What happens when you cross Loki with a troll woman? Their three children – a sea serpent, a two-faced daughter and a giant wolf – pose unique threats to Asgard.
For a while, the marriage of Loki and Sigyn was a happy one and they even had two sons, Nari and Vali. But Loki was not the sort of fellow who could ever be content with only one woman – no matter how beautiful, affectionate or loyal. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that when he encountered the troll woman Angrboda in the Ironwood, during his wanderings in Jötunheim, Loki succumbed to her charms. Not that the thick, leathery hide, meter long nose, and bent shuffling gait would have appealed to every man. Loki had however a taste for the exotic.
At any rate, Loki visited Angrboda often enough that she bore him three children. Three very strange children. But then, what would you have expected if you crossed Loki with a troll? One son was a giant serpent (or limbless dragon) called Jörmungand, the other son was a talking wolf they named Fenrir and their daughter whom they called Hel.
When the gods learned of the existence of Loki’s children, and who their mother was, they became uneasy. And when a prophecy suggested that great misfortune would come upon the gods because of these children, Odin secretly sent a group of gods into Jötunheim on a special mission. There they seized Jörmungand, Hel and Fenrir which they brought back to Asgard. There they would be raised under the watchful eyes of the Aesir until Odin decided what to do with Loki’s strange children.
Jörmungand proved to have a great appetite and he grew so rapidly that it was not long before he was large enough that he could have swallowed one of the gods, if he chose to. Assuming that this possibility was what the prophecy had warned against, Odin carried the serpent up on top of the ramparts of Asgard and hurled him out into space. So powerful was Odin’s throw that Jörmungand cleared the outer limits of Asgard altogether and tumbled into the great ocean that surrounded Midgard. There his insatiable appetite, and ever increasing length, led him to seek ever larger prey until nothing less than a whale could satisfy him… and that but for a time. Eventually the Midgard Serpent (as he came to be called) grew so long that he extended all the way around Midgard and bumped into his own tail, which he promptly bit down upon, when he lets go the world will end. Jörmungand’s arch-enemy is the god Thor. Hel posed a different sort of problem for the Aesir. One side of her face and form she had inherited from her father (and Loki was a handsome fellow), but the other side was all too gruesomely trollish like her mother. Those gods who sat on her good side at meals found Hel to be a tolerable table companion, but those who sat on her other side had trouble keeping their food down and usually left the table at the first opportunity. It is from Loki’s daughter, almost certainly, that we get the expression that someone “looks like Hel.” Odin knew that he had to get Hel safely out of Asgard before half of the Aesir refused to eat in the hall, but he felt it would be ungentlemanly to simply throw her over the wall as he had her brother Jörmungand. Suddenly he was struck with a brilliant idea.
” Hel, I’ve been watching you since you’ve been living here in Asgard and I’ve really been impressed with your dignity and calmness. So impressed, in fac, that I think you can help me out with a little problem I have. “
” And what problem is that, Odin? ” Hel responded quietly.
“ Well, as I’m sure you know by now, the spirits of humans who die in combat are brought up to Valhalla by my Valkyries to spend eternity here. ” Hel nodded, and waited for Odin to continue.
“ They’re not my problem, Hel. The ‘straw deaths’ are. They’re the ones who die in childbirth, from illness or just plain old age. Their spirits are wandering aimlessly about in the nameless depths below Niflheim and what they need is to be organized. How about it, Hel? Would you like to rule over them? Why, we can even name their realm after you, if you like. What do you say? “
Hel laid a long, white finger on the corner of her mouth and pondered aloud: “ Hel, Queen of the Dead! Yes, I like the sound of that. And it gives my life purpose. Thank you, Odin. When may I begin my duties? “
” Oh, the sooner the better I should think. We’ll arrange transportation for you immediately so you can meet your subjects and start getting them organized.“
And as Hel departed, Odin could barely keep from laughing aloud at the thought that he had just sent her unsettling presence as far from Asgard as it was possible to go in the Nine worlds.
As long as Fenrir was only a cub, the Aesir did not feel greatly threatened by the wolf’s presence. Still, the prophecy’s ominous warning hung over them, so only the god Tyr was entirely comfortable hand feeding young Fenrir. The wolf shared his brother’s ravenous appetite and rapid growth, hence it wasn’t very long before Fenrir was as large as a horse… and still growing. At that point, the Aesir realized that Fenrir was big enough to be a threat to their lives. They demanded that Odin would do something about him.
The simplest solution, of course, would have been to kill Fenrir on the spot. But, having allowed the wolf into Asgard and having fed him, that would have violated the law of hospitality, one of the most sacred laws of the Viking age. No, Odin needed a more subtle approach to deal with Fenrir the Wolf.
One day, Odin approached the wolf and declared:
” Fenrir, you are without a doubt the biggest, strongest, smartest wolf in all of the Nine worlds.
” I know, I know. ” rumbled the flattered, but modest, wolf. “
” So it really bothers me, ” continued Odin, ” that you don’t get the honor and glory you so richly deserve. “
” It is sad. ” sighed Fenrir. Then he shrugged his lupine shoulders and said: ” But what’s a wolf to do? “
” I think what is needed, ” declared Odin, ” is a demonstration. “
” A demonstration? ” queried Fenrir, perking up his ears. ” Just what did you have in mind? “
” Well, if you were to let us tie you up with a thick rope, then you could break it and everyone would praise you for your strength.“
” Sounds like a good idea to me. When can we do it? “
” There’s no time like the present.“ opined Odin. ” Just let me get a rope and assemble the other gods so they can watch while you show your strength.“
Soon all of the Aesir had gather in a large circle around Fenrir to watch as several of the gods wrapped the wolf in a stout anchor rope from one of their dragon ships. After tying the final knot, they barely had time to step back and admire their handiwork before Fenrir expanded his mighty chest. The rope snapped asunder with a noisy crack, then slid from the wolf’s body.
” Hrr-hrr, hrr-hrr.” growled the wolf.
” Humph, ” retorted Odin, shaking his head from side to side. ” That was far too easy to win you much honor Fenrir. You need to break free from something far more challenging, a chain perhaps. “
Fenrir allowed himself to be bound with a huge iron chain, each link of which was as long as the palm of a man’s hand. But once the wolf exerted his strength, the chain lasted little longer than the rope had. Pieces of broken chain sailed in all directions, scattering the onlookers.
” Hrr-hrr, hrr-hrr.” growled the wolf once more.
Appalled by the ease with which the wolf had shattered the great chain, the Aesir muttered uneasily and all heads turned as one to Odin.
“Well,” said Odin in feigned disgust, “ it seems they just don’t make chains like they used to. I’m really sorry Fenrir that we couldn’t provide you with a chain worthy of your prowess. I’ll tell you what… give me a day or two to see if I can’t find some other binding that might truly test your mettle. “
” Alright, ” sniffed the wolf, ” I can’t wait.“
At Odin’s command, Frey’s servant companion, Skirnir, hasted to Svartalfheim. There he persuaded some of the dwarves to craft a very special binding for the wolf. Special it was because of the unique ingredients that went into its making: the noise a cat makes when it walks, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird. When the dwarves were finished, they held in their hands Gleipnir, a cord that was deceptively slender but actually the strongest binding the Nine Worlds had seen.
When Skirnir returned to Asgard bearing Gleipnir, Odin immediately called together Fenrir and the Aesir for the third and hopefully final test. The wolf looked at Gleipnir with a skeptical eye, then sniffed at it inquiringly.
” Snif, snif. Magic! I smell magic.” declared Fenrir, baring his teeth and backing away from the cord. ” Are you trying to trick me? “
” Now, now, Fenrir. There’s nothing to get excited about. None of the ordinary bindings challenged you in the least so I had to find something that would let you win great fame. What’s a little magic to strength like yours? Surely you weren’t thinking of backing out, were you? “
” Well, no, I suppose not. I wouldn’t want you Aesir to accuse me of cowardice. But just to make sure that the test is really fair, I’ll only go through with it if one of you will put his hand between my jaws until I am free again. Agreed? “
The Aesir avoid the wolf’s gaze and looked at each other. Knowing that they did, indeed, plan to trick Fenrir, who among them would willingly sacrifice his hand for the binding of the wolf? Sensing the gods’ hesitation and growing increasingly suspicous of their intentions, Fenrir grew more and more agitated and thus more dangerous. Just then, Tyr, the god whom Fenrir most trusted stepped forward.
” I’ll do it,” said Tyr. He then placed his right hand in the wolf’s mouth. Fenrir clamped his jaws shut on the god’s hand gently but firmly. Then the Aesir wound Gleipnir round and round the wolf’s body before finally tying his legs together too. Fenrir looked altogether helpless so everyone held his breath.
Fenrir took a deep breath and flexed his mighty muscles but he could not budge the magic cord. The wolf was truly bound at last, and one look at the faces of the circle of Aesir told Fenrir they had no intention of ever releasing him. Enraged, Fenrir bit down hard and then as Tyr staggered away clutching the bloody stump of his wrist, the wolf flung the gods’s hand away with a violent flip of his head.
Fenrir opened wide his mouth and howled his frustration and despair to all the Nine Worlds. As the last echo of his mournful cry faded, Fenrir opened his mouth to howl again. But one of the Aesir seized a sword and thrust the blade upright into the wolf’s mouth so that he could never close it again.
At last, Fenrir was truly helpless. Unable to move, unable to howl, unable to even swallow. And thus shall he remain until Ragnarök, the Doom of the Gods, when all bindings shall be loosed… and the wolf shall go forth to swallow even Odin himself!