Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece.
The wild wolf is back in the Netherlands and that is cause for celebration. Not that he doesn’t pose a threat, especially to our woolly cattle, but the wolf is so bound up with our heritage that an old balance now seems to be restored. Our Germanic forebears liked to compare themselves with these grey beasts, as shown by the many wolf-derived names that were given of old, but also saw them as formidable foes. It is after all the big bad wolf who sinks his teeth in blameless folk in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids.
The biggest, baddest wolf is still to be found in Old Norse tradition. Fenrir, son of Loki, is so feared by the gods that they decide to bind him. But at the end of the world he manages at last to break free and along with Surtr and the sons of Múspell he goes out to wage war against the gods. It is he who fights Óðinn and ultimately devours him. Óðin’s son Viðarr is able to defeat him, however, by putting one foot on his lower jaw and a hand against his upper jaw and thus tearing asunder the maw of the beast. This is depicted on the Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, England, which was raised in the 11th century AD by Scandinavian settlers (see image).
Nowadays it is widely assumed that Fenrir was originally one and the same as Garmr, who by the way is elsewhere called a ‘hound’. In the Old Icelandic poem the Vǫluspá (‘prophecy of the seeress’), one of the most important written sources for our understanding of the old heathenry, he is named in connexion with the end-battle (translation Bellows):
Now Garmr howls loud before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, and the wolf run free.
Earlier in the Vǫluspá it is told how an ‘old woman’ raised the brood of Fenrir in Járnviðr (‘Iron-wood’) and that one of them would devour the Moon (or the Sun). In another source this is done by a wolf called Mánagarmr. Though in the same source Hati and Skǫll are the names of the wolves who chase the Sun and the Moon each day and night and who will devour them during the end-battle. The tradition is therefore slightly confusing, but apparently it originally concerned one monstrous wolf in particular, known as both Fenrir and Garmr, who led a pack in the battle against the gods.
This name might very well be the older of the two, since it occurs in many a kenning. As a common noun it lives on as Icelandic garmur ‘wretch’ (but also ‘tatter, rag’) and Faroese garmur ‘dog’. It is hard to see as separate from (regional) Norwegian garma ‘to roar’, Swedish gorma ‘to yell’ and Old English gyrman ‘to roar, to yell’. On the other hand it cannot be ruled out that the name is derived from the Old Germanic root *ger-, whence otherwise English to yearn and German begehren ‘to yearn’ and gern ‘gladly, eagerly’, among others. Wolves are often known as eager and greedy in old tradition. Compare how Óðin’s wolves are called Geri and Freki. Whatever the case, this possible double meaning is what makes Garmr a fitting name for a mythological wolf (or hound).
Now many a poetic, mythological name in Old Norse literature ended in -ir or -nir. These suffixes had developed from earlier, Old Germanic suffixes and were used by Icelandic poets well into the Middle Ages. Some of such names will therefore have been ancient, some not much older than their first appearance in writing. Well known examples are Ymir (the primordial giant), Kvasir (a very wise man), Fafnir (a dragon), Mjǫllnir (Þór’s hammer) and Sleipnir (Óðin’s eight-legged horse). Fenrir thus wholly fits in this poetic style.
Fenrir is then often seen as a derivation from Old Norse fen ‘fen, bog’, so that it would have meant something like ‘fen-dweller’, but this doesn’t explain the first -r-. Since there are no further indications as to the existence of a suffix -rir, it is very likely that Fenrir was derived from an otherwise unattested word fenr. This could very well be the continuation, via Old Germanic *fenaz (genitive *fenizaz), of Proto-Indo-European *penos (genitive *penesos), a word that is attested as Latin penus (genitive penoris) and Lithuanian pẽnas and meant ‘food, fodder’. Related is Lithuanian penù ‘to feed’.
In that case fenr would mean ‘food, fodder’ as well and Fenrir ‘he who feeds himself, feeder, eater’, a name befitting an all-devouring monster-wolf. It may be noted, moreover, that Fenrir is actually a giant in wolf-guise, and that giants in Old Norse were called jǫtnar. This, along with Old English eotenas, continues Old Germanic *etunōz (pl.), which is most likely a derivation from the root *et- ‘to eat’.
Stories of the infamous monster called Fenrir or Garmr probably already existed in the Old Germanic age, but it is uncertain whether they were also told among the Germanic people outside of Scandinavia. It seems likely though, for according to Old Norse tradition he was one of the most important players in the account of the end of the world, a story which we know was known in one form or another throughout the Germanic world.
Bellows, H.A., The Poetic Edda (1936)
Ebenbauer, A., “Altisländisch -ir und -nir”, in Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (PBB), 95. Bd. (1973), pp. 170–218
Simek, R., Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie, 3. Auflage (Stuttgart, 2006)
Vaan, M. de, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages (Leiden, 2008)
Vermeyden, P. & A. Quak, Van Ægir tot Ymir (Nijmegen, 2000)
Vries, J. de, Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 3. Auflage (Leiden, 1977)