“I am reluctant to have this band put on me. But rather than that you question my courage, let someone put his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith. But all the Æsir looked at each other and found themselves in a dilemma and all refused to offer their hands until Týr put forward his right hand and put it in the wolf’s mouth. And now when the wolf kicked, the band grew harder, and the harder he struggled, the tougher became the band. Then they all laughed except for Týr. He lost his hand.”
To modern sensibilities, the binding of the wolf Fenrir can seem cruel and unfair: a self-fulfilling prophecy that turns the wolf into the gods’ slavering enemy because of how they treat him. But such an interpretation overlooks the symbolic value of the wolf in Norse mythology and the social mores reinforced by the wolf’s binding. Setting aside questions about the gods’ morality, the binding of Fenrir shows the restraint required to maintain the reciprocal social bonds that support and protect the common good. The tale shows the price that individuals must pay to gain, and keep, the benefits of kinship and common cause.
In Snorri Sturluson’s tale of the binding of Fenrir, the chief reason given for the Æsir’s actions is a mix of prophecy and Fenrir’s innate character:
“And when the gods realized that these three siblings [Hel, Jörmungandr, and Fenrir] were being brought up in Giantland, and when the gods traced the prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them, then they 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 [Loki].”
A simple interpretation of this statement, and of references to Fenrir in eddic and skaldic poetry, would be that the Æsir bind Fenrir because he is kin to their enemies among the giants and will play a critical role in the destruction of all things at Ragnarök. What moves the Æsir to bind Fenrir is the wolf’s appetite, a characteristic that links him to the underlying symbolism of the wolf in Norse myth and literature:
“The Æsir brought up the wolf at home, and it was only Týr who had the courage to approach the wolf and give it food. And when the gods saw how much it was growing each day and all prophecies foretold that it was destined to cause them harm, then the Æsir adopted this plan, that they made a very strong fetter.”
While Snorri continues to emphasize the prophecy in the Æsir’s motivation, it is the wolf’s hunger and growing size that prompts the gods to act.
Earlier, in Gylfaginning, Snorri describes the devouring rampage of the wolf Moongarm:
“He will fill himself with the lifeblood of everyone that dies, and he will swallow heavenly bodies and spatter heaven and all the skies with blood,” and he quotes from Völuspá for support: “He gorges the life of doomed men, reddens gods’ halls with red gore.” While Moongarm would appear to be a different wolf than Fenrir, Rudolf Simek asserts they are the same and that the other two named wolves, Sköll and Hati, who devour the sun and moon, are similarly identical with Fenrir. Even if one interprets Moongarm, Sköll, and Hati as individuals distinct from Fenrir, they are nonetheless all of the same kin, sired by Fenrir, as Snorri describes in reference to Völuspá: “The ancient giantess breeds as sons many giants and all in wolf shapes, and it is from them that these wolves are descended… Thus it says in Voluspá: In the east lives the old one, in Ironwood, and breeds there Fenrir’s kind.” The fact that Fenrir shares the destructive hunger of Moongarm, Sköll, and Hati is alluded to both in Snorri’s account in
Gylfaginning, quoted above, and in his later description of Ragnarök:
“But Fenris wolf will go with mouth agape and its upper jaw will be against the sky and its lower one against the earth. It would gape wider if there was room.”
In this second image, the threat of Fenrir’s hunger and growth is emphasized, for his jaws gape open to swallow all there is between heaven and earth. Indeed, the refrain about Fenrir in Völuspá stanzas 44, 49, and 58 explicitly links Ragnarök with the wolf’s hunger: “the rope will break and the ravener run free.”
In that line from Völuspá, the word translated as “ravener” by Carolyne Larrington connects Fenrir with what wolves represent in Norse myth and literature. In Old Norse, the second line of the refrain from Völuspá stanzas 44, 49, and 58 reads: “festr mun slitna en freki renna,” in which freki is the word alluding to Fenrir and translated as “ravener” by Larrington. Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson offer the following definition for freki: freki, a, m., poët. A wolf, Vsp. 51, Gm. 19.
However, freki more literally means “the greedy one,” and is derived from the adjective frekr, meaning “greedy, voracious, hungry,” with connotations of “exorbitant, harsh.” As stated in Cleasby and Vigfusson’s definition quoted above, freki and the hunger of wolves also appear in Grímnismál stanza 19: “Geri and Freki, tamed to war, he satiates, the glorious Father of Hosts.” Looking up geri in both Simek and Cleasby and Vigfusson reveals that it also means “the greedy one,” by way of the adjective gerr, meaning “greedy, gluttonous.”
Frekr, in the form frekan and translated as “ravener” by Larrington, further appears as a kenning for fire in Alvíssmál. In stanza 26, fire is called “ravener by the giants,” while stanza 28 echoes the theme with wood called “fuel by the giants.” The ravening appetite of fire is similarly put to good use in Snorri’s description of the eating contest between Logi and Loki, in which Logi is later revealed as fire itself. Two stanzas by Thjóthólf quoted in Ynglingasaga bring together the greedy appetites of fire and wolves:
“…the fire did turn,
and the gleedes’
greedy-dog [fire] bit
By bay bight
the building-wolf [fire]
In the eddic poems about Sigurd, the greed of wolves is extended to greed for gold and their hunger to its loss. Sigrdrífumál stanza 38 warns Sigurd: “never trust / the oaths of a wrongdoer’s brat” for “the wolf is in the young son, / though he seems to be gladdened by gold.” In Reginsmál, Regin plots to use Sigurd to win Andvari’s gold from his brother, Fáfnir, by saying, “I have expectations of winnings from a ravening wolf.” Atlakviða uses wolves twice to warn that Gunnar will lose his wealth: first, when Hogni says to Gunnar, “I found a hair of the heath-wanderer twisted round the red-gold ring; / our way is wolf-beset if we go on this errand,” and second when Gunnar responds, “The wolf will have control of the Niflungs’ inheritance, / the old grey guardians, if Gunnar is going to be lost.”
From the evidence related above, it is clear that wolves were synonymous with greed in Norse thought. But what is the origin of the association?