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Feeding the Wolf: the Theme of Restraint, and its Lack, in the Mythology of Fenrir By Dan Campbell

"I am reluctant to have this band put on me. But rather than that you question my courage, let some one put his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith." 'But all the sir looked at each other and found themselves in a dilemma and all refused to offer their hands until Tyr 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 Tyr. He lost his hand.' (Sturluson, Edda 29)

To modern sensibilities, the binding of the wolf Fenrir can seem cruel and unfair: a selffulfilling 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 of 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. In Snorri Sturluson's tale of the binding of Fenrir, the chief reason given for the sir's actions is a mix of prophecy and Fenrir's innate character: "And when the gods realized that these three siblings [Hel, Jrmungandr, and Fenrir] were being brought up in Giantland, and when gods traced the prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster

2 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]" (Sturluson, Edda 27). A simple interpretation of this statement, and of references to Fenrir in eddic and skaldic poetry 1, would be that the sir 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 Ragnarok. But what moves the sir to bind Fenrir is the wolf's appetite, a characteristic that links Fenrir to the underlying symbolism of the wolf in Norse myth and literature: The sir brought up the wolf at home, and it was only Tyr 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 sir adopted this plan, that they made a very strong fetter... (Sturluson, Edda 27). While Snorri continues to emphasize the prophecy in the sir'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 "Vlusp" for support: "He gorges the life of doomed men, reddens gods' halls with red gore" (Sturluson, Edda 15). 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, Skll and Hati, who devour the

c.f.: "Vlusp" stanzas 40, 44, 49, 53, 54, 55, and 58 (Larrington, The Poetic Edda 9-12); "Vafrnisml" stanzas 46, 47, and 53 (Larrington, The Poetic Edda 47-48); "Grmnisml" stanza 23 (Larrington, The Poetic Edda 55); "Lokasenna" stanzas 39 and 41 (Larrington, The Poetic Edda 91); "Hkonar saga Ga", stanza 100 (Sturluson, Heimskringla 127).

3 sun and moon, are similarly identical with Fenrir (Simek 80). Even if one interprets Moongarm, Skll and Hati as individuals distinct from Fenrir, they are nonetheless all the same kin, sired by Fenrir, as Snorri describes with reference to "Vlusp": "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 Voluspa: In the east lives the old one, in Ironwood, and breeds there Fenrir's kind" (Sturluson 15). The fact that Fenrir shares the destructive hunger of Moongarm, Skll and Hati is alluded to both in Snorri's account in "Gylfaginning," quoted above, (Sturluson, Edda 27) and in his later description of Ragnarok: 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. (Sturluson, Edda 53) In this second image, the threat of Fenrir's hunger and growth are emphasized, for his jaws gape open to swallow all there is between heaven and earth. Indeed, the refrain about Fenrir in "Vlusp" stanzas 44, 49, and 58 explicitly links Ragnarok with the wolf's hunger: "the rope will break and the ravener run free" (Larrington, 10-12). In that line from "Vlusp", 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 "Vlusp" stanzas 44, 49, and 58 reads: "festr mun slitna en freki renna" (Eddukvi, Vlusp 44, 49, 58), 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., pot. a wolf, Vsp. 51, Gm. 19. (172).

4 However, freki more literally means "the greedy one" (Simek 90) and is derived from the adjective frekr, meaning "greedy, voracious, hungry," with connotations of "exorbitant, harsh" (Cleasby and Vigfusson 172). As mentioned in Cleasby and Vigfusson's definition quoted above, freki and the hunger of wolves also appear in "Grmnisml" stanza 19: "Geri and Freki, tamed to war, he satiates, / the glorious Father of Hosts" (Larrington 54). Looking up geri in both Simek and Cleasby and Vigfusson reveals that it also means "the greedy one" (Simek 106), by way of the adjective gerr, meaning "greedy, gluttonous" (Cleasby and Vigfusson 197). Frekr, in the form frekan (Eddukvi, Alvssml 26) and translated as "ravener" by Larrington, further appears as a kenning for fire in "Alvssml." In stanza 26, fire is called "ravener by the giants," while stanza 28 echoes the theme with wood called "fuel by the giants" (Larrington 112-113). 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 (Sturluson, Edda 41, 45). Two stanzas by Thjthlf quoted in "Ynglingasaga" bring together the greedy appetites of fire and wolves: ...the fire did turn, and the gleedes' greedy-dog [fire] bit the liege-lord (Sturluson, Heimskringla 18)

By bay bight the building-wolf [fire] swallowed up lf's body. (Sturluson, Heimskringla 45)

5 In the eddic poems about Sigurd, the greed of wolves is extended to greed for gold and their hunger to its loss. "Sigrdrfuml" 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" (Larrington 172). In "Reginsml", Regin plots to use Sigurd to win Andvari's gold from his brother Fafnir, saying "I have expectations of winnings from a ravening wolf" (Larrington 154). "Atlakvia" 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" (Larrington 211-212). 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? The image of the greedy wolf survives in the modern English saying "to wolf down" one's food, i.e. to eat like a wolf, gulping one's food quickly as if one were starving and unable to fill one's belly. To anyone who has watched a nature film that shows wolves eating, the sense of this image will be readily apparent, for wolves do "wolf down" their food, consuming as much as possible to hold them over until the next kill. Eating wolves appear ferocious, violently defending their share of the kill either against other predators or against lower status members of their own pack. This violent behavior of wolves at a kill lies at the heart of the Norse image of the wolf, especially because Norse observation of wolves at a kill was often on the battlefield. In skaldic poetry, "feeding wolves" is a clich kenning referring to battle and the prowess of warriors, and the metaphor is often extended to ravens and eagles. As Aleksander Pluskowski summarizes:

6 Skalds used predatory kennings for warriors, their behavior and equipment, whilst personal names incorporating animals (in runic inscriptions and later literature) are almost exclusively drawn from wild species... Stronger associations are found in warrior kennings which refer to them as feeders of ravens, wolves, and eagles... whilst the fallen in battle are described as meals. (Pluskowski 120) Examples can be drawn from multiple sources2, but a few selections should suffice to demonstrate the motif's emphasis on hunger, greed, and the devouring of the dead: From "Skaldskaparmal" (Sturluson, Edda, 135-136): "Evil lineage of she-wolf swallowed much-harmed corpse" "the prince reddened Fenrir's chops" From Heimskringla stanzas 210, 320, 328, 438, 519, 569 (Sturluson, Heimskringla 257, 476, 497, 573, 647, 696): "Tawny she-wolves' teeth a twelfth time the king reddened" "who filled with meat the maws of wolves" "Gorge we the hungry wolf-brood!" "Heaped he...hills of high-piled slain for hungry wolves" "gorging the greedy mount-of-ghouls" "feeder-of-famished-wolves" From "Egil's Saga" stanzas 12 and 53 (Scudder 75 and 166):

These are all of the references that I found to "feeding wolves", though I doubt this list is comprehensive: Snorri on the word warg with quotes from Thiodulf, Egil, Einar, Arnor, Illugi, Hall and Thord (Sturluson, Edda 135-136); stanzas 62, 85, 133, 146, 148, 194, 200, 210, 290, 320, 328, 401, 412, 427, 438, 441, 445, 454, 460, 472, 495, 505, 518, 519, 528, 540, 544, 547, 569, 573, 581, 586, 592 and 597 in Sturluson's Heimskringla; stanzas 12, 13, 41, 50, and 53 quoted in Egil's Saga", as well as stanzas 10, 11, 12, 14, and 15 from the poem Egil delivers to King Eirik to ransom his head (Scudder 75, 76, 126, 165, 166, and 116-117); another verse by Egil, quoted by Snorri in "Hattatal" (Sturluson, Edda 199); and stanzas 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 16, 18, 19, and 24 of "Krkuml" (75-82).

7 "who stain wolf's teeth with blood" "make meals for the wolf with his sword" From "Krkuml" stanzas 9, 16, and 19 ("Krkuml" 78, 80, 81): "The wolf welcomed our offering of corpse-windrows" "never suffered the she-wolf to starve" "many fell into wolf's jaws" A verse of Egil's, quoted by Snorri in "Hattatal", dwells on the "feeding wolves" motif and further connects it to Fenrir: Who would nourish the bloody-bristled she-wolf with the wound's red drink unless it were that the prince strengthens the wolf's greed many a day? The leader provides the watcher [wolf] with wounds newly pierced by edge. The army sees the front claw of Fenrir's shaggy paw redden. (Sturluson, Edda 199). While the "feeding wolves" motif naturally derives from wolves worrying corpses on the battlefield, the symbolism of the wolf, its hunger, and the violence it will do to satiate itself is more than a grim metaphor of war.3 To be or become wolf-like means becoming a threat to society, being an agent of destruction which cannot restrain its evil nature. In a prior paper (Campbell 2009), I pointed out that the breaking of the bonds of Loki and Fenrir is equivalent to, and caused by, the breaking of the bonds of kinship and society, as alluded to in stanza 45 of the Vlusp (translation mine): Brr munu berjask ok at bnum verask, munu systrungar sifjum spilla;

Nonetheless, the 'feeding wolves' as a kenning for battle is likely behind both Tyr's epithet as "feeder of the wolf" (Sturluson, Edda 76) and Odin feeding Geri and Freki in "Grmnisml" stanza 19 (Larrington 54)in each case showing them to be gods of battle and warfare.

8 hart er heimi, hrdmr mikill, skeggld, skalmld, skildir ro klofnir, vindld, vargld, r verld steypisk; mun engi mar rum yrma. (Eddukvi, Vlusp 45) Brothers shall fight and become each others slayers, Cousins shall commit incest; Hard it is in the world, there is much adultery, Axe-age, sword-age, shields are cloven, Wind-age, wolf-age, until the world is overthrown, No one shall give others hospitality. Note that such a time of social disorder is described as an "Axe-age, sword-age" and a "Windage, wolf-age", recalling the skaldic kennings for battle. The threat represented by both wolves and weapons reappears in "Hvaml" stanzas 85-88, in which "A stretching bow, a burning flame, / a gaping wolf, a cawing crow" and "a falling dart" are named in a list of things that should not be trusted. Such lack of trust and the inherent dangers in unrestrained appetites carry over to both outlaws and berserkers, both of whom are described in wolfish terms. The Old Norse word vargr, while literally meaning "wolf", is a legal term for an outlaw, "esp. used of one who commits a crime in a holy place, and is thereon declared accursed" (Cleasby and Vigfusson 680). The terms for full outlawry and full outlawskggangr, "forest-going", and skgarmar, "forest-man" (Byock, Viking Age Iceland 231)further emphasize the wolfish character of the outlaw by echoing verse about wolves in the wilderness, such as in "Vlusp" stanza 40, quoted below, and the first stanza of the "Old Norwegian Rune Poem":

9 Gold causes the strife of kinsmen; the wolf is reared in the woods. (Flowers 21) The distinction in Icelandic law between manslaughter and murder shows that a lack of restraint underlies the equation of full outlaws with wolves. Killing someone and confessing (or boasting) about it was considered manslaughter, a crime which could be settled through compensation and so avoid further bloodshed. Murder, in contrast, was a killing where the perpetrator did not confess the deed. If found out, the murderer could be outlawed, but the act was just as likely to lead to revenge killings and feuding, upsetting the social order. As Jesse Byock summarizes: the law gave people the right to take vengeance and to defend their person and their honour, but only within limitations...the law book entries agree with the general thrust of the sagas, showing a consensus among the population for allowing vengeance-taking but only within the limits of acceptable windows of opportunity. (Byock, Viking Age Iceland 225-29) Berserkers are also equated with wolves and typically portrayed as outlaws-waiting-tohappen. In "Ynglingasaga", Snorri describes berserkers "as mad as dogs or wolves" (Sturluson, Heimskringla 10), and berserkers appear as trouble-makers in need of killing in "Egil's Saga" (Scudder 124-126), Grettir's Saga (Byock, Grettir's Saga 113-114), and Eyrbyggja Saga. The last echoes "Ynglingasaga" and emphasizes how berserkers are outside of human society: "They used to go berserk...they were wholly unlike human beings, storming about like mad dogs and afraid of neither fire nor weapons" (Plsson 68-69). In telling the story of the berserker brothers Halli and Leiknir, Eyrbyggja Saga portrays them as lacking restraint. When they first enter Vermund's

10 service, they threaten him: "if ever you refuse us anything which we want and you have the power to give, we won't be at all pleased". This threat bears fruit when Halli asks Vermund to find him a wife and then later when the berserker seeks the hand of Skyr's daughter. Neither match is appropriate for the women or their families, and Skyr contrives to kill the berserkers rather than confront them directly (Plsson 68-71, 76-80). Echoing the berserker's lack of restraint, Icelandic law carries a penalty of lesser outlawry simply for going berserk, as well as for "those men who are present except if they restrain [the berserker]" (Byock, Viking Age Iceland 314). Turning such social restraint on its head, there are two occasions in Norse myth where an individual is forced to become wolf-like so that they will ignore normal social boundaries. The eddic poems about Sigurd use wolf-meat as a means to make Guthorm kill Sigurd. The fourth stanza of "Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd" and stanza 20 of "A Short Poem about Sigurd" both describe the same event: Some roasted wolf, some sliced-up serpent, wolf-meat they gave Guthorm to eat, before they could, desiring [Sigurd's] ruin, lay their hands on the wise man. (Larrington 174)

We should prepare Guthorm for the killing, our younger brother, not so experienced; he was away when the oaths were sworn, when the oaths were sworn and the pledges made. (Larrington 185) By eating the meat, Guthorm becomes like a wolf, capable of savage violence that breaks the bonds of society. Similarly, when the sir bind Loki with Narfi's guts, they avoid direct

11 responsibility for Narfi's slaying by turning his brother Vali into a wolf, causing Vali to tear "his brother Narfi to pieces" (Sturluson, Edda 52). Interestingly, the idea of feeding an outlaw echoes the "feeding wolves" motif of skaldic poetry. Just as "gorging the greedy mount-of-ghouls" (Sturluson, Heimskringla 647) results in ruin and slaughter on the battlefield, so feeding an outlaw supports their lawlessness. The legal term bjarg-r means "help or shelter given to an outlaw" and was forbidden, as shown by the legal term -alandi, meaning "one who must not be fed" (Cleasby and Vigfusson 65, 658). The first term is a compound derived from bjarga, meaning "to save, help" but with connotations of feeding or eating, as shown in the following phrases and one compound from Cleasby and Vigfusson page 65: bjarg ti, of cattle, to graze bjarg sjlfr, to gain one's bread hv hann byrgist sv ltt, why he ate so slowly bjarg-leysi, starvation, destitution The more explicitly food-associated term -alandi is derived from ala, which means "to give birth to, nourish, support" and thus encompasses raising children along with feeding and aiding individuals. The same meaning occurs in several poems with reference to wolves, both literally and metaphorically. The verb meaning "reared" in the first stanza of "The Old Norwegian Rune Poem", quoted above, is fesk, identical to Old Norse fisk, the reflexive of fa (Flowers 20-21, 43) or fa, "to feed, give food to; to rear, bring up; to give birth to" (Cleasby and Vigfusson 184). The same word appears in "Vlusp" stanza 40 (Eddukvi), "In the east sat an old woman in Iron-wood / and nurtured there offspring of Fenrir" (Larrington 9). Likewise, the

12 eleventh stanza of "Vlusp in skamma" (Eddukvi), incorporated as the fortieth stanza of "Hyndlulj" by Larrington, relies on ala to convey the same idea: "Loki got the wolf on Angrboda" (Larrington 258). Ala also appears in stanza 12 of "Sigurarkvia in skamma" (Eddukvi) as part of a warning that recalls the law term -alandi: Let the son go the same way as the father! Don't nurture for long the young wolf; for to which man would revenge come easier afterwards in recompensethan if the son were still alive? (Larrington 183) Restraint is the hallmark of the social human in Old Norse thought. The "Hvaml" frequently stresses caution and moderation in adhering to social norms, from knowing when to speak, when to be silent, to how much one should drink and how best to maintain friendships. Among these admonitions, stanzas 20 and 21 emphasize restraint in eating habits, providing a direct contrast to the imagery of feeding wolves: The greedy man, unless he guards against this tendency, will eat himself into lifelong trouble; often he's laughed at when he comes aomg the wise, the man who's foolish about his stomach.

Cattle know when they ought to go home, and then they leave the pasture; but the foolish man never knows the measure of his own stomach. (Larrington 17)


Icelandic law emphasizes restraint in its proscriptions against feeding or aiding outlaws and the penalty of lesser outlawry for going berserk or failing to restrain a berserker. Icelandic society valued hf, moderation, over the vengeance of feuding. If a dispute could be settled through arbitration, and crimes with compensation, then Icelandic society benefited from the lack of violence and the resulting disruption. In the opposite of hf, hf, and Icelandic society's response to it, can be found the rationale for the sir's binding of Fenrir. As Byock describes: The practice of hf was known as jafnar, meaning unevenness, unfairness or injustice in dealings with others. jafnar, which is often translated as 'being overbearing' or 'unjust', disturbed the consensual nature of decision-making and set in motion a series of coercive responses; for example, when an individual's greed or ambition threatened the balance of power, other leaders banded together in an effort to counter his immoderate behaviour (Viking Age Iceland 190-191). To the Norse, Fenrir was without restraint; he had hf. His appetite is never ending, his eating habits ferocious (judging from Tyr's courage in feeding him), and his growth exponential. He is this way simply because he is a wolf: a raving killer, a devourer of corpses, the epitome of violence and lawlessness, as quick to consume as fire and as merciless in the destruction of wealth and well-being. While to modern sensibilities the preemptive actions of the sir appear unfair, it is Fenrir's very nature which is overbearing and unjust. The wolf is the will to cause strife among men, the hunger and greed that urges violence, the raving prowess that breaks all bonds of social order. Because he cannot restrain himself (as

14 the sir believe), he must be bound, to protect society. Metaphorically, the binding of the wolf symbolizes the restraint that all members of society must exercise both within themselves and with each other. Similarly, not feeding the wolf, binding him, and leaving a sword in his jaws, are the only hope we have of social stability, for to feed the wolf is to encourage death, battle and the betrayal of all we hold dear. 'When the sir saw that the wolf was thoroughly bound they took the cord that was hanging from the fetter, which is called Gelgia, and threaded it through a great stone slabthis is called Gioll and fastened the slab far down in the ground...The wolf stretched its jaws enormously and reacted violently and tried to bite them. They thrust into its mouth a certain sword; the hilt touches its lower gums and the point its upper ones. This is its gum-prop. It howls horribly and saliva runs from its mouth. This forms the river called Hope. There it will lie until Ragnarok.' (Sturluson, Edda 29)

15 Bibliography Byock, Jesse. Grettir's Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. --. Viking Age Iceland. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001. Campbell, Dan. "'The Bound God': Fetters, Kinship, and the Gods." Unpublished paper for The Troth's Lore Program, 2009. Cleasby, Richard, and Gudbrand Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1874. Germanic Lexicon Project. 2004. 28 May 2011 <>. Eddukvi: Smundar-Edda. Heimskringla: Norrne Tekster og Kvad. Ed. Guni Jnsson. 2005. 25 April 2009 <>. Flowers, Stephen E. The Rune-Poems, Volume 1: Introduction, Texts, Translations and Glossary. Smithville: Rna-Raven Press, 2002. "Krkuml." The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok. Ed. and trans. Ben Waggoner. New Haven: Troth Publications, 2009. 75-83. Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Plsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. London: Penguin Books, 1989. Pluskowski, Aleksander. "Harnessing the hunger: Religious appropriations of animal predation in early medieval Scandinavia." Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives: origins, changes, and interactions. Eds. Anders Andrn, Kristina Jennbert and Catharina Raudvere. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006. 119-23. Scudder, Bernard, trans. "Egil's Saga." The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 3-184.

16 Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993. Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Trans. Anthony Faulkes. London: J.M. Dent, 1987. --. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Trans. Lee M. Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.