Fenrir is a giant wolf in Norse mythology. He and his siblings play a central role in the progression of Ragnarok, which signifies the end-times of the great Norse sagas.
We'll look at Fenrir's story, unpacking details about who he is, how he came to be, and what he might mean in the grand scheme of Norse mythology. It's important to note that most modern insights into Norse myths come from Snorri Sturluson, a 13th century poet and historian who lived after the end of the Viking Age.
So, while the stories we have are relatively accurate, there's a good chance that the original meanings of characters like Fenrir are buried in history.
Origins of The Giant Wolf
Fenrir was born to Loki and Angrboða. Loki is a key figure in Norse mythology, serving as a primary trickster god who prompts chaos and change. Loki's involvement in Norse myth typically upsets the gods and pushes them to great lengths to maintain the order and stability of the heavens.
Angrboða is a seldom-mentioned giantess in the Poetic Edda, which is one of two primary source texts on Old Norse mythology. Her significance comes mostly from mothering three children; Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel.
These children, although born innocent, inherit Loki's reputation with the gods. Because of this, the gods bound and restrained Fenrir before he had the chance to do them any harm. Similarly, the gods cast Jörmungandr to the sea where he surrounds Midgard, his mouth joining his tail in a complete circle. This is why he's called the "World Serpent" or "Midgard Serpent."
He signals the start of Ragnarok when his tail releases from his mouth. Hel was sent to the lowest of the nine realms to oversee the underworld, the land of the dead.
Fenrir's punishment was unique. He was so large and grew at such an exceptional rate that the gods couldn't keep him too far out of sight. They bound him in Asgard, home of the gods, tricking him by suggesting each new chain was a challenge. When Fenrir inevitably broke each chain, the gods cheered and encouraged him.
Naturally, they kept increasing the difficulty of each chain in hopes that one would be too difficult to break free from. The final chain would come from Svartalfheim, the home of the Dwarves. As the most crafty beings in the universe, these Dwarves created a paradoxical binding for Fenrir to struggle with.
Gleipnir: Chain of Imaginary Things
They called the binding "Gleipnir." It was made from the sound of a cat's footsteps, the breath of fish, the beards of women, and other things that don't exist. As a result, it would be impossible to break free from Gelipnir because nobody can struggle against something that doesn't exist.
Fenrir was clever, though, and knew that Gleipnir might be more challenging than the gods let on. As a gesture of good faith, he asked that one of the gods place their hand in his mouth as collateral. If he could break the chains, he wouldn't take the hand of the god.
Tyr hesitantly agreed to place his hand in Fenrir's mouth and, naturally, had it chomped off when the great wolf was unable to break free.
Fenrir, Tyr, and Law
This interaction between Fenrir and Tyr is allegorical and representative of Viking-Age beliefs about law, war, and agreements.
Tyr is traditionally seen as a god of war, but he's equally referred to as a god of law and order. It's fitting, then, that he needs to offer his hand per the agreement of the gods. Although gruesome, the sacrifice of Tyr's hand is offered in the event that the gods broke their agreement with Fenrir, which they did.
It would be unjust for Tyr to withdraw his hand. Within this allegory, there is a clear union of bloodshed, agreement, and justice, tied together by symbols of chaos (Fenrir) and symbols of order (Tyr).
The River of Expectation
Devastated by the gods' deceit, Fenrir was discarded to a lonely spot and locked to a monstrous boulder. The gods wedged a giant sword between his lower and upper jaw, propping Fenrir's mouth open to prevent him from doing any damage.
He screamed and cried out, causing a foamy flow of saliva to run from his mouth continuously. The foaming waters formed a river, referred to as the "River of Expectation" or "River Van."
It's a river of "expectation" because it's a constant reminder of Fenrir's suffering and eventual revenge. It's said that Fenrir will break free from his chains during Ragnarok, running rampant through the nine realms with his mouth wide open.
The Death of Odin
When ragnarok begins, he attempts to swallow up all of heaven and earth with his monstrous jaw alongside the efforts of the rest of Loki's kin to wreak havoc on the existing world.
In doing so, he will swallow Odin, most likely because of the unjust treatment that Odin gave him during his time with the gods in Asgard. Although Odin is a fierce competitor, he's no match for the wrath and revenge of Fenrir.
There is an ancient cross known as Thorwald's Cross that depicts Odin being devoured by an enormous wolf.
Fenrir killed Odin, but he doesn't manage to outrun those who are affected by the loss of the Norse pantheon's greatest god.
Odin's son Víðarr set off on revenge. Previous to this revenant, Víðarr is known as the god of silence. His presence in norse mythology is relatively small. That said, he travels to find Fenrir and sticks his shoe into the wolf's mouth, using his upper body to tear the wolf in half.
He normally wouldn't have been able to do this, but because Fenrir killed Odin, Víðarr evolved into the god of revenge.
There's a famous ancient relic called the Gosforth Cross that's engraved with a depiction of the wolf fighting Víðarr.
The Name Fenrir
The name Fenrir can give us insights into this character and why he developed into such a central figure.
In old Norse the name Fenrir means "He Who Dwells in The Marshes." Marshes are notoriously damp and dangerous places for human beings, especially in ancient times. In old Norse, his name would have been "Fenrisúlfr," which means" swamp wolf.
He was also known as Vángandr which means "monster of the river Van," and as Hróðvitnir which means "fame wolf."
That said, Fenrir isn't always a harbinger of evil. Only after he's wronged by the gods does he become a vengeful and angry mythological figure. In fact, it's said that he lived peacefully in Asgard before we was tricked into his bindings.
His "marsh-dwelling" name could come from the place he was chained to wait in anticipation of Ragnarok.
There are many wolves mentioned in Norse mythology, and most of them have a nuanced character leaning toward the side of chaos. This is likely because wolves posed a real threat to humans back then, so it makes sense that their mythologies would include wolves as threats.
The Fenris Wolf: Meaning in Norse Myth
It's difficult to say whether Fenris is necessarily a good or bad individual. Ragnarok isn't brought on by any of his actions, and he wasn't always a vengeful wolf. He's made into a villain by the gods because of his relationship to the god Loki.
The gods betrayed and lied to Fenrir, chaining him to a rock with invisible bindings for thousands of years. These are the things that turn him into a terrifying monster. Sure, the idea of a gigantic wolf swallowing heaven and earth is enough to give you nightmares, but a closer look into the origins of the story offers some more nuance.
Fenrir's story is an allegory for many things. On a surface level, he signifies the danger and wrath of wolves. While wolves aren't typically aggressive to humans, they can be, and they can eliminate necessary livestock for humans. In that sense, Fenrir serves a useful purpose as a reminder of the power of wolves.
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One could look at the story as a cautionary one, warning of the danger of deciet and lies. Without the gods' lies, Fenrir might never have swallowed up the heart or killed Odin. Odds are that these stories developed over time at the hand of numerous individuals and groups, so there's not necessarily a specific meaning to these characters.
That said, these are potent metaphors and allegories that apply to life in numerous ways, so the meaning is often for individuals to create. Want to learn more about these myths and where they came from?
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