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The Binding of Fenrir

One story I found myself telling a lot this autumn was the Norse myth of the Binding of Fenrir. It’s a powerful and fascinating story and well suited to the turbulent times of Samhuinn and the Scorpio moon.

The story tells us how Loki, the cunning and conniving giant who lives among the gods of Asgard, has a giantess mistress, Angrboda, who has borne him three children; a wolf, a serpent and gloomy girl whose lower body is putrid and rotting. The gods are worried and speak of their worries to Urd, Skuld and Verdandi, the three crones who peer into the well of Urd and thence weave the web of fate, the web of wyrd (weird). They warn the gods that these three monsters will do them harm, so the gods kidnap them and toss the girl, Hel, into the lower world and the serpent, Jormungandr, into the sea around the middle world. But Odin, chief of the gods, decides to keep Fenrir, the wolf, in Asgard where he can keep an eye on him.

It is a strange decision. Why keep something so dangerous close to you? We are reminded of Odin’s strange relationship with Loki. Odin is the Allfather, chief of the gods; he is the centre, the one who maintains stability. Loki is a giant and a trickster; he represents the element of chaos. Yet these two go wandering the worlds together in happy companionship. How can two such adverse beings find harmony together? What is Odin up to?

It is worth considering Odin’s nature here. He is not the kind of dependable but dull central character who needs an unstable sidekick to liven things up around him. He is no King Arthur, no Frodo. Odin walks Midgard (the middle world) in a wide-brimmed hat, wearing a blue cloak and bearing two ravens on his shoulders. He rides to the underworld on an eight-legged horse – a gift from Loki. He hung from Yggdrasil, the world tree, for nine days and nights and put out his own eye to obtain the mead of poetry. He is god of both war and poetry; he leads slain warriors into battle by day and feasts in Valhalla every night… is there any other god in world mythology quite like him? He makes the lightning-throwing, maiden-ravaging Zeus look like a mild-mannered bank clerk.

Interestingly, though, it is not Zeus he is compared to but Hermes, Quicksilver, the winged trickster of Olympus. And this gives us a clue as to Odin’s friendship with Loki. What makes Odin so bizarre and brilliant is his ability to reconcile opposites; the centre and the edge, stability and chaos, god and giant, fire and ice. He is the centre of the upper world yet he rides to the lower world; he knows war and magic and poetry. He knows, too, that come Ragnarok, the battle that will end the world, Loki will betray the gods and lead the giants to war against them. Yet he keeps Loki by his side.

Small wonder, then, that ordinary Norsemen (and todays film and comic fans, interestingly) much preferred Thor. He watched over farmers; he hit things with his hammer. There was a god you could relate to. In Thor’s world things are good or bad, weak or strong, god or giant. Loki is Odin’s friend and his foe. Such a stance requires a different sort of consciousness to ‘Thor-consciousness’.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell told the story of a trip he made to India many years ago. He went to visit a famous sage. He sat down in front of the man and was invited to ask a question. He asked ‘if God made everything in this world, both the good and the bad, how can we say no to any of it?’ The sage smiled and answered ‘we can’t’.

Here is the answer to the riddle of Odin and Loki. Odin knows that Loki will betray him. Furthermore, as Fenrir grows monstrously big on the plains of Asgard, the norns warn Odin that Fenrir shall kill him at Ragnarok. It is his fate; the web has been spun and cannot be unravelled. Most of us would see two choices here; fight against our fate or accept it. Odin does both. He understands that the world can only exist in the friction between opposites; just as it was created, according to Norse mythology, by the frission of fire and ice. It was created in chaos; it will end in chaos; in the interim, though chaos must be contained, it must also be allowed to endure.

As I write this, Israeli rockets are pounding Gaza. Tibetans are setting themselves on fire – the ultimate agony of a soul in the Buddhist worldview – while the Chinese military march through Lhasa, intimidating the local Tibetans with a vast show of strength. It seems there is nothing so hard as to accept that which we fight against, while keeping up the fight. Yet when I was in India I had Tibetan students who told me stories of beatings they had received, smiling gently as they did so. There was no animosity there.

‘Just a myth’ is such a strange phrase.

Back to the story. Fenrir grows bigger and bigger, fed at the hand of Tyr, Odin’s son. The gods concoct a plan to chain and bind him. They forge a great chain, bring it to Fenrir and challenge him to break it. He does so with contemptuous ease. They return with another, twice as strong. Fenrir is hesitant, but he reminds himself, like a good Viking, that there is nothing more important than reputation and that it wouldn’t do for the mighty Fenrir to be called a coward. He is bound and, with a little effort, breaks the chain.

The gods try a new tack. Odin, who lost one eye so as to see what others don’t see, suggests sending the messenger Skirnir to the dwarves and paying them to make a chain. Skirnir crosses the rainbow bridge from Asgard to Midgard and descends into the twilit caves beneath the world of men. Just as we sometimes find the answers to our problems by diving into the subconscious world of our dreams, Odin knows that in the half-lit world, things are not always as they seem; they are not necessarily one thing or another. Only in such a place could a chain be forged to bind such a one as Fenrir.

Skirnir finds the dwarves and they forge for him Gleipnir, a silky thread made from: the sound a cat makes when it moves; 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. Skirnir is satisfied, hands over the gold and returns to Asgard. He gives Gleipnir to Odin with these words: ‘remember the cunning of the dwarves. After all, have you ever thought why a cat makes no noise when it moves, or why a woman has no beard? You can never prove that a mountain has no roots, but many things that seem not to exist are simply in the dwarfs’ safekeeping’ (Crossley-Holland, 1996).

When Fenrir is presented with Gleipnir he smells magic and trickery. He will only allow himself to be bound if one of the gods puts their hand in his mouth first. Tyr volunteers. Loki is bound and cannot break free; with a wretched howl he bites down on Tyr’s hand, severing it while the gods laugh. As Fenrir howls, a sword blade is thrust into his upper jaw, the hilt rammed into his lower jaw. The wolf is bound and gagged… until Ragnarok.

It seems fitting that Odin’s son should care for Loki’s. It seems fitting, too, that Tyr should offer Fenrir his hand in reassurance, knowing that he will lose it. There is something of the relationship between man and animal, owner and pet here. Tyr must have taken a quiet pride in watching his wolf grow so big he blocked out the sun. Perhaps offering up his hand gave him the opportunity for penance.

I once heard it said that ‘there are no characters in a myth, only aspects of the human psyche’. What aspect of the psyche is Fenrir? Loki represents chaos to a degree, but he is deceitful and cunning and fair of face. Fenrir is something more elemental than chaos; strength, ferocity, power. Which is why all we keep our own personal Fenrir’s chained, with our own subtle dwarvish magic. ‘I could never do that’. ‘That’s just not me’. I’m too old to train as a..’ The chains we bind ourselves with are infinitely more powerful than the ones we can hold in our hands. Subtle, strong, and made from things that may not even exist.

Meanwhile, in some hidden place, bound and gagged, our own Fenrir waits for the time that will surely come when he will break free. And the longer its been since we acknowledged him, the angrier he will be. At times like Samhuinn and the moon of Scorpio we can hear his howls; his growling can rattle the foundations of our worlds. As the so-called ‘end  of days’  prophesied by the Mayans approaches, we might ask ourselves, individually and culturally, what we can do about Fenrir?

We could go and visit him. Offer him food; clean up the slavers. For all we know, if we hadn’t chained him up, he might have been our friend.