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The story of Tyr’s binding of the wolf Fenrir is the only surviving myth of a god who must have once been a major figure in Germanic religion. Today, there are two popular readings of the role of the wolf that place twenty-first century identity politics over a deep understanding of the mythic figure itself. After examining the myth and the variant interpretations, maybe we can agree on a reading that is both historical and contemporary.
A Myth of Threat and Sacrifice
The very name of the god Tyr provides the strongest evidence for his former greatness; the word týr is used in Old Norse as a synonym for “god.” Parallel names appear in related Indo-European religions as designations for major gods of the sky. By the time the Norse myths were written down in Iceland, this great god had been reduced to a minor figure with only one attached myth.
He appears in the Edda when Snorri Sturluson tells the tale of the gods attempting to neutralize the existential threats of Loki’s three monstrous children: the half-corpse Hel, the gigantic World Serpent, and the monstrous wolf Fenrir.
At first, the gods keep and raise Fenrir, and only Tyr is brave enough to feed the growing wolf. However, Fenrir’s rapidly increasing size and the prophecy that he is destined to attack the gods leads the gods to attempt his binding for their own safety. The wolf manages to break out of the various fetters placed on him under the guise of a game, so the deities ask the clever dwarfs to make an unbreakable band.
The gods the take Fenrir to an island overgrown with heather and tell him that, if he is too weak to break the new fetter, they will know he is no threat – and he will then roam free. Understandably suspicious that they will leave him in bonds, he asks to hold a god’s hand in his mouth as a guarantee of the gods’ good faith.
Tyr volunteers his own right hand. When the gods see that the wolf is unable to break free from the dwarf-forged fetter, “they all laughed except for Tyr. He lost his hand.” Thanks to Tyr’s sacrifice, the wolf is now bound for the coming ages and will be a captive until the arrival of Ragnarök.What meaning is behind this myth? The poem Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”) provides a clue. Loki insults the gods and goddesses one by one, but each taunt also serves to bring out a quality or attribute of the deity being targeted. When he turns to Tyr, Loki says:
Be silent, Tyr, you could never
deal straight between two people;
your right hand, I must point out,
is the one which Fenrir tore from you.
This can be seen in the context of the mutilated gods – figures who have given up a part of their physicality in order to gain a higher power that defines their religious role.
Odin sacrifices one of his eyes and gains mystic insight as the god who seeks wisdom. Heimdall casts away one of his ears and gains the ability to hear all that happens in the nine worlds as the guardian of reality. Freyja gives her body for the sexual pleasure of the dwarfs in order to gain her necklace, an ancient symbol of female fertility power. Both Freyr and Thor have compromised phallic weapons – Freyr gives away his sword, Thor has a hammer with a shortened shaft – and are associated with human and earthly fertility, respectively. Baldr gives up his life so that he can return from Hel after Ragnarök as a bright god of the next world.
This interpretation can be argued against, as can all such systems. However, in this context, it seems that Tyr has given up his hand so that he can do exactly what Loki claims he cannot – bring the hands of men together in honest compact. Tyr is invoked in the inscription to Mars Thingsus on the third-century altar on Hadrian’s Wall in England; as the god of the Thing (assembly), Tyr would indeed see to it that that there were straight dealings between people as they negotiated legal and business cases. As with the other mutilated gods, Tyr has given up a physical part that gives him spiritual power – in this case, as the god who oversees contracts and compacts between men.
So Tyr’s sacrifice in the myth has dual functions of immediacy and implication. Tyr protects the community from the immediate threat by binding the wolf, and he protects it from future threat by becoming a god who insures straight dealings between individuals.
Both threats threaten the safety of the community. The wolf will attack the community of which Tyr is a part, and violations of the social contract lead to chaotic violence – as is so often illustrated in the escalating conflicts of the Icelandic sagas.
Siding with the Wolf
There is a subset of modern Heathenry that seems to valorize the wolf’s violent threat over Tyr’s protection of the community. The image of the snarling wolf appears on Heathen jewelry, logos, avatars, websites, and memes.
Common to the many variations of this theme is the embrace of the attacking wolf as role model set in opposition not to the one who guards the community, but to sheep who are portrayed purely as prey for the wolf. This brackets the fact that sheep are herded and raised for the benefits they provide to the human community, and it instead posits the outer beast who attacks the inner world of men as the ideal.
This disdain for symbolic sheep is sometimes coupled with an attack on supposedly passive Christians, as in the various iterations of the slogan “Better to be a wolf of Odin than a lamb of God.” This imagery sits uneasily with Heathen assertions that Christians have a violent history of converting past pagans by the sword. If the use of force against the weak is something to be celebrated, wouldn’t the Christians who bloodily converted the northern world be heroes to macho Heathens today?
This somewhat self-contradictory valorization of wolfish violence as a specifically Heathen ideal is problematic for other reasons, as well. Those who promote the concept of the wolf-model can push back against the above points by turning to the ulfeðnar (“wolf-skins”) of the sagas as examples of strong men who took on the qualities of wolves. The problem is that the best-known examples of ulfeðnar are harmful to their communities and to themselves.
In the Icelandic saga of Egill Skallagrímsson, Kveldúlfr (“Night-Wolf”) is a Norwegian landowner who is a purported shape-shifter. He is kind to his farmhands and workers during the day, but “towards evening he would grow so bad-tempered that few people dared even address him.” His wolfish tendencies drive away human contact, even from those within his closest community. This antisocial behavior is not portrayed as something to be emulated.
In the Völsunga saga, the hero Sigmundr and his son Sinfjötli don the wolfskins they find beside bewitched men. They howl like wolves and break their companionship to individually assault groups of men who venture into the forest. Sinfötli betrays his promise to his father to only attack small groups and to call on him for help when facing greater opposition – a breach of trust that Sigmundr answers by assaulting him and biting him in the windpipe. The right relationship between father and son is not repaired until they are able to take off and burn the wolfskins, therefore turning their back on animalistic behavior.In both cases, the closest bonds of kinship and community are broken by the assumption of wolf-like character. Is this something to be celebrated? If so, it goes directly against the example of the god Tyr as binder of the wolf that threatens the community.
Defenders of the attacking wolf as a Heathen symbol can also point to berserkir (“bear-shirts”) as examples of men inspired by Odin who fight with the assumed ferocity of wild animals. In the sagas that purport to tell of historic times (as opposed to ones dealing with fantastic and legendary subjects), these figures are portrayed as out-of-control threats to farming communities who wander in from outside of inhabited areas to demand hard-working people fight them or give up their wives and daughters for their own pleasure. These wolfish figures are portrayed as outside the pale of human society and directly threatening to it, not as anything to be celebrated.
What of the two mythic wolves who are portrayed as the loyal hounds of Odin? They appear in the poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”):
Geri and Freki he satiates,
the glorious Father of Hosts, trained in battle;
but on wine alone the weapon-magnificent
Odin always lives.
The names of the wolves both translate as “greedy.” Odin appears here in his role as a bloodthirsty god of war, as he does at other points in the lore. We know that Old Norse literature regularly refers to warriors as those who feed the wolf and the raven with corpses they slay on the battlefield, and that seems to be the image that invoked in this stanza. To take poetry literally is usually a mistake. The idea here seems to be that Odin-as-warlord is feeding his wolves with dead bodies by causing war in the world while he himself glories in the shed blood which he metaphorically drinks as wine.
I would ask those creating and forwarding memes of the Heathen wolf: who celebrates the destruction and death caused by war? Over the long centuries of human history, we have repeatedly learned the lesson that mass killing is not a glorious and heroic thing.
This is not some sort of postmodern revisionist rewriting of Heathen history. Even in the oldest sources, images of the glorious and victorious warrior are countered by portraits of men made so miserable by their war wounds that they beg to die, of wives who watch their husbands bleed to death on the battlefield, of women violated and enslaved as plunder, of children living among strangers who never know their parents. The Heathens of the elder era lived with their eyes wide open to the realities of the world.
Today, only a true monster would look at the photos of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh and gleefully or wolfishly howl that war is magnificent. To demand that the international community stands up for the human rights of those whose lives are upended by war is to invoke the power of Tyr; to deride these young people as passive sheep is to celebrate and embody the threat that Fenrir brings to the world community.
The Wolf as Victim
Another subset of modern Heathenry reads the binding of Fenrir as a tale of cruelty perpetuated by the gods, with Tyr as the willing deceiver who enables the abuse. Those who promote this idea tend to be of kind heart, and that should be respected. However, this reading makes the common error of reading mythology literally, of mistaking the surface imagery for the metaphorical core of the myth.
The interpretation in question goes something like this. Loki is a sympathetic and misunderstood fellow who is treated poorly by the gods, a group of ingrates who don’t appreciate all that he does for them. When he fathers three innocent young children, Odin and his tribe abuse them by throwing the girl into the underworld, tossing the young snake into the ocean, and abusing the wolf pup.In this interpretation, Fenrir is a gentle creature who is bound and tortured by the evil gods. The fact that he later kills Odin and aids the destruction of the world at Ragnarök is a fair and just retribution for his cruel and unusual treatment as a pup. Tyr is a deceitful cad who betrays the creature he had once fed, gaining its trust only to wickedly trick it into allowing its own painful binding. The gods are the villains of the story, and the myth is really about the unjustified and unjustifiable violation of the innocent.
Leaving aside the question of Loki’s role in Norse mythology, this reading seems to be a willful inversion of the symbolism inherent in the myth of Tyr and the wolf. Like the Heathens who embrace the wolf as an ideal of thrilling violence to be emulated, the promoters of this view pull the wolf out of the context of ancient myth and rewrite him as something entirely postmodern.
Wolf-pups are gentle creatures, says the pro-Fenrir faction, and to bind them is an act of wickedness. Wolves are beautiful and intelligent creatures of the wild, and they form wonderful and close-knit communities that care for their members in a way that humans would do well to emulate. Such assertions are often accompanied by high-definition nature photographs of smiling wolves cavorting with their offspring.
This may all be true, but such a portrayal goes directly against the worldview of the peoples that created the myths and handed them down through the generations. The ancient Norse and Germanic peoples were largely dependent on farming and animal husbandry for their livelihood. In such societies, the wolf was no kindly creature to be cuddled, but a dark and dangerous threat that lurked on the edges of human habitation, always ready to strike and terrorize.
In the 1930s, my father grew up in a German farming village in what was then Hungary. The town’s name was Karavukovo (“the place of the black wolf”). In no way were wolves celebrated by the hardworking rural community as beautiful and wonderful creatures to be marveled at and fêted. They were terrifying predators who prowled the edges of what the Icelanders of long ago would have called the innangarð, the enclosed world of humans.
Due to the very real threat they posed in life, wolves serve as the great symbol of that which threatens human communities. They are found playing this role throughout Germanic folklore, from the earliest surviving examples through the so-called fairy tales collected in the nineteenth century.
In the era described in the Icelandic sagas, the wolf is the symbol par excellence for that which endangers society. Prof. Jesse L. Byock writes of the Old Norse term for one man killing another in stealth and hiding his action: “The killer was then referred to as a morð-vargr, murderer (literally, killer wolf), and was beyond the pale of the law.” He goes on to explain the use of the term vargr (“wolf”) in Icelandic law codes “to refer to outlaws, who could be hunted down like wolves.” A human who commits an inhuman act of violence is then treated like a wolf, is beyond the protection of the laws, and can be cut down in cold blood like a wolf. There is no sympathy in this hard culture for the beast that kills men.
In the poem Hákonarmál (“Sayings of Hákon”), Odin speaks ominously of “The grey wolf watch[ing] the abodes of the gods.” The mythic image of Fenrir connects to the legal concept of the murderer and to the real threat of the actual animal. In light of this context, it seems willfully contrarian to assert that Fenrir is the hero and Tyr the villain.
Finding Common Ground
Myths can be read in many ways. We can both strive to understand the meaning of the mythic image in the parent culture and assert our human right to reinterpret it in light of our own life experiences. However, problems creep in when we choose to forward readings that go directly against everything we know about the religio-cultural worldview from which the myths emanated.
Is it possible to examine the myths from our own cultural vantage point while still being honest about the source material? Both positions of identification with the wolf discussed above – whether as violent predator or gentle victim – toss aside the deeper meanings inherent in the mythic symbol and superimpose concepts from today’s hyper-divisive personal politics.The core problem here really seems to be an insistence on emphasizing the surface symbol over the metaphorical referent. The modern use of memes – of visual markers to assert meaning – underscores this approach to myth. The photo of the snarling wolf expresses the rugged individual’s constructed self-image as a tough-guy who always stands up for himself. The images of joyous wolf-parents and loving pups suggests that the individual is someone who feels misunderstood and outside of the social mainstream – and therefore seeks alternative images of non-mainstream belonging.
Both projections of self-identity can be deeply meaningful to those who deploy them, and they are completely understandable as social-media creations that seek to assert an image of self within a given community. However, both also go directly against what the wolf represents in the myths themselves.
The tale of Tyr and the wolf neither valorizes the violence of the wolf nor portrays the animal as a sympathetic figure. This is not a literal tale of tying up a struggling young wolf. It is part of a mythology of deities with names like “god,” “thunder,” “fury,” and “lady” – and of a monstrous creature whose name Fenrir means “fen-dweller,” a threat from the uninhabited outer lands who comes to destroy the cultivated worlds of gods and men.
Maybe we can agree on a reading of the myth that is both true to the text and to what we believe today. Here is a simple suggestion that focuses on the symbolism of Tyr and fully accepts that that the wolf is a metaphor rather than a real-world animal.
Out of an entire community, only one individual is willing to offer great personal sacrifice in order to protect his fellows from a dire threat that has grown up within the community. Rather than turning to violence against others, he nobly stands up and takes the resulting damage to himself. As a result, he gains the ability to join the hands of other people in agreement and harmony.
This uncomplicated reading makes sense in terms of the worldviews of then and now. It is up to the individual to fill in the blanks of what they consider sacrifice, threat, community, and harmony.
Will you stand up against the threat to American society posed by the alt-right, knowing that they will target you for retribution? Will you cross the fault-lines in our racially-divided society to work for change, even if people on every side deride you for it? Will you take the risk of standing up for your community, be it Heathen, immigrant, or LGBTQ+? Will you face the harmful elements within your own family, faith, city, and country?
If you are brave enough to stick your hand in the mouth of the beast, maybe you will help your community to bind the forces that threaten it and move forwards toward future reconciliation.
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