Guest chapter by Aleks Pluskowski: Fenrir Unearthed?

Ole Worm’s etching of the Hunnestad stones

I’m delighted that the very first guest post for Words on Wolves is written by a fellow medieval wolf enthusiast, Aleks Pluskowski. Aleks is an Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, and specialises in zooarchaeology. He has written extensively on wolves in medieval Europe, and is the author of the excellent monograph Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages

Unfettered will fare the Fenris Wolf, and ravaged the realm of men

Heimskringla, trans. by Lee M. Hollander

In mid-December, news of an archaeological discovery in southern Sweden was circulating on several news and social media sites. Excavations near Ystad in December had unearthed a substantial fragment of a decorated stone, engraved with what has been widely described as a ‘powerful, ferocious wolf’ (fig 1). The wolf has even been named by some commentators as Fenrir, the monstrous lupine of the Viking apocalypse.

Fig 1. Archaeologist Axel Krogh Hansen with Hunnestad ‘Stone 6’ (aka DR 286) in situ (photo by Annika Knarrström)

The find was quickly recognised as one of the so-called Hunnestad stones, a group of eight boulders, two of which had been engraved with runic inscriptions and three decorated with figural images, with a date range from the late 10th – early 11th century. From the inscriptions we know that at least two of the stones were raised by Tumi and Ásbjôrn to commemorate their deceased brothers. After Tumi died, Ásbjôrn erected a stone in his memory which was decorated with a cross. It is generally assumed that all the stones were associated with the identity of this powerful Danish family, during a time when Christianity was becoming established in southern Scandinavian regions. The stones were famously drawn by Danish antiquarian Ole Worm in 1643 (fig. 2) and stood together until the early 18th century, when some were removed and used as building materials; in the case of ‘Stone 6’ discovered last month, as it turns out, as part of the foundations of a bridge.

Ole Worm’s etching of the Hunnestad stones
Fig 2. Ole Worm’s etching of the Hunnestad stones (1643) (Wikimedia Commons)
Fig 2.2. Stone 6 close-up of Ole Worm’s etching of the Hunnestad stones (1643) (Wikimedia Commons)

The desire to interpret the animal on ‘Stone 6’ as a wolf, and particularly as Fenrir, is not surprising. Fenrir is a central figure in Viking Age Scandinavian mythology and continues to capture our imaginations today. Yet the carving has been more cautiously referred to by scholars in the past as a ‘great beast’, one of the defining features of the late 10th century Mammen and Ringerike styles of Viking art. A slightly earlier version of this animal can be seen on the famous Jelling runestone erected by Harald Bluetooth, a classic example of the Mammen style, which some have interpreted as a lion with Christian symbolism (Wood 2014), whilst the motif of the ‘great beast’, sometimes entangled with a serpent, continued to be used in the mid-11th-12th century Urnes style.

Fig 3. Stone 4 (aka DR 284) in Kulturen, Lund, Sweden (Wikimedia Commons)

Scandinavian art throughout the Viking Age is defined by animal forms, referred to as zoomorphic, and more often than not it is difficult to be certain about which species is being represented. Two of the Hunnestad stones may indeed depict wolves, particularly the most famous of the set which is carved with an anthropomorphic figure holding a snake and riding what is very plausibly a wolf, with a snake rein (fig. 3). This may reference the mythological giantess Hyrrokkinn attending the funeral of the god Baldr, or alternatively and more interestingly given the figure’s androgynous features, a ritual specialist, a practitioner of seiðr or sorcery (Price 2002, 120-121). Representations of animals with similarly stylised pointed ears and drooping manes are also visible on the Tullstorp and Lund 1 runestones. Hunnestad ‘Stone 5’, which remains lost, also appears to show a quadruped with a pointed ear, small mane, and a simple tail, licking what is often referred to as a stylised human ‘mask’. But the animal on the recently uncovered ‘Stone 6’ is an altogether different beast, with elaborate tendrils emerging from both its tail and head (for a discussion of the identification of wolves and lions on runestones see Stern 2013).

Alongside their commemorative role, the stones publicly marked the family’s claim to the land. They also provide us with a window into the gradual dissemination of Christianity. Scandinavian elites bridged the religious divide between the pagan and Christian worlds, and the Hunnestad stones include symbols and figures connected with both. This too was one of the most important roles served by Fenrir in the late Viking Age.

Fig 4. Óðinn confronts Fenrir in Hélène Adeline Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen (1909) (Wikimedia Commons)

We know most about Fenrir from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, written in Iceland in the early 13th century, as well as snippets from a few earlier eddic poems, particularly Völuspá, which Snorri also cited and which probably originally dates to the 10th century. The wolf is the monstrous offspring of the giantess Angrboða and the god Loki, born and bred in the great eastern forest of Járnviðr (Iron Wood) along with his kin, a line of wolves including one who will swallow the moon and spatter the heavens with blood. Ominous prophesies prompted the Æsir to entice Fenrir into being bound, initially with restraints he easily overcomes, and ultimately with Gleipnir, a powerful magical fetter forged by the dwarves at the instruction of Óðinn. Fenrir was suspicious of this thin, silken binding and demanded one of the gods put their hand in his mouth as a gesture of goodwill. Týr volunteered to do this and once Fenrir realised that he was unable to break the fetter, which simply tightened the more he struggled, he bit off Týr’s right hand. A sword blade was then forced into Fenrir’s mouth to stop him from biting further, and he was left bound on an island until Ragnarök, when he would break free and confront Óðinn in the final battle. Although he would devour the god, he would then be slain by Óðinn’s son, Víðarr. Several other named wolves feature in Snorri’s Ragnarök narrative: the end is heralded by the wolves Sköll and Hati swallowing the sun and moon, whilst Týr and Garm face each other on the battlefield and both perish. The battle between gods and wolves has inspired numerous illustrations in modern re-tellings of the story (fig. 4).

Some have argued that the various wolves represented in the mythological narratives are iterations of the same being. Andy Orchard (1998: 43) astutely observed that Týr “who, one would have thought,  might like to get his hand on Fenrir”, instead faces Garm, who is described as a sort of hell hound but who may also be interchangeable with a wolf. Fenrir (Fen Dweller) or Fenrisúlfr (Fenrir’s Wolf) is more commonly referred to as simply ‘the wolf’, particularly in the Ragnarök poems, as well as variant names such as Hróðrsvitnir(Famous Wolf). His name also features as a common noun for ‘wolf’. Wolves feature widely as symbols of death in battle and as battlefield corpse-scavengers in Scandinavian sources, reflecting a long association with the god of battles, Óðinn, who will himself become food for the father of all wolves.

The notion of a lupine opponent of the gods can be certainly traced back to the first decades of the eighth century; a skull fragment dating to this time found at the Danish trading site of Ribe is inscribed with the runic inscription ‘ulfur / auk / uþin / auk / hutiur’ (the wolf and Óðinn and High Týr) (Grønvik 1999). The roots of this relationship are invariably earlier, and perhaps several of the animalistic forms on Migration Period bracteates and weapons also represent ‘the wolf’, alongside one very clear representation of Týr with his hand in Fenrir’s mouth on the Trollhättan bracteate. Some have suggested the original source was an Indo-European lupine-canid archetype, while others speculated the influence of early Christianity played a role in shaping this monstrous figure. Anders Andrén (2014: 155-156, 189) has also connected the figures of Týr and Fenrir with early Gotlandic solar myths, and with Týr’s importance as a deity in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Irrespective of Fenrir’s murky origins, by the 10th century the details had been fleshed out. Óðinn is referred to as ‘úlfs bagi’ (the wolf’s foe) and Fenrir’s name appears alongside kennings referencing the story of his binding (e.g. ‘sparri varra Fenris’ or ‘prop of Fenrir’s lips’ and ‘gómsparri kindar gylðis’ or ‘gum-prop of the wolf’). If we accept an earlier date for part of the eddic poem Grímnismál, this is also the time when other wolves like Sköll and Hati are mentioned, and in art, motifs from the Ragnarök story become especially prominent. It is within this context, when monuments such as the Hunnestad stones are being erected, that we see a brief flourishing of public representations of ‘the wolf’.

Fig 5. The Gosforth Cross in the cemetery of St Mary’s church, Gosforth, Cumbria (Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, the majority of examples of apocalyptic lupines from this time have not been identified in the Scandinavian heartlands, but rather in areas of Scandinavian settlement in northern England and on the Isle of Man, where vignettes of Óðinn being swallowed by Fenrir, Týr losing his hand and Víðarr tearing apart ‘the wolf’s’ jaws have been identified on 10th century sculptures. More ambiguous examples include a relief from Chester-le-Street in County Durham which depicts the crucifixion and may show the bound Fenrir in the bottom of the panel (Cramp 1984: 58). The most elaborate, and arguably difficult to interpret, are found on the famous Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, which is decorated with scenes that combine or syncretise Christian and pagan Scandinavian elements (fig. 5).

Fig 6. Thorwald’s Cross, St. Andrew’s Church, Andreas, Isle of Man, from Kermode’s catalogue of Manx crosses with runic inscriptions (1892) (Wikimedia Commons). Incidentally, a 3D model of the slab can be found here

The faces of the cross shaft are dominated by long serpentine forms with prominent fanged heads that are confronting or devouring human figures. On the southern shaft of the cross, an interlaced animal is shown with bound jaws, and below, another appears to be escaping its bonds above a mounted figure carrying a spear. These have all been variously interpreted as Týr, Víðarr or Óðinn confronting their respective lupine opponents at Ragnarök. At the same time, they could be the archangel Michael or Christ confronting the devil in the form of a dragon (Bailey 2000: 19-20). A less ambiguous representation is found on Thorwald’s Cross (named after its sponsor in the associated runic inscription) at St Andrew’s church in Andreas on the Isle of Man, which clearly shows Óðinn being devoured by Fenrir, and on the reverse side a figure bearing a staff, a book and crushing snakes under his feet, most likely the victorious Christ, if not a bishop or saint (fig. 6).   

In all these sculptures, Óðinn is consistently represented as the prey of ‘the wolf’, in contrast to the triumphant Christian figures. Whilst the apocalyptic themes are similar, they are not identical. The juxtaposition would have invited a reflection on Christian salvation following the destruction of the old gods, and it is likely that the optimistic ending to the Ragnarök narrative was added under Christian influence. In this ending the world will re-emerge from the sea and will be re-populated by two surviving humans, some of the gods will survive including Thor’s sons and Fenrir’s slayer, Víðarr, whilst Óðinn’s son Baldr, a Christ-like figure, will be resurrected. These monuments, commissioned by local elites for public consumption, speak of the accommodation or pervasiveness of Scandinavian pagan beliefs within Christian communities. I think Richard Moore (2012: 135) described it best as a “‘creolization’ of Christian beliefs”. Although ‘the wolf’ was dropped from later renderings of the apocalypse, it appears to have left a lasting mark on the Christian imagination in 10th century England.

When monks in Winchester and Canterbury began to illustrate their devotional manuscripts with a new representation of the mouth of hell, they chose a form that looked particularly lupine (Schmid 1995: 61-83). Within a century, the depiction of the mouth of hell as a great beast, a dragon, lion, fish, and at times a wolf, would seize the imagination of artists across Western Europe, and animal heads devouring human forms would become popular decorations in the margins of churches. The tales of Fenrir would continue to be passed down the generations in enough detail that Snorri, amongst others, could eventually record them, even if he or his sources did elaborate or reimagine the supernatural wolves of the old cosmology. Indeed, medieval Old Norse literature, produced by Christian writers, transformed Fenrir from a transient oral into a fixed literary figure, one that would eventually catch the attention and scrutiny of scholars. The biographies of the various lupine monuments are also important in this respect. How did subsequent generations understand their imagery? Were the stories forgotten or reinvented as soon as the paint had flaked off and the lines had faded from weathering? In later centuries, a number of these decorated stones were reused in other contexts, which brings us back to the fate of the Hunnestad memorial. But like the earlier literature, they too would be rediscovered by antiquarians who sought to document, conserve, and restore them.

As a result, Fenrir has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last century, alongside popular interest in the Vikings. Today, his name has wider international currency, visible in a swathe of books, art, games and online discussions. Although it is doubtful that the engraved animal discovered last month near Ystad represents ‘the wolf’, the lupines on the other Hunnestad stones remind us of the consistent association between wolves and death that came to play a vivid role in the transformation of the belief systems of Viking Age Scandinavian societies, an association that was never truly forgotten.

Further reading

A range of papers on wolves, runestones and related symbolism in Viking Age Scandinavia can be found in Andrén, Anders. Jennbert, Kristina and Raudvere, Catharina (eds.) (2006). Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspective: Origins, Changes and Interactions. Lund: Nordic Academic Press

For a more detailed discussion of Fenrir see chapter 9 in Pluskowski, Aleksander (2006). Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell

Additional references

Andrén, Anders (2014). Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth, and the Sun in Archaeological Perspectives. Lund: Nordic Academic Press

Bailey, Richard, N. (2000). “Scandinavian Myth on Viking-period Stone Sculpture in England”, in G. Barnes and M. C. Ross (eds.), Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society. Sydney: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, pp. 15-23.

Cramp, Rosemary (1984). Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Vol. 1: County Durham and Northumberland. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Grønvik, Ottar (1999). “Runeinnskriften fra Ribe”, Arkiv for nordisk filologi, 114, pp. 102-127

Moore, Rirchard H. (2012). “The Manx Keeill and pagan iconography”, Trowel, 13/1-2, pp. 124-140. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/download/23432113/Moore_2012.pdf

Orchard, Andy (1998). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell

Price, Neil (2002). The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Uppsala: Department of History and Archaeology

Schmidt, Gary, D. (1995). The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eighth century Britain to the Fifteenth Century. London: Associated University Presses

Stern, Marjolein (2013). Runestone Images and visual communication in Viking Age Scandinavia. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. Available at: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/14291/1/M_Stern_Thesis_without_images_new.pdf

Wood, Rita (2014). “The Pictures on the Greater Jelling Stone”, Danish Journal of Archaeology, 3/1, pp. 19-32. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/21662282.2014.929882

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