Tyr | The Righteous Lord | Norse Gods


Týr, Tiw, Tig, Ziu, Tyz, *Tiwaz

In the surviving Old Norse texts, Tyr seems to play a relatively minor role; far fewer stories are told of him than Odin or Thor. What can we learn about this ancient but enigmatic god, and his even more mysterious counterpart?

The Eddas and sagas have relatively little to say about Tyr, but what lore we have hints that he held a high place in early times. An investigation into Tyr’s nature finds discrepancies, even apparent contradictions, in the aspects of Tyr as he appears in the various sources. 

Those who would know Tyr have to resolve these: what, in the end, is the central reality of Tyr? Is Tyr the transcendent Sky Father? The stern but fair judge who was once co-ruler of the gods with Odin? Or is he a war God of Thing, conflict and duels: a brave and stoic warrior who sacrifices himself for the well-being of the community? 


Linguists can trace Tyr’s name back to an ancestral form that would have been something like *Dyeus, inferred to be the sky god of the peoples who spoke Proto-Indo-European languages. 

The speakers of Proto-Indo-European languages probably worshiped a god of the sky, as we surmise from the similarity of the names and functions of the sky gods of speakers of Indo-European languages: Dyaus in the Rig Veda, Zeus for the Greeks, Jupiter (originally *Djous-Pater, “Father Djous”) among the Romans, Sius in the ancient Hittite pantheon, and *Tîuz or *Tîwaz in Proto-Germanic (de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte §360, vol. 2, pp. 25-26; Mallory and Adams, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, pp. 230-231).

The sky god’s original name, reconstructed as *deiuos, is related to the root *dieu- meaning “sky,” “day,” or simply “light”. 

For the Germanic peoples, as with others, his name was also a generic word for “god”: in Eddic and skaldic poetry, the gods are sometimes called tivar, literally “Tyrs,” and Óðinn may be called Sigtýr (Victory God), Hangatýr (Hanged God), Farmatýr (Cargo-God), and several other -týr compounds (Skáldskaparmál 1).

If we assume that PIE speakers brought the religious traditions and nomenclature into northern Europe just like they brought their culture and language, then Tyr’s would have been worshiped there since the late Stone Age.

Possessions and Symbols

The North Star

The North Star, in modern uses, is associated more with the introspective nature of Tyr as a guide—not in the psychopomp manner of Odin, but in the guidance of quiet reflection. Tyr is true and will guide one through the darkest times of one’s life.

The Tiwaz Rune

Obviously, the tiwaz rune (ᛏ) is associated with Tyr. While we now think that the rune letters did not originate as pictograms, some Heathen like to find symbolism in the shapes of rune letters. Some see the tiwaz rune as a simplified Irminsul, or as a pole holding up the roof of the celestial dome, calling to mind the axis mundi. Others might see the tiwaz rune as simply an arrow or spear, representing the active power of Tyr.

The Hand of Tyr

Finally, a hand can be seen as an emblem of Tyr, calling to mind his sacrifice. As mentioned earlier, at medieval fairs in England, the raising of a glove on a pole marked the moment that the fair began and the Law of the Fair was in effect. Nigel Pennick has speculated that this practice originated in pre-Christian times as an invocation of royal authority and right order (Secret Games of the Gods, pp. 138-139).

Whether or not this is true, the Troth begins each Trothmoot by raising a glove on a spear stuck in the ground and announcing that all are bound to keep the frith.

Tyr in Medieval Germanic Heroic Literature 

The problem with Tyr’s portrayal in Germanic literature is that he’s… well, for the most part he’s absent. So we will have to look further back into pre-medieval sources to see the evolution of the worship and conception of Tyr in pre-Christian times.

While Tyr’s name may be derived from “Sky Father” some early sources describe Tyr as a God of war and conflict.

Tyr the war god

In his account of German society, Cornelius Tacitus mentions three deities, whom he identified with the Roman gods Mercury, Hercules, and Mars (Germania 9). These gods are widely understood to correspond to Odin, Thor, and Tyr, a correspondence called the interpretatio Romana. Martis dies, or the “day of Mars” in the Roman week became Tuesday—Týsdagr in Old Norse, Tiwesdæg in Old English, Zistag in Old High German (De Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte §347, vol. 2, pp. 10-11; Helm, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, vol. II, pp. 236-243).

The custom of invoking Tyr for victory is described in Sigrdrífumál 7:

Sigrúnar flú skalt rista, ef flú vilt sigr hafa,

ok rísta á hjalti hjǫrs,

sumar á véttrimum, sumar á valbǫstum,

ok nefna tysvar Tý.

You must carve victory-runes, if you want to have victory,

And carve them on the hilt of your sword,

Some on the blade, some on the guard,

And call twice on Tyr.

This was not just poetic fancy. At least one sword pommel and two spearheads have been found in England that bear Tyr runes (Pollington, The Elder Gods, pp. 169-170, fig. 17).

In Gylfaginning 25, the narrator describes Tyr in terms consistent with the function of a battle god:

There is another god called Tyr. He is the boldest and most courageous, and he has much power over victory in battle. It is good for brave men to invoke him. It is a proverbial saying that he who surpasses others and does not waver is “Tyr-valiant” (týhraustr). He is so wise that it is said that a wise man is “Tyr-wise” (týspakr).

The narrator also claims that Tyr is “ekki kallaðr sættir manna”, “not called for agreements of people,” which implies that he is instead called for when unsettled situations arise and must be settled.

Whereas in Lokasenna 38, Loki accuses Tyr with flú kunnir aldregi bera tilt me› tveim, “you never could settle a case between two people,” further associating Tyr with conflict–though that reference is more likely to be dripping with sarcasm and irreverence as is the case with the rest of the drama. 

The Thing-God

Modern Heathens refer to Tyr as “God of the Thing”and derive that title from interpreting his role within the ancient Germanic tribal legislative and judicial assembly, which was a place where both laws were made and cases were adjudicated. Tacitus reported that:

. . . capital punishment, imprisonment, even flogging—is permitted only to the priests, and then not as a penalty or under the general’s orders, but as an inspiration from the god whom they suppose to accompany them on campaign. (Germania 7, transl. Hutton, pp. 140-141)

This could lead one to assume that the priestly class enacted both judgment and punishment, but Tacitus later notes that capital cases are actually tried in an assembly (Germania 12). The priests may administer the punishment, but only at the will of the assembly. While “the god whom they suppose to accompany them on campaign” is not named, it seems almost certain to be Tyr. 

Tyr was the “God of the Thing” and more specifically he was the God who was present in the proceedings that took place within the Thing and understood to be the primary justifying force behind the authority of the rulings of the Thing–the Thing’s foundation. 

In fact, the word “law” itself comes from a root meaning “laid down;” “law” is, etymologically, “that which has been laid down,” the precedents that have been set. Those foundations weren’t just set before Christianity, but even before the Feudal warband became the model of Germanic and thence all of Medieval society.

The pre-Feudal Germanic systems of resolving conflict and punishing wrongdoing were community-based. Disputes were often resolved by an assembly or jury, not a single judge or a King. The assembly made laws in response to new situations, and these rested on precedent, rather than on the edicts and decrees of powerful warlords and kings. (see Schwartz, Poetry and Law in Germanic Myth, pp. 6-16, for an overview).

We don’t see any literature or artifacts that give us an indication that Tyr was a “warlord” in this sense, tossing out decrees from on high or through the might of his retinue . There is no indication that Tyr decided anything; rather, that Tyr both knew and accepted the judgments of the Thing as the judgment of destiny itself.

Which is what brings us to Tyr’s most famous role (indeed, his only role) in the Eddas.

Tyr the Wolf-Binder

The only clear mention of Tyr in Medieval Germanic heroic literature where he actually takes part in the action of a story is the binding of the wolf Fenrir. We aren’t going to look at this mythic drama literally. We aren’t going to say this proves Fenrir is a cosmic evil or that the Gods were abusing a child.

These interpretations are all justified by reading the text from different perspectives. Instead, we are going to read this just to figure out something about the audience assumptions around Tyr. To do that, we will be taking a more metaphorical interpretation of the myth rather than a literal interpretation. Other debates about this story will have to wait for another day.

Because oracles told the gods to expect great harm from Fenrir, the gods “brought the wolf up at home, and only Tyr had the courage to go up to it and give it food.” 

As the wolf grew great and strong, the Æsir needed a fetter strong enough to bind him. After two failed attempts, they obtained a magical fetter from the dwarves, and went with the wolf to an island in a lake. When the gods suggested that Fenrir allow himself to be bound, he balked, even though the gods promised to set him free if he could not break the bonds (Gylfaginning 34):

The wolf said: “If you bind me so that I can’t get free, then you will sneak away so that it will be a long time before I get any help from you. I don’t want to have that ribbon put on me. But rather than be accused of cowardice by you, let one of you place his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done in good faith.”

 Each of the gods looked at the other then and thought that they were in a fix, and not one of them would stretch forth his hand, until Tyr put out his right hand and laid it in the wolf ’s mouth. Now when the wolf began to struggle against it, the band tightened, and the more fiercely he struggled the more firm it got.

 They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand.

What does this story mean and especially why is it Tyr who is the God supposed to put his hand in the wolf’s mouth? Why is he the one who has to feed the wolf? Couldn’t Thor do it? Why Tyr? And why are all the other Gods laughing in this divine drama? 

Digging into Tyr’s role in the drama shows a clue as to what people assumed about Tyr.

Fenris appears clearly cast as the antagonist in the drama. He’s brought to Asgard and fed by Tyr until the Gods find out he will grow to destroy them. His pride in his strength is ultimately what the Gods use against him in order to finally bind him, which they do finally though an act of deception.

But what is Tyr’s role here? Is he part of the deception? Does he feel guilty about it because it’s “wrong” to lie? This is a popular theory but we want to suggest something else.

Tyr isn’t being punished for the “deception” of the Gods: both the Gods and Fenris engage in deception in the story. 

Fenris, by biting Tyr’s hand, shows that even if he is bound, he is still a threat to the Gods. But still, the judgment of the Æsir was that the wolf had to be bound, and someone needed to sacrifice themselves to fulfill that judgment, which brings us to exactly why it had to be Tyr to do it.

The acceptance of the consequences of your actions is exactly the foundational principle of a civic Assembly.

Let’s get back to the question of why Tyr and only Tyr was the God of the Thing, and specifically the God of the “judgments” of the Thing, or why Tyr was the God invoked in battles or any other situation when outcomes appeared uncertain.

Look closely at the action in the drama and what the Gods are doing, specifically how they are making decisions. Is Tyr making the decision to bind the wolf himself? It wasn’t any individual. It was “the Æsir.” In every instance, when a decision is made, it is the decision of the Æsir. While some Gods appear to act alone, they are acting in accordance with the will of the Æsir. 

And while Æsir usually means just “the Gods” the way we see the term functioning here is interesting. Instead of being just a categorical designation, the Gods are here acting in a very particular and deliberative way. The Æsir are, in this story, acting as an Assembly

The foundational authority of an Assembly doesn’t rest in the power and might of an Assembly to enforce consequences, like a warlord, it rests in the belief and acceptance of the judgements of the Assembly by all its members. If the Assembly does not bind, then it is not an Assembly. If a single member says “these rules no longer apply to me, I do not recognize your authority” and gets away with it, the Assembly’s authority is void. 

“Tyr’s judgements” are simply what one must accept as a consequence of action. The Gods brought home the wolf, and demanded the wolf be fed. Who does the feeding? Tyr. Because it is the will of the Assembly. Further, the wolf isn’t just bound by a flimsy ribbon, it is bound by Tyr sacrificing himself to do the will of the Assembly–even though it’s not his punishment to take.

If it were the case that a single warlord was strong enough to overpower and bind Fenris, this would be a very different story. As it stands, none of the Gods possess the singular strength to enforce their will

Were Tyr to run away from these consequences handed down by the Æsir, what would have happened in the logic of the story? What if no one wanted to bear the consequences? Head-cannon aside, according to the story’s internal logic the wolf would have grown and eaten everything. The whole of society would have crumbled. 

Thus, the whole of society rests on Tyr’s acceptance of the binding authority of the Assembly’s judgement. The wolf is only bound because Tyr accepts the authority of the Assembly as binding.

Which, of course, Tyr would accept even though he has the power, like all the other Gods, to reject it and demand the consequences pass to someone else. Just as any free participant in an Assembly may have the ability to reject the authority of the Assembly if they don’t like their judgment. 

But when that happens, the wolf is unbound and society is destroyed.

Tyr Today

In modern times, Tyr has attracted the devotion of many groups of people whose interests sometimes run into conflict. For example, lawyers who serve both in the capacity of prosecution or defense may be devoted to Tyr. Politicians of any party devote themselves to Tyr. Law Enforcement Officers and Social Justice protesters may equally pray to Tyr. 

Tyr the Father of the Assembly and Society

Where the warband model may have triumphed for centuries under Feudalism, Tyr as the father of the assembly is the very fabric of the society we live in today. Many followers of Tyr find themselves in professions that have to do with the law, either as attorneys or judges, or find themselves called to public service as administrators, legislators or executives.

Outside of public service, Tyr is called to mediate disputes by modern Heathens. Not that Tyr himself comes and does the mediation, but Tyr’s authority binds the parties to abide by the results of the mediation.

Tyr the Righteous

Tyr’s followers still pray to him “for victory” but not often victory for themselves personally–more of victory in service to a greater cause in service to others. Much like the God they worship, Tyr’s people regard outcomes as judgments rendered by fate. If something is righteous and meant to be, then Tyr will bless it and cause it to be. If it isn’t, he won’t. 

As such, Tyr is seen more of a judge of causes, initiatives or ideas than of people. This ability to separate oneself from one’s work makes Tyr’s worshipers adept at things like business or statecraft. Tyr takes nothing personally and nothing for granted. 

Tyr the Courageous

Because of his description in the literature, Tyr is seen as the courageous God. He bears with courage the judgments of the Assembly, motivated by an intrinsic understanding that sacrifice and self-effacement is the necessary foundation of society. 

But this doesn’t mean Tyr’s people are traditionalists or conservatives. In fact, more often than not Tyr’s people are neither of those things and you find his devotees among the strongest advocates for social justice and equitable change. This requires less a devotion to tradition as it does to a devotion to the spirit of justice that doesn’t just see what is, but sees what ought to be.

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This article was created with substantial excerpts from Our Troth Vol. 2 which was edited by Ben Waggoner and has been used here with the editor's permission. This article also contains substantial contributions from the insights and practices of many members of The Troth, whether quoted directly or unquoted. If you want to read the full book, please find our publications page here.