The Legend of Fenrir: a Wolf with a Bite
One of the three children of Loki by a giantess (jötunn) named Angrboða, Fenrir plays an imperative, though short, role in Norse mythology. A wolf of remarkable size and strength, Fenrir has one major story recorded in the Norse sagas, yet this singular story paints a picture of bravery for one god and an omen of death for the rest of them. Fenrir, unfortunately for the Æsir and Vanir, turned out to be one of the many foreshadowing signs of the end of the Norse world: Ragnarök.
According to Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, Fenrir's tale begins, as any tale should, with his unlikely and terrible birth. When Fenrir (also called Fenrisúlfr) was born, along with his other siblings, the great serpent Jörmungandr and the dark haired woman Hel, the Æsir of Asgard, assembled to discuss what to do with these three very dangerous beings—all of whom were prophesized to aid in the future destruction of the Norse cosmos. Hel was sent to Niflheim, a location similar to the Christian concept of Hell, a very cold and dark place, while Jörmungandr was sent into the sea, to remain submerged until the end of days. Fenrir, however, posed a much more dangerous problem. While Hel and Jörmungandr could be sent away, Fenrir was growing at a rapid speed, and soon became a jötunn among wolves, as it were. To protect the Æsir from his size and the terrible fate they knew would one day come, they decided that Fenrir needed to be contained.
Odin and Fenris, from “Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas”, 1909. Public Domain
Three different types of fetters, or bindings, were created before the gods were successful in confining the wolf. The first was called Leyding. It did not last long as one sharp kick from Fenrir snapped the chain apart. The second attempted fetter was twice as strong as Leyding and was known as Dromi; though it took Fenrir longer to break, it did meet the same fate as the first. By the third attempt the gods knew they needed skill beyond their own. Odin, the primary chief of the Æsir, sent word to the dwarves of Svartálfaheimr, the land of the black elves. These dark dwarves lived underground and were ill-natured for the most part, but they nonetheless agreed to craft a chain powerful enough to prevent the giant wolf from escaping. The dwarves soon presented Odin with Gleipnir, a shackle made of six mythical ingredients: the sound of a cat's feet, the roots of a mountain, a bear's sinews, a woman's beard, a fish's breath, and a bird's spit. With these six ingredients—supposedly no longer in existence today due to this procedure—the resulting chain was as smooth as ribbon, but as strong as iron would be to mortals. When the fetter was to be placed upon Fenrir on the island of Lyngvi, even the wolf doubted his ability to escape. And when the gods goaded him into trying to break free, Fenrir demanded a show of good faith before allowing it to be put upon him.
The god of law and justice, Tyr stepped forward then and placed his hand in the mouth of the wolf, the only god of the Æsir brave enough to risk himself for the good of the whole. Only then did Fenrir allow himself to be chained again, the goading as successful a tactic as Tyr's bravery. Every attempt the wolf made to be freed turned out to be futile. In anger at his failure and the gods' ability to entrap him, Fenrir snapped off Tyr's hand. Relieved that Fenrir was bound, all except Tyr of course, the Æsir looped Glepinir's cord Gelgja through a massive stone slab called Gjöll, and anchored it with a large rock known as Thviti, effectively binding Fenrir permanently to one spot. The wolf's unrelenting howls led to a sword being shoved between his jaws, the hilt keeping his mouth wide, silencing him until the time of Ragnarök. Then and only then would Fenrir see freedom. The shaking of the earth and the uprooting of mountains would tear Gleipnir apart, unleashing the wolf on Odin, enabling him to swallow the chief of the gods whole.
Fenrir bites off the hand of a sword-wielding Týr in an illustration on an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript. Public Domain
This would be the beginning of the end of the Æsir. The Prose Edda dictates that Fenrir's two sons, Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, would follow in the footsteps of their father, swallowing the sun and the moon respectively, destroying the stars and all essence of time. Only after all this had occurred would Fenrir be killed by Odin's son Víðarr. Fenrir’s jaws which were kept silent for so long would finally be torn apart by Víðarr's foot stretching his mouth. Shortly after, the worlds of the Æsir would be consumed and a new world would rise in its place.
Though the tales from the ancient Norse religion span centuries, this tale is the only one that mentions the pertinence of Fenrir's character. The wolf spent his life sealed away on an island far from other beings, kept in confinement until the fates of the gods could no longer be prevented. His story is an important one to be told, however, as his role is most the poignant of those of his fellow family members. It is his father Loki who will lead the jötunns and the forces of Niflheim against the Æsir during Ragnarök, and his sibling Jörmungandr whose thrashing will set Fenrir loose from Gleipnir. But it is Fenrir who will slay the chieftain of the gods himself, and for that, Fenrir will always be remembered.
Týr and Fenrir, in “Our Fathers’ Godsaga”, 1911. Public Domain
Featured image: Detail, A scene from Ragnarök, the final battle between Odin and Fenrir and Freyr and Surtr. 1905. Public Domain
Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North: the gods of the Norsemen (Continuum International Publishing Group: London, 2011.)
Colum, Padriac. Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover Publications: New York, 1996.)
Guerber, Helene A. Myths of the Norsemen (Barnes & Noble, Inc.: New York, 2006.)
Sturluson, Snorri. The Poetic Edda . trans. Lee Hollander (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2011.)
Unknown Author. The Prose Edda . trans. Jesse L. Byock (Penguin Classics: New York, 2006.)
By Ryan Stone