Tyr is the Norse god of courage, oaths, justice, and single combat. He is typically portrayed as a one handed man carrying a spear. The loss of his hand is a result of his agreement with the wolf Fenrir. Historically he may have been one of the most commonly worshipped gods, however, we see very little of him in the classic literature. The Prose Edda indicates that he is the sone of Odin, while the Poetic Edda indicates that he’s the son of Hymir. At one time, he was considered to be the “leader of the gods”.
The day Tuesday is named for him.
Tyr in the classic literature
Tyr doesn’t appear very many times in the classic literature, probably because during the time that Tyr was most popular stories were handed down orally, rather than written form. However, we do have a few stories in which Tyr appears:
The Voluspa — The Voluspa, or the wise woman’s prophecy, is told in both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The tale is a story of Odin calling upon a Volva (wise women) to give him advice. She gives him the tale of the creation of the universe, and ultimately tells him the tale of Ragnarok. It is in this tale where we learn of the tale of Tyr loosing his hand to the Fenris wolf.
The gods decided to shackle the wolf Fenrisulfr (Fenrir), but the beast broke every chain they put upon him. Eventually they had the dwarves make them a magical ribbon called Gleipnir from the noise a cat makes when it moves, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, the spittle of a bird, the beard of a woman, and the roots of a mountain. The gods took those items from the world and that is why they do not exist today. Fenrir refused to be bound with it unless one of the gods put his hand in the wolf’s mouth.
Tyr agreed, and the other gods bound the wolf. After Fenrir had been bound by the gods, he struggled to try and break the rope. When the gods saw that Fenrir was bound they all laughed, except Tyr, who had his right hand bitten off by Fenrisulfr.
If we turn to the Prose Edda, and Gylfaginning we see the same story retold:
Of great importance these asas seem to me to be, and it is not wonderful that you have great power, since you have such excellent knowledge of the gods, and know to which of them to address you prayers on each occasion. But what other gods are there? Har answered: There is yet an asa, whose name is Tyr. He is very daring and stout-hearted. He sways victory in war, wherefore warriors should call on him. There is a saw, that he who surpasses others in bravery, and never yields, is Tyr-strong. He is also so wise, that it is said of anyone who is specially intelligent, that he is Tyr-learned. A proof of his daring is, that when the asas induced the wolf Fenrer to let himself be bound with the chain Gleipner, he would not believe that they would loose him again until Tyr put his hand in his mouth as a pledge. But when the asas would not loos the Fenris-wolf, he bit Tyr’s hand off at the place of the wolf’s joint (the wrist; Icel. úlfliðr). From that time Tyr is one-handed, and he is now called a peacemaker among men.
We also see reference to Tyr in the Lokasenna . The Lokasenna, also known as Loki’s Wrangling is a story regarding a contest of taunts. This type of contest was extremely common with the Norse. Unfortunately, we don’t know who the author of this tale is, however, they do appear to be well versed in the mythology, and the norse society.
Thor’s wife, was there, and Brag, with Ithun, his wife. Tyr, who had but one hand, was there; the wolf Fenrir had bitten off his other hand when they had bound him. There were Njorth and Skathi his wife, Freyr and Freyja, and Vithar, the son of Othin. Loki was there, and Freyr’s servants Byggvir and Beyla. Many were there of the gods and elves.
Here we see an acknoledgement of the events surrounding Tyr and the loss of his hand.
34. “Be silent, Njorth; | thou wast eastward sent,
To the gods as a hostage given;
And the daughters of Hymir | their privy had
When use did they make of thy mouth.”
35. “Great was my gain, | though long was I gone,
To the gods as a hostage given;
The son did I have | whom no man hates,
And foremost of gods is found.”
36. “Give heed now, Njorth, | nor boast too high,
No longer I hold it hid;
With thy sister hadst thou | so fair a son,
Thus hadst thou no worse a hope.”
37. “Of the heroes brave | is Freyr the best
Here in the home of the gods;He harms not maids | nor the wives of men,
And the bound from their fetters he frees.”
38. “Be silent, Tyr! | for between two men
Friendship thou ne’er couldst fashion;
Fain would I tell | how Fenrir once
Thy right hand rent from thee.”
39. “My hand do I lack, | but Hrothvitnir thou,
And the loss brings longing to both;
Ill fares the wolf | who shall ever await
In fetters the fall of the gods.”
40. “Be silent, Tyr! | for a son with me
Thy wife once chanced to win;
Not a penny, methinks, | wast thou paid for the wrong,
Nor wast righted an inch, poor wretch.”
It’s interesting here that while Tyr had a reputation of being the god of courage, he deferred to Freyr with respect to his courage. Here we also see that Loki is insulting Tyr as being incompetent as a peacemaker. We also see reference to Tyr having a wife, and a son. Unfortunately, we don’t know who they are.
Of all the gods and goddesses in the Norse Pantheon, Tyr is perhaps the most “straight arrow” of the bunch (with perhaps the exception of Heimdall). His courage in dealing with the binding of Fenrir is a solid sign that he is god the that is willing to face the hardships for the betterment of society.
Sometimes it can be difficult to understand how Tyr could be the god oaths. After all, he lost his and as a result of his bargain with Fenrir. However it’s important to look at it from what the bargain actually was. Tyr essentially said “let us chain you up, and if you can’t get free, you can have my hand.” That’s exactly what happened, the gods chained Fenrir up, and Tyr lost his hand as a result. Tyr, as the god of oaths, demonstrates in this tale that one must live up to ones’ oaths, despite the cost.
Turning to the concept of Tyr being the god of justice, when one might perceive the loss of his hand being unjust, and there are no other tales of him acting in a “just” way, one might wonder why he is deemed the god of justice. This requires an understanding of “what was just” in that society. In the societies where Tyr was revered oaths and bargains were probably one of the most important things in society. Since the Vikings were merchants, relying upon the promises made in a contract were extremely important. Just as Tyr lost his hand as a result of his promise to Fenrir, it was important to the viking merchants that even though one might lose money (or worse, ones life) as a result of a contract, it was important to fulfill ones obligations. Ultimately, in this period, keeping ones promises was what was perceived as just.
Understanding and Relating to Tyr
If Tyr becomes a part of your life, it’s important to understand him, and how to relate to who and what he represents. First, if Tyr has entered your life, it’s likely related to oaths, contracts, or bargains you have made. He may be reminding you of the promises you have made, or may there to remind you of promises others have made to you. It’s important to keep this in mind when dealing with him.
Second, unlike many of the gods, Tyr is completely straight forward. He’s not likely to couch his language in a fashion so you don’t understand him. When he says something, the meaning is “plain on its face.” If you’re finding confusing concepts or language that appears to be structured to hide the true meaning, it may not be Tyr that you’re dealing with.
Tyr can be “harsh,” particularly when considering modern sensibilities regarding things. Tyr doesn’t have any problem at all at extracting huge prices for things. (again, the hand being the classic example).
Also, while other gods may have a sense of humor about things, Tyr does not. Tyr has never been portrayed as having any sense of humor at all. While one can acting jokingly with refer to Thor, and perhaps even Odin or Freya, Tyr has no sense of humor.
Ultimately, if Tyr has entered your life, he’s important to listen to, while he doesn’t have the wisdom of Odin, he has the advantage that he doesn’t obscure his intentions. He’ll almost always be helpful.