Many of the gods from the pantheon of Norse mythology were animal lovers. For instance, Hel had a hound named Garm. Frey had a golden boar, and his sister, Freyja, was often accompanied by a retinue of cats. Odin, the All-Father and chief deity of the Norse gods, was also an avid pet owner. He had two ravens, named Hugin and Munin, which served as Odin’s scouts, taking note of events happening in the world and reporting the news to their master. Two pet wolves, named Geri and Freki, also accompanied the All-Father. The ravens and wolves were free to enter and exit Odin’s hall of Valhalla at their leisure and could usually be found lounging with the All-Father, the crows perched on his shoulders, telling secrets, while the wolves snatch up scraps of food tossed to them by Odin. In addition to these animals, Odin had a treasured eight-legged horse named Sleipnir.
Yet, there was another animal, another wolf, that resided in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. As surprising as it may sound, the wolf was the son of Loki, the Norse trickster who always annoyed and undermined Odin and the rest of the gods. The name of this particular wolf was Fenrir, and he was one of several animal offspring that Loki brought into the world. In fact, the horse, Sleipnir, was also one of Loki’s children, born after the trickster had shape-shifted into a mare and had an awkward affair with a stallion.
The Icelandic historian and saga author, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote about the origin story of Fenrir in The Prose Edda. He wrote that Loki and an ogress named Angrboda had three monstrous children—the Midgard Serpent, Hel and Fenrir. When Odin heard of Loki’s new children, he summoned them for judgment. He tossed the Midgard Serpent into the ocean, and it eventually grew to encircle the world, biting its tail to form a ring around the earth. Hel, a gloomy and moody goddess with a body divided equally between light and dark skin, was sent down to the underworld of Niflheim, where she oversaw the souls of those who died of disease and old age. As for Fenrir, Odin decided to keep the wolf in Asgard to be raised by the gods.
Yet, there was a problem—Fenrir was not an ordinary wolf. The pup was extremely powerful and was constantly growing larger in size and stronger in strength. In addition, Fenrir was also intelligent and even had the ability to speak. Even though the special wolf was being raised in Asgard, almost every god residing there feared the beast. Only Tyr, regarded as the most courageous of the gods, was bold enough to give Fenrir food and water.
As Fenrir’s power became more and more palpable, the gods of Asgard unanimously decided that the wolf needed to be restrained for their own protection. The gods, themselves, made two separate fetters that they thought would surely hold the wolf. Now they only needed to convince the intelligent creature to put on the restraints. Therefore, the gods went to Fenrir, and, holding out the fetters, they proposed a test of strength. The wolf agreed to show off his prowess and let himself be harnessed. With a flex of his muscles, Fenrir was able to free himself from the first restraint. Next, the wolf agreed to allow the second fetter to be fastened. This time, Fenrir had to struggle and strain, but he eventually ripped free of his bonds, sending pieces flying in all directions. With these displays of strength, the gods became more determined than ever to find a way to chain the wolf.
When their own handmade fetters did not work, the gods turned to the best craftsmen they knew—the dwarves. From Thor’s mighty hammer (Mjollnir) to the gods’ foldable, self-propelling ship (Skidbladnir), all of the best weapons and tools featured in Norse mythology were crafted by the dwarves. So, in keeping with their reputation, the dwarves successfully created the ultimate dog leash. The forging of their fetter was so bizarre that it needs quoting: “It was constructed from six elements: the noise of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird” (Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter 34). When the dwarves had somehow combined those rare ideas and resources, they produced a restraint that felt smooth like silk, but was virtually unbreakable.
With this deceptive bond, the gods returned to Fenrir and asked the wolf to test his strength against another bond. As mentioned earlier, the wolf was an intelligent being, so he began to distrust the motives of the gods. Fenrir told them that he would not allow the restraints to be applied unless one of the gods stuck a hand in his mouth to serve as insurance that he would be released if the fetter did not break. Once again, only Tyr had enough courage to face the wolf—he put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth and the wolf was bound. No matter how hard he pulled, stretched and strained, the fetter would not budge. When the gods saw that the wolf was finally and truly restrained, they began laughing and refused to unbind the beast. Infuriated and betrayed, Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand.
(Tyr and the Fenriswolf by John Bauer (1882–1918), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Prophecy foretold that the dwarven-made fetter would successfully trap Fenrir until the doomsday of the Norse gods—Ragnarok. As the gods clashed in a final battle against their foes, Fenrir would break free and join the fray. The prophecies proclaimed that Fenrir would kill Odin, possibly eating him alive. Fenrir, too, would die during Ragnarok. He was predicted to be killed by Odin’s son, Vidar.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Odin fighting the Fenriswolf on Ragnarok, painted by Emil Doepler (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.