and it’s very helpful. A wise friend once told me that when we don’t have the answers it’s helpful to ask,”is it worth the journey?”
    As I see it, there is so very much that makes the journey worthwhile.


  2. Hmm, I have a couple of Bergman films (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) but The Hour of the Wolf was not one of his movies that I’ve seen, I’ll have to look into it eventually.

    While the middle of the night can often be a worrisome time, I personally love it. For the past several nights I’ve been spending the middle of the night walking around the town I live in (I would probably be out walking around now, but it’s raining now, which is kind of irritating me because I’d love to be outside walking around now). I love how peaceful everything is at that time of night, it’s a welcome change from the hurried pace that we all seem to live during the rest of the day.


    • The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are definitely his best known and probably best early movies. I enjoyed The Magician too. I don’t think Hour of the Wolf ever received or deserved that critical acclaim, though interestingly, it’s the one of his films that gets tagged with the “horror” genre.

      I know what you mean about the quiet and peace of night. It’s especially dramatic in places far enough away from city lights to see the stars. At the same time, in places like that, when the moon is down, you can see how dark the night can really be. I think some fear of straying far from the village or campfires at night is hardwired into our genes. Anyone who just wandered off when the predators were out probably didn’t contribute to the gene pool!


  3. Pingback: Stress Makes Me Stupid – Sean does essays

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