Tyt was the son of Odin and an unknown woman and was the half-brother of Thor and Baldur. Although he was the god of war, Tyr fought for peace. He was a frequent traveler of the world, eager to learn about other cultures and gain new perspectives, believing it to be the only way of achieving true peace.
Tyr (pronounced like the English word “tier”; Old Norse Týr, Old English Tiw, Old High German *Ziu, Gothic Tyz, Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz, “god”) is a Norse war god, but also the god who, more than any other, presides over matters of law and justice. His role in the surviving Viking Age myths is relatively slight, and his status in the later part of the Viking Age may have been correspondingly minor.
But this wasn’t always the case. Other kinds of evidence show us that Tyr was once one of the most important gods to the Norse and other Germanic peoples.
Tyr’s role as one of the principal war gods of the Norse, along with Odin and Thor, is well-attested in sources from the Viking Age and earlier. For example, in the Sigrdrífumál, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the valkyrie Sigrdrifa instructs the human hero Sigurd to invoke Tyr for victory in battle. Another Eddic poem, the Lokasenna, corroborates this picture by having Loki insult Tyr by saying that he could only stir people to strife, and could never reconcile them.
Some centuries earlier, the Romans identified Tyr with Mars, their own principal war god. This connection survives in the modern English “Tuesday,” from Old English “Day of Tiw (Tyr)” (Tiwesdæg), which was in turn based on the Latin Dies Martis, “Day of Mars.” (The Romans’ identification of Tyr with Mars also reinforces the point that he was quite a significant god; otherwise they surely wouldn’t have identified him with one of their own major gods.)
But Tyr is far from only a war god. In fact, his primary role seems to be that of an upholder of law and justice. Those Roman inscriptions to him as “Mars,” for example, sometimes invoke him as Mars Thincsus – that is, Mars of the ping, the ancient Germanic legal assembly.
But the most compelling evidence for Tyr’s role as divine jurist – and a heroic one at that – comes from the tale of The Binding of Fenrir, the only surviving myth to feature Tyr prominently. The dreadful wolf Fenrir was only a pup, but he was growing quickly. The gods feared for their lives, so they endeavored to tie up Fenrir in fetters from which he couldn’t escape. When Fenrir laid eyes on the chain that would eventually bind him, he was suspicious, and declared that he would only allow the gods to put it around him if one of them would stick an arm in his mouth as a pledge of good faith. Only Tyr was willing to do so. When the wolf found himself unable to break free, he bit off Tyr’s arm.
In the words of the esteemed scholar of comparative religion Georges Dumézil, Tyr, “with his sacrifice… not only procures the salvation of the gods but also regularizes it: he renders legal that which, without him, would have been pure fraud.” In the same way that Odin showed himself to be the foremost god of wisdom by sacrificing one of his eyes in its pursuit, so Tyr showed himself to be the foremost god of law by sacrificing one of his arms to uphold it. The disfigurements of both gods are parallel, and demonstrate something essential about their characters.
But why would the foremost god of law and justice also be one of the principal war gods? Isn’t there a tension here between two realms of life that are either unrelated or even antithetical to each other?
For the ancient Germanic peoples, war and law were profoundly related to each other – even indissolubly intertwined. In the words of philologist Jan de Vries,
It should be noted that, from the Germanic point of view, there is no contradiction between the concepts ‘god of War’ and ‘god of Law.’ War is in fact not only the bloody mingling of combat, but no less a decision obtained between the two combatants and secured by precise rules of law. That is why the day and place of battle are frequently fixed in advance… So is explained, also, how combat between two armies can be replaced by a legal duel, in which the gods grant victory to the party whose right they recognize. Words like Schwertding [“the meeting of swords,” a kenning for battle], or Old Norse vápndómr [“judgment of arms”] are not poetic figures, but correspond exactly to ancient practice.
Furthermore, the law could be used to gain victory over an opponent just like war could, which made the legal assembly a metaphorical battle.
The Norse/Germanic war gods can be distinguished by – among other things – the fact that each are connected to a particular aspect of war. Thor, for example, is involved in the brute physical combat; Odin in the magical and psychological forces at work; and Tyr in the legal decisions and principles of justice surrounding war.