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Definition: Fenrir from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

In Scandinavian mythology the wolf of LOKI. He was the brother of HEL, and when he gaped one jaw touched earth and the other heaven. At the RAGNAROK he broke his fetters and swallowed ODIN, who was avenged by VIDAR thrusting his sword into the yawning gullet and piercing the beast's heart.

Summary Article: FENRIR
from World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology

Wolf; enemy of the gods.

Fenrir is also called Fenrisúlf, that is, the wolf of Fenrir, and this usage has never been satisfactorily explained. He has two roles in the mythology: one as the maimer of Týr early in the mythic present, the other as the killer of Odin at Ragnarök. In between, he lies bound.

Hyndluljód, stanza 40, a part of the “Short Völuspá,” states that Loki sired the (or a) wolf on Angrboda, and Snorri agrees that Fenrir is the offspring of Loki and this giantess and that their brood also included Jörmungand (the Midgard serpent) and Hel. The wolf’s great act in the mythological present is to deprive Týr of his right hand, an event alluded to directly in Lokasenna, stanza 38. Loki is upbraiding Týr:

Shut up, Týr. You never knew how
To mediate something good between two people
Your right hand, that one will I mention
Which Fenrir tore from you.

“To mediate something good between two people” is the standard translation, but an attractive alternative, given what happens next, would be “to carry something well with two [hands].”

Snorri tells the myth twice in Gylfaginning. On the first occasion, he is describing Týr and cites the episode as a token of Týr’s bravery:

When the æsir enticed the wolf of Fenrir to permit the fetter to be put on him, then he did not believe that they would release him, until they placed the hand of Týr as a pledge in his mouth. And when the æsir were unwilling to release him, then he bit the hand off, where it is now called the “wolf’s joint” [wrist], and Týr is one-handed and not called a peacemaker.

A few pages later Snorri tells the full story. When the gods learned that Loki’s evil offspring with Angrboda were being raised in Jötunheimar, they discovered through prophecy that this brood would be trouble for them, and Odin had them brought to him. He cast the Midgard serpent into the sea and Hel into the world of the dead. For reasons that are unclear (because Odin had a connection with wolves? Because Loki was Odin’s blood brother?), the gods raised the wolf with them, and only Týr was brave enough to feed it. But when they saw how quickly it was growing and reconsidered the prophecies, they decided to bind the wolf. First they brought a great fetter called Lœding, but Fenrir allowed them to bind him with it and burst it with his first movements. Next the gods got a stronger fetter, Drómi, and following a thought process that in English is reflected in the proverb “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the wolf allowed them to bind him with that fetter and burst it into bits. For this reason, Snorri tells us, there are proverbs “to loose oneself from Lœding” and “to break out of Drómi;” neither, however, has left any other trace. The gods now turned to magic. Alfödr (Odin) sent Skírnir to the dwarfs to obtain a fetter, Gleipnir (perhaps “Entangler”), made from cat noise and woman beard and mountain roots and bear sinews and fish breath and bird spittle. On the island Lyngvi (Heathery) in the lake Ámsvartnir (Red-black), they invited the wolf to let himself be bound again. Needless to say, the wolf was suspicious. What renown could there be in bursting this fetter, which looked like a silken band? Fenrir stipulated that someone had to place a hand in his mouth.

And each of the æsir looked at another and thought that now their troubles had doubled, but none would put forth his hand, until Týr stretched forth his right hand and put it into the mouth of the wolf. And when the wolf moved, then the fetter hardened, and the more he struggled, the sharper it became. Then all the gods laughed except Týr; he lost his hand.

Lokasenna, stanzas 37-40, comprise an exchange between Týr and Loki. Loki boasts that Fenrir tore off Týr’s arm; Týr responds that although he may be missing his hand, Loki is missing Hródrsvitnir, that is, the famous wolf, Fenrir. Málsháttakvædi, a poem of the twelfth or thirteenth century and usually thought to have been composed in the Orkneys, is the only poem to refer to the binding of Fenrir. It has been argued that Týr and Fenrir appear on the eighth-century Alskog Tjängvide picture stone from Gotland.

Vafthrúdnismál gives information about the wolf’s further career. Toward the end of the poem Odin is asking about the aftermath of Ragnarök, and he poses this question to Vafthrúdnir:

Whence will come the sun into the smooth heaven,
After Fenrir has destroyed it?

In describing the sun and moon, Snorri says in Gylfaginning that the sun is ultimately to be swallowed by a wolf called Sköll. When he comes to Ragnarök, Snorri says simply that a wolf swallows the sun, and another the moon, and it is apparent that he regards neither of these as identical to Fenrir, for only after describing the swallowing of the sun and moon and a devastating earthquake does he report that Fenrir has gotten loose. But Fenrir’s subsequent action echoes the swallowing of the heavenly bodies, for he “goes about with a gaping mouth, and the lower jaw is on the earth and the upper against the sky—he would gape wider if there were room—fires burn from his eyes and nostrils.”

In the series of duels that make up the gods’ last stand against the forces of chaos, Odin fights with and is killed by Fenrir. Völuspá, stanza 53, reads:

Then the second sorrow of Hlín [Frigg] occurs,
When Odin goes to fight with the wolf.

Völuspá gives no details on Odin’s death, only on the subsequent vengeance:

Then comes the great son of Sigfather [Odin];
Vídar, to fight with the beast of battle;
For the son of Hvedrung, he makes stand with his hand
A sword in the heart; thus the father is avenged.

Hvedrung is surely Loki, since Ynglinga tal, stanza 32, refers to Hel as Hvedrung’s daughter. It is also to be found among the thulur as a word for giant, and, confusingly, as an Odin name.

Vafthrúdnismál, stanza 53, also tells of Odin’s death in the jaws of the wolf of Vídar’s vengeance. Odin has just asked Vafthrúdnir about Odin’s fate.

The wolf will swallow Aldafödr [Odin]
Vídar will avenge this;
The malevolent jaws he will cleave
At the death of the wolf.

Snorri agrees that Fenrir swallows Odin and goes on to describe the vengeance thus:

Immediately thereafter Vídar will come forth and put one foot on the lower jaw of the wolf.… With one hand he will take hold of the upper jaw of the wolf and tear apart his gullet, and that will be the death of the wolf.

Like his father Loki and his brother the Midgard serpent, then, Fenrir is a creature who spends time among the gods, is bound or cast out by them, and returns at the end of the current mythic order to destroy them, only to be destroyed himself as a younger generation of gods, one of them his slayer, survives into the new world order.

See also Hel; Midgard Serpent; Vídar

References and further reading:
  • The alternative translation o. Lokasenna, stanza 38, is discussed by Alfred Jakobsen, “Bera tilt með tveim: Til tolkning av Lokasenna 38,” Maal og minne, 1979: 34-39, reprinted in his Studier i norrøn filologi ([Trondheim:] Tapir, 1979), 43-48. On the Alskog Tjängvide picture stone from Gotland, see Karl Helm, “Zu den gotländischen Bildsteinen,” Beiträge zur deutschen Geschichte und Literatur 62 (1938): 357-361.
  • Copyright © 2001 by John Lindow

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