~ Gerald Hausman
Mythology contains many bound deities. Our heathen stories contain two bound entities, Loki and his son Fenrir. I won’t write on Loki, much has been written regarding this perplexing God. I won’t write on bound Gods in general; that would encompass a book. This essay concerns Fenrir, a virtually overlooked being within the Nordic pantheon. Fenrir is a son of Loki and Angrboda. Typically known as Fenrir (Fen-dweller), he is also known as Fenrisúlfr (Fenris Wolf), Hróðvitnir (Fame-Wolf), or Vánagandr (The monster of the river Ván). He is the sire to the wolves Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson who chase the sun and moon around the earth until the time of Ragnarok when they will swallow the bodies respectively.
Fenrir’s story from the Prose Edda, in brief, is as follows. The Aesiric Gods had knowledge of prophecies concerning great trouble due to Fenrir. The day came that they went to Jotunheim and took him along with his sister Hela and sibling Jormungand. Hela and Jormungand were sent to other realms but Fenrir was kept locked away to be cared for by Tyr.
Fenrir continued to grow till the Aesir feared him greatly. After several failed attempts, they ultimately created a fetter named Gleipner made of the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird. He was tricked into the bind as Tyr promised no harm would come if he allowed them to put it on and as a show of good faith Fenrir asked that Tyr place his hand in his mouth. Of course, the binding worked and captured the wolf who then bit off Tyr’s hand for the deception.
The Aesir then took a string called Gelgja(fetter) and tied that to a rock called Gjöll (screaming or resounding). They then took a rock called Thvti (hitter, batterer) and used this as an anchor to hold Gjöll even more firmly. Fenrir reacted and began trying to bite his captors who impaled his muzzle into the ground with a sword. The saliva that streams from his mouth has become the river Van (hope).
Interestingly, Gjöll is also the name for one of the eleven rivers that make up the Élivágar (ice flow) which originate from the wellspring of Hvergelmir. These rivers were in existence at the beginning of time and flow through the Ginnungagap into the rest of creation.
Wolves appear in mythology and folklore around the world. These tales and symbologes have been passed down to modern man and resultantly our thoughts on Fenrir. Wolves have coexisted with man for thousands of years. Each culture reflected their views of this association into their own cultural paradigm. Today wolves are often viewed negatively but this has probably not always been the case.
The importance of the wolf likely began in Neolithic times as man began coordinating their ability to hunt. Wolves and their pack and hunting behaviors were something to be emulated, something to model themselves upon. As time went on wolves were invited into tribal units and became allies in hunting. They were positive symbols of loyalty, were revered, and considered brothers or guides. Mythos that reveres the wolf includes the Altaic mythology of the Turks and Mongols. Some of the Turkic legends, such as the legend of Asena, even postulate that their people are descended from wolves. Chechen lore about wolves is very positive; wolves are portrayed as either an embodiment of their own people or as a loving ‘Wolf Mother’. Several Native American Indian tribes such as the Nanamiut, the Naskapi, the Pawnee, and the Tanaina viewed wolves positively.
The Romans noted the wolves loyalty to their pack and their ability to mother and celebrated this in their tale of Romulus and Remis. These were twins ordered to be killed by their uncle. The servant instead placed them on a riverbank; the river rose and took them downstream to where they were ultimately adopted by the female wolf known as Lupa. The twins survived and eventually became the founders of Rome. There is also an Irish legend of a king suckled by a wolf and of course, we all are familiar with Kipling’s tale of Mowgli.
Cultures, such as the Finnish, viewed the wolf as destructive. Wolves are symbols of desolation and excessive, wasteful consumption. Their very name, susi, means useless while their byname hukka means punishment, damnation, and annihilation. The Tsilhqot'in Indians believed association with wolves would cause insanity while the Navaho believed witches called Mai-cob dressed in wolves clothing.
Christianity has probably had the most influence on wolves being considered in a negative light. The Bible has numerous references to wolves as greedy and destructive. They are an enemy of flocks and symbolic of evil men, power lust, and gain by dishonesty. The mythos and attitudes of this religion have had far ranging consequences. St. Francis of Assisi, however, does have a tale of befriending a murderous wolf by the power of the cross. He noted the wolf only committed evil out of hunger and so convinced the villagers to feed the wolf and no harm was further done.
Fenrir plays a large role in some of the most important Nordic myths. I’ve outlined his tale from the Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda. The same book also discusses his role in the events of Ragnarök when his children will swallow the sun and the moon and the stars will disappear from the sky. All binds will snap and Fenriswolf will be free and will join the battle on the field of Vígríðr (battle-surge). There, the prophecy foretold long before will be borne out. Fenris will meet and devour Odin after which he himself will be killed by Odin’s son Víðarr. In this light, wolves would be considered an enemy of devouring, of destruction.
Fenrir is also mentioned in the poem Völuspá, and in two stanzas of the poem Vafþrúðnismál. In the first his birth is recognized and his subsequent role in the killing of Odin. In the second it is Fenrir that is mentioned to swallow the sun but fortunately the sun has borne a daughter who will continue on in her stead. He is also mentioned in the Skáldskaparmál, the Heimskringla, and Háttatal in much the same light.
Many people, in light of the lore, merely ascribe the symbol of Fenrir to be that of hate and destruction. It is considered good to bind these features that exist within all of us, to keep them under control. This fits into the Nordic and Christian mythos of the wolf well and to a point, I agree.
However I believe there to be more, far more to Fenrir. This surface explanation of Fenrir being hate and destruction rings as incomplete, not true enough. To just apply hate, destruction, and their needed fettering to his symbolism is an easy way out of actually dealing with the issues – far too easy for our ever so complex mythos. We can’t forget that the river Van flows from his jaws.
Wolves may feature in our myths, our history and our dreams, but they have their own future, their own loves, their own dreams to fulfill.
I now begin to veer away from direct loric application of symbolism to the Fame-Wolf. To explain this last I need to relate a meditation I had. Fenrir had come, he took me to something similar to a stone tower. Within, it was simply but beautifully furnished with rough hewn woods, plenty of red velvet coverings, steel or silver trappings about. Set within the circular walls were many vicious looking iron spikes all pointing in. I looked at them, he shrugged and said, ‘Many don’t like me.’
We talked for a time and he suddenly looked up as though listening and then bounded up some stairs. He cried out, ‘Come, come quick!’ I ran up the stairs after him and he pointed me to a circular window that seemed as though a lens. Through this lens I saw two stars heading towards each other and they collided with a brilliant beauty I will never forget. I looked at Fenrir, he looked at me with such joy and wonder. I realized this scene was a gift.
The meditation ended then. I often thought about that event, what I saw there. To Fenrir, death and destruction WAS beauty. It was a chilling thought, one I quickly wanted to set aside. At this time I am glad I didn’t turn away from this conceptual stream.
The concept and the absolute beauty/horror of what I had seen continued to tick through my mind for several months. One day, I was driving home from work and my mind touched on this again. Suddenly everything crystallized.
Now, this may only make sense to someone like me who has in their career helped well over a hundred people pass on. I’m an RN who has worked AIDS units, oncology and transplant floors, high level ICUs. Death abounds. Death in and of itself isn’t to be feared, it is a part of the progress of life. I’m not talking of the cold existence of death; for me that is more Hela’s realm. I’m speaking of our conceptualization of death.
I realized that moment there is a singular beauty in death. We as a people need to acknowledge this. Death is a passage on, a change, a different sort of birth. Beauty can be found within its realm. My father died on hospice care. We didn’t hire nurses, my mother and I stood by his side for the year he was actively dying. My young children helped in his care. His death, though sad, was a good death. It was a death of beauty, surrounded by his wife of nearly 50 years, his children, and the sound of his grandchildren’s laughter.
This is the bittersweet beauty we can and should seek out. We should honor death, find a place of peace at its side. Modern man has removed death from our homes, relegated it to dark corners in nursing homes and hospitals, transferring the tending of death to nurses and other caretakers. We have separated ourselves from it and so shun and fear death and anything to do with the concept. Death needs to be brought back into the home, into that circle of love that only family can provide. Therein lies its beauty if we only look and accept. Therein lies hope for our own lives.
This applies to the death of our world at the time of Ragnarök. All living things come to an end and so will the Earth. As I believe mythology to be a symbolism, our end may be a meteor, the sun may burn out, or we may cause a nuclear holocaust. Somehow, our world will be destroyed. However, we can realize we aren’t alone. Beings like Fenrir are present that can help clean up the mess, swallow that burnt out sun providing room for the daughter of the sun to shine. Old Gods will go with dignity and heroism making way for new Gods and a new world wherein they can provide for the new bloom of humanity, a new age of innocence. Without all of the beings within the mythos playing their perspective roles this can’t happen. I am not eager for Ragnarök. But it will come and, just as a dying relative, I will not relegate the end of this cycle and the transition into new to a dark mental corner. I will find the beauty and grace in their death, I will play my role in their cycle which infringes upon mine.
I’m not proffering that everyone should go out and begin worshipping Fenrir. I am suggesting that his role in the mythology be examined more closely. All beings within the Northern mythos have multiple aspects and sides. Just as the Allfather encompasses not only war and death but inspiration and creation, just as Loki is not only a thief but a gift giver, Fenrir can provide wisdom and insights of beauty. Even just heavy meditation on his dichotomy against the Allfather will be of value. The meanings of Fenrir has been cast into the closet long enough. Every village should have at least one who has considered Fenrir and what he has to teach about rage, control, despair, and finding the beauty and hope in death. These concepts shouldn’t be avoided, they should be learned from as they impact all.
It is not the child who fears the darkness that should be feared, but rather the man who fears the light.