Who is Fenrir?
Fenrir is a giant wolf who lurked in the background of Norse culture, waiting for the day when he would be set free to devour as many of the Norse gods as possible.
Fenrir is a super-sized wolf. At birth, he was already considered a threat to the gods, and as he grew, it became clear that he would turn into a jotunn, or giant, among wolves.
As an adolescent, Fenrir was so large that the drool and foam which spill from his mouth formed a river. When he reached his terrible adult size, his jaws were so large that they reached from the ground to the sky when he opened them.
When Fenrir was just a pup, prophets began to predict that he would spread chaos and destruction through the Nine Worlds. The potential for evil was always there, but the gods themselves might have been responsible for fulling Fenrir’s heart with hatred and rage.
At a young age, Fenrir was a vain creature. He liked to show off his size and strength, and he took several risks to show the gods how powerful he was. He was also clever. He realized that the gods saw him as an enemy, rather than a friend, and that they would destroy him if they had the chance.
Eventually, the gods succeeded in binding Fenrir to a boulder—a decision that made him into the terrible enemy they had always feared. For eons, Fenrir brooded over the gods’ cruelty and dreamed of revenge. His dark thoughts and solitude drove him mad. When he finally managed to break his bonds, he was evil incarnate. He destroyed everything in his path, having no mercy left in his warped heart.
Fenrir had an ability that made him almost impossible to defeat: limitless growth. By the time the gods realized this, Fenrir had already grown to a monstrous size. None of the gods dared to attack him outright, so they decided to try to restrain him instead. Unfortunately, Fenrir’s unlimited strength meant that he would someday outgrow his restraints, no matter how strong they were, and break loose to wreak revenge on the gods.
Fenrir was fathered by Loki, the god of chaos. Undoubtedly, he god his shrewd intelligence and his taste for rebellion from his father. His mother was Angrbooa, a giantess of the jotunn race, who were sworn enemies of the gods. From Angrbooa, the wolf inherited his limitless growth and hatred of the gods.
Unfortunately for the gods, Loki and Angrbooa had two other children—Fenrir’s brother, Jormungandr, and his sister, Hel. Jormungandr was a giant serpent, who the gods banished to the sea. Hel was given a better position. She was made goddess of the underworld, Niflheim, and was allowed to interact with the other gods from time to time.
Fenrir also had two sons of his own, Skoll, a wolf so large that he could swallow the sun, and Hati Hroovitinission, who could swallow the moon.
Although Fenrir doesn’t appear in very many Norse stories, he still plays a hugely important role in the fate of the gods.
When Fenrir was young, prophecies began to emerge about him and Loki’s other children. According to the prophets, Loki’s children would fight against the gods during Ragnarok, the apocalypse that would destroy Aesir, the kingdom of the gods. Fenrir’s role in Ragnarok was particularly terrifying; he was expected to swallow Odin, the ruler of the gods.
Of course, the gods of Aesir did everything they could to prevent—or at least delay—these prophecies from coming true. They banished Jormungandr and Hel, but Fenrir was already too powerful to be banished.
At first, the gods tried to raise Fenrir as one of them, hoping that they could win his loyalty. But their efforts were undermined by their true feelings towards Fenrir. They were so terrified of the wolf that only one of them, Tyr, the god of justice, would approach him to give him food.
As Fenrir continued to grow, the gods gave up on befriending him and decided to try to trap him instead.
They began forging chains to hold Fenrir, but they knew better than to trust the strength of these chains. They decided to present the shackles to Fenrir as a game, an opportunity to let him show his strength. Sure enough, when they put the shackles on the wolf, he broke them with one kick.
Hiding their disappointment, the gods congratulated Fenrir for his strength and began forging a new set of chains. They put their finest materials and their best talent to use, but when they asked Fenrir to try the chains, he easily broke them too.
Now, the gods realized that they were no match for Fenrir. They decided to hire dwarves from the land of Svartalfaheimr to forge the chain that would trap Fenrir. The dwarves agreed, since Fenrir also posed a threat to their own world. They used six mythical ingredients —
the sound of a cat’s feet, the roots of a mountain, a bear’s sinews, a woman’s beard, a fish’s breath, and a bird’s spit
— to create Gleipnir, a magical, indestructible chain that looked as light and delicate as silk.
The gods invited Fenrir to the island of Lyngvi for one last test of his strength. Fenrir arrived, full of confidence, but when he saw Gleipnir, he suspected that there was a trick.
“It looks to me that I will gain no fame from tearing apart such a slender band, but if it is made with art and trickery, then even if it does look thin, it is not going on my legs,”
the wolf told the gods.
Nevertheless, the gods assured Fenrir that he could easily break the “slender band,” and if he couldn’t, he would be considered no threat to them and set free.
Fenrir was not convinced. He replied,
“If you bind me so that I am unable to release myself, then you will be standing by in such a way that I should have to wait a long time before I got any help from you. I am reluctant to have this band put on me. But lest you question my courage, let someone put his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith.”
Now, the gods were in a bad position. They knew that Fenrir could not escape Gleipnir, and when he realized he was trapped, he would be enraged and bite off the hand that was in his mouth.
Finally, Tyr stepped forward and put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth.
The other gods hurried to bind Fenrir’s legs, before Tyr or the wolf could change their minds. When it was done, Fenrir tried to break the band. It remained strong. He tried again, pulling with all his might against the delicate fabric. Still, it remained. Then the wolf howled with rage and ripped Tyr’s hand from his arm.
As Tyr bled and Fenrir howled, the other gods secured Gleipnir to a boulder, so that Fenrir was trapped on the island. Then they shoved a sword into the wolf’s jaws, so that he had to stop his terrible howling. At last, they fled the island, leaving Fenrir to endure hundreds of years of misery.
Despite the gods’ best efforts to disable Fenrir, the wolf’s prophecy proved to be even stronger than the dwarvish shackles around his feet.
At the beginning of Ragnarok, Fenrir’s brother, Jormungandr, caused the earth to shake and the mountains to crumble. The boulder to which Fenrir was tied was pulverized, and he shredded the band that had restrained him for so long.
By this time, the wolf had grown to an unimaginable size. When he opened his jaws, one rested on the ground and the other reached into the heavens. He thundered across the earth with his jaws open, swallowing anything that came into his path—including the god Odin.
Fenrir’s two sons, Skoll and Hati Hroovitinission, followed their father on his rampage. They ate up the sun, the moon, the stars, and even time itself, plunging Aesir into chaos.
Out of this chaos, Odin’s son, Vioarr emerged to put an end to Fenrir. He wore a magical shoe, which allowed him to step into the wolf’s mouth without being swallowed. Standing on his bottom jaw, he reached up, seized the top jaw, and ripped the wolf apart.
Fenrir appears in the most ancient, written accounts of Norse culture: the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Voluspa. He can also be seen on runestones dating back to the eleventh century.
In the early 1900s, Fenrir appeared in some paintings and poems inspired by Norse culture. However, he has rarely been mentioned outside of the context of Norse culture. One notable exception is JK Rowling’s Fenrir Greyback, a werewolf in the Harry Potter series who was known for his ferocious appetite.