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Warriors and Soldiers: The Binding of Fenris

Image        As a Heathen, and a soldier, I came to know and embrace the lore in a way different from those who have not followed the profession of arms.  There is a difference that happens in you when you have seen dogs and birds plucking the flesh from the dead and/or dying, the Victory Father, the lord of Wolves and Ravens is known to you as he cannot be to those who have not seen the ugliness and the necessity, stunk of fear sweat in clothes that had been switched out a dozen times but not washed, and known the simple joy that comes when the fear is taken by duty, by the employment of a soldiers skill.  Knowing that this demands everything you have, as few other challenges can truly claim, and that the people beside you are giving every bit as much as you.  That is glory, that is magic, that is probably equal portions of insane and necessary.  That is Odin’s.  Odin’s is the raven’s feast, the wolves harvest.  Odin’s way is victory, accepting the cost both in blood and suffering as necessary.  For soldiers, rather than bandits, there is another god whose role in war is of paramount importance, not to success on the field, but survival when you return.  I speak of Tyr, and I speak of the Binding of Fenris, both in the outer world, and within.

 

      While far from the best poet in our halls, it is as a poet that I see the relationship between life and lore, through the lenses of metaphor.  In stanza 34 o Gylfaginning we are given the vision of the three monstrous children of Loki, Hel, Jörmungandr and Fenris Wolf.  Jörmungandr was cast down in the seas to circle the earth, Hel was given dominion over the dead and sent to Niflheim, but Fenris was kept by the Aesir at Odin’s command [1].

 

     The wolf grew large and terrifying until only Tyr, the lord of the sky, lord of the peace of the thing, the lord of honourable combat, was brave enough to do so.  As Fenris grew in power, so did the prophesy come to be known that he would be the doom of the Aesir, yet still was he kept.

 

       By Odin’s side are Freki and Geri, his wolves that he feeds from his own table.  While others feast in the great hall, he broods over his wine and throws his meat to the wolves to feast on.  In the Havamal we are given Odin’s wisdom that it is better a man not know his fate, if he is to be free of sorrow [2].  Since Odin gave up his eye for the knowledge of what was to come, he is gifted with the knowledge of what is to come, and burdened with the responsibility to do whatever it takes, however terrible, to make it happen.  Odin and Freya are shown as dividing the valliant dead, the einherjar  [3], even as they share the twin magics of Seidir and Galdor, and share as well dominion over the passions that drive men to contend against each other,  or to stand in defense of those they love.  Many times in the lore we see Odin demanding Freya cause strife  between mortal kings, that the valiant dead may be harvested.  Against his need to stave off, or win victory at Ragnarok, he needs to see his people war, that the best and brightest be lost to life, and Valkyrie taken.  War is required to preserve the future of the folk, war is a threat to the existence of the folk.  War is suffering, waste, loss.  War breaks down the bonds that connect us to each other, that make families, that make societies.  In war, it is easy to lose everything that made you a people, even in victory.  As the Voluspa tells it:

“Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.”[4]

 

      Fenris has the kenning, the Wolf of War, the Corpse Eater.  Fenris is the ever-hungry.  Fenris is Odin’s shadow.  As Odin rules over victory to choose a few from the field as his own, Fenris eats the corpses of all, high and low, hero and craven.  Fenris eats well, for after battles end when hunger and disease rules shattered lands, the corpse feast lasts far longer than the shield breaking, or last smart bomb dropped.  Whenever men fight, the wolves always win.  As the power of the Aesir is strengthened by the choosing of the slain, the power of Fenris grows from the killing.  The wolf of war is always fed, ever hungry, ever growing.  The wolf spirit that knows no limitation, the killing fury that knows no conscience, the killing madness that has made a beast of men for as long as men have waged war against each other.

 

      Yet one alone had the will to face Fenris, to feed the ever hungry.  Tyr, lord of trial by combat, lord of the sword, lord of honour, was the only one who dared to feed Fenris.  While Odin shows us how to win, and Thor shows us how to go on when times are hard, it is Tyr who shows us the hardest thing; when we must stand.  Tyr’s symbol was the spear, the spear of kinship, the spear that represented the traditional defense of the folk.  Yet Tyr was the god of the thing, of peaceful dispute settlement, of governance by law and discourse, rather than by sword strokes and fear.  If Odin can be said to be the god who teaches us how to win at all costs, the god of victory in battle, Tyr can be said to be the god of a just war, of the rightful place of violence serving the needs of the folk.

 

        The question was asked recently on the Troth boards about what separates our morality from that of the ancestors whose ways we study/   The answer is this; they lived in a world ruled by Odin’s way of war, and worked towards one ruled by Tyr’s way.  The bulk of the Hamaval concerns building relationships, even as the teachings of Tyr govern how to come together in peace with justice.  If Odin is the god of paying the price for survival, Tyr is the god of paying the price to do what is right.  Odin teaches us to fight for the lives of those who depend on us, Tyr teaches us to remain human while we do so.

 

      War served the ends of the Aesir, and the wolf Fenris grew powerful on it.  Fenris must be bound, or the wolf called war would destroy everything they strove to protect.  Against this they used chains forged of the strongest metal and magic, the very things the tools of war were forged from were used in two great fetters, each of which shattered against the strength of Fenris.  The wolf of war cannot be bound by chains forged of physical things.  A third fetter named Gleipnir was forged of six impossible things; no heavy chain, but a silk supple ribbon.  Knowing it a trap as had been the others before, Fenris demanded the right hand of an Aesir to hold in his great jaws, while the fetter was placed, in case it was (as it was) a trick.  Knowing the hand would be lost, the bravest of the Aesir feared to lose their power in war, more than they feared to not do their duty.  One there was who valued his honour over his power, to whom doing the right thing was more important than winning, thus it was that Tyr placed his hand in Fenrir’s mouth, and lost it when the wolf knew himself bound [5].   The wrist has since been kenned the “wolf-joint”, and honour known as the “leavings of the wolf”; for when Fenris took the hand of Tyr, he left him his honour.  Indeed in choosing to forfeit his hand, rather than fail to do his duty, Tyr became the god of honour, of doing what is right, rather than simply what is expedient.

 

      In the Iron Age war was a brutal thing.  The bodies of women were considered to be just loot, and in war, rape was considered to be acceptable.  The idea of non-combatants did not exist, and when an army sacked a town or city, in order to properly cow the populace, atrocity was the norm for all armies, be they of supposedly civilized lands, or barbarian tribes.  The centre of Western Civilization before the Viking age was Rome, who learned from its Celtic conquorers in 390BC the law they would enforce on most of the Mediteranean world; “Vie Victus” [6].

 

      That is the morality of warriors, the same as is shared by various tribal or guerilla groups, bandit forces, ethnic militia’s, and other irregular forces.  The nations of the west employ standing armies of soldiers, not warriors. Full time soldiers and citizen reservists who serve under the rule of law, they fight under the Code of Service Discipline (Canada) or Uniform Code of Military Justice (USA).  In combat they are further limited by the Rules of Engagement as spelled out by their national command authority through the military heads of mission for that conflict.  Violence is wielded by men and women who are trained and equipped to bring more killing power to bear than Harald Shaggy Hair could dream of, yet do so within a framework of law; that they may know they act with honour.

 

      We still feed Fenris, for war continues to rage on this world, as perhaps it always will.  We may feed it the flesh of our best and brightest, for the feast of wolves and ravens will always be served, where the Valkyries fly, but we feed the wolves on their flesh alone.  Atrocity is the get of Fenris, is the wolf unleashed.  Atrocity is what allows a soldier to be lost in a battle they came home from, for the man or woman who went died upon the field when they chose to let the beast offleash.  These days those who let the beast off leash are tried and punished, for they threaten the mission, they besmirch the honour of those they fight with, and they endanger the fetters that bind Fenris; they weaken the border between what is necessary, and what is evil.

 

    Tyr rules the conduct of our troops, for it is the leavings of the wolf, the part of you that comes home after paying the terrible price for what is necessary, that knows the importance and meaning of honour.  Our ancestors made this possible, they did not know a world like this, but they laid the foundations, and left us the tools to build it.  Do I think I can understand their world?  No.  Do I think they could understand ours?  I think they may well understand what we have at a deeper level than those who have known no other way than the rule of law ever could.

 

As an aside, it is the duty of each and every citizen to ensure that your nations leaders conduct war within the law.  When your nation chooses to embrace expediency, or determine that not all of its laws regarding warfare are important in this particular conflict, it is shattering the fetters of Fenris, and feeding its own troops to the wolf.  When they come home, the price will be paid again and again for choosing to sacrifice the honour and sanity of our troops for a transient, and usually meaningless end.

 

 

[1] Gylfaginning XXXIV http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

 

[2] Hamaval 55-56 http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe04.htm

 

[3]  Gylfaginning XXIV http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

 

[4] Voluspa 45 http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm

 

[5] Gylfaginning XXXIV http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm

 

[6]Livi,  Ab Urbe Condita (Book 5:34–49)

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