Norse Mythology: The Fenris-Wolf
Deep in the forests of Jötunheim stood the hall of Angrboda. It was here that the giantess gave birth to three children of Loki. Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel. Fenrir, or Fenris as he is sometimes called, was born a wolf cub. Jörmungandr was born as a snake, and Hel was born half dead. For a brief time, they lived in their mother’s hall on Jötunheim and were left in peace. However, the Æser discovered their existence, along with a prophecy that these three beings would help bring doom to the Æser during Ragnarök, the end of the world. It was then that Loki’s children were declared to be monsters. Such a threat could not go unchallenged, and so the Æser decided to solve the problem while the three were still children. In the middle of the night, the Æser crept into Angrboda’s hall and stole the children away. They were taken to Asgard, and to Odin the AllFather to decide what must be done with them. Jörmungandr’s fate was to be dealt with first. He was thrown down to Midgard’s oceans to dwell. He would grow slowly, but would eventually encircle the earth and bite his own tail. Hel was cast down to Nilfheim, the land of cold and ice. There, she would rule over all those who did not die in battle. Fenrir, on the other hand, would be kept in Asgard.
It was Týr, god of law and honor, who mainly cared for the wolf cub. Each day he would haul meat out to the outskirts of the courts to feed him, and would play with the cub for a time before returning home.
However, none could forget the prophecy, and many were alarmed when they saw how quickly the young wolf was growing. It was soon possible that none of the Æser would be able to hold him, or beat him in a contest of strength. Now truly afraid of the wolf, it was decreed that he be bound. Fenrir, by tacit consent of all involved, would not be told his fate. The blacksmiths of Asgard created the first binding, Lædingr, and it was brought out to Fenrir. It was posed to him as a test of his strength. If he could break the binding, he would become famous for his strength. So Fenrir allowed them to bind him. He waited until the Æser had stepped back, then heaved mightily. It only took one heave to snap the binding away, and Fenrir roared with pleasure. He was indeed stronger than that binding.
The second binding was again made by the smiths of Asgard, but this one was half again as strong, half again as long, and half again as wide. Drómi, they named it. This time, when they presented the binding to Fenrir, the wolf was wary. This one looked much stronger than the last, but then again, he was stronger than last time as well. Besides, how would he become famous if he never went into any danger? Despite his wariness, he allowed the Æser to bind him again. It took far more than one heave to break the binding, but break it Fenrir did. Now the Æser were distraught. Nothing they created was able to hold the giant wolf.
Odin the AllFather sent one of the Æser down to Svartalfheim, the land of the master smiths, the dwarves. There, the messenger was able to convince the dwarves to make the strongest binding possible, Gleipnir. The dwarves made this out of six things- the noise a cat makes, a woman’s beard, the breath of a fish, the spittle of a bird, the roots of a rock, and the sinews of a bear. So used, these things no longer exist. This binding was the most deceptive of the three. It was soft as silk, and thin as a ribbon. Delighted, the Æser once again went to the young wolf. By now, Fenrir was convinced that there was another reason the Æser continued to test his strength by bindings. Highly suspicious, he refused to allow himself to be bound. Each of the Æser present taunted him, claiming that since he tore apart the strongest iron binding, this little silk band would be nothing. This did little but make Fenrir more suspicious. Finally, he relented under the condition that one of them put their hand in his mouth. If it were a trap, as he suspected, then that Æser would lose their sword hand. But if the deal was done in good faith, and he was released from the binding, then no harm would come to the Æser. Silence fell at this pronouncement. All knew that it was a trap, a trick to bind Fenrir, and none of them were willing to part with their weapon hands.
Finally, it was Týr who stepped forward, and laid his right hand in the wolfs mouth. The binding, named Gleipnir, was placed on Fenrir. No matter how he thrashed and heaved he could not break the binding. When none came to his aid, the bit off Týr’s hand at the wrist, and lunged at the assembled Æser, howling and trying to bite at them. However, the Æser, except for Týr, only laughed, relieved. The binding had worked! The more Fenrir struggled, the tighter the binding bit into him. They took an unbreakable chain, Gelgja, attached it to the binding, and dragged the raging wolf to an island named Lyngvi. There the chain was tied tight to a rock, which was then pounded into the earth and another stone used to fasten it. Fenrir still howled and tried to attack, so one of the Æser took his sword and thrust it through the bottom of his jaw, pinning it open. The saliva that drops from his mouth is what created and feeds the river Ván. There they left him, alone and in pain.
It is said that when Ragnarök comes, Fenrir will break the binding upon him, and run through the world, devouring all in his path. He would devour the sun and the moon while the battle raged, and would ultimately devour Odin himself. He would then be killed by Odin’s son, Viðarr, and not return for the next cycle. So goes the legend of the Fenris-Wolf
There are several variants to the story above. In some tellings, Fenrir is nothing but a ravenous beast. In others, it is not he that devours the sun and moon, but his children Sköll and Háti. Sometimes these two are mentioned, but in no actual relation to Fenrir. It is important to note that Fenrir is considered to be a giant, and this explains the prophecy of him devouring the sun, moon, and Odin during Ragnarök (As Ragnarök is the last great battle between the gods and the giants). For the ancient Norsemen, this tale is of inherent good triumphing (albeit temporarily,) over inherent evil. For them, wolves were a very real danger in their day to day lives.
There are several lessons we can take from this tale today. For one thing, it is important to keep one’s own council and listen to one’s own instincts, even if someone who you trust explicitly is telling you otherwise. Fenrir trusted Týr, and ended up being bound for it. Another lesson to be learned is to be wary of creating the very evil that you fear. Many stories are based around self-fulfilling prophecies. While this one is not explicitly a self-fulfilling prophecy, it would make sense for it to be classed as such. Fenrir was bound not only for his rapid growth, but also for the foreknowledge the Æser had of Fenrir devouring Odin and the sun and moon. Would the prophecy been fulfilled if Fenrir hadn’t been tricked into being bound? Unfortunately, there is no way to know.
The main sources for this article were the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, as well as the Poetic Edda, which was written anonymously by many authors. Googling was done to confirm spellings and seek variants of the tale. All images are in public domain, and found on WikiCommons. The legend was rewritten by me, using the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda for information.
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© 2017 John Jack George