Tyr is a god misunderstood and in large part forgotten by today’s neo-pagans. When most of us think of Norse warrior gods, visions of Thorr and his hammer flash before our eyes, and when one thinks of leadership or kingship we see Odinn and maybe Freyr. Yet Tyr was very important to our ancestors, as evidenced by the fact that a day of the week was named after him, and two of the eight high holidays were dedicated to him.
Much of the mythology of Tyr is at present lost except for the story of the binding of the Fenris Wolf, the son of Loki and Angrboda, as told in the Prose Edda. In short, the Norns warn the gods that Fenris is dangerous, and will one day kill Odinn. The gods, alarmed, decide that they must bind him. They create a strong chain and ask Fenris if he is stronger than the chain. He allows the gods to try to bind him so that he can prove his strength. He easily breaks both that chain and the next, which is twice as strong. But when they try a magical ribbon made by the dwarves, Fenris, suspicious, ups the ante because he fears that despite their promises, they won’t unbind him if he can’t break free. Not wanting to be called a coward, he finally agrees to be bound if one of the gods will lay his hand in his mouth as a pledge of troth. “And each of the Ases looked at the other, and none of them was willing to lose his hand, until Tyr reached forward his right hand and lay it in the mouth of the Wolf.” Needless to say, the wolf can’t break free on his own, and they don’t untie him. Tyr loses his hand, the wrist becomes known as the ‘wolf joint,’ and Tyr picks up the name of Wolf Leavings.
Tuesday is named after Tyr because in the Roman calendar that day was Mars’ day, and the Romans associated Tyr with Mars. This seems strange given that we have no myths associating Tyr with battle, but the binding of Fenris gives us some insight into the association. Fenris is the savage beast who knows no bounds, and, because of his trustworthiness and honor, Tyr alone is able to fetter him. The Norse warriors are oft associated with the berserker image, the warrior raging out of control. But it is the self-discipline of Tyr which allows the warrior to martial his power. Further, the true warrior wants nothing more than justice, which is why he must bind the chaotic forces which would destroy it. Tyr fights only the just war.
Dumézil argues that Tyr, (also Tiwaz and Zio, cognate to Zeus), is more properly understood as the legal half of the dual first function of law and magic. Odinn gives up an eye for a more magical or mystical sense of vision, while Tyr sacrifices his hand so that the violence of war is bound by cosmic justice. Just as the eye needs to be sacrificed for true vision, so too does the right hand, a symbol of one’s honor, (as in the handshake), need to be sacrificed for true justice. It is not uncommon for first function figures to go through some sort of mutilation (e.g. the Celtic Nuada of the Silver Hand, and the Roman heroes Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola). Tyr’s weapon was the spear, another sign of first function deities.
Some of the symbols associated with Tyr are the spear, the hand or glove and the North Star called the Tyr-star or The Nail. Medieval fairs were started by raising a pole in the center with a glove on top. With the cry, “the glove is up,” the Fair was opened, and the law of the Fair took effect. A Saxon rune poem states that the Tyr-star keeps faith with princes.
Tyr is associated with two holidays, Disting (Imbolg) and Thingstide (Lughnasadh). Both are Things, in which the people can ask that the law be exercised on their behalf. Disting is the time of swearing of oaths, (the signing on to war-bands and Viking crews), as it is the beginning of the war season. Thingstide, the end of the war season, is the annual time of making treaties, marriages, and was the time for trials. The legal practices, like wergild and strictly controlled duels, were not abstract, but were designed to stop a fight. Tyr’s loss of his hand to Fenris in a knowingly false bond may have resulted in what Dumézil called “a pessimistic view of the law” where we do what we must to keep the peace.
Tyr’s followers not only need to keep their oaths, but must also take an active role in enforcing justice. Their judgment must include both sides of the situation. After all, it is because Tyr is the only one willing to feed Fenris that Fenris trusts him. In today’s world an eco-warrior who follows Tyr would recognize that while the paper mill cuts down trees, the recycling plant may produce more pollution. True justice is served not by letting violent emotions rule our actions, but by binding the violence both in ourselves, and in that which threatens the justice and peace of our world.
Möge Ihre Ehre und Ihr Mut immer glänzen!
May your honor and courage ever shine!
- Dumézil, Georges, Gods of the Ancient Northmen, trans. Einar Haugen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
- Gundarsson, Kveldulf, Teutonic Magic. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1990.
- Gundarsson, Kveldulf, Teutonic Religion. Manuscript.
- Paxson, Diana, “Coming to Terms with Tyr.” Mountain Thunder 10, pgs.17-20.
- Pennick, Nigel, Games of the Gods. York Beach, ME: Samual Weiser, 1989.
- Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda. Retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths. New York: Random House, 1980.