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Myth Madness: Fenrir and Jörmungandr

The reason for the double header this week in our ‘Monster’ section is simple put: the above two creatures of Norse mythology are both tied in to Ragnarök, the Norse Apocalypse – and both of them are sons of Loki, Norse God of Mischief, and the jötunn frost giantess Angrboða, the Grief-Bringer. The third child featured in the image is Hel, ruler of the realm of the dead by the same name – however, as she is not a creature and is more along the lines of a god, she will not be discussed in this article.

We will first discuss the origin of Jörmungandr, the World Serpent. He is a sea serpent who, according to the Prose Edda (an Old Norse compilation of the mythology as set in the 13th century), was tossed into the vast oceans that cover most of Midgard (Earth). There, he grew so large that he came to encircle the entire globe, and grabbed his tail in his mouth. It was prophesized that when he let go of his tail, the planet would collapse, and the entirety of existence would end in what is now known as Ragnarök. This image, of a serpent grasping at (and sometimes consuming) its own tail, is known as an ouroboros, a popular symbol for eternity and immortality, much like the phoenix.

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Jörmungandr is also known as a dire enemy of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder and son of Odin and Fjörgyn. One of the most popular myths known concerning the two proclaims that Thor once went fishing on Midgard with a giant known as Hymir, and caught Jörmungandr on his line, using the bait of an ox head. Before he could strike the great serpent with his hammer Mjölnir, however, a terrified Hymir quickly cut the line, and the World Serpent sank beneath the waves yet again. Hymir had heard the prophecy surrounding the apocalypse, and did not want to end the world just then.

Thor and Jörmungandr will die fighting each other when Ragnarök begins. Jörmungandr will release his grip on his tail and rise from the oceans to breathe poison into the sky, thrashing his tail as he does so to create monstrous waves that will consume the land. Thor will come down to fight him, and slaughter him successfully; but after Jörmungandr falls dead, Thor will only walk nine paces before he, too, falls toward death, having been poisoned by the great World Serpent.

The Fate of Fenrir is much grander than anything relating to his serpentine brother, however. In fact, Fenrir is meant to bring about the death of the All-Father, Odin himself.

Fenrir is known as a massive wolf, one that the gods were wary of simply because of how fast he grew, soon coming to tower over them all. They decided that, in fear of him growing larger to the point of overpowering them, they would commission fetters (chains or manacles typically bound at the feet) to hold him in place.

The first commission was known as Leyding, and was immensely strong. The gods proposed to Fenrir a game of trying to break the bindings, promising to free him afterwards if he could not do so. Fenrir agreed, and easily broke apart his chains. The second commission was known as Dromi, and it was made twice as strong as Leyding. Again they went to Fenrir to have him “test” the bindings, and thus ensuring all inhabitants of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life itself, would know of his power and might. He agreed again, and once more broke apart his bindings, having grown in strength since he broke apart Leyding.

At this point, the gods grew increasingly worried, and so they commissioned the dwarves, skilled craftsmen as they were, to make the last fetters the strongest chain that was ever forged, from six impossible mystical ingredients, as listed below:

  • The sound of a cat’s footfall
  • The beard of a woman
  • The roots of a mountain
  • The sinews of a bear
  • The breath of a fish
  • The spittle of a bird

The end result appeared more like silk than metal, paper-thin and delicate and light, yet stronger than anything made before it. It was given the title Gleipnir.

When the gods came to present it to Fenrir a third time, he saw the silk-like bindings and withdrew, suspecting a trick. They promised him it was not, before beseeching him to break the fetters once more, as he had no trouble breaking heavy chains before now – so why should this be any problem?

Fenrir finally agreed to wear the bonds, but only if Týr, a minor sky god and the only one who was brave enough to feed him over the years, would place his hand in Fenrir’s mouth upon his tongue as a pledge of good faith. If he had been tricked, then he would reserve the right to remove the hand and devour it. The gods agreed.

514px-John_Bauer-Tyr_and_Fenrir

When they put Gleipnir upon Fenrir, he tested them with his might and could not remove them. He admitted defeat and asked the gods to remove his bindings. They refused. As payment, Fenrir bit through Týr’s arm, and swallowed his hand. He continued to fight his fetters, but the fiercer he struggled, the tighter his bonds grew.

The gods completed his binding by running a strong rope through the end of Gleipnir and attached it to a massive rock, which they drove into the earth to act as an anchor. Fenrir opened his mouth wide to try and attack the gods from where he was; to keep him from devouring anyone or ripping them to shreds, they stuck a sword into the roof of his mouth, jamming his jaw open until Ragnarök comes.

When Ragnarök begins, Fenrir will break from his chains and rip the sword from his mouth, before crossing the entire world and devouring everything in his path – including Odin. In the aftermath of Ragnarök, the worlds will begin anew from the remaining darkness of the apocalypse, and Fenrir will be slaughtered by Odin’s remaining sons in vengeance for their father’s demise.

Very few references are made today to these two apocalyptic beasts. Many know of their father Loki through the Marvel comics, and of their half-brother Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse and steed of Odin. They are referenced in a small number of Fantasy-based MMORPGs as enemies, as well as some heavy metal songs that focus on Ragnarök and the battles it will bring. One popular character named after Fenrir was a werewolf terrorist in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, known as Fenrir Greyback. In the book series, at one point, he was incapacitated by a crystal ball, which could be a reference to his demise by Fate’s hand (though highly unlikely).  Otherwise, the pair are relatively unseen in the modern eye.

Image Sources:

http://pikabu.ru/story/kogda_staryie_bogi_vozvrashchayutsya_2405176

http://www.gleipnir.no/story

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This entry was posted on 09/18/2014 by in Myth Madness and tagged , , , , , , .
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