Wolves occupied a very ambiguous place in Norse myth and thought. The best of dogs is said to be Garm, but everywhere else Garm is a wolf, and a dangerous one at that. Garm is the wolf that kills Tyr at Ragnarök, (Gylf. 51) and the similarly named Mánagarm devours the moon (and presumably Máni the moon-god):
Garm bays loudly before Gnipa-cave,
the rope will break and the ravener run free,
much wisdom she knows, I see further ahead
to the terrible doom of the fighting gods.
(Völuspá 44, Larrington’s trans.)
The ash Yggdrasil, this is the foremost of trees, and Skíðblaðnir of ships, Oðin of the Aesir, of horse Slepnir, Bifröst of bridges, and Bragi of poets, Habrok of hawks, and of dogs Garm.
(Faulkes, Gylf. p. 34)
It is true that only Snorri mentions the encounter with Tyr, but the name Garm does appear in many kennings for wolf, which suggests it was well-known. That Garm is included in the list Oðin gives (under torture) of the best things and people is odder, since everything else in it seems to be pretty uncontroversial. Bifröst probably is the best of bridges, and Yggdrasil of trees.
It becomes even more puzzling if you think, as Rudolf Simek does, that Garm is a version of the Fenris Wolf. This creature, one of Loki’s three children by the giantess Angrboða, is a truly dangerous beast, and at Ragnarök it will not only kill Oðin but will also, according to Snorri, “go with mouth agape and its upper jaw will be against the sky and its lower one against the earth.”1 (Gylf. 51) Some identify Garm with the hound guarding the way to Hel in Baldrs draumar, but the poem itself does not give a name. But if the Norse Cerberus was Garm, it would fit nicely with his dangerous nature.
Feeding and Fettering the Wolf
The most famous myth about Fenrir, of course, is the binding of the wolf, and the consequences it has for Tyr. This seems to have been a well-known myth, as there are depictions of it on rune-stones as well as more literary sources.2 The best-known is probably Snorri’s version, which is very interesting for the way it depicts the wolf.
In the Gylfaginning telling, Fenrir comes off a bit “noble savage”, considering the innocent-looking fetter they present him with to be an insufficient challenge, and asking them outright if there is magic or trickery involved. (The Æsir had told him the fetter is a test of his strength.) They lie and say no, but in the end the god Tyr puts his right hand in the wolf’s mouth as a pledge of good faith.
Fenrir is bound, and when he cannot get free, he knows he has been lied to, and bites off Tyr’s hand. As Snorri puts it: “Then they all laughed, except Tyr. He lost his hand.” (Gylf. 34.) (For another view on Tyr and the loss of his hand, see the Hail Loki! blog.)
The fetter holds, of course, and will do so until Ragnarök, when Fenrir will break free and devour Oðin. Fenrir’s fate parallels that of his father, Loki, who is also bound by the gods and will break free at Ragnarök. Further, both spent time amongst the gods as if they were one of them.
Loki seems to have been accorded the status of a god, while Fenrir may have been a hostage like Njörð. That would accord with the treatment he was given until the gods decided he was growing too powerful and needed to be bound. (Loki’s binding is also the result of excess, in his case of malice.)
Garm, too, will be bound until the end, by whom or how is unknown, at Gneipa-hellir, which means something like Overhanging-Cave or Mountain-Cave. At Ragnarök he will come forth and fight Tyr to the death, according to Gyfl. 51.
The gods’ motivation for binding Fenrir is worth examining more closely. Snorri tells us that he was growing in size and strength daily, and his appetite was such that only Tyr was brave enough to bring it food. So we have the greedy, ravening part of the wolf mythos here – see Oðin’s two pet wolves, Geri and Freki, whose names both mean “Greedy”.
Their other reason was that Fenrir’s kin, the World Serpent and Hel, were clearly very dangerous and needed to be contained for their own good, so Fenrir was presumably equally in need of some sort of fettering.
Snorri comments: “they [the Æsir] all felt evil was to be expected from them, to begin with because of their mother’s nature, but still worse because of their father’s”. (Gylf. 34) It is interesting that they did not fear the giant nature the three got from Angrboða as much as they feared Loki’s heritage.
Usually when an As and a giantess have children, the result is a strong god like Þor (Oðin and Jorð) or his son Magni (with Þrud), or a royal ancestor like Fjölnir (Gerd and Frey). But, when Loki and Angrboða get together, their three children are monsters.
Presumably Loki’s anomalous nature is to blame, as he is already half-giant, despite being “counted among” the Æsir. (Gylf. 33) Note that this is not the same as being one of them. His children are yet another indicator of his inner monstrosity, despite being “pleasing and handsome in appearance”. (Gylf. 33)
It was proverbial in Norse thought that wolves turned on their own. In the Eddic poem Hamdismál, when the two brothers are about to fall out, one says:
‘I don’t think it is for us to follow the wolves’ example
and fight among ourselves, like the dogs of the norns,
reared up the wilderness, those greedy beasts.’
(Ham. 29, Larrington’s trans.)
This occurs in nature: Valerius Geist has written a paper to show that wolves, programmed by nature to rise up in the pack hierarchy, will kill even their own parents and siblings.
Campbell says that the breaking of social and familial bonds predicted in Völuspá leads to Loki and Fenrir breaking free, and he thinks the one is a direct result of the other. Both father and son avenge themselves on the gods, who despite in one case being blood-brothers and in the other having taken Fenrir in and raised him amongst them, deceived him.3
He points out that the idea of binding, of bonds, can be both positive and negative, in the sense of the bonds between people, and contractual relationships on the one hand, and on the other bonds in the sense that fetter both Loki and Fenrir.
On the positive side, the gods themselves are sometimes referred to as “bonds” (in Haustlöng 3, Oðin is called hapta snytrir, “educator of the fetters [gods]”), but Oðin is also known as the “fetter-god” because of his power to bind the enemy on the battlefield, thus ensuring victory to his chosen side.
Simek’s discussion of Haptaguð brings out this ambiguity: it could mean either a god who binds or one who releases bonds, and also his position as the main god, “the god who binds by his divine laws”.4 This idea comes through in Oðin’s by-names:
Haptaguð fetter god
Haptsónir fetter loosener
Hrammi fetterer, ripper
Going back to the idea of familial bonds, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen has suggested that Snorri’s version of the mythology is dialectical – based on the idea of opposing forces confronting and interacting with each other. Thus the world is born from fire and ice, and “the fathers of the gods are themselves gods, but their mothers are giants”.5
Since Loki reverses this, he is destined to bring grief; Oðin tries to neutralize him by blood-brotherhood. Loki’s children with Angrboða, however, are too monstrous to be incorporated, but kinship means they cannot be summarily killed.
Wolves in the Family
Loki’s blood-brotherhood with Oðin is ironic, if you consider what the bond entailed:
…two or more men mixed their blood together in the earth and swore oaths to avenge each other as though they were brothers (see Fóstrœđra saga 2: 125, Gísla saga 6: 22 – 24).6
So Oðin has sworn to protect the rađbani who causes his son’s death, and Loki in turn betrays his oath first by his involvement in Baldr’s death, and then when his own son devours his blood-brother, Oðin.
The genealogical issue becomes more pressing if we accept that another name for Fenrir is Hröðrsvitnir, as in Lokasenna 39.7 Then the wolf that swallows the sun, Hati Hróðvitnisson, would be Fenrir’s son. We could wonder, with John Lindow, exactly how Fenrir, who was bound at an early age, managed to sire Hati, but it is clear that Loki’s children become more monstrous with each generation.8 Snorri is of two minds about the other wolves, since in Gylf. 11 he says that Mánagarmr (Moon-Eater) is the same as Fenrir, but in Gylf. 50 he names the wolves pursuing the heavenly bodies as Sköll (sun) and Hati (moon).
Snorri also thinks that all wolves are descended from Fenrir, or at least from Fenrir and his brothers or half-brothers. As his mouthpiece, High, tells Gangleri:
‘An ogress lives to the east of Midgard in the forest called Jarnvid [Iron Wood]. The troll women who are called the Jarnvidjur [the Iron Wood Dwellers] live in that forest. The old ogress bore many giant sons, all in the likeness of wolves, and it is from here that these wolves come. It is said that the most powerful of this kin will be the one called Managarm [Moon Dog].’
(Gylf. 12, Byock)
Since we know that “the old ogress” is Angrboða, Fenrir is meant to be the ancestor of the wolves, with Loki behind him as the ultimate ancestor of these wolves/giants.
The ravening nature of these wolves was taken for granted, proverbial.9 We are told that Fenrir will literally devour Oðin, and run with his mouth agape, devouring all things on earth, his jaws touching heaven above and the ground below. Hati and Sköll will devour the sun and moon, no easy feat either. And we already know that Fenrir’s prodigious appetite was one of the signs that the Æsir should bind him.
Thus it is no surprise that when the gods sought to bind Loki, they chose to turn one of his sons into a wolf, and after he had disembowelled his brother, they bound Loki with his own son’s guts. It is also fitting from another point of view: Baldr was killed by his own brother, to the great grief of his father, now one of Loki’s sons will murder the other, and he will also suffer unending torment.10 (And neither father can have the satisfaction of blood for blood without attacking their own family.)
That Loki’s “normal”, human sons are transformed into monsters seems like a sort of verdict on all his family. One can picture the Æsir saying that any child of Loki’s always was a monster on the inside. (Also, Loki being at least half-giant, his children with the goddess Sigyn recreate the pattern of his parents, the full giant Fárbauti and the mysterious Laufey, whom many think is a goddess. The verdict: mixed marriages don’t work.)
Extimité and the Wolf-God
Carolyne Larrington and Rasmus Kristensen have some interesting ideas about this. Larrington refers to extimité, which Jeffrey Cohen defined in Monster Culture as “intimate alterity” meaning that the Other (Monster) is both close to human and recognizably Other, not human.11 (Frankenstein’s Monster is a good example – if he were less like us, he would be less horrifying.)
Loki’s brood are all monstrous, but they are related by his blood-brotherhood to the Æsir, and, further, through the fact that the giants and the gods are kin, whether either side likes it or not.
Kristensen makes this point well in his paper “Why was Oðinn Killed by Fenrir?” He analyzes the familial connections between the gods and giants and concludes that the main difference between them is a purely cultural one, created by the efforts of the gods themselves.
Their slaying of Ymir to make the world, the building of walls for Asgarð, and putting a boundary around Miðgarð, all of these actions, as well as the other raids and attacks on giants, serve to separate the gods’ ordered space from the chaotic space of the giants. Thus in the end, the force that built the cosmos, Oðin (with his brothers’ assistance), faces off against the devouring wolf Fenrir, who has come to destroy it.12
Some have taken this idea even further – “Indeed, the various lupines described by Snorri may have been aspects of a conflated super-predator, and Oðin together with Loki and Fenrir may have been different facets of an amalgamated outlaw deity: a ‘binder wolf god’.13
The association of the wolf with outlaws, death and battle certainly suggests a link with Oðin, as does his two pets Geri and Freki, and his by-names of Hildolf (Battle-wolf) and Jolfr (horse-wolf, bear).
Further, Oðin is called the Hanged God, Hroptatýr, and the gallows was the warg-tree, or wolf/outlaw tree. He had a warg hanging over the western door of Valhalla (Grim. 10), and himself was hanged for nine nights on Yggdrasil.
“Oðin differs ideologically from other binder gods in his essential amorality: he delights in strife between kinsmen and urges men to break their vows.”14 Gerstein’s putting it a little strongly, perhaps, but characters in the sagas, as well as Loki in Lksn. 22, put similar charges to Oðin, including Starkaðr, who dies in such an ironic manner.
As for Loki, his inner wolfishness is manifest in his children, and the way he turned on the gods, who regarded him as one of them (even if they had a funny way of showing it sometimes). Both Mary Gerstein and Folke Ström consider Fenrir the “trollish” form of Loki.15
Gerstein, as I mentioned, makes a case for Oðin as part of an older wolf-deity. You may regard this as a bit of a reach, but there is definitely a connection between Oðin and wolves. And there are various other associations between battle-gods and super-predators: a skull fragment from Ribe in Denmark was inscribed ‘ulfur / auk / uthin / auk / huttiur’, “the wolf and Oðin and High Tyr”, an odd line-up.16
I suppose the connection is that Tyr loses his hand, and Oðin his life, to the wolf. It goes to underline, however, the close conceptual connection between the two gods, especially Oðin, and the wolf.
As Płuskowski points out, Oðin is the ultimate wolf-feeder. The food served to him goes to his two pet wolves, Geri and Freki (Gylf. 38), and as god of battle he provides the dead men that the wolves and ravens (his other pets) feast on. Finally, at Ragnarök Fenrir will devour him.17 There is always an awareness of irony in Norse myths and sagas, and surely this is one of the bitterest ironies of all.
1. Faulkes: 53. All quotes from Gylfaginning are from Faulkes unless otherwise specified.↩
2. Płuskowski 2006: 159.↩
3. Campbell 2009: 2-3.↩
4. Simek: 1996: 130.↩
5. Meulengracht Sørensen 2002: 132.↩
6. Andersson and Miller 1989: 21.↩
7. Lindow 2001: 143-4.↩
8. Lindow 2001:144.↩
9. Campbell, 2014: 3.↩
10. http://www.thetroth.org/Lore/The%20Bound%20God.pdf: 13-4.↩
11. https://is.cuni.cz/studium/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=67370&kod=ARL100258: 4.↩
12. Kristensen: 165.↩
13. Płuskowski : 157.↩
14. Gerstein: 143.↩
15. Gerstein: 144.↩
16. Płuskowski 2006: 157.↩
17. Płuskowski 2006: 157.↩
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
Andersson, Theodore and Ian William Miller 1989: Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland: ‘Ljosvetninga saga’ and ‘Valla-Ljots saga’, Stanford University Press.
Campbell, Dan 2014: “Feeding the Wolf: The Theme of Restraint, and its Lack, in the Mythology of Fenrir”, Odroerir: The Heathen Journal II, Aug. 2014. (pdf here)
Gerstein, Mary Roche 1972: Warg: the Outlaw as Werewolf in Germanic Myth, Law and Medicine, University of California, L.A., Phd. Diss.
Kristensen, Rasmus Tranem, 2007: “Why was Ođinn Killed By Fenrir? A Structural Analysis of Kinship Structures in Old Norse Myths of Creation and Eschatology”, in Reflections on Old Norse Myths, Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavian, eds. P. Hermann, J.P. Schjødt, and R. Kristensen: 149-69.
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Płuskowski, Aleskander 2006: Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben 2002: ‘Þórr’s Fishing Expedition’, in The Poetic Edda: A Casebook, eds. P. Acker and C. Larrington, New York and London: Routledge: 121-37.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
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Very detailed post. I’ve always felt that Odin himself was a bit wolfish. He’s definitely not to be trusted.
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Glad to see someone else feels like that Sorry I didn’t reply earlier, but I’m still figuring this whole blog thing out.
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