From his roots in ancient Germanic paganism through countless sagas and poems to a wealth of recent archaeological treasures dedicated to him, Tyr remains one of the most esteemed yet unknown Norse deities. 

Ancient origins 

Where would we be without the Romans? 

Like many stories about the modern world, if you give a writer on a historical website enough words, they'll trace everything back to the Roman Empire.

Before you switch off, assuming this is just part of a recent TikTok trend (but really, how often DO you think about the Roman Empire?), it's worth noting that we owe much of our knowledge about Germanic paganism in Late Antiquity and the early medieval period to the Romans. 

As the Western Roman Empire entered its final phase, before collapse, it had significant dealings with the peoples that inhabited what they called "Germania" - a vast swathe of central Europe. 

Some of these people held religions and spiritual beliefs that were documented by the Romans.

Much like the Greeks before them, the Romans would attempt to equate a foreign god with their own counterpart. 

Many inhabitants living near the borders of the Roman Empire with Germania practiced what modern historians label "Germanic paganism."

This paganism is viewed as the spiritual precursor to the Old Norse religion, where deities like Freyja, Odin, and Thor were first venerated, albeit in slightly different forms. 

Drawing from the rich tapestry of Germanic paganism, Tyr's roots in the dense forests of Germania highlight his ancient origins and enduring significance in Norse mythology. Photo: Gleb Lucky / Unsplash

Was Tyr like other gods? 

What would later become the Norse God Tyr was first identified by Roman scholars during the first few centuries CE as a Germanic counterpart to the Roman god of war, Mars. 

He was known at that time as Tiwaz – which modern linguists recognize as the Old High German term (the language spoken by many of these Germanic people during Late Antiquity) for "God." 

His association with Mars arose from the numerous tales and myths highlighting his bravery and valor, as well as the fact that he was at the center of a worship cult popular among many Germanic warriors. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, starting from the late 5th century CE, the Germanic peoples, whom the Romans had once perceived as a homogenous group of barbarians, began to exhibit societal variations and evolution. 

For the northern Germanic communities residing on the Scandinavian peninsula, their Germanic language evolved into Proto-Norse, which laid the foundation for the modern Scandinavian languages. 

In this dialect, the name Tiwaz eventually evolved to Tyr. However, Tiwaz was still used to describe a runic letter dedicated to him. 

Law & Order: Viking edition 

Anyone with even a passing interest in Vikings (and let's face it, we all know you have more than just a passing interest) can relate to our obsession at The Viking Herald

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the 13th-century CE Icelandic author, poet, politician, and compiler of historical and mythical works, Snorri Sturluson

His compilation of the Eddas – a collection of myths, sagas, poems, and histories – has rightfully earned him acclaim as a champion of the rich canon of Norse literature.

Within the Eddas, Tyr features prominently, though perhaps not as frequently as some other Norse gods.

In this literature, Tyr is portrayed not only as a Norse God of War but also as a deity of heroic glory. However, his primary role was that of the upholder of law and justice. 

Despite popular depictions of Vikings as mindless barbarians, people in Viking societies had a strict, rigid, and highly evolved system of law and justice

From the early inklings of representative democracy to a rich oral tradition of societal laws, Viking societies were governed by law and justice. 

It's, therefore, unsurprising that a god in the Norse pantheon was dedicated to societal harmony and equity. Tyr was responsible for maintaining order and settling disputes, not just among the gods but also between deities and mortals. 

This role was said to have been passed down to him by his father, Odin, as Tyr was a prominent member of the Æsir – one of the two main pantheons of Norse gods. 

In a tale that underscores Tyr's unwavering sense of duty, he bravely offers his right hand as collateral, which is subsequently bitten off by the formidable wolf, Fenrir. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Physical and emotional harm 

Tyr is depicted throughout the rich tapestry of Norse mythology and sagas. One of the most renowned tales involving this Norse god recounts his encounter (or, more accurately, maiming) with the formidable wolf, Fenrir

As a child of the Norse God Loki (sometimes mistakenly associated solely with trickery), Fenrir grew at an alarming rate and posed a threat to the Æsir. 

To restrain Fenrir and prevent him from wreaking havoc, the Æsir attempted to bind him with chains they believed were unbreakable.

However, being a mythical giant wolf, Fenrir effortlessly broke free on two occasions. 

In a moment of desperation, Tyr offered his right hand as a form of collateral when the gods sought to bind Fenrir a third time using a magical ribbon. 

Fenrir consented to this arrangement on the condition that Tyr would place his hand in Fenrir's mouth as they bound him. 

Upon realizing he couldn't escape the confines of the magical ribbon, Fenrir, in frustration, bit off Tyr's hand. This sacrifice underscored Tyr's unwavering sense of duty, bravery, and courage. 

After enduring physical injuries, Tyr also faced emotional torment from Loki. 

In the poem Lokasenna, all the Norse gods convene for a feast.

Loki makes an unexpected appearance at the gathering, much to the gods' astonishment and confusion. He then embarks on a spree of hurling insults at each deity (certainly not the behavior of a welcome guest!).

However, one of his most cutting jibes is aimed at Tyr. Loki taunts him, suggesting that Tyr can't serve as the "right hand" of law and justice, given that he's missing his actual right hand. 

Hidden treasure 

Given the reverence of Tyr throughout the early medieval period, it's unsurprising that numerous objects depict the Norse God of Law and Justice. 

A beautiful gold piece of jewelry, believed to date from the late 7th or early 8th century CE (right on the brink of the Viking Age), was discovered in Tröllhattan. 

This jewelry piece was intricately designed to show a man receiving a bite on the hand from an animal. Modern archaeologists and historians interpret this as a representation of Fenrir biting Tyr's hand. 

Further south in Hornsherred, Denmark, a silver button was unearthed, which similarly depicts a man fending off a wild beast. 

Crossing the North Sea to the British Isles – which were once an important part of the Viking world – we can find depictions of Tyr on a series of stones (not Viking runestones but Anglo-Saxon "hogbacks") found in Sockburn, Durham. 

This northern part of England was once not only a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria but, following the Viking invasions of England, became part of the Viking territory centered in Jorvik (modern-day York). 

Given this area's location at the crossroads between Anglo-Saxon and Viking territory for much of the early medieval period and thus at the forefront of many battles between the two, the Norse god of justice and heroic glory was no doubt called upon for divine inspiration before a battle. 

The tales of Tyr's feats on the battlefield, coupled with his role as the cosmic upholder of law and justice, made him a source of inspiration for warriors in Viking society. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Called upon by victims and warriors alike 

Despite his presence in the sagas and the archaeological record, modern scholars remain divided over Tyr's significance.

Many believe he played a crucial role in the religious beliefs that Germanic peoples held throughout Late Antiquity and into the early medieval period.

They argue that his prominence and role diminished in Viking societies, relegating him to a secondary position compared to more renowned Norse gods like Freyja, Odin, and Thor.

Indeed, he is mentioned in far fewer skaldic poems, sagas, myths, and stories than other members of the Æsir.

Whilst there is also less archaeological evidence of Tyr compared to other gods, it doesn't necessarily imply that he was held in any less esteem by people in Viking societies. 

Given the political instability that pervaded Europe throughout the early medieval period, where people from Viking societies were both instigators and victims, Tyr was revered. 

Many sought him for a sense of harmony and justice or the courageous inspiration required in battle. 

Tales of his bravery, self-sacrifice, and sense of duty would have resonated in a society that prized martial prowess and a warrior ethos above all else. 

Whilst Tyr might not be a well-known Norse god in the contemporary public imagination, he remained a significant deity. 

His embodiment of courage and bravery, coupled with his crucial role as the cosmic upholder of law and justice as a peacemaker, highlights the importance of these values to people in Viking societies. Tyr is a Norse god who merits more recognition than he has garnered.

For more information on Viking law and justice, visit the BBC here

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