“In bocca al lupo!” this phase was regularly shouted by my Mother to me as I walked out the door of my home on the way to take a test, go on an interview, or any of activity that required that luck accompany me. The strangeness of the benediction went unquestioned by me because children do not question the traditions of their home when they are children, it is only later when we acclimate to the greater world that we wonder about these traditions and where they came from.

In the mouth of the wolf would seem an odd choice for wishing good luck? For many the wolf is the archetype of menace, (just speak with Little Red Ridinghood!) The wolf is a predator, he sneaks into the home to impersonate your dear old Granny or steals into the hen house to eat your chickens. Why would anyone wish that I find myself in the mouth of this killer?

But then consider the relationship of the Italians, Romans specifically to the wolf. It is said that the founders of Rome, brothers Romulus and Remus were abandoned to die but were found by a she-wolf, who suckled them and sustained them. Ultimately the spot where they were found, became Rome. In this case, the wolf is a mother, not a predator— a nurturer of civilization.

Also, consider the mouth of the wolf, yes it does have those sharp and pointy white teeth used to kill its prey. But it also carries its young in its mouth — surely those pups feel safe in their mothers’ mouth?

So back to the phrase in question, “in bocca al lupo.” For some the idea is akin to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A response to “in bocca al lupo” is “crepi il lupo” which essentially means, “may the wolf die.” I didn’t grow up with the call and response version of this phrase, so it feels less authentic to me.

I am more drawn to the Romulus and Remus interpretation. It makes sense that a culture that would develop a mythology about a wolf that acts as a mother rather than a predator and in so doing helps found the great civilization of the era, would think of the mouth of the wolf as a place of safety and shelter, not a violent end.

That’s my take anyway.

“in bocca al lupo” everybody!