This sculpture, by the Danish artist Vilhelm Bissen (c. 1836 – 1913), depicts a tale from Norse mythology. The wolfish figure featured in the artwork is Fenrir (also called the Fenris Wolf), one of several monstrous offspring fathered by the shapeshifting trickster, Loki. When the monster-children were born, Loki’s frenemies among the Norse gods intervened—the wolf’s siblings were sent away, one to the ocean and one to the underworld, whereas Fenrir remained with the gods, presumably to be raised as a pet. Yet, Fenrir was no ordinary wolf. Since his birth, he had grown larger in size and stronger in strength at an alarming rate, and this unrelenting growth continued every day. In addition to his impressive physical might, Fenrir was also an intelligent being and even had the ability to speak. The Norse gods quickly came to fear the creature, and before long, only one god among that divine troupe had enough courage to bring food to the wolf. This brave deity, shown on the right side of the sculpture, was the war-god Tyr (also spelled Týr).
As can be seen by the faintly visible bonds looping around Fenrir’s legs in the sculpture, the Norse gods ultimately decided that the wolf was too frightening to be left unfettered. There was a problem, however, in finding a material strong enough to contain mighty Fenrir. Knowing that the wolf was an intelligent being, the gods tried to trick the creature into allowing itself to be bound, presenting the idea as a test of strength. The gods, summoning all of their strength, ingenuity and magic, crafted two fetters that they were sure would be unbreakable. Fenrir, however, snapped these with some flexing and twisting of his muscles. With their homemade fetters defeated, the gods then decided to call in the best craftsmen they knew—the dwarves.
In the sculpture, it is the dwarf-made bindings that are wrapped around Fenrir’s legs. Even the wolf could tell that this new bond, named Gleipnir, had a much higher level of strength than any of the other previous restraints. Fenrir, an intelligent wolf, suspected treachery, so he refused to let himself be bound unless one of the gods placed a hand in his mouth while he tried to break through—once the wolf was free, either by his own strength or the help of the gods, so too would the hostage’s hand be free. The war-god, Tyr, naturally was the god that volunteered. The scene that followed was described by the Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241): “No one was willing to hold out his hand until Tyr raised his right hand and laid it in the wolf’s mouth. But when the wolf strained against the fetter, the band only hardened, and the more he struggled, the stronger the band became. They all laughed, except Tyr; he lost his hand” (Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Gylfaginning). It is this scene that Vilhelm Bissen re-creates in his sculpted artwork. The figure shows Tyr about to sacrifice his hand for the gods’ scheme to restrain Fenrir. It was only a temporary fix, however, for Fenrir was prophesied to break free from Gleipnir during the end-times of Ragnarök.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.