TYR has often been misunderstood and even more often misrepresented. The Romans simplistically equated him with their god of war, mars. Consequently Tiw, as the Anglo-Saxons called him, has the honour of giving his name to Tuesday, but is otherwise neglected by many as being embarrassingly militaristic.
Even the scholars are baffled by Tyr. They trivialise our religion by suggesting he is a god ‘who has come down in the world’. Brian Branston, in ‘The Lost Gods of England’, says that Tiwaz, which is Tyr’s name in early Germanic, ‘sank in the social scale and was no longer regarded by the North West European tribes in the later years as Sky Father but had dwindled to a lesser god, a god of war and soldiers’.
H R Ellis Davidson, in ‘The Gods of Northern Europe’, agrees ‘It is probable that Tiwaz was the supreme sky god of the Germans as well as their god of battle, although Odin had in the main taken the place of Tiwaz at the close of the heathen period.’ To this analysis Ellis Davidson adds the improbable thought that the ancient Germans regarded warfare as a sort of divinely arbitrated court of justice. In comparing Tyr, god of justice to ‘Lord of Hosts’ she shows her Judeo-Christian influence.
Who then was Tyr? In Old English he was Tiw or Tig, in German Ziu, in primitive Germanic Tiwaz. What little we know about the tribe(s) who spoke the Indo-European mother tongue(s) about 2,500 BCE suggests that they worshipped a chief god, the Sky Father, called Dieus (implying straightforwardly ‘god’) or Dieus-p’ter (meaning ‘god(the)-father’), and an Earth Mother, putatively called Dieu-mater (‘goddess-mother’). She gave her name to Da Mater or Demeter in Greek, which is cognate with Diu-no or Juno in Latin. Her name did not survive in Germanic, but of course the archetype of the goddess-mother did.
Odinism is not a universalist religion, but who can deny that the archetype of the father, like that of the mother, is carrion to the organic religious thinking of all times and places? Did the father-god persist from the Indo- European period to the time of Tacitus, suddenly to disappear solely amongst the Germans, as scholars suggest, and to be replaced by a god of war of the same name? Do polytheists recognise only one Sky Father?
Odin is the most ephemeral and intangible of sky gods, the god of the windy sky. Whereas Thor is the transient and violent sky god of the thunder-flash. But Tyr – for Dieus also implies radiance or brilliance – is the god of the bright clear day sky. Just like the sky, Tyr is always there, constant and reliable like a father.
Tyr is the father-god, as his name suggests, the god of fatherhood, the father figure amongst gods. Too much importance has been attached to the question of who is the chief god. As polytheists we are entitled to have differing views in this matter. Odin was acknowledged as Allfather and supreme god because the values which he epitomised became most highly honoured, not by all, but by most, or at least most of the rulers and skalds in the Northern world.
Regardless of his title, Allfather, Odin’s numinous, ecstatic, mystic, mysterious, poetic, runic and inspirational qualities do not characterise him as a fatherly archetype. Typically the father is not a poet but a provider, not a magician but a protector, a caring figure not a shaman. Odin gave up his eye for wisdom; Tyr sacrificed his hand to protect the others from a danger. It is Tyr who acts the father.
The masses turn to the father-god in times of need. It is a basic human instinct, instilled in childhood. In a patriarchal society, such as the early Germans’, the father is head of the family, a ruler of that microcosm of society, laying down the law. His is the duty of instructing children in the knowledge of right and wrong and distinguishing praiseworthy behaviour from the punishable.
Thus Tyr is the god of personal and public ethics and governs whatever applies to the ethical code. Hence the inscription ‘Mars Thingsus’ (i.e., of the Thing), for the Thing is the parliament which makes laws and the court which enforces them. Tyr is the fatherly god who implements justice in order to protect us and preserve our social order. He is a caring and noble god, teaching us that order is better than chaos.
Tyr, god of war and victory, was no soldiers’ and generals’ god. He was no mere ‘crude deity of slaughter’, as Ellis Davidson says. Quite the contrary! Certainly, soldiers in the thick of battle would turn to him for protection. But who had greater need of defence than the defenceless? Who would sacrifice more fervently than the non-warfaring folk, the women and children, the farmers and fishermen, the thralls and churls? Who, following defeat at the hands of land-hungry tribes, would be raped, slaughtered, driven from their farmlands into starvation? Who, if unlucky, would be enslaved, but they?
War was no contest of justice, as Ellis Davidson argues, but a struggle for survival. The god of war and victory, Sigtyr, like a father to his people, his children, would guard them from the horror of defeat. The good father may be stern but never cruel. He is the protector of the family and the tribe.
One reason why scholars underrate Tyr is that he is little mentioned in the Eddas and little worshipped in Iceland (where the Eddas came from) or in Norway (where the Icelanders came from). Elsewhere, as many place names attest, he was much venerated by the masses.
Odin and Tyr are contrasting gods. Their cults may well not appeal to some people. The importance attached by society to the attributes they each represent has varied throughout history. But to claim that one has supplanted the other is to ignore the great differences between their two characters and to ignore the durability of fundamental archetypes.
As polytheists we should understand the necessity for the many different paths to the truth and then choose the way which suits us best.