Mythology 102: Fenryr & Tyr

The Norse pseudo-god
Loki,
who is by turns
the friend
and the enemy
of the other gods,
had three fearfully hideous and strong children
with the giantess Angrboda
(“She Who Bodes Anguish”).

The meeting of Loki and the Jotun (giant) witch Angrboda



The first child
was the serpent Jormungand.


The second was
the death-goddess Hel.


The third was
the wolf Fenrir.


The gods had terrible forebodings
concerning the fate of these three beings.


And they were absolutely correct.



Jormungand would later
kill the god Thor during Ragnarok,
the downfall of the cosmos,
an event which would be
largely brought about by
Hel’s refusal to release
the radiant god Baldur
from the underworld.



During these cataclysmic events,
Fenrir would devour Odin,
the chief of the gods.

(Odin, of course,
saw all of this
already,
ahead of time.)

Odin hangs from the World Tree

So, in order to keep
these monsters at bay,
the gods threw Jormungand
into the ocean,
where he encircled Midgard,
the world of humankind.


Hel
they relegated
to the Underworld.



Fenrir,
however,
inspired too much fear in them
for them to let him out from
under their watchful eye(s).



So,
they reared the pup
themselves
in their stronghold, Asgard.


Only Tyr, the indefatigable upholder of law and honor
dared to approach Fenrir to feed him.

Fenrir grew at an alarming rate,
however,
and so soon the gods decided
that his stay in Asgard
had to be temporary.


Knowing
full well
how much devastation
Fenrir would cause
if he were allowed
to roam free,
the gods attempted to bind him
with various chains.


They were able
to gain the wolf’s consent
by telling him
that these fetters
were tests of his strength,
and clapping
and cheering
when with each new chain
they presented him,
he broke free.


At last,
the gods
sent a messenger
down to Svartalfheim,
the realm of the dwarves.


The dwarves,
being the most skilled craftspeople
in the cosmos,
were able to forge
a chain
whose strength
couldn’t be equaled.


It was wrought from:
the sound of a cat’s footsteps,
the beard of a woman,
the roots of mountains,
the breath of a fish,
and the spittle of a bird –
in other words,
things which don’t exist,
and against which
it’s futile to struggle.


Gleipnir (“Open”)
was its name.

So:
When the gods
presented Fenrir
with the curiously
light and supple Gleipnir,
the wolf suspected trickery
and refused to be bound with it.

Unless,
that is,
one of the gods
would lay
his or her hand
in Fenrir’s jaws
as a pledge
of good faith.

None of the gods agreed to it,
knowing that this would mean
the loss of a hand
and the breaking
of an oath.

At last,
the brave Tyr,
for the good of all life,
volunteered
to fulfill
the wolf’s
demand.



And,
sure enough,
when Fenrir
discovered
that he was unable
to escape from Gleipnir…..


…he chomped off and swallowed Tyr’s hand.



The fettered beast
was then transported
to some suitably lonely
and desolate place.



The chain
was tied to a boulder
and a sword

was placed in the wolf’s jaws
to hold them open.


As Fenrir howled
wildly and ceaselessly,
a foamy river called
“Expectation”
(Old Norse: Ván)
flowed from
his drooling mouth.


And there,
in that
sordid state,
he remained…


….until Ragnarok.

Tyr’s Character and Role In The Myth

Of all of the surviving Norse myths, this tale is the only one that prominently features Tyr. Without it, we wouldn’t understand Tyr’s character or role nearly as well as we can with the help of this myth.

Many people who have only a passing knowledge of Norse mythology think of Tyr as a war god.

That he certainly was, but virtually all of the Norse gods and goddesses had something or another to do with war. Tyr, like all of the other Norse war gods, was far more than only a war god.

This myth powerfully illustrates Tyr’s role as the divine legal expert and upholder of the law. In the words of the celebrated scholar of comparative religion Georges Dumézil, when Tyr sacrifices his hand, “he not only procures the salvation of the gods but also regularizes it: he renders legal that which, without him, would have been pure fraud.”

The gods had sworn an oath to Fenrir, and the guarantee of their intention to follow through with their pledge was Tyr’s hand (or arm – the percentage of the limb bitten off by Fenrir is irrelevant). When the gods didn’t follow through with their oath, Fenrir was entitled to Tyr’s hand as compensation. By allowing the wolf to claim his limb, Tyr fulfilled the gods’ end of the bargain, grisly and tragic though it was for him.

~ “The Binding Of Fenryr”, http://www.norse-mythology.org

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