By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado Boulder
The worst of Loki’s affairs was with an anti-goddess who had the ominous name of ‘sorrow-offerer’, or Angerbotha. Each of Loki and Angerbotha’s children is foretold to bring harm to the gods—the huge wolf Fenrir, the goddess Hel, and the world-sized serpent that encircles mankind’s dwellings in the outer ocean and is known as Jormungand, or often simply as the Midgard-serpent.
Control by Gods
The gods learned that Loki and Angerbotha’s children were growing up in Jotunheimar, the homes of the anti-gods, and sent messengers to retrieve the children and bring them into the gods’ enclosure, Asgard.
Snorri tells us that the gods sent for these children in response to the prophecies that foretold these children would do the gods irreparable harm, such as the prophecy in the poem Voluspa. Presumably, the gods wished to have control over the fates of beings they were doomed to come into conflict with.
The Midgard-Serpent and Hel
When these three ill-prophesied children were brought before Odin, he first threw the huge serpent into the outer ocean. The serpent lies in wait out there, in the waves that surround our human realm, Midgard. Thus, it is usually called the Midgard-serpent.
Odin then threw Loki’s daughter Hel into Niflheim (the watery realm from the creation story). Niflheim will become her domain as queen of the dead, and it will be renamed Hel when it becomes her domain.
The Wolf Son, Fenrir
However, the biggest problem for the gods was with the wolf son of Loki, the enormous Fenrir. According to a prophecy well-known to the gods, this wolf would be the death of Odin at the final battle of Ragnarok.
And yet, the beginning of the wolf’s story is strangely peaceful, even domestic. “The gods fed the wolf at home,” says Snorri, sounding like he’s talking about a pet dog. Snorri does note that only the god Tyr had the courage to come close enough to give the wolf food who grew larger every day.
The Chain by the Dark Elves
The Aesir gods did fear the prophecies that foretold of the danger the wolf would cause, but they had brought the wolf within the enclosure of their realm Asgard, and they were unable to harm a living being once he or she had come inside there.
So the Aesir decided to try to restrain the wolf instead. They built a strong chain, and put it on the wolf. But the wolf was stronger than their chain, and he broke out of the chain with ease.
The gods then forged another chain that was stronger, but he broke free out of that one as well. Thus, failing to keep the wolf chained up on their own, the gods sent Frey’s messenger, Skirnir, to the so-called ‘dark elves’ to get them to make a chain strong enough to hold Fenrir.
They made their chain out of six things that don’t exist: the sound of a cat walking, a woman’s beard, a fish’s breath, a mountain’s roots, a bird’s spit, and a bear’s sinews.
This impossible chain, when complete, was as soft and thin as a thread of silk.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Marvelous Chain
With the marvelous chain in hand, the Aesir gods rowed out to the island in a small lake within their realm where they were keeping Fenrir. They showed the wolf the chain—or silk thread, as it magically appeared to be—and asked him to try breaking this one.
The wolf was, however, suspicious. He said, “Though it seems little, if this is done with cunning and treachery, that band won’t come on my feet.”
But the gods said surely the wolf would be able to break this little silk band, when he had broken iron chains before. They added: “…and if you can’t break this silk band, that proves you’re not someone for us to be afraid of, and we’ll release you.”
The wolf said, “Then let one of you put his hand in my mouth, as a pledge that this is not done with a false heart.”
Now the gods all looked sideways at one another, and none of them wanted to put his hand in the wolf’s mouth. But at length, Tyr stepped forward and put his right hand in the wolf’s jaws.
The gods then put the silk band on the wolf, and it got harder when Fenrir struggled against it, and harder still the longer he struggled to break it. The wolf was truly trapped.
Then all the Aesir laughed—except Tyr, who lost his hand.
Fenrir was now taken to a deep cave, and his chain fastened even deeper yet in the earth below. The wolf still tried to bite the gods through the whole process, but they shoved a sword into his jaws to prop his mouth open.
The saliva that flows from his open mouth, as he sits madly, eagerly anticipating his freedom at Ragnarok, is called ‘Hope’.
It tells us something about the characteristic Norse pessimism that, in all the stories of the Eddas, it is here, in the slavering madness of the wolf-killer of Odin, that we find the word hope.
Ironically, up till now, there is no indication from Fenrir’s actions or words that he actually means harm to Odin or any of the other gods. The wolf is apprehensive of the gods—and reasonably so, since they keep putting chains on him—but he plays along with them nonetheless.
Reacting to the Prophecy
So we might ask, did Fenrir have evil intent before evil was done to him? The question might not have meant anything to the Norse. Living in a culture with such rigid ideas of fate, Fenrir was going to kill Odin no matter how he was treated in his early days in Asgard.
And yet, perhaps, chaining him up so brutally makes his wrath that much worse. Maybe, in reacting to a prophecy, rather than merely accepting it, the Aesir gods only sharpened the wolf’s rage, and his teeth.
Common Questions about Fenrir, the Wolf Son of Loki
According to a prophecy well-known to the gods, the wolf, Fenrir, would be the death of Odin at the final battle of Ragnarok.
Failing to keep the wolf chained up on their own, the gods sent Frey’s messenger, Skirnir, to the so-called ‘dark elves’ to get them to make a chain strong enough to hold Fenrir.
The ‘dark elves’ made their chain out of six things that don’t exist: the sound of a cat walking, a woman’s beard, a fish’s breath, a mountain’s roots, a bird’s spit, and a bear’s sinews. This impossible chain, when complete, was as soft and thin as a thread of silk.