The Binding of Fenrir

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    In describing the wedding in Trollhaven I described a skald telling the story of the binding of the Fenris Wolf before Amund and Glyn take their wedding vows with their hands inside the mouth of a snarling stone wolf. When I first conceived Freyja's Gift I was certain that I had simply made it up out of my knowledge of the Norse myth and something I had read somewhere about stone dragons that have been found around the Norseland. Unfortunately I was unable to find any reference to those stone dragons in my subsequent research, but it turns out that the Norse did actually perform such rituals. As late as the end of the Eighteenth Century the people of the Orkney Islands took their wedding vows with their hands clasped in a hole drilled through what they called the Odin Stone.

    Commentators of the time noted that such vows were not taken lightly. Anyone who violated a vow taken on the Odin Stone was thoroughly shunned by the whole community. An example of the power of what the Orcadians called Odin's Promise is the tale of an Orcadian woman who married a local pirate. When her betrothed was captured and taken to England to be hanged, the woman traveled to London in order to cut off the man's right hand (how apropos in light of the story that empowers the Oath of Odin). Her intent was simply to take the severed hand to Stenhouse and use it to undo the oath that she had taken on the stone with the hapless pirate. However, the Odin Stone at Stenhouse was not a depiction of a snarling beast, but was rather a flattish stone set upright in the ground with a hole drilled through it near its base. Further information can be found in Orkneyjar - The Heritage of the Orkney Islands.

    Another possible piece of evidence for the Norse use of carved demons in taking the Oath of Odin comprises the animal-head posts found in the Viking ship found buried near Oseberg, on the west side of Oslofjord, in 1903. These are posts whose tops are ornately carved representations of snarling beasts, with gaps between their jaws or behind their bared fangs. The archaeologists can say no more than that the posts seem to have no practical use and, thus, were likely used in religious observances and I won't venture to say any more than that with any certainty. However, the form of the posts is highly suggestive of a ritual in which a Norseman takes the Oath of Odin while holding his right hand in the gap of one of the posts.

    The basis for such a ritual is clear in the myth of how Tyr lost his right hand. The Fenrir story is told to empower the Oath of Odin, a necessity in a society with no central authority. This is not to imply that the Norse actually believed that Thor would come to Midgard and clop an oath-breaker with his hammer. At best the Norse would have felt an anxiety that something bad might emanate from Asgard toward the oath-breaker and anyone associated with him: at worst the story merely encodes a tacit agreement among the Norse that the breaking of this particular oath is unacceptable: in either case, the social consequence of breaking the Oath of Odin was, as it was in the Orkney Islands even very recently, the complete shunning of the oath-breaker.

    The version of the story that I present below, the "truth beyond matters of fact" that Nils Arnesen recited at the wedding in Trollhavn, is adapted from the description given in The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson; Tales from Norse Mythology, translated by Jean I. Young (1966, University of California Press, Berkeley). So here, to fill your sleep with nightmares if you should ever break the Oath of Odin, is

The Binding of Fenrir

    You all know that in Loki's veins Frost Giant blood mingles with Aesir blood. You also know that Loki once took to wife Angrboda, the daughter of a Frost Giant and that she bore him three children. The first of those was Fenrir, the demon wolf; the second of those was Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent; the third of those was Hel, she whose body is half white with life and half black with death. Loki, even Loki, was horrified by those monstrosities, but a father's love transcends even such horror. No fool he, Loki sent the three monsters to farthest Jotunheim to be raised by his wife's family. But Loki forgot, as we do not forget, that Odin sits on Hlidskjalf, high above Asgard: what little he does not see, the ravens Hugin and Munin see for him. Soon Loki's offspring were known to the Gods.

    One-eyed Odin, the All-Father, looks once and sees thrice. His gaze upon any thing calls forth from that thing ghosts of past, present, and future to counsel him. Thus he was shown the Day of Doom, the Battle of Ragnarok. On that day, in that battle, Jormungand will kill Thor and be killed by him. On that day, in that battle, Fenrir will kill Tyr and Odin, himself, and be killed by Vidr. On that day, in that battle, the whole world will burn and slide hissing under the waters of the Ocean Sea. Odin set his heart on banishing the ghosts of such a future.

    Soon an expedition of the Gods was sent to Jotunheim to bring Loki's children to Asgard. To the council chamber of the Gods they were brought and there Loki stood up for them. "What harm have my little ones done," he asked, "that they should be condemned? You seek to change your prophecy by destroying them. Could the prophecy not be changed as well by other means? Is there not some place where my little ones can live in peace?"

    The Gods agreed that Loki argued his case well. Odin then made these decrees. Hel he sent to Niflheim, where she reigns over the nine worlds of the dead. Jormungand he sent to the bottom of the Ocean Sea, where he has grown to encircle Midgard and his thrashings churn the waters. Fenrir he kept in Asgard, where he was to be companion to Odin's own wolves, Geri and Freki.

    The mistake soon came clear. Fenrir grew rapidly. In strength and ferocity, no animal could match him. Geri and Freki feared him. The Gods feared him. Only brave Tyr dared go to him each day to bring him food.

    The Gods resolved to correct their mistake. "We shall not pollute our sanctuary and temple with his blood," they vowed, "but we shall bind him, so bind him and restrain him that he can do no harm." But what was easy to say was hard to do. There was none who had the strength to bind Fenrir: the demon wolf had grown too large and too strong. So the Gods connived among themselves and devised a trick.

    They made a chain, made it with links as big as cattle, and called it Loeding. "This," they said in their hearts, "will bind Fenrir and make the world safe." Then mighty Thor and blind Hodr, the two strongest of the Gods, made sport of it. They pulled it from opposite ends, tugged at it and yanked at it, made all of Midgard shudder with their exertions, yet they could not break it.

    Fenrir saw what they were doing and asked why they were pulling at Loeding. "We are testing our strength against this chain," they said, "to see who is strongest among us. Do you want to try your strength against the chain?"

    And Fenrir thought in his heart, "If I break this chain, and I believe that I can, then I will be seen as the strongest being of all. My renown will cover all the worlds and bring great honor to my father and my mother." To the Gods he said then, "Yes, bind me with your chain and let us see which of us is the stronger!"

    So the Gods bound Loeding upon Fenrir, so bound it that Fenrir could not move. Then Fenrir shook and rattled the chain. Then he rose up and shrugged and the chain broke. So forcefully did the chain break that fragments flew in all directions, obliging the Gods to duck for cover. Fragments flew into the sky and struck the inside of Ymir's skull, scraping and cracking the ice, scratching the Milky Way into the dome of the sky. Awed, the Gods remembered to cheer, as they had agreed to do if Fenrir broke the chain. And Fenrir said to the Gods, "This is no sport. Bring me a stronger chain!"

    Then the Gods made Dromi, the strongest chain that had ever been made. The links were as big as houses. All of the Gods struggled together to put the chain around Fenrir. And in their hearts the Gods said, "This he shall not break." And Fenrir shook and rattled the chain. Then he rose up and shrugged and the chain broke. So forcefully did the chain break that fragments flew in all directions, obliging the Gods to duck for cover. Fragments flew into the sky and struck the moon, giving it the bruises that we see upon its face today. Awed, the Gods remembered to cheer, as they had agreed to do if Fenrir broke the chain. And Fenrir said to the Gods, 'This is no sport. Bring me a stronger chain!"

    So the Gods counseled together and chose Thor, who knows a little something about breaking things, to ask his friends the Dwarves to make a chain that could never be broken. Quickly Thor made his way to Svartalfheim and spoke to the Dwarves who dwell there. He told the Dwarves his need, explained to them the problem to be solved, and asked for their help.

    From deep within their storehouse of secrets the Dwarves brought spells that had not been used since time began. Using those spells as tools, they fashioned a chain of six things: the sound of a cat walking, a woman's beard, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird. They gave the chain the name Gleipnir. It was as soft and as smooth as a ribbon of silk, as fine as Freyja's hair yet so strong that even Thor's hammer could not break it. This chain Gleipnir is what the Dwarves gave Thor to take back to Asgard.

    One day the Gods took Fenrir and Gleipnir with them on one of their outings to Lyngvi Island in Lake Amsvartnir. There the Gods took turns trying to break Gleipnir, but none succeeded. So again they invited Fenrir to try his strength against that of the chain.

    When Fenrir saw Gleipnir, saw how fine and shimmery it was, he said in his heart, "This is not a chain of metal. It may be made of impossibilities woven with spells that I cannot break. But I must not let the Gods see my fear." So Fenrir said to the Gods, "What a fine, dainty piece of work this is! It would be a shame to break it, so put it on me and I will only pretend to struggle against it. But then you must take it off me and store it in a safe place."

    To this demand Odin agreed, but Fenrir said also, "I must be certain that you will take this lovely chain off me lest it be broken." The Gods did not know how to reply, but Tyr came forward and said, "Hold my right hand in your mouth as hostage for the safety of this pretty chain."

    The Gods all trembled. The Goddesses among them turned away and wept. Tyr put his right hand into the Demon Wolf's mouth and Odin laid Gleipnir across Fenrir's back. Gleipnir wrapped itself around Fenrir and bound itself upon itself. Fenrir heaved against it and strove to break it. So powerful were his struggles that all of Midgard, from the greatest depths of the Ocean Sea to the tops of the highest mountains, trembled and quaked, but Fenrir could not break the chain of spells.

    So Fenrir said to Odin, "I have played the game, now take the chain off me." And Odin said, "I cannot. The chain no longer obeys me." At that the evil Fenrir bit off brave Tyr's hand. Then he sought to bite Odin, but Odin quickly placed a sword into Fenrir's mouth, placed the point against his palate and the hilt under his tongue. Thus bound and gagged, Fenrir was placed in a cavern deep under Midgard, there to remain until the day of Ragnarok.

    Thus it is that whenever we take the Oath of Odin, the oath whose breaking can never be forgiven, we do so with one hand in the mouth of a demon. We do so to remind ourselves that even a god may not violate the oath with impunity.


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