The Iron Wolf legend is a story that is associated with the founding of the city of Vilnius. This city was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duchy was established in the 13th century and continued to exist until the 18th century.
It was the largest state in Europe during the 15th century and remained a powerful entity for several centuries. The iron wolf became an important cultural symbol for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some scholars have argued that the symbol was borrowed from the famous Capitoline Wolf who is associated with the myth of Rome’s founding.
The Grand Duke Gediminas lived from 1275 to 1341. He is credited with laying the foundations of the state of Lithuania. As per the iron wolf legend, one day Gediminas was on a hunting trip. During the hunt, Gediminas was successful in killing an aurochs, or European bison, on the top of a hill. The precise location of the hunt was in the forests spread across the Sventaragis valley, close to the spot where Vilnia River enters the Neris River. After concluding the hunt, Gediminas and the rest of the hunting party decided to make camp.
Once the camp had been set up, Gediminas slept. During his sleep, he had an unusual dream. Gediminas dreamt that he saw an iron wolf standing on top of a hill. This was the same hill where he had hunted a bison the previous day. This iron wolf stood at the hill and howled loudly with its head raised towards the moon. The howl of the wolf was as loud as the howl of a hundred wolves. When Gediminas woke up, he understood that he had had an unusual dream. So he decided to consult the pagan priest Lizdeika about it.
The pagan priest interpreted the dream for the Grand Duke. He told Gediminas that the wolf was the embodiment of a city and a castle. The location of the wolf on the top of the hill was an indication of the precise spot where the Grand Duke should built this city and the castle. The loud howling of the wolf also indicated the future glory and fame of the city that Gediminas would build. According to the pagan priest, the reputation of this city would spread far and wide, reaching distant lands.
As per the legend, Gediminas believed in the interpretation presented by the pagan priest. He immediately started work to build the city and the castle at the top of the hill. The castle was located exactly on the hill while the city spread around it. Gediminas named the city as ‘Vilnius’ after the name of River Vilnia. The city indeed grew in fame, glory, and size. Over time, it became the heart of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The city commanded an excellent strategic position and it also faced several attacks for this reason. Enemies of the Duchy such as the Teutonic Order sought to wrest control of the city and besieged it several times. However, Vilnius was able to withstand most of these attempts and remained a vital stronghold of the Lithuanian state for several centuries.
The earliest mentions of the city of Vilnius in written sources date back to the 14th century. Specifically, the first of these mentions is dated to 1323 when the Grand Duke Gediminas sent letters to several German cities. In these letters, Gediminas cited the city as Vilna. Based on these letters, the city residents today celebrate the exact date of ‘January 25, 1323’ as the day when the city was founded.