Ragnarok, the Viking version of armageddon, is a prophecy that has a number of major players in it. One of the most famous of these is Fenrir, the giant wolf. The first son of the trickster god Loki and the giant Angrboda, and the brother to the goddess Hel and the world serpent Jormundgand, Fenrir is destined to devour Odin and then to be killed by Odin’s son Vidar at this last battle. Of course the legend of how Fenrir became such a force of destruction, and how he was bound, are the chief points of his mythology.
Loki was told by prophecy that if he had a union with the giantess Angrboda that the union would result in monsters. Never one for good sense, Loki followed his instincts rather than advice, and thus was born the famous three children. The other gods knew of the prophecy, and though Hel was cast into Nifleheim and Jormundgand into the ocean, Fenrir was brought back to Asgard to be watched since he was still a puppy and not yet a threat. In Asgard the responsibility of watching and caring for Fenrir fell to Tyr the noble god of war.
According to the heathen mythology, Fenrir grew large and strong. He was quickly more powerful than even the mighty Thor or his children Modi and Magni, and Fenrir also grew more aggressive and arrogant to match. The gods, fearing to fight the gigantic wolf, challenged him to a test of strength. If Fenrir was truly so strong, then surely he could burst the strongest chains. Unfortunately, once bound, Fenrir had to do little more than flex before he sundered the strongest chains that the gods could create. So, while keeping up the facade of congratulating Fenrir the gods secretly went to the dwarves, who fashioned so many of their great tools and treasures.
The dwarves, whether out of pride, fear or a genuine desire to be helpful forged Gleipnir. This bond was a ribbon that appeared flimsy, but it was made of bizarre properties. In this ribbons was the beard of a woman, the hunting step of a cat, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird. It was, for all intents and purposes, unbreakable. It was just a question of how to get the ribbon onto the monster.
The gods proposed to use the same strategy. Being the son of the god of mischief though, Fenrir knew a trap when he saw one and demanded one of the gods leave their hand in his mouth as insurance. Tyr stepped up and offered his right hand as Gleipnir was bound about Fenrir. Of course he didn’t burst free, and the price was that the wolf bit off Tyr’s hand. The great wolf was then bound a mile beneath the earth with a sword in his jaws until the day he would break free to war with the gods.
Fenrir poses an interesting study in symbolism as well. The wolf is a symbol of strength and power, and it was often used by the berserker, who were considered to be the chosen warriors of Odin and occasionally to be werewolves as well. Odin is also attended by two wolves who are signs of strength. Additionally the valkyries, including their leader the goddess Freya rode giant wolves to choose the slain warriors or to ride the Wild Hunt. However, wolves were also one of the most feared predators by the pagan Vikings because they were canny, vicious and were viewed with a supernatural reverence. While symbols of strength, the wolf is also a symbol of destruction of civilization (as wolves prey on herds and animals that are the livelihood of farmers), and they have many meanings in the Asatru faith. Fenrir represents one extreme, that of chaos and destruction, and Odin represents that strength and power used to help hold civilization in place. One reason that Odin is symbolically eaten by Fenrir at the last battle, while Thor is off slaying Jormundgand and Frey is burning to death as he strangles the king of the fire giants.
“Fenrir,” by Michael F. Lindemans at Pantheon
“Fenrir,” by Anonymous at Godchecker