The mighty god Tyr is among the most important of the Viking deities ( see our full post), listed among the 12 Aesir that were the most powerful and important.
But we actually know very little about the god, and what we do know is pieced together from fragmentary sources.
It seems that Tyr was a god of war and justice and was also considered the bravest and most valiant of the gods.
It is also speculated that he may have been more important in pre-Viking times, and then superseded by Odin, which partially explains why so little is known about him.
Many of his stories and attributes may have been transferred to Odin as part of this process.
But let’s take a look at the evidence that we have for all this speculation.
Family of Tyr
Where Tyr sits in the Aesir family tree is difficult to determine. While some sources refer to him as a “son of Odin”, another source explicitly states that he was the son of the giant Hymir.
According to the story, Thor and Tyr traveled to the hall of Hymir to retrieve a giant cauldron, as it is the only cauldron in existence to make enough mead for all the gods.
They want to take it to a big party that they are planning in the hall of Aegis, a giant that was also a god of the sea.
When they arrive at the hall of Hymir the two gods try to hide, but the wife of Hymir exposes them, saying to Hymir that his son is visiting.
There is no word on who Tyr’s mother may have been, though she was presumably one of the Aesir if his father was Hymir. Perhaps his mother was Odin’s wife Frigg, and he was a stepson of Odin? But this is pure speculation.
The sources also suggest that Tyr was married, as at a banquet Loki taunts Tyr by saying that his son has had his way with Tyr’s wife. But her name, and the existence of any children, is not revealed in any of the sources.
Tyr is often identified with the Proto-Germanic god Tiwaz.
This god seems to have been more important among the Germans that Tyr was among the Vikings, which led to the speculation that Tyr was superseded within Norse culture by Odin.
Though this must have happened early on, as in the first century AD the Roman author Tacitus says that the primary deities worshipped among the Germans are Mercury (Odin), Hercules (Thor), and Mars (Tyr) – the Romans commonly identified new deities with gods in their existing pantheon.
He also said that the first required human sacrifices, while the latter two received animal sacrifices, suggesting that Odin had already become the principal deity of the pantheon.
Tyr – God of War
The choice of the Romans to associate Tyr with Mars, their god of war, is strong evidence that Tyr was a god of war.
This is reinforced by the Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda, which says that Tyr was the bravest and most valiant of all the gods and that he had power over victory in battle.
Other sources suggest that Viking would write the Tiwaz rune on their weapons to invoke Tyr to assist them in battle.
In the Sigrdrfimal, the Valkyrie Sigrdrufa tells Sigurd that he must know the victory rune to know victory and to carve it on the hilt of his sword, his blade guards, and on the blade, invoking the name of Tyr twice.
Tyr – God of Justice
It is also the Romans that allow us to associate Tyr with justice. The Romans also called Tyr by the name Mars Thingsus, which means Mars of the Thing.
The Thing was a German legislative and governing body that played an important role in the German justice system.
This idea is seemingly confirmed again by the story of Loki making fun of the Aesir gods at a banquet.
When Loki is taunting Freyr, Tyr steps in to defend him. Loki states that Tyr cannot be the right hand of justice because he has lost his right arm to Loki’s own sun Fenrir.
Tyr and Fenrir
The most well-known story from Norse mythology in which Tyr features is the binding of Fenrir, in which Tyr loses his arm.
Fenrir was a giant wolf, and one of the three children of Loki with the giantess Angrboda, along with Jormungandr and Hel.
The Aesir gods so feared the potential chaos that such off-spring could wreak on the world that they immediately set out to contain each of them.
In the case of Fenrir, they decided to find the wolf, but he was so strong that this proved difficult. It was challenging both to get shackles on the wolf, and to find shackles strong enough to hold him.
In the first instance, the gods themselves made some chains. They played on Fenrir’s arrogance and pride and convinced him to put on the shackles so that he could break free from them and show off his strength.
Knowing that he could, Fenrir agreed, and easily broke the shackles.
The gods then tried to make a stronger pair of shackles, but the results were the same.
Finally, the gods turned to the dwarves, the master craftsmen of the Norse cosmos, and asked them to fashion something.
They made Gleipnir, a binding that looked like ribbon. But the binding was impossible to break because it was made from impossible things, specifically: the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spit of a bird.
Fenrir was naturally suspicious when the gods turned up with this new, seemingly ridiculously easy challenge.
So, Fenrir would only agree to don the shackles to show off his strength if one of the gods put his arm in his mouth, as a sign of good faith. If the gods betrayed him, he would be able to bite off the arm.
Since all the gods knew that they were indeed tricking the wolf, no one wanted to agree. In the end, Tyr was the only god brave enough to make the sacrifice.
When Fenrir donned the new chains, he was unable to break free and promptly bit off Tyr’s arm. But the work of the gods was done, and Fenrir will remain bound until Ragnarok.
Tyr and Ragnarok
And how will Tyr’s story end? According to the Ragnarok prophecy, the prophecy of how the world will end and the gods will die, many of the gods will fight to the death with the monsters of Norse mythology.
The prophecy says that Tyr will fight to the death with Garm, the guard dog of Hel who will accompany Loki and his daughter Hel from Helheim to Asgard to attack the gods.
Killed by a guard dog. This does feel like a bit of an ignominious end to such an important deity.
What Do You Think?
Based on the evidence, do you think that historians have come up with a reasonable idea of who Tyr was to the Vikings and why he was important? What do you think are the most important attributes of this enigmatic god?