These three names are synonymous with infamy and destruction in the annals of Norse myth. All three are children of the trickster god Loki and all three play their roles in bringing to an end the golden age of the Aesir. The great wolf, the world snake and the Queen of the underworld are all destined to wreak havoc upon the nine realms and decimate the ranks of the gods.
Who are these apocalyptic beings and what do they mean in the fatalistic world of Viking imagination?
Children of Mischief
Loki, the god of mischief, is sire to numerous children by various partners. It is his three offspring with the giantess Angrboda, ‘anguish boding’, however, who strike more fear into the gods than all others.
These three are Fenrir the wolf, Hel, Queen of the underworld, and Jormungand the Midgard Serpent. All three were birthed in Jotunheim, and all were cared for by their mother in the land of giants until their capture by the Aesir.
Fenrir the Wolf
There are few creatures more fearsome than Fenrir the great wolf of the Norse sagas. The beast is believed to be bound up even today below Midgard at the foot of Yggdrasil, the world tree, in a rash act of pre-emptive punishment by fearful Aesir gods.
His name, Fenrir or Fenris, means ‘fen-dweller’. He is also called Fenrisúlfr, ‘Fenrir’s wolf’, Hródvitnir, ‘fame-wolf’ and Vánagandr/Vanargand, ‘monster of the River Ván’, the body of water created from the saliva of his dripping mouth.
This beast has jaws wide enough to swallow mountains and to devour gods. To say that he is terrifying is an understatement and we must understand that even with our combined modern technology of war, we would have no means to withstand him.
Being the offspring of Loki he has excellent pedigree as a malicious bad actor. His father, although Asgardian, is of giant stock, as is his mother. Thus he is likewise of vast, world-devouring stature.
Hel, Queen of the Dead
Hel, meaning ‘hidden’, rules over the dead in perpetual disdain. The fearsome goddess is friend to no one, uncompromising in her dealings with gods and mortals alike. It is terrifying to look upon her form which remains ever in a state of partial decomposition.
Helheim, the realm in which she holds sway is a place of shadows, darkness and gloom. Unlike the heavenly Elysian abode of the beautiful Freya’s Folkvang or Odin’s raucous Valhalla, her kingdom promises little happiness in the afterlife.
While the valorous and the mighty are selected to enjoy the company of gods in Asgard, those unlucky enough to be neither selected by Freya nor the Valkyries will end up living their afterlives among thieves and cowards.
Baldur, the god of light and nobility, died through deception and despite his lineage and power, was taken into Helheim. When brave Hermod entered Helheim to bargain for his freedom, he found Baldur seated in dejection next to Hel, powerless to change his fate.
It is said that within her realm, her power is vast and equal even to that of Allfather Odin.
Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent
Jormungand, also known as Jörmungandr or ‘huge monster’, is a brother of Fenrir, a son of Loki and vast enough to encircle our entire world, making him over 40,000 kilometers in length. He slumbers beneath the ocean and forms a natural barrier between our seas and what lies beyond in the realms of Muslpeheim and Jotunheim.
We should hope he continues to sleep, for when he awakens, the oceans themselves will move.
When great Odin, Allfather and giant slayer, came to learn of the existence of Loki’s progeny from his high perch in Asgard, he was filled with dread. He remembered the prophecies given to him about the end of days for his kind and hoping to thwart fate, he sends for all three of the children to be brought before him in Asgard.
Upon arrival, the Allfather acts swiftly. Sighting the vast serpent he seizes it and throws it into the ocean that surrounds Midgard. Jormungand strikes the bottom, falls into unconsciousness, and remains there to this day. The snake was still young in those days and easily cast into the sea. It has grown ever since and now encircles the entire world.
Hel was not deemed to be so great a threat as the serpent. Although a potential future threat, the young giantess was distinguished only by her dour expression and a tinge of blue to her skin. Rather than kill or bind her, Odin deemed it a wiser course of action to grant her dominion over a realm all her own, but far from the home of the gods at the top of the world tree.
The Allfather was more merciful with the wolf and deigned for him to be raised among the Aesir in Asgard, and there he stayed for a long time.
The Binding of Fenrir
Over time, as Fenrir grew continually in size and strength, the gods began to fear him. As Powerful as they were, only one among them, Tyr, god of justice, dared approach the wolf to feed him.
The Aesir, therefore, hatched a plan to eliminate this perceived danger from among them. They forged a chain of incredible strength, called the Leyding, with which to bind him. Then they lured the unsuspecting wolf to the island of Lyngvi in the Kattegat strait between Denmark and Sweden.
At Lyngvi the beast was tempted to test his force against the newly fashioned bond. To the disappointment of the gods, he shattered it with ease.
Not ones to give up easily, they constructed another chain, far stronger than the first, named Dromi. Once more they offered it to Fenrir who again snapped it easily with his great strength.
The gods began to lose heart, worrying that they would never succeed in eliminating the growing threat. Lacking the skill to forge a stronger bond, they appealed to the artful dwarves of Nidavellir, to fashion a restraint that none would break.
The dwarves were happy to demonstrate their skill and forged the legendary Gleipnir, made of six magical ingredients, with the appearance of a smooth, silken ribbon and yet more unbreakable than any metal chain.
Fenrir, being no fool, suspected that this final bond must involve some trickery. Although vain enough still to test his strength another time, he asked for a token to ensure that the gods would free him once the test was done.
The Betrayal of Tyr
To this end, the brave god Tyr, most trusted of Fenrir, consented to place his hand in the wolf’s mouth until the deed was done.
Since the plan was to never release him, Fenrir lost no time in severing the hand from Tyr’s wrist, but struggle as he might, the bond would not break. The gods then fastened Gleipnir to the ground with two enormous stones while the wolf continued to snap and bite, his massive jaws threatening to devour them all.
To end the struggle the gods thrust a long sword into his open maw, long enough to span its measure from top to bottom, and locked his mouth open beyond release.
Rivers of saliva pour forth from the beast’s mouth to this day, forming the legendary river Ván.
Although bound beyond hope, each day adds to the wolf’s size and strength as he awaits his freedom and his revenge.
As if all this injury weren’t enough, the gods have since applied salt liberally to the wound by imprisoning his father Loki for his role in the death of Baldur, god of light. His two half brothers, Vali and Narfi, are likewise banished along with their father, their only crime being that of their ancestry.
The Aesir used their magic to transform Vali into a wolf causing him to lose his reason and savage his brother Narfi, Fenrir’s half-brother, to death. The gods then use Narfi’s guts to bind his father to the rock where he suffers until today, beneath the dripping poison of a serpent.
When Fenrir is finally released at Ragnarok his hunger for vengeance will be enough to destroy worlds.
What did Fenrir do to deserve this? Were the gods unwise in their actions? Only time will tell.
Hel Becomes Queen
Although Odin would not suffer Hel to remain among the gods, yet he chose neither to kill nor bind her. Instead, she was given a home in the depths of the cold world of Niflheim among the very lower roots of Yggdrasil.
In this realm, she fashioned for herself a kingdom, called Hel, after her own name, or sometimes Helheim or Niflhel. There she rules those dead who have not been chosen for either the fields of Folkvang or the great hall of Valhalla.
Becoming Queen of the Dead has not improved the sullen goddess’s mood and she reigns in perpetual disgust, her body rotting eternally as she sits in her great hall of Eljudnir.
It is in this great hall that brave Hermod finds Baldur sitting in dejection next to his unwanted Queen. Baldur is sitting in a place of honor next to the decomposing goddess which does not bode well for Odin’s messenger whose task is to plead for Baldur’s freedom.
The Queen of Hel listens to Hermod’s plea on behalf of all the Aesir. She hears that every living thing mourns and laments his loss and that the whole world begs for his return.
Owing nothing to the gods, yet Hel says that she will comply with the request but on one condition. Hermod assures Hel that she will receive anything she asks in return. In order to release Baldur to the world of the living once more, she requires only that all living things, throughout the nine realms, must shed a tear for his loss. Then he will be returned.
Hermod returns to Asgard with his message of hope and the gods set about fulfilling Hel’s condition. With their combined powers, the Aesir and Vanir travel far and wide between the nine realms using their powers of persuasion to convince all beings that they must weep for their beloved Baldur.
At last, all have been convinced and all creation has wept for the god who can unite all beings, mortal and immortal. Except for one giantess, the lonely Thokk, living apart from all others in a remote corner of Jotunheim. For reason unknown this lone person in the vastness of all the worlds of creation will not consent to shed a tear for the light god, explaining that she held no love for Odin or his son and that she was content for Hel to hold on to her prize.
Despite their heroic dedication to the task, Hel has not relented and Baldur, Odin son and half-brother of Thor, remains trapped among thieves and liars under the gloomy rule of Loki’s fearsome daughter.
Little is known about the one being in all creation who could find no sorrow for the loss of the god of light to the underworld of shadow and darkness. Some suspect that she was in fact, the trickster god himself, Loki, disguised to perfection with the deceit of his shape-shifting powers.
The Casting Down of Jormungand
Like his brother Fenrir, the world snake was born and raised in Jotunheim by his giant mother Angrboda. His life was uneventful until the arrival of a party of Aesir sent by the Allfather to take him and his siblings to Asgard by force.
Separated from his mother, Jormungand was seized by Odin and cast into the sea that surrounds Midgard and left unconscious to slumber beneath the ocean for all eternity, if the Allfather would have his way.
Like his enormous brother Fenrir, Jorumungand continues to grow, and eventually, his body became long enough to encircle our entire world. In this way, his tail became lodged in his mouth and there he sleeps even now, awaiting the world’s end.
The Challenge of Utgarda-Loki
Thor went to Jotunheim to test his strength against the frost giants and was challenged by the giant king Utgarda-Loki, to lift an enormous sleeping cat. Thor, the strongest of all the Aesir, barely raised a single paw above his head, leaving the thunder god in doubt of his powers.
Unbeknownst to him, this was no cat’s paw but Jorumungand’s vast tail. His power to lift so great a being above his head struck fear into the heart of the giants lest the very dimensions of the universe should be altered by so prodigious a feat.
The Baiting of Jormungand
On another occasion, the mighty Thor went fishing with the giant Hymir. In his stupor, Jormungand latched on to the ox head that the fishing companions were using for bait. Once more the Odin-son succeeded in raising the world serpent and seeing him eye to eye above the waves prepared to strike the life from his body.
Before he could do so, Hymir, filled with dread, severed the line, and Jormungand sank once more beneath the waves, remaining intact for the day of Ragnarok when he and Thor will confront each other one last time.
Odin and Fenrir
In his continual search for wisdom, the Allfather has discovered that the worlds he labored to create must one day come to a violent end. He knows that Fenrir and Jormungand will be defeated and that he and his son Thor will sacrifice their lives to do so.
On the day of Ragnarok, Fenrir will fight side by side with his father Loki. While the trickster god rides the Nagl ship filled with allies from the underworld, Fenrir will travel alone to the plain of Vigrid to slay the little gods who tricked him into bondage for nothing more than their fear of his great stature.
Along the way, his snapping jaws will destroy mountains, forests, and entire kingdoms. Only Odin will stand in his way, as no other can. Their battle will be ruinous, shaking the branches of Yggdrasil and causing carnage as they smite each other for days on end.
Odin’s brave Einherjar and Valkyries will be consumed in the battle, thousands upon thousands will be swallowed up in his vast jaws until finally, they will close upon the Allfather and end his long life of countless millennia.
But the beast’s victory shall be short-lived for Odin’s son Vidar is destined to avenge him. Equipped with a shoe crafted for the purpose and composed of shards of leather from generations of shoemaking throughout the realms, he will jam his foot into the wolf’s lower jaw and then take hold of the upper to crack the beasts head open with one mighty push.
And yet, great Vidar will be too late to save the Allfather and his brave companions. Nevertheless, the wolf’s progress will be halted and what remains of the world will be saved.
Thor and Jormungand
When Jormungand awakens, his vast form will move bodies of water to the shores of Midgard that will drown cities and flood mountains to their peaks. His thrashing tail will make storms and tides so great that they will be outside our ability to measure.
Making his way towards the shore the world serpent will destroy all in its path, elf, dwarf, god, and mortal alike. His poisonous breath will pollute the skies and cause those who breathe the tainted air to gasp and die.
None can stop him until at last, he comes face to face once more with the thunder god, Thor son of Odin.
The battle that takes place between the two will be like an unending storm that shakes the very ground beneath our feet and the skies above our heads.
Equipped with mighty Mjolnir, the Odin son will eventually triumph after a tremendous struggle, by smashing his magical hammer down upon the snake’s head, bashing in its skull, and mashing out its brains.
Despite his victory, the thunder god will be covered in so much venom from the dying reptile that he will manage to walk only nine more steps before succumbing to his wounds and collapsing to the ground never to rise again.
The Freeing of Baldur
At the third sign of the coming of Ragnarok, a dun cockrel will call out to Hel and the inhabitants of her realm that they must ready themselves for battle. Garm, Hel’s guard hound that sits at the entrance to Niflhel will howl to let all who dwell below the great root of Yggdrasil the time is upon them.
Loki freed will find the Nagl ship and his daughter will supply him with a vast crew of the worst of dead souls to fill his vessel before he sets out to Vigrid to avenge his years of tormented captivity.
Yet Hel herself will not venture forth from her abode deep in Niflheim. True to the meaning of her name, ‘hidden’, her fate is not yet known.
Of Helheim however, the prophecies tell that both Baldur and his loyal brother Hod will, at last, be freed after Ragnarok and will return together to the realms of the living to rule as gods once more in the new world.
Does this mean that Hel will finally relent in her senseless capture of the most loved of all gods in her dark world? Or will she be slain like her bothers Fenrir and Jormungand, allowing the world to come to rights once more? This secret is not yet known and may only be revealed when at last ‘the shining one’ has stepped forth, back into the light of the world.
Wisdom and Fear: the Vengeance of Outcasts
Jormungand, Hel and Fenris, treated so badly by Odin and his Aesir kin are destined to have their revenge. The gods are powerful but not wise enough to cheat fate. In their fear, they fail to either bring the children of Loki into the fold of Asgard or to bind them fast enough so that they will never be free to cause mischief among the worlds.
In his attempts to cheat destiny, has the Allfather not instead created enemies even more powerful and vengeful than if he had resigned himself to his fate and awaited Ragnarok in peace?
On this matter the Skalds and Eddas are silent and we must each make up our own minds as we see fit.